The Incident – by Kenneth Macleod

The Reader is delighted to be able to showcase this extract from Kenneth Macleod’s The Incident , which is being published by Wiedenfeld and Nicolson and will be on the shelves from April 5th 2012. Written in Berlin by one of our own, the talent is obvious; what you can’t see is the grit it took to get it done. The Reader witnessed it and this book is a testament to not only to talent but to bloody hard work, and should be read as an encouragement to every author struggling to get the work down and get it out there. Many thanks to Wiedenfeld and Nicolson for giving The Reader permission to publish this excerpt.

The reason my grandfather, Gordon McInnes, felt that everyone should learn to swim was because at the start of the war he was unable to. At that time he was a qualified merchant seaman, and for a poorly-schooled young man from a working-class Glasgowfamily he considered himself, prior to 1939, fortunate in his job. It was secure and well-paid and it showed him people and places he would never otherwise have seen. He already had a wife and two young children, with a third baby (my father) on the way, and marriage being what it was in those days perhaps he also felt relief at being absent from his family responsibilities for the duration of the voyages – for he was still only in his mid-twenties. So it was for a mixture of reasons that he thought of himself as very lucky. But it wasn’t until some months after war broke out that he began to realise he would need to be very lucky – very lucky indeed – if he wanted to come out of that same job at the end of the war alive and more or less in one piece.

For at a time when hazardous jobs were becoming commonplace, my grandfather now found himself, largely by accident, in one that was more hazardous than most. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities the British government had passed an emergency shipping law, and as a result my grandfather’s ship was converted from a cargo vessel to a tanker and pressed into service in the Middle East, where it was employed in transporting back fuel from Britain’s colonial oil fields. Make-shift tankers like these, of course, were prime targets for the German navy, whose U-boats, by the end of 1940, were sinking up to one million tonnes of British shipping per month. Thus my grandfather – exempt from Conscription because of his occupation, and without ever having volunteered for military service – suddenly found that his civilian job was, statistically, very nearly as dangerous as that of being a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.

In defiance of both paper statistics and tangible danger, however, my grandfather’s luck, and that of his ship, held for a full two years. During this time his vessel made five return trips to the Persian Gulf. It so happened that my grandfather missed one of these sailings when he was hospitalised with appendicitis, but on the other four voyages he had ample opportunity to see what happened when a ship’s luck (and the luck of its crew) finally ran out. For although tankers like my grandfather’s always sailed in convoy, and although the convoys were escorted by Royal Navy cruisers, the submariners of the German Kriegsmarine proved themselves, time and again, to be formidably good hunters.

As a consequence British maritime losses along the Middle East routes were even worse, proportionally, than those in theNorth Atlantic. Yet despite the awful toll extracted by the U-boats, and despite all the sinkings he’d seen, my grandfather never once worried during that time about the possibility of death by drowning. Even when the sinkings were at their worst, he always said the prospect of such a death never occurred to him. Instead, like many of the men who worked the tankers, he was preoccupied, to the point of distraction at times, by the image of what seemed to him to be a much more likely fate. For after 24 months of sailing to and from thePersian Gulf, my grandfather had become convinced that at some point in the near future he was going to be roasted alive.

As fears go, he knew this one to be extremely well-founded. Each fuel tanker, on a fully-laden return journey, carried tens of thousands of gallons of refined oil in its hold. This oil was highly flammable, and during the nine weeks or so it took to make the voyage home the threat of fire was omnipresent. No one on those ships was allowed to forget, even for a moment, that a single stray spark could ignite a blaze that would burn with such intensity it would melt steel.

Not that my grandfather, or any of the men he sailed with, was likely to forget such a thing. For they had already seen with their own eyes – on every voyage – exactly how the cargoes of convoy ships could burn like that. They burned like that when the ships were torpedoed. And the sight of such raging, roiling infernos, which could consume a vessel like their own in a matter of ten or fifteen minutes, was not a sight that any of those men would easily forget. Most would remember for the rest of their lives the way the heat, even at a distance of half a mile or more, had singed their hair and burned their skin badly enough to raise blisters. And they would remember too the incredible noise of the flames, which forced them to shout their oaths to one another as they stood in line at the rails, watching their colleagues die. And when, at the height of such fires, even shouting became impossible, they would never forget the way the scalding heat, conducted by the metal hull of the burning ship, made the sea around the sinking vessel boil and steam, even as the thick, black, greasy smoke gushed upwards to block out the sun.

