1 June 2011

The Drowning: first chapter

The boat was done for. And so was he, but he would not admit it. During the second set of explosions he had been thrown against a bulkhead and he was in pain, but far worse was the noise inside his skull, a blare grown monstrous from a tiny seed: the very first sonar ping of the ASDIC.
    Soon after the seawater had reached the batteries, those men who had not already been killed and who had been unable to don their Dräger lungs had been choked. Georg had heard some of them quacking like Donald Duck, their voices distorted by the chlorine gas; yet it was even now possible that, elsewhere in the hull, others were being kept alive by pockets of air. Such a pocket remained here in the middle of the boat, under the conning-tower hatch.
    His conscience, as much as the pressure differential, would not let him open the hatch. As soon as he unscrewed it, the hull would flood completely.
    But his lung – a rubber and canvas life-vest with a rebreather – could only keep him alive for so long. The rebreather comprised a canister of soda-lime to absorb carbon dioxide while breathing foul air. The lung had besides a flask of compressed air, to enable underwater breathing. A lever could divert this air into the vest itself. The more of it he breathed, the less there would be for buoyancy. How long ago had he started using it? Ten minutes? Twenty?
    The blackness was colder and more loathsome than anything he had ever known. It was one with the water, the grindingly cold water, shoulder-high, filthy with diesel and debris, rising and taking him with it, so that, every so often, he had to change his position on the companionway.
    Even in these, the furthest reaches of human suffering, Georg still would not accept that he was about to die. The intelligence, stamina and good luck that had enabled him to get to the conning-tower were surely tokens of further survival. He had expected to find others here, but no. He was the only one. Through the chaos of the ruined submarine, wading, swimming, pushing bodies aside, solving in pitch darkness three-dimensional problems in topography and logic, he had been singled out by some benign force, some providence; some god.
    He had been raised in the Catholic Church. Under his goggles, his nose squeezed by the clip, his teeth clamped on the mouthpiece, inside the blare, he seemed to hear the words: “Nein. Es ist Gott.”
    No. It is God.
    Georg shut his eyes and tried to remember Helgart, her sodden photos in his wallet, then his mother, then something, anything, from his childhood – a sunlit street, his first bike, but it was no good. All he could think of was the ASDIC.
    During the middle watch the boat had been on the surface and surging westwards. At 0057, during an eerie break in the cloud cover, they had seen by moonlight a British warship, a corvette, probably of the Castle Class, alone, range no more than 3,000 metres and heading north, her approximate bearing 350 degrees. Her course and the course of the U-boat were due to have met.
    Freshly provisioned and fuelled, the boat was one of two sent out to rejoin five others of the flotilla, but Georg knew that his captain’s orders did not forbid independent action, especially against a vessel so stationed as to attack boats coming in and out of Saint-Nazaire. Despite the nearness of such a formidable enemy as the corvette, Werner calmly descended to periscope depth and released two torpedoes before giving the order to dive.
    No impacts were heard: the eels had missed their mark. The corvette would pursue.
    Werner was at first confident that he was outwitting her. At a depth of 45 metres and a speed of 8 km/h, to prevent all cavitation from the propeller, he set a course of 051. Once far enough behind the corvette, he headed, at the same speed, westwards for the open Atlantic. They were well out into the Bay of Biscay here, towards the edge of the Continental Shelf. The water was still uncomfortably shallow, between 70 and 95 metres.
    At 0211 the hydrophone picked up distant but approaching engine noise and wash: and ASDIC transmissions. Werner then turned north-east and the corvette went past. After that, he let the boat descend to the seabed, so cautiously that the hull, like a living skin, felt and tested the bottom – which seemed to be of sand, almost level – before committing itself to rest.
    She lay there for a long time, lights dimmed, her crew conversing only when necessary, and then in whispers. They had endured, and emerged triumphant from, many such games of cat-and-mouse. Werner was a master of disappearance.
    But tonight Georg had thought him over-cautious. Had Georg been in command, the boat would have been on the move again by 0400. That might have saved her; or not. The British were quartering the sea. And their captain was no fool.
    At 0443, the hydrophone operator reported the return of the corvette. Underwater or on the surface, they could not outrun her. Even starting the engines would risk detection.
    Soon the slow, regular pinging of the ASDIC became audible to the whole crew, growing louder, and louder still. Georg remembered looking at his fellow officers, like figures from some sacred painting, ranged about him in that silent, other-worldly light: some with eyes shut, or lips tightly compressed, or grimacing, here a fist clenched against a forehead, there a face raised as if to see through the hull, through eighty metres of night water to the approach of that sinister, implacable churning; and all the while the tones were growing louder and more insistent, ping, ping, ping, increasing in speed as well as volume, pincers of cunning, finding and grasping the length and shape of the boat where she lay.
    In the moment before the first slew of mortars went off, Georg caught Werner’s eye and saw him grinning.
    Then: pandemonium.
    Georg gripped his new rung more tightly. The boat had just listed even more to starboard. Very soon now, she would be full.
    He found himself climbing, slantwise, to the top of the companionway. His noisy breath became more rapid and urgent as he struggled with the hatch-screw. It began to move. At the Neustadt Unterwasserschule he had learned about decompression sickness, learned what an uncontrolled ascent from this depth would cause: agonizing joint pains, incontinence, visual abnormalities, burning chest pain in the sternal region, a vile sensation that thousands upon thousands of tiny insects were crawling upon one’s skin, and perhaps even permanent disability. None of these symptoms would arise for at least an hour, however, and for at least some of that precious time he would be breathing sweet, fresh air. He would be alive. He would have a chance. Maybe find some flotsam from the boat to climb up on, hope for a friendly current, a benign, providential current to carry him back to land. If not, the vest would at least keep his head above the surface while, bit by bit, he succumbed to hypothermia.
    At Neustadt, with the other cadets, he had practised this very manoeuvre. But the water there had been comparatively warm, and it had only been ten metres deep.
    The hatch came free. What air remained in the tower wallowed invisibly upwards. Trying to clear his Eustachian tubes, Georg kicked his legs to rise after it; and then his progress was rudely stopped. Something immovable and hard had caught hold of his vest and was pressing into the small of his back.
    From both training and temperament, he remained calm. By twisting his body and groping with his left hand he was able to ascertain what had happened. The steelwork of the bridge had been distorted, torn. A stray prong had punctured the vest.
    There would be no additional buoyancy on the surface. If he flipped the lever and diverted his air into the vest it would be wasted. The supply was still reaching his mouthpiece and was presumably undamaged.
    Far above him, he could see light.
    Taking hold of an adjoining section of the bridge, Georg pulled himself downwards, released his vest from the prong, and let himself go.

