Letter From Below
10 April 1902
From: HML Rapier
Mailed from Portsmouth
To: Master Jeremy Farmer
201 Benton Lane
I received your letter of 10 February and greatly appreciate you thinking of your uncle. Despite what you may have read in the papers regarding the recent action, we won that engagement. Please assure your mother that I am recovering well, as I know she worries about her younger brother.
I do not know how much of the action made the newspapers because I have been absorbed by matters aboard ship, though I do know the accounts published are often written with more fiction than fact. While I cannot able to provide you with information considered sensitive, you always ask what it is like in battle; I can tell you what this fight was like, though my perspective was limited.
As you know, the HML Rapier is a destroyer, and we were in a small squadron of ships of the same class when the French approached. I am a gunnery control officer for the A and B turrets and was posted to forward fire control when we spotted their smoke trails in the sky. Our range markers identified them as a squadron out of Brest—at least it wasn’t that accursed Cigogne squadron. Their stacks were painted with red CENSORED which is how we could tell where they were from.
We were out over the North Sea and the French were no fools, they came in high and used the clouds to mask their approach so we did not spot them until they were already within range. The Reindeer , our squadron flagship, fired a warning shot. It really was just a warning shot, but the treacherous French used it as a pretense that we had fired on them. They opened up on both us and the Reindeer.
Ranging shots in the air is hard. Our shells have smoke tracers that give us a trail we use to gauge where the shots land. Our first volley was short and low. The captain poured on the speed and we started to climb along with the rest of the squadron. I heard a hit on the Reindeer , clearly audible despite the range. That sound of that shot punching into the metal and the sound of the explosion was something no aviation officer ever wants to hear. I am not proud of saying I am glad it was the Reindeer and not us. I hear that the shell I could hear hit the ship killed CENSORED.
The men under me calculated the speed of the French ships, our speed and the rate of climb, and fed me a new set of numbers for the gunners. We have a computation device, nasty brass set of wheels set in gears that allows you to feed in the coordinates and come back with an approximate setting. Still, I consider there’s nothing better in my business than a keen set of eyes and a crisp mind to make some last-minute adjustments.
We adjusted range, and I keyed in the message down to the two turrets I was responsible for to adjust their elevation. Timing is important, Jeremy. The turrets were loaded, but those coordinates were only good for a few heartbeats. You could hear the turbines grind those turrets around and I saw the guns go up. Thank God I had stuffed cotton in my ears before they went off. The entire ship rocked back under the recoil. You’ll find it interesting to know that we correct the balance of the ship through the use of CENSORED.
One turret had their range and hit a Frenchie amidships. Through my binoculars I could see that their mid-stack had been hit and was laying smoke down on their aft, obscuring the vision of their own turret crews. I am willing to bet it was the boys in Turret B—they always seem to have the skill and the luck.
Our computations were dead-on and we kept tracking when the French bracketed us with a volley. I have never been aboard a ship that was hi, but we definitely felt it. I never heard it coming, that was the odd thing. The shot passed just below us, a bloody damn plunging shot into the bowels of the ship. The floor went one way and I went another. I was knocked off my feet with a gunner’s mate laying on top of me when I finally heard a rumble; like thunder, only under me. For a minute everything went dark, then my nostrils stung with smoke.
You can tell the family that I should have been scared but I wasn’t—I was mad! How those Frenchies got our range so fast, I don’t know. When I finally got to my feet I saw that the room behind me was on fire. The deck was ripped open, and I never heard it happen. I gave the order for us to transfer to Gunnery control aft and coordinate fire from there. I remember yelling the orders but I couldn’t even hear my own voice. I found out afterwards that the shell had burst my left eardrum. I guess I was lucky I didn’t hear it.
The next thing I knew the damage control party was all around me. They pulled that gunner’s mate off me and he was badly hurt, his arms and face were burned. Cordite smoke filled the room, and the ship seemed to sway, though it may have been me being off balance. My right ear hummed loudly and my left was bleeding.
My duty was to get to the aft fire control. You know, they train us and drill us like crazy so that we can do our duty in our sleep if necessary, and all that training pays off at times like this. We went out on the deck to move aft and I got my first glimpse of the hole. That French shell had torn a hole three meters across right down into the guts of our ship. Smoke came out, smoke and fire.
As we moved along the rail I found two leather straps blocking us on the walkway. The deck crew wears leather harnesses and straps to keep from being blown off the ship, and those blokes had tied off on the far rail, so their straps blocked us when they had been blown off the rail. Good thing they had those straps or they would have fallen into the icy waters below. We pulled them up. One was dead, limp in his harness. His head was CENSORED. The other chap was knocked about in the head and wasn’t quite right. He asked if he could have some ice cream. Can you believe that? I saw him the other day and he still wasn’t quite right in the head.
I didn’t have time to deal with him. Another volley went off from the aft turrets and nearly knocked us on our arses. We got into the aft gunnery control just in time, because another shell clipped us. If we had been on the deck when that happened—well, thank God I was not there.
The French broke off. I think we gave them as good as we got, but maybe we got them better. The captain was going to order us to pursue but the Reindeer was losing altitude as her electroid tanks had been torn apart on the port side. I could see the arcing of the electrical discharge from the tank as the ship sank toward the sea. A ship that loses its electroid tanks may lose her entire crew, especially out in the middle of the North Sea. We air-service boys don’t leave fellow blokes behind, that’s part of our spirit. We moved alongside and tied off the Reindeer long enough for our damage control parties to shore up their leaks and keep her airborne.
Tell the family that I am well. My hearing is starting to come back and I am already back on duty. The Rapier has already been repaired and we are going out on patrol again in another CENSORED. Please write me since I hear so little about what is going on at home. I promise I will pay back the French for their little foray into the North Sea.
Keep up your studies and do what your mother says. When this tour of duty is over I promise to come back and bring to you some souvenirs of our battle, fragments of the Frenchy’s shell that hit us.