Read an extract from Keith Dovkants' novel, recounting the dramatic moments when a Q-ship engages a U-boat...
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
‘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
‘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
‘He’s hoisting a signal,’ he said,
aware of a drumming in his chest, a dryness in his throat.
‘Can you make it out?’
‘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?’
‘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.’
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?’
‘Where is he?’
‘Coming up on the port quarter.’
‘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?’
‘You know the drill. Make sure
the boats are not in my line of fire.’
‘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.’
‘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
‘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
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.
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
La Salle jumped up on to the gun
‘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
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
‘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
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
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