After seeing such fires four or five or six times, none of the tanker crews had any illusions about what to expect if their ship was hit: some of them, when morale was low, even talked of their plan to jump down into the hottest part of the blaze, in the hope of ending the horror sooner.

So despite all the sinkings my grandfather had seen, and the even more numerous deaths of British merchant seaman, the fact that he was unable to swim was never a source of worry for him. Instead, after four trips to and from theMiddle East, the only form of death that concerned my grandfather – that kept him awake through the long, stifling nights in his cramped shared cabin – was the awful prospect of death by immolation. Drowning, had it ever occurred to him, would surely have seemed like a merciful luxury in comparison.

My grandfather’s luck never quite deserted him, but the luck of his ship finally ran out a few minutes after 9pm on the evening of 15 May, 1942. The vessel was 62 miles off the coast of EastAfricaand the event, when it came, was no great surprise to any of the 28 sailors on board. All of them, from the captain down to the cook, had been waiting for something to happen since the middle of the previous morning, when it had first become apparent that there was a serious problem with the ship’s engine. In the following hours, as the mechanics and engineers struggled to fix what turned out to be a cracked casing around the main propeller driveshaft, the fifteen other ships in the convoy reduced speed to match that of their struggling sister vessel. But when it became clear that the tanker would have to come to a complete halt in order to finish the repairs there was no question of the rest of the convoy halting along with it. Standing orders required the other ships and their navy escort to continue on towardsSuez. And so by mid-afternoon my grandfather and his colleagues found themselves stranded, alone, and in dangerous waters, a full three days from the coast ofEgypt. They were armed only with a handful of bolt-action rifles and the fast-fading hope of being able to make their repairs quickly enough to catch up with the convoy before it sailed completely out of range.

If my grandfather’s ship had been a schooner instead of a tanker she would still have been dead in the water that day, for there was no wind at all. The sea was a bright, blue mirror and the air above the ship’s scorching metal foredecks was blurred with heat. It was around the edges of these decks that the men who weren’t working in the engine room slowly began to gather, sweating silently and straining their eyes against the harsh white light that glared off the sea. One in every three of them had been issued with a rifle, on the theory that if they could somehow spot a U-boat periscope and shoot out its lens the enemy would be rendered blind and unable to fire. Every time they blinked the sweat from their eyes it must have seemed to those men that they saw the trail of a torpedo rushing towards the ship. There were three false alarms that first day, five on the second.

There was no alarm given before the one attack that proved real, however. The arrival of evening on the second day brought with it some relief from the heat, and this, together with the prospect of safety that darkness would bring, had caused the tension on board to ease somewhat. The mood among the men improved further a few minutes before eight o’clock, when word went around that the repairs to the engine were almost complete. The tanker would be underway before midnight, the captain had confirmed, and on hearing this news some of the crew had set up a table with a makeshift awning and commenced a loud and enthusiastic game of cards. Five sailors remained on official submarine watch, but it may have been that they, like the rest of the off-duty men, were paying more attention to the spectacular sunset that evening than they were to their job. Since the tanker was stationary in the water, however, there was no real action that could have been taken even if the alarm had been given.

My grandfather used to say that that sunset was the most beautiful he’d ever seen. Quite possibly his appreciation of it was sharpened by fear, for although he wasn’t normally a superstitious man he found himself, in those circumstances, regarding the sky’s fiery colours as something of an omen.

But however spectacular the view might have been from the ship that evening, the view through the periscope of the U-boat three-quarters of a mile to starboard must have seemed, to the commander of that vessel, even more beautiful. For the moment he turned his mirrors westwards the German captain would have seen the distinctive profile of my grandfather’s tanker silhouetted against the flaming sky, and he would have recognised the outline instantly for what it was: a prime target, disabled and helpless before him. It may even, conceivably, have troubled his conscience to have to attack such a vulnerable vessel, but if that were the case he didn’t let his feelings interfere with his duty. He ordered his submarine onto a course that aimed it directly amidships, brought it up to a depth of fifteen feet and gave the order to fire.

