the sinking of u83

from my mystery ships by Gordon Campbell V.C.

On the previous night we had heard two submarines talking to each other. It was nothing very unusual, but, for some reason undefinable, we were particularly interested.
At 9.45 a.m. on the I7th we were on our easterly course 'homeward bound' in about longitude 11 degrees west, latitude 51 degrees north. The sea was calm, it was a nice fine day, and everything looked peaceful. Suddenly a torpedo was seen approaching from our starboard side: it was fired at a great range and we would have had time to avoid it, but ( as had been prearranged) we wanted to make sure it hit. Nothing, therefore, was done till it was close to the ship and coming straight for the engine- room. At the last moment, when it would be too late for the enemy to see our movement, I put the helm over to avoid unnecessary loss of life and brought the torpedo just abaft the engine-room, which undoubtedly saved the lives of those below, but caught us on the bulkhead and flooded, in consequence, two-thirds of the ship.
Whilst the torpedo was approaching, I sang out to the Navigator, who was in the chart-house working out his morning observations, " Look out, we are going to get it all right."
He only bobbed his head outside and said, " Aye, aye, sir; just time to finish this sight," and back he went, quite disinterested except to complete his job, which was to have our position always accurate in case we wanted it.
The torpedo exploded with a great crash and knocked several of us down, including myself.
Smith, who was on watch in the engine-room and nearest to the explosion, had the worst shaking, but he quickly recovered himself and went to his panic-party station in charge of a boat. After getting up, I observed a thing which I hadn't foreseen and I couldn't help laughing at. It will be remembered that we had drilled for nearly every emergency, and how I would say " Torpedo coming," and then "Torpedo hit " or "Torpedo missed." Now the torpedo had hit and I saw the men rushing for the boats, but on looking over the front of the bridge I saw a group of men still smoking and lolling over the ship's side when they ought to have been 'panicking.'
I shouted out to know why the something something they weren't rushing for the boats. The reply was, "Waiting for the order, sir, 'Torpedo hit.' "
They then joined in the pandemonium, and whilst the panic party were getting away in the boats, the submarine was seen watching us through his periscope about 200 yards off the ship. This will show the necessity of even the 'panic' being done in correct detail, and sure enough it was.
The boats were lowered in a fashion enough to give any Commander seven fits, and the crew got in anyhow; one boat was only partially lowered and then allowed to 'jam,' so that a rush was made for the next one, but two lifeboats and a dinghy eventually shoved off with 'all' the crew, Lieutenant Hereford with my M.O.B.C. hat getting down last.
An unrehearsed incident added to the panic, and this was through my friend the Chief Steward (who was a very fat man) getting pushed over the side with the crowd; his weight was too much for his arms to support from the rope and he landed with a great thud in the boat, squashing two or three men who were already in.
Whilst this pantomime was going on, things were happening on board. The ship had only two bulkheads and the torpedo had burst the after one, so that she was free to the water from the fore side of the boiler-room right to the stern, and she rapidly began to settle by the stern-so rapidly that our black cat, which had either been blown off the forecastle by the explosion or had jumped over in fright, swam down the ship's side and inboard over the stern.
The Chief Engineer reported that the engine- room was flooded, and I ordered him and his men to hide, which they did by crawling on the top gratings: the ship being abandoned, they couldn't come out on deck-again an unrehearsed incident, but Loveless and all of them knew the game we were out to play.
As soon as the boats were away, the submarine went close to them only a few yards off ; she was obviously going to leave nothing to chance, and it was as well that the crew were carefully dressed to their part with no service flannels. One of the crew in the boats was heard telling another, as the periscope was looking at them, " Don't talk so loud; he'll hear you!"
The submarine now came and inspected the ship at very close range, some 10 or 15 yards-so close that from my look-out at the starboard end of the bridge I could see the whole of his hull under water. The temptation to open fire on the periscope was very great, though obviously not the thing to do, as it would have done no harm. But it looked at the time as if, after getting deliberately torpedoed , we were going to have nothing to show for it since he appeared to be moving off.
The Chief had reported the ship sinking by the stern; still, there was nothing for it but to wait and watch the submarine move slowly past the ship and away ahead. All this time the men on board were lying hidden, feeling the ship getting deeper by the stern-in fact, the men at the after-gun were practically awash-but they all stuck it and never moved a muscle. Each one had a responsibility. Had one man got in a real panic and showed himself, the game would have been up; the scrutiny of the submarine was indeed a severe one.
