As the grim years of the Second World war go by, the destruction of Allied shipping mounts. Out of the terrible loss of men and ships, the escort carrier is born.
At twenty-six, fighter pilot Tim Rowan, RNVR, is already a veteran of many campaigns. Now he joins the escort carrier, Growler, a posting which takes him first to the bitter waters of the Arctic and all the misery of convoy duty to Murmansk, and then south to the Indian Ocean and the strange new terror of the Japanese Kamikaze.
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By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1975 Douglas Reeman
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1: A Fresh Start
Lieutenant Tim Rowan stood on the side of Gladstone Dock and studied the overhanging bulk of the aircraft carrier with something like apprehension.
Behind and around him the air was filled with all the usual noises, creaking gantrys, a clatter of dockside machinery, and the sloshing footsteps of workers and sailors alike as they bustled through a steady drizzle.
It was mid-July 1943, but this was Liverpool, where it always seemed to rain a great deal, and where war had left too deep a mark for people to think much of past summers.
Tim Rowan was twenty-six, but at this particular moment felt older, less sure of himself. It was often like this when you returned from leave, no matter how short the break, how elusive the ability to relax.
He ran his gaze critically along the newly painted ship's side from the high stem up across her flight deck, past the small, boxlike bridge, the "Island," and aft to where some oilskinned seamen were hosing down wood shavings from emptied crates.
She was not a proper aircraft carrier. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But then the war had gone on for so long that people were able to believe almost anything. Like his parents who slept every night beneath the frail stairs of their house in Surrey. Like the unending intake of naval recruits who accepted a one-time holiday camp as a training base, merely because of its flag and its uniforms, and the fact that they believed it.
Old paddle-steamers which had once plied between Southampton and the Isle of Wight with cheerful holiday makers were now accepted as minesweepers or patrol vessels.
He walked slowly along the carrier's side towards a brow. On the deck stood a solitary lifebuoy on a varnished stand. Even the ship's name, HMS Growler, sounded as if someone at the Admiralty had had to think of it in a hurry. Like the ship.
For Growler had been thrown together without much concern for style or beauty. With several others she had begun life in an American shipyard to become, it was thought, a freighter. Fate, and the desperate need for air cover over the battered and butchered Atlantic convoys, had decided otherwise.
To help plug the breach left by the losses of more gracious carriers early in the war, the conversion from freighter to warship had started. Now, with her flight deck and her blunt, uncompromising lines, there was little left of Growler's original design.
Rowan watched the comings and goings of dockyard men and naval personnel up and down the two steep brows. It was a strange, unnerving feeling. As if he were an onlooker. As if none of these preoccupied-looking men could see him. He shivered inside his raincoat. As if he were dead.
He had been in the Growler, now officially classed as an escort carrier, for three months. Before that he had been in a heavy fleet carrier in the Mediterranean. And before that ... He shook himself from his thoughts, shutting out the jumbled pictures which had made up his life since the outbreak of war.
Places and faces always stood out more than the ships. Norway, the burning ships, the exhausted retreating troops. The Mediterranean and Greece, Crete and beleaguered Malta. It was always an uphill fight. The faces rarely left him. Broad smiles to hide taut nerves. The expressions becoming set and grim, like strangers, as one by one the aircraft had rolled snarling along a carrier's deck, then off towards an horizon. He could barely recall the names of some of them, especially those who had not come back.
In HMS Growler he had discovered an unexpected change. He was no longer a unit in a trained team. From the losses, and the growing requirements in every theatre of war, he had emerged a veteran. It was still hard to grasp. He did not want to accept it. It lessened the odds on living, they said.
They had done two big convoys in the North Atlantic, in the "Gap," as it was termed, that vast seven hundred miles spread of mid-ocean between longitudes thirty and forty degrees west where land-based aircraft could not operate to any purpose from British or American fields. It was for the Gap, and similar areas, that Growler and her consorts were born.
After working up the new ship's company, learning each other's jobs and flying-on her two broods of aircraft, Growler had gone to show her paces in earnest.
An Atlantic convoy, eastbound or westbound, was something to make even the most hardened sailor take notice. Line upon patient line. Tired, rusty freighters, tall, proud grain ships, their histories as varied as the flags they flew against a common enemy. Two enemies, if you counted the Atlantic.
And from the air each convoy was even more inspiring. Soundless and terribly vulnerable when viewed through a racing prop, or a tear in the clouds.
When a ship was suddenly torpedoed it merely seemed to fall away, slowly and gracefully, while the space she had left closed up immediately and her companions of many days sailed on without stopping. Only amongst the lithe, angry escorts was there movement and hate. You could almost feel it from the sky.
Lieutenant Tim Rowan of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, aged twenty-six, had seen it many times. For he was a fighter pilot.
