Shark Fishing

Posted by on Oct 18, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Shark Fishing

Written by Spartan Franco | Tags:

“I’d hoped it would be to Puerto Rico,” Pierre La Frenais grumbled. The stocky, balding sailor leaned against the rail and pulled his heavy coat closer, trying to keep the perpetual drizzle and chill winds at bay. “If we had to risk the Atlantic. Warm air and warm water in case we sank. But no, we had to get the King Wilhelm City run. Greenland of all places!”

“Ah, look on the bright side, Pierre,” replied his crewmate Richard Savigny. He grinned at his friend’s discomfort, his normally wavy corn-yellow hair plastered to his thin face by the pervasive damp. “We’d get Grand Coalition airplanes and worse paying us visits every few hours if the sun were shining. At least in this mess we don’t have that to worry about.”

“Hmph, maybe so, but we’ve still got their damn submarines and hunter patrols between here and the Wilhelm Hot Gates.” La Frenais filled his pipe, and struck a match to light it. Almost instantly, it was snuffed out. He tried again, to the same result. “God above, are we not allowed any warmth at all out here?”

“Not until we’re off watch, apparently,” said Savigny. He seemed unbothered by the cold. Le Frenais put this down to his relative youth, and the fact that he never seemed to be able to keep still for more than ten minutes.

Savigny shook his head in exaggerated disapproval. “You shouldn’t smoke anyway, Pierre. They say it’s bad for you.”

“Well, perhaps ‘they’re’ right,” La Frenais replied, finally getting his pipe to spark with a fourth match. “But at this moment, I just need something to calm my nerves. You’ve never been torpedoed before, Richard. I have, and I’m happy to take whatever pleasures I can before someone else tries to dump me in the ocean again!”

Medium Merchantmen

The collier on which the two French sailors stood, the Corne de l’Abondance, was one of five freighters steaming in a broad arc northwards. This first stage, through the Celtic Sea, passed perilously close to the British Isles and the island of Ireland. As every French sailor knew, this was a prime hunting ground for Britannian aerial units and submarines.

As the merchant steamers and their small escort of three frigates ploughed northwards, the foul weather and leaden skies promised a reprieve of sorts, at least from air attack. But Britannian navy, especially one particular arm, would not be so easily dissuaded.

“Come to me, my lovely French beauties.” Captain Lionel Pell of Her Majesty’s submarine Porpoise peered through his vessel’s periscope at the French ships labouring through the waters.

Informed of the convoy’s progress by a covert spy vessel disguised as a fishing trawler some distance south, Captain Pell had chosen his position well. The hulking Vanguard Class submarine lurked beneath the waves on this grey day, several miles ahead of the French transports – an optimum position for attack.

Porpoise was operating alone on a standard patrol. If the convoy had been any larger or more heavily defended, Pell would have called in aid. But against such a small formation, he was confident that his vessel and crew could inflict sufficient damage alone.

And like many of the Her Britannic Majesty’s submarine commanders, Pell was a glory-seeker. He’d served alongside the famous ‘submarine buccaneer’ Sir Rodney Carlton, and was keen to build his own legend with his first major command. This little French convoy would make a fine start.

He pulled back from the periscope and turned to his command crew; all as eager as he was to make a big impact, for the submariners’ spirit de corps was strong. “Gentlemen, our prey has arrived, and our path to glory is set. Action Stations!”

Titan Class Troop Ship (left) and Apollo Class Support Carrier (right)

“Sir, we’re picking up an echo on the marine radiograph,” Clasping a large earpiece close, the scanning operator strained to hear the dim pulse of the radio returns she was monitoring. “Could be a submersible.”

“Noted.” Commander Guy Peronne of the Frigate Veronique turned to his first officer. “Any of our vessels operating in this sector?”

“None, sir. All current friendly Submarine ops are focussed nearer the British coasts, and the Prussians would’ve warned up in advance if any of theirs would be patrolling south of Iceland.”

Peronne’s heart sank. He’d hoped the little convoy could keep clear of trouble until they picked up their Danish escort reinforcements at the rendezvous three hundred miles west of Galway, but it seemed their brief run of luck had ended.

He was confident of his Frigates, but on their own, their chance of outfighting one or more of the Britannians’ steel-sharks was limited indeed. He hoped Legion command’s new convoy defence ploy would pay off.

Still, there was nothing else for it. At the very least, his ships would have to herd the enemy sub – if that was even what it was – onto the convoy itself for the plan to work. He doubted the merchant sailors, many of whom were totally in the dark about the convoy’s second mission for security reasons, would be happy about what he was to do, but orders were orders.

He sighed. “Battle Stations, repeat, Battle Stations. Helm, try to get us around behind that echo, but be careful – follow our normal patrol pattern as far as possible. Wireless, single the rest of the squadron to do the same – angle their patrol sweeps closer to the echo, but no dramatics. If the Brits are there, and they figure out that we’re on to them, it’ll spoil the whole thing!”

