Submarine U93 Part 28

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Its moral effect was universal. It re-established the old order of things that had existed at the outbreak of war. It decided, once and--we must hope--for all, British supremacy upon the seas. Though a small action--as things go nowadays--it was decisive, in the same sense as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the battles of the First of June, Trafalgar and the Nile.

The flag of Germany had already been swept from the seas. The lesson of the Dogger Bank to Grand Admiral von Tirpitz and his colleagues amounted to this: that it was not only a risky, but was likely to prove an exceedingly unprofitable undertaking, to operate with sea-going s.h.i.+ps--whether battles.h.i.+ps, cruisers or destroyers--far from the security of the Kiel Ca.n.a.l.

CHAPTER XXVIII--The Wounded "Lion"

As the battle rolled away in the distance, and the smoke of the great fighting s.h.i.+ps grew faint beyond the southern skyline, Captain Crouch and Jimmy Burke remained standing together on the forecastle peak of the half-wrecked cargo s.h.i.+p. Not a word had been spoken for some time. It was Crouch who was the first to find his voice.

"All my life I've been proud of one thing," said he: "that I was born a Britisher. I was always sort of sorry for a dago of any kind. But, half-an-hour ago, when I saw the 'Lion' and the 'Tiger' come charging into action, I felt something in my throat, my lad, that I never felt before. It was just wonderful and splendid. War, nowadays, isn't so much a matter of physical strength and courage as a question of national wealth, industry and invention; we live in a scientific age. And, take it from me, a s.h.i.+p like the 'Tiger' is a kind of eighth wonder of the modern world."

"I suppose," said Jimmy, "that what you say is true; things have changed since men fought with cutla.s.ses and boarded enemy s.h.i.+ps. It's more terrible to-day--and marvellous."

"So it seems to me, too," said Captain Crouch. "And now, this is no time to stand idle; there's much for both of us to do. Firstly, we must look to the wounded--and I'm afraid there are more than enough on board.

Secondly, we must see if anything can be done to get the engines under way."

Accordingly, then and there, they went down into the engine-room, which they found in a state of chaos. As we know, the chief engineer had been killed; but, in the alley-way on the starboard side they encountered the second engineer, whose head was done up in a bandage. He had been knocked down by the force of an exploding sh.e.l.l, and his head cut open against an iron stanchion.

It was he, with Crouch and Jimmy Burke, who gathered together as many of the s.h.i.+p's hands as they could find in a fit state to do an hour's honest work. They removed such of the smaller parts of the machinery as had been thrown out of gear, when the total amount of damage done could be estimated. It was at once evident that there was no possibility whatsoever of the engines being repaired. Moreover, how the old s.h.i.+p remained afloat was little short of a miracle. They could hope for nothing but to be found either by the British squadron returning to home waters or some s.h.i.+p bound for Newcastle, Leith or Hull.

As far as the wounded were concerned, they were able to do much. Crouch took possession of the s.h.i.+p's medicine chest, and soon proved that he had a pa.s.sable knowledge of both surgery and medicine. A man who has spent a great part of his life in the wilderness of Central Africa is not likely to be wholly ignorant as far as drugs are concerned.

More than a fifth of the crew had been killed; and many of the wounded had received the most ghastly injuries. The modern rifle bullet is a humane means of waging war. Being nickel-plated it gives a clean wound, which under ordinary conditions will heal rapidly. If it kills, it kills instantly, and as often as not without pain. Sh.e.l.l fire, however, is very different. Leaden shrapnel bullets are both large, rough-edged, and liable to cause gangrene in those who are not in the best of health.

Common sh.e.l.l, charged with high explosives, causes infinite damage; and on board steel-plated s.h.i.+ps, or in the vicinity of houses, men are horribly maimed and wounded by fragments of masonry and iron, by flying stones and splintered woodwork.

Captain Whisker was in a bad way. Though a man of considerable physical strength, he was in no fit condition to suffer continual loss of blood.

His temperature had already risen to extreme fever heat; and there is little doubt that, had Crouch not administered suitable drugs in the right proportion, his old s.h.i.+pmate would have lost his life. As for Captain Cookson, sitting in a comfortable chair in the midst of the wreckage of what had once been his cabin, he gave vent to his feelings and opinions in regard to the German Empire.

Like all sailors he loved his s.h.i.+p. A true seaman will be a special pleader on behalf of his s.h.i.+p in much the same manner as an adoring mother will speak of a backward son. If a s.h.i.+p lies so heavy in the water that, when a squall is blowing, the waves sweep over her decks like water from a floodgate, she will be described as "steady as a rock." And if, on the other hand, she rolls at every billow, and pitches into every minor trough, she is--in the unanimous opinion of her master and her crew--"seaworthy" in the higher sense of the word, whatever it may mean.

