The Macfadyen Story
We were fifteen days out from Liverpool when, during noon ‘sights’ on the bridge I noticed the Officers discussing some topic in low tones. Poking above the horizon to the westward and clearly visible in the sparkling atmosphere were two masts with a funnel between. A steamer was heading south on a parallel course to us. I was standing near the wheel. The helmsman, a man with a generous dark moustache partly hiding his teak toned cheeks, stole a quick glance out of the starboard wheelhouse door.
“ What’s the excitement?" I whispered to him out of the corner of my mouth.
"Dunno rightly,” replied the quartermaster, rattling the wheel over a spoke or two. "But thim masts niver came out of a British yard I'll be bound.”
I pondered this statement as we took the Meridian Altitude and having worked out the calculation, found the ship to be in about the Latitude of Cape Frio and about seven hundred miles east of the Brazilian coast. By then a general atmosphere of tension was evident on the bridge. Officers began surreptitiously to look at the ‘Old Man’ as subordinates will when trouble is in the offing, as it he were some sort of Delphic Oracle.
Delap, Giller and I slid off down to lunch on the grounds that trouble was best met with a full stomach. To remain on the bridge was simply asking to be detailed for some job. So with the light-headedness of youth we began to put away as much food as we could lay hands on.
When the steward came and told us the latest ‘buzz’ from the bridge was that the mysterious stranger was a German Commerce raider our light-heartedness took a deep decline. It developed into an unconscious effort to boost morale. The conversation turned on the might of the British Navy and the sheer impossibility that any enemy raider could be allowed to roam the seas and get away with it. We were proud of our new ship and were sure that she could show a clean pair of heels to any "Jerry". Moreover we had a 4.7 inch gun. The fact that it was a three-action breech loader left over from some long forgotten war did not trouble us. But we did feel a trifle frustrated that 'the Old Man' had refused to let us Cadets make up part pf the gun's crew.
We had reached that point of the meal known to British caterers as ‘the sweet’ when an almighty crash came from somewhere aft. The cook’s glutinous rice pudding was forgotten and the three of us left the saloon and headed for the bridge, Delap's long legs putting him well in the lead.
More bangs came from astern and looking ahead through the ladder as I hurried upwards I saw tall white columns falling lazily back into the blue sea. I also saw some of our worthless crew sitting on the forehatch smoking cigarettes, with kitbags packed beside them. Such utter lack of intelligence or the slightest element of imagination has never ceased to amaze me. Here we were being chased by an enemy auxiliary cruiser and all they could think of doing was to pack their bags as if they were about to step ashore on Liverpool Landing Stage. I heard later that the stokers scuttled from the boiler room leaving the engineers and greasers to fire the boilers.
The Germans first rounds, fired from well outside the range of our gun, fell ahead of us some distance off. To have opened fire on him at that range would have been useless. Nor did we use our radio; the enemy would have made short work of the exposed radio cabin at the first signal. 'There, was nothing of the epic sea battle in our encounter with the enemy. The gun’s crew stood by the gun - but no orders were given to use it. The radio was condemned to silence. The men skulked forward, except for the faithful few who were still willing and tensed to jump into action if called on.
Down in the boiler room the engineers flung on the coal but the fingers of the pressure gauges drifted slowly backwards.
The stranger was racing up astern of us now as our speed slackened I could see the signals ‘Stop immediately’ and "I require coal" flapping wildly from her signal halyards. A couple of shells dropped close by our starboard bow. After a short conference with his Officers Captain McKenzie ordered the engines to be stopped. Our flag was still flying but we had surrendered. As the Brecknockshire lost way and lay lifting gently to the South Atlantic swell the hot silence of a tropical noon time shed an atmosphere of peace over the scene which made it difficult for us to realise the gravity of the hour. I, for my part, was almost looking forward to a boat voyage to the coast of Brazil which I knew to be about seven hundred miles to the west of us. for none of us doubted that the Brecknockshire had made her first and last voyage.
The grey painted ship was now close up to us and sliding round our stern, began slowly to creep up on our starboard side. I heard. Captain McKenzie whisper to the Second Officer, “Mr. Hollands, the papers!”
"My God, Sir!” replied Hollands. “I’d forgotten them. They’re on the chart room settee.”
"Get rid of 'em. Quick!"
“Aye, aye, sir!” The ginger-headed second mate turned to me. “Macfadyen, there's a weighted mail bag on the chart room settee. Dump it overside. Quick!"
By now the raider was a cable length off our starboard beam and boats were hanging near the water ready to lip from her davits. To me she seemed to sprout guns and torpedo tubes all over. Her upper decks were crowned with sailors armed with rifles - and they all seemed to be pointing at me. I ducked below the steel bridge rail and crawled through the starboard door of the chart room, grabbed the mail bag on the settee, left by the port door and still crouching behind the bridge bulwark, made my way to the port wing of the bridge. With a heave I flung the bag overboard expecting every second a salvo of gunfire, several torpedoes and a shower of bullets from the raider. The bag smacked into the South Atlantic with an almighty splash and I stood upright and breathed again.
The raider's boats dropped smartly into the sea as her engines went astern. Three boatloads of German seamen bent to their card oars they sent their lifeboats across the narrow strip of water between the two ships.
There is little more to add to this inglorious business. The Germans scrambled aboard and quickly dispersed to their pre-deterinined jobs. some to rouse out victuals, others to the engine room. The Officer in Charge climbed to the bridge and with a waving Mauser pistol directed our crew into his boats. So even the adventure of a seven hundred mile boat sail was denied us. As I climbed dawn the Brecknockshire’s side I looked down and saw in the green depths below the boat a huge shark slowly swimming around in hopeful anticipation. As we swung our legs over the German steamer s bulwarks some of her crew were busily landing another six foot mass of snapping, writhing devilmeat.