The wireless operator, locked up in his cabin by himself, had to sit still and do nothing; he must have been aching to send out an SOS and have his picture in the illustrated papers next day as 'the man who sent out the SOS', but he knew we wanted no one to interfere with our cold-blooded encounter with the enemy.
After the submarine had passed up the starboard side, he crossed our bow and went over towards port; the signalman and I, therefore, did our 'belly crawl' and swopped places. At 10.5 a.m. the enemy broke surface about 300 yards on our port bow, but not in the bearing of any of the guns. Anyhow, things were looking more hopeful, and I was able to tell the men that all was going well.
The boats had by this time got to our port quarter , and towards them the submarine now proceeded. We heard afterwards that their intention had been to take the 'Master' prisoner and also get some provisions.
It was only a matter of waiting now, as the submarine was right up with conning tower open. It was obvious that she would pass very close to the ship, and we might just as well have all guns bearing, so as to make sure of it. As she came abreast of the ship the Captain was seen coming out of the conning tower. At this moment I gave the order to open fire-at 10.10- twenty-five minutes after we had been torpedoed. The White Ensign

fluttered at the masthead, and three 12-pounders, a 6-pounder, the Maxim guns and rifles all opened fire together. What a shock it must have been for the Captain suddenly to see our wheel-house collapse, our sides to fall down, and the hen-coop to splutter forth Maxim shots! But he had not long to think, as the first shot, which was from the 6-pounder , hit him, and I believe the first intimation the submarine crew had that anything was wrong was seeing their Captain drop through the conning tower.
The range was only about 100 yards so, the submarine never had a chance of escape. It seemed almost brutal to fire at such close range, but we had taken a sporting chance ourselves in decoying him to such an ideal position that one really had no other thought than destruction.
The submarine never seemed to recover from her surprise as she lay on the surface upon our beam, whilst we pumped lead and steel into her. Forty- five shells were fired in all, practically every one being a hit, so that she finally sank with the conning tower shattered and open, the crew pouring out as hard as they could. About eight men were seen in the water, which was bitterly cold and thick with oil. I ordered the boats to their assistance, and they were just in time to rescue one officer and one man~as the panic party called them, a " sample of each."
Thus ended U .83. That night we heard his pal calling him up on the wireless and receiving no reply.

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On August 8th- four days after leaving harbour- we sighted a submarine. it was at 10.58 in the forenoon, when we were in latitude 48 N. and longitude of 7 37' W. and doing a zigzag course, as all merchant ships did in those days.
The submarine was sighted on the horizon just before our starboard beam, and she was steering 'towards the ship. We assumed our usual role of a bad look-out and did nothing. She remained in sight till 11.17, when she submerged. We still hoped she was going to torpedo us, and she gave us a long time to wait and think about it; but our forecast from the wireless reports proved correct, and at 11.43, 45 minutes after we had sighted her, she came up nearly dead astern at a distance of about 5,000 yards, and the Captain opened fire with his big gun-a 4 inch, I think. Our organization for meeting this situation and decoying him now came into being. The Red Ensign was hoisted at the ensign staff and the 2-pounder gun at once returned the fire, with orders that the shots must all go well "short," in order to encourage him closer. They also had frequent misfires and delays-in fact, their firing was to be a perfect disgrace to any naval gunner. As a matter of fact, the crew consisted of three very fine men- Leading Seaman Cooper, Seaman Williams, V.C., and Wireless Operator Statham. They had a difficult job, and were fully exposed to the enemy shell fire, without any cover, and not only did they carry out their job to perfection, but appeared to enjoy the humour of it.
The ship herself was pretending to try to escape; in reality we reduced speed by 1 knot, which also reduced the range, but, in order to avoid any detection of our reduced speed, we made as much smoke as we could and only made an occasional zigzag.
