Small, quick-moving torpedo boats played a vital role in protecting the Allied convoys in the English Channel and the North Sea during World War II, and Sub-Lieutenant Clive Royce is newly assigned to MTB 1991, joining a crew already seasoned by death and fear. Now it is up to him to take the place of their dead first lieutenant and earn the respect of his captain and crewmates.
About the Author
Douglas Edward Reeman, who also writes under the name Alexander Kent, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. As Alexander Kent, Reeman is the author of the best-selling Richard Bolitho Novels. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
Read an Excerpt
A Prayer for the Ship
By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1958 Douglas Reeman
All rights reserved.
The whole of the naval anchorage seemed subdued and cowed by the relentless, sleety rain which drove across the estuary, whipping the grey waves into a turbulent, white-capped frenzy. As the wind moaned through the mean little streets around the port, and swept the soaking jetties, the various ships-of-war strained and tugged at their cables and wires, while huddled figures in glistening oilskins sought cover and protection behind the gun-shields or flapping canvas dodgers. Across and beyond the boom-gate, a few barrage balloons plunged and staggered like drunken whales, as their cursing crews somewhere in the muddy fields fought with the creaking moorings. The sea itself looked even greyer than usual, and it was difficult to discern the break with the racing clouds which was the horizon, where a lone trawler fought into the teeth of the gale, one minute hidden by the steep, jagged waves, and the next instant showing her streaming keel, more concerned with staying afloat than listening for a prowling U-boat.
The tall, rust-streaked sides of the Coastal Forces Depot Ship Royston shuddered as the gale punched her, but she remained the steadiest vessel in the harbour, her cables fore and aft stretched bar-taut, and her deck-planking patterned with little humps of blown salt. Her charges, Motor Torpedo Boats and Motor Gunboats, were strung in uncomfortable trios around her, banging and lurching together, rope fend-ers and old motor tyres doing their best to ease the jolting motion. Up on the main deck, the Quartermaster peered out towards the railway wharf, and cursed unsympathetically at the ship's motor-boat which had just left the shelter of the wall, and was bounding over the stream towards him. He saw the Coxswain lift his hand in a half-hearted sign and then withdraw into the tiny wheelhouse.
The Quartermaster turned to the other figure sharing his vigil, the Officer-of-the-Day, who was endeavouring to read a signal, already soggy with rain, in the shelter of his oilskin. "Motor-boat returning, sir," he yelled. "One officer aboard."
Lieutenant Pike waved the tattered signal in acknowledgement. "Turn out the Duty Watch, I am going to bring the boat aboard, no more trips today."
As the Quartermaster pulled out his silver call and switched on the Tannoy microphone, Pike watched with narrowed eyes as the motor-boat swung up to the main gangway and hooked on with its usual precision. His glance shifted to the nearest Motor Torpedo Boat, the only one showing a sign of life, as a handful of the Depot Ship's maintenance party scurried round repairing and replacing the scars of a running battle two nights before, when the young First Lieutenant had been killed, as so many had been from this flotilla.
As usual the replacement was arriving in the motor-boat. Pike returned the salute of the slim officer who stepped over the gangway, his too-new greatcoat gleaming with rain.
"Sub-Lieutenant Clive Royce, come aboard to join," he shouted.
They shook hands, and Pike ushered him to the first doorway, while two disgruntled members of the Duty Watch collected the baggage of the latest arrival.
"Go below to the wardroom," said Pike. "The Commander is in there at the moment and he'll want to see you right away."
Royce nodded, and stepped into the passageway. Immediately, the sounds of the storm were muffled, and a feeling of security surrounded him. He stripped off his greatcoat and cap, straightened his uniform, and had a quick glance in the mirror outside the old-fashioned door marked "Wardroom." He had a pleasant face, with eager, grey eyes, and a firm but generous mouth. His hair, now flattened by cap and rain, was dark almost to the point of being black. Taking a deep breath, Royce slid the door to one side and stepped in. The wardroom had once been the first-class saloon in the old ship's early days as a small passenger and cargo vessel, and had a prosperous, rather Edwardian look about it. The sides and deckhead were oak-panelled and carved in ornate designs, and a long, polished bar completely lined one end. The whole room was littered with dumpy, red-leather chairs and sofas, all well-worn but comfortable looking, and most of them were occupied by youthful officers who lounged about reading magazines, listening to the radio, or just dozing.
A round-faced, cheerful-looking Commander leaned against the bar listening to a serious Lieutenant, who kept pounding the bar as if to emphasize a point that was beyond anyone else's comprehension.
Royce coughed nervously. "I was told to report direct to you, sir. My name is Royce."
"Well now, I'm Commander Wright, and I do all the 'crewing' of the boats here, so I'll get you fixed up right away." He beamed. "And this is your Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Harston, so I'll leave you to get acquainted, while I arrange your orders."
At twenty-three, Harston was already a veteran of the East Coast and Channel warfare, and the first signs of strain were beginning to show on his pale, rather artistic face. Coolly he offered his hand in a surprisingly strong handshake.
