I just finished editing final drafts for “The Sea Takes No Prisoners.” It had been a while since I reviewed any of the material because I have been busy with my “Growing Up in San Francisco’s Chinatown” book. I found a few things that, not having seen them for close to a year, I think are rather humorous. War, of course, is a very serious business, but there has to still be a touch of humanity to all of it. Here are the two excerpts:
“Send In The Rescue Party!”- A Dubious Casualty of War
Radar operator George Lunam served aboard the Flower class corvette HMS Anenome when the ship was a part of Escort Group B4. He remembered the day when he was declared a casualty by the Escort Group Commander.
… Escort Group B4 was moored in the harbor of St. John’s, Newoundland … We expected to spend perhaps two nights in St. Johns (between convoys) repairing, refueling, rearming, and reprovisioning. We also hoped to get out of the clothes we had worn all the way from Londonderry, and have a bath with a bucket of hot water. … In the midst of all this activity, we were not overjoyed to be told that the Commander of the Group was coming to inspect HMS Anenome. As soon as he arrived, we were piped to action stations. My partner and I shut ourselves in the RDF (radar) hut – a five foot square steel box perched above the bridge. We switched on the set and made sure everything was clean and tidy before we settled down to await inspection. We waited and waited for about a half an hour, and eventually decided that we had been forgotten about. We got out the fags (cigarettes) and lit up. Hardly had we had a couple of puffs when we heard steps on the access ladder. The cigarettes were hurriedly nicked and put in our pockets. I grabbed the ashtray and put it in my duffle coat pocket, and my partner attempted to waft smoke up through the hatch … By the time the Commander had undone the dogs on the door and opened it, we were seated (and) giving a good imitation of conscientious operators hard at work. The Commander sniffed, looked hard at us, scanned every surface, then got down on his hands and knees and looked under the units to inspect the, fortunately, spotless deck. He got up, looked out of the door, and shouted down to the bridge, “Fire in the RDF hut! Two men overcome by smoke! Send in rescue party!”
We were dragged out of the door, bundled down the ladder, and laid out on the deck to be given painfully enthusiastic artificial respiration. With hindsight, we can be glad that the “Kiss of Life” (mouth-to-mouth) had not yet been invented!
A Minesweeper, a Secret Weapon, and a Lot of Wine
Wartime, for all its dangers and unforgiving cruelty, can still have occasional odd moments where potential disaster turns humorous. One such event involving a German magnetic mine was told by an unnamed Royal Navy veteran.
According to the sailor, the Germans had developed a moored mine that, when deployed, would itself deploy a second dummy mine of its own. Minesweepers passing overhead would cut the cable to the dummy mine and assume that the area was clear. There was also a variant of that mine that had mechanical devices placed along the mooring cable that would allow a cutting cable to pass through it without actually severing the mine’s cable. Over time, the British became suspicious about how cleared areas were able to remain dangerous. A minesweeper was ordered into a potential minefield for the purpose of collecting samples of any “secret weapons.”
The chosen minesweeper, HMS Sutton, steamed to the area in question and spent an entire day sweeping for mines with no luck. As darkness approached the captain decided to anchor for the night and resume the search in the morning. The anchor had been dropped to the bottom when a mine was spotted astern and drifting towards the ship. Unknown to any on board, it was snagged on the ship’s sweeping cable. Overlooking the anchor in their haste, all ahead full was rung up, and the ship surged forward. The anchor, deeply embedded underwater, caused the anchor chain to unwind amidst a shower of sparks as its links banged against the ship’s own metal hull. Since the final link was likely to break violently away from the ship and whip up into the air, all of the crewmen who were stationed on the foc’sl dashed hastily aft. The mine, still being pulled along by the ship, continued to follow close astern when the anchor chain fully played out and, instead of breaking, pulled the ship down hard by the head. The stern lifted high into the air just as the mine drifted underneath to explode. The ship remained sharply head down when the engine room crew, unsure of what had happened, clambered onto the deck from below with cries of, “abandon ship!” The captain, who had quickly surveyed the damage and determined that the ship was in no danger of actually sinking, shouted “I’ll shoot the first bastard who does!”
The crew was able to shore up the damage and get under way. The ship slowly and carefully began to head towards home through a severe lightning storm. Because the Germans tended to mine it as often as the British would clear it, the channel of the harbor they entered was lined with swept but as yet disarmed mines. Passing along, the ship was greeted with one jolting underwater explosion after another as the ship’s hull, its magnetic signature unknowingly altered by the lightning it had so recently sailed through, triggered the magnetic mines remaining in the channel one after another. The ship nonetheless arrived safely and without casualties. Although British naval authorities were quick to criticize the ship for its failure to retrieve one of the mysterious new German mines, all had not been in vain for the crew. The ship’s well provisioned wine locker was located in the part of the ship that had suffered the heaviest damage. On inspection, however, not the least bit of harm had come to any of the wine itself. The supply included a fair quantity of Napoleon Brandy secured on the ship’s previous stop at Malta. All aboard Sutton conspired to declare that the ship’s entire alcohol supply had fallen victim to the war. As the visible damage to the ship provided reasonable evidence for it, naval authorities unquestioningly accepted the minesweeper’s statement as true. Sutton’s men were later able to secretly advertise and sell what they did not drink of their “lost” wine to their flotilla mates.