. 1940 .
"General quarters, general quarters!" the loud speaker blared, then added, "man your battle stations!" just in case someone misunderstood it.
It was a horrible way to wake up, the blare of the ship's siren, then that horrible voice coming emotionlessly down the corridor. I recognized it as first lieutenant Dick Campbell's voice, the ship's executive officer. He prided himself on making his voice as cold as steel even though he himself was hardly that.
I was on his majesty's ship, Amazon, the only one in her class and a bit of a free spirit. Her captain was too young, her gunnery officer, too old and worst of all, she had me as her chief medical officer. The Amazon was a destroyer, meaning she wasn't a corvette or a cruiser. She was 311 feet long and 31 feet at her beam. She was complemented with 138 souls who all managed to have colds half the time and other minor complaints that kept me skipping.
My battle station was a triage room deep in the bowls of the ship, but I wasn't going there, I never did. The only victim I'd ever treated on the Amazon was a sailor who'd broken his foot after dropping a five inch shell on it. I was headed to the deck to see the excitement. I wasn't exactly wildly popular among the crew, my most common cure for ailments was aspirin and as the ship's decoding officer, I censored their mail.
On my way to the deck, I met the captain, Lieutenant-Commander John Walker, shooting out of his cabin, still buttoning his coat. He was twenty four, and looked it. He was a year younger than me and I liked him a lot as did the crew. He had the uncanny ability of always making the right decision. He might have been five years younger than his executive officer, but he made it up in brain power. In 1939, when I first heard that I was being stationed on his ship, I had thought he'd gotten the command so young because his grandfather was an Admiral, it wasn't so, I knew the moment I met him. We hit it off at once, partly, I think, because we were both sailing enthusiasts and partly because we had mutual friends.
He wasn't a hard man, but the crew thought he was. Ever since he'd gotten this command in early 1939, he had been training us for war. He knew it was coming even if most people were hoping it didn't. He ran the destroyer like a battleship, drills morning and night. He'd send notices down to different stations and to tell them that they'd just been wiped out by a bomb and sailors who thought they had it easy, had to learn how to use the instruments and how to fire the guns. During the drills, I'd set up shop in the wardroom and the place would soon be packed with sailors telling me that they'd gotten notices from the bridge telling them that they were dead. As time went on, the captain got more imaginative. He'd cut power chords and blow up smoke bombs; sometimes it was hours before the ship was operational again. But he had his wish, by September 1939, we were ready for war. I think the Amazon was one of the best run ships in his majesty's navy.
"Sir," I said.
"Tom," he replied. He wasn't one for elaboration.
I followed him on deck.
The seas were gray, overlaid with white foam, and high. Our small ship seemed only smaller as she climbed one wave and coasted down another. Half hidden by the seas, I could see the convoy we accompanied. There were twelve ships in all, minus two that had been torpedoed. Ours was one of the two only destroyers; the other two warships that accompanied the convoy were even smaller flower-class corvettes. Horribly miserable things to live in.
The warships were under the command of Commander Davenport on the HMS Gallant and the convoy in general was under the retired admiral in the lead merchant ship. The convoy moved at twelve knots, only as fast as the slowest freighter. They were spread out over half a mile of water and I could see most of them from where I stood as well as the smaller outline of one of the corvettes. The whole convoy made zigzag turns at intervals to avoid U-boats.
Lieutenant-Commander Walker gave the sea only one look before he was dashing up the metal steps to the bridge. I didn't follow him, but I knew what he'd be saying.
Had a contact sir, bearing 057, twelve hundred yards," Lieutenant Campbell said. "But we lost it sir."
"Sure of it?"
"Dead sure, sir."
"Right, carry on. We're due to change course, when?"
"Two minutes, sir."
John Walker turned to pick up a pair of binoculars and went out the door to look at the other ships. The sound of the asdic under water ranging device echoed monotonously behind him; the pinging echoing and reechoing through the ship. It was worse than the ticking of a clock when one wants to go to sleep.