After my own ship the German steamer seemed small - I reckoned about four thousand tons gross. A converted merchant vessel she was of flush deck construction having a raised forecastle and poop. We came aboard by the after deck and I noticed two torpedo tubes concealed from view by the hinged steel bulwarks. On the small poop was the hand steering wheel with its long teak screw box. It was weeks after we prisoners realised that in fact it concealed a 4.1” gun.
We were quickly herded below. The space where we were to live was in the after ‘tween decks under number three and four hatches. Access to these decks was gained through a water-tight door in the after bulkhead. The intermediate bulkhead between number three and four ’tween decks was pierced by three similar doors. One of these doors was always secured, one led direct into number four ‘tween decks and the third led into the lavatories which were situated on the starboard side of the after ‘tween deck. The Officers quarters were on the port side of this after 'tween deck in the way of number four hatch. The Officers’ quarters consisted of two rooms containing about a dozen berths each, rough wooden affairs such as you would have found in the forecastle of a merchant ship of those days except that the bunks were rather harder than the British merchant seaman was used too. A plain deal table in each room, both somewhat carved and decorated by past prisoners, completed the furniture.
About a half of the ‘square’ of the after ‘tween decks were taken up by a curtained off space wherein the lascar firemen from another British ship had their quarters. In the number three 'tween decks there were rows of mess tables over which swung hammocks of brown canvas and into this space the lower deck ratings, junior officers and engineers were ushered. What struck me most was the dimness of the light in that place, cluttered with tables, seamen’s kit bags and swinging hammocks. The electric lamps were few and of the old carbon filament type, very hot and not at all bright. Moreover the sides of the ‘tween deck were lined with insulating material varnished dark brown. These walls were pierced with little square ports through which cold air could be pumped. The more experienced men recognised the ship at once to be a banana carrier. There was no cold air being used to cool the prisoners’ brows in those days but many of us realised that it would not be a technical impossibility for the Germans to substitute poison gas for cold air if the prisoners became an embarrassment. We had been meticulously fed by the Press with horror stories about the use of poison gas; we had little reason to take comfort from the sight of those little black holes in the dark brown walls of our windowless prison.
As we slumped despondently down on the hard deal forms to reflect on the immensity of our misfortunes we felt the rumble of the propeller as the raider gathered way. Captain McKenzie came below in charge of a blond beard giant. His face was white and grim.
"She’s gone.” He muttered. “Went like a stone.” The 'tween deck was filled with an embarrassed silence and down a ventilator, barred against possible escape, came the sound of commands in German and the cool rustle of the south-east trades.
By the next morning two more British shipmasters and their crews had joined us. In the middle of the night the Second Mate of the FRENCH PRINCE going on the middle watch, opened the door of his cabin without first switching out the light. The lookout on the raider saw the flash. At daybreak a little privately owned Welsh tramp steamer sighted another ship racing up astern. He hoisted a pair of trysails and boosted her speed to seven knots. She had not even a gun or wireless. She was sunk as we had been. That day was the 16th February 1917. As the bewildered Welsh crew came below to our ‘tween decks we learned that their ship's name had been the EDDIE. We laughed with bitter irony at their story of the trysails. We should not have laughed - at least they had done their best.
With three steamers in twenty four hours to her credit the German seemed, according to our guesses from the obscurity of the 'tween decks, to be putting as many sea miles as possible between him and the scene of his recent highly successful operations. The beat of the propeller speeded up as the ship rose and fell gently over the swells. Later that evening the motion changed to a slow roll and the experienced mariners among us reckoned that after beating south all day the German had altered coarse to the nor'ard and was running before the quarterly South east trade swell.
I found the truth twenty years later in the works of Newbolt and in a book by the German raider’s Captain. As I read I realised how near we had been to personal disaster that day, and how near we might have been to heroic headlines had we in the BRECKNOCKSHIRE been able to prolong the chase. If only we could have kept steam up. If only we had true men and courage and leadership ..... if only we had done our best the pages of Newbolt would have told a different tale. And the German's might not have been written at all.
It was only a matter of minutes after the EDDIE disappeared under the surfaces of the ocean when the raider’s lookout man sighted three ships in company. To the German there was something unsatisfactory about their behaviour too. What the raider's Captain saw through his glasses was a large, two-funnelled passenger liner, quite evidently stopped, while a smaller steamer of the tramp class was slow crossing her bows. Nearby lay another cargo steamer.
The German Captain suspected that at last he had stumbled over an auxiliary unit of the fleet which was hunting him. He turned and ran; hoping that no-one on the three ships had seen him. On that point he was to be disappointed. The lookout man at the masthead of one of the cargo vessels had sighted him on the horizon and given the alarm. It was unfortunate that on that morning Captain Marshall of the auxiliary cruiser EDINBURGH CASTLE had arranged to supply his colliers, the HEADCLIFFE and DUNOLUTHER with provisions. It meant that the German ship had the start of him while he had to work up speed from a stand still; his steam was black and his boilers old, coal fired ones. Moreover the EDINBURGH CASTLE was fouled by long service in tropical waters and during the chase which ensued never worked up to more than fourteen knots. The elusive stranger drew away from the British auxiliary cruiser and by 2.40 pm Captain Marshall gave up the chase. This was the first and last time the British Navy saw our prison ship - for which I am, selfish enough to be profoundly grateful.
