It was generally admitted by flying-men,
even before the failure of the attempts to destroy
the Goeben while ashore in the Dardanelles early
in ’18, that the air-bomb was a most uncertain
and ineffective weapon against a large ship of any
class, but especially so against a warship with deck
The principal reason for this is that
the blunt-nosed air-bomb, no matter from how high
it may be dropped, has neither the velocity nor the
structure to penetrate the enclosed spaces of a ship
where its explosive charge would find something to
exert itself against.
This is why an 18-pounder shell, penetrating
to a casemate or engine-room, for instance, may easily
do more damage to a warship than an air-bomb of ten
times that weight expending its force more or less
harmlessly upon an upper deck.
Merchant ships, with their inflammable
and comparatively flimsy upper works, are more vulnerable
to air-bombs than are warships, but even of these
very few indeed have been completely destroyed as a
consequence of aerial attack. Some of the gamest
fights of the war on the sea have been those of merchant
skippers who, in the days before their ships had guns
of any description to keep aircraft at a distance,
brought their vessels through by the exercise of the
boundless resource which characterises their kind,
usually by sheer skill in manoeuvring. A very
remarkable instance of this character I heard of a
few days ago from a Royal Naval Reserve officer who
figured in it.
“I was in a British ship temporarily
in the Holland-South American service at the time,”
he said, “and we were outward bound from Rotterdam
after discharging a cargo of wheat from Montevideo.
It was before the Huns had raised any objection to
ships bound for Dutch ports using the direct route
by the English Channel, and also before the U-boats
had begun to sink neutrals on that run. Except
for the comparatively slight risk of encountering
a floating mine, we reckoned we were just about as
safe in the North Sea as in the South Atlantic.
Of course, we carried no gun of any kind no
heavy gun, I mean. We did have a rifle
or two, as I will tell you of presently.
“Why the attack was made we
never had any definite explanation. In fact,
the Germans themselves probably never knew, for they
tumbled over themselves to assure the Holland Government
that there was some misunderstanding, and that they
would undertake that nothing of the kind should occur
“My personal opinion has always
been that it was a sheer case of running amuck on
the part of the Hun aviator responsible for the outrage;
for, as I have said, we were empty of cargo, our marks
were unmistakable, and we were steering a course several
points off the one usually followed by the Dutch boats
to England. Anyway, he paid the full penalty for
his descent to barbarism.
“It was a clear afternoon, with
a light wind and lighter sea, and we were steaming
comfortably along at about nine knots, heading for
the Straits of Dover, when the look-out at the mast-head
reported a squadron of ’planes approaching from
“Presently we sighted them from
the bridge five seaplanes, three or four
points off our starboard bow. There had been reports
of noonday raids on Calais for several days, and I
surmised that those were Hun machines returning from
some such stunt.
“Holding to an even course,
the squadron passed over a mile or more to the starboard
of us, and it was already some distance astern when
I saw one of the machines I think it was
the one leading the ’V’ detach
itself from the others and head swiftly back in our
direction. There was nothing out of the way in
this action at a time when every ship was held in
more or less suspicion by both belligerents, and it
seemed to me so right and proper that the chap should
come and have a look at us, in case he had some doubts,
that I did not even think it necessary to call the
‘Old Man’ to the bridge, or even send him
word of what I took to be no more than a passing incident.
“Descending swiftly as he approached,
the Hun passed over the ship diagonally from
port quarter to starboard bow at a height
of six or eight hundred feet.
“‘That’ll end it,’
I thought. ’Our marks, and the fact that
we’re in ballast, ought to satisfy him.’
“But no. Back he came.
This time he was a hundred feet or so lower, and flying
on a line directly down our course, passing over us
from bow to stern. Again he swung round and repeated
the manoeuvre in reverse, this time at a height of
not more than four hundred feet. He had done
this five or six times before it occurred to me that
he was taking practice sights for bombing; but not
even then, when I saw him with his eye glued to his
dropping-instrument, did it occur to me that he was
doing anything more than trying his sights. It
was at the next ‘run’ or two that the
thing began to get on my nerves, and I called up the
skipper on the voice-pipe and told him I did not quite
like the look of the circus.
