Death and the Destroyer

THE EASIEST way of finding a mine-field is to steam into it, on the edge of night for choice, with a steep sea running, for that brings the bows down like a chopper on the detonating-horns. Some boats have enjoyed this experience and still live. There was one destroyer (and there may have been others since) who came through twenty-four hours of highly-compressed life. She had an idea that there was a mine-field somewhere about, and left her companions behind while she explored. The weather was dead calm, and she walked delicately. She saw one Scandinavian steamer blow up a couple of miles away, rescued the skipper and some hands; saw another neutral, which she could not reach till all was over, skied in another direction; and, between her life-saving efforts and her natural curiosity, got herself as thoroughly mixed up with the field as a camel among tent-ropes. A destroyer’s bows are very fine, and her sides are very straight. This causes her to cleave the wave with the minimum of disturbance, and this boat had no desire to cleave anything else. None the less, from time to time, she heard a mine grate, or tinkle, or jar (I could not arrive at the precise note it strikes, but they say it is unpleasant) on her plates. Sometimes she would be free of them for a long while, and began to hope she was clear. At other times they were numerous, but when at last she seemed to have worried out of the danger zone, lieutenant and sub together left the bridge for a cup of tea. (“In those days we took mines very seriously, you know.”) As they were in act to drink, they heard the hateful sound again just outside the wardroom, Both put their cups down with extreme care, little fingers extended (“We felt as if they might blow up, too”), and tip-toed on deck, where they met the foc’sle also on tip-toe. They pulled themselves together, and asked severely what the foc’sle thought it was doing. “Beg pardon, sir, but there’s another of those blighters tap-tapping alongside, our end.” They all waited and listened to their common coffin being nailed by Death himself. But the things bumped away. At this point they thought it only decent to invite the rescued skipper, warm and blanketed in one of their bunks, to step up and do any further perishing in the open.

“No, thank you,” said he. “Last time I was blown up in my bunk, too. That was all right. So I think, now, too, I stay in my bunk here. It is cold upstairs.”

Somehow or other they got out of the mess after all. “Yes, we used to take mines awfully seriously in those days. One comfort is, Fritz’ll take them seriously when he comes out. Fritz don’t like mines.”

“Who does?” I wanted to know.

“If you’d been here a little while ago, you’d seen a Commander come in with a big ’un slung under his counter. He brought the beastly thing in to analyse. The rest of his squadron followed at two-knot intervals, and everything in harbour that had steam up scattered.”