But the alarm was out. The light cruiser Glasgow stood out to sea from the Brazilian coast, thinking to intercept the German on his dash south. But the raider's Captain had other ideas. No sooner had he shaken off the EDINBURGH CASTLE than he ‘fetched a compass’ and headed away north-eastward. He was coming to the end of his resources; his ship was getting uncomfortably full of prisoners, and prisoners need food and water. True, most of the drinking water we had dolled out to us was condensed and pretty brackish at that, but even so condensing means heat and heat means precious fuel. There were no fuelling stations available for our raider. We didn't know it but the die had been cast; we were destined for Germany - if luck favoured the German - and us.
On February 23rd 1917, while near the equator and some 200 miles north-east of the lonely rocks of St. Paul, the British cargo steamer KATHERINE happened along. The usual 4.1 shell flew from the raider’s gun; the KATHERINE stopped, having as the only alternative the doubtful honour of being shelled to pieces. The water-tight door of the prison deck clanged open to let in the fresh sea breeze and the small and bewildered crew of the little tramp steamer.
After this a period of relaxation set in. The German Captain was keeping away from trade routes and focal points for shipping. The weather was pleasantly warm, with a fresh north-east trade now as the ship headed into more temperate latitudes. When we took our daily exercise on the after deck the spray whipped over the weather rail in cooling drops. Every evening at dusk a party of German sailors manned the steam winches and performed mysterious evolutions with wireless aerials. Then the winches would clatter and slowly the raider’s stumpy topmasts would slide out of their hollow lowermasts until the aerials hung taut and ship-shape, high aloft in the evening sky. When the next relief of sentries came to guard the door leading to the prison deck their blonde faces would be shining with satisfaction, they had got the news from the radio station at Nauen in Deutschland; the Fatherland was winning, the Allies were being pushed back. London lay in ruins. All, in fact was well, and they were homeward bound. Hans, the Saxon, with fair, upturned mustachios, would hum a little song I had learnt from Herman Dax in Wallington, during his watch on the door. Bearded Otto would re-call with us, noisy in Bute Road, Cardiff and ask anxiously whether England really was starving. He had a wife and family there. We talked amicably and easily with these men for we were all seamen - professional seamen - and understood one another. But never could we wheedle out of them three things (a) the name of the ship (b) the name of her Captain or (c) anything about the ship which we couldn’t see with our own eyes during our short spells on deck.
By March 4th the raider had worked across to the ship lane between the Cape Verde Islands and the Canaries. Three hundred miles north of St. Vincent, in the Cape Verde's the British steamer RHODANTHE of 3,061 tons met the fate of most ships who were unfortunate enough to sighted by the German steamer. In the early morning of March lOth., the raider was in a position about half way between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. This is probably one of the loneliest stretches in that ocean of lonely stretches. Yet even here the gods who look after lonely raiders in hostile seas sent another ship stumbling across her bows. A short chase; a few rounds from her guns, and then the raider lay rolling to the Atlantic swells, her guns laid on a wallowing cattle-ship. Down the ventilators we in the prison deck heard the rythmic thumping of boats’ oars as they drew alongside.
Then came the unmistakable tones of an American voice down the ventilator, demanding in terms of the utmost indignation how the hell the goddam German dared lay hands on an innocent neutral. A German voice unmistakable Officer vintage (they have about them a rasping cruelty when giving orders) silenced the surprised newcomer and another voice ordered him peremptorily to “get below mit die others". We ware invaded by a flood of garrulous, indignant cattle men and a sprinkling of American merchant seamen, some sixty men in all, tough, dirty and utterly outraged. Their ship, the 4.611 British cattle steamer ESMERALDAS was by then several hundred fathoms down on the bed of the Atlantic.
By afternoon of that day the weather had changed for the worse. The German steamer no longer throbbed steadily along. Occasionally her flogging propeller thrashed the air as her bows cut deeply into the sides of a sea-valley and rose slowly, flinging spray aft along the deck. Presently came blustering rain squall, blotting out the lumpy waves and stinging the eyes of the lookout, even trickling down our ventilators to the crowded ‘tween deck.
The lookout man called to the bridge that he had seen a ship through a break in the rain curtain. It was a grey steamer crashing westward into the seas at good speed. The gongs clanged for action stations. In the after ‘tween decks three hundred prisoners saw the water-tight doors slammed to and heard the dogs knocked up on the outside. There could be no escape from that steel tomb. The cattle men didn’t like it and began to fidget. Neither did the "old hands" but there was no overcoming the situation. Some got out greasy packs of cards and dealt hands with steady deliberation. This was their ‘station’ when the raider went into action. They could not know the reason for those gongs, the scurry on the deck above, the wild beat of the engines. It might be a harmless merchantman -- or a British cruiser squadron. So they played bridge, or sang, or told lewd stories, or prayed, each according to his philosophy and his nerves.
The electric lights even dimmer grew than their usual yellow glimmer as more steam was turned into the racing main engines. The raider quivered she rushed at the rising sea and flurries of spray spattered down the cowl ventilators. The crash of a gun made the bridge players pause in their game. It was the stern gun which had fired. Again silence except for the howling wind and the quickening tempo of the engines. Something was not going according to plan. The ‘old lags’ could have told the newcomers that in the ordinary course the affair would have been over before this and they would have been giving their new chums an ironical welcome. But the prison ship raced on firing an occasional round from her guns.
Suddenly the sound of crumpling metal sounded from for’ard. A crash from on deck and then every gun on the raider seemed to go mad. Shell bursts and gun flashes flickered down the ventilators from the darkening sky. Presently a thud and a gout of coal dust from the hold below us told us that a shell had landed in the bunkers.
