The Extermination of the Submarine

By L. Cope Cornford

[The Living Age, August 17, 1918; from The National Review]

There was a period of the great war during which—so we may prefigure the judicial observation of the future historian—during which (he writes) the British nation was forced to contemplate the possibility of being starved to concede an ignominious surrender or, at best, to conclude a humiliating compromise. Once (he continues) the proud mistress of the seas, and still imposing her will upon the formidable fleet of her adversary, Britain found her sea-power (a favorite phrase of that epoch) challenged and nullified at every turn by that recent and deadly invention, the submarine torpedo vessel. In one week, no less than forty merchant ships were sunk with their cargoes; the weekly toll of piracy varied from five or six to eighteen or twenty vessels; and although it cannot be said that there was actual want, it is undoubtedly the case that a general scarcity of food began to prevail. But the spirit of the people never wavered.… Here the historian, who with a quaint simplicity affects the tortoise-shell-rimmed spectacles of the Georgian era, takes off his glasses and stares out of the window at the smokeless blue. 'I wonder, did it waver?' he says dubiously.

How, indeed, should he know? The movements of the spirit of man are elusive and swiftly transitory. But in fact the English are hard to move, extremely reluctant to entertain disagreeable impressions, and almost incapable of believing that any other power on earth, or sea, or under the sea could defeat the British navy.

Whether or not the Englishman knew from week to week the actual state of the case would have made but little difference to his feelings. He did in fact know very little, and that little was all on the wrong side of the account.

But the Admiralty said at intervals that the submarine would not decide the war. That was enough. And the moment has come to say that the Admiralty were right. They made themselves right. Only the Admiralty and the fighting men at sea and in the air know exactly how it was done. The historian of the future may learn in detail how it was done; but it is odds that after the war—if there is an after the war—people will be too tired to read his monumental disquisition. So it is well to learn what we can while we can.

The air and the sea round these islands have become full of eyes, like the beast in the Apocalypse. Eyes in aeroplanes, seaplanes, airships; eyes in submarines and surface craft. Moating between the gray cope of heaven and the wrinkled plain of the sea hangs an airship. She wears an aspect of brooding over the waters. Her eyes are scanning the moving and whitened field beneath them. Eastward, the dawn fires the sullen wrack; and the sombre headlands, their bases ringed about with foam, lighten. Far out to sea, a steamer, looking little as a toy, moves with incredible slowness beneath a plume of smoke; beyond, smears upon the faint horizon indicate other vessels. The men in the car of the airship, swinging level with the wide rim of the sea, have long ago become accustomed to looking down, like the god of the ancients, upon the insects swimming upon the sea he made. They are wholly occupied in seeking for their prey. Presently the watchers discern upon the sliding surface of the water a mark like the print of a bird's foot—a long V, lengthening. It is the wake of a periscope. This is luck indeed. The airship tilts downwards, comes level again, and the officer pulls a lever, releasing a bomb. The long dark shape slants swiftly downwards, and plunges. In a few seconds there is a muffled detonation, and a fountain of water leaps high. Another bomb follows, and another. At the same time a wireless message spreads instantaneously from the airship and begins to vibrate in the ears of the signalmen in ships scattered far and wide. At the same time flashing signals are made to the nearer vessels. The airship hovers where she is; and the men mark a dark oily stain spreading, and spreading, and smoothing the with pieces of wreckage. Presently five or six trawlers come steaming up to investigate, and the airship glides away. That was a lucky shot.

More often there is no sign after the bomb has been dropped; or there is a smaller area of spreading oil, denoting what is probably slight damage. An airship, sailing high, once dropped bombs upon certain long, black objects, which were most likely whales.

Or the airship assembles the hunting party. Cruising alone, she sights the conning tower of a submarine a long way off. There is a destroyer visible, and the destroyer is promptly informed. The men in the airship see the sparks volleying from her wide funnels as she goes about. At the same time the nearest motor launch (or M.L.) flotilla receives the summons, and the leader of the trawler section. These all take their places with the accuracy of a quadrille.

They have their own means of discovering the approximate position of the submarine, whether the pirate be escaping or sitting on the bottom of the sea waiting for the trouble to blow over.

But whether she goes or stays, every pallid German in the belly of the submarine is also waiting for the deadly depth charge. It is not necessary to hit the vessel. The shock is so tremendous, even at a certain distance, that the lights go out in the submarine, the engines are shaken out of gear, and the plates begin to open out like a flower. Explode the depth charge a little nearer to her, and the submarine is shattered. It is what the German must hope for, even pray for; because if the explosion does no more than open leaks, the water gradually rising in the vessel, compresses the air, and also makes chlorine gas, and death comes by slow torture. Better, in fact, come to the surface and fight it out or surrender. It has almost come to that with the submarine; that it is safer for her to do murder in the light of day.