As the French Frigates altered course, the Porpoise slid closer to the string of merchant craft beyond them. Pell tensed as the vessels grew in size in the periscope’s view.

It was perfect. He planned to open in standard fashion, with a spread of torpedoes at the foremost ships. Even if none struck home, the disruption caused by ensuing evasive action would slow the convoy even more, leaving it open to a slashing strike with the Vanguard’s mighty dorsal sawblades.

The French Frigates were closing in, but they didn’t seem particularly intent in their movements. Pell assumed that they at least suspected the presence of his sub. But even with their converging courses, the captain planned for Porpoise to be well into its attack run by the time the diminutive French craft could focus their weapons en masse.

And if not? Well, blowing the ballast to bring the Vanguard’s broadside batteries into play would settle their hash!

He watched as the first merchant craft slid into his sights. Time to start the party. “Target in sight! Fore torps, forty-five degree spread! Fire all!

Oil/Weapon Rig

“Torpedoes in the water!” The cry went up from several different places on the Corne De l’Abondance’s decks. La Frenais and Savigny clung to the rail as the ship heeled over to starboard, seeking to avoid the deadly projectiles.

Savigny saw two trails in the dark waters to port, the deadly projectiles zeroing in. One passed ahead of the freighter’s bows, but the other…there was no way they could turn to save themselves!

He watched in horror as the torpedo streaked into the hull, almost directly beneath where he and Pierre were standing. Savigny braced himself, praying that the end would be painless.

There was a heavy, muffled ‘clang’, and then…nothing.

For a split second, Savigny stood motionless, unable to process what had happened. Then he let out a cry of joy and punched the air with his free hand. “Pierre! It was a dud! They hit us with a dud! We’re still alive!”

At his side, a very shocked La Frenais gripped the rail, his face as white as his knuckles. He raised his foreshortened briar bowl, smoke still pouring from it, in his trembling right hand “It’s not all good news, Richard,” he rambled. “I just bit through my pipe stem.”

But for the Montagne Rouge, the next ship in line, there would be no such good fortune. Seconds after their miraculous escape, the Corne’s crew felt a surge of fear as a huge blast rang out astern, and a thick column of fire and debris rocketing into the air from their companion freighter.

“A hit! A palpable hit!” Pell watched the French freighter’s death throes through his periscope. As he had though, the remainder of the convoy was slowing, trying to avoid the shattered wreck as it went down.

The enemy Frigates were bearing down fast now, all pretence of unassuming motion forgotten. They were already dropping concussion charges in standard pattern, too far away from Porpoise to cause any real damage. Now to strike hard, strike fast and get away.

Pell turned the scope slightly to put the next enemy ship in the convoy – a large, ungainly brute of a military tender – directly in his line of sight. “Helm, ten degrees starboard!”

“Ten degrees starboard, aye!” came the response

As the sub heeled into its turn, Pell kept the enemy ship in sight – he was now a knight of the sea, and the Porpoise as both his charger and the deadly lance that would transfix his prey. He continued to reel off his orders. “Engineering, power to sawblades!”

“Power to sawblades, aye!”

A deep rumble echoed through the Submarine, as gears spun and drive chains tightened. In his mind’s eye, Pell saw the mighty ship-killing blades projecting from the submarine’s dorsal spine begin to roll into motion. Officially called the Brunel ‘Stickleback’, most submariners simply nicknamed the massive weapon the ‘Sea-Saw’.

If the approaching Frigates hadn’t already spotted Porpoise, they certainly would now – the threshing blades churned up the water so much as to make concealment impossible even when submerged. But Pell didn’t plan on hanging around.

“Engine room, all ahead full!” His eyes still fixed on the periscope, now raised above the churning waters, Pell heard the telegraph clatter into its new position.

“All ahead full, aye!”

Pell gripped the scope handles tightly as the deck began to heave and vibrate. Engines rumbling, Porpoise surged forward, directly between the two closest Frigates. The Vanguard rocked as it passed through the waters churned by their last concussion charge drop. But in scant moments, it had surged beyond their reach, bearing down upon its next target like a massive metal barracuda.

Medium Merchantmen

“Look at that!” cried Savigny, pointing at the sea aft of the Corne.

La Frenais, now recovered somewhat, followed his crewmate’s frantic gesture, in time to see a great mass of white foam erupt from the water’s surface and surge towards the convoy, leaving their escorting Frigates wallowing in its wake.

His stomach turned over as he saw the grim black silhouettes of massive metal blades churning through the spray. “A steel-shark! A damnable rosbif steal-shark!”

