"‘But what good came of it at last ? '
War : The Convoy System
Quoth little Peterkin :
`Why that I cannot tell,' said he,
But 'twas a famous victory.' "
WHEN the war broke out I was in command of H.M.S. Electra, an old thirty-knot destroyer, in the Nore Defence Flotilla, at Sheerness. The flotilla was made up of thirty-knotters like the Electra, twenty-seven-knotters, and 100-class torpedo-boats, some twenty vessels in all.
I do not know what the authorities thought about it all, but we, the commanding officers, firmly believed that the Harwich Flotilla having been lured to the centre of the North Sea, it would be left to us to prevent the inevitable channel-blocking operation which the Germans would attempt on the estuary to the River Thames.
This hostile flotilla, presumably, would be made up of channel-blocking ships filled with cement and
fitted with large sea-cocks, mine-layers and a host of destroyers to take us on.
I must admit that when we put to sea on August 3rd, with orders to be cleared for action and take any offensive or defensive action necessary as soon as the code word that hostilities had commenced was received, I had never felt so frightened in my life ! I was quite sure that war would be declared, and that we were going to a sure, if glorious, death.
And that code word, I remember, was " KICKOFF!"
But nothing whatever happened. To this day I cannot understand why the Germans did not attempt some scheme for blocking the Thames. It was, I suppose, on account of our intelligence, which was so accurate and, above all, rapid ; and that the enemy knew it to be so. It must now be well known that we got the news of every war vessel, from battleship to submarine, leaving or returning to a German port shortly after such arrival or departure had occurred, and that this wonderful intelligence never failed us from the first to the last day of the War.
I have not the slightest idea how this news was obtained. I do not suppose that more than two or
three people know even now, nor that it will ever become common property.
Of course, all sorts of rumours used to reach us in the fleet as to how this intelligence came across, one being that it was through the wife of a German admiral and a friend of hers in England.
I was very soon removed from the "civilisation" of Sheerness and sent to take over the Acorn, oil-burning destroyer of the "H" class, and proceed to the wilds of Scapa Flow.
We arrived at Scapa Flow in November, 1914, and the first sight of the magnificent British fleet, with its host of auxiliary craft, was truly inspiring.
From that time until July, 1917, I seemed to spend my time, in company with the other destroyers, in patrolling ; a terribly monotonous life. It was broken only on the occasion of the rescue of some three hundred officers and men belonging to the King Edward VII. when she was sunk by a mine off the Orkneys, and the Battle of Jutland.
Looking back on those days of eternal patrolling, it seems, on the surface, to have been a dreadful waste of time, and yet the very knowledge that
we were out must have been instrumental in keeping the Germans at home.
During the Battle of Jutland I passed very close to the Invincible shortly after she had been blown up. Her stern and bow were sticking up into the air out of the water, and I was surprised to see that, apparently, her sides had been painted red all over. It was not until afterwards that I realised that she was red hot. She must have cooled down very quickly, because in all the pictures I have seen of this incident she is a sort of grey colour.
For the information of students of that much discussed battle, I may say that I happened to be near the King George V., leader of the battle-line, when we were taking up our battle stations.
The fleet was already in line ahead, and I noticed that the King George V.'s guns were trained on the starboard quarter.
Of the enemy I could only see smoke in the distance and the occasional flash of a gun. Now, from what I have been taught in the war game, it struck me that the King George V. should have swung round to starboard so as to bring her guns abeam, and the whole fleet should have followed course. This would have been quite in order, as
admirals are always instructed that they must not expect to receive orders in action, but must be prepared to act on their own initiative.
It would be interesting to hear from the experts their speculations as to what would have happened if this turn in succession, at this time, had taken place.
Incidentally, I have never come across an account of the action which laid stress upon the fact that the battle fleet was led by King George V.
So much has been written about this battle that I will spare the reader any more details.
In July, 1917, having been promoted to the rank of commander, I was glad to leave Scapa Flow for good, or nearly so, and join up with the escorting flotillas in Lough Swilly.
At that time the sinkings of our merchant ships by enemy submarines had grown to such a pitch that it was obvious that, if it continued for many months longer, we should have to think seriously about asking for peace.
