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Chummy Ships

A few days before the outbreak of War in 1914, all the Dundee Flotilla was transferred to Leith as its war base. Early in 1915 an experiment took place in the Firth of Forth of a C CLass boat being towed submerged by a powerful tug. The submarine was towed along at various depths, using a towing slip to enable her, at the opportune moment, to release herself and so make the attack. It was C27 which carried out these experiments which proved quite a success.

At a later date, she and C19 were sent to Aberdeen for actual operations.

I was at that time serving aboard C24 as a Stoker PO, and for some reason or other we were sent along to relieve C27, which was the order we carried out, much to the satisfaction of all concerned.

In the place of the tug each submarine now had a trawler attached to her, the 'TARANAKI' to C24 and the 'RATAPIKO' to C19.

Both these trawlers used to tie up on the other side of the harbour in Aberdeen and to all intents had no relationship to us.

Every time these trawlers returned to harbour they bore a different coat of paint, which was somewhat confusing to all concerned, and their crews being a mixed lot of RN and RNR they had the appearance of being a real crowd of cut-throats, or highwaymen of the sea.

These trawlers were armed with two 12-pounder guns apiece which were concealed with fishing nets and pieces of a tarpaulin.

It was about 11pm on the night of June 22nd that the 'TARANAKI' proceeded to sea, and we followed shortly afterwards.

The towing wire consisted of 110 fathoms which was in turn made fast to the towing slip, also we carried 120 fathoms of 1" armoured telephone cable (the spare of this cable was coiled and made fast to the bridge stanchions with a piece of spunyarn, the idea being it would break away and clear itself, after our tow had been slipped) the end was pared down and led through the drain cock of one of the ventilator caps and thereby connected up to an ordinary field telephone fixed in the boat, with the opposite end connected to the trawler.

At 5.20am on the 23rd June, in broad daylight, we submerged with the trawler doing a steady 4 knots. Watch diving stations were kept thus: one man to each hydroplane, and the helmsman at the wheel, remainder of the crew birding off to sleep (could any war be more peaceful?).

Every fifteen minutes or so, the 'phone buzzed, and we could verify that we were still in contact with those above, and we were pleased to hear the mouth organ band and many wisecracks.

But here a few words about the towing slip which was built into these boats and meant for slipping on the surface with no strain on the wire. It was similar to two horse shoes, the lower half open toward the bows, the upper half had the opening toward the stern with a hinged pin which took the eye of the towing wire, the upper half could be turned through bevel-gears and a shaft, until both halves of the shoes faced for'ard and the hinged pin lifted and freed the wire.

At approximately 08.30 we were asked by the trawler skipper if we wished to surface as it was a beautiful day with no enemy in sight, but this invitation our captain, Lieut. F H Taylor, declined, and subsequent events proved this a wise decision, so on we went at a depth of 60 feet. At 09.40 came the signal "Hostile Submarines on the port bow at a distance of 1,000 yards. Hands to action stations." Slowly, we planed up to periscope depth to have a look-see, and 'lo and behold' in the distance could be seen the enemy.

Both tubes were reported "Ready", and the order passed to stand by to "Slip" the trawler. Much to our amazement we could not free ourselves from the trawler. In the mean-time the U-boat had opened fire on the trawler, and the crew were, according to their instructions, dashing around the upper deck preparing to abandon ship. Meanwhile, we were requesting the trawler to let go wires their end, which they eventually did. When we got free, torpedoes were fired, and then came the ear-splitting report of the war-head making its mark. It was a great shot, right amidships. Our skipper watching the track, remarked, she's running well.

When we surfaced and tried to go astern, two sets of main fuses blew and the tail shaft could not be turned by hand, so after picking up the (German) skipper, who said he thought the explosion had been in his own boat, and the trawler picking up the second dickey and gun-layer, we were towed into Aberdeen. On trimming down by the bow all the telephone cable was found around our tail gear and right into the stern gland, it took us the remainder of that day and nearly all the next to cut it away as we had to slack the propeller right back. I should like to mention here that from the time of our warning of the U-boat until we surfaced was seventeen minutes. We were all put under open arrest shortly after because the news had been spread all over Aberdeen, by one of the trawlers' crew.

Altogether we had thirty-three days on the towrope, with more exciting times, but not so effective as this particular one. Many a battle was waged during the dark hours, getting made fast to the 'TARANAKI'.

We had the best officers and crew, sixteen all told. There was no toilet in these boats, except for a bucket for'ard and another aft, these obviously were the first things up when we surfaced at night to charge, and believe me they took some keeping clear of the rungs in the conning tower when being hoisted. We fed at midnight and midday, and on many occasions, would be warned to keep down to sixty feet, as there was an armed liner or destroyer approaching.

In consequence of being challenged so often, the 'TARANAKI' had a special signal to hoist which absolved her from any further inquiries. On one occasion, we were challenged by the destroyer "MANDRAKE", the special signal was hoisted and her attention was called to it three times, but she still challenged, so was told to send a boat with an officer, this worthy on boarding the trawler was conducted to the 'phone, he and his ship and all in her were quietly told off. On being asked the name of his CO he said "Lieut. Comdr. Plowden, sir" (this name at the time was of one of the most respected of London's magistrates). "Well my compliments to your CO and tell him I could have torpedoed him half an hour ago, goodnight."

The sunken U-boat was U.40 on her maiden trip. Her skipper told us later that he had been watching the trawler for over an hour, being unable to make out whether she was Danish or British. So much for our not surfacing at 8.30 when invited. Incidentally it was our first trip out on tow and we had to go in on it too!

Story Of The First DiveThe Ordeal Of HMS C25