Read an extract from Keith Dovkants' novel, recounting the dramatic moments when a Q-ship engages a U-boat...

‘Periscope!

Off the starboard bow!’

Campbell and La Salle ranged over the sea with their

glasses. It was oily smooth and the shimmering haze created a blur at any

distance, obscuring a clear view.

‘Where-away?’ Campbell cried.

‘Four points off the bow. Looks

like he’s surfacing.’

As one, La Salle and Campbell

trained their binoculars along a line forty-five degrees off the ship’s course.

‘I’ve got him,’ La Salle said. ‘He’s

coming up all right.’

‘By God, so he is!’ Campbell

cried. ‘How far? What’s the range?’

‘About 3,000 yards.’

Campbell pulled the other’s arm.

‘Don’t let him see we’ve spotted him. Not yet.’

They steamed on. At 2,000 yards

the U-boat’s deck broke the surface.

‘Right! Turn hard a’port. Make it

look like we’re making a run for it!’ Campbell crossed to the voice pipes. ‘Chief,

increase speed but not much. I don’t want to go over nine knots. We’ve got a

sub in sight. Stand by.’

  The ship began a tight turn to

port. The submarine, just over a mile away, seemed to follow. As the ship’s

stern swung through the line of their previous course, La Salle saw men coming

out of the conning tower hatch. Three were heading for the gun position forward

while two figures in officers’ headgear stood in the tower training binoculars

on Farnham.

  ‘Looks like a 3 ½ inch,’ La Salle

said as the U-boat crew raised the gun from its lowered position. La Salle

identified it as a Ubts L/30, 88 millimetre. Somewhat less powerful than the

newer 4.1 inch version, but frightening enough. They called it the Schnelladekanone – quick loader. The name was well-deserved. A sharp crew

could fire a dozen rounds a minute. That translated into a delivery of more

than two hundredweight of high explosive in sixty seconds. Rather more than

their twelve pounder could manage.

  ‘They’re getting ready to fire,’ he

said, almost under his breath.

  ‘They probably think we’re not

worth a torpedo,’ Campbell said brightly.

  ‘Not very flattering, is it?’

  ‘Well, they do cost the Kaiser a

thousand guineas apiece!’

  ‘So however highly we think of

ourselves, we’re actually worth less than that. Quite upsetting, isn’t it?’

  Campbell emitted a short bark, a

peculiar noise that, La Salle had learned, was as close as he ever came to

laughing.

  ‘Never forget it, my boy!’

  La Salle chuckled, mostly at the

thought of how their mood had changed. Suddenly, in the face of mortal danger,

they were exhilarated. Day after day of criss-crossing the same stretch of

ocean, seeing nothing, depressed them mightily. They worked at remaining

optimistic and each man had his own way of dealing with the monotony, but the

thought of the war pursuing its course without them crushed the spirit. Every

man in the ship was a volunteer. They thirsted for action. Now, with the

prospect at hand, they were like excited schoolboys. This was the game they

longed to play.

  La Salle saw a flash at the

muzzle of the U-boat’s gun. Before he could utter a word the air was filled

with a high-pitched moan and then an explosion as a shell landed just off their

bow.

  ‘He’s hoisting a signal,’ he said,

aware of a drumming in his chest, a dryness in his throat.

  ‘Can you make it out?’

  ‘ML. STOP.’

  ‘Happy to oblige.’

   Campbell called the engine

room, ordered STOP then picked up

the adjacent speaking tube: ‘Campbell here. The sub has ordered us to stop. I

want the panic party on deck with the Baronian crew. Await my orders.’ He turned to Fisk, the

navigator: ‘Is the position up to date?’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Right. Let’s swap rig then.’

Campbell shucked off his reefer jacket and passed it to Fisk. Then he handed

over his old trilby. As Fisk put them on, Campbell nodded with satisfaction. ‘You’ll

do,’ he said.

   La Salle joined them in the wheelhouse and traded

jackets with Jenkins.

  

 ‘You’d better have this

too,’ La Salle said, loosening the silk scarf around his neck, adding with a

smile: ‘Oh, Jenkins. I want it back.’

