"Signal from Clyde Approaches, Sir," the Yeoman of Signals said, handing over the slip of paper. The Old Man took it and nodded. "Thanks, Flags." He rubbed his eyes with a mittened hand and squinted at the message. Cheap grey wartime ink on cheap grey wartime paper, sent to a cheap grey wartime ship under a cheap grey wartime sky. He read it and glanced up. "Thanks for the heads up, Flags. Now roust Marwell out of his bunk and tell him I said he's to relieve you, then get your head down. I'll be needing you in about, oh, four hours. Dismissed."
"Aye aye, Sir," snapped the Yeoman and turned away.
The Old Man looked back to the signal.
"FOR HX204 CONTACT REPORT SENT 1654 APX 03 AT 272 FROM YOUR 1630 LOCSTAT ADVISE NOW 3 UBOAT YOUR GRID CLYDESPR SENDS NW"
Translated from Navalese into English, it meant that a U-Boat had sent a contact report - a confirmation that it had sighted the convoy - at 4:54pm, barely a quarter of an hour ago. A glance at the chart told the Old Man that the U-Boat was now about nine miles behind them; since they'd sent their 4:30pm location state Convoy HX-204 had covered over six nautical miles towards Liverpool, and the U-Boat was about three miles west of that position. The rest of the message stated that there were now three known enemy submarines in the 100x100 mile square the convoy was sailing through; that the report came from the HQ Clyde Approaches Submarine Plotting Room; and that someone watched over him.
As he'd predicted, the escort commander's Aldis lamp blinked out less than three minutes after the signal came in. The young signal rating diligently took down the machinegun-speed Morse, then frowned and sucked his pen as he began to interpret the dots and dashes. The coxswain shook his head and walked over to the Old Man. "Signal, Sir. Viperous to Leven, investigate probable U-Boat as per Clyde SPR's last. Rejoin convoy no later than 48 hours from now."
"Thanks, Cox," the Old Man said, "Now get below and get your head down. If there's really a hearse back there I'll be needing you around two bells in the first watch."
The coxswain nodded. "Aye aye, Sir." He glanced quickly round the bridge, making sure no ratings were within close earshot, then leaned forward slightly. "You've time to grab forty winks yourself, Sir. I can wake Jimmy the One…"
The Old Man smiled. "Thanks, Cox, but I'll be fine. I'll stretch out on my sea bunk if I get the chance, but my first Jimmy would have had my balls if I'd gone below while my crew got ready to fight; you know that. Some cocoa would be welcome if you can have it sent up to us on your way to bed though. Maybe some nutty bars too, or even a sandwich?"
"Aye aye Sir," and the coxswain headed for the bridge ladder. As he began to descend he paused for a moment, and contemplated the Old Man's "sea bunk." A decrepit mattress, stained with cocoa and urine, lashed to the deck beside the ASDIC hut and covered by a salt-crusted blanket. The whole way across the Black Gap - the deadly stretch of the mid-Atlantic where the Liberator patrol bombers couldn't cover them - the Old Man never saw his cabin, save the few minutes every day or two when he went below for a quick crap. The coxswain would have cursed the Old Man's first Jimmy the One - his First Lieutenant - for a slave driver, except that he knew HMS Leven was the Old Man's first command. He'd never had a Jimmy before…
The Old Man settled back against the bridge rail. He'd given the helm commands, and HMS Leven was swinging back west, making turns for half ahead. He'd stood down every man he could from her weapons crews; only the twin Oerlikon 20mm AA guns either side of the funnel were manned. The Commissioned Engineer and Senior ASDIC Operator had been ordered to their bunks, and their deputies roused out to replace them. Leven's best men would be as well rested as he could manage when - if - they were needed.
The convoy slid away down Leven's starboard side. The Old Man counted off each ship. Thirty-eight of them, every one of the freighters and tankers they'd picked up off Sandy Hook, New York. HX-204 hadn't lost a single ship yet, and he was damned if it would on his watch.
They passed Compass Rose. Ericson was on the bridge - as always - with Lockhart beside him. It was desperately unfair, the Old Man thought; he was 24 years old and commanded a brand-new frigate, while Ericson was in his forties and stuck with that battered little corvette. Not that Ericson seemed to mind; he was proud of his ship, and with all she'd achieved so he should be. He saw Lockhart raise his binoculars and scrutinise the frigate, and hoped no badly stowed gear reflected badly on his crew.
"How does he look, Number one?" Ericson asked.
Lockhart lowered his glasses. "Honestly, Sir? Shagged out, as usual. I'm amazed he's still on his feet." He turned to Ericson. "It's like he has his own personal Bennett on his back. Amazing he's made it this long, really."
Ericson laughed. "Well, Number One, you had your own personal Bennett for a while, remember? You survived, and I'm sure he will too." He propped his elbows on the rail and watched the sleek frigate on her way. "He's just like his father, you know. Rather, he will be. He has the ability. He just doesn't quite have Ted's self-confidence yet."
"You know his father, Sir?" Lockhart asked curiously.
Ericson nodded. "Oh yes, I know his father. In fact so do you. Remember your anti-submarine course at Whale Island? Now, who was Senior Instructor?"
Light dawned on Lockhart's face. "Oh yes, of course. You know, Sir, I'm quite amazed that I never made the connection before."
- X -
Sunset. Under a grey sky, grey waves danced around a grey ship. HMS Leven, a River-class frigate. One of a hundred and fifty-two of her class, churned out like cheap sausages as a war-expedient escort vessel, she was nevertheless a thoroughbred U-Boat hunter. 283 feet long and 1,800 tons, she carried two 4" quick-firing guns, ten 20 mm Oerlikon AA guns, a Hedgehog anti-submarine mortar and 150 depth charges. A crude radar showed her aircraft at fifty miles and surface contacts out to the horizon, and her ASDIC set - the best sonar set in the world - let her hunt submerged U-Boats. Her engines could drive her at 20 knots; on the surface a U-Boat could make 17.7 knots, submerged only 7.6. HMS Leven was a killer. The Old Man reassured himself with that thought as the light seeped away. Around him, grey faded to black under a featureless, moonless sky. Darkness spread over the waves. Out of the deep, evil rose on silent currents.