* * *

Urquhart was looking almost directly into the sunrise, studying with binoculars the smoothness of the swell. “Air bubble, sir,” he said. “Quite a big one.”
    Voss grunted. The wily Old Man had seen enough. This could be confirmed as a kill. It was high time to get going.
    The first air had surfaced twenty minutes ago. The sea was not only sheened with fuel but dotted here and there with flotsam, some of it identifiable as fresh provisions: apples, lettuces, carrots. “She must have been on her way out,” Voss had observed, when the first of them had appeared. “Bloody good job, too.”
    As he scanned the wreckage for floating papers, Urquhart was trying to imagine what it must have been like down there during the onslaught. He was a little claustrophobic and the very idea of service in a submarine appalled him. It was cramped enough here, on board the Arundel Castle.
    A new type of ASDIC had been introduced last year, together with the Hedgehog weapon-system, an array of forward-thrown mortars that for the first time had enabled sonar contact to continue uninterrupted during an attack. Until then the Germans had had things all their own way. Now their U-boat losses were just as heavy as those they had formerly inflicted on the Merchant Marine. Fully a third of encounters by destroyers and corvettes were resulting in a kill.
    Even as Voss said, “I think we could all do with some sleep”, Urquhart’s attention was drawn to something else. “Man in the water, sir!”
    “Abeam of us. About a hundred and fifty yards out.” Urquhart’s glasses were equipped with three sorts of internal filter. He slid the polarizing filters aside. That helped, a little, to sharpen the image.
    Everyone else on the bridge – Naylor, Thomas, Bentham, and Voss himself – now turned his binoculars that way.
    The man’s head and shoulders were filmed with diesel. With the rising sun behind him, the edges of his dark hair seemed bathed in a curious, oily, trembling halo of refractive light. Stubbled and aged about twenty-five or thirty, he was clad in a dark turtleneck sweater and some sort of orange-brown life-vest which seemed, however, not to be inflated. As if one shoulder were injured, he was trying ineffectually to wave. They could hear faint cries. “Helfen Sie mir! Helfen Sie mir!” Help me!
    It was incredible that anyone could have come up from that depth. Just incredible, after the bombardment they had meted out. Urquhart looked round, expecting Voss to give the order to lower a boat.
    The captain merely lowered his binoculars.
    With a premonition of horror, Urquhart glanced at the others. The Quartermaster, Bentham, evidently of like mind, had already turned in mute appeal to Voss. Naylor and Thomas, the more junior officers, were still watching the German.
    Lieutenant Commander Voss was a big man, physically, with very blue eyes and a full beard, a captain so distant and severe that the ship’s company had nicknamed him “God”. He was a career officer whose hatred of the enemy was said to have been inflamed by the death of his wife in an air raid on Cardiff. Urquhart did not know the truth of this. He knew only that once, at the wardroom table, he had heard Voss declare that his purpose in life, now, was simply to “kill Germans”.
    “Steer 352,” he told Bentham, in the matter-of-fact tone he adopted when giving orders. “Half ahead, both engines; revolutions 120.”
    “But sir —”
    “Go to it.”
    “But sir … if we get him aboard, at least we’ll know the U-number. And Naval Intelligence —”
    “Did you hear me, Officer of the Watch?”
    Bentham appeared to be on the point of protesting further. Then he said, “Aye aye, sir,” went to the voicepipe, and gave the orders to the wheelhouse and the engine room.
    Urquhart looked at Naylor and Thomas. They were not going to intercede. Did they really know nothing about the King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions? Or international law? Or the basic and humane rule of the sea? Perhaps they thought it reasonable that their commanding officer meant to leave a helpless man to die. After all, last night the Krauts had fired two torpedoes at them. Naylor was even wearing the beginnings of a smirk.
    Urquhart turned back to Voss. “I beg your pardon, sir,” he said. “It is my duty to remind you that, under the provisions of both the Geneva Convention and the KR and AI, a shipwrecked man of a belligerent force shall be treated as a prisoner of war. He must at all times be —”
    “The KR and AI?” Voss said. “You dare speak to me of those?”
    Urquhart had begun to tremble with rage. With all his might he was trying not to utter something irrevocable. The reason he and his countrymen were fighting this war was to uphold the values of civilization – the Geneva Convention and all the rest of it. That was why he was here this morning, tired, frightened, his life in abeyance, not knowing whether he would ever see his bride again. If his captain left that man behind it would all be worthless. They would be no better than the Nazis; might as well let them win.
    But Urquhart, faced with the intensity of that glare, could say nothing more. He was twenty-six years of age. Voss was fifty.
    Below, they had already raised steam. The screw had begun to turn. The ship had begun to move. Soon she would be making twelve knots, back on course from Gibraltar to Belfast and a refit. She was already leaving this place behind.
    Voss said, “I’m going to my cabin.”