The raider was listing now, heeling over to port so that only by clinging to the edges of the deck plates with your finger tips could you avoid sliding into the scuppers, the newcomers panicked. The cattlemen, landsmen in the most terrifying position which even the sea can hold, hammered on the steel water-tight doors and screamed to be released. At last, when they ceased their ravings we became aware that an ominous silence seemed to envelope the ship. No guns, no rattle of torpedo gear, no shouts; just the soughing of the North Atlantic. It was as if the ship had been abandoned. And a wisp of smoke curled up through the hatches from the hold below us.
But we were not abandoned. Presently the steel doors opened and a party of German seamen burst in, their hands gripping Mauser pistols which fanned over the frightened prisoners, ready to crush any attempt at escape with a hail of bullets. An Officer and men with fire extinguishers plunged below to the lower hold. At the doorway Hans rested one band on his pistol holster while the other curled his blond moustache --- and his fingers were stained crimson. Somebody asked for news. What was it? A cruiser? The fleet?
"Vleet? he replied in scorn. "Gott in Himmel.. nein! Only a cargo boat mit gun. He used it, so ve sink him. Kaput! He's finished.”
The name of that ship was the OTAKI a steamer of 9,575 tons bound for New Zealand via the Panama Canal. Her Commander, Captain Bisset-Smith R.N.R. had refused to stop. His gun’s crew consisting of two Naval Reserve ratings assisted by apprentice and seamen, manned the 4.7” gun in the stern. At a range of about two miles the raider fired a warning shot. The OTAKI held on in a brave attempt to work up steam and escape. At two thousand yards a salvo from the German's 5.9" forward guns leapt over the grey tumbling seas. The 4.7" barked back and then hell was let loose. The raider flung thirty two rounds from her guns and two torpedoes slid through the water at almost point- blank range towards the Britisher. Eight rounds were all that the OTAKI's gunners were able to return. One of them disabled the enemy's port bow gun, another struck the raider's saloon and set it afire, another cut a steam pipe in her stokehold scalding the lascar firemen with steam. Several shells tore through the Germen’s sides on the water line and one plunged into the reserve bunkers. One British shell missed its mark and that was the last one which screamed away over the enemy's mast heads. The OTAKI smashed to pieces, was sinking rapidly and the old 4.7" gun could not be depressed enough to lay on the raider.
Captain A. Bissett-Smith V.C.
It is surprising that under such bombardment only four of the OTAKI’s men were killed and nine wounded. Captain Bisset- Smith went down with his ship. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
While fire parties extinguished the fires on the German ship and shipwrights swung overside to plug shell holes, boats were launched and under the darkening evening sky, picked up the OTAKI’s survivors struggling in the water. They came aboard, wet and not a little frightened at what the Germans might do to them. They were obviously amazed at the hundreds of prisoners they found down in the ‘tween decks and told us frankly that had they known we were aboard they would not have fired a shot. Which was all very humanitarian but, when you consider it, not the way 'to win wars’. But the Britisher of those days still expected wars to be conducted very much along the lines of village cricket. They have, I think, since been better educated by certain European tribes.
The seaman- gunner of the OTAKI had to have a leg amputated as soon as he got aboard the raider. Later, as he lay in the prison deck, he seemed as full of fight as ever. The German Captain paid him the honour of a visit in the prison deck. The German, a lean faced man with a short torpedo beard whom Hans always referred to as "The Count" leaned over and shook the British seaman by the hand.
“I congratulate you on your gunnery, my friend,” he said. “This is what I expected from every British ship, but I have been disappointed.”
"We nearly got you." the gunner retorted.
The Count laughed "No, no. my friend. Not nearly. There's plenty of fight left in us yet, you see.”
But the Count was bluffing. He was badly hit and he took no more chances. Heading away north-west from the traffic lanes which converge on the English Channel. the raider was 130 miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland when we prisoners got our next "fix" from the Master of another British Ship. She was the big tramp DEMETERTON loaded with timber for Europe. The German slammed salvo after salvo into her but she turned turtle and refused to sink. Her crew were picked up by the raider. Next day the Count fell in with the Harrison steamer GOVERNOR. She had a gun, it was promptly demolished by the opening rounds, as was the ship wireless cabin perched handily on the boat deck. Her crew were taken off and the ship sunk by a torpedo.
Then came the run back to Germany. Even the chilly sunshine of the North Atlantic faded to a uniform greyness of sea and sky and high latitudes were reached. Our spells of exercise on deck became shorter and shorter; there were more people to exercise and the danger of a lurking British periscope sighting the unusually crowded decks of an innocent merchant ship must have given the Count plenty of anxiety. Sometimes we could pause in our walk round and round the after deck and watch the shot plugs on the water line, now clear of the sea, and then plunged beneath the surface in a cloud of flying bubbles as the rolling steamer sped onwards.
One night, when the cold northern fogs swirled over the sea, the rumble of the raider’s engines ceased. Down the cowl ventilators of our quarters came the unmistakable sound of a diesel engine. Guttural orders and advice sounded from overside followed by a faint “aufweidersehen”. We guessed that a U Boat had rendezvoused with the Count to give him the latest information about the British cruiser screen. The submarine's engines chugged away into the night and our ship awoke to life. From away below the propeller shaft began its monotonous rumble, we counted the thudding revolutions of the propeller and told each other that they had never touched such speed before. We were running the blockade. Poor, harassed Mr. Hunter of the BRECKNOCKSHIRE, and late of the Northern patrol we were now racing through, sat on his bunk in the Officers’ quarters, moaning and hiding his face in his hands. He told the others in that crowded room that they’d never get through. He knew; he’d been on the patrol. It was impossible. Somebody cursed him and told him to shut up. The lights grew dim as the dynamos lost steam to the main engines. The greasy packs of cards came out. The lamptrimmer of the BRECKNOCKSHIRE surreptitiously knocked the neck off a bottle of whisky he had been hiding away for weeks and silently passed it to his mate the Carpenter. The prison deck became charged with a frightened silence.