When he spoke, it was with a soft, careful deliberation. "I've taken the trouble to look up your particulars in advance, because in this racket we don't seem to find the time as we go along."
He paused while he made a gesture to the barman with his glass, which was ignored in favour of two elderly officers at the other end of the bar.
With a shrug, he continued, "Terrible service here. Now, let me see. You're twenty years old, been commissioned three months. Sea experience, three months in an Asdic trawler. You'll probably notice the difference when you find three and a half thousand horsepower under your feet. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe you were beginning to be a marine draughtsman before you joined, any connection?"
"Well, I've always been keen on the sea, small boats, and that sort of thing," finished Royce lamely.
"What you mean is, you haven't a clue, but you're a hardworking boy, and willing to learn. I only pray you get longer to learn than your predecessor," he added grimly.
At the sight of Royce's crestfallen expression, he relented, in fact his whole personality changed, and a warm, friendly grin spread across his face. "Never mind, tomorrow morning I'll take you over the boat, and tomorrow night I'm afraid we go out again. In the meantime, we'll grab this blasted steward and drink to War Savings, or something!"
As that first evening wore on, Royce had plenty of time to study his superior, and to observe his quick, breathtaking changes of mood and manner. He would re-tell some of his experiences in the flotilla on the East Coast convoy routes, or the mad dashes through the night with the enemy coast only a few yards abeam, telling how and why each operation was a success or a failure, speaking in his soft, precise voice, his blue eyes distant and apparently unseeing, then with a jerk, he would become a boy again, as he recounted incidents like the occasion when he and his friends stole a fire-engine and drove it madly round the town, hotly pursued by the military police. He lay back in his chair and gave his queer, high-pitched laugh. "There was hell to pay over that. But they never caught us. In fact, old Benjy over there has still got a hose in his cabin."
Every so often he introduced Royce to his new team-mates, as they drifted in and out of the bar, and he appeared satisfied with the way that he answered the very mixed selection who made up the flotilla's Commanding Officers. There was Ronnie Patterson, a young, red-faced north countryman, whose language was apt to appal strangers, but who was obviously a great favourite with everybody. Artie Emberson had been a barrister, and looked it. When he spoke in his drawling voice to the steward on the question of drinks, it sounded as if he was questioning a rather dumb witness. "Benjy" Watson was the inevitable practical joker, who had missed many a court-martial by sheer good luck — the last occasion being when he dressed in a captured German officer's uniform and went to a local cinema. His pointed, pink face split into a beaming smile as he re-told the story.
"Not a blessed soul took any notice of me," he roared, "and if I hadn't given a Nazi salute when I passed two army types, it would all have been a waste of a run ashore!"
Jock Murray was another whom Royce liked instantly. A small, hard-faced ex-fisherman from Aberdeen, whose family had been trawling the North Sea for generations, he was a man of few words and only one interest, the sea.
One thing they all had in common, they were old before their time, aged by experiences that Royce could only guess at, and imagine.
When the bar-shutters fell with a bang that brought a roar of protests, Royce floated, rather than walked, down to the tiny, box-like cabin which was to be his home while in harbour. A newly cleaned and emptied place, where his predecessor had once slept and thought and hoped, and although only dead 48 hours, the last of his earthly traces had already been swept away.
So Clive Royce went to war, and with the relentless rain lashing the side of his cabin, he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Royce's first morning with the One Hundred and Thirteenth Flotilla dawned fresh and clear, the gale had blown itself out during the night, and only the smell of damp oilskins and a few puddles on the canvas awnings gave a hint of the torrential rain. The whole harbour bustled with activity, as if to make up for a lost day, and as motor-boats and harbour launches scurried to and fro between their parent vessels, ships' companies and base staff got down to the daily business of preparing their charges for sea.
As he swung himself down the catwalk from the Depot Ship on to the first M.T.B., Royce was aglow and eager to start, inspired perhaps by the easy confidence of the other officers at breakfast, plus a somewhat ponderous speech delivered by the base Operations Officer about the "nation depending upon these young men in its hour of need," while Royce shifted impatiently at the top of the gangway. Ah, there she was! Low, grey, and sleek, Number 1991 painted in large numbers on her bow, her decks crammed with overalled figures, one of whom straightened and saluted. A short, chubby, little man, with a battered Petty Officer's cap tilted rakishly over unruly ginger hair, he put down an enormous wrench.
"Petty Officer Raikes, sir, Cox'n. I expect you'll be the new officer?" He had a faint Liverpool accent, and seemed amused by Royce's immaculate uniform. "The Captain's aft at the moment, sir, I think he's expecting you."
Was there a hint of sarcasm in his voice? Royce couldn't be sure. Perhaps it was the hidden bitterness of a junior professional to a senior amateur.
"Very well, Cox'n," he nodded, and stepped aft. That was it, he thought, be brief and to the point.
He found Harston sitting on a smoke float, deeply engrossed in a conversation with a large man in a bowler hat, the sign of dockyard authority.
