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1 Is Anything Impossible?
Anyone who had known the small Essex port of Harwich on England’s east coast might remember it as a haven for coasters, and occasional ferries to and from the Continent. Now, after three years of war, it was equally hard to imagine it as anything but the bustling, overcrowded and vital naval base which necessity had made it, where two rivers, Stour and Orwell, embraced, and where swift currents and unhelpful tides could make pilotage and coming alongside a nightmare for the inexperienced or the overconfident.
This bitter December afternoon was much like any other, hard and bright, but without the usual raw wind from the North Sea.
Here there were vessels of every kind, hard-worked escorts, hulls dented and scraped from East Coast convoys, when columns of obedient merchantmen sometimes grid-ironed through another convoy passing on the opposite course, every Skipper very aware of the narrowness of the swept channel, and the lurking minefields often on either beam. Under normal conditions it was bad enough, with ships depending on good lookouts and skilled seamanship; in poor weather and under cover of darkness it required nerves of steel. There were minesweepers, many of them fishing craft before the war; some were paddle steamers, which had once carried children and carefree holidaymakers on day trips. Under a coat of grey paint, and armed only with Lewis guns, they had become men-of-war overnight.
And destroyers, perhaps the most versatile of them all. The new, smaller ships of the Hunt Class had been designed as fast escorts, and denied the formidable array of torpedoes which had become part of a destroyer’s legend, her life-blood. They looked neat and at odds with the thin-funnelled veterans of the Kaiser’s war, the old V&W Class destroyers, outdated in appearance, but without which the war at sea would already have been lost.
Three long years of it. Mounting losses of ships and men and military defeats: Dunkirk and Norway, Greece and Crete, Singapore and Hong Kong, and only the English Channel between us and them. And yet here, forged out of their own kind of war, seamen could still turn and stare at a newcomer, or at something unusual. The navy, they said, was like a family; it took care of its own. When yet another ship was reported lost or missing on the news bulletins few sailors would comment. They had built a shell around themselves, if only to withstand the glib explanations by “experts” on the wireless or in the press who spoke of strategic withdrawals or tactical deployments, rather than use the cold, correct term: retreat.
But it was there, all the same. When one of their ships had returned from patrol to this same harbour, her plating scarred and pitted after an engagement with a German E-boat or destroyer, and a line of covered corpses laid on her quarterdeck, there had been only a silence which spoke more than words. The family.
On this day, though, it was something different.
The destroyer had entered harbour just before sunset the previous evening, and had moored fore-and-aft to allocated buoys. The light had been almost gone by the time the cable had been secured.
In her new dazzle paint she seemed to shine against the backdrop of the Harwich Force. The older hands were familiar with these now famous Tribal Class destroyers; the youngsters often dreamed of the chance of joining one. Or commanding one.
Perhaps the Tribals represented better than most the change from peace to war...
About the Author-
- Douglas Edward Reeman, who also writes under the name Alexander Kent, joined the British Navy at 16, serving on destroyers and small craft during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. He has taught navigation to yachtsmen and has served as a script adviser for television and films. As Alexander Kent, Reeman is the author of the best-selling Richard Bolitho novels. His books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.
Sunday Times of London
"Vivid naval action at its most authentic."
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