Memoirs & Diaries - War at Sea
When war threatened in 1914 I was stationed in the East Indies on board H.M.S. Fox. She was an old cruiser and due for the scrap-heap. We were to return to England in August, 1914, but on July 27th, being on that date in Muscat taking in coal, orders were received that caused us to leave that afternoon for an unknown destination.
We began to prepare for war immediately we got our orders for sea. We were taking in coal on one side of the ship, and changing our colour from white to grey on the other.
Once we were at sea, we took down all awnings and rolled them up, placing them - along with our bedding - around the most vulnerable parts of the ship. Splinter nets were rigged over each battery of guns, and rails cleared away, and rigging "snaked" down.
We kept station at our guns, torpedo tubes and searchlights at night. We had almost settled down to war routine before war began - at least we thought we had.
With the exception of preparation for war, our trip was uneventful, and Wednesday, August 5th, we entered Colombo. At 11 a.m. our skipper came off from shore and the crew were informed that war was declared.
We now put all our boats ashore, excepting two cutters, and, to reduce our silhouette, our ventilating cowls were taken down and dumped. Stores were taken in, and off to sea we went. Our job was hunting down German merchantmen, putting a prize crew on board and sending them back to Colombo for internment.
At this time I had just turned twenty-one and felt jubilant at the outbreak of war. It was to last about six months, and such was our confidence, we thought it was to be more or less a picnic. Besides, we might possibly get a medal.
The men either due, or approaching their time, for pension were not by any means pleased. They had cause for displeasure. War doesn't choose her victims, and some of these chaps went under during the conflict, and instead of a middle age of comparative ease, it meant hardship, suffering, and death.
Our first real thrill came on the night of August 11th. War had been declared with Austria, and during the night we had stopped a big Austrian liner for inquiries. We were at action stations - I was at a searchlight - and prepared for any emergency.
Our position at first was exactly abreast of the Austrian, and about 300 yards distant. Whilst signals were exchanged we had drifted to a position at right angles to the liner and lay across her path. Suddenly we noticed her lights getting nearer and nearer still.
At my position on the after shelter deck I could observe everything. It soon dawned on me that the liner was going to ram us. I wondered why the order was not given to open fire. Our engines began to throb. I could feel the ship vibrating, and slowly we went astern. But only just in time, for as the liner passed us one could have tossed a biscuit on board.
It turned out that we could not seize her. She had twenty-four hours to get clear after the declaration of war, but for a moment or two I thought my time had come.
War was now beginning to be irksome, and the novelty wearing off. Hatches were battened down most of the time - it was the monsoon season - but water found its way, just the same, into our quarters. The air was foul, and hardly breathable. On deck we did only necessary work by day. At night we closed up at action stations and slept in turns at the rear of the guns.
In September, we escorted three troopships to Mombasa - the first troops to land in East Africa. Passing down the harbour at Kilindine on our way back to Bombay, we saw the Pelorus lying calmly at anchor, ignorant of her fate.
She swung with the tide as we passed and narrowly escaped hitting us.
Our next job was to help to escort the Indian Expeditionary Force across the Indian Ocean. There were about fifty merchant ships in the convoy, and six or seven warships as an escort. They were a fine sight, and our hardest job now was "gingering" up stragglers.
Three days out from Bombay we were ordered back to East Africa. The Konigsberg was getting active and had sunk the Pelorus at Zanzibar with heavy loss of life. We began to feel the monsoon now, and I should think a quarter of the crew were down with fever.
Once on the African coast, we began a hunt for the Konigsberg. We were informed on one occasion that we should probably meet her the following day. This was somewhere north of Madagascar. I'm pleased to say we did not meet her.
Our guns were obsolete, and she was faster and could easily out-range us. Some of us were even disappointed over this, but a watery grave at the very least would have been our fate, without a shadow of doubt. The Konigsberg, when the chase got too hot for her - there were five warships on the coast looking for her hiding place - finally retired up the Refugi River.
About this time fighting was going on thirty miles distant from Mombasa. Our assistance was required for the transport of wounded, and a difficult job it was. They had first to be carried through the bush to our cutters, and then several miles out to sea, where, on arriving at the ship, they were hoisted inboard. We landed them at Mombasa.
The lack of nourishment began to make itself felt, and a number of us were sent to hospital at Mombasa suffering from beriberi. After three years' scouring the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean, this was a heaven of delight for me.
Good food, and plenty of it, and the kindnesses of the nurses I will never forget. All good things come to an end, and after a spell at Nairobi I left for England.
