Malta 1941. To most people HMS Saracen is just an ugly, obsolete ship with an equally ugly recent history: her last commander is due for court-martial after shelling the troops he was sent to protect. But to Captain Richard Chesnaye she brings back memories—memories of the First World War when he and the old monitor went through the Gallipoli campaign together. It seems that captain and ship are both past their best. But as the war enters a new phase, Chesnaye senses the possibility of a fresh, significant role—for him and the Saracen.
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By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1965 Douglas Reeman
All rights reserved.
In fierce short gusts the bitter north wind swept across the wide confines of Portsmouth harbour, the ranks of wavelets made by the incoming tide crumbling into white confusion at each successive blast. In the narrow entrance to the harbour itself the sea boiled in a trapped maelstrom and leapt violently against the weathered stones at the foot of the old Fort Blockhouse before being shredded by the wind and flung back into the pressing tideway. It was as if winter was still unwilling to release its grip and accept that with the coming of March it too would have to relent.
The sky was high and without colour or warmth, yet its clear emptiness seemed to turn the water below to an angry pewter which reflected against the tall sides of the moored battleships, the pitching, uneasy trots of torpedo-boat destroyers and the countless grey craft which thronged the naval anchorage and waited for the gale to ease.
There was little movement of small craft, and apart from a fat paddle-wheeled tug, with its yawing tow of loaded coal-tenders, the normally busy concourse was deserted. For although Britain was at war, and had been for seven confused months, this was Sunday forenoon, and aboard every pitching ship the church pennant was hoisted, and somewhere within each glistening hull, or hidden below the spray-dappled superstructures, some thousands of men listened automatically to the words of Peace and Love.
Richard Chesnaye ducked his head into a sharp gust of wind and pushed his way gratefully into the small green-painted hut at the top of a flight of worn stone steps which ran down to the water's edge. The hut was empty, and smelled of damp and stale cigarette smoke. Through the stained windows he could see the distorted shapes of the ships, the streaming white ensigns and the vast grey panorama of power and lordly indifference.
He was tall for his seventeen years, yet his steady grey eyes reflected some of the growing apprehension he felt as he stared across the dancing whitecaps towards his first ship. Even his new midshipman's uniform seemed to scream a contrast with the flaked walls of the hut and the worn, scrubbed benches where generations of naval officers had waited for boats to ferry them back to their ships. After a thick night ashore, perhaps, dazed, irritable, but with the dulled satisfaction always enjoyed by an unfettered sailor. Or perhaps to face a court martial. Richard Chesnaye's mouth turned down slightly. Or, like himself, to join a new world. Across that strip of water anything might be waiting. It was 1915, and the war had not ended in six months as the newspapers had prophesied, and as far as he could understand it was only just beginning.
He took off his cap and shook the spray absently across the floor. His hair was dark and curled rebelliously across his left forehead, helping to defeat the sensitive gravity of his features.
It was still hard to believe he was actually here and that at any moment a boat would appear, presumably at the foot of these famous King's Stairs, and carry him forward into a new way of life.
After months of training, lectures, drills and frustration he was ready. He wondered briefly what had become of all the other cadets he had known, who, as midshipmen like himself, were even now spreading throughout the Grand Fleet and beyond. He thought too of the long battle he had fought to stay level with many of those contemporaries. Not with the mysteries of seamanship and navigation, nor with the complex cult of tradition and ceremonial — as the last of a long line of naval officers Chesnaye had hardly noticed the latter — but with a tiny allowance from home he had faced the daily, even hourly, problem of keeping pace with the financially blessed and more privileged young men who fretted to complete their training and get to sea before the war ended.
Some oilskinned seamen trudged past the window, their bearded faces bowed to the wind. All at once Chesnaye wanted to call out to them, to show them he was there. One of them. He smiled quickly at the impulse and watched the burly figures until they were lost amongst the maze of derricks and equipment which seemed to litter the whole of Portsmouth dockyard.
As he had followed the seaman who had carried his tin trunk, Chesnaye had stared at every ship, half expectantly, half fearfully, as he strode to meet his latest challenge. But HMS Saracen was lying out in the stream, clean and untouched by the land, indifferent to the unimportant individuals who struggled to serve her.
At first Chesnaye had received his orders to join the Saracen with mixed feelings. As some of his friends had danced excitedly at the prospect of joining a dashing torpedo-boat destroyer or one of the hard-worked North Sea cruisers, he had stared at his appointment instructions with something like bewilderment. Unlike the bulk of the Fleet, the Saracen was very new, hardly older than the war itself. In addition, she was one of a fresh breed. A monitor. In every war hard experience and different conditions gave birth to new types of ships and strategies. From galleys and fire-ships to bombs and river gunboats. Wherever the tide of battle rose, so too did the requirements of the Royal Navy. After years of undisputed power and prosperity the challenge had come again, and like the waspish submarines which sheltered behind Fort Blockhouse so too the monitors were coming into their own. This war would be fought with great armies, perhaps the biggest land forces the world had ever known, but while they faced the field-grey masses on the Western Front the Navy would be stretched to the limit to sustain them. One of Chesnaye's instructors had received his questions with contempt.
