July 23, Flandernflotille Headquarters Bunker 1615 hours
What a day! After hours and hours of work and assigning about three times as many men as the job should have taken, the commissary men had removed the American labels and put the Belgian Relief Food into the Commissary warehouse. The warehouse was fairly bulging with food now. Fortunately he had the sure cure for that. Bartenbach had ordered the mess to make up double rations for tomorrow. Any boats coming in would get a chance for a big meal.
Bartenbach had personally overseen the destruction of the American labels.
He looked at the inventory. Essentially Van Vield and his henchmen had brought in three major items.
Sacks of flour - about four months supply for the base.
Canned hams – about six months supply for the base
Canned peaches – more than they had seen since the outbreak of the war
The ham and flour were no problem. Tomorrow the men would get a double meat ration – all ham, and a triple ration of bread. The peaches could be eaten right out of the can, the cooks told Bartenbach, but maybe something a bit more subtle would be in order.
Another problem was that the sacks and the cans inside the boxes had their own colorful labels. Tomorrow he would have to find out how to deal with the labeled cans.
Bartenbach went over to the kitchen and got some German kitchen containers and had them filled with flour and peaches. Rikarda was a crackerjack cook. Maybe she had some ideas.
July 23, U-39 Course 345, Speed Seven knots, Surfaced 1918 hours
75 kilometers SW of Queenstown
Forstmann was in a vile mood. After a spectacular start to the patrol, he had gone cold. Not only did he begin to have trouble locating kisten, but they began shooting back at him. Twice, he had encountered armed merchant cruisers that blasted away at him at fairly long range and then poured on the speed and dodged his attacks. To add insult to injury, his port engine began having oil pressure problems. The chief had recommended not running that engine. Low oil pressure could damage the engine but the chief thought he could easily fix the problem back in Kiel. Now he had received a recall notice.
At least he had a hand of torpedoes left but only four more rounds for his deck gun. Aggressive as Forstmann was, he had no use for the Hexenkessel (See Note 1) at this time. He would pass west of Ireland and he would look for kisten around the Hebrides.
July 23, Q-Ship Marten Course 220, Speed five knots 1925 hours
38 nautical miles WSW of Queenstown
Lieutenant Russell sure could use a dram right now. When Morris Russell had joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the war, he supposed he would have some sort of office job. Those were cushy jobs and he had always managed to hold those longer than most. His downfall was that in his younger days he had been an apprentice mate on a merchant ship. Russell could talk like a sailor, but his actual knowledge was limited. So, just like the Royal Navy, they gave him command of an armed steamer with a crew even more misfit than he.
Morris Russell’s main problem was not a lack of talent. He was educated better than most, had wide (if not deep) experience, and was fairly well-spoken. Russell’s problem was he needed alcohol simply to function.
Russell was not one for a bender. No sir! He just needed a little nip to calm his nerves to face the day. Most of the crew and officers liked to go out and get rip-roaring drunk but could sleep it off and more or less function the next day. Russell rarely got noticeably inebriated, but without his morning tot, facing a watch was agony.
When the Marten had reached Queenstown, he had not had a chance to replenish his stock. They had him coal up and throw a few cases of food onboard and off she went, bearing off to a point out in the ocean. Then he was to turn due south and chug back to Queenstown. Coal up and do it again until he saw a U-boat. His reserve was thin and he had to ration himself down to the point that he got no morning eye-opener. If he did not ration himself he would not be able to last until he got back to Queenstown. Already his hands trembled a little and he was beginning to get sick.
The last thing he wanted to see was a U-boat. Half of his gunners were worse drunks than he was and the others had no idea what guns were about. He initially had some Royal Marine gunners but they were taken and sent to Rosyth. Those gunners were replaced by misfit sailors released from various brigs. (See Note 2) Most curious was his Maxim gun crew. These were three ancient Territorials that allegedly saw action at Omdurman. Looking at them, Russell doubted that not. They had never actually mustered out in all those years. Once would have thought they would have learned a little about hitting a target in all those years but somehow they avoided picking up that knack.
One of Russell’s big problems was Marten herself. Some genius at the Admiralty thought it would be best if the Marten were of such shallow draft that the Germans’ torpedoes would pass under her and not explode. The Marten was a decent old steamer and could operate with almost no ballast and only drew five feet of water that way. Not a bad idea, but somebody had thought that a 2,200 ton ship should have a couple of twelve pounders as armament. Not that Russell had a problem with twelve pounders per se, but these guns were very heavy and mounted too high for a ship running with very little ballast. Add on her masking panels and the Marten was top-heavy. This gave her a very long (if slow) roll. Even in sheltered Scapa Flow she rolled ten degrees port to ten degrees starboard. Out here in the open ocean she rolled more. Even if he had crack gun crews hitting that “U-boat” target would have been a challenge. With this collection of losers for a crew the Marten would be hard-pressed to hit seawater. (See Note 3)
Russell sincerely hoped he never saw a submarine.
Just a couple more hours left in this watch and he could allow himself a dram so he could sleep…
July 23, UB-17, Course 270 Speed, Three knots, Surfaced 2200 hours
1,500 meters SW of Le Havre Breakwater
The chief was insistent. We have just enough fuel to get back to Zeebrugge. Wenninger reluctantly turned the UB-17 to the NNE and eased off at a fuel-conserving four knots. Becker was out of torpedoes and Steinbrinck had followed earlier. The second attack on the Mouth of the Seine roadstead was over. Not a bad take for three boats designed for purely defensive work.