“The Old Man was in the middle
of his afternoon siesta, but he tumbled out and came
puffing up to the bridge at the double. He was
no more inclined to take the thing seriously than
I was, but, on the off-chance which your
careful skipper is always thinking of in the back
of his brain-box he rang up ‘More
steam’ on the engine-room telegraph, and ordered
the quartermaster to start zig-zagging, a stunt we
had already practised a bit in the event of a submarine
“‘If he’s just trying
his eye,’ said the Old Man, ’it’ll
give him all the better practice to follow us; while,
it he’s up to mischief, it may fuss him a bit.’
“The Hun had just whirled about
three or four cables’ length ahead of us, when
the smoke rolling up from the funnel and the swinging
bow must have told him that we were trying to give
him a bit more of a run for his money. Circling
on a wider turn, he came charging straight down the
line of our new course, flying at what I should say
was between two and three times the height of our
masts. We were looking at the machine at an angle
of about forty-five degrees so that he must
have been about as far ahead of us as he was high,
say, a hundred yards when I saw a small
dark object detach itself from under the fuselage and
begin to come directly towards us, almost as though
shot from a gun.
“It was the only bomb I ever
saw fall while I was in a sufficiently detached state
of mind to mark what it looked like. ‘Fall’
hardly conveys a true picture of the way the thing
seemed to approach, for the swift machine, speeding
at perhaps a hundred miles an hour, must have imparted,
at the instant of releasing, a good deal of lateral
“At first it was coming almost
head on to the way I was looking at it, and, greatly
foreshortened, it had so much the appearance of a round
sand-bag that it is not surprising that the skipper
took it for some kind of practice dummy. ‘Probably
a dud,’ I remember him saying; ’but don’t
let it hit you. Stand by to duck!’
“My next recollection is of
the thing beginning to wobble a bit, probably as the
nose began to tilt downward; but still it seemed to
be coming straight toward us rather than simply falling.
I seem to recall that the seaplane passed overhead
an appreciable space before the bomb, but I must have
heard it rather than seen it, for I never took my eye
off the speeding missile.
“The latter seemed at the least
from fifty to a hundred feet above my head as it hurtled
over the starboard end of the bridge, and I saw it
with startling distinctness silhouetted against a cloud
that was bright with the light of the sun it had just
obscured. It was still wobbling, but apparently
tending to steady under the combined influence of the
downward pull of the heavy head and the backward drag
of the winged tail. It appeared to be revolving.
“I have since thought, however,
that I may have got the latter impression from a ‘spinner’
that is often attached to this type of bomb to unwind,
with the resistance of the air, and expose the detonator.
“Down it came until it whanged
against some of the standing rigging of the foremast seeming
to deflect inboard and downward slightly as a consequence missed
the mainmast by a few feet, and struck squarely against
the side of the deckhouse on the poop.
“The scene immediately after
the explosion of the bomb is photographed indelibly
on my memory; the events which followed are more of
a jumble. The detonation was a good deal less
sharp than I had expected, and so was the shock from
it. The latter was not nearly so heavy as that
from many a wave that had crashed over her bows, but,
coming from aft rather than for’ard, the jolt
had a distinctly different feel, and by a man ’tween
decks would hardly have been mistaken for that from
“It was the flash of the explosion a
huge spurt of hot, red flame that was the
really astonishing thing. It seemed to embrace
the whole afterpart of the ship, and everything one
of the forked tongues of fire was projected against
burst into flame itself.
“The ramshackle deckhouse, which
had been reduced to kindling wood by the explosion,
roared like a furnace in the middle of the poop.
Even the deck itself was blazing. I had once
been near an incendiary bomb in a London air raid,
and knew that nothing else could have produced so
sudden and so fierce a fire.
“But I also knew that the first
burst of flame is the worst in such a case, and that
most of the fire came from the inflammable stuff in
the bomb itself.
