Tales of the Trade

Some work in the Baltic

by Rudyard Kipling

(The Kipling Society presents here Kipling’s work as he
wrote it, but wishes to alert readers that the text below
contains some derogatory and/or offensive language)


NO ONE knows how the title of “The Trade” came to be applied to the Submarine Service. Some say that the cruisers invented it because they pretend that submarine officers look like unwashed chauffeurs. Others think it sprang forth by itself, which means that it was coined by the Lower Deck, where they always have the proper names for things. Whatever the truth, the submarine Service is now “the trade”; and if you ask them why, they will answer: “What else could you call it? The Trade’s ‘the trade,’ of course.”

It is a close corporation; yet it recruits its men and officers from every class that uses the sea and engines, as well as from many classes that never expected. to deal with either. It takes them; they disappear for a while and return changed to their very souls, for the Trade lives in a world without precedents, of which no generation has had any previous experience—a world still being made and enlarged daily. It creates and settles its own problems as it goes along, and if it cannot help itself no one else can. So the Trade lives in the dark and thinks out inconceivable and impossible things which it afterwards puts into practice.

It keeps books, too, as honest traders should. They are almost as bald as ledgers, and are written up, hour by hour, on a little sliding table that pulls out from beneath the commander’s bunk. In due time they go to my Lords of the Admiralty, who presently circulate a few carefully watered extracts for the confidential information of the junior officers of the Trade, that these may see what things are done and how. The juniors read but laugh. They have heard the stories, with all the flaming detail and much of the language, either from a chief actor while they perched deferentially on the edge of a mess-room fender, or from his subordinate, in which case they were not so deferential, or from some returned member of the crew present on the occasion, who, between half-shut teeth at the wheel, jerks out what really happened. There is very little going on in the Trade that the Trade does not know within a reasonable time. But the outside world must wait until my Lords of the Admiralty release the records. Some of them have been released now.

Submarine and Ice-Breaker

Let us take, almost at random, an episode in the life of H.M. Submarine E9. It is true that she was commanded by Comander Max Horton, but the utter impersonality of the tale makes it as though the boat herself spoke. (Also, never having met or seen any of the gentlemen concerned in the matter, the writer can be impersonal too.) Some time ago, E9 was in the Baltic, in the deeps of winter, where she used to be taken to her hunting grounds by an ice-breaker. Obviously a submarine cannot use her sensitive nose to smash heavy ice with, so the broad-beamed pushing chaperone comes along to see her clear of the thick harbour and shore ice. In the open sea apparently she is left to her own devices. In company of the ice-breaker, then, E9 “proceeded” (neither in the Senior nor the Junior Service does any one officially “go” anywhere) to a “certain position.”

Here—it is not stated in the book, but the Trade knows every aching, single detail of what is left out—she spent a certain time in testing arrangements and apparatus, which may or may not work properly when immersed in a mixture of block-ice and dirty ice-cream in a temperature well towards zero. This is a pleasant job, made the more delightful by the knowledge that if you slip off the superstructure the deadly Baltic chill will stop your heart long before even your heavy clothes can drown you. Hence (and this is not in the book either) the remark of the highly trained sailor-man in these latitudes who, on being told by his superior officer in the execution of his duty to go to Hell, did insubordinately and enviously reply: “D’you think I’d be here if I could?” Whereby he caused the entire personnel, beginning with the Commander to say “Amen,” or words to that effect. E9 evidently made things work.

Next day she reports: “As circumstances were favourable decided to attempt to bag a destroyer.” Her “certain position” must have been near a well-used destroyer-run, for shortly afterwards she sees three of them, but too far off to attack, and later, as the light is failing, a fourth destroyer towards which she manœuvres. “Depth-keeping,” she notes, “very difficult owing to heavy swell.” An observation balloon on a gusty day is almost as stable as a submarine “pumping” in a heavy swell, and since the Baltic is shallow, the submarine runs the chance of being let down with a whack on the bottom. None the less, E9 works her way to within 600 yards of the quarry; fires and waits just long enough to be sure that her torpedo is running straight, and that the destroyer is holding her course. Then she “dips to avoid detection.” The rest is deadly simple: “At the correct moment after firing, 45 to 50 seconds, heard the unmistakable noise of torpedo detonating.” Four minutes later she rose and “found destroyer had disappeared.” Then, for reasons probably connected with other destroyers, who, too, may have heard that unmistakable sound, she goes to bed below in the chill dark till it is time to turn homewards. When she rose she met storm from the north and logged it accordingly. “Spray froze as it struck, and bridge became a mass of ice. Experienced considerable difficulty in keeping the conning-tower hatch free from ice. Found it necessary to keep a man continuously employed on this work. Bridge screen immovable, ice six inches thick on it. Telegraphs frozen.” In this state she forges ahead till midnight, and any one who pleases can imagine the thoughts of the continuous employee scraping and hammering round the hatch, as well as the delight of his friends below when the ice-slush spattered down the conning-tower. At last she considered it “advisable to free the boat of ice, so went below.”

