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CHAPTER XXVII-The Battle of the Dogger Bank
The German Emperor had styled himself "The Admiral of the Atlantic" – a title that rested largely upon the power and seeming invincibility of such battle-cruisers as the "Seydlitz," and the "Goeben."
For all that, the dominion of the Western Ocean-as, indeed, of all the High Seas from the Gulf of Mexico to the Sea of Japan-had been settled generations ago, before ever the first ship of the Prussian Navy was launched, when Sir Francis Drake sailed to the Spanish Main and the guns of Nelson's wooden, three-decked ships thundered in the Bay of Aboukir.
The German press and people may have claimed at the outset of the war that the steel ships of modern navies had never been put to the test, and Britain had once again to prove that she was Mistress of the Seas. In this sweeping announcement an important fact was forgotten: namely, that it was Britain herself who had invented, designed and launched the very first ironclad that ever put to sea. And what England had invented, England, in all probability, knew how to use.
There was no reason to suppose that Great Britain had fallen in any way behind the other nations in the art of naval construction. So much skill, science and money had been expended in the naval dockyards of the country that Englishmen had every reason to believe that, when the tragedy of a universal war fell like a thunderbolt upon the whole civilized world, the British Navy would not be found wholly unprepared.
If the "Derfflinger" and her companions were the giants of the ocean, the British battle-cruisers were the Titans. They represented the triumph of modern naval construction. They were the very finest ships afloat.
The "Lion," which led the line, steaming at the rate of twenty-eight knots an hour, carried a main armament of ten 13.5-inch guns, and flew the flag of the Vice-Admiral, Sir David Beatty. She and her sister-ship, the "Princess Royal," are ships that cannot easily be mistaken. They have three funnels; one almost amidships, another aft; whereas the third, which is considerably more slender than the others, is situated abaft the mainmast, immediately in rear of the bridge.
The "Invincible" has already been mentioned as the first type of battle-cruiser ever built; and the "Indomitable," the ship that accompanied Sir David Beatty on that eventful morning, was a slightly smaller member of the same class. The "New Zealand" was an improved type, slightly larger, but capable of no greater speed. The normal speed of both these last-named ships was inferior to that of the "Tiger" and the "Lion" by at least three knots an hour.
Of the whole squadron, the "Tiger" was perhaps the masterpiece. This ship is the largest battle-cruiser afloat. She was laid down at Clydebank, and launched in 1914. Her total cost has been estimated at two million, two hundred thousand pounds-a sum considerably in excess of the cost of the very latest Dreadnought battleship, such as the "Iron Duke" or the "Maryborough." She is armed, like the "Lion," with 13.5-inch guns.In appearance, having three funnels of the same size and only one mast, she resembles no other ship afloat. In her, and in the "Lion" and her sisters, the most wonderful results have been obtained. These ships have a normal speed of twenty-eight knots an hour, which can no doubt be exceeded under stress; that is to say, they are capable of travelling at half the rate of an express train, in spite of the fact that they are heavily armoured, and carry colossal guns, which have an effective range at seven miles.
The turbine engines of the "Tiger" are something to marvel at. They have a horse-power of a hundred thousand; whereas the turbines of a great battleship, such as the "Iron Duke," are designed for twenty-nine thousand horse-power.
The fight that took place that bleak, wintry morning, in the neighbourhood of the Dogger Bank, was the first occasion upon which ships of the "Dreadnought" period were matched against each other. It was therefore something in the nature of an experiment. Both the English and the German navies had a certain amount of curiosity in regard to the fighting capacities of their opponents, which neither the Battle in the Bight of Heligoland, nor even the engagement off the Falkland Islands, had served to satisfy. For instance, British seamen, believing half the tales they had heard, had come to believe that German naval gunnery was something almost superhuman. Also, the comparative value had yet to be proved of the British heavy 13.5-inch gun as opposed to the lighter, but quicker firing, 11-inch weapon with which the German cruisers were armed.
The combat that ensued was greatly to the credit of the British Navy. It proved, in the first place, that our naval constructors had not been at fault, that our Intelligence Department was efficient and alert, and that British gunnery was by no means inferior to the German, and last, but not least, that the spirit that animated British seamen was the same that had existed in bygone days, when Drake, Blake, Hawke, Nelson and St. Vincent swept the enemies of Britain from the seas.
