A Brief Encounter (a piece based on something that actually happened)
1942 – Frank McKay (30) lay in his bunk in the tiny cabin and watched a bead of condensation vibrate its way across one of the steel angle supports of the cabin ceiling and inevitably drip down on to the pillow next to his head. He was fully clothed except for his sea boots and about as comfortable as it was possible to be given the circumstances; certainly warmer than he would have been on his own ship. He had been hoping for some leave but in this man’s war hopes of that kind were all too easily dashed. A professional seaman, he’d been married just a year before war had broken out and taken a shore-side job. At the start of the war he’d volunteered immediately, partly from an instinctive patriotism and partly because it gave him some control over his future. With a master’s ticket he was a shoe-in for the Naval Volunteer Reserve – a full lieutenant in the ‘wavy navy’.
The early years of the war had mostly been spent on the east coast of Britain culminating in the loss of most of the sight of one eye during the evacuation of Cherbourg; unlucky or simply lucky to get out alive. Then after a short convalescence a posting to first officer of a rescue ship on the dreadful artic convoys, where as many men died of TB as through enemy action. Now he was on secondment to a brand new American destroyer, Bellman, fresh out of the dockyard. Her crew had seen little action yet, confined as she had been to the southern escort role from Scotland up to Iceland. This time she was covering a convoy heading for Murmansk and Frank McKay was required to cover an important lack of experience.
It’s a simple fact that the hardest place to navigate around is the top of the world. Close to the North Pole a compass is of very limited value and except in high summer the sun is too infrequent a visitor. Navigation relies heavily on the stars, dead reckoning and local knowledge. Frank McKay was as good a navigator as they come. Always good at maths at school he’d taken to navigation like a duck to water and spherical trigonometry was as straightforward to him as ABC plus the fact that he had plenty of experience in the North Atlantic. In short, he knew the way.
He’d joined the Bellman at Loch Ewe complete with his own navigational instruments, personalised and mostly very un-Royal Navy sea clothes and a secret half a case of Scotland’s finest. American ships were dry but Frank, not being part of their navy saw no sense in complying with their silly rules. The Captain had greeted him thankfully enough and the other officers were polite and appeared not to resent his presence. Soon he was happily running some navigation workshops for the deck officers and pleased at the speed at which they picked up the skills. The Bellman’s captain, Fred Wellbeck, and other officers where always on hand when Frank took sights and they all went through the position calculations. Uncannily the observations routinely matched Frank’s dead reckoning of their position from the ship’s course and speed with various allowances for drift.
None of this was in Frank’s mind as the cabins whistle summoned him from a half slumber and pleasant thoughts of his young wife and baby son. It was the ship’s Exec. “Sorry Frank, Skipper needs you topside.” He ruefully swung his legs to the floor and pulled on very non-standard kapok packed sea boots. He winced slightly as he went through the door out on to the deck. It was cold, as expected, and the wind tore at his heavy duffel coat. A quick and automatic look round to orientate himself; a point or two above freezing, if you ignored the wind chill of a near gale. The sea and the sky were the same slub grey and it was difficult to tell if it was freezing rain or spray that was beginning to soak him. The Bellman was loping along at, for her, an easy 20 knots – God he wished his own little ship had even half her top speed of well over 30 knots. She’d dropped back behind the convoy to investigate a possible submarine contact and, after a fruitless search, was steadily catching up. A minute later and he was on the bridge. “Sir?”
“Will you look at that Frank?” He pointed forward at about two o’clock.
Frank took up a pair of binoculars though there was hardly any need for them. “That, Sir, is happily one of ours; a Walrus. It’ll have been flown off one of the convoy escorts by catapult. They can’t land back on the ship and in this sea there’s no way the plane can land and be recovered from the water. It’s expendable. They may have seen something and want to report to us or they may be having trouble getting back to their own ship. If so they will want to land close to us and get picked-up.”
“Jeeesus, Frank, I thought someone had fitted a lifeboat with wings. Tell me some more.”
