« PreviousContinue »
THE NINTH CRUISER SQUADRON. BY REAR ADMIRAL BOYLE
EVERYBODY knows of the deeds of the Tenth Cruiser Squadron, and of its magnificent patrol-the Patrol of the in about equal proportions, of The squadron was composed, Royal Naval Reserve-between armed merchant oruisers and Scotland and Iceland, which, of naval oruisers: the latter through every minute of the being those too old (fortunately war, in fair weather and in for them) to be attached to the the foulest of the foul, tooth- live-bait squadron, thus eseapcombed sea-traffic, and main- ing fellowship with the Aboukir, tained the blockade, until there Cressy, and Hogue; but still, was no longer any need for its in spite of their very grey hairs, aotivities: but who has ever considered able to keep the sea, heard of the Ninth Cruiser and to control the South Amer
drawn in the same mystery and war-silence as its first.
Most properly, nobody. Its routes, for this was the venue very existence, which began on of the "Ninth C.S." August 4, 1914, was kept unknown, mysterious: the hush was "The Flagship, at Sea"; The base of the squadron and it had ceased to exist, its our station-limits, the blue, the useful functions over, some con- ever-shifting meeting-point of siderable time before the music sea and sky. For us existed and the shouting of 11th Nov- no comfortable harbour, with
ican and South African trade
gun defences and boom defences therefore, was and destroyer patrol, and sub
VOL, CCVILNO. MCCLI.
marine patrol and trawler patrol. We moved on the face of the waters by day and by night, without haste (except on high occasions, for coal was precious), without rest; with some of our aching eyes fixed on the far round horizon for ships, and some, still more aching, on the near wave-orests for submarines, our guns loaded, our fingers (so to speak) on the triggers.
The ceaseless watch was never interrupted, not even by the diversification due to the holding-up of ships-this latter a daily and a nightly proceeding, undertaken almost thankfully as a break in the monetony-not even by the coalings, which had to take place every eight or ten days at Madeira, under the "friendly neutrality" (which afterwards became complete alliance) of Portugal. At work at sea, or coaling in harbour, the guns remained manned, the look-outs incessantly looking out.
When the menace of submarines round Madeira became really distinct and close, we moved south: first to St Vincent, in the Cape de Verde Islands, that horrid, torrid group of wind-swept oinders; and lastly, to the even hotter, but at least verdant harbour of Sierra Leone-" the best 'ole of all," as it was defended by a boom!
The oruisers with which we started in 1914 had already, for several years, been reclining in senile decay on various sorap-heaps, or else were in gentle employment as "overflow-ships" to orowded naval
training ships for stokers (though never leaving harbour), and so forth.
But, with the first trump of war, like Sam Weller's "werry old donkey," they were lugged up off their death-bed to "take sixteen "take sixteen gen'lemen to Greenwich on a tax-cart." Anything for air and exercise, indeed!
Out they went at once into the broad Atlantic, and gallantly did they attempt to recover the spring of a youth now nearly twenty years behind them. After about a year of it, the first of the old ships to get away, the Amphitrite and Argonaut, were relieved, and steamed home at the very respectable speed of 16 knots; each of them having covered nearly 30,000 miles since leaving England, and each having consumed nearly 25,000 tons of coal in so doing. But when you consider that this speed could be exceeded by at least six knots by the foe we were out to catch-the Karlsrüheand that the outranging by her guns of ours was in like proportion, you will wonder, as we did, why that particular fee, knowing these facts, did not come over to our side of the Atlantic to "take us on."
What fat cargoes might not the Germans then have snatched, waddling home from the Plate and from the Cape, slow, helpless! But they kept maddeningly clear of us, and made up all their "bags" over 1000 miles away.
As to the armed merchant oruisers, the other half of our squadron, they, of course, were
the mightiest bluff of all: a fact scarcely yet comprehended, and not even dimly imagined in the autumn of 1914.
It was, indeed, the usual opinion that we had here a real, new, swift, and deadly arm-fully capable of pursuing, catching, engaging, and sinking the Karlsruhe, or any other commerce-destroyer. Piquancy was added to the position by the thought that the Merchant Navy was defending itself, and the realisation that there was something in the Royal Naval Reserve after all.