Luck is a curious thing. It would be more than a decade before my grandfather found out, almost by accident, the circumstances that combined to save his life that evening. Not until 1955, in a dockside pub in Hamburg, would he finally hear the story of his tanker’s destruction from the point of view of one of the crew of the U-boat that sunk it. At the time, as he watched the setting of the sun from his vantage point by the portside rail, he had no idea that an enemy torpedo was streaking towards the far side of his ship, and he couldn’t possibly have known that the submarine which had fired it was itself in a bad way, her fuel and power reserves dangerously low and her torpedo supply all but exhausted.

“And it’s just as well,” Bernward Dombach would tell my grandfather, somewhat drunkenly, halfway through their third litre of beer in the HamburgStammtisch eleven years later. “Because otherwise you wouldn’t be here now. Too many good seamen died in that damned war.”

Whereupon the two of them raised their glasses and drank a toast: to their friendship and good fortune, and to the memory of colleagues less lucky than they.

But that came later. In May 1942, my grandfather knew only that he’d been lucky to survive for as long as he had. He didn’t know that in the next thirty seconds he and his colleagues would be luckier than most men are in their lives.

Because although the torpedo hit the ship, it failed to detonate.

Faulty wiring, a leaky percussion cap, an act of sabotage by a slave worker in the munitions factory – there was never any way of telling. Not that it ever mattered to my grandfather. It would be enough for him to know, in later life, that instead of being blown apart in some oil-fuelled explosion, or roasted to death in the hellish inferno that would surely have followed, the only immediate effect the torpedo strike had on him was to send a series of vibrations through his hands and arms, transmitted through the metal rail he was gripping.

In the wake of the impact there was a period of confusion on both vessels. On the ship itself, it was several minutes before the crew could confirm exactly what had happened and discover that a large amount of oil was leaking from a hole below the starboard waterline. Once this news had reached the bridge, however, it only took the captain a few seconds to review the options before him. He now knew for certain that he was being stalked by an enemy submarine and could therefore expect a follow-up attack at any moment. It wasn’t clear as yet whether the damage sustained by his ship would prove serious enough to sink her, but with the engine out of commission he had no way of operating the bilges, much less of taking evasive action. Without power there was nothing, realistically, that could be done for the vessel. The captain was neither a hero nor a fool. He immediately gave the order to launch the lifeboats and abandon ship.

Three quarters of a mile to the east there was a similar period of consternation aboard the U-boat. The German commander, studying the tanker’s silhouette through his periscope, didn’t know if his strike had been successful or not. He’d been expecting to observe some sort of explosion when the torpedo hit its target. In the past he’d seen similar ships literally crack in two through the awesome force of the combusting cargo. This time, however, the lack of any visible detonation left him with a dilemma. Under normal circumstances he would simply have assumed that the weapon had missed and ordered the launch of a second strike, but as the U-boat’s Kapitan he was very much aware that the circumstances were not normal and that his submarine, after seven gruelling weeks at sea, had only a single torpedo left in its armoury. With several more weeks of sailing ahead of him before he could reach a safe harbour, he was anxious to keep this weapon in reserve if he possibly could.

At the same time as he was wrestling with this concern, the German was also confronted with the problem of what, if anything, had gone wrong with the torpedo that had just been fired. The shot had been an easy one, he knew, and it seemed inconceivable to him that it could have gone wide. U-boat strikes weren’t always accurate, but misses were usually due to rough weather or evasive action on the part of the target ship. Yet surface conditions here were perfect, while the tanker itself was stationary in the water and well within range. Besides, the Kapitan thought, he’d studied the torpedo’s wake as it was fired and was quite sure that it had streaked towards the ship on a true heading. So the question remained: why no explosion?