   Jenkins grinned. ‘If all goes well I’ll be able to buy

myself one,’ he said cheekily.

   ‘Cut the chat now,’ Campbell

snapped. ‘And I don’t like talk about prize money.’

   ‘Yes, sir.’

    Jenkins joined Fisk on the bridge. La Salle and Campbell

crouched down, hiding themselves from view below the wheelhouse glazing.

Campbell had his trench periscope in one hand.

  ‘Can you hear me, Fisk?’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Where is he?’

  ‘Coming up on the port quarter.’

  ‘Fully surfaced?’

  ‘Yes. Hang on. He’s hoisting

another signal: T.A.F.’

  ‘Bring-Me-Your-Papers,’ Campbell intoned.

‘Well, Fisk you’d better do as he says. Now remember, you must be the last off

the ship. Direct the boats to go clear of the bow. The Baronian crew should do the same. Take the tender to make a

show of giving him our papers. Jenkins, can you hear me?’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘You know the drill. Make sure

the boats are not in my line of fire.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’

  ‘Good luck to you.’

  La Salle heard the sound of boots

on the companion ladder and shouts coming from the deck. Campbell put his

trench periscope up to the glazing, turned, then lowered it.

  ‘Nothing yet,’ he said. ‘He must

be abaft the beam.’ Campbell picked up the voice pipe linked to the hidden

guns. The firing positions had peepholes and were better placed to see what was

happening astern. ‘Campbell here. See anything?’

  A distant voice said something

like ‘abeam – port side.’

  ‘How far?’

  ‘About 600 yards.’

  ‘Stand by. Good luck.’

  Campbell slid on his stomach to

the port wing of the bridge and raised his head to a spyhole drilled into the

woodwork below the rail.

   ‘Good God, Julian,’ he

exclaimed. ‘Those idiots from Baronian are all over the bloody ocean!’

  La Salle wriggled over to the

spyhole. Fisk had got the Baronian

crew away first in their boats, but instead of pulling clear towards the bow

they were hanging off, apparently unsure of which direction to head in.

  ‘They are between us and the

U-boat,’ he said.

  ‘Damn them!’ Campbell hissed. ‘If

they don’t shift I shall fire anyway.’

  ‘They’re moving now,’ La Salle

said. He saw one of Farnham’s

boats pulling hard away from the ship with Jenkins in the bow, wearing his

clothes. Fisk, with Campbell’s jacket and trilby, was in the other boat. Would

they fool a U-boat commander into thinking the master and his crew had

abandoned ship in a panic? It was vital the submarine had no inkling that the

true skipper and his gunners were hidden aboard, waiting for the moment to

spring their trap. The Farnham boats were being rowed awkwardly, as if by

inexperienced and frightened men. A perfect panic party, thought La Salle. But the U-boat commander had had

enough of time-wasting. They heard the report of a gun and almost

simultaneously the ship shivered along its length as a shell crashed into the

hull amidships. Splinters of steel shot past the wheelhouse with an angry whine

and a great cloud of choking smoke enveloped the bridge.

  ‘See anything?’ Campbell asked,

suppressing a cough. Before La Salle could reply the scream of another shell

split the air above their heads.

  ‘He’s aiming at the bridge!’

  They scrambled towards the hatch

in the floor of the wheelhouse. La Salle threw it open and Campbell signalled

him to go first. Halfway down the

ladder, La Salle felt giant invisible hands take hold of his head and squeeze

until he thought it would burst. The pressure wave from the blast of a shell

sent him tumbling down, dazed and deafened. He was aware of Campbell’s full

weight striking him on the shoulders as everything went silent and dark. Slowly,

the unseen giant crushing his skull relented. The pressure eased. Campbell lay

beside him, his upper lip moving soundlessly over a bloodied chasm where his

mouth had been. Most of his jaw was missing. Instinctively, La Salle raised a

hand to his own face, felt it gingerly, rubbed his fingers over his skull. It

seemed to be as he had always known it. He felt his head begin to clear, he

even made out a dull sound as the ship shook from the impact of another round

from the submarine. Campbell was trying to say something. La Salle couldn’t

hear properly and Campbell’s face was like a lump on a butcher’s block,

although something moved in what remained of his mouth. Did he say “engage”? La

Salle reached out for the bottom rungs of the steel ladder and pulled himself

to his knees. He raised Campbell to a sitting position but his head lolled and

he seemed distressed. The only light came through a deck prism but La Salle could

