The words of the title are the opening words of Reginald Cogswell's book that describes 43 months of his life aboard HMS EXETER. A period that included peacetime visits to the ports of South America, assisting earthquake victims in Chile, suppressing riots in Trinidad; then came the transition to war and his part in the Battle of the River Plate.
Below are extracts from Ch 15 - when the action against the German Panzershiffe Graf Spee starts:
The alarm for Action Stations tore me out of that little sleep. The harsh sound of it drove me up and out to run for’ard and on my way to meet a bugler sounding off as he ran the other way. The rasp of Action Stations on a bugle would hasten anything that could hear and move. It hastened me against a stream of men who were mostly running the other way. There was a clumping-to of armoured doors and the clank of dogs being set to hold them tight. Men were going down through hatch manholes only big enough for one to go through at a time. Farther for’ard, engine-room men were going dawn into their pits of heat and heavy noise. Farther for’ard still, in the long tunnel gangway over the boilers, more men were going, one at a time, into the airlocks that were the way down to the fires.
The tunnel was filled with the roar of the boiler fans, even then coming up to their harshest screaming voice. Throughout that 300-odd feet of running, I had no awareness of human voices, all I had was the consciousness of a ship of war that was gathering her strength to fight. I felt her heel as if under full helm; that could only mean one thing: she was being put on a course different from that of Ajax and Achilles as was called for by the plan.
Knowing what must surely come, I bent my head and leaned over the rail to say twenty words of prayer for my wife and my children, and a few words more for those of us who were soon to die – whoever they were, whichever their ship.
That was just before 6.20 in the morning. Before one more minute had gone, the guns of the ship Exeter had fired in battle. Broadsides fired in quick succession. Crashing rending shocks that would make anyone not used to the business think that the ship was being torn apart. To every shock, she staggered bodily to one side, then rolled back, but hesitatedly as was her way, then, after wavering a moment, she steadied upright and was ready for the next – which came soon.
It was the highest rate of fire that I had ever known to come from 8-inch guns. The torpedoman thought so too; he remarked, ‘Mr Cook is serving them out today alright’. Which was true enough, but Cookie was not the only one concerned.
Not so many minutes after our first shots had been fired we had come to within seven miles of him, and it was across those seven miles of sea that fire and death and near-destruction came upon the ship Exeter.
For what they were, they came with no great violence, or so it seemed to me. A sledgehammer blow on stout timber would have sounded every bit as loud – something between a ‘whoomph’ and a crunch with a little bit of rattle added.
The switchboard bulged out like a bow window, then sprang back just as it had been before. The front of the clock mounted on the top bar was thrown off – a thing of plate glass and brass rim; it struck me on the side of the head, but my cap saved me from more than a smart slap on the ear. A shower of paint chips burst out and fell. Flashes streaked along the upper section of the board; a few pilot fuses blew out with the characteristic spurting pop. A whole rack of indicator lamps exploded like a string of penny fireworks.
What we did know, having plenty of evidence for it, was that our ship was near the end of her tether. And we, confined as we were, were near exhaustion too. That first shell, the one that had exploded near us, was the immediate cause of the worst of that. But it might have done worse than it did.
It had exploded in the store next to us. A boiler room was the next compartment aft, only a bulkhead thickness away. Had it gone but a few feet farther – why shouldn’t it? it had come seven miles – it would have exploded among the boilers and blown those up. The blowing-up of those would have been worse than the exploding of any shell. That might have brought about the loss of the ship; at the very least, it would have caused heavy loss of life, for high-pressure superheated steam is as deadly as any flame.
It had actually exploded in the angle formed at the meeting point of the switchboard room and boiler room bulkhead, so it might have (but did not) have blown our bulkhead in towards us and so killed all three of us. I found out afterwards, however, that it had dented the bulkhead in one place. Hence the shower of paint chips.
That flat was the station of the main fire and damage control parties in the fore part of the ship. Now, most of the men stationed there were either dead or dying.
We in our switchboard room were directly under that fire and destruction, only separated from it by the thickness of a deck. But the only visible sign of it to us was what our instruments could show. They told of broken or overloaded circuits, losses of loads and the like. But we had other signs – heat almost unbearable, smoke and choking fumes. The chief petty officers’ flat above was a furnace – the deck over us was the hearth of that furnace and the heat from it came down on us.
Comment: The language is that of a grammar school boy educated in the early part of the 20th century by Victorian schoolmasters - precise, elegant and poignant. This is a book to savour - I loved it when the manuscript was presented to NavyBooks - I hope readers will love it also.
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