* * *

On 2 June, 1944, at about one-thirty in the afternoon, Geoffrey Praed was walking down the Strand, not far from Charing Cross Underground Station, when he saw, among the other pedestrians on his side of the road, the approach of a fellow Navy man with a most familiar face.
    “Malcolm! What a surprise!”
    “Hullo, Geoff!” Urquhart said, just as delighted to have met so unexpectedly one of his term. “How are you?”
    “Well, I’m well, and you?”
    “I’m good. Glad to be on leave.”
    Praed had already seen from the double stripes on Urquhart’s sleeves that he had been made a lieutenant. There was also the gleam of a newish gold ring. “One snagged you at last, then. You’re hitched, I see.”
    “I most certainly am.” Urquhart guided him away from the centre of the pavement and closer to the adjacent shopfront. There, beside the taped window, he pulled out his wallet and produced two photographs of a blonde. At Dartmouth, Urquhart’s looks had done him no harm with the local talent, but this girl was gorgeous.
    “You lucky Jock dog,” Praed said. “What’s her name?”
    “Sylvia. We got married last year. You?”
    “Still single-o, alas. Not for want of trying.” He stood back a little. “What are you up to now?”
    “Corvette. She’s in for a refit. That’s how I’m here. Madame and I are spending a few days in town with her mother. But Geoff, tell me what you are doing.”
    “Shore job. Supply officer.”
    Urquhart gave a rueful smile. “Now who’s a lucky dog? Can you say?”
    “I’m Assistant Secretary to the C-in-C.”
    “Indeed! Mind you, it’s not the least bit undeserved. Even so, I’m impressed.” He seemed to consider for a moment before he said, “Have you got a few minutes? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
    A very great deal was going on, but Praed did not have to be back at his desk just yet. He knew a decent pub, round the corner in Villiers Street. Urquhart bought the drinks and suggested that they occupy one of the booths on the far side of the room.
    “It’s about a breach of regulations,” Urquhart began. “I don’t know what to do. My captain is involved.”
    “How so?”
    “Last month he abandoned a German survivor. Just left the poor bastard to drown.”
    Praed said nothing.
    “We were in the Bay of Biscay, coming back here. The watch picked up a surfaced U-boat heading west, range about three thousand yards. It was at night. Nearly a full moon. She must have seen us at the same time. She vanished, and a few minutes later we saw two incoming torpedo trails which, thanks be, passed well astern. The captain gave chase, as he would. The Germans knew their stuff but, believe me, he’s better. The sighting was at about one; four hours later he’d found them on the seabed at forty-five fathoms. You can guess what happened next. Then this Fritz popped up. Just the one. God knows how he got out in one piece.”
    “And you say he was left behind. Deliberately?”
    “I can’t tell you how callous it was.” Urquhart paused. “Even if we leave that aside, what about the intelligence we might have got from him? Wasted. Thrown away. Who knows how many men and ships that has cost us?”
    Praed contemplated his beer and realized that he was shocked. Despite all the horrors of the war, despite all that daily passed across his desk, he was shocked. He lowered his voice further, even though the adjoining booths were unoccupied. “Perhaps your captain thought there were other U-boats in the area. Biscay is U-boat Alley, after all: Brest, Lorient, Saint-Nazaire, La Rochelle, Bordeaux; we think they’re even using Vigo now. It might have been too dangerous for him to linger.”
    “He did mention that, just before the man came up, but how much longer would it have taken to bring him aboard? Either we observe international law or we don’t, and if we don’t, what’s the point?”
