Nick Everard, aboard the destroyer Harbinger, escorts a slow convoy through dangerous seas—the haunt of the ferocious U-boat packs, and the convoy is too vulnerable to pass up—at least that's what the Allies hope, for Everard and his ships are bait designed to distract the Germans from the real "Torch" invasion forces.
About the Author
Alexander Fullerton served with distinction as a submarine officer in the British Royal Navy during WWII. One of the foremost authors of modern naval fiction, he has written many novels, including the six-volume Nicholas Everard WWII Saga.
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The Torch Bearers
By Alexander Fullerton
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1983 Alexander Fullerton
All rights reserved.
5 September 1942:
Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt: We agree ... We have plenty of troops highly trained for landings. If convenient they can wear your uniform. They will be proud to do so. Shipping will be all right ...
President Roosevelt to Prime Minister Churchill, same day: Hurrah!
Winston Churchill to President Roosevelt: OK, full blast.
But meanwhile, here in mid-Atlantic this was the war — even if plans were being made elsewhere to change it drastically ... Harbinger fighting like a game fish as she lurched round to starboard across howling wind and whitened sea, her stem pointing at black night sky as she climbed, screws deep and thrusting, her frames jolting, loud with a thousand rattles and the creak of straining high-tension steel: steadying on the new course, she was on a crest, poised for a long moment over the abyss and then abruptly committed to the downward plunge, bow digging into black sea to scoop up a few tons of it and toss it back on to the heads of the men in her bridge. Nick Everard heard the yell of "Course one-three-five, sir!" and at the same time a ring of the bell from the HF/DF office: through the voice-pipe he took Gritten's report, "Three of 'em out there now, sir — one-three-five, one-six-oh, one-seven-eight!"
Three U-boats — talking their heads off, and Petty Officer Telegraphist Archie Gritten listening to every word. Which was what HF/DF was for. The letters stood for high-frequency direction-finding: and an expert operator like Gritten could distinguish one U-boat from another, could deduce all sorts of things from the bursts of dots and dashes ... Bruce — a destroyer Nick was ordering out to starboard with him — had been stationed on the convoy's port quarter; Watchful had already started out from her position on the bow, when she'd been the first to detect a U-boat surfaced and in contact. One had been shadowing all day, and there were at least four out there now, all in touch with the convoy and talking about it, arranging their tactics for the night's assault and probably also calling others, homing them in on this fat, slow-moving target. CPO Bearcroft had finished passing the order to Bruce — over the radio-telephone system known as TBS, talk-between-ships — but Nick guessed that Bruce would already have been moving in this direction across the convoy's rear, coming over towards the centre to cover the area that Harbinger had left unguarded. Only a minimal amount of signalling was necessary between captains who'd sailed together long enough to know without having to be told what was expected of them in this or that circumstance. Like a football team of forwards and halfbacks, the four destroyers as forwards and the six corvettes as a close defensive screen. Destroyers had to be the strikers, since they had the speed which the tubby, hard-rolling corvettes lacked.
Siren — a banshee wailing out of the blackness to leeward: it was the convoy commodore ordering an emergency turn to port. Swinging his mass of ships — a rectangular formation five miles wide and a mile and a half deep — forty degrees away from the threat on this side. There were thirty-seven ships now: three had been lost last night and one the night before. One Norwegian, two British, one Dutch. Things were hotting up again; after a comparatively quiet summer the U-boats were back in mid-Atlantic. Tonight and tomorrow night, Nick guessed, would be the worst: after that the convoy would be nosing into range of air patrols from UK bases.
"Anything near us?"
"Iris, three thousand yards abeam to port, sir. Watchful's well clear on the bow."
Iris was number two in the starboard-side screen: she'd be turning to port now with the convoy. The convoy would be on the RDF screen too, of course — part of it would — only young Carlish, Harbinger's junior sub-lieutenant, hadn't bothered to mention it. He had an eyepiece slot, like the peep-hole of a "what-the-butler-saw" machine except it looked directly downwards, above the radar (still called RDF) and the navigational plotting table. The hope and intention now was to locate the lurking enemies and get out at them before they could put in their attacks: at the least you'd force them to dive, put them down where they were blind and slow-moving, while the convoy lumbered away out of danger. This was the object of the strikers — to break up an assault before it could develop, and ideally of course to draw blood in the process.
And this group had proved it could draw blood ...
Radio telephone crackling: it was bringing in a report from Watchful: "In contact, attacking!"
"RDF contact bearing one-three-one, range four thousand three hundred."
"Come to one-three-one, Sub!"