For a brief moment he allowed himself to consider the possibility that the tanker in front of him might be empty. If that were the case, the detonation from the torpedo alone wouldn’t have been large enough to observe from that distance. But almost as soon as this theory occurred to him he abandoned it, for even a brief glance through the periscope was enough to show that the British ship was riding low in the water – so low that she had to be heavily loaded. If not with oil, at least with something. Another cargo then? Not fuel, but something else for the war effort. Something non-explosive. Rubber perhaps, or even cloth. In which case the ship could be sinking by degrees even as he watched. But then that still wouldn’t explain the lack of smoke. For whatever cargo the ship was carrying should certainly be burning, and although he might not be able to see the actual fire he would still expect to see the smoke. Lots of it. And there was no smoke coming from the tanker’s silhouette.

So however unlikely it might seem, it looked as though the torpedo must have missed. And there was only one reason the German could think of why a torpedo fired on the correct course on a calm evening might miss a large, stationary ship less than a mile away. It was just conceivable that the depth-setting on the torpedo’s guidance mechanism had malfunctioned. Such a thing was rare but had been known to happen. In which case the torpedo could have sunk to a depth where it had passed underneath the ship, exploding harmlessly some distance beyond. And if that had happened it was certainly his duty to fire a second torpedo, regardless of whether or not it was his last.

This, after some thought, was the U-boat captain’s reluctant conclusion. He spent several minutes discussing the situation with his second-in-command, who agreed that a failure with the depth-control mechanism was the most likely explanation for the lack of explosion. The possibility that the first torpedo might have struck the ship but failed to detonate didn’t occur to him – and wouldn’t have made any difference even if it had.

By the time the German commander grudgingly gave the order to fire his second and final torpedo my grandfather had already taken his place in the lifeboat he’d been assigned to. The tanker had two lifeboats, one on either side of the ship. Both had space  for fifteen men each. My grandfather was in the Port lifeboat, on the far side of the ship from the submarine. There were fourteen other men with him. The thirteen remaining crew members, including the Captain, the Chief Engineer and the Senior Radio Operator, were all in the Starboard lifeboat, which was being lowered into the thick, fuel-slick water on the other side of the ship.

About half the men in my grandfather’s boat were already wearing life vests. Those who weren’t, including my grandfather, were issued ones from the boat’s store once it was in the water. Four large oars were then produced and slotted into place, and two crew members assigned to each oar. At a word from the Bo’sun these men began pulling in tandem, stroking the lifeboat away from the tanker. My grandfather was up near the bow, squeezed between two colleagues. There wasn’t enough room for him to put on the bulky life vest sitting down. The lifeboat was 300 yards away from the tanker and he was just standing up to put on the vest when the second torpedo struck the ship.

To my grandfather and the other men in the boat the explosion was incredible. The tanker seemed to erupt from within with a searing white light and heave itself momentarily clear of the water, like something alive. An instant later the blast hit the lifeboat. My grandfather, standing in the bow, was hurled forty feet through the air, the life vest torn from his hand. At the same moment as he was slammed backwards he saw the lifeboat rise up stern first and flip over lengthwise, flinging rowers and crew in all directions. Then he hit the water with a force that knocked the breath from his body and left him stunned. He didn’t see, thirty feet away, the upturned hull of the wooden boat spontaneously bursting into flames from the intense heat of the blazing ship.

Miraculously, given the size of the detonation, only four men from my grandfather’s lifeboat were killed outright. The rest landed in the sea alive, where they at least had a fighting chance. On the far side of the tanker, however, where the captain’s boat had been moving clear of the spilled fuel, the handful of men who’d been unlucky enough to survive the initial explosion were parboiled to death within a minute.

My grandfather, of course, knew nothing of this. Partially blinded by the light of the explosion, deafened by the noise of it, and concussed by the shockwave, he was never able to recall the next few minutes with any clarity. Probably this was a good thing, for without his lifejacket he must have been panicking, flailing about as he started to drown. He may even have gone under once or twice. But at some point his groping hand must have knocked against something substantial – something solid, something floating – and this, it seems, he grabbed hold of with all the mindless, animal instinct for survival; at first clinging to it, then gathering his strength to haul himself half on top of it – getting it under his arms so that most of his torso was out of the water. But almost as soon as he’d pulled himself up he felt the scorching, unbearable heat of the flames on his skin, forcing him back down behind the floating mass he was clinging to. From there, largely submerged and sheltering his face as much as possible, he began kicking away from the tanker as best he could.