“Well, Sir, it’s as I said. It’s a Walrus. They’re not as antique as they look. The high wings and pusher prop mean that it’s a good plane for observation. They’re very slow but they’re hardly fighter planes. Cheap, expendable and useful, they are. It will probably have a lieutenant pilot and a sergeant observer. They’ll signal us in a moment.” Sure enough the plane started to wink-out a signal.
“Signalman Perkins, you got that?”
“Yessir, They’re asking for a lift home.”
“What now Frank?”
“Acknowledge and confirm we know the drill. Best if we steam straight into the wind as slow as possible. He’ll try and land behind and as close to our stern as he can. We need a rubber dinghy over the stern on a line ready to float down to them in the water. Hopefully they get in quick. We pull them aboard and then we can sink the plane if it’s still afloat with a couple of small shells.” The necessary orders were given and the ship slowed and sheared on to her new course.
As the plane got closer and manoeuvred to line up behind the ship it was possible to get a closer look at the archaic looking aircraft with its braced struts between the wings, boxy cockpit and very boat-like shape. The landing erred, if anything, on the spectacular side. The ungainly aircraft hit the water in a huge splash and bounced up again. On the second hit it looked for a moment as though it would settle down but a wave slewed it round and one wing went down. They could see the lower wing fold up then suddenly it was stopped and two people could be seen scrambling out. Fortunately the rubber dinghy was within feet of the plane and the men were across and in it within seconds. As the dinghy was hauled back to the ship, the captain left the bridge followed by the Exec. and Frank.
Frank watched in near disbelief as at the captain’s aside to the Exec. and a couple of whistles, sailors started to line up to attention along the deck. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ The thought was cut short as the two airmen were hauled over the rail on to the deck and stood there somewhat startled by the guard of honour lined up in front of them. Captain Fred Wellbeck took a pace forward, delivered a salute direct from Hollywood and stuck out a hand. “The brothers Wright, I presume. Which of you is Wilbur?” Slighty dazed the two fliers returned salutes and shook hands. “Get these heroes below please: my cabin in thirty minutes.” He turned to Frank. “See they’re looked after Frank.”
It was nearer an hour before Frank, the Captain and the two airmen were finally settled in Fred Wellbeck’s cabin. The good food served on the Bellman, a shower and warm clothes had done their reviving work. “OK guys, it looks as if you Brits have got me outnumbered so I guess we could do what the Brits do. You got me Frank? A little medicine might be called for here.” The Captain gave a pronounced wink at the slightly flustered Frank who disappeared out of the cabin to return after less than a minute with a brown paper bag. Four glasses were already on the table and, with due ceremony, a bottle was withdrawn from the bag and four stiff whiskies poured. The story was easily told by the pilot. They’d been flown off to carry out reconnaissance in a Norwegian fiord, purpose “Sorry, secret”. The plane had caught a bit of flak and as they’d headed back the radio had packed in and fuel was running out too fast. “Lucky you were in the right place at the right time.” The full story ended at the same time as the bottle.
The Bellman caught up with the rest of the convoy within four hours and the Luftwaffe caught up with it twenty hours later. They lost two ships to the bombing but it could have been worse and the Bellman played its fair share in the defence hurling a screen of shells across its wing of the convoy. They made it into the grim socialist frozen misery of Murmansk without further incident.
A couple of days later Frank received his orders to joined one of the rescue ships on a returning convoy and had to take his leave of the Bellman. “Sure you can find your way back now Sir?” He said with a smile.
“I reckon so Frank. We’re grateful. God though, this is one awful piece of war we’re in. I don’t know how you guys can go on doing it.”
“Hate Hitler, love home, endure and die quiet is all I know – oh, and the occasional drop of medicine. Thanks Fred and good luck.” He handed over the last three bottles of his secret store in a wrap of a small red ensign and shook hands. Then he turned and made his way off the ship with no more than a few handshakes and a nod and a wink to the officers and sailors as he passed. Fred Wellbeck watched the indomitable retreating figure with its characteristic seaman’s rolling gait until it turned a corner out of sight.
Robert Winston McNaughton