. 1940 .
"Battle stations, battle stations!" the loud speaker blared, then added, "all hands!" just in case someone misunderstood it.
It was a hideous way to wake up, the blare of the ship's siren, then that horrible voice coming emotionlessly down the corridor. I recognized it as Lieutenant Dick Campbell's voice, the ship's executive officer. He prided himself on making his voice as cold as steel even though he wasn't.
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 4.5 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 older 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 August 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.
"What have you got?" he asked as he came onto the bridge.
"Had a contact, sir, bearing 057, twelve hundred yards," Lieutenant Campbell said. "But we lost it."
"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 leaned over the rail to look at the other ships. The sound of the asdic under water ranging device resonated monotonously below 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, but 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 two small whalers 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, green one six, range two thousand." Lieutenant Campbell announced.
"Almost ahead," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said quietly. "We may be able to catch them. Right standard rudder."
The Amazon swung to starboard, her wake eddying and I looked up to see Lieutenant-Commander Walker had got his hands on 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 heartbreaking 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, from the bridge, "how many depth charges have we got left?"
"One pattern sir."
"Right, forget what I said, we'll drop them one at a time."
"Bridge! Starboard lookout:" a shout came through the door into the pilot house from a lookout on the open bridge. "Torpedo track, bearing green four zero, range one thousand!"
Lieutenant-Commander Walker dashed across the bridge looked down into the water. He saw it clearly off the starboard side, a bubbling white wake following a black fish that could sink our ship in a matter of seconds.
"Full ahead! Full left rudder!" he called through the voice tube to the wheelhouse 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, green one one, range five hundred yards," the asdic operated announced through the voice pipe.
"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 asdic operator said.
"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 millisecond 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 pointing at the sky. She must have been damaged by the depth charges or she would never have shown herself. She could make better time on the surface and already she was drawing away, leaving a rainbow slick of oil in her wake.
I glanced up as a steady wine from the 4.5 inch guns proved that the Captain had given the fire control officer permission to engage the enemy. The Amazon's 4.5 inch turrets swung around toward the sub at an amazing speed, but the deck gun 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 4.5 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; the ship shivered and as I stumbled, 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. As the Amazon's guns fired off a second salvo, I took the metal steps two at a time and dashed onto the bridge. Behind me, there was a deep boom as one of Amazon's shells struck its target.
But the bridge was devastation.
There was glass and shrapnel littered over the floor, but it had not taken the worst of it. The radio mast directly behind the bridge was trailing wires and something had broken off and was laying like a felled tree of half crumpled aluminum.
No one was dead, at least not that I could see. Lieutenant Campbell's pea coat was in tatters and the starboard lookout was acting dazed, but 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 the felled bit of the radio mast. Lieutenant Campbell and I jostled to reach it; we got him by the ankles and hauled him out.
"Are you all right, sir?" I asked.
"Campbell, get back to the con!" the captain exclaimed.
"Let me see your arm, sir," I said, reaching out to pull back a bit of tattered and smoldering sleeve. There was a piece of shrapnel, several inches long, sticking out of his arm. One glance was all I needed; I was reaching for bandages, morphine…
"There's no time for that," the Captain said, giving me his good hand. "Help me up, Tom."
I pulled him to his feet and caught him as he swayed.
"Let me give you a shot of morphine," I said, digging for the mentioned item in my pocket.
"No thank you," the Captain replied, shaking his head to clear it. He staggered to the voice tube with the air of one who has just finished dealing with a minor inconvenience.
"Stop trying to shoot her conning tower off, Sandy," he said, "aim for her hull, we haven't got all day."
I glanced up to see the slender hull of the submarine was smoking and her deck gun lay in a pile of mangled iron on her sloshing deck.
"The guns won't depress enough," the gunnery officer said, "I say, are you all right, sir? I heard the bridge took a hit."
"We're fine," The Captain replied, but it was a mechanical response. He looked first at the submarine, still struggling to escape us, then down at his ship. In a moment his mind was made up.
"Increase speed ten revolutions," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said, "All stations stand by to ram."
I felt the engines change their pitch; it was times like these that the ship became a live thing. 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. Amazon was swinging around in a long arc, moving nearly twice as fast as the sub. She would hit amidships in less than a minute.