There followed a day and a night of frenzied driving through the net of British patrols and down the North Sea under the shade of the Norwegian Coast.
Those few prisoners who were allowed on deck to fetch the short ration meals and brackish drinking water, brought back tales of how the ship had changed her appearance. Neutral colours were painted on her sides; a strange name decorated her after wheel box. For a few hours she battled with an ice jam with the low dunes of Denmark close aboard to starboard before slipping into harbour. Down in the prison deck we heard the rumble of the anchor cable in the early hours of the night and then silence; the silence of a ship at anchor after months of straining service; the quiet which tells of a crew sleeping with the sure knowledge that no clanging gongs will send them hurrying to action stations. The date was March 20th. 1917.
Hans came down at eight bells next morning to relieve the guard on the door of the prison deck. His round, blonde face shone with delight and the rigorous application of a razor. He was wearing his number one uniform decorated with gold badges and round his best cap with its ribbons whipping behind was a new cap ribbon with the ship's name in gold. In the past the sailors’ cap ribbons only told us that they belonged to the ‘le Matrozen Abteilung’ now Hans laughed to see our amazement at reading on his cap – ‘S.M.S. MOEWE’
Moewe's second Cruise list
So we had been sunk by that famous raider. And the Count was the famous Count Von zu Donah Schlodien.
Count Von zu Donah Schlodien with the crew of Moewe
The Count on the bridge of Moewe
The arrival of Moewe caused considerable furore in Kiel. There was much celebrating aboard and doubtless much back patting eloquence. Several of the celebrants got rather drunk and the paymaster of the ship was indiscreet enough to get into trouble for being rude to British prisoners while under the influence of liquor which illustrates the innate sense of decency which seemed to move zu Dohna in all his dealings. We were at war but we were still humans and some of us were even gentlemen. Others, of course could lay very little claim to that consideration.
We had a German Prince of high degree visit us in our overcrowded and foul ‘tween decks. He had some ladies with him which was indiscreet, for they probably took away some of the local fauna - we had lots to spare.
When we were given a short spell of exercise on deck before being landed we saw the gentle slopes of Kiel harbour all around us and on the waters rank upon rank of German torpedo boats rusting in inactivity as a result of the British blockade. The MOEWE was transformed. No longer did neutral colours decorate her sides; from truck to water line she had been painted black. Her long masts had been hoisted to their utmost while the funnel was telescoped to a stumpy, rakish-looking stack. A yard was crossed on the foremast and everything was ‘ship shape and Navy fashion’. S.M.S. MOEWE was home again.
An Education in Germany.
One night, after a few days in the harbour of Kiel. we had our orders to pack up and go. Not that we had much to pack but some of us had been more provident than others and managed to get away with a few clothes before leaving the ship. Those of us who had such ‘luggage’ shouldered our little bundles and shambled up the quay towards the railway station. It was a bitter night with snow on the ground as our procession of half-clad scarecrows, some still in tropical white, made their way through the streets. It was dark and must have been late at night as hardly a soul was about beside ourselves. We were handed over to the tender mercies of the German army then and how devoutly we wished for our sailor captors again. From then onwards we became the victims of militarism; "Rous!" became the order of the day, frequently embellished "with a few rolling Teutonic curses.
We were herded into a train of fourth class coaches, a type of railroad vehicle consisting of a chassis, four walls and a roof and fixed windows. They were entirely devoid of seats or lighting and in these trucks during the bitter drag through Germany in March 1917 learnt of the comforting warmth of animal heat.
Next day we halted twice at wayside canteens for meals of soup. It tasted terribly insipid but we lapped it up for its gratifying warmth and called for more. We didn’t get it. One small bowl was our ration. By midnight we had arrived. at a little station in Westphalia and were hustled out into the freezing night, cramped, stiff and half unconscious with cold. On the station we were pricked into something resembling a column, the pricking being done by the really remarkable assortment of bayonets with which our sentries seemed to be equipped. Besides the usual sort of weapon common to the British army of that day, there were things like young cutlasses with a wicked saw edge; others were of diamond section, the better, I was told, to form a vacuum in the wound and remove half your stomach with it when removed; there were long ones and short ones but each and every one of them seemed able and willing to explore our wretched carcases at the slightest provocation. Under this eloquent persuasion we were marched off into the night, out of the little town of Dulmen and along a country road which, under its layer of snow, reminded me uncomfortably of the pictures I had seen of the wastes of Siberia - from which no prisoner returned.
I believe it was four miles to Dulmen camp but to us it seemed like four hundred. After the cramped quarters and the lack of adequate exercise we were in no shape to tackle route marching. Moreover we were weak with semi-starvation and half frozen in our scanty clothing. Our road led us through flat, deserted country, dead with frost and with snow deep in the fields. Sometimes a cottage would be passed shuttered and silent, turning blind eyes to the column of shuffling prisoners, but at one small group of houses a few women appeared, spitting vituperations at us. One of them raised an arm, swinging a dead cat by its tail. It flew towards us and landed with a nasty thud round the shoulders of the man next to me. With a howl of disgust he shook the thing from him to the snow where it was trampled under the feet of the marching mob.