My next ship was a destroyer - H.M.S. Melpomene, and based at Harwich.
Our job was patrolling, submarine-chasing, escorting ships to and from Holland, acting as a screen in co-operation with the ships further north: 1915 for us was dull and monotonous. The only time we fired a gun was to sink a mine.
On Easter Monday, 1916, we, and three more destroyers from Harwich, were protecting a monitor on the Belgian coast, off Zeebrugge. A large number of trawler mine-sweepers, and small motor submarine-chasers were in the vicinity as well.
It was my afternoon watch on the paravanes (an anti-submarine device), and my mate and I were walking up and down - probably talking of our next leave - when the alarm bells sounded, and the crew ran to action stations.
We quickly rendered our paravanes safe, and ran to our torpedo-tubes, already trained upon the beam. We wondered at first what the "spasm" was. A tall column of water just astern of us, soon enlightened us. We were under fire! This would be about three o'clock in the afternoon, and the sea as calm as the table I write on. The sun was bright and the weather warm. In short, it was an ideal spring day.
Zeebrugge lay several miles off, but was clearly visible; the first sausage balloon that I saw used in the War hovered above the town and "ranged" us. Three black streaks - which we knew to be German destroyers - steamed a steady course up and down outside the town. They were the decoys. We were to provide the sport, although at the time this did not occur to us.
Owing to the restricted area - due to the minefields thereabouts - the only tactics we could adopt were to put our helm hard over and steam in a circle.
There were the four of us - the monitor was lying-off, practically motionless, firing very slowly - going around hell-for-leather, about a ship's length separating us, and firing away steady at the three Germans.
The chaps at the guns were busy, and not having too bad a time. Anyway they had no time to philosophise on the matter. I was sitting astride a torpedo-tube, awaiting any orders that might come through. In the meantime, I watched the fight. The other chaps near me did not seem the least excited, but a feeling, a gentle elated sort of feeling pervaded us.
The shells were falling around us pretty thickly, and throwing up great dark columns of water. We had the fire of the Zeebrugge forts and the three destroyers concentrated on us. It occurred to me that their marksmanship was rather bad, or else a destroyer was a very difficult thing to hit. Our three 4-inch guns were going at it steadily, I cannot say if we registered any hits. There were no visible effects, anyway.
After about half-an-hour of this sort of thing, as, in our turn, we came broadside on to the Germans - the ship having a list of about 25 degrees through the helm being nearly hard over - something was evidently wrong below. We heard nothing on deck, although we were immediately above the engine-room.
The first sign was that of a stoker coming up from the engine-room hatchway in very quick time. He shouted to us that we had been torpedoed. I jumped down from the tube I was sitting on, and looked through the engine-room fanlight. The sea was pouring in through a great hole in the side.
Here I had better explain that a destroyer is only a very frail shell, split by bulkheads into watertight compartments. The engine-room is the largest by far of these compartments.
The order was given to "out collision mat" to attempt to stem the flow of water. We had ceased fire in the meantime. The Germans, for some unknown reason, had done the same. By the time the mat was in position the engine-room was flooded completely, and we were only a foot out of water at the stem.
The Medina and the Milne now came to our assistance - one on either side of us - and after we were secured with wires, they began to tow us out of danger. The Medina also was running out of ammunition, and we passed her some of ours.
The three ships, lying together as they were, must have presented a splendid target to the enemy. They took advantage of it and opened fire again. We were stem on to them and could only use our after-guns - that is, the one gun on each ship.
The Medina decided to get away from us and, without waiting to cast off the wires, she went full steam ahead - carrying away the ropes.
The Medina and the Medusa carried on the previous manoeuvre of steaming around in a circle and drew the fire away from us and the Milne. Tied together as we were - we still fired our after-guns, the remainder of our crew were employed shoring bulk-heads and watching the fight.
Between 5 and 6 that evening we got away, and met a flotilla of boats coming up from Dover. We reached Dunkirk next morning and were docked right away. A hole about 4 feet long and 18 inches wide had been torn in our port side.
The shell had caught us as we listed over in our turning. The curious thing is that the shell did not explode, and probably is still in possession of our captain.
It took a week at Dunkirk to patch us up, but what a week it was! Every morning, just after daylight, we got an air-raid. A merchant ship in the next dock to us showed some of the results of these raids. A bomb had dropped into one of her holds and knocked the bottom out of her.
When we were fit for sea a tugboat towed us to Portsmouth to be overhauled.
We were there when Jutland was fought and our division of destroyers took part in it.