see Campbell’s tongue was shredded, his jawbone gone. He laid him out flat on

the sole of the small passageway. Campbell vomited, convulsed violently and La

Salle turned his head sideways. ‘Please, please,’ he murmured aloud. ‘Don’t let

him choke.’ His eye caught something behind Campbell’s left ear. A shell

splinter, jagged and shiny was sticking out of his skull. It had burned the

hair around the wound and La Salle found himself wondering, almost as a matter

of idle interest, how far it had penetrated. His hearing was beginning to

return. The ship was being struck below the waterline now. Someone would have

to command the gunlayers. The shell that hit the bridge would have destroyed

the voice pipes. No question of that.

   Campbell stirred, trying to lift his arm. The hatch in the

wheelhouse had slammed shut as they fell, but there was a strong smell of

smoke. Fire! Terror rose in La Salle’s throat. The ship was taking a hammering.

Who knows? Perhaps the gun crews weren’t even there anymore. He was seized by

an urge to escape. It would be possible, by following the passageway, to emerge

on deck, slip to the starboard side and dive into the sea. One of the boats

would pick him up, surely. He was aware of a searing heat from above. Anything

would be better than being roasted alive in a blazing steel oven.

  La Salle shook his head, as if

trying to banish a bad dream. He pulled off his jersey, rolled it up and

tenderly placed it under Campbell’s head. He hauled himself upright, hand over

hand up the rungs of the ladder; steadied himself. The ship was taking a heavy

list to port. There was thick smoke in the air now. He felt his way to the

door, opened it carefully. The bridge was on fire. Black smoke hid the forepart

of Farnham from him, but he could

see the dummy deckhouse that housed the twelve pounder. It was intact. Further

aft, the mock lifeboat that concealed the six pounder was still there. The

U-boat put another shell into the ship’s waterline. La Salle could see nothing

of the boats but the exploding rounds were drawing a hail of splinters like a

white-hot curtain of metal around the ship. He slid aft on his belly with the

zinging sound of shrapnel so close even his muffled ears could hear it. At the

deckhouse he raised his head slightly. He could see the submarine now, clearly

visible over the bulwark as the ship leaned groggily to port. La Salle crawled

round to the starboard side of the house, putting it between him and the

U-boat. He hammered on the false side panels with his fist.

  ‘Roberts! It’s La Salle.’

  Someone spoke through a spyhole: ‘What

the bugger’s going on? No bloody orders, the ship feels as if she’s sinking.

Where’s the skipper?’

  ‘He’s wounded. I’m in command.’

Uttering the words took La Salle aback. Yes, it was true. He was in command. ‘The

submarine is a few hundred yards off the port side, but the ship’s listing

about ten degrees. You’ll have to get your elevation right pretty smartish.’

  ‘All right,’ Roberts said. His

voice had gone strangely calm.

  ‘Are you in touch with Edwards?’

  Edwards was manning the six

pounder under the dummy lifeboat. Roberts said he still had voice pipe

communication with him.

  ‘Good. Tell him to stand by. Get

one of your men to pass on my order when I give it.’

  ‘Right. We’re ready.’

  La Salle smiled. Roberts and his

men had been in their tiny enclosure, without being able to move, not knowing

what was happening, for almost two hours. “Ready” hardly did it justice. La

Salle glanced at the mast. It was still standing, flying the Danish colours. He

took a deep breath, clambered to his feet, sprinted towards the cleat holding

the flag halyard. A white ensign was furled in a piece of small stuff at the

base of the mast. He undid the halyard, tugged down the Danish flag.

  ‘Stand by!’ he shouted at the

deckhouse. ‘Let go!’