The older sailor fervently thanked their good fortune. The monster was not bearing down on them. But following the vessel’s motion as it closed the distance to the convoy with terrifying speed, he could see which of their comrades was about to become its victim – the lumbering munitions tender Barfleur, heeling as it tried to circumvent the wreck of the Montagne Rouge.

He and Savigny watched in horrified fascination at the disaster about to unfold. For the second time in less than twenty minutes, they hoped for a miracle.

And for the second time that day, their prayers were seemingly answered.

The Barfleur’s superstructure seemed to convulse, as side plates fell away on hinges, and hitherto unnoticed doors slid open. What had seemed like mere cargo containers on deck collapsed flat, revealing gleaming polished gun barrels glinting in the daylight and zeroing in on the charging enemy submarine. Swarms of crewmen – far more crew than a ship like the Barfleur would usually carry – dashed to their stations.

The two sailors barely had time to register what was happening before the Q-Ship opened fire with a roar that echoed over the convoy. The vessel seemed to visibly shudder as its entire complement of ordnance let go at once, then again, and again.

Salvo after salvo ploughed into the churning waters on almost flat trajectories at the submarine. Many missed the mark, but such was the intensity of the bombardment that many others did not.

The foaming spray around the sub became intercut with flashes of flame and expanding clouds of debris as torrents of projectiles struck home upon its angled upper hull. Despite its size and power, the underwater craft clearly wasn’t designed to stand up to such a point-blank battering.

Savigny and La Frenais involuntarily ducked as a particularly powerful blast blew apart a section of the threshing sawblades. Looking up, the younger Frenchman’s eyes widened in shock as a gigantic chunk of curved, sharpened metal pinwheeled clean over the Corne’s decks not more than a hundred feet up, making a noise like a whirling fan amplified a thousand times.

Stupefied, Savigny followed the arc of the massive piece of debris as it came down on the opposite side of the freighter with a mighty splash.

By the time he looked back, the Barfleur’s thunderous barrage had ceased. Smoke and steam poured from its gun barrels as fumes and spray filled the air. Such had been the ferocity of its battery that the bulky vessel was gently rocking back and forth from starboard to port.

As for the enemy Submarine, it now drifted forlornly on the surface, the foaming surge around fast dissipating as its charge slowed to a sluggish drift. Black oil slicked upon the surface of the water around its torn, listing hull. Its few remaining dorsal sawblades were motionless now, sticking up crazily like teeth in the mouth of an old crone.

Several hatches began to open on its upper surface, and dazed enemy seamen emerged onto the stricken sub’s half-swamped upper decks. As they did so, the Veronique and its two squadron-mates, having turned about, closed in, boarding parties gathering on their foredecks. Their sirens whooped in victory, to be answered by the bass horns of the Barfleur and the rest of the convoy.

As the blast of the Corne’s own siren died away, La Frenais slumped against the rail, exhausted by the sudden relief of stress. “Well…when they told us Barfleur was carrying munitions, they weren’t kidding.”

Savigny nodded. “You can smile, Pierre. We survived. And so will a lot of the men from the Montagne. The Frigates can pick them up.”

“Yes, that’s all true. But don’t get too elated, Richard. It’s another three days at least to King Wilhelm.” La Frenais looked ruefully at his mangled pipe then knocked it clear on the rail and put it back in his coat pocket. “We need to be lucky every time. They only need to be lucky once.”

Within the shattered Porpoise, Captain Pell, his forehead bloody from where he had slammed it into the periscope during the terrible minutes of the barrage, sat despondently in his command chair, illuminated only by the red emergency lighting.

The bridge was deserted, as was the rest of the boat. Pell had ordered the sub abandoned, after his frantic engineering chief had informed him in no uncertain terms that Porpoise was mortally wounded.

A faint clanging sound from aft heralded the arrival of marines. They would find nothing of value. The difference engines used for navigation and coding were a mutilated mess, as much because of the damage inflicted by the bombardment as Pell’s own efforts with a fire axe. The codebooks and charts were already a heap of ashes in the waste bin under the map-table nearby.

Pell considered his position. Perhaps ten minutes remained before Porpoise would make her final dive. Old navy tradition dictated that he should get up, go down to the fore torpedo rooms, open the tube hatches, and pass into immortality.

But Her Majesty’s Submariners didn’t go in for tradition.

The French would take Pell and his crew prisoner, probably to France itself, at least initially. Not really far from home at all – or the Army of Flanders for that matter.

Pell smiled grimly through his pain. With a bit of luck, he and his crew wouldn’t stay captured for long. And it was a damn sight better than a watery grave and a soon-to-be dusty memorial.

He was still wearing his humourless smile when the French marines reached the bridge. He raised his hands and calmly allowed them to escort him to the daylight as Porpoise began to die.

Click here to get the Merchant Navy Convoy Fleet