There was, indeed, as we of the White Ensign speedily discovered-and a splendid something, too; but as to their ships, we, who helped to man and "run" them on man-of-war principles, had few illusions as to their capabilities. Our hearts were big, we were thoroughly keen for a trial; but faith in our 14,000-ton leviathans was largely tempered with hope for a happy ending to any encounter with a real cruiser constructed for fighting. There was a sporting chance, we supposed-there always is -so "Vive le Sport!"
The Port of Liverpool, where the conversion of their most cherished and most enormous mensters into fighting ships reached its maddest height during that first month of the war, was a wonderfully thrilling sight. No one could regard all that day-and-night energy without being convinced that it must be producing some great new things; that here was the Sea Horse of Britain, taken from the peaceable ploughing
of the waves, being caparisoned for the fray, impatiently foaming at the bit, neighing, and saying "Ha, ha" among the captains (R.N.)!
Every side of every basin in the docks held against it a vast dark hull. Overhead, in the roofs of the equally vast and dark sheds that flanked the hulls and sheltered the enormous piles of ships' stores removed from them, there looked down the brilliant and unrelenting eyes of the arc lights, cold and green. There was neither night-time, nor daytime, nor meal-time; nothing but working-time, at twentyfour hours per diem.
Every orifice in those hulls -entry-ports, coaling-perts, cargo-ports-carried a gangway from it down to the wharf; and along these there surged in both directions an intensely busy army in single file, closed up.
Some hurried into the ships empty-handed; hurried out of them, bearing on their shoulders burdens of cabin-fittings, inlaid woodpanelling, china, glass, every conceivable and inconceivable artiole designed for the comfort of the pampered passenger, or merely for his "look-see"-all now suddenly become useless and contemptible in the face of the real thing.
Each man's face,shining with sweat, white with sleeplessness, radiated forth that strange delight in destruction which inhabits all of us; while from within the rapidly emptying shells of the great ships there resounded on all sides the wild exciting din of demolishment
the bang, whang, crash, smash, as was possible to be bluffed, of those who hammered, and white ensign and pendant wrenched, and levered, and complete. forcibly unscrewed.
The work was not, however, so destructive as it sounded. Every article and every panel was marked with the name of the ship and the part of her from whence it came-even its consecutive number, as panelling. In those hopeful days we thought the things would each soon be going back again into its place! Each description of removed fittings was piled in monster pyramids, according to its class, abreast of the ship whence it had been eviscerated. The amounts of these, for any one ship, were staggering to the ordinary uncalculating mind. From the Aquitania, for example, the weight of glass-ware alone came to no less than 40 tons. (This fact, however, will carry easy belief with any one who has handled the water decanters and tumblers usual to passenger steamers.)
Upon a certain Monday evening arrived from her "trade" our ship, a luxurious, ly equipped hotel, soft and "oushy" at every turn, fair to see, attractively painted; her funnels in strongly contrasting glossy black and the most vermilion of fresh red-lead. "Ah," said her former Scotch captain reminiscently, later on, on regarding a coloured picture of his ship-of-peace, "Yon's a bonny funnel!"
On the following Sunday morning we left the docks, stark and stripped, grey all over, as nearly a man-of-war
Within the intervening 132 hours, the ship had been gutted of all her cabins on every deck; stripped of all panelling everywhere; eight 6-inch guns had been mounted, the ship's framework and supporting deck had been strengthened to match; and magazines and shell-rooms had been built. Besides this, stores for the ship, food for her company, her guns, and her boilers, had been hoisted in by the hundred ton-coal, indeed, by the thousand ton; officers and men had been appointed, had joined, and taken charge.
Aladdin's lamp must have begun to think about hiding its pale ineffectual fire!
A short gun-trial outside the Bar lightship, which passed us sound as regards guns and fittings: a last letter home in the mysteriously veiled language that later became so easy and expected-and we were away! The then unaccustomed secrecy as to the vessel's destination and route was interpreted in several places as meaning that we were bound to a northern port, to add one more to the troopships well known then to be engaged in hurrying thousands of Russian troops across to the north of Scotland. For, with the snow still on their beards, and the ice of Archangel in their bones (as it were, chilled beef), they had been actually seen passing southward by train through England on their way to the Front!
We were in reality bound,