“As I had always heard that
sand was better than water in putting out a fire of
this kind, and knowing we carried several barrels of
it for scrubbing the decks, I ordered it to be brought
up and thrown on the flames, but stood by on the bridge
myself in case the skipper, who was bawling down the
engine-room voice-pipe for more steam, needed me for
“Luckily the sand was close
at hand, and they were scattering it from buckets
over the blazing deck within a minute or two.
Except for the debris of the deckhouse, the fire was
put out almost as quickly as it was started, and,
between sand and water, even that was being rapidly
got under control, when suddenly the Hun, whom I had
almost forgotten in the rush of undoing his dirty
work, flashed into sight again.
“The skipper had our ship zigzagging
so short and sharp by this time that her wake looked
like the teeth of a big, crazy saw, and this the Hun
was unable to follow closely enough to get a fore-and-aft
sight down her as he had done the first time.
“Coming up astern, he kicked
out a bomb just before he was over her port quarter,
but it only shot across her diagonally, and struck
the water on her starboard side, about a hundred feet
away. It went off with, if anything, a sharper
crack than the one which had struck the poop, and
the foam geyser the explosion shot up flashed a bloody
red for the instant the water took to chill the glow
of the molten thermit.
“Vanishing even more quickly
was a ragged red star which fluttered for a moment
beneath the surface of the water itself as the flame
stabs shot out in all directions from the central
core of the explosion.
“No water was thrown aboard
us, and, near as I was to the explosion on the bridge,
the rush of air could hardly be felt. Something
that came tinkling down after striking the side of
the charthouse, however I picked it up
when the show was over turned out to be
a thin fragment of the steel casing of the bomb.
“A similar fragment, twisted
into a peculiar shape, struck the chest of a man leaning
over the rail in the waist of the ship, inflicting
a slight flesh wound the exact shape of a ragged capital
“That any kind of a living man
could really be trying to destroy a mere merchant
ship in cold blood seemed to me so monstrous, so utterly
impossible, that, until the second bomb was dropped,
I was almost ready to believe that the first had been
launched by accident. From then on we knew it
was a fight for life.
“The Hun took a broader swerve
in bringing his machine round for the next charge,
and, ten times quicker on his helm than we were, anticipated
our next shift of course, and came darting down on
an almost straight fore-and-aft line again. The
sudden cloud of our foreblown smoke there
was a following wind on the ‘leg’ they
had put her on at the moment which engulfed
him at the instant his third bomb was released was
the one thing in the world that could have made him
miss so easy a ‘sitter.’ The quick
‘side-flip’ the sharply-banked ’plane
gave to the dropped missile threw it wide by twice
the distance the second had missed us. Though
the detonation rang sharp and clear, and though a
vicious spout of foam shot up, I could note no effect
of the thing whatever on the ship. Whether that
was his last bomb or not we could never be quite sure.
At any rate, it was the last he tried to drop upon
us, or upon any other ship for that matter.
“Just why he returned to the
attack with his machine-gun we could only guess.
It may have been, as is probable, that he was at the
end of the small supply of bombs left from the raid
he was doubtless returning from.
“Again, however, it is just
possible that the fact that the fire was being got
under control on the poop impelled him to adopt an
attack calculated to drive the plucky chaps who were
fighting it to cover.
“Anyhow, flying just high enough
to clear the tops of the masts, he came swooping back,
and it was upon the men trying to put out the fire now
confined to the wreckage of the deckhouse that
he seemed to concentrate his attack. Two or three
of these I saw fall under the rain of bullets, and
among them was our freight clerk, who had also been
knocked down by the explosion of the first bomb, but
who, being hardly stunned by the shock, was soon on
his feet again and leading the fire-fighters.
“He was a good deal of a character,
this freight clerk. Although well educated, he
had led a free and easy existence in various parts
of the world. For a year previous to the war
he had been a cowboy, and some queer trait in his
character made him still cling to the poncho,
or shoulder blanket, and baggy trousers, which are
the main features of the Argentine cow-puncher’s
rigout. It was the Wild West rig that made me
notice him when he was knocked down by the bomb and
later by the machine-gun fire.
