|Posted by Andy on September 24, 2014 at 2:05 AM|
Pushing the box aside with one hand, Captain Weathersby glanced at his watch. Noting the time, he ran a hand roughly through his greying rumpled hair and sighed heavily. They’d be entering the mouth of the Mersey within the hour, he thought.
Turning his attention back to the matter at hand, he sighed again. How had it all gone so wrong? Where had he failed? He cast his mind back to the last few days, forcing himself to recount all that had occurred. He buried his head in his hands once more. It would all come out anyway, in time, through the inevitable cursed review board. “Damn them all to hell”, he thought.
He had been so full of excitement, sailing out of Gibraltar on June 10th, just eight long days ago, knowing that none other than “Johnnie” Walker was in command and twenty-four merchants were under their protection.
The weather had deteriorated so quickly then, and that alone should probably have forewarned all of them what they were in for. Now, days later, he hoped the crews of the straggling City of Oxford and Camarata made it safely to port.
That first night, when all hell had broken loose, that was a shock to them all. He’d been on the bridge, monitoring their progress, guiding Jonquil through the night, when the first explosion had lit up the night sky. No one really knew how many U-boats they’d faced, but that first night saw the loss of Baron Graham and Lyminge, and eventually the Merkland too. But it was the sudden and unexpected loss of Rother, torpedoed unexpectedly, that hit home the hardest. Fellow warriors sent to their Maker with nary the slightest warning.
Weathersby paused his lamenting for a moment, and gently placed a hand on the box, shifting in his chair as he did. He remembered how he’d come upon that box. He’d won it in a game of poker in Gibraltar, fair and square. A lovely box it was too, inlaid with ivory on all four sides. Like the ivory carried by the ill-fated Empire Tern.
He lowered his shoulders and glanced at his sweaty palms. The Empire Tern, sunk later that same first night, in the wee hours of the 11th. That second attack managed to damage the Empire Moon as well, he recalled, before daybreak came and chased those damned sub-mariners away.
Thinking back to those events that were now nearly a week past, he could remember the terror they all had felt when they heard the drone of an approaching aircraft. The men had been so brilliant at their AA mounts, and at least, he thought, there was a little bright spot that day, as he smiled slightly at the thought of the frustrated Jerry pilot who had headed home unsatisfied.
“Wipe that stupid smirk off your face”, he thought to himself, “you have nothing to be happy about today”.
He raised his head and glanced in the direction of the box. It had made a good place to store his personal trinkets, he thought. He reached for the whiskey bottle and poured another round.
They’d all had a respite after that. A calm night on the 11th, a blessing, really. The men had celebrated with a little tipple, nothing excessive, just a touch, but it was warming and welcome nonetheless.
But the jubilation had been short lived. While the loss of the merchies and Rother had been tragic, he grimaced inside when he remembered Beagle. Losing an escort is never a good thing, losing two was even worse. But he had trusted Walker. Hell, they all had. So you really couldn’t have blamed him for sending Beagle away, early on the 12th, to investigate a contact. No one really wanted to talk about it; no one wanted to think about Beagle’s fate. All anyone really knew was that she hadn’t rejoined the convoy. He hoped, as he knew they all did, that they would see their friends on Beagle again.
Recalling the events of the afternoon of the 12th, then, brought Weathersby a fleeting moment of pride and pleasure, but his misery and feelings of guilt made the moment pass quickly. Another possible contact, signals from Walker; but this time it was their turn to investigate. He recalled for a moment how proud he’d been when he’d read Walker’s signal. Jonquil had been sent to hunt.
He knew his men had performed brilliantly that day, and Jonquil could, with any luck, at least claim they’d badly hurt an Eytie submarine. His logs would reflect admirably on their performance, even if he knew his more recent actions were an embarrassment to himself, his crew, and his family.
Straightening his back, he lifted the glass to his lips. The liquor was warm in his mouth, he tossed it back. “How could I have been so stupid!” he cried aloud, and threw his glass across the small cabin.
Burying his head in his hands once more, he grunted. Like the calm that befell HG-84 on the 13th, Weathersby took a slow, and deep, breath. Complacency is never a good thing, and the men, he thought, had started to get comfortable with the quiet.
“Idiots”, he grumbled low, under his breath. The 14th had seen an RAF Sunderland appear for a time, a welcome site for the men, “They’d all been fools”, he mumbled to no one in particular.
Nightfall on the 14th, and the tossing turning seas that night had led to the breaking of the silence. Explosions had again lit up the night. Fortunately, Jonquil had been in the right place then, following the subsequent torpedoing of Kitchener and Empire Moon. At least he and his men had been able to contribute something, by keeping one U-boat under sonar contact, for a time.
