For the Freedom of the Seas/Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

THE BATTLE IN THE NORTH SEA

NELSON reached the deck confused, half-awake. In his ears was the terrific wailing sound that had sent him instinctively tumbling from his hammock. For an instant he blinked and strove to gather scattered faculties. Up and down the deck hammocks were emptying and feet padded hurriedly past. He grabbed at his clothes, his heart leaping as the meaning of the din came to him. It was General Quarters! The bugle had taken up the alarm and the quick notes sounded nearer and nearer. The dim electric lamps still glowed, but a wan light from open ports showed daylight outside. Already the watch was connecting fire hose. Somewhere near at hand the shrill, piercing shriek of a siren drowned the gongs and bugles. The shriek rose and fell deafeningly and grew fainter. Nelson knew without seeing that a destroyer had dashed past them astern. The rudder chains were groaning, and from the engine rooms came a louder hum and clatter. Sleep was gone now, and he hurried to his station. Shells were already coming up, and as Nelson fell in the command of "Stations!" was given. Through the port, as he sprang to the training wheel, lay a segment of choppy, drab ocean across which a gray destroyer was hurtling with clouds of oily smoke whirling back from her four stacks. A leaden sky was overhead and a sea-mist hung like a curtain a few miles away. From the destroyer came a flash of pale rosy light and the sharp bark of a four-inch gun.

"Bore clear!"

"Load!"

A geyser of water shot into the air astern of the destroyer.

"Rotten shooting, Fritz!" muttered a shellman as he rammed home. Waiting, Nelson peered tensely into the mist. Once he thought he saw a gray shadow there, but was not certain. "Ready!" The officer spoke sharply into the telephone. Then they waited, plugman, pointer, trainer, sight setter, shellmen and powdermen. A second destroyer reeled past at a good thirty knots, a "Limie" this time, her siren blowing hysterically as she demanded sea room.

"Gangway for Lord Goldashington," murmured the sight setter.

Suddenly from farther forward came the sharp, clear explosion of one of the Gyandotte's bow guns. Someone behind Nelson growled impatiently. Then the fire control system awoke to life.

"Now, then, men! Look alive!" called the division officer. "Show 'em what Number Four can do!" Wheels were turning and the gun was coming swiftly to the unseen target. A moment of suspense, and then:

"Commence firing!"

It was the United States destroyer Banks whose foretop lookout, peering into the early morning mist, had caught sight of a tell-tale streak of darker gray against the water and had sounded the warning. Almost by the time the officer on the bridge had found the object with his glasses it was gone, but the Banks, signaling the alarm to the flagship, had swung out of line and gone tearing off in the direction of the Fritz. The flagship gave hurried orders and the plan of action already provided was carried into effect. The freighters crowded on all steam and went wallowing south westward at their best gaits, while every second convoy swung out of line and went into action with a fine enthusiasm. For a good two minutes nothing was seen nor heard of the foe, but when a torpedo had missed the British, destroyer 143 by a matter of yards only it was evident that the Banks' lookout had not been mistaken. A second torpedo a moment later tore into the stern of a cargo boat, its direction proving that the first U-boat was not alone. But none had sighted the second sub, and after that first fire the Allied ships became silent and contented themselves with circling about the supposed lurking places of the U-boats and dropping depth bombs. Gray green water spouted over a wide radius, but the Huns had fled. For twenty minutes the destroyers dashed here and there, their sirens shrieking warnings to each other, while the Gyandotte, for want of anything to fire at, steamed back to her position, disgruntled. This was at a quarter past five and about one hundred and fifty miles west-south-west of the Naze, approximately 57 North and 4 West. The excitement lasted about one hour, at the end of which time the destroyers in action sped back after their companions. On the Gyandotte the command "Secure" was not given, however, and the crews stood by the guns. At shortly after six, twenty-two minutes after by Nelson's watch, the second engagement began.

This time three periscopes were sighted almost simultaneously to the southeast at distances varying from six hundred to fourteen hundred yards. Seven torpedoes were seen, three of which found marks. The steamer Bok Fjord, one of the larger freighters, was struck amidships and went down three hours later. A British destroyer, the 86, was put out of action and a second Norwegian, the Ymir, sustained slight damage. The first shots at the Germans were well placed but the U-boats had already submerged. Depth charges were again dropped and, it was believed, one sub was accounted for. A quarter of an hour after the first alarm was given lookouts spied smoke above the low bank of mist to the eastward, which presently evolved itself into a flotilla of enemy ships. These consisted of eight destroyers and three light cruisers, and at about seven the first shells from the latter were fired. Eight of the Allied ships, seven destroyers and the Gyandotte, had immediately left the convoy and steamed to meet them, scattering so as to cover the merchantmen which, with the exception of the Bok Fjord, were all able to keep their course. This third engagement became general at seven-fifteen.