These undersea boats had been hounding our trail relentlessly, their paths meticulously plotted in the chartroom. In the past twelve hours there had been a lull, by now they were back and scenting blood.
The change of course came, all the ships obediently swinging to starboard. The bow waves streaked the grey water and spray leaped up, crashing over our foredeck. It was then, just as our turn was completed that there came a sound, a deep boom. For a moment, there was nothing, then a huge fireball leapt up from the foredeck of one of the freighters. Walker stood staring as another explosion echoed deep in the ship. We all knew that that particular ship carried ammunition and those who didn't know, knew it now. We could see the shock wave coming across the water. I looked up at the bridge, the captain had disappeared and a moment later, Amazon made a sharp turn to port, put on speed and sprinted for where the stern of the freighter was slipping under the waves.
I could just see a small life boat bobbing among the burning debris on the water. I tried to assess their condition from where I stood, but they were too far away.
"Sir, contact ahead, 016, range two thousand feet." The talker connected with the asdic operator said.
"Almost ahead," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said quietly. "Increase speed, sixteen knots, starboard, 018."
"Aye aye sir," the quartermaster at the wheel said, "018."
The Amazon swung to starboard and Lieutenant-Commander Walker came out on the bridge with a megaphone.
"We'll be back!" his voice boomed down to the survivors in the life boat. A faint cheer echoed over the water. The captains of destroyers and freighters alike were given explicit orders never to pick up survivors; doing so would endanger their ships, men and precious cargo. As heart breaking as it was to leave them behind, the captains knew it had to be done- except Lieutenant-Commander Walker. He picked up survivors whether he was ordered to or not.
"Stand by for medium pattern," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said, coming back into the pilot house, "how many depth charges have we got left?"
"One pattern sir."
"Right, forget what I said, we'll drop them one at a time."
"Sir!" a shout came through the door into the pilot house from a lookout on the open bridge. "A torpedo sir!"
Lieutenant-Commander Walker dashed out of the pilot house and looked down into the water. He saw it clearly off the port side, a bubbling white wake following a black fish that could sink our ship in a matter of seconds.
"Full ahead, Full right rudder!" he called through the pilot house door and the helmsman responded immediately. Amazon swung around in a tight circle and the torpedo flashed past her stern with only feet to spare.
"Contact bearing starboard, 011, range five hundred yards," the talker droned.
"Change of course," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said, coming back into the pilot house, "True north 000. Are you still standing by to fire depth charges?"
We were chasing the U-Boat. A destroyer on the surface could move a good deal faster than a submerged submarine. When we over ran them, we'd drop the depth charges.
"Contact dead ahead, range close." The talker sounded as if he were falling asleep.
"That's it, fire!" Lieutenant-Commander Walker said.
Depth charges are large drums, like giant tin cans, packed with explosives. On the captain's command, they roll off the fantail into the sea. A moment passes as they sink to the set depth, then there is a deep 'woumph' and a circle of white foam spreads out on the surface of the water. A second later, a huge white geyser streaks fifty feet into the air. Unless it's a hit of course, then it's stained with oil.
The captain dropped three of them and I watched them bounce off the stern in the most primitive manner. At each explosion, the Amazon lurched forward, as if a giant hand had pushed her stern and sent her skittering through the water. There were no hits, at least no direct ones and the Amazon swung around in a tight circle, trying to regain the sub.
In the distance something dark broke the water. Like a huge wale coming to breath, I saw the sub slowly surface, conning tower breaking the waves and deck gun pointed at the sky. She must have been damaged by the depth charges or she would never have surfaced. She could make better time on the surface and already she was drawing away.
"Increase speed to 28 knots," Lieutenant-Commander Walker, "All stations stand by to ram."
Amazon was capable of 37 knots, but she would never make that in these high seas. As it was she was crashing through the waves with tremendous force. Anyone who wasn't holding onto something before was holding onto something now.