Three quarters of a mile to the east the U-boat captain was studying the blaze with satisfaction. After a minute or two he stepped back from the viewfinder and ordered the periscope to be retracted. He took a brief moment to collect his thoughts before picking up the microphone that allowed him to address his crew over the intercom. He told them, quietly but sincerely, that they’d done a fine job on a hard voyage and had just capped their efforts with another trophy – a British tanker – and were now returning to base. He added that he was proud of the professionalism and fortitude they’d shown over the last seven weeks, and hoped that they were looking forward to a well-deserved period of shore leave.

His announcement was greeted with cheers throughout the vessel. Down in the engine room, an eighteen year-old conscript by the name of Bernward Dombach was cheering as loudly as anyone. In that first, flushed moment of triumph, mixed with relief at having come through the voyage unscathed and without shame, the young German could never have guessed that one of the crew from the ship he’d just helped destroy – a man who at that moment was desperately struggling to survive in the water a mile away – would in little more than a decade become one of his greatest friends. And he could never have guessed that more forty years after that, following almost half a century of friendship, the grandson of that same British sailor would travel to Germany to work for him, for several summers, on the shore of a very different sea.

In such curious ways does our past determine our future, and those who are spared to their later years always find something to marvel at in the course their lives have taken.

As yet ignorant of these events, the young Dombach continued to celebrate with his crewmates as the U-boat carried on its way. Above on the surface, time passed. In the warm salt water, in his pain and confusion, my grandfather was no longer aware of its passing, or of darkness falling. The tanker was still blazing so brightly that he couldn’t look at it directly, and if he raised his head he could still feel the heat of it scorching his face. But eventually, after minutes or hours, he found that he’d kicked his way to a place where the flames didn’t pain him too badly, and when his body realised this it gave up the kicking of its own accord, exhausted.

My grandfather, at this point, was in a bad way. He was still shocked and concussed from the blast, and his grasp of the situation was poor. There was blood running from both of his nostrils and he felt sick to his stomach. He’d sustained third degree burns on his arms, chest and face. He was having difficulty focusing his vision, and apart from a painful ringing in his ears he’d been rendered temporarily deaf by the noise of the explosion.

It was some minutes before he could fully understand where he was and what had happened. It took him a minute or two more to realise what it was he was holding onto – the floating thing that had saved his life. It was the corpse of one of his colleagues. One of the crew members who’d been wearing a life vest. That vest was now keeping both of them – one dead, one alive – afloat.

Even if my grandfather had wanted to, he wouldn’t have been able to identify the man. The corpse was badly burned and something – some jagged piece of flying metal from the tanker – had sheared off half its head in the explosion. Only the chin, mouth and part of the nose remained. As for the life vest itself, the intense heat appeared to have fused the fabric to the dead man’s skin. The flotation panels were still intact, but the whole thing was firmly glued to the corpse’s charred and blistered torso. My grandfather, injured and exhausted as he was, was unable to tear it free. On the other hand, he knew that if he let go of the body he would drown.

In the end he compromised as best he could. After a number of failed attempts, he finally managed to gather enough strength to haul himself back on top of the corpse. He was now lying sideways across it, with his own chest and belly clear of the water. In this position the mass of the body was largely submerged, and my grandfather was more comfortable and able to rest a little. He tried his best to think of the thing beneath him as an object rather than a person, and he avoided looking at the destroyed face. He was thankful then for his injured nose, thick with blood, because it prevented him from smelling the bacon reek of the cooked flesh.

In this way, my grandfather watched his ship burn in the night.