As it happened, we were steering head to sea, which was not advantageous to the submarine, and had we really wished to escape I think we could have done so. In addition to our smoke and bad shooting, we attempted to assure him of our bona fides by making fake wireless signals en clair. There was just a chance he had his aerial rigged, and would take them in; we therefore made such signals as "S.O.S.," "Submarine chasing and shelling me," "Submarine overtaking me," "Help, come quickly." None of these signals had any position attached to them, so that no one could interfere with us; but of course they were a source of annoyance to the Lizard and other stations, who kept asking, "What is your position?" to which we gave no reply, being in too much of a "panic."
Whilst all this was going on, the men who usually lounged about took such cover from the shelling as they could. This would be the ordinary procedure of a tramp, and in any case the submarine was too far off to see what was happening on board. As a matter of fact, the precaution was unnecessary, as at this period, although the shelling was very persistent and he must have fired a lot of rounds, yet he never hit us. Nearly all his shots fell just over the bow-in fact, we were steaming into them all the time. Of course, from where the submarine was, he would not see the splashes, and was probably under the impression he was hitting us.
At 12.10, after having shelled us for half an hour and apparently being satisfied that our after-gun wasn't much good, he ceased firing and steamed towards us at apparently full speed. Whilst closing us he didn't fire, as I presume he was unable to do so owing to the sea. At 12.25 he turned broadside on and reopened fire. He was now about 1,000 yards off, and I passed the word along to stand by to abandon ship- but I had to wait for the psychological moment before playing this next card. I didn't want to get hit, but I didn't want to make the next move precipitately. His shooting was getting more accurate, as he was now slightly on our quarter and could see his own splashes, so would know where most of his shots were falling, and they were now going all around us.
This part of the action went on for a quarter of an hour, when at 12.40 the moment arrived for the next move. A shot fell a foot or so off the ship's side abreast the engine-room. I instantly turned steam on from the bridge and enveloped the centre part of the ship in steam to pretend we had been hit in the engine- and boiler-rooms. At the same moment the ship was stopped, steam blown off, and "Abandon ship" was ordered. The panic party got busy and the usual pandemonium reigned. The 2-pounder also ceased fire, and was abandoned. At the last moment an en clair signal of "Am abandoning ship" was also made.
At the time of ordering "Abandon ship," I put the helm to starboard, which brought our port beam towards the submarine. It would be natural for a ship to fall off her course on stopping, and also I wanted him to see the panic party. A boat on his side was let down end up and all the usual procedure took place.
As soon as we stopped he naturally closed rapidly, but fired three more shells before ceasing fire. Probably he didn't realize at once we had stopped. Be that as it may, the three shells were unlucky for us: the first one of this three hit the poop and a big explosion took place. I thought at first by the noise of the explosion that the magazine had blown up, in which case the game would be up. I couldn't see at the time what exactly had happened owing to the steam, nor did I realize that the explosion was a comparatively trivial thing compared with what was to follow, so I made a wireless signal to "men- of-war" that the magazine had blown up and I required assistance. I did not know how far off the nearest of H.M. ships was, as we were off the area of the ordinary patrols, but I thought it would be about 50 miles away. I had always to keep in mind that although we didn't want ships in sight whilst our job was in hand, as their presence would cause the submarine to submerge, yet assistance was desirable as quickly as possible after an action: in the first place to save the ship, if the action had been successful; and in the event of an unsuccessful one or your "hand being called "-as appeared the case now- assistance was required to save the crew. When once the submarine realized what he was up against, he could torpedo the ship till it sank- as he did on several occasions- and lives would be unnecessarily lost or the crew taken prisoners.
A few minutes later, when the steam cleared, I could see the poop was still intact and our secret not disclosed. I at once made another signal to all H. M. ships to "Keep away for the present." This was essential, as by chance a battleship escorted by destroyers happened to be homeward bound from the Mediterranean, and had answered my first call, saying she was sending a destroyer. This was the last thing we wanted, now we were still more or less intact. The destroyer therefore (unknown to us at the time) remained out of sight about 15 miles away and diverted all shipping.
As it turned out afterwards, this first explosion was probably only one depth charge-which severely wounded Statham of the 2-pounder gun's crew and also Seaman Morrison, D.S.M., R.N.R., who was in charge of the depth charges. This latter man was blown through the poop doors and was found by one of the 2-pounder gun's crew, who was on his way to join the "abandon ship" party. Morrison was trying to stagger back to his post, although badly wounded, because, as he said, "I am in charge of the depth charges and must get back to them."