"A monitor? A bastard-ship! Neither one thing nor the other!"
Chesnaye squinted his eyes to stare at the tall shape outlined against the dull slate-roofed shambles of Gosport town.
The Saracen was certainly an unusual-looking ship. Although she boasted nearly seven thousand tons, as much as many a cruiser, her length was little more than one of the larger destroyers. Yet if her length was puny she gave the impression of tremendous strength, even belligerence. As the instructor had also pointed out, she had been designed primarily for giving artillery support to land forces. Even a landsman would appreciate this point after only one glance. Dominating all else, and behind which the towering bridge and sturdy tripod mast looked almost incidental, two enormous fifteen-inch guns, mounted in one raised turret, pointed across the harbour like the tusks of some armoured monster. To support these great weapons the ship's designers had substituted breadth for length, and the Saracen's ninety-foot beam added to her appearance of ponderous indestructibility.
A small black shape detached itself from the monitor's side and began to curtsy across the disordered whitecaps. The bleak light reflected dully on the picket boat's brass funnel, and Chesnaye could see a seaman already in her bows with a boathook as the sturdy little craft turned in a wide arc towards King's Stairs. They were coming for him.
Chesnaye stepped out into the wind once more, suddenly aware of hunger pangs, a sure sign of growing nervousness. The boat surged alongside the piles, the boathook already pulling at the slime-coated chains. There was an alarming clamour of bells and the boat's propeller threw up a great froth under the stern as the engine went astern.
All at once the boat was secured and Chesnaye was aware that the small midshipman who had been at the wheel, and jerking violently at the telegraph, was staring up at him, his pale eyes strained and impatient.
"Chesnaye?" His voice was shrill and added to the impression of extreme youth. "Well, get aboard, for God's sake! No use waiting for a damned fanfare!"
Chesnaye smothered a grin and felt his way down the steep steps, the tin box grinding down dangerously against his legs.
After the spartan precision of the training ship he was used to entering and leaving boats, nevertheless he felt slightly irritated that not even one of the boat's two seamen attempted to offer him a hand.
The midshipman nodded quickly. "Right, Morrison, let go forrard!" He jerked at the telegraph and glanced up at the dockyard clock. "God, three minutes adrift already!" He shouted at the seaman in the bows: "Bear off forrard! Watch that paintwork!" But already the boat was swinging away into the tide, the hull trembling and shaking as the engine turned at full power.
The midshipman swung the brass wheel and took a quick breath. "Sorry about the rush. My name's Pickles." His innocent features darkened into a scowl. "And I don't want any funny remarks!"
Chesnaye grinned and gripped the rail by the small open cockpit. "Why the rush? Are we putting to sea immediately?"
Pickles grimaced. "Rush? Everything is done like this! Right now there'll be at least two telescopes trained on this boat, and all hell will explode if I take longer than the prescribed time!"
"But suppose I had been delayed, or late?" Chesnaye watched the short figure by the wheel shiver.
"The day you're late you'll know the answer to that one!" Pickles laughed nervously, "I expect you think your training days are over, eh? Well, believe me, you haven't seen anything yet!"
Chesnaye shrugged his shoulders deeper into his greatcoat and decided not to speak further. Pickles had obviously not been aboard the Saracen much longer than his own appointment. It was the usual game which "old hands" played with new arrivals. Or was it? Every move which the boy made seemed charged with urgency and anxiety.
Chesnaye turned his attention to the monitor, which had suddenly loomed from indistinct distance to stark and frightening reality.
She towered above the vibrating picket boat so that he could see the twin turret as well as the battery of small four-inch guns abaft the bridge structure and all the hundred and one other details which crowded the upper deck. There was only one funnel, just aft of the great tripod mast, and a certain nakedness towards the stern, as if to compensate for the ship's great weight of armament and equipment. No black smoke belched from the funnel, and Chesnaye remembered for the first time that this ship would at least spare him the agony of coaling. The Saracen was modern to the last rivet, and she was oil-fired.
He glanced again at his companion. Pickles was without oilskin or bridgecoat, and the front of his shirt was grey with salt spray. Between his teeth he gripped the lanyard of a whistle which he wore about his neck, and he spoke through the cord in sharp staccato sentences as he mentally prejudged the business of getting the forty-foot steamboat alongside.
It would not be easy, either, Chesnaye decided. He had already noticed the curious way in which the monitor's hull bulged as it touched the water. All along the waterline it was swollen outwards like the ballast tanks of a submarine.