There are about eighteen hours of daylight at this time of year; and were a spectator to be suspended so high in air that he could miraculously survey the isles of Britain lying beneath him like a child's garden, he would see a chain of moving silver dots surrounding the whole jagged coastline. He would also remark the seaplanes, darker and swifter specks, like birds. They are quicker in pursuit than the airships, but their endurance in the air is, of course, shorter. Swooping low, they drop their bombs over the patch of troubled water revealing the enemy below, or over the feather of the moving periscope. If they catch a submarine on the surface, they have need of swiftness, for their quarry can submerge in thirty seconds.

The British seaplane squadrons are frequently met by enemy seaplanes. In the North Sea two British seaplanes met five of the enemy. Two of the enemy attacked one of the British seaplanes, which was a long way behind its leader, and which put up a running fight. The leading British seaplane manoeuvred to attack the three enemy single-seaters from their rear, at a range of 200 to 300 yards. Steering zigzag, and firing to the front, he hit a single-seater, which turned sharply to port, side-slipped, and crashed into the sea, whereupon the rest of the Germans incontinently fled.

In another fight over the North Sea a British Sopwith, a long way from his base, perceiving an enemy, attacked him 'from the sun,' as the phrase goes, The attacker thus has the light behind him, and the attacked has it right in his eyes. The Sopwith opened fire at fifty yards, whereupon the German dived, streaming smoke; one of his wings dropped off, and he fell headlong into the sea.

But it is not all victory. There is a sad record of a seaplane flying somewhere far out to sea, whose signals of distress were received, but owing to some defect in her signaling apparatus, her description of her position was unintelligible. A gale was blowing up; seaplanes went in the teeth of it to search for the craft in distress; but they could not find her. The wreck of her was afterwards washed on shore. Pilot and observer were never seen again. The war in the air is a boys' war; and these two lads, lost in the air many miles out at sea, fought to the last. Their engine was out of order; the wireless would not work properly; the darkness was gathering, and a storm was rising. Swinging and buffeted high up in the night, they knew that the end was approaching.

Perhaps they put the nose of the machine down at the last, on the chance of riding out the gale on the floats. Other lads have done it; have clung to the floats for days and nights; and when they were taken off they were rigid like wood. But whatever happened on that night, be sure the boys' hearts did not fail them.…

Airship and aeroplane work with the patrolling destroyer flotillas, which are organized separately from the destroyers on duty with the Fleet. Many hundreds of sea-miles they cover, and never see a submarine. And then upon a day, it happens, as it happened to H.M.S. ———, early one fine morning. She was cruising at fifteen knots, which is a gentle stroll for a destroyer, when her captain sighted a submarine lying on the surface, little more than 200 yards distant. He rang clown for full speed, put the helm hard over, the boat heeling nearly rail under, and ran straight upon the enemy. The steel stem of a destroyer curves outwards under water, so that at the keel there is a sharp projection like an adze. H.M.S. ——— struck the submarine just forward of the conning tower, and cut right through the vessel. The destroyer captain turned sixteen points, or at a right angle, and released a depth charge, and then another. The sea became darkly suffused with oil.

Another episode. H.M.S. ———, destroyer, cruising at twenty knots, sighted a periscope. It feathered the water some forty yards distant on the starboard beam. The commander put his helm hard over, dropped a depth charge on the starboard side, dropped another on the port side. Then, circling under starboard helm, he dropped a depth charge midway between the first two, and then another. Columns of water rose high above the masthead, and the destroyer leaped and shivered as the charges exploded deep down. And 'simultaneously with the fourth explosion seven bodies appeared on the surface.' Boats were lowered. One of the bodies still had life in it, and that man was saved.

With the aircraft work the destroyers, and, with the destroyers work the trawlers, not to be confused with the mine-sweeping trawlers, which are separately organized.

Upon a day two trawlers were escorting a steamer off the coast, when they heard a heavy explosion, and beheld a fountain of water rise close to the shore. That was the beginning of a busy time. The explosion was the explosion of a torpedo which, fired from a submarine at the steamer, had missed her. Whether or not the two trawlers at first understood what had happened, they understood eleven minutes later, when there was a second explosion, and their stricken convoy staggered and began to settle down. Two more trawlers came bustling up and took her in tow, while the two trawlers of the escort circled round and round her. Presently one of them, observing a smooth patch of water, dropped a depth charge in that place. But no signs of destruction appeared. Then an airship hove upon the sky, and signaled the position of the enemy. The other trawler hurried to it and dropped a depth charge. Still no signs of destruction. Half an hour later, the same trawler saw a periscope about 500 yards distant, pursued it, and dropped a depth charge. Still no result. Once more the airship spotted the enemy and signaled his position, and once more the trawler dropped depth charges. By this time other trawlers had assembled and were scouting ahead. The airship dropped another bomb, and opened fire from, her machine-gun upon an oily patch of water, into which a trawler, coming up, dropped depth charges. Nothing more happened. The probability is that the submarine was destroyed. It was a typical hunt.