“He was scarcely more hurt the
second time than the first, but the bullet which had
grooved the outer covering of his brain-box seemed
also to have put a new idea inside it. I saw
him pull himself together in a dazed sort of way after
the seaplane had passed, and then shake off the hand
of a man who tried to help him, and dash off down the
ladder, tumbling to cover, I thought.
“It must have been a minute
or two later that I saw him, legs wide apart to keep
his balance, pumping back at the Hun (who had swung
close again in the interim) with a rifle a
weapon which I later learned was an old Winchester,
which had been rusting on the wall of the freight clerk’s
cabin. He appeared to have had the worst of the
exchange, for when I looked again he was sitting,
with one leg crumpled crookedly under him, propped
up against a bitt.
“He looked still full of fight,
though, and seemed to be replenishing the magazine
of the rifle from his bandoliers.
“The skipper sent me below to
stir things up a bit in the engine-room at this juncture,
and I did not see my cowboy friend until he had fought
two or three more unequal rounds and was squaring away,
groggy, but still unbeaten, for what proved the final
“I don’t know whether
he ever got credit for it or not, but the Old Man’s
plan of action at this juncture must pretty nearly
have marked a mile-post in merchant ship defence against
aerial attack. We had been instructed in, and
had practised the zigzag before this, but that was
about the limit of our resources in this line.
‘Squid’ tactics smoke screening had
hardly been more than thought of for anything but
destroyers. Yet the wily old skipper, literally
on a moment’s notice, brought off a stunt that
could not have been improved upon if it had been the
result of a year’s thought and experience.
“The instant the Hun ‘stumbled’
when he struck the cloud of smoke that was pouring
ahead of us, the skipper’s ready mind began evolving
a plan still further to besmudge the atmosphere.
Today, with special instructions and special stuff
ready to hand, a merchant captain, if he needed it,
would simply tell the chief engineer to ‘make
“On this occasion the Old Man
meant the same thing when I heard him yelling down
the engine-room voice-pipe to ‘Smoke up like
“About all the chief could do
under the circumstances was to stoke faster and cut
down the draught. This he did to the best of his
ability, but the screen did not bear much resemblance
to one of those almost solid streams of soot a modern
destroyer can turn out by spraying oil freely and
shutting off the air.
“Such as it was, however, the
Old Man made the most of, and by steaming down the
wind accomplished the double purpose of cutting down
the draught fanning the fire on the poop and keeping
a maximum of smoke floating above the ship.
“The smudge bothered the Hun,
but by no means put an end to his machine-gun practice.
Except for the freight clerk, who was still pumping
back at the seaplane every time it swooped over, every
one on the poop had been killed, wounded, or driven
to cover, and, with no one to fight it, the fire was
beginning to gain new headway.
“’Not good ‘nuf
by a mile,’ I heard the Old Man muttering to
himself as he eyed the quickly thinning trail of smoke
from the funnels. ’Must do better’n
that or ‘taint no good.’ Then I saw
his bronzed old face light up.
he shouted, beckoning me to his side, ’duck below,
clean out all the stuff in the paint lockers and chuck
it in the furnaces, ‘specially the oils and
turps. Jump lively!’
“This was the job I went on
when I said I saw the cowboy crumpled up against a
bitt, but still full of fight.
“Linseed oil, turpentine, and
some tins of fine lubricants I had them
all turned out of the fore-peak and carried, rolled,
dragged, or tossed down to the stokehold.
“Most of the stuff was in kegs
or cans small enough to go through a furnace door,
and these we threw in without broaching them.
The Old Man called me up twice the first
time to say that there was no increase in smoke, and
wanting to know why I was so slow; and the second time
to say that he had just got a bullet through his shoulder,
and ordering me to come up and take over, as he was
beginning to feel groggy.