Lieutenant-Commander Walker had taken the con, adjusting Amazon's course as he saw fit. She was swinging around in a long arc, moving nearly twice as fast as the sub. She would hit amidships in less than a minute.
"Decrease speed to 16 knots," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said quietly.
Ten seconds to collision, five. A huge wave came under Amazon and lifted her bow high. There was a jarring shock, a crash of metal on metal and the ship was dead in the water. The shock sent me rolling head over heels away from the rail, stopping only when I bounced off one of our five inch gun turrets. I very nearly became my own patient.
At the shock everyone in the ship stared at everyone else. Half a dozen people were racing forward to look down Amazon's steep gray sides. But they could see what happened from the bridge quite well and they were dumbstruck.
The wave that had lifted Amazon's bow had lifted it a little too high. Her bow was stuck over the sub's, it was almost as if she was beached there. The two ships drifted, locked in this remarkable position.
"Engines full astern," Lieutenant-Commander Walker exclaimed. The props churned the water, but to no success.
"If they man their deck gun, they could sink us," Walker said as he turned to Lieutenant Campbell, "I want a detail of sailors on the foredeck with rifles. If anyone comes out of that conning tower, shoot him."
Two minutes later sailors with rifles were running past me. One of them stopped to haul me to my feet.
"You all right, doc?"
I rubbed the back of my head, "Well enough, thank you. Carry on, sailor."
"Aye aye sir."
The minutes slipped by and no one stirred on the sub. The captain was trying everything he could to get the destroyer off the sub's foredeck. He tried both engines full astern, then rotated them trying to wiggle the ship off. Nothing worked.
"Can we drop our last depth charge on him?" Lieutenant Campbell asked.
"We'd only blow the bottom out of the Amazon," Lieutenant-Commander Walker replied.
"Our five inch guns?"
"Won't depress enough."
"Anti aircraft guns?"
"They won't either."
"What do we do?"
"Wait for another wave."
"Sir," a sailor turned, holding the pilot house phone. "Commander Davenport wants to know what we're doing."
"Let me talk to him," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said taking the phone.
"What are you playing at out there, Walker?" Commander Davenport's voice asked. "What do you think you're doing, boy?"
"Sorry sir," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said, "We're stuck on top of a U-Boat."
"We tried ramming him, but a wave came and we're now stuck on his foredeck," Lieutenant-Commander Walker explained, "I don't know if there is a naval term for it, sir." He added.
There was silence, a slow, heavy breathing silence.
"Walker," Commander Davenport's voice was measured, "Whatever you're doing, I want you to stop doing it. You're dead in the water."
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said, "I'd be glad to oblige in a few minutes."
"Sir, there's another wave coming, a big one," a lookout shouted into the pilot house.
"Sorry sir, got to go," Lieutenant-Commander Walker handed the phone to a sailor, "both engines full astern, now!"
The wave rolled onward, then slipped under the Amazon and lifted her; the engines pulling hard astern sent her shooting backwards off the sub's foredeck. There was a collective sigh of relief through the ship.
The sub came to life at once and shot forward through the water. Sailors came up out of the conning tower and leapt for the deck guns. A shot echoed off our foredeck, but, what with Amazon swinging to port and the sub going full speed ahead, it missed.
"Permission to fire," the talker for the Amazon's gunnery officer said.
"Permission granted," Lieutenant-Commander Walker replied, "fire at will."
The Amazon's five inch turrets swung around toward the sub at an amazing speed, but the deck guns on the sub were faster and with a 'boom' and a puff of flame and smoke, they lobbed a four inch shell at us. It shot overhead with a noise like a small freight train and crashed into the sea beyond us. Those shells weighed more than fifty pounds and were longer than my forearm. Mites compared to the two ton shells thrown by battleships, but devastating all the same.
The Amazon fired next, getting off a salvo from all four of her five inch guns; the range was too long, but not by much. Somebody on an anti aircraft gun banged away enthusiastically.