This explosion also blew Bonner out of his hawser reel, but with great presence of mind he crawled into the hatch with the 4-inch gun's crew. The next two shells also landed in the poop and set it on fire. I have already described the contents of the poop, and I would sooner have had any other part of the ship on fire than that. The prospects did not look particularly hopeful, though it was now that I sent my signal to keep away, as there was still a chance. The panic party had in the meantime been busy and the boats were just leaving the ship.
The submarine having ceased fire was now steering towards the ship to pass under our stern, but black smoke was pouring out of the poop and going straight over the submarine. I was now faced with a great decision to make- the poop was on fire, the 4-inch gun and its crew were on the poop, in fact on the magazine. I knew for a certainty that the poop would blow up, and with it the gun's crew. I couldn't order the crew to leave the gun, as the ship was "abandoned" and the boats away. On the other hand, the submarine, although just visible, was hardly so, and each second was getting more obscured by the smoke. If I opened fire I would save the men on the poop, but would we get the submarine? I doubted it: the target was a too hazy one even to me, and I had the best view. If I waited a bit he would soon be through the smoke and on our weather side, and as he was coming along to pass close to us, this would be the opportunity to get him- not ideal, because when he ceased fire his gun's crew had returned inside the conning tower and the lid was shut; but it would be a reasonable chance and the best we would now be likely to get, for, as soon as the poop blew up, I knew our identity would be disclosed.
To cold-bloodedly leave the gun's crew to their fate seemed awful, and the names of each of them flashed through my mind, but our duty was to sink the submarine. By losing a few men we might save thousands not only of lives but of ships and tons of the nation's requirements.
I decided to wait-a decision I could not have come to had I not had the most implicit confidence in Bonner and his gun's crew: them in particular, but the whole crew left on board in general-as we all knew what the poop contained in the way of explosives, and perhaps the whole ship would be blown up.
At 12.58 the submarine was passing our stern, and it was now only a matter of seconds before he would be clear on the weather side and within 400 yards of my three 12-pounder guns (leaving out the 4-inch). At this instant a terrific explosion took place and the whole ship shivered. The stern of the ship was blown out, the 4-inch gun and crew complete were blown into the air, anti now the railway trucks proved of value in a way I had never foreseen. All the gun's crew except one landed on the railway trucks, and the canvas and wood broke their fall before they reached the iron deck, with the result that although they were all damaged, none of them was killed. The odd man landed in the water, and was eventually picked up by the panic party none the worse. The gun itself landed on the well-deck and the shells which had been round the gun all over the ship, one of them by the bridge, but luckily none of them exploded. The explosion was the worst of luck. Had it delayed a few seconds, I might have had a different tale to write; but there it was, and the immediate matter in hand was to face it.
As soon as the explosion took place, the submarine did a crash dive, but not before a couple of shots had been fired at her, one of which may possibly have been a hit. The explosion had started the open fire gongs, and the gun on the boat-deck, which was the only one that would bear, got in a couple of rounds. From the bridge the bow of the submarine crossing the stern was the only thing visible of her at the time of the explosion, but the whole of her was just visible as she dived, and I could see that the shots had not done any serious- if any- damage.
The White Ensign was now flying at the masthead. The Red Ensign could be seen dangling aft in the wreckage of the poop and the gun ports were down-in fact, we were a man-of-war in all respects. And, without going into the ethics of submarine warfare, there was no doubt that the submarine was in all respects entitled to sink us or kill us as best she could. But no further signal for help was sent, as we still had another card left up our sleeve, and now was the time to "Q abandon ship." He knew what we were and I knew that he would torpedo us. In the meantime, whilst waiting to be torpedoed, there was time for several things to be done. Under the charge of Surgeon Probationer Fowler, an excellent young Scottish surgeon, I had the wounded removed to the saloon and cabins, so as to be out of the way for the next round, and the hoses were rigged and turned on the poop. From such examination as could be made it was apparent that only the depth charges had exploded and the magazines were still intact. We could not get very near, as the whole place was in flames and the deck red-hot, but we could see that the after-part of the deck had been turned right back, like a piece of paper might have been, and we could also see one side of the magazine. Probably the second explosion had been the remaining three depth charges -about 900 lb. of T.N.T. and the ready ammmunition beside the 4-inch and 2-pounder guns.