The Gyandotte opened up at six thousand yards, by which time she had been struck once without much damage, finding herself opposed to a slightly more formidable cruiser which afterwards proved to be the Dornburg. Separate engagements soon developed, with several of the smaller German destroyers hanging back during the first phase of the battle and firing at long range without much execution. A calm sea, with little wind, made for good sighting, but smoke hung close to the surface and frequently obscured the target. The Gyandotte used only her bow guns at first, drawing the Dornburg away to the southeast. Superior speed gave an advantage to the latter, however, and she was eventually able to choose her position. The Gyandotte stood off under a heavy broadside fire and brought her stern guns to bear, and finally her starboard broadside. Her marksmanship was proving superior, although the Dornburg had the advantage of more guns. The two ships drew southwestward, firing at about five thousand yards, and continued on that course until the Dornburg, having been thrice hulled amidships, showed distress and was evidently unable to answer to her helm. She turned westward and sought to escape, but the Gyandotte, taking up a position to starboard, held a parallel course and, while suffering severe damage herself, soon had the Dornburg at her mercy. After forty minutes, during which the two ships had drawn some ten miles from the main engagement, the Dornburg was seen to be on fire aft. She was now using only three stern guns and these were presently silent, and from the Gyandotte they could see the crew assembling forward. By this time the after part of the German cruiser was hidden by smoke clouds. An explosion of ammunition tore a gaping hole forward of the mainmast and a minute later the cruiser listed to port. The Gyandotte withheld her fire and demanded surrender. To this there was no reply. A band assembled and the strains of the "Watch on the Rhine" floated from the doomed ship. Already many of the crew were going overboard, although apparently no order had as yet been given. The Gyandotte lowered boats, but a new enemy appeared and they were recalled. A blue-gray destroyer of some nine hundred tons was bearing down from the northward and the Gyandotte at once engaged her. This action was short, for the destroyer was twice hulled at seven thousand yards, and, although she kept ahead for awhile, firing from bow guns and launching two torpedoes, she presently turned tail and made off toward the coast. Her shots did small damage and neither torpedo struck, although one came to the surface within a few yards of the Gyandotte's bow.

The Dornburg's commander refused to surrender and the Gyandotte again lowered away boats. By this time the crew of the German ship were going overboard en masse and the ship was well down by the stern. The Gyandotte picked up one hundred and forty-four officers and men, while a large number went down and many dead and wounded remained aboard. The Dornburg sunk at eight-fifty. Her captain stayed with her, but was rescued a few minutes later apparently none the worse for his heroism. The Gyandotte attended to her own wounds, many but mostly superficial, and rejoined the flotilla shortly before nine. She had lost one officer and twelve men and had more than twenty injured. Two guns were out of commission and an explosion below deck had wrecked a port boiler. Two compartments were flooded when she made her way back. Above deck she was pretty well littered, for the Dornburg's fire had been high.

What had been going on during her engagement was not at first apparent, but as she drew nearer the scene of action it was evident that the Germans had had all they wanted. Three destroyers were fleeing to the eastward, dropping mines as they went, pursued by two British craft, firing with telling effect. Northward a fourth had surrendered, while, fair in the course of the Gyandotte, poking her nose through the mist, a German light cruiser was in flames. The Gyandotte picked up signals and veered to the westward where the merchantmen were doggedly holding their course. As it turned out later, they had had their troubles, they and the ships left to guard them, for a U-boat had again attacked and had got home on a fourth freighter which, as the Gyandotte drew near, was spouting smoke forward. Three miles away a destroyer was circling in a vain endeavor to And the sub, while two others were standing by the burning ship.

At ten o'clock the engagement was over, having occupied just under four hours and resulted in a decisive victory for the Allied forces. Germany had lost two of three cruisers and three of eight destroyers. Of the latter, one was captured and was later able to reach Newcastle under her own power. The cruisers, Domburg and Ernten, sank, the latter, slightly larger than the Gyandotte's adversary, first burning to the water's edge. Of the Allied ships, the British destroyer Jade was sunk by a torpedo and the 276, attacked simultaneously by a destroyer and cruiser, was fairly riddled before a lyddite fire broke out and caused her abandonment. She was ultimately torpedoed and sunk by the flagship. Of the United States ships only the Grayson was lost. She was made helpless early in the battle when a shell tore away her whole stern. Attempts to tow her out of range were unsuccessful, and, in spite of the efforts of her officers and crew to save her, she sank shortly after. The Allies lost four officers and thirty-one men and had upwards of sixty injured. Against this the German loss was approximately eighty dead, of which fully a third were drowned, over a hundred injured and two hundred and seventy-two taken prisoner. Of the cargo boats the Bok Fjord was sunk and three others more or less seriously damaged, with a loss of six lives and injury to as many more. Temporary repairs were effected by one o'clock, by which time the warships were again in formation and the flotilla was headed back on its course under reduced speed.

Wireless messages had been picked up promptly and soon after one o'clock four destroyers came boiling out of the west. Too late to get into the scrap, after a two hundred mile race at thirty-two knots or better, the Limies looked the dejection they undoubtedly felt as they wheeled around behind the columns and followed to within sight of the coast. There were no more alarms, and the convoy dropped anchor off Tynemouth at daybreak the next morning.