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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

On Board the Achilles

On Board the Achilles

THE ACTION had lasted exactly eighty-two minutes. In that brief period, the Achilles had fired sixty tons of 112-pound shells in more than 200 broadsides. Every one of the 1200-odd shells and cordite charges fired had been manhandled from the magazines to the hoists, from the hoists to the loading trays, and then rammed home. All four turrets reported that after firing from sixty to eighty rounds, the guns began to fail to run out immediately after their recoil, due to heating up, and had to be pushed out by the rammers. The guns remained very hot for some hours after the action. ‘The guns’ crews,’ said one turret officer, ‘worked like galley slaves, loving it all, with no time to think of anything but the job. The whole of the turret from top to bottom thought the action lasted about twenty minutes. The rammer numbers were very tired towards the end, but did not appear to notice that till it was all over…. Men lost all count of time. They spoke later of “about ten minutes after opening fire” when actually more than forty minutes had elapsed….’

‘Toward the end of the action,’ reported Sergeant F. T. Saunders,* Royal Marines, in charge of ‘X’ turret, ‘the heat in the gun-house was terrific, even though I had the rear door open and both fans working. The No. 1s of each gun, getting little air from the fans, were sweating streams…. Everyone was very dry and thirsty. There wasn’t the slightest delay in the supply of shells or cordite, which speaks well for the valiant work of those in the lower compartments. The ramming throughout was positively deadly; in fact, sometimes I thought they were trying to push the shells to the enemy instead of firing them. I was amused watching various men just tear off a garment as opportunity occurred. Some finished up bare to the waist. One of the rammer numbers was completely dressed in only a pair of white silk pyjama trousers, somewhat abbreviated, and a pair of native sandals. Another was clad in a pair of short drawers and his cap, to which he added later a corporal of the gangway’s armlet. Everything went like clockwork, drill was correctly

* Killed in action off Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 5 Jan 1943.

page 29 carried out, orders and reports passed and so on, just as if it was a practice shoot and nothing at all unusual was happening, except that everything seemed to be done at an amazing speed. The loading was absolutely superb. Marine Russell told me that we averaged seven seconds a round right to the end of the action. When we found we had expended 287 rounds, everyone in the turret was amazed: in fact I re-checked to make sure. The men all thought we’d fired about forty or fifty broadsides and that was my impression too. There was a spirit of grim determination, concentration, and cheerfulness during the whole job. Every man seemed bent on keeping this turret going at full speed…. Marine Harrison, having observed the enemy’s possibly first fall of shot somewhere in our wake, was heard to say: “Blimey, he’s after our heel!” which I thought was rather clever….Food of many types was forthcoming from many sources, but I didn’t inquire too closely what these sources were. Chocolate and sweets were in abundance, apparently supplied by the canteen staff.’

Not more than one man in ten in the ship’s company saw anything of the action. The majority were segregated in groups, and in some cases singly, in gun turrets, in engine- and boiler-rooms, and many other steel compartments below decks where no daylight entered. From the director control tower above the bridge were passed the ranges and much other data from which the robot brains of the calculating machines in the transmitting station, situated in the bowels of the ship and operated by a highly skilled staff, solved the problem of how a ship steaming at up to 31 knots was able to fire accurately, several times a minute, 8 cwt. of shells at another ship moving at 24 knots up to nine miles away. The officer in charge of the transmitting station reported that the spirit of his crew was excellent and all were as bright and cheerful as in a practice run. The detonations of the enemy’s 11-inch shells were heard distinctly, sounding like the explosions of depth-charges. ‘“Nutty” (chocolate) was a great help,’ he said. ‘We missed the free cigarettes, but we did hear that the canteen door had been blown off.’ Another officer remarked that ‘why the entire T.S.’s crew are not ill with bilious attacks, I cannot imagine, as everything edible was grist to the mill regardless of sequence’. The officer of the after control position reported regarding his crew, Marine Cave and Boy Beauchamp, that ‘they were perfect, the boy going out at one time into the blast of “X” turret to remove some canvas that was fouling vision’.

During the whole of the action the crews of the torpedo-tubes on the upper deck remained at their stations. No man took shelter. The trainers of the tubes were lucky not to have been hit by splinters. One able seaman fell and slipped along the deck under the starboard tubes. As he clambered out he was asked what he was doing there and replied that he thought he saw a three-penny bit. The officer in charge of torpedo-tubes, Gunner G. K. Davis-Goff,* reported that the foremost battle ensign was shot away and fell across the port tubes. ‘We rescued it and hung it up under the starboard whaler. It was later stolen by the signalmen…. During the lull in action, the tubes’ crews played crib and “uckers”** and had cocoa and sandwiches ….’

A major part in this naval drama was played by the officers and ratings in the engine-rooms and boiler-rooms of the British cruisers. They saw nothing and heard little of the action while steaming their ships at sustained full power. ‘The behaviour of all personnel,’ reported the senior engineer of the Achilles, ‘could not have been better in any way, including general bearing, endurance and efficiency. The officer in charge of the boiler-rooms remarked that he was most

* Now Commander, Royal New Zealand Navy.

** The Navy version of the game ‘Ludo’.

page 30 impressed by the behaviour of the stokers tending the boilers. Many of them were youngsters who had never before been below during full-power steaming….As each salvo was fired, the blast caused the flames in the boilers to leap about a foot out from the fronts of the furnaces; yet the stokers never paused in their jobs of keeping the combustion tubes clean or moved back from the boilers….’ The main engines of the Achilles, it is recorded, were manoeuvred with far greater rapidity than would have been attempted under any conditions but those of emergency. All demands made on the machinery were met more than adequately, all material standing up to the strain in such a manner that nothing but confidence was felt throughout the action. ‘The behaviour of both machinery and personnel left nothing to be desired.’ This tribute to the soundness of British shipyard workmanship is underlined by the statement of Captain Woodhouse of the Ajax that steam had been shut off the main engines of his ship for only five days since 26 August 1939.