 

The ship burned for a long time. An unusually long time for a tanker: it was fifty minutes before she finally sank. As the oil was consumed the inferno diminished to something approaching a normal fire, and as it did so my grandfather, still dazed, gradually became aware that his hearing was returning. At first all he could hear was the intense roar of the flames in front of him, but as that lessened and his senses improved he began to distinguish other noises: moans and groans and high, panicked voices emerging from the watery darkness behind him. It is a measure of how shocked he still was that it took some time before he associated these noises as having anything to do with him – as coming from his colleagues. Once this became clear, however, he realised that a lot of the crew were alive and in the water nearby. Of the voices he could discern, several were moaning in pain, one was swearing viciously and continuously, and a number of others seemed to be calling back and forth, apparently trying meet up in the darkness. It sounded as if most of the survivors had managed to get further away from the tanker than he had, although he could see at least one corpse – in addition to the body he was resting on – floating amongst the detritus on the surface in front of him.

My grandfather made no effort to call out to the other men or make his way towards the sound of their voices. It seemed to him, in his dazed state, pointless. The ship was burning, after all, and without it they were all dead. Sooner or later. So what did it matter? And as it turned out there was no need for my grandfather to make such an effort. For as the flames engulfing the ship slowly diminished, and the circle of light cast by those flames slowly shrank, the other survivors came to him. One by one, out of the darkness, they kicked and struggled and splashed their way towards the dying fire and the single living person nearest it, seeking the light and the warmth of companionship.

As they arrived, in their dribs and drabs, my grandfather ignored them. He made no reply to their greetings or questions, their oaths or complaints. It was as if, still stunned by the enormity of what had happened, he was physically incapable of responding. He felt numb and sick, and the effort of acknowledging their empty, panicky chatter seemed both pointless and beyond him. So he watched the burning tanker silently while they collected in a loose circle around him, eight or nine men bobbing awkwardly in their life vests while he floated a little above them on his corpse. For the next half hour he held his tongue as they talked amongst themselves: irrelevancies mostly, or outright nonsense – for they were to a greater or lesser extent in the same shocked state as my grandfather.

As the flames sank lower, this strange, disconnected conversation gradually diminished, until eventually only the groans or curses of the injured punctuated the silence. Amongst those men with superficial wounds all eyes were fixed on the tanker, now hardly recognisable as such. Most of the vessel’s superstructure had gone, melted or collapsed in on itself, and the 12,000 tonnes of her hull had been reduced to a great, glowing hulk. The damage was so complete that none of the survivors could understand what strange property might be keeping her afloat, for most ships would have gone to the bottom long before. And so they watched for a time with something like awe until, at last, the final flames on the warped deck flickered and died away, and the only light now came from the dull, glowing red of the metal hull. And as the more seriously injured in the circle noticed the fading of this light even they quietened, until the only noise carrying over that silent sea was the agonised sobbing of a man somewhere behind them, fifty metres or so away, in the outer darkness, too badly hurt or too far gone to swim the distance to his fellows.

And then at last, almost an hour after she was first hit, the ship began to sink. Slowly, slowly, she started to twist and roll in the water, lolling cumbersomely onto her back, and as she did so a great groaning noise came from the wrenching metal of her innards, a desolate sound, almost mammalian, that seemed to those men to echo the growing sense of hopelessness they could feel rising in their chests. And as the different sections of the red-hot hull touched the water, the noise emitted by the gigantic, hissing clouds of steam drowned out even the moans of the dying man behind them, and as these clouds billowed up and the ship rolled over and slipped, finally, beneath the water, the light now came from under the surface – a glowing circle of greenish orange light that shrank slowly as the ship sank – and the men, all the men there, watched that shrinking light in horror, because every one of them was with that dead ship as it sank deeper and deeper, and my grandfather and those around him realised properly for the first time, as the glow of the ship faded slowly from sight, just how enormously deep the water beneath them was, two thousand fathoms or more, and in that moment the reality of their situation was clear to all, and the force of that reality left each of them with a physical sensation very much akin to the urge to vomit.

Then the glow went out and they were left in total darkness.

©Kenneth Macleod 2012. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. THE INCIDENT will be available as a £12.99 Hardback and Trade Paperback release from April 5th, 2012, with a mass market paperback edition scheduled for 2013.

 

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