Pickles tore his eyes from the water for a moment and stared at him. "Anti-torpedo bulges! They're an experiment!" He nodded towards the monitor's waterline. "She's so damned slow we need 'em!" He started to smile and then checked himself. "But you won't say I said that, will you?"
Before Chesnaye could answer he was already jerking at the bell, and the boat shuddered violently as the propeller went astern and slewed the boat dangerously into the lee of the monitor's tall side where a gleaming varnished gangway and grating hung suspended above the water. High above, silhouetted against the pale sky, a lieutenant in frock-coat and sword-belt peered down at them.
The bowman aimed at the chains and missed.
The bell jangled once more and the little boat surged ahead, the stem yawing violently in the racing tide.
Through the lanyard and his gritted teeth Pickles exclaimed, "God Almighty!" Then in a louder voice, "Morrison, hook on, for Pete's sake!"
The big seaman shrugged and took another swing. The hook connected, and seconds later a tugging bowline held the boat temporarily secured.
A thin voice floated from above. "Tie up at the boom!" There was the briefest pause. "Then report to me, Mister Pickles." Another pause while Chesnaye stared at the anguish on the midshipman's face. "A bloody awful exhibition!"
A seaman scurried down the gangway and picked the tin trunk from the cockpit. There was a silence but for the chafe of boat fenders and the unbroken ripple of water, and Chesnaye found himself on the great ladder and making his way upwards, towards the voice.
As his head drew level with the deck he braced himself once more, painfully aware of his heart pumping against his ribs. The quarterdeck seemed vast and vaguely hostile. In a quick glance he took in the gleaming expanse of scrubbed teak planking which curved inwards towards the rounded stern above which a giant ensign streamed stiffly in the wind. Everything looked new and perfect. Even the sideboys, whose wind-reddened faces were watching him without expression, wore white gloves, and the marine sentry, quartermaster and the rest of the gangway staff looked as if they had just been issued with fresh equipment and clothing.
Chesnaye saluted the quarterdeck and the tall, reed-thin figure of the Officer of the Day, the lieutenant whose querulous voice had already greeted his arrival.
Lieutenant Hogarth blinked his salt-reddened eyes and glared at the midshipman. "So you're Chesnaye," he said at length. As he spoke he opened and closed his long telescope with quick nervous jerks. "I'll have you taken to your berth and then you can report to the Commander." He craned his thin neck towards the silent group at the gangway. "Bosun's Mate, have this officer's gear taken below and then show him to the wardroom!" His sharp voice followed the man along the immaculate deck. "And tell Mister Pickles I want him at the double!" Half to himself he added: "Damned snotties! Couldn't handle a damned boat to save his damned neck!"
Chesnaye thought of the frantic dash across the harbour. "I thought he did it rather well, sir."
Hogarth's jaw opened and shut in time to the telescope. "You what? When I require the opinion of a bloody midshipman I'll ask for it!" In a more controlled tone he added: "I am the Gunnery Officer here. I am the one man in this ship who is of supreme importance!" He gestured vaguely towards the hidden guns. "They are my responsibility. Without them this ship might well not have been built!"
Chesnaye almost laughed aloud, but controlled the mad impulse as he saw the wild sincerity in the officer's eyes. "I see, sir," he said carefully.
"Yes indeed!" Hogarth spoke to the quarterdeck at large. "The primary object of the vessel is to knock hell out of the enemy. With my guidance we have done and will do just that!"
Chesnaye saluted and turned to follow the fast disappearing shape of the Bosun's Mate.
Hogarth added sharply, "Do you play bridge, by the way?"
Chesnaye could not hide his grin this time, but Hogarth was fortunately staring through the telescope at a passing sloop. "No, sir."
"Hmmm, just as I thought. The very bottom of the barrel!"
As he strode uncertainly along the maindeck beneath the slim barrels of the secondary armament Chesnaye almost collided with the returning Pickles. The latter skidded to a halt, his face glistening with sweat.
"Did you meet him?"
Chesnaye nodded. There was something both endearing and pathetic about this small midshipman. "Yes. I did. I didn't know how I was expected to react!"
Pickles grinned nervously. "Mad. Quite mad. But then they're all getting like that here!"
"He was saying something about his gunnery —"
Pickles waved his grubby hands. "Hopeless! Apart from trials and a quick shot at the Belgian coast we've not done a thing yet. Even then we missed the target! The Captain's been giving Hogarth hell!"
"I've got to report to the Commander next."
Pickles shrugged. "He's all right. But the Captain's straight out of Dickens! Hates everybody, especially midshipmen!"
Hogarth's voice screeched along the deck with the wind. "Mister Pickles! At the double, I said!"
Chesnaye found himself two decks down, breathless and completely lost, and standing in semi-darkness beside an open steel door.
The Bosun's Mate gestured indifferently. "Gunroom. All the young gentlemen mess in there."
Excerpted from HMS Saracen by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1965 Douglas Reeman. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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