"Steady as she goes," 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 staggering backwards, stopping only when I landed against the rail.
At the shock everyone on the bridge stared at everyone else. Below us, half a dozen people were racing forward to look down Amazon's steep gray sides. But we on the bridge could see exactly what had happened and for a moment, there was silence as we took it in. 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 like a whale. The two ships drifted, locked in this remarkable position.
"Engines full astern," Lieutenant-Commander Walker exclaimed. The steady sound of the steam turbines changed and the ship shuddered as the props churned the water, but to no success.
"Sir," Lieutenant Campbell said. "Report from the damage control officer, the forward engine room is flooding."
"We have to get her off, or her seams will spring," 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."
A minute later sailors with rifles were running forward.
The minutes slipped by and no one stirred on the sub; once, the watertight hatch opened, but at the hot ping of bullets, it closed again. 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 Amazon," Lieutenant-Commander Walker replied.
"Our main batteries?"
"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 with his good hand.
"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 lifted our bow 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 at the soonest possible moment."
"Sir, there's another wave coming, a big one," the starboard lookout shouted.
"Good bye, sir," Lieutenant-Commander Walker shoved the phone back at a sailor and turned again to the voice pipe, "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, desperate to escape. Sailors came up out of the conning tower with rifles. A hail of shots echoed off our foredeck, but, what with Amazon swinging to port and the sub going full speed ahead, most of them missed. It was like the wild west down there, bullets crisscrossing each other over the narrow strip of water that separated our two vessels.
The sub's four inch gun was swinging towards us again.
"Permission to fire?" Lieutenant Campbell asked.
"Permission granted," Lieutenant-Commander Walker replied, "fire at will."
Amazon circled the sub, moving farther out. Her guns fired, and from where I stood, I saw that the sub was either diving, or taking on water in the bows. A moment later, a white flag fluttering from a speck I knew was a sailor proved it was the latter.
"Cease firing," Lieutenant-Commander Walker said. "Stand by to pick up survivors."
Yellow blobs were on the deck of the sub, awash in the seas that kept sweeping over her. She was swinging one way, then the other, rolling like a hippopotamus and definitely going down by the head. The little yellow dinghies were bobbing about around her like ducklings.
"We've just had a bearing, sir," Lieutenant Campbell said, his voice tense. "Dead ahead, about fifteen hundred yards."
The captain shook his head, staring at the survivors of the sub as we closed in.
"We'll have to leave them," he said and his mouth twisted as if he'd taken a rather unpleasant medicine.
"We can't just go, sir," I said suddenly. "We're almost to them."
"It may take half an hour to get them aboard in these seas," he replied. "By then, we'll be at the bottom of the Atlantic. They'll be picked up by their own people…I hope," he added under his breath. Only I heard him.
"We'll return to the convoy," he added. "We've been away too long."
"Let me take care of your arm, sir," I said.
"Hang on a bit, Tom," he said, as if he were sorry to inconvenience me. "I'll be with you in a minute."
Of course he wasn't with me in a minute.
We'd steamed ahead again, going pretty fast to overtake the convoy, but I knew the lookouts were watching for whalers bobbing in the high seas. The Captain had promised he'd be back, and he was jolly well going to be. An hour later, we had them aboard, leaving the whalers drifting away astern to join the other sea trash the war had produced. I was in business, now that I had the oil-stained and burned sailors from the freighter; it was hard to call them victims, because they were the real thing. I smeared them with a blue gel that turned them purple and saw to it that they were fed. I'd just switched off my anesthetic machine after stitching up a particularly gory gash in a sailor's shoulder, when I looked up to see Lieutenant-Commander Walker standing in the door of my triage room.
"Don't mean to disturb you."
"Not at all," I said, taking the rubber mask off my patient's face. "I'm just finishing up."
"Then, would you mind picking the shrapnel out of my arm, Lieutenant Dudgeon?"
Author's Note: Solo2863 PMed me with some helpful suggestions on how to make this story a bit less terrible than it was. I've tried to take them to heart and hopefully haven't succeeded in making it worse. Considering the age I was when I wrote it, I think it wasn't too bad. It certainly isn't something I would attempt now. I'm just not brave enough. ;)