In Britain, while the focus was very much on the RAF, the first line of defence against invasion was the Royal Navy. As Churchill had identified, the greater part of this work fell to the destroyers. As much as possible they kept out of the direct line of air attack during daylight hours in the Channel – but it was their presence as a screen which would have alerted Britain had any invasion come.
On board one anonymous destroyer was 20 year old Ludovic Kennedy, who would publish his first account of life on board in 1942. Here he describes one incident during August 1940:
Guns, whom I was relieving, had just explained to me the intricacies of the zig-zag. I wasn’t sure if I had the hang of it and was working out the times and alterations on the back of a signal-pad when the Captain, who was on the other side of the bridge, suddenly asked,“ Made a hash of the zig-zag ? ”
I thought for a moment he was referring to my figures, but looking up saw that B-—-, which was on our port beam, had turned the opposite way to us. However M——, which was to starboard, was steering our course.
I looked quickly at the zig-zag book. “ No, sir,” I said, “ I think it’s B—— who’s made a hash of it this time.” “ Oh, well,” said the Captain, “ keep a good eye on her. She’ll probably come round in a minute or two.”
Minutes passed, but B-—- stuck to her course. The Captain turned to the yeoman. “ Make to B-— ‘ Keep in proper station ’,” he ordered. The yeoman took up his. Aldis and was about to pass the signal when B—-— started calling us up. The yeoman answered with a succession of T’s. “ From B——-, sir. ‘ Attention is called to bearing 050 degrees ’.”
We searched the horizon on either side of the bearing with our binoculars, but could see nothing. “ Make ‘What can you see?’ ” ordered the Captain. The reply came, “ Object temporarily lost in mist, but am steering towards it.” ‘
“ We’d better investigate this,” said the Captain. “ Hoist ‘Turn together seventy degrees to port. Speed twenty-five knots’.”
The yeoman translated the orders down the voicepipe to the flagdeck, and the flags were run up on the halyards. B—- and M-— hoisted the main answer close up. “ All answered, sir,” reported the yeoman. “ Haul down,” said the Captain. “ Port twenty. Two four two revolutions.”
B—- began flashing to us again as we made the turn. I read, “ Object in sight now bearing 020 degrees. Am proceeding to investigate.”
“ I’ve got it,” cried Spider, and we followed the line of his glasses. Seven or eight thousand yards away a speck was just visible on the surface of the water. We all began thinking the same thing: could it be a U-Boat charging her batteries on the surface? The Captain was taking no chances, for he ordered B Gun to load and the depth charges to be set.
The yeoman began flashing again. “ From B——, sir. ‘Object is ship’s life-boat containing about a dozen people’” “Right! Set depth charges to safe. Speed fifteen knots.”
Soon we could spot the lifeboat for ourselves. B—, now nearly a mile ahead of us, went cautiously alongside, and through my glasses I could see figures scrambling up the netting to her upper deck. The lifeboat was cast adrift. Then we reformed in line abreast and set course for our area of patrol.
A little later the yeoman wrote out a long signal from B—-. “ Survivors ” it ran “ are from Portuguese ship, torpedoed without warning five nights ago when sailing independently. Three survivors are suffering from gangrene and seriously ill. Master reports second boat last seen drifting north-west two days ago.”
Although darkness was falling, the Captain decided to carry out a sweep to the northward in the hope of finding the second lifeboat; ships were spread five miles apart and speed increased to twenty-seven knots. A man was placed in the crow’s-nest, and the look-outs were instructed to sweep the horizon with their glasses.
We continued the search until night had fallen but saw nothing, and at midnight turned to carry out our original objective, the A/S patrol. Again we were unlucky, and the next afternoon set course for home.
Arrived in harbour a day later, B-——’s Number One came over for a gin while we were alongside the oiler. He told us that the survivors had just gone ashore in a drifter; their gratitude had been almost embarrassing.’
Most of them were still pretty ill ; they had run out of water two days before they were picked up. One poor fellow had got gangrene badly, and the Doc thought that he would probably lose both legs and both hands…
Our feelings were best expressed by the Captain. At dinner that night he said, “ The day we do run into a U-Boat, there won’t be any question whether it’s been sunk or not.” But he didn’t put it quite like that…