The first part of the action was witnessed by both Crouch and Jimmy Burke from the shattered, broken deck of the "Mondavia." Of the concluding phase they heard afterwards, when they were picked up, like men who had been marooned, by H.M.S. "Cockroach," which-it will be remembered-was the self-same torpedo-boat-destroyer which had come to the assistance of the "Harlech" off the Scilly Isles.
The "Lion" and the "Tiger" tore into action with something of the ferocity of the noble, savage beasts from whom they had taken their names. The "Lion" was in the van, with the pennant of Sir David Beatty flying in the wind. A long trail of black smoke came from her triple funnels, as shot after shot rang out in slow precision, like the sullen tolling of a bell.
At first she did no more than endeavour to pick up the range. A distance of about eleven miles still separated the rival ships. The "Mondavia" lay mid-way between the two squadrons, so that the hulls of both the German and the British ships stood forth upon either horizon with alarming clearness.
It was precisely nine minutes past nine when the "Lion" hit the "Bl?cher." Shortly afterwards, the "Tiger" drew up to within range, and the "Lion" fired salvo after salvo at the "Seydlitz," which stood third in the German line.
Presently, the "Princess Royal" joined in the battle, and fired with such deadly accuracy that almost at once the Bl?cher was observed to be rapidly falling astern.
It was a running fight across the open reaches of the North Sea. The Germans were heading straight for safety, for Heligoland and the mine-field in the Bight; and it was now that it was proved that as good work can be done on board a ship in action in the stokeholds as in the turrets.
As has been explained, the "Indomitable" and the "New Zealand" were not such fast ships as the three larger cruisers. The stokers were called upon to make stupendous efforts, and as one man they answered to the call. Every available hand was turned down to the stokeholds, and there they worked like Trojans, stripped to the waist as seamen fought in the days of old, until they were black as negroes from the coal dust, and the perspiration poured from off their moist and glistening backs.
The noise of the firing was now like a tremendous thunderstorm. On both sides the battle-cruisers were engaged, whereas the lighter craft and torpedo-boat-destroyers flew here and there like swarms of gnats, their quick-firing guns spluttering right and left.
When it became apparent that the "Bl?cher" was seriously damaged, the "Princess Royal" shifted her fire to the "Seydlitz," leaving the "Bl?cher" to the by-no-means tender mercy of the "New Zealand" and "Indomitable."
Both the "Seydlitz" and "Derfflinger" were in a bad way: the former was seen to be on fire. The Vice-Admiral ordered the flotilla cruisers and destroyers to drop back, as their smoke was fouling the range, and the German ships were completely screened from view by the black clouds that rolled upon the surface of the sea.
It was this that at once saved the "Seydlitz" and sealed the fate of the "Bl?cher." The "Tiger," as soon as the third ship in the German line became invisible, turned her attention to the "Bl?cher," which was already being pounded to death by the 12-inch guns of the "New Zealand."
As a last hope, the German admiral ordered his destroyers to drop back, to threaten the British ships with their torpedoes, and to foul with their black smoke the line of fire. For a moment, this new danger was so imminent that both the "Lion" and the "Tiger" were obliged to shift their fire from the battle-cruisers to the destroyers, which soon afterwards were compelled to beat a hasty retreat.
The "Bl?cher" – which a few minutes before had seemed so formidable and had presented so bold a front-was now in the last throes of her death. It is not possible for anyone to describe, it would be sheer presumption for anyone even to attempt to describe, the scenes of horror and carnage that were taking place between the "Bl?cher's" decks.
She was riddled like a sieve. Her seven-inch plates amidships had been hammered into pig-iron; her four-inch plates, forward and aft, had been shattered into fragments. One of her great guns had suffered a direct hit; and a weapon, weighing thirty-six tons, and capable of firing a projectile of six hundred and sixty-one pounds, was cast bodily into the sea like a broken toy. Both her masts were shot away. Her forward funnel was uprooted like a rotten tree in a gale. Her battery decks were strewn with the mangled remains of the men who-it must be confessed-stuck to their guns until there were no guns left to serve, who fought with extreme gallantry to the very end.
If naval warfare is more romantic, less monotonous and weary than the trench-fighting to which the armies in Flanders have been reduced, it is, at least, in such cases as the fate of the "Bl?cher," even more ghastly and more tragic.
The great ship had taken on a heavy list to port. Her speed had died down gradually to not much more than fifteen knots an hour, when suddenly she hauled out and steered straight for the north.