You had to scream, pitch the voice right up over wind, sea and ship noise. Four thousand, three hundred yards was only a little over two miles, very short range at which to have picked up an enemy: he'd be trimmed right down, hiding in the waves ... But in this sea? Nick heard Chubb, the Australian sub-lieutenant whose action duty was to conn the ship under his — Nick's — orders, yelling down to the wheelhouse for that small change of course. And Tony Graves, his first lieutenant and asdic expert, speaking on the telephone to the depth-charge crew aft, ordering them to put on shallow depth settings and stand by. You'd want the charges to explode close to the surface, because Harbinger was charging her target now, flinging herself like a lance across angry, resistant sea: the U-boat would dive, or would be diving, when she reached it, but it wouldn't have got far under.
"B gun with starshell, load, load, load!"
Matt Warrimer, gunnery officer: he was an RNVR lieutenant, formerly in insurance. Using B gun because A, the one down on the foc'sl, wasn't workable in this weather: men would have been swept away, drowned ... Even on B gun's raised deck the gun's crew would be soaked and in constant danger of being flung overboard. Besides which, gunnery wasn't likely to be effective in such weather, particularly as Harbinger had no director-sight or fire-control system other than that telephone to the sightsetters. Nick heard Warrimer warning the crew of the point-five machine-guns to stand by. Nick with his binoculars up, his body jammed for stability into the port forward corner of the bridge, between the corner and his long-legged wooden seat: attempting the impossible, namely to search the black wilderness ahead and simultaneously keep the front lenses of the glasses dry ... "Range and bearing now?"
"Three thousand two hundred, one-two-six, sir!"
"Come to one-two-oh degrees, pilot."
The change in the U-boat's bearing indicated that it was moving quite fast towards the convoy, across Harbinger's bow from right to left, a mile and a half distant through that wet darkness ... Muffled booming of far-off explosions would be depthcharges from Watchful: and they might put Harbinger's U-boat down too, if its captain frightened easily. Once he was down, he'd be safe, because asdics wouldn't be worth a damn in these conditions. In any case the primary object would have been achieved, in that the immediate threat from this quarter would have been blocked: a killing would be jam on the bread-and-butter but you wouldn't hang about out here, having forced the bastards down you'd nip back to guard the convoy and counter other threats as they developed. And if Bruce didn't pipe up with an RDF contact soon, Nick decided, he'd send her back into station too: following the convoy's emergency alteration to port, the two HF/DF contacts on those after bearings would have been left pretty well astern.
"Course one-two-oh, sir."
Steve Chubb had his arms wrapped round the binnacle, clinging to it as the ship flung over ...
"Bearing one-two-four, range two thousand one hundred, sir."
One mile now was all that separated them from the U-boat. And it was still on the surface, cool enough or determined enough not to have been deterred by the charges Watchful had dropped. The surface in this weather would be a decidedly uncomfortable place for a U-boat, Nick guessed; and if he had the slightest chance, he'd make it a lot more uncomfortable for this one. He decided he'd let Bruce carry on a bit longer, make certain the other pair had dived ... "Range and bearing?"
"One thousand six hundred yards, bearing one-two-two, sir."
CPO Bearcroft was acknowledging a message from Watchful: she was returning to her station on the convoy.
"Try a starshell, sir?"
Warrimer, beside Nick in the pandemonium of wind, sea and bucking, gyrating ship. Tall, stooping, oilskins gleaming wet, long arms and legs spread spiderlike for support ... Nick told him no, not yet. One good thing about this rough sea was that the U-boat might not see the destroyer approaching until she was really very close: the Germans did not have RDF in their submarines ... He yelled at the departing Warrimer, "Load X gun with SAP!" He'd been drying the front lenses of his glasses: he put them up again now, calling for another range and bearing.
"One thousand yards, bears one-two-one, sir."
"Steer one-one-eight ..."
Warrimer was on the telephone to X gun, the one on the raised deck aft. There was no Y gun: that quarterdeck mounting had been removed to make way for a bigger outfit of depthcharges. X gun wouldn't bear, of course, couldn't be brought into action until Harbinger had run over her target and turned. Graves was telling the team aft, over the depth-charge telephone, "Half a mile to go. On your toes, all of you!" They'd need to be: seas were breaking right over the iron deck, the ship's low midships section, and thundering aft in floods that would have swept any unwary sailor away to watery oblivion. The old seamen's phrase "one hand for the ship and one for yourself" had to be the rule, in a sea like this, and often enough you needed both hands for yourself.
"Right ahead, seven hundred yards, sir!"
But still invisible ...