Royce smiled, "Reporting for instruction, sir, and a fine morning it is too, after the drenching I got yesterday."
Harston stood up quickly, like a cat: "When I want your views on the weather, I'll let you know," he snapped. "It may interest you to know that I've been here since 6:30, trying to get these repairs finished, and while you no doubt have been indulging in a bit of gossip, and enjoying an excellent breakfast, I've also been arranging your duties for you!"
Royce flushed and stammered, completely taken aback by this unexpected attack. "The Operations Officer stopped me, sir, he was telling ..."
"I'm not interested. If you want to be a big pin in a little ship instead of tea-boy in a battle-wagon, you'll have to get down to it, and forget this barrack routine stuff. We don't start at nine here, with three hours for lunch, we keep going till the job's done, and the job right now is to get this boat ready to go out at 2000 tonight!"
He swung back to the stolid dockyard manager, who had taken a sudden interest in the guard-rails during this tirade.
His voice now sounded heavy and tired: "Righto, Angus, you'll do that for me, then? Bless you." And without a further word, he strode to the catwalk. As he heaved himself over the other M.T.B., he turned and called for the Coxswain.
"Get those men at work on the guns as soon as you can, I don't want any more jamming. And get some overalls for Sub-Lieutenant Royce, and then show him the boat, every bit. I'm going to have breakfast, if there's any left now."
Royce watched him scramble up the ladder and out of sight; he was completely shattered. "Phew, was that the chap who told me last night not to worry," he muttered. "Well, I can see this is going to be just fine."
The portly Angus coughed at his elbow. "I'm off, just got to see about some new bolts, an' that. Now, don't you worry about him, son, he's the best that comes, I've seen a few, too. Trouble is, he's been at it too long. I think the poor bloke's just about had it." And with a heavy thud on the shoulder, he too disappeared.
For the next hour, Royce and the Coxswain crawled and scrambled over every inch of the M.T.B.'s 85 feet, the latter pointing out this and that he felt would be of immediate interest, but reserving his more personal observations until he found out with what sort of an officer he had to deal.
As he confided to the Petty Officer Motor Mechanic, "Pony" Moore, later in the morning over their "tots," "You never know with these Wavy Navy types, some of 'em listen like babes while you try to stop them making fools of themselves, and the next thing you know you're on Defaulters 'cause you haven't done the job to their liking!"
"When will you learn, Tom, all officers are bastards," was Moore's only comment.
Royce did find out, however, that the flotilla was engaged in assisting the two other main East Coast groups operating from Harwich and Yarmouth, with the result that their patrols were more varied and uncertain, and the whole base was kept on a mobile footing.
Eventually they arrived back at the tiny, open bridge. The Coxswain pointed to a speaker in one corner.
"That's our latest bit of gear, sir, an R.T. link between the group. It enables the Senior Officer to get right on to you at once about the form of attack, etc. It's a big help at night, I can tell you, 'specially when you can't use lights, and most likely can't even see the next ahead."
"Have any of the boats got Radar yet?"
"Blimey, no, sir!" laughed Raikes, "there's a queue from Pompey to Benghazi for that lot. The next war'll be over before we even get a smell!" He suddenly tensed, "C.O.'s coming aboard, sir, I'll be off after the guns' crews, the starboard Oerlikon is bloody bad!"
Harston stepped briskly on to the bridge. "How's it going, Number One?" he drawled. "All buttoned up?"
"Yes, sir," said Royce coldly, "I'm trying not to make an ass of myself."
He received a searching glance. "Take it off your back, Number One, we've all got to learn. Now shove off to the Depot Ship and get your issue of special clothing, and then report to the Flotilla Commander's office at eight bells. He likes to meet all his new boys. Before they make asses of themselves," he added drily.
The office was situated in what had been the Purser's room, and he was shown straight in to the presence of Lieutenant-Commander Arnold Paskins, R.N.V.R, ex-author, yachtsman, and mountaineer, and now in command of the flotilla, with twenty skirmishes and two D.S.C.s to his credit. He rose from his desk, littered with signals, serial photographs, and charts, a tall, lanky, but wiry figure, topped by a sharp-featured, well-formed, aristocratic face, with clear, steady eyes.
"Sit down, Royce," he offered. "I thought that it would be only fair for you to get to know as soon as possible the sort of job you've landed in. There's no other branch in the Service where so much responsibility falls on the most junior officers, chaps like yourself, who only a few months ago were at home doing respectable jobs, or going to school, or like me," he grinned, "just enjoying life. I've studied your reports and I'm satisfied with what I've read, so provided the Hun gives you time, there's no reason why you shouldn't make the grade. As you know, we're going out tonight, and if anything goes badly, you might find yourself in command by morning. Could you do it?" Those piercing eyes bored into him.
Excerpted from A Prayer for the Ship by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1958 Douglas Reeman. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Can’t beat Douglas Reeman
An good book dealing with the small boat war that was waged in the English channel. Reeman a veteran of that war captures just what the war was like!