During the last convoy an escorting corvette had hit a mine, a "drifter," and had gone down in seconds. Had she seen and avoided the mine, Growler would most likely have taken her place, as she was close astern of the little escort. But the explosion had given the hull a good shaking, and after completing her patrols Growler had come into Liverpool, the headquarters of Western Approaches, for a quick lick of paint and an inspection to ensure her shaft was in no way damaged. For if she fought as a warship, Growler's lower hull was still that of a freighter. One shaft, one propeller. It was something to think about in a screaming Force Twelve in the Atlantic. Also something she had in common with her overworked aircraft, Rowan thought grimly. One prop between you and the deep blue sea.
He made up his mind and strode towards the brow, from the top of which the quartermaster and gangway sentry had been watching him curiously for some minutes.
Like starting for the first time. Anywhere. A new job. Beginning school. There would be different faces to adjust to, fresh jokes, more irritations and small things which had not bothered you at the beginning.
It was bad luck, everyone had said. He paused, one hand resting on the brow, his senses suddenly very alert and taut. Like wires.
On that last convoy a submarine had been reported on the surface by one of Growler's hardy, two-winged Swordfish aircraft. She had been trailing oil and had not dived when sighted. It meant that the U-boat had probably been damaged in an earlier fight. She could even have been mauled by one of the convoy's own escorts.
Six Swordfish had been flown-off instantly, their crews grinning and giving the usual "thumbs up" at the prospect of doing something definite instead of the endless round of patrols.
The plane which had given the sighting report had fallen silent. It had no doubt gone too near to the U-boat's ack-ack for safety. In thirty minutes after the scramble a blustery gale had lashed into the convoy with unexpected fury.
As dusk had closed around the plodding lines of ships Rowan had stood with his companions on one of the walkways which ran along either side of the flight deck, and despite the wind and bitter rain had waited and watched the blurred horizon. Only when the sea and sky had merged in black shadow did he go below. None of the Swordfish had returned. Lost, out of fuel, blinded by the storm, they had been unable to find their carrier.
Rowan sighed again. Yes, there would be quite a few new faces.
He hurried up towards the side party, raising his hand to the peak of his cap as his feet touched the steel deck. He shivered slightly. That was the trouble with Growler. She was all steel, with not much room for personal comfort. He glanced up. Except the flight deck, which unlike any carrier he had served in, was made of Oregon pine. It helped to ease the vessel's top-hamper apparently. God help them if it caught fire.
He saw the OOD watching him. New face number one.
The officer, a harassed-looking sub-lieutenant, asked irritably, "Name, please?" He was already scanning his lists on the little desk, oblivious to the sentry's grin, the quartermaster's warning frown.
Rowan stripped off his crumpled raincoat.
"Tim Rowan. I belong here."
"Well, I can't be expected to —"
The OOD's gaze darted rapidly from the pilot's wings stitched above the two wavy stripes on Rowan's left sleeve to the blue and white ribbon on his breast.
"I — I'm sorry."
Rowan regarded him calmly. "Not to worry. But take it easy, Sub, or some of the fliers aboard here will have you for breakfast."
He walked into the bowels of the ship, feeling it surrounding him, swallowing him whole. He smiled. Jonah is back.
As usual, and despite the ship being in harbour, there was an air of purpose and activity in the great hangar, the huge expanse of steel, smells and din which ran beneath the flight deck. A few fitters and riggers were stooping and crawling with powerful lights around some of the tethered aircraft at the far end.
Any stranger or novice would think it so crowded with wings, jutting engines and propellers that nothing could ever be shifted to one of the two powerful lifts. And yet to Rowan it was only partly occupied. The Swordfish replacements would fly-on once the ship was at sea. Break them in the hard way.
He stood quite still, his eyes adjusting to the harsh inspection lamps, the strange shadows which loomed against the tall sides of the hangar deck.
A little apart from the other aircraft stood his own fighter. For a moment more he was able to forget what had passed, could ignore the smells of hot oil, the sharper tang of dope, like a girl's nail polish, as he studied his other, private world.
It was strange how she seemed to be watching him. Waiting for him. Rowan always thought of his fighter as she. Despite the fact she was labelled R for Roger in the squadron, and had his special name, Jonah, painted brightly on the engine cowling, her sex had never been in doubt.
He walked towards the smooth outline very slowly. R for Roger was a Seafire, and to almost anyone but the men who serviced or flew them, Seafires were the Navy's reflection of the land-based Spitfire. Fast, graceful, deadly, they looked totally out of place on an escort carrier's deck.
Rowan touched the starboard wing. It felt like ice under his fingers. He toyed with the idea of climbing up into the cockpit, but discarded it. He would wait until the right time, not push his luck. Besides, any watching mechanic might think he had at last gone round the bend. It happened often enough.