A more conclusive affair during the escort of a convoy by an armed auxiliary cruiser and a destroyer. The two escorting vessels were coming up astern of their convoy with a slow ship which had fallen out of station, when they saw a steamer, in the centre of the convoy, torpedoed. The cruiser, steaming at full speed, ran right over the submarine, with a heavy impact. But the submarine was not sunk; for an hour and a half later the destroyer sighted a periscope not 200 yards distant. At full speed the destroyer released a depth charge. It exploded and up came the submarine to the surface. She chose to die in the open. By that time the destroyer was nearly 100 yards ahead of the submarine. She put her helm hard over and opened fire upon the enemy. At the same time the cruiser opened fire. The gunners of the destroyer made two hits out of the first three rounds, and the cruiser also scored. Then the destroyer rammed, cutting the submarine, clean in half. The stern of the submarine rose up and then her after-part sank, while her bow plunged downwards, lifting to view for a moment a section of the interior of the vessel, a ghastly twisted confusion of ragged edges and pieces of men and machinery, and then her forward part sank.

A trawler sighted an enemy submarine cruising on the surface, five miles distant. The submarine seemed to stop, and then she turned towards the trawler, and a few minutes afterwards submerged. The trawler, conceiving it to be the intention of the submarine to torpedo her, held on her course for five minutes and then altered it. Twenty minutes afterwards, the trawler perceived the submarine to be observing her through the periscope about 200 yards distant on the starboard bow, whereupon the trawler ported her helm, steamed to the spot where the periscope had appeared, and dropped two depth charges. A large round yellow patch stained the water, and the explosion of the second depth charge was followed by another and a much heavier explosion, shaking the trawler from stem to stern. A vast black stain spread upon the water, thick and oily, and floating in it were a small stool, part of a small teak ladder, several pieces of wood, and a white life-belt.

With the aircraft work the destroyers, with the destroyers work the trawlers, and with the trawlers work the motor launches, or M.L.'s.

M.L. ——— was cruising very early one morning, when her commanding officer (R.N.V.R.) saw a large bow wave coming towards him, and then he saw behind the wave a submarine approaching on the surface at full speed. The submarine, sighting the M.L., altered course, and crossed the bows of the M.L. ten yards ahead of her. A submarine on the surface, mounting powerful guns, is much more than a match for a little motor launch. But this particular submarine thought proper to submerge. She was instantly pursued by the M.L. Judging the position, the M.L. dropped two depth charges, went on, and dropped two more. The subsequent symptoms were regarded as conclusive.

The adventures of M.L.'s are innumerable. M.L.'s are officered and manned by the new civilian navy, which consists of every trade and profession: yachtsmen, barristers, solicitors, fishmongers, greengrocers, engineers, merchant seamen, fishermen, and at least one parson, C. of E. Akin to the M.L.'s are the coastal motor boats (C.M.B.), of higher speed. Something has been told, but only in outline, of the magnificent service performed by these craft at the closing of the ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, which also was an operation of submarine warfare.

The lieutenant in command of one of them was ordered to take the last men off H.M.S. Vindictive, after she was sunk across Ostend Harbor. The boat was lying alongside, on the side of Vindictive farthest from the shore, and was therefore screened by Vindictive's hull from the fire of the shore batteries. The lieutenant, searched the whole ship. Shells were bursting between decks, and he was wounded in the leg. Finding no one, he returned to his boat and shoved off. But not yet was duty done. For, amid the roar of the cannonade, he thought he heard cries for help. He returned, once more went all over the ship, which was still under heavy fire, and once more shoved off. But not yet was duty satisfied. For again he heard cries, and again he put back. Now it seemed to him the calls came from the other side of Vindictive; and he steered round her stern, right into the fire of the shore batteries. There he found two men, clinging to a boat, which hung by her bow from the forward fall. As she was being lowered, the after fall had been cut by a shell. The lieutenant took the men on board, went about, and cleared the harbor at last. He was hit again, this time in the hand, one of the most painful among wounds, but he continued to con his boat until he came to a destroyer and the danger was past. His one fear was lest he should be wounded in his sound leg, when he would have been obliged to turn over his command.

With the aircraft work the destroyers, and with the destroyers the trawlers and the motor craft, and other patrol vessels. And the submarine is also hunting the submarine.

Upon a night, submarine ——— sighted a small submarine right ahead, which looked like a British vessel. The two exchanged challenges, and then from the strange submarine came a hail in the German tongue, as she turned away. That settled it. The British submarine pursued the German, manoeuvring for a torpedo attack. The German fired a star shell, opened fire with rifles and repeating pistols at 400 yards range, and then dived. The British submarine fired a torpedo. It must have missed, for a minute afterwards the periscope of the enemy appeared about fifty yards off the port bow of the British submarine. She opened fire, and altered course to ram. She passed right over the enemy, who subsequently escaped.