Upon the instant the "Indomitable," like a great savage, stealthy animal, broke from the British line and bore down upon her prey. There was something in her aspect, in her dull, slate-grey outline, that reminded one of an enormous cat that creeps upon a bird lying helpless with a broken wing.
One after the other in quick succession her guns roared upon the beaten ship, which suddenly heeled right over so that the light colour below her waterline glittered in the daylight, and only the tops of her remaining funnels were visible from the starboard side. And then, she dived. With a roar, and in the midst of a great cloud of steam, she, with six hundred souls on board, slid into the depths.
In the meantime, the battle continued as the great ships raced towards the south. Both the "Seydlitz" and the "Derfflinger" had been severely punished; and there is little doubt that the victory would have been made far more complete than it was, had not a mishap befallen the "Lion." A shell from the "Derfflinger" struck her in a vital part, so that she dipped peak-foremost in the sea. Moreover, her engines had been damaged; and it was this that had the immediate effect of putting her out of the action, since she could no longer hope to keep pace with either the "Tiger" or the "Princess Royal."
Admiral Beatty, boarding the destroyer "Attack," shifted his flag to the "Princess Royal," and did not rejoin his squadron until half-past eleven, when he met them retiring towards the north. He then learnt what had happened from Rear-Admiral Brock. The German ships had been pursued to the very mouth of the mine-field, where the British squadron was threatened by submarines and seaplanes, besides a gigantic Zeppelin which had put out from Heligoland. It is fully in accordance with German views upon the conduct of modern naval warfare, that this Zeppelin should have dropped bombs among the British boats that were endeavouring to save the lives of the survivors of the "Bl?cher," who were swimming here and there at random. Had it not been for this dastardly incident, the Germans might have had some good reason to be proud of the Battle of the Dogger Bank. Their ships were outmatched and overpowered, and yet they fought gallantly in face of heavy odds. As the matter stands, not only did they tarnish the honour of their country once again, by scorning the noblest traditions of the sea, but they had the audacity to claim the whole affair as a glorious German victory.
They did this in the belief that they had sunk the "Tiger" or the "Lion," or both. As a matter of fact, the total British casualties, including killed and wounded, were four officers and thirty petty officers and men; and the material injury done to the "Tiger" and the "Lion" was only such as would take a few weeks to repair, though it was certainly necessary to tow the last-named ship to port.
On the German side the losses were considerable. The "Bl?cher," which was certainly a notable asset to the German navy, was sunk; whereas the "Derfflinger" and "Seydlitz" were damaged much more seriously than any British ship. As far as personnel was concerned, the total German casualties certainly exceeded a thousand-killed, wounded and prisoners.
But the Battle of the Dogger Bank cannot be regarded solely in respect of the relative loss of ships and men on either side. It was much more. Its moral effect was universal. It re-established the old order of things that had existed at the outbreak of war. It decided, once and-we must hope-for all, British supremacy upon the seas. Though a small action-as things go nowadays-it was decisive, in the same sense as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the battles of the First of June, Trafalgar and the Nile.
The flag of Germany had already been swept from the seas. The lesson of the Dogger Bank to Grand Admiral von Tirpitz and his colleagues amounted to this: that it was not only a risky, but was likely to prove an exceedingly unprofitable undertaking, to operate with sea-going ships-whether battleships, cruisers or destroyers-far from the security of the Kiel Canal.
CHAPTER XXVIII-The Wounded "Lion"
As the battle rolled away in the distance, and the smoke of the great fighting ships grew faint beyond the southern skyline, Captain Crouch and Jimmy Burke remained standing together on the forecastle peak of the half-wrecked cargo ship. Not a word had been spoken for some time. It was Crouch who was the first to find his voice.
"All my life I've been proud of one thing," said he: "that I was born a Britisher. I was always sort of sorry for a dago of any kind. But, half-an-hour ago, when I saw the 'Lion' and the 'Tiger' come charging into action, I felt something in my throat, my lad, that I never felt before. It was just wonderful and splendid. War, nowadays, isn't so much a matter of physical strength and courage as a question of national wealth, industry and invention; we live in a scientific age. And, take it from me, a ship like the 'Tiger' is a kind of eighth wonder of the modern world."
"I suppose," said Jimmy, "that what you say is true; things have changed since men fought with cutlasses and boarded enemy ships. It's more terrible to-day-and marvellous."
"So it seems to me, too," said Captain Crouch. "And now, this is no time to stand idle; there's much for both of us to do. Firstly, we must look to the wounded-and I'm afraid there are more than enough on board. Secondly, we must see if anything can be done to get the engines under way."