“There was an ominous crackling
and sputtering in the furnaces as I sprang for the
ladder, and before my foot was on the lowermost rung,
one of the doors jumped violently up on its top-swing
hinges from the kick of an exploding tin or keg of
oil. As it fell back with a clang the swish of
sudden flame smote my ears, and then a regular salvo
of muffled détonations. The last picture
I had of the boiler-room was of the stokers trying
to confine the infernos they had created by wedging
shut the doors with their scoops.
“The whole ship was a-shiver
with the roaring conflagration in her furnaces as
I reached the upper deck, and, above a tufty, white
frizzle of escaping steam, rolled a greasy jet of
smoke that looked thick enough for a man to dance
a hornpipe on it without sinking above his ankles.
I found the Old Man, with a dazed sort of look in
his eyes, and his jaw set like grim death, hanging
on to the binnacle when I gained the bridge, and all
he had the strength to say, before slithering down
in a heap, was, ’Damn good smoke! Carry
on zigzag down wind! Think blighter
has finished. Look to fire.’
“The fact that the Hun was now
circling the ship at considerable distance had evidently
made the skipper believe that he had come to the end
of his cartridges, and in this I am inclined to think
the Old Man was right.
“Which fire, however, he referred
to I was not quite sure about, but, in my own mind,
I was rather more concerned about the one I had started
with the ship’s paint than the one the Hun’s
incendiary bomb had set going. Indeed, the ‘fire
brigade,’ which had taken advantage of the lull
to get a hose playing on the conflagration on the poop,
was rapidly reducing the latter to a black mass of
steaming embers. The cowboy was still snuggled
up against the bitt, which he used to rest his right
elbow on in the occasional shots he was lobbing over
at the now distantly circling enemy. When I learned
later what a crack shot the chap really was, I cannot
say that I blamed the Hun for his discretion.
“What tempted him to make that
fatal final swoop we never knew. It may have
been sheer bravado, or he may have been trying to frighten
off the fire-fighters again. Anyhow, back he
came, allowing plenty of leeway to miss my smoke screen,
and only high enough to clear the masts by forty or
“The cowboy saw him coming,
and I can picture him yet as he lay there waiting,
with his cheek against the stock of that old Winchester,
and following the nearing ’plane through its
sights. With the rare good sense of your real
hunter, he didn’t run any risk of frightening
off his quarry with any premature shots. He just
laid doggo, and held his fire.
“If the Hun had been content
to sit tight and keep his head out of sight, the chances
are nothing would have happened to him; but the temptation
to have a closer look at his handiwork and to jeer
at his ‘beaten enemy’ was too much for
him. Banking as sharply as his big ’plane
would stand, he leaned out head and shoulders above
the wrecked poop, gave a jaunty wave of the hand,
and opened his mouth to shout what was probably some
sort of Hunnish pleasantry.
“The crack of the old Winchester
reached my ears above the roar of the seaplane’s
engine, and the next thing I was clearly conscious
of was the machine’s swerving sidewise
and downward and plunging straight into
the trailing column of black smoke. The tip of
its left wing fouled the main truck, but it still
kept enough balance and headway to carry past and
clear of the ship.
“It then slammed down into the
water two or three hundred feet off our starboard
bow, and it only took a point or two of alteration
to bring it under our forefoot.
“The old ship struck the mark
so fair that she cut the wreckage into two parts,
and I saw fragments of wings and fuselage boiling up
on both sides of our wake astern. I gave the
order in hot blood, but I would do the same thing
again if I had a week to think it over in, just as
I would go out of my way to kill a poisonous snake.
“Of course we never knew definitely
who was responsible for polishing off the Hun.
For a while I thought it probable that the cowboy had
only wounded him, and that his swerve into the smoke
had been responsible for the dive into the sea, where
the ship put the finishing touches on the job.
But from the day that the cowboy showed me that he
could hit tossed-up shillings with a target-rifle
four times out of five I have been inclined to believe
his assertion that he ‘plunked the bloomin’
blighter straight through the nut,’ and that
I and my smoke had nothing to do with it.
“Neither the skipper nor the
cowboy were much hurt, and as for the ship, she probably
suffered, in the long run, more from the loss of her
paint and oil supply than from the Hun’s bomb
and the fire it started.”