Chapter VI: Gibraltar
After about two weeks in Ponta Delgada, all pay having been spent ashore, thirty chasers and the Leonidas, an old survey ship, with a tanker shoved off for Gibraltar. The Leonidas acted as the mother ship of these chasers now, and continued in that relationship to the end. Our trip was through the bad part of the war zone, and close watch had to be kept on the Leonidas for she was our bread and butter. Every floating object in the least resembling mines was to be sunk immediately by gun fire. The leaders on the scout line burned blue wake lights at night, but all others of the convoy ran "dark. In sinking floating objects the S. C. 128 fired thirteen rounds from her three-inch gun. The result was decidedly against the chaser though she hit her target, for the firing broke two windows in the chart house (they were not opened as they ran fore and aft), smashed a chest and sand locker lashed to the deck breakwater, and below in the forecastle broke two metal bolts in the fore and aft amidships steel beam, tore out the electric alarm bell and light fixture from the overhead, and made our puppy, the ship's mascot, sick for the rest of the voyage. Without further undue incident Gibraltar was sighted on the morning of the fifth day. On drawing near, the older men who had been to sea before had the recruits all looking for the Prudential sign on the rock as proof of its being Gibraltar. Since the advertisement uses the eastern side which gives a different outline, and as no letters could be made out, the green men would not believe it to be Gibraltar until we had gotten right up to the mole. Here we found a big American naval base, and cooks were procurable who sneered at the idea of seasickness. We also took aboard stores of all kinds and were kept very busy. We met the British motor launch officers who had thrilling tales to relate of submarine encounters just outside the harbor, so that one felt sure in such an atmosphere that if he could but see through that immense rock he would discover a submarine impudently basking in the sun, or at its leisure shooting up some convoy. All the talk and thought was that of submarines, as should prevail at so important a base.
We had been in Gibraltar about five days when our chance came. One morning the signal of "submarine outside the harbor" was hoisted at the flagstaff of the port control office. At once, the English motor launches and destroyers started out, and the chaser officers were called for a conference. It developed that a submarine discovered and bombed by aircraft had taken refuge on the bottom in a cove on the Spanish coast east of the rock. The area involved was immediately divided into sectors, one for each unit of chasers. The S. C.'s 127, 128, and 129 were given the cove itself. The officers hurried back to their ships and got under way with Captain Nelson, our commanding officer, leading on one of them. When we were off the rock we laid our course straight for our positions, and when there trailing wires were let out, to drag parallel to the coast, stopping at intervals to listen with the S. C. tubes. We continued dragging the rest of the day and listened during the night. Then the next morning dragging was resumed until 128 got contact and reported it. Turning, she went back over the spot, which had been buoyed, where she got it again. The contact was of such long duration, though broken at intervals, that permission to bomb was requested. The request was not complied with but the 127 and 129 came within hail, and on lowering their listening devices a submarine was heard under way. Trailing wires were immediately secured and a chase began. We would run for a time in unit formation in the directions from which the sub had last been heard, then stop and listen, but the submarine zigzagged so that it was not possible to get within attacking distance. We continued the chase for two hours until it led too close to a convoy of ships for the listening gear to be of avail owing to the convoy's noise, and then the chase had to be abandoned.
This was the first experience the chasers had had with real enemy submarines, and their mistakes and their need of experience were very evident. Some of the other units of chasers obtained information when in their positions that proved to be of much assistance to the English when reported.
Shortly after returning to the harbor the chasers were made ready for their run to Malta. The officers were given the latest information and submarine problems for practice, also necessary instructions for their trip, such as Mediterranean recognition signals and allied codes. The course to Malta was laid through areas that had recently reported submarines in the hope of meeting some of them on the way. The run was to be made without stop, hence a fuel ship was taken along. Close formation was to be kept at night, but during the day units were to run out a distance of ten or fifteen miles searching for the enemy. These plans were followed out, but no signs of submarines were seen at any time during the entire run. It was an immense relief to sail on the Mediterranean after so long an experience with the sea roll of the Atlantic. At this season of the year, in May, the waters were very smooth and there was a new moon, so that altogether this trip was most enjoyable. The only incident that marred the peacefulness was the annoying presence of porpoises. In the night a porpoise breaking the surface in this phosphorescent water so resembled the appearance of a torpedo to our high-strung imagination that there were a number of excited reports made that torpedoes were sighted coming towards us. These pet fish of the sailor were most liberally cursed.
The formation kept during this run allowed a flanking column of chasers to the Leonidas followed by the tanker, and then a zigzagging flanking column outside of that. Some nights, when there was no moon, it became questionable to the flanking inside chasers whether the approaching object was a chaser out of position or an enemy submarine. Very often general quarters were sounded and guns trained on one of our own sister ships, but fortunately these mistakes never were fatal. The zigzag line had no small problem to run on its zigzag out of sight of the rest and then come back again into position. It was most difficult to keep the chasers in position because of inability to hold them within ten degrees of their compass course, and also because of their variable speed owing to frequent engine troubles. Thus many times chasers found themselves lost as to exact position of convoy. When in such a situation it was the general rule to stop and lower the S. C. tube, which would give the bearing of the Leonidas, and then on returning stand by with an immediate reply to recognition demand lest they be fired on.