Accordingly, then and there, they went down into the engine-room, which they found in a state of chaos. As we know, the chief engineer had been killed; but, in the alley-way on the starboard side they encountered the second engineer, whose head was done up in a bandage. He had been knocked down by the force of an exploding shell, and his head cut open against an iron stanchion.
It was he, with Crouch and Jimmy Burke, who gathered together as many of the ship's hands as they could find in a fit state to do an hour's honest work. They removed such of the smaller parts of the machinery as had been thrown out of gear, when the total amount of damage done could be estimated. It was at once evident that there was no possibility whatsoever of the engines being repaired. Moreover, how the old ship remained afloat was little short of a miracle. They could hope for nothing but to be found either by the British squadron returning to home waters or some ship bound for Newcastle, Leith or Hull.
As far as the wounded were concerned, they were able to do much. Crouch took possession of the ship's medicine chest, and soon proved that he had a passable knowledge of both surgery and medicine. A man who has spent a great part of his life in the wilderness of Central Africa is not likely to be wholly ignorant as far as drugs are concerned.
More than a fifth of the crew had been killed; and many of the wounded had received the most ghastly injuries. The modern rifle bullet is a humane means of waging war. Being nickel-plated it gives a clean wound, which under ordinary conditions will heal rapidly. If it kills, it kills instantly, and as often as not without pain. Shell fire, however, is very different. Leaden shrapnel bullets are both large, rough-edged, and liable to cause gangrene in those who are not in the best of health. Common shell, charged with high explosives, causes infinite damage; and on board steel-plated ships, or in the vicinity of houses, men are horribly maimed and wounded by fragments of masonry and iron, by flying stones and splintered woodwork.
Captain Whisker was in a bad way. Though a man of considerable physical strength, he was in no fit condition to suffer continual loss of blood. His temperature had already risen to extreme fever heat; and there is little doubt that, had Crouch not administered suitable drugs in the right proportion, his old shipmate would have lost his life. As for Captain Cookson, sitting in a comfortable chair in the midst of the wreckage of what had once been his cabin, he gave vent to his feelings and opinions in regard to the German Empire.
Like all sailors he loved his ship. A true seaman will be a special pleader on behalf of his ship in much the same manner as an adoring mother will speak of a backward son. If a ship lies so heavy in the water that, when a squall is blowing, the waves sweep over her decks like water from a floodgate, she will be described as "steady as a rock." And if, on the other hand, she rolls at every billow, and pitches into every minor trough, she is-in the unanimous opinion of her master and her crew-"seaworthy" in the higher sense of the word, whatever it may mean.
Captain Cookson loved the "Mondavia"; and when he looked about him and witnessed the destruction and havoc that had been wrought by the guns of the German ships, he railed at the whole Teutonic brotherhood, from the Kaiser to the last interned German waiter in a detention camp in England.
For all that, by wholesale round abuse, he was likely to do no more good to himself than harm to the German Empire. The fact was, all on board were in much greater danger than they knew of. For, during the last half-hour, the wind had got up, shifting to the south-west, so that once again they were able to hear the distant booming sound of the great guns of the rival battle-cruisers.
The ship lay in one of the innumerable channels that divide the shoals of the Dogger Bank. When any wind is blowing, it stands to reason that the current in these channels is exceedingly strong, since the sandbanks act in much the same way as breakwaters, holding back the tide, whilst the water becomes congested elsewhere.
Now, under the influence of the freshening wind, the "Mondavia" began to roll heavily upon the swell, and seeing that the upper part of the ship had been destroyed piecemeal by a hurricane of shells, she was in no fit condition to weather even the suspicion of a squall.
She began to ship water from the very first; and soon afterwards, Crouch, who was scanning the horizon with great anxiety, watching every shift of the wind, came to the conclusion that, unless the wind dropped as abruptly as it had risen, the "Mondavia" would go down.
The afternoon was now well advanced. The surface of the sea was broken in all directions by a great number of white waves running strongly northward. It was low tide, and on some of the shallows the foam showed white as snow in the sunlight that was now, for the first time that day, breaking from behind the clouds.
The "Mondavia" rolled as a ship rides at anchor. Her engines had been rendered useless; she was not capable of steaming a hundred yards. In addition to this her steering-gear was so seriously damaged, and the rudder itself so out of order, that she could do nothing else but drift, like a derelict, upon the tide.
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