Dulmen prison camp was reached at last and we were quartered in two huge marquees for the night. A working party of Russian prisoners arrived carrying large tubs of meal soup which looked and smelled remarkably like the sort of stuff I had seen Mr. Chapman of Church farm ladling out to his pigs. But it was hot and to us seemed the most wonderful feed we had ever had. My German, picked up under Herman Dax and polished up on the Moewe won me an extra whack of swill which I lowered gratefully to its appointed resting place. The swill all finished, we lay ourselves down on the grating floor of the marquees and huddled together for warmth to prevent ourselves freezing to death, falling into an uneasy and chilly sleep.
Dulmen camp was a transit depot where incoming prisoners were ‘gone over’. Here we were fumigated for vermin and isolated to see whether any nasty diseases developed. We were also vaccinated. Generally speaking we lived a life of leisure which gave us some time to get ourselves accustomed to camp life. Some of the ‘old lags’ in the camp fed us with stories of the delights of camp life, which had the veriest shadow of truth about them. We were told that the camp was quite near the frontier but that no prisoner had ever escaped and lived. That was easy to believe for the place bristled with scientifically contrived barbed wire fences of some fifteen feet in height, overlooked by elevated sentry posts armed with machine guns. And the German soldiers who walked about the camp kept their bayonets fixed always.
The camp itself was quite well laid out, the huts being of the type commonly used in British army hutted camps. But of the social life, if so it may be called, we knew nothing as we were in quarantine. One persistent visitor we had however, in the person of a German interpreter who would talk to us for hours about the old days in London and Liverpool and half the towns in Britain, in the hope of picking up some crumbs of information. His dogmatic zeal only served to rouse some of us - notably Delap - to a flicker of native humour. I suppose the honest German found out that Delap was Irish and the subtle difference between a southern Irish Catholic and the dour northern Protestant as regards his outlook towards the British was a bit too subtle to warn him off. Delap in his sibilant Northern Irish accent unloaded some of the most awful stories about starvation and riots in England which seemed to give the Intelligence gentleman much satisfaction if one could discount his mask of pious horror. For the son of an Irish clergyman Delap could lie with unexpected fluency.
After a fortnight of this dolce far niente we left for Brandenburg in Prussia. At Brandenburg, we were told, we should meet all the other sailor prisoners. There, we were told life was almost one long round of pleasure. The praises sung of Brandenburg by the old lags of Dulmen prepared us for a very Arcady. Most of the stories were born of the same creative instinct which prompted the singers of the Sagas; very largely they were blatant works of imagination with the smallest grain of truth at their cores – sometimes.
We prisoners of the MOSWE never found that grain. When, after a rather more comfortable train journey and a three kilometre march, we watched the red April sun rise over Kriegsgefangener lager Brandenburg, we realised at once with a sinking feeling that here were no hopes of wassail, nor shady lawns. And the local brand of Feldwebel could never be mistaken for a fairy.
Brandenburg Camp was situated outside the rather pleasant town on the site of a disused brickworks on the banks of the river Hevel. In the centre of the camp was a large pond opening into the river and round this were situated the prisoners’ huts. In all I suppose the area of the camp was about fifteen acres. The barracks consisted of long, low huts, some built of brick and others of thin boarding covered with roofing felt. They were about one hundred yards long by fifty feet wide and ten or twelve feet high to the roof ridge.
Our first sight of the camp seemed to suggest that the place was uninhabited. As the early Spring sunshine lit up the huts in their sandy compounds it struck us that there must be something about a place where prisoners were allowed to ‘Lie-in’; our own recent experiences had made even one good night' s sleep something of a luxury. Presently however, first one inhabitant of that seemingly empty place appeared followed by another and then by little groups of silent, sleepy individuals. The first comers were Russian soldiers, poor, ragged, starving creatures in threadbare uniforms who went about their jobs of trying to find something to eat with the lassitude born of despair. Then further off to our right some unmistakable French uniforms appeared and with astonishing suddenness a sandy rise on the far side of the lake became populated by weirdly clad individuals. There was very little vestige of any recognisable uniform but we knew them at once for the British seamen who were to be our companions. Smoke began to rise from their quaintly contrived cooking fires and before long the fragrant, half-forgotten smell of coffee came wafting over on the soft breeze.
But we were not destined to meet them yet. And the smell of that coffee only served to tickle our sense of smell with no promise whatever that we should be able to raise a cup of it to our lips. We were lined up, numbered (how many times had we been numbered since we landed in Germany?) and marched away, past the enquiring eyes of the Britishers in their compound and up to one of the long, black huts. Still in our ranks we were given a hunk of black, sour bread and a mug of coffee (made out of acorns) scooped out of great tubs carried half across the camp by the ox-like Russians. We ate our breakfast standing. Then we were harangued by the camp Commandant whose words of advice were rendered into English by a very indifferent interpreter who then proceeded to read out the rules of the camp. This took some time which is understandable considering that you were not allowed to do anything much according to the Rules, and normally the punishment for doing it was death. The phrase ‘the punishment is death’ came with such monotonous regularity that some of our more unsquashable members began to intone it like a Greek chorus, which brought a bark of disapproval and a few well chosen words in pungent German from the Commandant.
We were then bathed. The column queued up at the door of the big bath house and gradually edged its way into the building as the first comers completed their ablutions. It was by no means a bath in the ordinary sense but a very purging of all uncleanliness. Luckily the bath house was deliciously warm. Here again the ubiquitous Russian soldiers were running the show and seemed to be rather happier types than the miserable wretches we had so far encountered. Large, bear like chaps, fully bearded, they wore over their uniforms the white overalls of bathroom attendants. A few polite gestures from the man in charge of the reception room indicted that we had to strip off. We did, and our clothes, bundled and numbered, were wheeled away in little trucks. ’Fumigation,’ explained the Russian gentleman, grinning and nodding his head.