  He pulled on the halyard, sending

the Royal Navy’s white ensign aloft. In the same instant the sides of the false

deckhouse flew outboard with a clatter. Roberts and his men already had the twelve

pound gun swinging towards the port side. One man was on the rangefinder calling

out as his mate wound the elevating wheel furiously. Another had a new charge

in his hands. Despite himself, La Salle jumped as the gun fired. He ran down the

sloping deck. A geyser of water was tumbling into the sea fifty yards from the

submarine.

  ‘Short! Elevation! Elevation!’

   He looked back at the U-boat. Two figures in officers’

headgear stood in the conning tower, training their binoculars on Farnham’s gun. La Salle glanced at Farnham’s dummy lifeboat. It had folded open like a cracked

walnut to reveal the six-pounder and its crew. The gun fired. La Salle whirled

around to see a shell explode just over the U-boat. The U-boat’s gun crew had

just put another shot into the ship’s waterline, forward of the beam. Good, La Salle thought. The engine room is well aft of

there
. One of the German officers was

gesticulating at his gunners, pointing wildly at Farnham. Now they were shifting their aim, from Farnham’s waterline to her decks and the men at the guns. The

U-boat crew raced to reload. La Salle counted in his head. It took five seconds

to load and fire the Schnelladekanone.

Two … three … four. On five, Farnham’s

twelve pounder spoke again. This time

the shell exploded only feet from the U-boat, in line with its gun. The German

gunners were knocked over by the blast. As one man staggered to his feet the

officers disappeared from the conning tower. They’re getting ready to dive, La Salle thought. They’ll finish us with a

torpedo.

  For the first time, he thought about the men in the

boats. When the U-boat had dispatched Farnham it would resurface. Then, La Salle knew, the

submarine commander would machine-gun the boats. The Kaiserliche Marine had declared

Britain’s mystery ships “pirates”. Anyone on board one could expect to be shot.

He thought fleetingly of Fisk, Jenkins, Captain Foster and his son. Well, young

Foster was probably already dead. He caught sight of Roberts behind the twelve

pounder. The gunlayer’s face was eerily expressionless. Roberts was barely twenty,

a thin, intense Welshman whom the others treated with care. As a gunner, few

could equal him. La Salle saw something in his eyes; a cold eagerness. Roberts

seemed entirely unafraid. La Salle envied him.

    They had re-loaded.

Roberts pulled the firing cord. To La Salle’s immense joy he saw the round

strike in precisely the position in which he would have placed it if he had had

the power to drop it on the U-boat himself. It hit the submarine’s hull high

up, square on the turn of the deck. When the smoke cleared he could see buckled

plating. The U-boat’s gun had tilted to a strange angle. Two of the gun crew

had disappeared completely. The third was lying under the gun. As he took this

in, Edwards fired the six pounder. This time, the shell struck the base of the

conning tower. It appeared to have little effect. La Salle felt a sickening

sensation in the pit of his stomach. It was notoriously hard to penetrate the

pressure hull of a U-boat, especially with a relatively light charge. He felt

suddenly impotent, angry that everything they were doing was right, but not

enough. The bully was too big for them. The U-boat was making way, angling

forward slightly. He was diving. No one came out of the conning hatch for the

gunner lying on the deck. They were getting away.

  ‘Keep firing!’

  Roberts did not need to be told.

His next shot hit almost the same spot as his previous round and this time they

were rewarded with a glimpse of jagged metal. Within seconds the damaged area

was below water as the submarine crash dived. Edwards fired into the conning

tower as the U-boat disappeared, a good hit, but then there was no target to

aim at.

  La Salle jumped up on to the gun

platform.

   ‘What do you think, Roberts? I thought I saw a hole in her.’

  The gunlayers nodded.

  ‘That last round got through,’

Roberts said. ‘I’m sure of it.’

   There was a sudden lurch as Farnham slipped sideways. Below deck, metal was grinding on

metal. A bulkhead has gone, La

Salle thought. The ship was listing close to fifteen degrees.

  ‘She’s going down,’ one of the

gunlayers muttered. ‘If he doesn’t torpedo her, she’ll find her own way to the

bottom.’

