The Fringes of the Fleet

The Practice of the Art

Rudyard Kipling

IT MAY have been so, but I was more interested in the faces, and above all the eyes, all down the length of her. It was to them, of course, the simplest of manœuvres. They dropped into gear as no machine could; but the training of years and the experience of the year leaped up behind those steady eyes under the electrics in the shadow of the tall motors, between the pipes and the curved hull, or glued to their special gauges. One forgot the bodies altogether—but one will never forget the eyes or the ennobled faces. One man I remember in particular. On deck his was no more than a grave, rather striking countenance, cast in the unmistakable petty officer’s mould, Below, as I saw him in profile handling a vital control, he looked like the Doge of Venice; the Prior of some sternly-ruled monastic order; an old-time Pope—anything that signifies trained and stored intellectual power utterly and ascetically devoted to some vast impersonal end. And so with a much younger man, who changed into such a monk as Frank Dicksee used to draw. Only a couple of torpedo-men, not being in gear for the moment, read an illustrated paper. Their time did not come till we went up and got to business, which meant firing at our destroyer, and, I think, keeping out of the light of a friend’s torpedoes.

The attack and everything connected with it is solely the commander’s affair. He is the only one who gets any fun at all—since he is the eye, the brain, and the hand of the whole—this single figure at the periscope. The second in command heaves sighs, and prays that the dummy torpedo (there is less trouble about the live ones) will go off all right, or he’ll be told about it. The others wait and follow the quick run of orders. It is, if not a convention, a fairly established custom that the commander shall inferentially give his world some idea of what is going on. At least, I only heard of one man who says nothing whatever, and doesn’t even wriggle his shoulders when he is on the sight. The others soliloquise, etc., according to their temperament; and the periscope is as revealing as golf.

Submarines nowadays are expected to look out for themselves more than at the old practices, when the destroyers walked circumspectly. We dived and circulated under water for a while, and then rose for a sight—something like this: “Up a little—up! Up still! Where the deuce has he got to—Ah (Half a dozen orders as to helm and depth of descent, and a pause broken by a drumming noise somewhere above, which increases and passes away.) That’s better! Up again! (This refers to the periscope.) Yes. Ah—I—No, we don’t think! All right! Keep her down, damn it! Umm! That ought to be nineteen knots, . . . Dirty trick! He’s changing speed. No, he isn’t, He’s all right. Ready forward there! (A valve sputters and drips, the torpedo-men crouch over their tubes and nod to themselves. Their faces have changed now.) He hasn’t spotted us yet. We’ll ju-ust—(more helm and depth orders, but specially helm)—’Wish we were working a beam-tube. Ne’er mind!, Up! (A last string of orders,) Six hundred, and he doesn’t see us! Fire!”

The dummy left; the second in command cocked one ear and looked relieved. Up we rose; the wet air and spray spattered through the hatch; the destroyer swung off to retrieve the dummy,

“Careless brutes destroyers are,” said one officer. “That fellow nearly walked over us just now. Did you notice?”

The commander was playing his game out over again—stroke by stroke, “With a beam-tube I’d ha” strafed him amidships,” he concluded.

“Why didn’t you then?” I asked,

There were loads of shiny reasons, which reminded me that we were at war and cleared for action, and that the interlude had been merely play. A companion rose alongside and wanted to know whether we had seen anything of her dummy.

“No. But we heard it,” was the short answer.

I was rather annoyed, because I had seen that particular daughter of destruction on the stocks only a short time ago, and here she was grown up and talking about her missing children.

In the harbour again, one found more submarines, all patterns and makes and sizes, with rumours of yet more and larger to follow. Naturally their men say that we are only at the beginning of the submarine. We shall have them presently for all purposes.

The Fringes of the Fleet - Contents    |    The Man and the Work

Back    |    Words Home    |    Kipling Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback