Culpable Negligence

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If a convoy had two escorts, their normal placement would be one on either bow. If more, the extras would patrol the flanks and quarters. At the beginning stage, the one on the near bow would be our greatest worry, for we would have to pass close aboard him during the run-in. Sometimes the zigzag plan would have him out of position during one of the legs, and if so, we would choose this leg for the attack. Otherwise, we might plan to run in under his stern, reasoning this would be his least alert sector. In this case the resulting approach might be on a much broader track than we would have desired and thereby cause us to fire from a point nearer than we’d like to the flanking or quarter escort. Once past the bow escort, we feared the flank or quarter escort most, for it would be heading directly toward us.

It was always with a sense of total commitment that the order would be given to put the rudder over, go to full or flank speed, and start the run-in. Previously we might have been cruising along at convoy speed, outwardly leisurely, making our final observations, checking convoy disposition, ensuring that the situation remained as predicted by the plotting parties, that we had not been detected during the last few minutes. Once the rudder was put over we would be closing at high speed, nearly the sum of our speed and the convoy’s, and there would be little or no chance of changing our mind about anything. Everything now hinged on remaining undetected as long as possible. Even detection by the target ships themselves could put us into peril, for a simple rudder movement on their part could place us dead ahead of them, our fire-control solution spoiled and our boat herself in danger of being sunk by ramming.

All four main engines would naturally long since have been on the line, waiting the climactic order, muttering gently through their exhaust ports. With the order to the rudder would go another to them, and their deep, throaty response would bellow as our propellers dug in. White spray, mixed with dark engine exhaust, would spurt out of four huge water-cooled mufflers squeezed under the main deck aft of the bridge, two exhausting to each side, and the light steam vapor produced would rise gently in the still air, drift quickly aft and to port, the plume to starboard floating across our low-lying afterdeck, as hard left rudder caused our stern to scud across the roiled waters of our wake. To me this was always a scene of defiance and poetry combined, even though total destruction, for someone, lay at the other end of the fantasy. This was the instant which divided those who could, and would, from those who could not.

Depending on all the local factors, and what we had been told about enemy radar, we generally reconnoitered the convoy from eight to ten miles—sixteen to twenty thousand yards—away. Escorts usually patrolled stations about five thousand yards away. The run-in, therefore, always involved passing an escort at uncomfortably close range, with our broadside exposed to him, throwing spray high above our bows, frequently over the bridge as well, and blaring our intentions to him through the rocketing roar of four big locomotive diesels he hardly could fail to hear. If he was listening, that is. The whole idea was to remain undetected and then to make our move so swiftly that we’d be come and gone before he had a chance to react. If we had picked the right time to begin, the escort would be at the far limit of his station, with his stern more or less in our direction at our closest point of approach. At worst, he would still have to turn completely around; at best, he wouldn’t see us at all. …

Once past the escort, we would have a few precious minutes to get set. Optimum firing range, with the electric torpedoes, would be about one thousand yards, half a nautical mile. The silhouettes of the enemy ships, originally tiny or completely invisible, would now be big. Slow down. The fish cannot be fired at high speed. The angle on the bow of the lead ship in the convoy should have been slowly increasing. What should it be now, conn? The answer, instantly back from the torpedo data computer, the TDC, checks with the visual estimate. The lead enemy ship can now be seen clearly. Two columns, six ships. We know this from radar, but now we see them. Our eyes on the bridge are at their maximum night adaptation. The nearest is a big ship, with a big superstructure, probably once a combined passenger-freighter type with white upper works and black hull. Now totally darkened, she is simply a black silhouette against a cloudy gray of night, clearly outlined in form but without depth: the shadowy substance of a ship.

Angle on the bow is now estimated at starboard forty-five degrees. That checks with TDC. Speed the same as before, twelve knots. Plot, where’s the ahead escort we just passed? Starboard quarter, still going away. Good. He hasn’t seen us. How about the other escort, the tin can coming up to port? Still patrolling on his station, range closing but no sign of having detected us yet. What’s our speed, conn? Fourteen knots. Still too fast. All ahead one-third. Our speed drops perceptibly. We roll easily to the slight chop. Range to leading ship? Two thousand. Angle on the bow now starboard fifty-two.