I am not exaggerating when I say this, and if it is not generally known, it ought to be.
All sorts of patrolling schemes had been evolved and tried, but they had made little difference to the
casualties to merchant ships, which by April, 1917, had become simply appalling.
It was the introduction of this convoy system which saved the situation, and as I do not think enough is known of this subject even now, I propose to risk being thought tedious and go into the matter in some detail.
I have been given to understand that it was Mr. Lloyd George who gave the order for the convoy system to be brought in, against much expert opposition. If this is so, for this act alone he should go down in history as the saviour of his country. But the memory of the public is proverbially short, and probably his action in this respect has been forgotten.
I have been informed from several quarters that the merchant service itself was very adverse to the introduction of the convoy system.
For escorting vessels to protect a convoy successfully the ships in that convoy must keep close together. The merchant ships' captains argued, quite logically, that the training of their officers had been, up to that moment, all against keeping close together. Added to that, merchant ships' turning circles and handling capabilities varied with
their displacement, which depended, of course, on the weight of their cargoes. Again, they had no system of telegraphing revolutions of engines to the engine-room.
And, lastly and not least, a large percentage of their most experienced and efficient officers had been "bagged" by the Royal Navy for service in warships as R.N.R.
Quite early in the War destroyers were detached from the Grand Fleet in batches to form escorts for convoys navigating between Lerwick in the Shetlands and Norway.
I had charge of many of the convoys, and the formation they took up was usually in two lines, as shown on Plate I.
It must always be remembered that the convoy is the group of merchant ships requiring protection and the escort is the group of warships, usually destroyers or sloops, or both, acting as a screen to protect the convoy.
Now a submarine can only show her periscope for a moment at intervals when approaching her prey. During the intervals when the periscope is not showing naturally she is blind. A submarine, therefore, likes to get into a position on the bow
of a ship and steer a course well ahead of such a ship, so that, if the submarine continued on that course, they would ultimately collide. Reference to Plate II. will explain this statement. Inevitably the submarine would fire her torpedo and alter course long before such a moment.
What a submarine particularly hates is to find, when putting her periscope up, that a ship's bow is pointing at her. This means that she has to alter course quickly and try and get into a position for her attack as I have explained, but owing to her slow speed when submerged she seldom has time to do this.
It was very soon obvious to the authorities that the longer the front of a convoy and the shorter the side, the more difficult it would be for a submarine to attack. Thus, take twelve ships in a convoy in this formation (Plate III.), or in this (Plate I.).
Obviously it would be very much more difficult for a submarine to attack ships as shown in Plate III. than as represented in Plate I. In Plate III., if she sights the convoy ahead, she will have the utmost difficulty to haul out and get into attacking position. And if she can get into such a position, she has only a target of two ships to fire at, whereas
in Plate I. she has an excellent target of six ships to fire at.
Remember that this convoy has an escort, and if we plaster the sides of Plate III. convoy with escorting craft, leaving a few to patrol ahead, you will begin to realise how well-nigh impossible it is for a submarine to attack. This, in fact, was done, and Plate IV. shows what a convoy of twelve ships and an escort of eight ships would look like.
BUT the whole success of this method would necessarily depend on the ships in the convoy keeping close together.
ON THE CLOSE AND PROPER STATION KEEPING OF SHIPS IN CONVOY DEPENDED THE SUCCESS OF THE CONVOY SYSTEM.
Imagine this convoy scattered about as shown in Plate V. How is the escort to protect them efficiently ? Look at the opportunities a submarine would have of attacking. And then turn back to Plate IV.
Only those who go down to the sea in ships can properly appreciate the difficulty of keeping close and proper station in ships neither fitted nor intended for such a purpose, and I cannot emphasise this point too strongly.
When a convoy is on the high seas the captain of a ship cannot be on the bridge all the time, consequently at any given moment he will, in all probability, not be there. Thus the station-keeping of the convoy depended upon the officers of the watch of the merchant ships forming it, and the success or failure of the system rested with them almost entirely.