There was another burst of flame from the sub's guns and the next moment a huge 'bang!' blasted overhead, I looked up to see that the bridge was smoking.
I was the Amazon's chief medical officer and my place was where ever victims were. I took the metal steps to the bridge two at a time and dashed into the pilot house. It was devastation.
There was glass and shrapnel littered over the floor and the door that had once lead into an emergency cabin for the captain on days when general quarters lasted for hours, was nothing more than a burned out hole. The captain's cot had taken a direct hit.
No one was dead, at least not that I could see. My first thought was to find the captain. Everyone else seemed to be present but him. Then I saw a pair of legs sticking out from under a door that had been shot across the pilot house in the blast. Lieutenant Campbell and I jostled to reach it and the next moment, we heaved it aside.
"Hello," the captain said, looking up at us.
"Are you all right, sir?" I asked.
"Right enough for now," he said, sitting up. I could tell by the way he held his arm that it was broken, probably snapped by the door as easily as a pair of fingers snap a twig.
"Help me up, Tom," he said, giving me his good hand.
I pulled him to his feet and he swayed to the pilot house door to look out. The sub's guns had been knocked out by our five inch shells and the Amazon was circling slowly, lobbing shells at the sub's conning tower.
Lieutenant-Commander Walker swayed back into the pilot house and went to the voice tube to talk to the gunnery officer.
"Stop trying to shoot her conning tower off, Sandy," he said, "aim for her hull, we haven't got all day."
"The guns won't depress enough sir," the gunnery officer said, "I say, are you all right, sir? I heard the bridge took a hit."
"We're fine," Walker replied, "We'll move away from the sub, you should be able to hit her better father away."
Amazon circled the sub, moving farther out. Finally a shell hit the sub in the hull, then another and the next moment, the sub exploded, shooting flaming fragments into the air. Thousands of gallons of fuel went up in flames. I closed my eyes, fifty men just perished, painlessly, I hoped and prayed. War is a horrible thing indeed.
We circled the place where the sub went down, but there were no survivors.
"Let me set your arm, sir," I said, turning to the captain.
"We're going to pick up the survivors from the freighter first, Tom."
Half an hour later, I was done seeing to the oil stained and burned sailors from the freighter. I smeared them with a blue gel that turned them purple and saw to it that they were fed. I'd just pulled a piece of shrapnel from a man's arm when I looked up to see Lieutenant-Commander Walker standing in the door of my triage room.
"Would you mind setting my arm, Doctor Dudgeon?"
In 1940, England was on the verge of collapse. It was only due to the untiring efforts of the merchant marine and the escort destroyers that she did not. The German navy was virtually nonexistent throughout the war because of the lack of ports, but the Germans turned out U-Boats, Unterseeboots, in tremendous numbers. The U-Boats operated in large groups, or wolf packs, praying on the unsuspecting merchant ships sent over by the still neutral United States. Only Destroyers, Corvettes and Destroyer Escorts could see them because they were outfitted by the top secret asdic, or sonar.
Sonar operated by bouncing sound waves off underwater objects. The ship was used as the receptor and the whole complement could hear the monotonous pinging of the sound waves echoing through the ship. It was a primitive way of tracking down the underwater boats, but it worked. The fleet sailed in convoys, with the warships patrolling the perimeter, and executed zig-zag movements at regular intervals in an attempt to fool the U-Boat. But unfortunately, despite the British Navy being the largest in the world, there were hopelessly too few warships and there were huge losses.
The Bismarck, one of Germany's largest and most powerful battleships, attempted to break into the Atlantic to aid the U-Boats, but almost the whole British Atlantic Fleet hounded her and finally sank her. After that, German presence went downhill, the U-Boat still harassed the merchant navy, but the battle for the Atlantic was over.
The HMS Amazon really existed as described, though of course John Walker was not her commanding officer. In 1942, a destroyer really did find herself taking a piggy back ride on a U-Boat, but it was the USS Borie, not the HMS Amazon.