Another British submarine, sighting an enemy submarine proceeding on the surface at slow speed, dived to attack. The British submarine fired both bow torpedoes at a range of 400 yards. One torpedo hit the enemy's bow and failed to explode. The other exploded under the conning tower. That was the end. The British submarine came to the surface and picked up the only survivor.

Here are but brief glimpses of the immense organization created for the extermination of the submarine. It was improvised for the purpose; it grew and continued to increase in efficiency; it is still growing and increasing in efficiency, above the water, on the water, under the water.

Together with the directly offensive war upon submarines, there is the defensive system of convoy, of which it is enough to say that it is singularly successful. In spite of the difficulties of assembling ships into a convoy, of keeping them in the requisite formation, of proceeding at the speed of the slowest ship in a group of miscellaneous vessels, of signaling and of manoeuvring—to name but these troubles—the indomitable patience and the incomparable skill of the navy have achieved success. Not long ago it was acknowledged by the Germans, who complained that the British, with their usual perfidy, had made it very dangerous to attack a convoy.

At the same time the merchant service captains have learned much, and their ships are being more powerfully armed. An action was recently fought between a merchant ship and an enemy submarine in which the submarine mounted two guns, one forward and one aft, and the merchant ship mounted one gun. The submarine, chasing on the surface, opened fire, and the British ship replied to such purpose that at the fourth round the submarine submerged, and attacked with the torpedo. But the British captain knew what to do, and how to do it, and he so handled his ship that the torpedo passed astern of her. Then the submarine, emerging, pursued at high speed, and opened fire again, this time at short range. The British gunners, replying, hit the conning tower with the third round, then put the after gun of the submarine out of action, both guns' crews hastily retreating below. The submarine was once more manoeuvring for torpedo attack, when she was again hit, lost speed, heeled over and sank.

To-day a merchant ship which puts up a stout fight owns a reasonable chance of winning it. But that is the last resource. The navy has resolved to exterminate the submarine.

The First Sea Lord has recently stated that the condition of success in submarine warfare (as in all warfare) is concentration of force. England has been fighting the war at sea with one hand. The other hand is the army. Had she the free use of both hands, it is not difficult to understand what she could have accomplished, and in what period of time.

In the submarine war the part taken by both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft is worth some careful consideration. Aircraft are now and will remain an integral part of the navy. Why they should be placed under the control of a separate authority is past comprehension. It is not too late to restore to the navy what cannot be taken from it without confusion, loss, hindrance, and immense discontent.

he historian of the future (a somewhat pathetic figure) may here be observed intelligently pausing to reflect upon the posture of affairs in Britain mid most of the year of grace and horror 1918.

'At this period,' he writes, 'we may perhaps discern the turning of the tide in the fortunes of the war at sea; and may even ascribe the change to a reviving apprehension of the true meaning of the sea on the part of that people which, among all the nations of the earth, had the profoundest reason for maintaining the seas as the master-principle of their national policy. But we have,' he adds, 'already traced the causes of the national decline; and we would but observe in this place that the chief merit for the remarkable development of sea warfare, accomplished in spite of incredible difficulties, must be assigned to the Royal navy.' Into the subsequent digression dealing with the part assigned by destiny to the British navy, of saving the country in spite of itself, we need not follow the philosopher.

It has often been said, and is still said, that there is no sovereign remedy for the submarine. But now one is not so sure. What about the depth charge? Yes, but if the depth charge is the salt on the tail of the cannibal fish, how first do you find your fish? Well, that is being done too, by more senses than one. Supposing that it has become more perilous and less useful to be under the sea than on the sea?

The present writer, some time ago, hazarded a theory that what is called the sovereign remedy for the submarine is aerial attack. As he is writing he refers to the Admiralty announcement of the day.

'Weather conditions have somewhat hindered operations by Naval Air Force contingents.' Then follows a list of places bombed. 'Bursts were also observed on the mole at Zeebrugge and near the lock gates…in all nearly twenty-four tons of bombs were dropped' (inside a week). 'Bombs were also dropped on an enemy vessel. In addition to the above the usual patrols were carried out.' 'The usual patrols!'—mark that sublime official expression. Hunting by day and night, in foul weather and fair, sinkings, rammings, gunfire, explosions, torpedoes, all carried out in a lightning web of wireless signaling, woven all across sea and land: these are the 'usual patrols,' by means of which hostile submarines have been sighted and attacked, enemy mines have been located and destroyed, and Allied and neutral shipping has been convoyed.' And with one hand—the right hand.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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