These officers undoubtedly made the convoy system the gigantic success it was, but I have never heard this mentioned or adequately recognised in any document or book.
Close station-keeping when ships in a convoy keep a broad front and a narrow side, as in Plate IV., is far more difficult than when one ship merely follows another, as in Plate I. Added to this, a system of zigzagging was evolved where the ships in a convoy followed a numbered plan, one of many, in a book which was specially issued for the purpose. Each plan laid down alterations of course at frequent intervals during periods of one hour.
The signal was hoisted: "Carry out zigzag No. 33," say. When this signal was hauled down stop-watches would be started and ships would alter course together to the course laid down in the
plan. After this no further signals would be made until the signal "Cease zigzagging" was made.
A page in this book would read something like this .
15 deg. to Starbd.
30 deg. to Port.
45 deg. to Starbd.
40 deg. to Port.
20 deg. to Starbd.
35 deg, to Port.
50 deg. to Starbd.
This zigzagging was carried out daily and, on moonlit nights, at night as well.
What, then, was the situation in about April, 1917 ? Anybody with a little inside knowledge and a pencil and paper could easily calculate how much longer these sinkings could continue before we should have to ask for peace.
It was clearly impossible for the Army to win the War in that period. It was equally obvious that the Grand Fleet, with all its attendant cruiser squadrons and destroyer flotillas, could not prevent the enemy submarines putting to sea under the protection of their long-range land batteries. The patrolling schemes, which it had been hoped would
defeat the submarine menace, had obviously failed. Submarine detecting instruments were still in their infancy, and, in fact, were only becoming really effective at the conclusion of the War. Mine-laying on a sufficiently large scale was not yet feasible and required the assistance of America; but such help was not forthcoming yet awhile.
Obviously something would have to be done, and that right quickly.
I have already said that, from what I had been told, the merchant service, represented by a number of experienced captains, was against the convoy system. And it can be added here that it was well known at this time that officers in very high positions at the Admiralty were also against it. Others, on the contrary, were enthusiastically for it, and, very fortunately for us all, it was these who carried the day.
All credit must therefore be given to the Royal Navy for organising and carrying through the convoy system to its victorious conclusion. But, as already stated, and this point merits repetition, the convoy system depended for its success on the close and proper station-keeping of the ships in the convoy; and it was the merchant service watch-
keeping officer, under the able training and watchful eye of his captain, who achieved this object.
It was easy for us, the escorting flotillas, to protect the convoys if the ships forming the convoys kept close together. And we had our due reward in the immediate reduction of sinkings, until, by the end of the War, they became negligible.
If is, therefore, to the watch-keeping officer of the merchant service, more than anybody else, that we must award the palm for saving the situation from disaster in 1917. He had to reverse all his previous training and rise to an emergency which his own senior officers doubted him capable of meeting with success.
And what has been his reward ?
As soon as we had settled down "convoying" became nearly as monotonous as patrolling in the North Sea had been earlier in the War.
I lost a couple of ships from two of my convoys in the early days, but very soon the station-keeping of the ships in the convoys became so good that the protection of the vessels became a comparatively simple matter.
Destroyers and sloops forming the escorts carried a large number of depth-charges, and on a submarine
giving the slightest hint of her whereabouts, which she was bound to do if she fired a torpedo, they would plaster the sea in her vicinity with depth-charges, before rejoining the convoy. A submarine is very much like an egg, and unless actually struck or very nearly so, will not be smashed. But we very soon got plenty of evidence to show that the moral effect of a depth-charge on a submarine, even at some considerable distance, is terrific.
I remember as a boy being much impressed by the distance at which I could hear sounds of passing ships, when bathing, with my head submerged. This was at Southbourne, near Bournemouth, and it was particularly so with paddle-steamers, whose paddles could be heard distinctly quite five miles away.
If the effect of a paddle striking the water can be felt at a distance of five miles, the effect of an under-water explosion of a large charge of T.N.T. at close quarters can readily be imagined. It causes a shock to a ship much like striking a rock, and can be felt at extraordinary distances.