Whilst the wounded were being removed and the hoses rigged, there was time to consider if there was any more that could be done, other than what we intended, to decoy our enemy, who I guessed would be extra wary. Of course, we could have got the men on board, steamed off, and got away to try again at a more favourable time after refit. This might have been the wiser course, but I hardLy gave it more than a second's thought-it savoured of running away.
The only alternative was to wait the inevitable torpedo and have another attempt to decoy him to the surface again. It was a sporting chance, with the odds heavily against us.
To wait on board a ship, with engines stopped and a fire raging round the big magazine, for a torpedo to be fired at you was certainly asking for trouble, but there was a certain amount of humour about it, and several of us had small bets as to where it would hit.
We didn't have very long to wait, as at 1.20, just over twenty minutes since the submarine had submerged, a torpedo was seen approaching from the starboard side, fired at a range of about 1000 yards. We watched its approach, and as this was the fifth time we had watched the same thing (there were only one or two men on board who hadn't been torpedoed before) it left us rather cold. It hit us with a crash, just abaft the engine-room: the hatches and railway trucks were blown about the place, and the bulkhead was started between the hold and the engine-room.
I now ordered "Q abandon ship," and an additional party of men started a new panic party.
The boat that had been left end up was now lowered and filled; the original panic party came back and picked up a few more men, and a raft consisting of barrels and spars was launched. This latter, we thought, would increase the realism of it being a final "abandon ship." Remaining on board were two 12-pounder guns' crews, two men at the torpedo tubes, four of us on the bridge, the Chief and one stoker and the nine wounded with the doctor-thirty-four all told, of whom twenty-three only were fit for fighting.
We were now reduced to only two guns. The crews that I kept back were the one on the fo'c'sle under Nisbet, which had a good arc of fire, and the "cabin" gun's crew under Frame, as this crew, without being seen, could man either the starboard or port gun. The White Ensign was already flying, so the signalman had joined in the "Q abandon ship" party, and I kept Hereford on the bridge with me, at the opposite end to myself, as I thought that the torpedoes might be required and either he or I could fire them. Andrews was in the wireless-room, Jack Orr was lying at the wheel- not that he could have steered if we had wanted to- but he was not cut out for an action station of any sort except at the wheel. Nunn was at his "exchange," by which he could communicate to the other parts of the ship and I with him either by shouting or voice-pipe.
At 1.40 p.m. the periscope of the submarine was sighted on the starboard bow, and for nearly an hour she steamed round and round the ship, with an occasional turn towards the boats, which were off the port side. It gave me a much-needed opportunity of borrowing a box of matchs from Hereford, as my pipe had gone out and I had run out of them. The dinghy had originally had the raft in tow, but was drifting a long way away from the larger lifeboats, and as would be quite natural, the men on the raft were taken off and crowded into the other boats, the raft being left adrift. The submarine appeared to treat this raft with some suspicion and examine it-perhaps they thought it was a decoy mine! One of the boats that at one time had been fairly close to the weather quarter had an unexpected shower of condensed-milk tins on it, one of the explosions having blown them through the stern.
Whilst the submarine was circling round the ship, the question, of course, came to my mind of trying to torpedo her. She frequently offered a good target, but I had no great faith in my torpedoes, and I looked on them as a last resort and preferred to wait a chance of gunfire. I thought that sooner or later she would be sure to come up.
While this long-drawn-out and very trying inspection was going on, the submarine sometimes coming a few yards off the ship, the fire on the poop was still raging and the magazine and shells were exploding in penny numbers; each box of cordite or shell exploded when it got to the right temperature and we went through an incessant banging of small explosions. The water which was entering the ship was also gaining, and slowly but surely flooding the ship. Steam in the boilers was dying out, as the ship being abandoned it would have been unrealistic to be seen stoking up through the funnel. We thus reduced any chance of escape.