Captain Cookson loved the "Mondavia"; and when he looked about him and witnessed the destruction and havoc that had been wrought by the guns of the German s.h.i.+ps, he railed at the whole Teutonic brotherhood, from the Kaiser to the last interned German waiter in a detention camp in England.

For all that, by wholesale round abuse, he was likely to do no more good to himself than harm to the German Empire. The fact was, all on board were in much greater danger than they knew of. For, during the last half-hour, the wind had got up, s.h.i.+fting to the south-west, so that once again they were able to hear the distant booming sound of the great guns of the rival battle-cruisers.

The s.h.i.+p lay in one of the innumerable channels that divide the shoals of the Dogger Bank. When any wind is blowing, it stands to reason that the current in these channels is exceedingly strong, since the sandbanks act in much the same way as breakwaters, holding back the tide, whilst the water becomes congested elsewhere.

Now, under the influence of the freshening wind, the "Mondavia" began to roll heavily upon the swell, and seeing that the upper part of the s.h.i.+p had been destroyed piecemeal by a hurricane of sh.e.l.ls, she was in no fit condition to weather even the suspicion of a squall.

She began to s.h.i.+p water from the very first; and soon afterwards, Crouch, who was scanning the horizon with great anxiety, watching every s.h.i.+ft of the wind, came to the conclusion that, unless the wind dropped as abruptly as it had risen, the "Mondavia" would go down.

The afternoon was now well advanced. The surface of the sea was broken in all directions by a great number of white waves running strongly northward. It was low tide, and on some of the shallows the foam showed white as snow in the sunlight that was now, for the first time that day, breaking from behind the clouds.

The "Mondavia" rolled as a s.h.i.+p rides at anchor. Her engines had been rendered useless; she was not capable of steaming a hundred yards. In addition to this her steering-gear was so seriously damaged, and the rudder itself so out of order, that she could do nothing else but drift, like a derelict, upon the tide.

To all intents and purposes, the s.h.i.+p was already a wreck; and every time she rolled to starboard, she s.h.i.+pped water in her holds; so that in less than an hour she was so low down that both well-decks were flooded, and those who pa.s.sed along the alleyways were obliged to wade knee-deep in water. It must also be remembered that all her boats had been destroyed. Though the great guns were now silent towards the south, and there could be little question that the British squadron was returning, there was neither a sail nor a smoke-stack in sight, as far as the eye could reach.

And even had there not been a dozen wounded men on board--many of whom were in a critical condition--the situation had been none of the pleasantest. Once again, it looked as if all on board were doomed.

Crouch, seeing that there was no time to waste, gathered together all the men he could find, and set about the construction of a raft. In this task he was aided by the dilapidated condition in which the German battle-cruisers had left the s.h.i.+p. In the ordinary course of events, on such occasions, it is necessary to break up the deck with axes; but here, this work had already been done by the sh.e.l.lfire of the "Blucher."

The demolished chart-room and the shattered bridge afforded an abundance of material. There was no lack of rope on board, and the buoyancy of the raft was considerably increased by a number of life-buoys and belts.

The raft was constructed on the forward well-deck, where the men, often standing up to their waists in water, worked in feverish haste; and it is astonis.h.i.+ng what prodigies of labour can be accomplished in so terrible a situation. Indeed, they worked not only to save, their own lives, but also the lives of those of their comrades who were unable to a.s.sist themselves.

One after the other, the wounded were brought down from the main-deck, and laid upon mattresses, spread side by side upon the raft. There was something extraordinarily precarious in the state of these unhappy men, since they had no means of knowing whether the buoyancy of the raft would maintain the weight of them all, when the s.h.i.+p, at last, went down. Crouch had taken every precaution that was possible; practically without exception the lifebuoys and cork lifebelts had been lashed underneath the raft, the better to serve their purpose.

When it became clear that the s.h.i.+p was sinking rapidly, Crouch ordered all hands to the forward well-deck, to be ready for the crisis.

Fortunately, the s.h.i.+p was going down on an even keel. It was probable, however, that at the last moment she would dive. If she did so stern foremost, all would be well; but if she shot down into deep water bows first, then the chances were that the foremast would foul the raft, which would either be destroyed piecemeal, dragged under water, or so tilted up that those who had sought safety there would be cast headlong into the sea.

The disaster came about quite gradually, and in the very way that suited them best. They had plenty of warning that the s.h.i.+p was about to go.

The raft had been manned by all--except a few who were prepared to swim--when the water rose like ether in a tube from the after well-deck to the p.o.o.p. And then--of all strange things--the whole s.h.i.+p bobbed forward, like a playful duck in a pond, whilst the sea spread in a long, single wave from the p.o.o.p to the forecastle-peak, above which the raft shot clear like a s.h.i.+p launched from the slips.