For example, during the latter part of the War I felt a slight shock, as if the ship had struck something. It was sufficiently alarming for me to send
below to see if anything had happened. Soon afterwards a sloop appeared on the horizon, and, on closing her, she reported that she had been attacked by a submarine and had dropped a depth-charge. The time she dropped the depth-charge coincided with the time I felt the shock, and I estimated that we were no fewer than thirty miles away at the time.
Try and imagine for a moment that you are in a submarine. You have fired your torpedo at a ship, and you know that the track of the torpedo has given a rough idea of your whereabouts to the escorting craft. You are going your full speed submerged, some five knots, and you know that the next few minutes will decide whether you continue to exist or not. You have, of course, dived to a depth where you cannot be rammed, and you are totally blind.
There is an explosion - the first depth-charge. The whole vessel shakes and rocks and probably many of the crew are thrown to their feet. You cannot tell the direction of the explosion nor its distance, but it certainly seemed very close. Then there is another explosion. Surely that was closer ? Then another and another.
All the lights have been extinguished by now. You and your crew cling to anything handy and pray that that certain "give-away," a leaky oil tank, will be spared you. Depth-charges are becoming more frequent now that more hunters have joined up, until it seems impossible that the ship can hold together another instant.
But it does. The bombing ceases as abruptly as it began, and you are safe this time.
How long, however, is it going to be before you and your crew are prepared to carry out another attack ?
And you will never know that those hunters were never within a couple of miles of you!
No human being can stand the strain of a sustained depth-charge attack, and we were of opinion that a submarine would be out of action for all practical purposes for three months after such an attack.
One of the great dangers to a submarine being attacked is a leak in her batteries, for the gas thus formed forces the submarine to come to the surface and open her hatches.
I was lucky enough to bring off such a result when " straffing " a submarine attack on the Justicia,
a three-funnelled merchant ship which was a transport and was, I learnt later, mistaken for the Vaterland. This submarine was able to keep down for some time after the attack, but eventually had to come to the surface and open her hatches. Two other destroyers joining up with me, we had as pretty a little "battle practice" run at her as must have been the envy of every young gunnery officer in the fleet.
When our salvos began to straddle her crew took to the water, leaving her engines going full speed ahead, and we very soon put her down for good.
I rescued all the crew except two. Amongst them was the captain, a lieutenant called Wurtsdorf (or some such name), and I landed him none the worse for wear. His attack was a very gallant one, and if this should meet his eye I hope he will accept my heartiest good wishes.
This happened in July, 1918, and when the submarine left Germany that terrible retreat of the Allies was still in full swing. We had just checked the retreat, and were recrossing the Marne when I bagged him; but he knew nothing of this, and was quite convinced that the War was all but over and that he would not be a prisoner for long.
I should be very interested to hear what was the
impression he and his crew took back to Germany, of the state of affairs in this country shortly after I landed them in Ireland.
The Justicia, being a troopship, was a perfectly legitimate prey for an enemy submarine. As I have said, the attack was a very gallant one, but, unfortunately, the torpedo which sank the ship had struck a boiler-room and killed all its occupants.
The ship's company of the Justicia were landed and sent to Londonderry, to await passage to England.
Now mark this. We, in the destroyer, naturally treated the captain and his crew decently ; but when they were landed in Ireland, a country they had every reason to suppose was liable to be more friendly towards them than the English, they were set about by members of the Justicia's crew and very nearly killed ! You see, the submarine's crew were also sent to Londonderry to await passage, and the crew of their victim had found this out and lain in wait for them. But to the submarine's crew they must have appeared as just an Irish mob!
It might be of interest to state that I was responsible for destroying the last German submarine in the War. This was only a few days before the
armistice, and was the result of a very gallant attempt on the part of the submarine to penetrate the defences of Scapa Flow and then play havoc with the Grand Fleet.
Submarine warfare on merchant ships had ceased, and I had been sent up to the Orkneys with my division to patrol the approaches to Scapa, as the Grand Fleet and its attendant flotillas had returned to Queensferry, above the Forth Bridge.
I was sent for early one morning by the admiral commanding Orkneys and Shetlands (Admiral King-Hall), and told that that night a submarine had been heard by the listening officer attempting to enter the harbour. This officer had promptly exploded the group of mines over which the submarine appeared to be, and after that there had been silence.