July 24, Q-Ship Marten Course 220, Speed five knots 0445 hours
72 nautical miles WSW of Queenstown
Russell was back on the bridge. May as well. Without a dram to settle his nerves he felt as if someone were rasping his very insides. Russell checked his position. Best he could tell he would need to run along this heading until about 1000 hours then turn south.
July 24, U-39 Course 345, Speed Six knots, Surfaced 0505 hours
131 kilometers SW of Queenstown
Almost time to turn north, Forstmann thought to himself. Also just at dawn. Time for the Kommandant to be on the bridge. So Forstmann climbed up the ladder and relieved the eins.
About an hour later, the lookouts reported a plume to the northeast. Forstmann watched it and they looked to be on an intersecting course. That was good because Forstmann did not want to push his good engine too hard. It was too far back to Heligoland to paddle.
“Maintain course and speed. Call the crew to quarters.”
Over the next half hour the plume resolved itself into a fairly decent sized steamer – maybe 2,000 tons or so. After the dry spell the U-39 had suffered through, it seemed providential for a target to show up.
Something did not seem right to Forstmann. What was a southwest-bound ship doing this far west of the shipping lanes. Forstmann had chosen this course to not be molested as he limped his boat home. And look at her roll! Ja, a southwest-bound ship would probably be in ballast but the British must be getting short on rocks. Forstmann did not see anyone on the rail. Her crew must be pretty salty to not be seasick rolling like this. She was rolling twice as much as the U-39 and U-boats were notorious for rolling. That is part of the reason U-boats were poor gunnery ships.
July 24, Q-Ship Marten Course 220, Speed five knots 0640 hours
74 nautical miles WSW of Queenstown
The truth of the matter was that more than half the crew of the Marten was seasick. He only had one lookout on duty. The others were too sick to go aloft. For some reason this bloke seemed immune. The big problem was that most of his gunners had not been anything but green since Scapa Flow. The seasickness on the wildly rolling ship had demoralized the crew to the point there was talk below decks of mutiny.
“Off the port beam about two miles”
How Russell needed a dram! There was grumbling and puking below decks but the guns were raggedly manned.
July 24, U-39 Course 345, Speed Six knots, Surfaced 0655 hours
137 kilometers WSW of Queenstown
“Come left to 270”
“Gun crew on deck”
This intercept course narrowed the gap quickly. Within twenty minutes she was within 400 meters. Something still did not seem right to Forstmann.
July 24, Q-Ship Marten Course 220, Speed five knots 0701 hours
75 nautical miles WSW of Queenstown
Russell was sweating and shaking. My soul for a dram! The ship rolled again and somehow, Russell accidently hit the signal switch. The crew got the green light to unmask and open fire.
The bow twelve pounder crew could not get the masking panels down, but the stern panels dropped away. The Maxim gun chattered away, churning up the water well short of the U-boat. The stern gun fired but their judgment of the roll was terrible and the shell hit the water not more than 200 yards from the Marten.
July 24, U-39 Course 270, Speed Six knots, Surfaced 0702 hours
138 kilometers WSW of Queenstown
“It’s a decoy! Fire at them. Schnell!”
CRACK Another hit. Forstmann had been sucked in to less than 300 meters, but the U-39 had had a great deal of target practice lately and viewed this as a very good gunnery range. The enemy’s fire seemed wild, but she had a twelve-pounder on her poop deck and a machine gun of some sort, so she was definitely a warship.
CRACK Short. Or maybe a hit at the waterline. The ship noticeably slowed
CRACK Hit in the foc’s’l. Must have hit something flammable because it struck up a nice fire on the foc’s’l.
“Out of ammunition, sir.”
“Secure the gun and get below.”
“Come left to 180. Give me all she has.”
Changing speed, turning and opening range were all good moves against a warship but were completely unnecessary against the Marten. Despite the short range, they had not gotten anything within 150 meters of the U-39.
July 24, Q-Ship Marten Course 290 (changing), Speed three knots (slowing) 0704 hours
75 nautical miles WSW of Queenstown
The Marten was done for and so was Russell. The second hit from the Hun four-incher had hit below the bridge and splinters had killed the helmsman and hit Russell in four places.
The third shot had indeed holed her in the engine room and she was taking on water. The crew was abandoning without orders and the bow was ablaze.
All Russell could think about was how everything would be right if he could just get a dram. Then the cold water hit him as the Marten turned on beam ends and turned turtle.
July 24, U-39 Course 180, Speed Seven knots, Surfaced 0710 hours
138 kilometers WSW of Queenstown
“There she goes!”
“Engine room all ahead slow”
Forstmann watched the squalid ship turn turtle. Well that explains the rolling. Two twelve pounders mounted way up high on her fo’c’sl and poop. Just one hit below the waterline and she rolled over.
Forstmann needed to report this. This was an armed ship trying to lure a U-boat in. Trying? Hell, they had Forstmann hooked and gaffed but their gunnery was abysmal and their ship was tender as veal.
“Come left to 350 All ahead standard.”
Let’s get headed for home.
1.Hexelkessel is U-boat slang for the Irish Sea.
2.Miserable, dangerous duty on a forgotten ship beat being in His Majesty’s brig.
3.Like the submarine, the Q-ship was new technology. All sorts of ideas and combinations were being tried. Only combat experience would find out whose theories were correct.