When they found themselves free and floating upon the surface of the water, they marvelled that the whole thing had been so inconceivably simple. They were huddled together like a flock of sheep, and in three minutes they were wet from head to foot in spray and from the water that splashed upward through the gaping holes in the structure of the raft.

The last they saw of the "Mondavia" was the top of her shattered funnel, gliding on the surface for the fraction of a second, like the dorsal fin of a shark. Then, even this small black object vanished, and there was nothing to be seen but an infinity of bubbles and hundreds of broken pieces of spar and splintered, painted wood. The "Mondavia" was gone.

Those who, as a wise precaution, had taken to the water, now that it was seen that the raft was safe, scrambled one after the other, drenched and dripping, to this frail, uncertain place of safety. There, crowded together, s.h.i.+vering from the wet and from the cold, they awaited whatsoever fate might be held in store for them, in the midst of the desolation of the sea.

They could not have been more than fifteen miles from the coast, but that, to them, was an infinite distance; they could never hope to gain the security of land. They had neither sail nor mast; there had been no time to make one or the other. Neither had they any means of propelling the raft. They could but drift whither tide and wind and current took them, and this was out to sea.

Moreover, it was now rapidly growing dark. The sun, which had remained hidden throughout the greater part of that memorable day, showed for a few minutes upon the north-western horizon, in a great flood of red and gold, and then dropped down into the sea. At the same time, the squall freshened once again; the wind showed signs of blowing up to a gale; and to make matters worse, a kind of sea fog--dripping wet and cold--drove up from the south, like a great cloud of smoke.

Crouch was a man who had a will of iron and a great heart of gold. He knew that his own life, and the lives of all those who were with him, was in the hands of an Almighty Power. Those poor, lonely castaways were in the care of Providence.

At such an hour, they were not likely to forget the G.o.d Who had given them birth, Who had first opened their eyes to all the beauties of the earth, and held them wonderstruck, time and time again, at the immensity of the eternal sea. As one man, they offered up silent, breathless prayers. Nor were these prayers that they might live, such as might issue from a coward's lips, but prayers for ever-lasting grace, for forgiveness and courage to the last.

Crouch drew near to Jimmy. The raft was now so strained and lifted by the broken surface of the water that she groaned and fretted as in pain.

"I fear one thing," said he, "and one thing only; if the wind holds she'll break. She can't bear the strain much longer. She was knocked together like a Canton flower-boat, or an Irish fence."

"There's still hope," said Jimmy Burke.

He spoke in a monotone, in a voice without expression, as if his words meant nothing. Indeed, he himself hardly understood them. In his heart he saw no cause to hope; there was no reason why they should be saved.

He was wet to the skin and well-nigh frozen, so numbed in all his limbs that he could scarcely move. And it is only natural, when the body is reduced to this condition, that the mind should cease to work; it becomes a mere machine; and words are spoken in much the same way as a monkey jabbers or a parrot talks, without regard to their meaning.

They waited in patience, in silence and a fort.i.tude that was something more than heroic. They waited for nearly another hour. By then, it was almost dark. The raft still held together, though those on board of her were almost perished. The sea fog had evidently driven past, for a few stars were visible above them.

And then it was that H.M.S. "c.o.c.kroach" hove in sight, steaming due north-westward at the rate of thirty knots an hour.

As one man, they lifted their voices in a great shout that went out upon the loneliness of the black, rolling waters, to reach the ears of men in comparative security, who stood bewildered and amazed in the very hour of their triumph and elation.

His Majesty's s.h.i.+p "c.o.c.kroach," but newly come from the thunder of the Dogger Bank, changed her course on the instant, and veered round to the south. And a little after, those castaways were saved.

They were well cared for by the seamen on board the torpedo-boat-destroyer, who could talk of nothing but victory and the sinking of the "Blucher." The survivors of the tramp steamer were given food and warm drinks; and the lights of Tynemouth were in sight when Jimmy Burke went on deck with Crouch and the Lieutenant-commander. The night had cleared. Above them was a whole canopy of stars. A new moon, too, had risen--a moon that heralded another month of the World War, of carnage, victory and repulse. And this moon had traced upon the surface of the sea a narrow, glittering silver pathway, which was like a road that led from out of all these scenes of horror and destruction to a far-off land of happy dreams. And on a sudden, into this silver pathway, there hove the shadows of two mighty giants. They heard the engines of a great s.h.i.+p groaning, as the strong screws churned the water; and then they saw the dark, colossal outline of one of the monarchs of the sea, with an even greater s.h.i.+p in tow.

Both were men-of-war that moved forward slowly, c.u.mbrously, as if in pain. It was the wounded "Lion," crawling back to port--broken, bleeding, but invincible to the very end. On that calm, moonlit night, the "Lion" stood forth as a symbol of all England: hard hit and heavy of heart, but resolute, defiant and unconquerable.

Submarine U93 Part 28

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Submarine U93 Part 28 summary

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