I suggested to the admiral that he should come round with me in my destroyer and see what was to be seen, which he did.
At first we could find nothing. No debris had been washed up ashore, and there was no sign of a submarine.
But after further search we found a thin stream of oil coming up to the surface. That was quite enough evidence, and a couple of depth-charges
caused such a commotion that it was evident that the submarine was there.
Presently, in company with a deluge of oil and dirt gushing to the surface, appeared a - no, not a man's leg or arm or some other horrible object, but just a brand new petty officer's coat. It had never been worn, and the ticket denoting its size, etc., was still sewn on to the lapel.
What a strange coincidence that, from all the stores, hammocks, clothes, provisions and general paraphernalia of a submarine carrying a crew of some thirty officers and men, Fate should have chosen one brand new coat, probably stowed away in some tiny store-room and forgotten, to float to the surface alone and give us the evidence we needed!
And what a waste of life ! Even if the submarine had got into Scapa Flow it would have found nothing to attack.
A diver who afterwards examined the wreck reported that its destruction had been augmented by the explosion of one of its own torpedoes, and that the entire crew had been killed.
I think that the greatest impression the War has left upon me is the discovery of the extent to which the sea-going and sailor-like instinct that
lies dormant in our race is developed. This natural quality again and again came out with extraordinary rapidity in the officers who were sent to me as midshipmen R.N.R. and R.N.V.R., for training.
When it is remembered that the fleet was expanding all the time, that numbers in officers had to be made up from the Royal Naval Reserve and later, to a great extent, from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, it can be appreciated that every ship was an officer's training-centre, and that as soon as he became efficient, he was sent off to some more important job and his place was taken by another.
We, in destroyers on convoy duty, had to depend upon our watch-keepers at sea for the efficient protection of the convoy. This entailed high expert watch-keeping knowledge, for the escorting destroyer screened at a much higher speed than that of the convoy, and was for ever crossing and re-crossing the bows of some ship at close quarters. This was made none the easier by the fact, already explained, that the ships of the convoy were themselves altering course at frequent intervals.
The officer of the watch of the escorting destroyer needed a thorough knowledge of the turning circle, handling qualities, etc., of his ship, and common
sense and quick judgment. In peace time he would not have been considered safe to carry out such duties until he had had years of watch-keeping experience. And yet I have had R.N.V.R. midshipmen sent to me who had hardly ever seen the sea before, and whom I was able to trust implicitly on the bridge alone when escorting a convoy within a month of their being sent on board!
I have not the slightest doubt that we, as a nation, can make efficient sailors at twice the speed of any other people. We have this immense body of men who have been "through it" afloat ready to rejoin and pick up their duties again immediately they are called upon to protect their country in an emergency.
It will be seen that I have no fear of the recruiting of the Personnel of the fleet in times of emergency. We have, in my opinion, still too many officers for the small fleet now in commission. Promotion being by selection, the competition for advancement to commander and captain is terrific and heartbreaking, and leaves masses of discontented and grumbling officers in its wake.
I would advocate another "axing" scheme, especially amongst lieutenant-commanders, and that
these officers should be treated generously in the process.*
And while I am out on this subject of "axing" I would axe the R.A.F. Ministry and the whole system, which I regard as a colossal waste of money. Let the Navy and Army run their own air arm. The Navy has its cruisers, destroyers, submarines and all its other addenda. The Army its artillery, tanks, engineers, and all the rest of it. Why the air arm should be separated I have never been able to understand.
And now that I am thoroughly worked up, let me say that I resent the fact that it is always the Navy-Navy-Navy that gets it in the neck when the question of economy is brought up. Why not have a "go" at the Civil Service sometimes ?
War, on the whole, was a monotonous business to the sailor. His principal enemy was the clerk of the weather. Certainly this was so to the destroyer officer.
My memory is not a good one (I may have said this before ; I forget), and it is proverbial that one forgets discomfort more rapidly than anything else, a merciful providence of Nature.
And so I am glad to leave it all behind me.
* This was written in December, 1925.
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