“As Requisite”

In the Senior Service the two words “as requisite” cover everything that need not be talked about. E9 next day “proceeded as requisite” through a series of snowstorms and recurring deposits of ice on the bridge till she got in touch with her friend the ice-breaker; and in her company ploughed and rooted her way back to the work we know. There is nothing to show that it was a near thing for E9, but somehow one has the idea that the ice-breaker did not arrive any too soon for E9’s comfort and progress. (But what happens in the Baltic when the ice-breaker does not arrive?)

That was in winter. In summer quite the other way, E9 had to go to bed by day very often under the long-lasting northern light when the Baltic is as smooth as a carpet, and one cannot get within a mile and a half of anything with eyes in its head without being put down. There was one time when E9, evidently on information received, took up “a certain position” and reported the sea “glassy.” She had to suffer in silence, while three heavily laden German ships went by, for an attack would have given away her position. Her reward came next day, when she sighted (the words run like Marryat’s) “enemy squadron coming up fast from eastward, proceeding inshore of us.” They were two heavy battleships with an escort of destroyers, and E9 turned to attack. She does not say how she crept up in that smooth sea within a quarter of a mile of the leading ship, “a three-funnel ship, of either the Deutschland or Braunschweig class,” but she managed it, and fired both bow torpedoes at her.

“No.1 torpedo was seen and heard to strike , her just before foremost funnel: smoke and débris appeared to go as high as masthead.” That much E9 saw before one of the guardian destroyers ran at her. “So,” says she, “observing I her took my periscope off the battleship.” This was excusable, as the destroyer was coming up with intent to kill and E9 had to flood her tanks and get down quickly. Even so, the destroyer only just missed her, and she truck bottom in 43 feet. “But,” says E9, who, if she could not see, kept her ears open, “at the correct interval (the 45 or 50 seconds mentioned in the previous case) the second torpedo was heard to explode, though not actually seen.” E9 came up twenty minutes later to make sure. The destroyer was waiting for her a couple of hundred yards away, and again E9 dipped for the life, but “just had time to see one large vessel approximately four or five miles away.”

Putting courage aside, think for a moment of the mere drill of it all—that last dive for that attack on the chosen battleship; the eye at the periscope watching “No. 1 torpedo” get home; the rush of the vengeful destroyer; the instant orders for flooding everything; the swift descent which had to be arranged for with full knowledge of the shallow sea-floors waiting below, and a guess at the course that might be taken by the seeking bows above, for assuming a destroyer to draw 10 feet and a submarine on the bottom to stand 25 feet to the top of her conning-tower, there is not much clearance in 43 feet salt water, specially if the boat jumps when she touches bottom. And through all these and half a hundred other simultaneous considerations, imagine the trained minds below, counting, as only torpedo-men can count, the run of the merciless seconds that should tell when that second shot arrived. Then “at the correct interval” as laid down in the table of distances, the boom and the jar of No. torpedo, the relief, the exhaled breath and untightened lips; the impatient waiting for a second peep, and when that had been taken and the eye at the periscope had reported one little nigger-boy in place of two on the waters, perhaps cigarettes, &c., while the destroyer sickle about at a venture overhead.

Certainly they give men rewards for doing such things, but what reward can there be in any gift of Kings or peoples to match the enduring satisfaction of having done them, not alone, but with and through and by trusty and proven companions?

Defeated by Darkness

E1, also a Baltic boat, her Commander F.N. Laurence, had her experiences too. She went out one summer day and late—too late—in the evening sighted three transports. The first she hit. While she was arranging for the second, the third inconsiderately tried to ram her before her sights were on. So it was necessary to go down at once and waste whole minutes of the precious scanting light. When she rose, the stricken ship was sinking and shortly afterwards blew up. The other two were patrolling near by. It would have been a fair chance in daylight, but the darkness defeated her and she had to give up the attack.

It was E1 who during thick weather came across a squadron of battle-cruisers and got in on a flanking ship—probably the Moltke. The destroyers were very much on the alert, and she had to dive at once to avoid one who only missed her by a few feet. Then the fog shut down and stopped further developments. Thus do time and chance come to every man.

The Trade has many stories, too, of watching patrols when a boat must see chance after chance go by under her nose and write—merely write—what she has seen. Naturall they do not appear in any accessible records. Nor, which is a pity, do the authorities release the records of glorious failures, when everything goes wrong; when torpedoes break surface and squatter like ducks; or arrive full square with a clang and burst of white water and—fail to explode; when the devil is in charge of all the motors, and clutches develop play that would scare a shore-going mechanic bald; when batteries begin to give off death instead of power, and atop of all, ice or wreckage of the strewn seas racks and wrenches the hull till the whole leaking bag of tricks limps home on six missing cylinders and one ditto propeller, plus the indomitable will of the red-eyed husky scarecrows in charge.

There might be worse things in this world for decent people to read than such records.