Through the doorway of the reception room we could see into the bath house proper. This was a big room about fifty foot square and some twenty feet high, floored in concrete and fitted with drains. Overhead was an array of steel pipes through which warm water sprayed over the naked men standing on the floor. !n the doorway stood two more Russians armed with lathes of wood. as each naked Britisher approached the portal the lathes were dipped in buckets of white, lime-like paste and skilfully wiped over his body by the enthusiastic Russians, with particular attention to the armpits and genitals.
Giller, Delap and I, sticking together as we always did, went through in our turn and were greeted by whoops of delight by the ministering gentlemen on the door. Being of a somewhat hirsute nature even at that comparatively tender age I was treated to an extra dollop of the mixture followed by a playful slap on the buttocks as I went into the steamy bath house. Nor were our indignities yet over. Another Russian gentleman forced us gently but firmly on to a stool and produced a pair of barbers clippers. With three expert strokes he sheared of the growth of about eight weeks and delivered us to the bath overseer. This was a German. With a characteristic ‘Rous' he shoved us under the warm showers. Then, as the water streamed over our bodies we found that every vestige of hair was falling away with it to the floor! At first it was rather alarming but the sight of so many ‘old salts’ and tough characters standing there naked as the day they were born was too much for most of us and we began to laugh and laugh and laugh until we almost cried. We had done very little laughing for a long time and I think it did us a world of good. Even Giller, who was a rather nice lad and not used to coarseness in any form at that time, could scarce suppress a chuckle, although perhaps a slightly embarrassed one.
Drying ourselves on about one square foot of cardboard, like material which was supposed to be a bath towel took a bit of perseverance. then came a wait while we all got cold before our fumigated clothes were delivered to us. I think they must have been baked in an oven; my suit was more or less singed all over and the blue had turned a rusty brown. Everything had a well cooked smell but at least they were warm. We dressed hurriedly and fell in outside the bath house where we were counted again - presumably in case the lime paste had been over strong and washed one prisoner away entirely.
We very soon learnt that our contingent were not the first prisoners to be sent home by the Moewe. It soon became apparent that the Count had taken his auxiliary cruiser through the tenth cruiser squadron of the British Navy on previous voyages although with his guns carefully hidden and disguised as a merchant ship, a practice considered not quite fair by our ‘Queensbury Rules’ high-ups. The victims of the first cruise, and some from the second now constituted Eighty-one Company in Kriegsgefangenenlager, Brandenburg. The three hundred odd seamen which had newly arrived in the camp became eighty-two company.
After the interlude of the bath we went back to our hut and were detailed off for fatigue duties. This consisted mostly of fetching the food which, in turn, meant carrying tubs of erzats coffee, soup and baskets of black bread cut up into hunks about 4 inches high, two inches wide and an inch and a half thick. This bread was heavy, sour stuff made largely of potato flour which, if left to go stale, soon became rock-like and uneatable. It never had the chance to go stale in the early days of eighty-two company for it was indeed the staff of our life. Besides the hunk of bread at breakfast we had a pennikin of erzats coffee - black coffee, we never saw milk on the camp diet. Dinner and Supper both were interpreted as some form of soup. A washy concoction of cabbage was common but occasionally the diet was enlivened by rather thicker meal gruel, which to our empty stomachs, was almost ambrosial. Red cabbage too, was a change and black horse pea soup sometimes caused a minor riot. Some of the hungry and more indiscipline wretches would. gulp down their ‘whack’ and try to jump the queue for a second basinful. Once a tubful of the scalding mess was overturned on the sand in the general melee. That black pea soup seemed like something worth fighting and scheming for. But it did frightful things to your insides.
Now this sort of diet was simply slow starvation although it was the standard diet for the whole camp. There is no doubt that the Germans were hard up for food - their own people were quite inadequately fed, but it was also pretty evident that they knew that the paternal British Government would allow some of its meagre enough food stocks to be devoted to Red Cross parcels for prisoners of war. It took three months slow starvation before a new batch of prisoners could hope to get their food parcels from home. Thus, although there were hundreds of fellow Britishers in the camp besides eighty-two company, we saw very little of them. There was no physical reason for this. The camp was divided up into compounds by barbed wire fencing, each compound containing one or two huts, but their gateways were not wired and had no gates anyway. Prisoners generally were allowed the freedom of the camp, except for one certain compound, ut three hundred and sixty starving desperados do not commend themselves to their fellows who, though receiving their food parcels, could not possibly have spared enough food to make any impression on the appetites of eighty-two company. To explain this to the boys of ‘eighty-two’ would have been like trying to discuss psychology with a ravenous tiger. So we had few visitors, except for some Frenchmen who ‘flogged’ us stale bread for our boots and belts. Some of us preferred to chew our belts. Delap, Giller and I, co-opting another apprentice from the FRENCH PRINCE made a delicious soup for the four of us out of one soup cube slipped to us by a kindly ‘old hand’.
Macfadyen, Cadet, Evans, Third Officer, Giller, Engineer, Delap, Cadet.