   There was one serviceable lifeboat on the deck. It

looked more or less unscathed. They could put Campbell in it and tie it

alongside, ready to board if the old ship went. But La Salle felt a resistance

to the idea of abandoning their ship. There was a hotness in his blood. All

cowardly thought was gone. He wanted to carry on fighting.

  ‘We’re not done yet!’ he cried. ‘Stand

by the gun. I’m going down to the engine-room.’

  Farnham was carrying a cargo of pit props. It was not genuine

freight, but part of an experiment Lieutenant Commander Campbell had persuaded

the admiralty to try. Campbell argued that a ship filled with wood would float

even if badly holed by a torpedo or gunfire. It would give them an extra chance

to fight back, he had said. To an extent, he had been proved right. Without

the wood in her holds Farnham would probably have sunk by now,
La Salle thought.    But would it continue to keep her afloat?

  He ran to the hatch over the

boilerhouse and slid down the steel ladder. There was two feet of water at the

bottom and the watertight door to the engine room was shut tight. He kicked at

it with his boots.

  ‘Chief! Chief! It’s La Salle.

There’s water out here but you can open up. Chief! Can you hear me?’

  There was a sound of sliding

metal as the dogs on the watertight door moved. It swung open. The water was

above the sill and it streamed through. Chief Dilkes seemed unperturbed. La

Salle looked around the engine room. Two stokers stared back at him blankly.

The engine space had not been hit. La Salle could have cried with relief.

   ‘Chief, you’re all right?’

  ‘Yes. But I don’t want too much

water in here. I still have the fires going.’

  ‘Can you make steam? Can we get

the pumps started?’

  ‘We can try. What’s happening out

there?’

  ‘The skipper’s wounded. I’ve

taken charge. We hit the submarine. It’s dived. We must try to make way. I

don’t want to be a sitting duck for a torpedo.’

  Dilkes nodded, as if this was all

the information he would ever need. He turned to his stokers, issued a brief

command and walked to the controls.

  ‘I’ll try the pumps now,’ he

said.

  La Salle clapped him on the back

and splashed out of the engine-room. On deck he found Roberts scanning the sea

to port. Farnham’s boats were

pulling hard back to the ship, but Roberts’ attention was focused on a patch of

sea somewhat farther away.

  ‘There’s something over there,’

Roberts said, pointing into the middle distance. He handed his binoculars to La

Salle. There was a disturbance on the water, a furious bubbling.

  ‘He’s blowing his tanks,’ La

Salle shouted. ‘He’s coming up! You did get him, Roberts. You did!’

   The submarine began to

surface at an odd angle, the stern slightly higher than the bow. ‘That’s why he couldn’t get off a

torpedo,’ La Salle murmured to himself. He became aware of movement at the twelve

pounder. The gun fired.

   ‘Roberts! He might be surrendering!’

   He threw out an arm, pulled at Robert’s shoulder. Roberts did

not shift his attention from the breech of the twelve pounder. He shrugged off

La Salle’s hand. The gun fired again. In the numbing split-second that followed

the crash of the big gun, La Salle saw the afterpart of the U-boat fly into

pieces like a joke cigar. Almost immediately he heard a double thump of two

explosions, the second much more powerful than the first.

  ‘His stern torpedo!’ One of

Roberts’s gunlayers was shouting, throwing his cap on to the deck. ‘His bloody

stern torpedo!’

  The U-boat seemed to hang

suspended over the sea, then it rolled slightly, swung like a pendulum and,

with the bow pointing skyward, slid vertically out of sight. No one moved. They

all stared at the same bubbling patch of sea.

  ‘Did you see anyone? Did you see

anyone coming out of her?’ La Salle asked at last.

  ‘I think the hits on the conning

tower probably jammed the hatch,’ Roberts said, in a voice that could have been

commenting on a good ball at a village cricket match. ‘Nicely bottled up in

there, they are.’

  The word “are” struck La Salle

like a slap. Of course. They were still alive. Most of the thirty or so men in

the submarine would have survived the explosion of the torpedo. Now they were

sealed in a steel coffin heading for the bottom in 500 feet of water. His mind

flashed over the scene. Dark inside, probably. Plenty of air for now. But not

for long.