From Corfu to Malta with the Leo

By Alfred Loomis Editor's Note: This article appeared in the "Sub-Chaser Post," Vol. 1, No. 8, January 1921. The "Subchaser Post" was the newsletter of the Subchaser Club of America.

A cornet to the effect that all chasers unable to maintain standard speed might anchor for the night had gone out, but the skipper of the 151 had come on deck for his daily two-hour watch, and S.C. 95, steaming off the port quarter of the mother ship, had just rolled her commission pennant under water. The captain of the convoy balanced on his toes, batted his eyes, and remarked for the 27th time that day that the chasers were the most marvelous craft that had ever sailed the inland sea. He said a jugful.

They were sailing in company with that mother superior of sub-chasers, the Leonidas, and they were en route from Corfu to Malta in the last gasp of the year 1918. Standard progress of the convoys was “all speed possible under both boilers,” and the Leo was logging her four knots like a two-year-old. When Juggy, after expressing his unqualified approval of the chasers, went below, the O.D. gave the black gang permission to blow tubes, and the soot, driven ahead by a quartering wind, got in the eye of the bow watchman and woke him up. As darkness fell and the watch changed, the lookout was transferred to the quarter deck to fend off with a boat hook any chaser officers who might try to come aboard for hot chow. Regardless of weather conditions, the traditional hospitality of the Leo to the chaserites would be observed.

Darkness settled down, and with it Pay Joy settled into his bunk, playing the mandolin to ward off seasickness and praying that he might have sufficient strength in Malta to give the chaser men their Christmas dinner of lettuce and lima beans.

Father Pennycook puffed his pipe and told whomever cared to listen about night life in Shanghai in 1482. the chief had it in his power to increase the standard speed from four to five knots and he used that power to compel attention in the ward room.

Out on the storm-swept sea the chasers turned on their running lights and edged out of position until the 131, with Doughty sleeping at the wheel, along maintained her place in formation. The stage was set for the night’s adventure.

It came, heralded by a crash of falling metal and shattered oil barrels in the well deck of the mother ship, and followed by a total eclipse of her standing lights. A wave, sneaking up from astern, had climbed aboard, swept the politicians out of the bake shop and departed over the bow, leaving streaks of cleanness on the deck to mark its passing. Spray and pandemonium reigned, and the O.D.’s messenger, who had been corking off on the dope hatch, fell into the boiler room and carried with him four suits of dress blues which had been washed by the quartermaster to make a Maltese holiday.

The boatswain’s mate came aft and informed the O.D. that total demolition would overtake the ship if she were not allowed to run with the wind while the oil barrels were being secured. (Those were not his words, exactly.) So the O.D., thinking of the ship’s cargo of Jugo-Slav keepsakes and souvenirs, determined to save her from the waves, and sent successive memoranda to the captain that the ship’s course was about to be and had been changed.

So doing he ordered the chasers by blinker to hold their course and speed, by searchlight to follow the flagship, and by telephone to lie to and await further instructions. All but the 338 did as they were told, and the next day that redoubtable chaser was the only one whose skipper knew where he was. He was fifty miles out of position and turned in his noon report by radio. The remaining chasers signaled noon positions by flag hoist and were fifty miles away from where their skipper thought they were.

But we anticipate. The Leo, rolling and straining every dinner plate, put off through the night toward Alexandria, firing Very pistols as she went. For hours the deck force struggled with the oil barrels and the black gangs battled with the fires. Father Pennycook had bought sand with his coal, and the sand melting had clogged the grates with Galmatian glassware. Grate bars burned out with every shovelful, and to make the night more hideous it was reported that the carpenter’s mate in sounding bilges had poked his fist through the ship’s bottom. The rumor was afterward disproved, but not before the gunner’s mates had drunk by their reserve stock to save it from the bilge water. This was the culminating tragedy of the night’s misadventures.

Toward dawn the Leo rounded back on her base course, and in thirty minutes by the chart room clock logged seven-tenths of a knot. The chasers – such of them as were still in sight – rang up full reverse on all three engines and the galley stove and still were unable to maintain the terrific speed. Is it any wonder that the convoy thought it was lost?

Only Snappy Joe of the Leo knew where he was, and he wasn’t telling anybody. Even he had misgivings when crossed star sights of Vega and Gamma Cassaeopia, taken the morning before Christmas, placed him in the middle of Gozo Island. But Snappy Joe wasn’t one of your theoretical navigators, and, after scanning the horizon in vain for Maltese goats, he took other sights until he got one that fixed him where he thought he was.

After that it was only a matter of hours added to hours before a Limey torpedo boat picked up the convoy and on Christmas eve piloted it into Marsa Scirocco. An inquiry held in Valetta harbor the following morning by an informal board of chaser officers revealed (1) that the convoy had three times circled the Maltese islands before entering the Marsa, and (2) that Jew Devlin of the Pay Corps had worked up all sights on his adding machine. Investigations failed to prove that Jim O’Brien had slowed to the speed of the convoy in order to keep Boatswain Foley sober over the holidays, and the informal board adjourned to the Union Club for its Christmas dinner of highballs and goat’s milk. It as a memorable cruise.