The harsh cracking explosion of it, just down below the bridge's forefront, whipped back on the wind with a familiar whiff of cordite. Warrimer squawking like an old crow into the telephone, "With SAP, load, load, load!" SAP stood for semi-armour-piercing. He added, talking to the sightsetter who'd be wearing headphones and yelling it all to the gunlayer and trainer in there against the shield, "Target will be right ahead, about six hundred yards!" Nick took the glasses away from his eyes, waited for the shell to burst: as it did, now, a spark like the splutter of a match and then the brilliant, magnesium-white flare hanging under black wind-driven cloud.
And there — as she hung on a crest, bow beginning to fall away under their feet ...
"B gun target!"
A gleam of black, the shape of a conning-tower and the shiny silver of a U-boat's long forecasing jutting as it pitched across white piling sea: the gun had fired, and then there was nothing to see but water, wave-slopes, as Harbinger drove down into the trough. Shaking herself free, bow coming up, listing to starboard as she climbed, Nick yelling to Chubb to come five degrees to port: the gun had fired again in that instant but the flare was sinking seaward and he'd lost sight of the U-boat ... then he had it again, the conning-tower's upper edge tipping forward as the German dived, two hundred yards ahead and fine to starboard. B gun let rip again, but there was no hope at all of spotting the fall of shot to correct the aim, and in any case with so much motion on her it was hit or miss and a hundred to one against a hit ... There'd been a call on the TBS: Bearcroft was answering it, getting a rapid, crackly gabble inaudible from this side in so much racket. Warrimer was ordering B gun to cease fire, since his target had now vanished — with about a hundred yards still between them. That TBS call might be Bruce turning back to rejoin the convoy, Nick guessed. "Come three degrees to port."
For more aim-off, to allow for the time that would elapse between dropping the charges and their pistols filling to explode them. In that interval the U-boat would still be travelling left, he guessed, because attempting to alter course in the act of diving would slow him, virtually halt him in one patch of water, and his dive would as likely as not be hampered anyway by the amount of turbulence near the surface. It was a reasonable bet he'd maintain his present course, and just concentrate on getting under.
Graves — talking to his depth-charge team again, a group presided over by Barty Timberlake, the torpedo gunner. Harbinger in imminent danger of breaking her back as she crashed her bow down into another yawning trough ... A destroyer's long, slim hull wasn't designed for this kind of work: the corvettes were slow and cramped and they rolled like hell but they were a good shape for the Atlantic, they'd buck around and stand on their ears but they'd always finish the right way up — which, in the case of a herring-gutted destroyer, in this kind of weather, didn't always look so certain.
Coming up to the spot where the U-boat had disappeared. Now.
Graves pressed the depth-charge buzzer, and at the same time ordered over the intercom, "Fire one!" Sending the first charges rolling out of the stern chutes: 750 lb cannisters of high-explosive ... Graves shouting, "Fire two ... Fire three!" The cannisters would be splashing out from the quarterdeck chutes while others were flung from the throwers, lobbing high on each side of the ship and projected forward by the impetus of her forward motion, Timberlake seeing to it that the throwers fired at a moment when she was on an even keel. Between the savage rolls, there were such moments, en passant. Then another pair of charges would roll out of the chutes to sink midway between the two from the throwers, making the centre of the diamond-shaped pattern: and finally there'd be a last one to complete it. Harbinger thrashing on ...
Astern, the sea lifted in muffled thunder. Set shallow, the surface upheaval from these charges was bigger than it would be from deep ones. Deep-set charges produced only mounds of sea, but these were like great trees of foam towering white in the dark astern, spray pluming and scattering like heavy rain. Somewhere down there, under a lot of water, the crashes of the explosions would be deafening, terrifying: but you needed to place a depthcharge within twenty feet of the U-boat's hull to be sure of killing.
Nick had his glasses up, looking aft. So had quite a few others: a lookout on each side, and Graves, Chubb, Warrimer — all of them braced hard against solid fittings or the bridge's side, to stay upright and yet have hands free ... Nick told Carlish, "Watch the PPI, Sub." The letters stood for Plan Position Indicator and referred to the new type of RDF screen, which resembled a large poached egg — orange centre, white surround ... If the U-boat surfaced — either by being blown to the surface, or so damaged that it might have no other choice — you might get it on the RDF screen before you saw it, in this weather and the darkness. Harbinger, under helm and flinging herself around, a motion more erratic than any roller-coaster in a fairground, was swinging her stern across the direction of wind and sea, and the men working back aft would need to watch out for her being "pooped" — for a big one overtaking, swamping over from astern ...
"Hang on, Chief ... Sub, what were we steering?"
"Steer three-oh-oh degrees." He turned his streaming face back to the dark shape that was his chief yeoman of signals. "Yes, Chief?" "Goshawk reported RDF contact on oh-oh-five, sir, and she was going after it."
Excerpted from The Torch Bearers by Alexander Fullerton. Copyright © 1983 Alexander Fullerton. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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