Thus we waited till at 2-30 the submarine came to the surface, dead astern of us at a few hundred yards' distance. The 4-inch gun had gone, the 12-pounder gun on the boat-deck was masked by the mainmast, and no other gun would bear. It flashed through my mind to man the boat-deck gun and shoot away the mainmast, but I realized the time taken would allow the Captain time to dive. There was nothing to be done but wait. From his position right astern he opened fire with his big gun almost as soon as he broke surface, and shelled us for twenty minutes-a most unpleasant experience. From my look-out I could see his gun's crew go through all the motions of loading the gun, could see it fire, and then one waited to see where the shell would explode, and he was apparently firing high explosive. A Maxim was also firing at the boats and several of the shots fell very close to them. They pulled away, but Truscott, who had gone in charge of the dinghy with the "Q abandon ship" party, kept as close as he could to the ship, as he told me afterwards things looked ugly and he was going to save us if he could.
The first shell of all burst on the bridge, smashed my bathroom, and a large splinter went through the deck into the saloon, where the wounded were already having all the discomfort they could. This shell also removed Orr's cap as he was lying at the wheel, so I said to him, "Things are getting pretty warm." "Yes, sir," he replied; "I think I will change end for end," an expression used when a rope in a purchase is unrove and rove the other way, and so he turned right round and an extraordinary thing happened. A large splinter from the next shell passed between his legs-in other words, if he hadn't changed end for end he would have got it in the head and been killed.
A second shell burst on the bridge and removed the bulkhead which supported Nunn's voice-pipes, leaving them, however, standing, but he remained quite calm and continued making notes and attending to the voice-pipes.
It was now that our armoured ends of the bridge were of service, as but for them both Hereford and I would have been killed, for the plates were covered with splinters; and, as it was, Hereford got an unlucky one in his head, but happily only a small one.
During this short but heavy bombardment, though it was surprising what comparatively little material damage he did at close range, a message came up from the fo'c'sle gun to say one of the men had requested to take his boots off. This struck me as an extraordinary request, and I asked the reason why. The reply was the man thought the end had really come, and he would sooner die with his boots off.
The shelling only lasted twenty minutes. It was extremely unpleasant, but the men stood the strain and no one moved. I reminded them through the voice-pipe that the ship had the honour of the Victoria Cross to maintain. I don't think we could have stuck it much longer, as it appeared that she would shell us till we were reduced to a floating furnace, or else to surrender, which none of us thought of.
At 2.50 she ceased fire and submerged. Just before this she was just within the bearing of one of my 12-pounders, and I was hoping she would come on a better bearing, but it was not to be.
I thought that now the time had come for us to use our torpedoes if he again came in range, as he apparently had no intention of running the slightest risk at all, and so when he passed the ship again with only periscope showing at 2.55 at a distance of about 150 yards, I personally fired the port torpedo at him, but judging from the track of the torpedo it must have passed over him. Anyhow, he didn't see it, and circled round our bow. He passed so close on this occasion that I thought he must be damaged and was going to hit us- in fact, the foremost gun's crew reported he had, but in reality he hadn't.
I ordered Hereford to fire the starboard torpedo when he passed down that side. Eight minutes later this torpedo either failed to explode or grazed over the top, as we could distinctly hear it make contact. The submarine heard it, too, and promptly submerged.
The game was now nearly up and I signalled for assistance. I thought that she would simply torpedo us now till we sank, but I hurriedly arranged that, pending the arrival of assistance, we would not give in, but have a third "abandon ship," and that when torpedoed all the men remaining were to abandon ship except one gun's crew.
In the meantime we were able to get up out of our uncomfortable position and "admire the scenery." The men in the, boats were surprised to see us, especially on the bridge, as they thought we must all be done for, and they cheered with joy. One man, when he saw me, shouted out in a loud voice, "My oath, there's the blooming skipper still alive. Wouldn't they Huns give ninepence an inch for him?" I was honoured to think my skin was so valuable!
The next torpedo never came. I have learnt since that the submarine had none left, nor could he attack us again with gunfire, as, very unexpectedly, about half an hour after the submarine submerged, the U.S.S. Noma, an American yacht, which knew nothing about us, hove in sight. She sighted and fired at the periscope without success. At 4 p.m. the Noma was close alongside. The action, which had lasted for nearly five hours, was now at an end. It had been a fair and square fight and I had lost, but I had the great consolation of knowing that if any mistake was made, if anything was done that ought not to have been done, if anything was left undone that ought to have been done, then the only possible person to blame could be myself. My ship had been perfectly fitted out, and as for my crew, words can't say what I think- not a man failed, not a man could have done more.