The boat that replaced us - the Termagant, I think it was, was sunk. This, I suppose, is the luck of war, but it's not much use to the poor fellows who get it in the neck.
Later on, in the year 1916, about August or September, we were ordered to sea suddenly. We had an idea something was in the wind, rumour was always rampant, and "spasms" more than frequent, so that we were more or less sceptical in our outlook.
I had the middle watch below and was trying to get what rest I could, stretched on a wooden locker - in full kit of course. The alarm bells sounded about 1.30 a.m. and I hurried aft to the tubes. They were trained on the beam, and I placed myself astride one as usual.
We were somewhere off the Dutch coast, and a lightship flashed her warning light at intervals. The night was fine, but about as dark as it's possible to be. These, briefly, were the conditions.
We were steaming full speed and had hardly got to action stations before fire was opened. We dared not switch on our searchlights; the Germans were in the same predicament. Our only guide for point of aim was an occasional flame from one of their funnels or the blast from their guns.
If there are human beings who exist that want to see hell realistically staged in this world I can recommend an action on a destroyer on such a night as this. The guns crews were again lucky in being occupied with their tasks.
The noise of battle that one hears and reads about was absent. The guns, of course, kicked up a row, and there was the throb of the engines and the swish of the water, and an occasional sea spent itself along the deck. These noises we were more or less used to, and regarded as normal, so when I say the silence seemed uncanny, I will not be misunderstood.
The deck of a destroyer is open - no shelter exists. Every time the guns fired it seemed to me like sheet lightning gone mad. The glare was blinding.
All this time the lightship lay between us and the Germans, and continued doing her work as if nothing were happening. We found afterwards it was the Maas Lightship. During the action my mind kept turning to the plight of the Dutchmen on board that lightship. I wondered what they thought of the business that night.
Whilst the fight was still in progress we got news that we had been hit forward, and several wounded. Shortly afterwards we lost sight of the Germans and they disappeared into the night. After the "cease-fire" had been given we found a shell had gone through our wireless office and charthouse, and three men badly hit about.
I said men. One was a boy of seventeen who had a big piece of steel in the middle of his back. He died next morning, poor kid. One of the other cases was a bit hard too. Goldspink, a torpedoman, had joined us the previous week, and, for night action-stations, was posted at the bridge searchlight. Because he had nothing to do up there, he went down to the forecastle gun and helped to pass up ammunition.
He got hit on the head and thigh, and was carried out of the ship in a stretcher a week after he joined us, almost to the minute.
The events of this night, although we were the only ship hit - stand out in my memory. I cannot easily explain why, but it appeared to me at the time as peculiarly awe-inspiring and terror-striking. I do not admit fear; we got inured to that sort of feeling - at least, I did, and my outlook was decidedly fatalistic.
To illustrate how easily ships were sunk, I'll give the following instance. We were a large convoy bound for Holland. It was August 15th, 1918, and our pay-day - that's why I remember the day so accurately. The whole flotilla was out escorting them.
The weather was fine and the sea like a millpond. About 11.3O a.m. I thought to go in for my dinner, as I was due on watch at noon. I casually looked across to the destroyers on the other side of the merchantmen and saw a cloud of water ascend in the air near a destroyer; shortly afterwards, only a few minutes, her bow went up in the air, and she slid, stern first, under the water.
Before she sank the Scott had gone alongside and taken off survivors. Suddenly she began to settle down, and in about ten minutes she had gone. The two ships were hit and sunk in a quarter of an hour. The Ullswater was the name of the first one hit. The marvel of it was that no one seemed disturbed or upset. We were two ships short, that's all.
The remainder of us carried on, the merchantmen on a steady course, and us with our zigzagging. Although I witnessed in broad daylight the sinking of these ships, at a distance of not more than two miles away, I did not know then, nor do I know now, what it was that sunk them, whether mine or torpedo. Such is modern war at sea.
J. Willey's war service
was prefaced by 2.5 years in the Persian Gulf under semi-active service
conditions in H.M.S. Fox. During the first few months of war this ship
patrolled trade routes, captured merchant vessels, convoyed troops to
British East Africa, and the Indian Expeditionary Force half-way across the
After a period on East Coast of Africa was sent to hospital (Mombasa), with beriberi. Invalided to England about the beginning of February 1915. After a period at the Torpedo School, Devonport, sent to H.M.S. Melpomene, and stationed at Harwich, under Commodore Tyrwhitt.
Remained in the Melpomene until January 1917. Then served until the end of the War in H.M S. Satyr, patrolling, mine-sinking, etc.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
A "dogfight" signified air combat at close quarters.
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