He reached towards the bottle then, “fuck the glass”, he thought.
Once that immediate threat had ended, they’d hoped that, like the other stragglers, Kitchener and Empire Moon, too badly damaged to keep up with the convoy, would make it on their own. Walker and Brueggeman had been determined to press on, without them. Those poor bastards.
Taking a swig from the bottle, he thought briefly about the object in the box. When had he used it last? India? Panama? Damned if he could remember straight. He took another swig and lowered the bottle to the table with a dull thud.
He’d come knocking soon, his Exec. Letting him know they were near the harbor entrance. How would he react? Would he give it away? He thought not. He knew what he had to do. Knew that the shame of what he’d already done was too great.
He stopped then, for a moment, and with sudden awareness, truly understood when it had all fallen apart for him. He’d looked up to "Johnnie". He’d trusted in him, believing that he’d be there to carry on leading them all. How could he be gone now? He reminisced, remembered the other night, when the convoy had lost Stork.
The quiet had been first broken that night by gunfire. He’d heard that a U-boat had fired first, but missed. He remembered the brilliant lights, as the merchants had quickly loosed their star shells. And even as the escorts had begun their search, a tremendous explosion had rocked them all. The Egyptian had been hit. Tense moments had followed as the light from the star shells ebbed.
Then it happened. Somehow, against all sense and reason, Stork had been torpedoed. They had lost their stalwart leader in that brief, incredulous, instant, and despite all that Copeland had done and would do, throughout their journey, as HG-84’s rescue ship, she could not rescue “Johnnie” Walker and his crew.
Soon after, a foreshadowing of his own ineptitude had occurred. As the convoy had tried to escape total destruction, its sudden starboard turn caused Vanellus to hit the stricken Stork. Wild Swan followed suit, colliding with Pelayo in an effort to get at a U-boat. And while Vanellus had, for the moment, been lucky, Pelayo would inevitably be lost that night from her damage. The irony suddenly took hold of him. Vanellus would become a factor days later, in his own nightmare.
He had Jonquil on the opposite side of the convoy from all this action, but his men were on their toes, and he knew that night that they’d done their duty to its fullest. For even as young Gibson was reporting a radar contact, one final explosion had erupted in the night. They learned later that the Norwegian tanker Slemdal had also been hit, and sunk. But at the time, Jonquil was focused on pursuing her own contact.
With a U-boat in their sites, they bore down, in the hopes that they would avenge their lost comrades-in-arm. They would never find out for certain, as after hours of prosecuting their contact, the needs of the convoy had required that they break off their attack.
After the adrenaline of that night had ebbed, and the convoy had regrouped, the shock of what had been lost hung thick like a fog over all of them. They all knew, at the time, that Liverpool was close at hand. Hoped that they could make it with no further loss of life.
He slammed his fist on the table, “how wrong we all were!” he grumbled, forcefully.
“Skipper, is everything ok?”, came a voice at his cabin door.
“Yea, I’m fine!!”
He glanced at the box, ran his fingers over its textured surface. How could he have been so careless? Had he been trying too hard? Did it really matter, now, anyway? Now that he had resolved to act? He toyed with the latch on the box, tugging on his short beard with his other hand.
The 15th had dawned as he knew it must, following that terrible night. They had contented themselves with licking their wounds and maintaining their vigilience for new threats. Learned to adjust to a new SOE in Stephenson, aboard Gardenia.
The monotony of being on constant lookout was rewarded briefly with the sighting of another ship on the horizon. Concerned about their dwindling escorts, Stephenson had decided not to dispatch an escort to investigate. Instead, he had signalled all of them to redouble their efforts in keeping a sharp eye out for adversaries and other threats.
At midday a long range Hudson flew overhead, providing them, for a time, an added sense of security. At nightfall they all took their usual added precautions.
Sometime that evening, he remembered, Shetland had reported mechanical problems, wihich forced her to drop out of formation. Stephenson, again, decided the greater good could not afford an escort be left to hang with the straggler, so Shetland was left to her own devices.
Around 2300 hours, an explosion shattered the sounds of a routine night, the flash coming from the direction of Empire Conrad. Jonquil had remained on station, guarding another flank of the convoy. Her time would come, his moment of stark failure would come, the next night, the night of June 16th, 1942.
He paused then, shook his head, and shuddered. Fighting back a tear, he wondered if he really wanted to recall what had happened next. "Want" was always a relative term. He knew he had to. At least this one last time. Had to review the actions of that night, as his last act on earth. For the sake of the victims, if nothing else.
That night had been a nasty one, in so many ways. The weather had been horrendous, he recalled. He knew the Polish escort, Krakowiak, recently arrived with Spey to help shepherd the survivors, had been dispatched earlier in the evening to hunt for another contact. He hadn’t heard yet what they’d found out, nor now, he supposed, would he ever. What did it matter now, anyway?
