A COMMON SWEEPER
MY SPONSOR and chaperon in this Elizabethan world of eighteenth-century seamen was an AB. who had gone down in the Landrail , assisted at the Heligoland fight, seen the Blücher sink and the bombs dropped on our boats when we tried to save the drowning (“Whereby” as he said, “those Germans died gottstrafin’ their own country because we didn’t wait to be strafed”, and has now found more peaceful days in an Office ashore. He led me across many decks from craft to craft to study the various appliances that they specialise in. Almost our last was what a North Country trawler called a “common sweeper,” that is to say, a mine-sweeper. She was at tea in her shirt-sleeves, and she protested loudly that there was “nothing in sweeping.” “See that wire rope?” she said. “Well, it leads through that lead to the ship which you’re sweepin’ with. She makes her end fast and you make yours. Then you sweep together at whichever depth you’ve agreed upon between you, by means of that arrangement there which regulates the depth. They give you a glass sort o” thing for keepin’ your distance from the other ship, but that’s not wanted if you know each other. Well, then you sweep, as the sayin’ is. There’s nothin’ in it. You sweep till this wire rope fouls the bloomin’mines. Then you go on till they appear on the surface, so to say, and then you explode them by means of shootin’ at ’em with that rifle in the gallery there. There’s nothin’ in sweepin’ more than that.”
“And if you hit a mine?” I asked.
“You go up—but you hadn’t ought to hit ’em, if you’re careful. The thing is to get hold of the first mine all right, and then you go on to the next, and so on, in a way o” speakin’.”
“And you can fish, too, ’tween times,” said a voice from the next boat. A man leaned over and returned a borrowed mug. They talked about fishing—notably that once they caught some red mullet, which the “common sweeper” and his neighbbur both agreed was “not natural in those waters’. As for mere sweeping, it bored them profoundly to talk about it. I only learned later as part of the natural history of mines, that if you rake the tri-nitro-toluol by hand out of a German mine you develop eruptions and skin-poisoning. But on the authority of two experts, there is nothing in sweeping. Nothing whatever!
A BLOCK IN THE TRAFFIC
NOW imagine, not a pistol-shot from these crowded quays, a little Office hung round with charts that are pencilled and noted over various shoals and soundings. There is a movable list of the boats at work, with quaint and domestic names. Outside the window lies the packed harbour—outside that again the line of traffic up and down—a stately cinema-show of six ships to the hour. For the moment the film sticks. A boat—probably a “common sweeper’—reports an obstruction in the traffic lane a few miles away. She has found and exploded one mine. The Office heard the dull boom of it before the wireless report came in. In all likelihood there is a nest of them there. It is possible that a submarine may have got in last night between certain shoals and laid them out. The shoals are being shepherded in case she is hidden anywhere, but the boundaries of the newly-discovered mine-area must be fixed and the traffic deviated. There is a tramp outside with tugs in attendance. She has hit something and is leaking badly. Where shall she go? The Office gives her her destination—the harbour is too full for her to settle down here. She swings off between the faithful tugs. Down coast some one asks by wireless if they shall hold up their traffic, It is exactly like a signaller “offering” a train to the next block. “Yes,” the Office replies. “Wait a while. If it’s what we think there will be a little delay. If it isn’t what we think, there will be a little longer delay.” Meantime, sweepers are nosing round the suspected area “looking for cuckoos’ eggs,” as a voice suggests; and a patrol-boat lathers her way down coast to catch and stop anything that may be on the move, for skippers are sometimes rather careless. Words begin to drop out of the air into the chart-hung Office. “Six and a half cables south, fifteen east” of something or other. “Mark it well, and tell them to work up from there,” is the order. “Another mine exploded?” “Yes, and we heard that too,” says the Office. “What about the submarine?” “Elizabeth Huggins reports . . .”
Elizabeth’s scandal must be fairly high flavoured, for a torpedo-boat of immoral aspect slings herself out of harbour and hastens to share it. If Elizabeth has not spoken the truth, there may be words between the parties. For the present a pencilled suggestion seems to cover the case, together with a demand, as far as one can make out, for “more common sweepers.” They will be forthcoming very shortly. Those at work have got the run of the mines now, and are busily howking them up. A trawler-skipper wishes to speak to the Office. “They” have ordered him out, but his boiler, most of it, is on the quay at the present time, and “ye’ll remember, it’s the same wi” my foremast an” port rigging, sir.” The Office does not precisely remember, but if boiler and foremast are on the quay the rest of the ship had better stay alongside. The skipper falls away relieved. (He scraped a tramp a few nights ago in a bit of a sea.) There is a little mutter of gun-fire somewhere across the grey water where a fleet is at work. A monitor as broad as she is long comes back from wherever the trouble is, slips through the harbour-mouth, all wreathed with signals, is received by two motherly lighters, and, to all appearance, goes to sleep between them. The Office does not even look up for that is not in their department. They have found a trawler to replace the boilerless one. Her name is slid into the rack. The immoral torpedo-boat flounces back to her moorings. Evidently what Elizabeth Huggins said was not evidence. The messages and replies begin again as the day closes.
THE NIGHT PATROL
RETURN now to the inner harbour, at twilight there was a stir among the packed craft like the separation of dried tea-leaves in water. The swing-bridge across the basin shut against us, a boat shot out of the jam, took the narrow exit at a fair seven knots and rounded into the outer harbour with all the pomp of a flagship, which was exactly what she was, Others followed, breaking away from every quarter in silence. Boat after boat fell into line—gear stowed away; spars and buoys in order on their clean decks; guns cast loose and ready; wheel-house windows darkened, and everything in order for a day or a week or a month out. There was no word anywhere. The interrupted foot-traffic stared at them as they slid past below. A woman beside me waved a hand to a man on one of them, and I saw his face light as he waved back. The boat where they had demonstrated for me with matches was the last. Her skipper hadn’t thought it worth while to tell me that he was going that evening. Then the line straightened up and stood out to sea.
“You never said this was going to happen,” I said reproachfully to my A.B.
“No more I did,” said he, “It’s the night-patrol going out, Fact is, I’m so used to the bloomin’ evolution that it never struck me to mention it as you might say.”
Next morning I was at service in a man-of-war, and even as we came to the prayer that the Navy might “be a safeguard to such as pass upon the sea on their lawful occasions,” I saw the long procession of traffic resuming up and down the Channel—six ships to the hour. It has been hung up for a bit, they said.
|FAREWELL and adieu to you, Greenwich ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies ashore!
For we’ve received orders to work to the eastward
Where we hope in a short time to strafe ’em some more.We’ll duck and we’ll dive like little tin turtles,
We’ll duck and we’ll dive underneath the North Seas,
Until we strike something that doesn’t expect us,
From here to Cuxhaven it’s go as you please!The first thing we did was to dock in a mine-field,
Which isn’t a place where repairs should be done;
And there we lay doggo in twelve-fathom water
With tri-nitro-toluol hogging our run.The next thing we did, we rose under a Zeppelin,
With his shiny big belly half blocking the sky.
But what in the—Heavens can you do with six-pounders?
So we fired what we had and we bade him good-bye.