    Praed thought about the moral ambiguity he encountered in his work. In wartime the rules often had to be bent. He said as much.
    “Bent, perhaps,” Urquhart said. “But not broken.”
    “You helped to kill a whole submarine-full of men.”
    “We didn’t kill this one. He needed my help. Mine. I heard him crying out for it. ‘Helfen Sie mir!’ I shall never forget those words. I even dream about them. He was a German, in the Kriegsmarine. My direct enemy. The previous night he’d tried to kill me, but still he was my fellow man. And we just sailed away and left him. Geoff, this was a war crime, plain and simple.”
    Praed again regarded Urquhart without speaking. As cadets they had not been especially close: friendly, little more. He had not then seen the extent of Urquhart’s idealism. Or, perhaps, his innocence. He wondered how many other officers would have been so distressed by an incident like that. Nobody human would have liked it, of course they wouldn’t, but, as everyone kept reminding everyone else, there was a war on.
    Urquhart put down his beer glass. “The whole ship’s company know what happened. Morale is suffering. I’m dreading the day when we put to sea again.”
    “Who is your captain?”
    “Voss. Archie Voss, Lieutenant Commander.”
    “I don’t know him. What vessel?”
    “The Arundel Castle.”
    Praed could see the dilemma Urquhart was in. Every man was entitled to have a grievance heard; however, in ascending the chain of command a lieutenant’s complaint was made through his captain. The captain occupied an almost mystical place in the life of his subordinates. To go above his head was unthinkably disloyal and unpleasant. Moreover, such an act was hardly likely to benefit one’s career. “How many witnesses were there?”
    “On the bridge, three besides myself. Of those at least one might corroborate.” Urquhart obviously understood the implications for himself. “As for the men, I’m not sure how many saw what happened. But as I say, it’s common knowledge. Among a hundred and seventeen British sailors, excluding Voss and me, many of them on leave and dispersed all over the country.”
    “God, Malcolm. This really is pretty horrible. Look. Write to me about it, if you want. Set out all the facts. I’ll show the letter privately to my boss. That’s the best I can promise, but he’s a good sort and I hope he’ll talk to the Commander-in-Chief, who might then talk to the First Sea Lord. That’s more than possible. If it happens, the C-in-C will be compelled to act. Where are you based?”
    “All right. The Flag Officer there will probably be ordered to convene a Board of Inquiry. If your witness comes through, or even just on the strength of your sole testimony, we’re talking next about a court martial. The Admiralty Board will probably be made aware. They won’t like this one little bit and the trial will be held in secret. Can you imagine how damaging this story could be? How much good work it would undo? Not only here but in America. Canada. Among our allies everywhere. We’re supposed to occupy the moral high ground.”
    “Then what?”
    “Goodbye Voss. He’ll be removed. You’ll get a new captain.”
    “How will they keep the trial secret?”
    “A D-Notice. D for ‘defence’. They’re issued quite often these days. The Press are requested not to report, as a matter of national security. An editor ignores a D-Notice at his peril.”
    “What will happen to Voss? Will he be cashiered?”
    “I can’t say. How old is he?”
    “And still only a lieutenant commander? I’m beginning to get the picture.”
    Urquhart sat back, as if a great weight had just been lifted from his mind. “Geoff,” he said, “I’m so glad I ran into you today.”

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