He’d had Jonquil to port of the convoy, Spey, Convulvulus, and Gardenia were running forward of the herd. As he’d heard it told yesterday, Spey had apparently caught sight of the U-boat’s scope on the water, and her crew had been on their toes and able to drop a right proper rasher of chargers on top of it.
While he had been quickly bringing Jonquil around to get his own fix on Jerry, the first freighter, Empire Kestrel, was hit hard by at least one torpedo. A mighty explosion and bright flash had lit up the night, hammering home for all the terror of the moment, as they all struggled to get to grips with their new reality.
He began to really sweat then, as he struggled to focus and recall the rumors he’d heard as he painfully reconsidered Jonquil’s part in the whole affaire. He knew they’d dredge it all up in that damnable hearing of theirs.
He remembered the U-Boat had been forced to the surface, trying to flee from them, and that a surface gunfight in the darkness of night had erupted, just as the ship Etrib was also hit. Whoever that U-Boat commander had been, he was good, or there were two or even three of those flaming subs out there that night. That would have been typical of their luck.
He was shaking then, and even as he tried to calm himself, he could tell that the memories of that night would haunt him and ruin whatever life he’d have left. He couldn’t let that happen. Couldn’t, wouldn’t, allow these memories to ruin his future, or his family’s future. That’s why he had to play them out in his mind this one final time, as his left hand rested on the box.
Re reached back into those memories, painfully, and recalled that the U-Boat crew had traded shots with a charging Convolvulus, as Spey and Gardenia did what they could with their own guns. Even his Jonquil was able to get a few shots off, albeit ineffectively.
None of them could believe it then, it was happening before their very eyes, Convulvulus was hard charging at the grey shark, aiming right for her stern, and with a gut wrenching screech, she had rammed the German! What lasting damage had been done to Convolvulus, he hadn’t heard, but he knew that the collision must have driven the U-Boat down, beneath the waves. What had once been a fleeting surface engagement quickly became an undersea hunt.
Weathersby’s hand was squeezing the armrest, his knuckles turning white with the strength of his grip. His brow furrowed, forehead glistening with sweat, as he relived once again that horrific moment, the moment his actions as commander of Jonquil cost fellow sailors their lives.
As they were nearing the last known position of the U-Boat, he had barked orders to prepare a brace of depth charges. He was certain that they would at that moment have their revenge for having lost so many on this journey. Was it blind rage and a desire for revenge that prevented him from seeing the danger? Was it the sudden flash of an explosion and the loud report that followed as Vanellus was, in that instant, also hit by an unseen menace? Why hadn’t someone aboard Jonquil seen the Kerma looming before them, and warned him? Why hadn’t he seen her himself?
It was too late, oh so late. Even as they had crossed over the U-Boat’s position, and the charges were let go, he had looked up and realized his mistake. Shouting at the top of his lungs for his helmsman to turn hard over, it had done them little good. While in that rapid move they had avoided a direct hit, the glancing blow across the port fore quarter of Kerma was danger enough to all. With a tremendous grinding and screeching, Kerma’s hull was ripped open below the water line.
What had followed then was a blur now. Orders shouted, the U-Boat all but forgotten, as both ships had quickly seen to their damage and casualties. The collision itself had thrown him about, but his seated position on the bridge had saved him from serious injury. The same could not be said for many others aboard both vessels. The injuries and deaths were on his back. They would always be on him.
He paused then and began sobbing, uncontrollably.
There was a gentle knock at the door. “Ten minutes, skipper. The harbor master’s launch is coming alongside. Harbor master says two naval MPs are preparing to come aboard.”
This was it, then. They were coming for him. They knew, already. Knew his culpability in the collision, and must have guessed at his inner shame. It was time to do this. To save his family from the shock of what would surely come.
Weathersby sighed one final time, reached over and unlocked his cabin door, opened the box, and drew out his revolver…
The launch pulled up alongside the halted Jonquil, and tied up to her. The harbor master crossed over, followed by two naval MPs. As the group made its way across Jonquil’s deck, the ashen look of shock on the crew’s faces became evident. The harbor master could swear he heard someone mutter the words “Skipper” and “overboard”.
The two MPs pushed past the harbor master, then, and strode forcefully towards one particular sailor. Seaman Botond pulled away from them, knowingly, as the MPs grabbed him and placed him under arrest.
“Botond here is wanted for dereliction of duty and desertion”, said the harbor master, to no one in particular. The crew of the Jonquil just stood there, in shock, and stared, as the sun finally set over convoy HG-84, and the silent Liverpool dock yards.
Categories: Convoy HG-84