He made his way towards a companion ladder, past glaring red warnings about the dangers of smoking, of leaking fuel, of naked lights, everything. He sniffed out of habit. Unlike an airfield, a carrier was the one place you did not smell petrol. If you did it meant trouble, for when she was fully operational, her own and her aircrafts' tanks topped up with fuel, Growler was a floating bomb.
On the deck below it was unusually quiet. At sea, or when the bulk of the ship's company returned from home or local leave, it would be bedlam again. Including her Fleet Air Arm personnel, Growler carried some five hundred souls within her echoing, vibrating hull.
He walked past the vacant cabins with their heavy fire-proof curtains. Only the captain and a few privileged officers haddoors, which was a pity. After a patrol you needed as much privacy as possible to put your thoughts in order again.
He wondered how the captain liked his command. He had only met him a few times in the three months aboard. Working-up a new command was tough on everybody from commanding officer to stoker. But the captain carried the can if things went wrong.
There were varied views amongst the ship's company about Growler. On the whole, her advantages outweighed her faults. British ratings hated sharing their messes with those of other branches, but here, telegraphists and stokers, seamen and riggers, enjoyed one vast gleaming cafeteria, where the main galley served over four hundred meals three times a day, in hurricane or calm.
They also had a fine laundry, which all but some of the older hands accepted as better than dhobying clothes in a borrowed bucket, even if it was a Yankee custom.
The showers were good for everyone, but had been the one thing to make the captain show some sign of irritation. He had wanted a bath.
In the US dockyard where the ship had been finally fitted out before being handed over to the Royal Navy the captain had asked that a bath should be fitted in his own quarters. The Americans had been helpful, understanding and considerate. But no bath. Escort carriers, like most American ships, had showers. It said so on the plan. The captain had given in gracefully, for the moment.
Rowan pushed aside the curtain of his own cabin and switched on the lights. Even now, in harbour, he could hear muted mutterings in the pipes across the deckhead, beneath his feet, everywhere. As if the ship was in constant conversation with another planet.
He looked at the three bunks. One would soon be occupied by his friend Bill Ellis, another Seafire pilot. The other would have a new owner.
Rowan glanced up at a brighter rectangle of paintwork above the third bunk where some thoughful steward had removed one of Dick's lovely pin-ups. Poor old Dick had been in one of the Swordfish which had bought it in mid-Atlantic. It must be a terrible feeling. Flying on and on into nothing. Watching the gauges drop. Knowing that no one would see you go. Except your crew.
Rowan threw his cap on the bunk and ruffled his dark brown hair. That was the best of a fighter. You were on your own. Nobody to watch your doubts, your despair. You shared it only with the aircraft.
A tannoy squeaked in another passageway and announced harshly, "D'you hear there! D'you hear there! The film show in the canteen tonight will be Waggons West. Duty part of the watch will muster at 2015 and rig cinema." A pause, and then as an afterthought, "Men under punishment to muster on the hangar deck."
Rowan switched on the tap of a small bulkhead basin and waited for the usual vibrations and spitting drips to give way to piping-hot water. He was still thinking about something he had seen and heard in London. As he had waited for a train to begin the first leg of the journey back to Liverpool.
It had not been raining in London, in fact, the sky had been clear and ice-blue.
He had noticed that some would-be passengers, several of them servicemen, were shading their eyes to watch some tiny vapour trails high above the bomb-scarred city. So high, so fragile had they looked from the station that they had hung almost motionless on their blue field.
Then he had heard it. Just briefly. The tap-tap-tap-tap of machine guns, almost lost in the noises around him, distant and impartial.
One of the onlookers had shouted, "Got the bugger! See the bastard drop!"
Rowan had looked at them and then back to the sky. See the bastard drop. The man had spoken of the plane. Perhaps that was what made them different. They were the aircraft, good or bad, according to country, like the men who would be fighting in the cowboy film in the canteen tonight.
Perhaps that unknown onlooker had the right idea, Rowan thought. Better not to see your enemy's face, recognise him as a living person like you.
Rowan had seen it twice. The head jerking round in the cockpit to see him for the first time. The second German had even dragged off his goggles as if unable to accept that it was his and not somebody else's turn to die. See the bastard drop.
"Nice to have you back, sir."
Ede, one of the stewards, was peering in at him.
"Good run ashore?"
Rowan threw off his jacket and loosened his tie.
He thought of the leave. Night was the best part. Their house was on the edge of Oxshott Woods. Every night he had lain on his bed below the window, despite all his mother's pleas for him to join her and his father under the stairs.
Excerpted from Winged Escort by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 1975 Douglas Reeman. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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