Brecknockshire's crew members, Brandenburg 1917
The organisation of the camp needs a little explaining. When eighty-two company arrived there were three main elements in the place. Firstly there were the Russians, by far the oldest inhabitants. Most of them had fallen into German hands when the Russian Steam Roller fell to pieces (or got bogged down) in the marshes of Upper Silesia. The Bolshevik virus, cleverly administered by the German Wilhelmstrasse, was already breaking up the Russian regiments from the rear as well as by the onslaughts of the German army on their front. Hopelessly cut off, bewildered and ill-led they surrendered in thousands and were herded away into Germany like cattle to work themselves to death in salt mines, coal mines or munitions factories. In Hitler’s war the Allied Press called it ‘slave labour’ and ranted as if it had never happened before. The Russians in Germany in that Kaiser’s War received few, if any, food parcels and by 1917 had reached the extreme of physical weakness and shattered morale. Those who had camp jobs such as hospital orderlies, bath attendants or clerks considered themselves in the seventh heaven of contentment when compared with their less intelligent colleagues. The poor, ignorant peasant type were herded together in commandos and treated as vermin. If they were taken ill, or collapsed through starvation or hard work they died where they lay. In their brief spell in camp between one commando and the next they drifted about the camp looking for food scraps, their tattered uniform greatcoats thrown over their thin shoulders, their eyes pale and listless and sunken. They were men without a country, without hope, almost without life itself. There were three thousand of them attached to Brandenburg Camp.
Then there were the French. These were all French soldiers and relatively few in number. They did not mix and the feeling between British and French was polite but cool. The Germans bullied them rather less than they did the Russians; the French soldiers seemed to be fortified by the rigid discipline of their French army days.
Then we had the British. In my early days in Brandenburg there were two types, both seafaring. Firstly there were the merchant seamen and men from fishing vessels and secondly the naval men, survivors from the battle of Jutland. There were some merchant shipmasters and officers in eighty-one company but generally speaking the British prisoners in Brandenburg were lower deck hands and petty officers. There was one Warrant Officer Gunner amongst the naval men.
Everyone was supposed to work except the officers. Their contribution towards the general welfare was to collect a wagon load of Red Cross parcels from Brandenburg Railway Station once a week and haul it the three kilometres to the camp. The horses which normally would have provided the motive power had been killed and eaten long ago.
Later, towards the end of 1917 I believe, we had an influx of Italian soldiers and British soldiers from the staggering German advances on the Western Front. But to the end the seamen always ‘owned’ the camp. However, the Italian element at one time showed signs of gaining numerical superiority but they never succeeded in becoming an integrated force in the camp. Italians are individualists; they do not readily appreciate the fundamental truth of the old WORCESTER motto, ‘Union is Strength’
The Germans had long since learned the trick of making a leader to represent each nationality to act as the official mouthpiece, to be the channel through which the Germans sought to impress their orders on some prisoners and if possible, to act as something in the nature of a spy on their fellow nationals. The Russian was a man called Perrin, a dark, thick-set Georgian type with black hair and upswept black moustache.
Always smart in comparison with his colleagues, he spoke German fluently as he spoke Russian, with quiet sibilance and a disarming smile. He was frequently to be found addressing little groups of Russian prisoners and the word ‘Bolshoi’ seemed to pop up with some frequency in his little homilies - sufficient at least to make me remember it among the few Russian words I collected at that time. In the light of history it would appear that M. Perrin was demonstrating before our very eyes the science of indoctrination at which the Bolsheviks became such adepts.. The Georgian with the quiet voice and dark brown eyes ruled his nationals with the ferocity of Ivan the Terrible. A wrong word to Perrin and a Russian would go to the salt mines and never come back.
Perrin was ambitious as well as ruthless and from the first he indulged in a campaign of cautious but deliberate attempts to put the British prisoners ‘in wrong’ with the Germans. By so doing he hoped to become second in command only to his German masters as the camp Führer. It was a merciful providence which produced from the ranks of the Britishers a leader for the British battalion who had both brains and courage. The Russian had the cruel cunning of the leopard but the British leader had the heart of a lion. The Germans understood the Russian; they didn’t understand the Britisher, and when people who are essentially simple types, don’t understand a thing they develop a respect for it. The Britisher’s name was Mallett.
Mallett was Petty officer Telegraphist of the destroyer NOMAD, leader of one of Beatty’ s flotillas in the Battle of Jutland. Mallett wore the navy jumper and collar and round cap which was the rig for Petty Officer in those days. His features were finely chiselled and his chin had an aggressive thrust; His skin had an almost Italianate pallor about it. Because he had roots in the Channel Islands he spoke fluent French but with the accent of, Portsmouth, his home port. Like all real leaders he had no friends and though ruthless, never employed his power except for the good of the British prisoners as he saw it. To Mallett, the rigid, unquestioning discipline of the Navy was the only instrument with which to rule his little kingdom. His naval colleagues understood that; the Merchant seamen didn’t. The merchant seamen are prone to grouse out loud. To Mallett that was treason. I have known a merchant seaman who answered him back on parade go to a coal mine for his insolence. The man in question was a worthless type; one of the loud-mouthed whiners who, when left alone in a true democracy, tend to lead the starry-eyed idealists by the nose to ultimate ruin. Brandenburg Gefangenlager was no democracy and all but the fools preferred the rule of Mallett to living death under Perrin. Mallett was a beast, but he was a just beast. He knew when to crush men and when to listen to them. He paid no simpering service to the voting list for he had been given his kingdom by the Germans but nevertheless he was the sure shield of the old sailors shipped to sea again because of the war and a terror to the scrim-shanking dock-rat. He feared no man and often attacked his captors for going over his head to order British prisoners about. And they always climbed down!
As might be expected, Mallett had little time for eighty-two company. He sized up our crowd with the least possible difficulty and soon discovered the heavy sub-strata of human clay which underlay the sadly thin better element. From his naval quarter-deck he regarded merchantmen as ‘lesser breeds without the law’ and eighty-two company as rather further down the scale than most. He did not recognise Merchant Service Officers at all - or tried to ignore their existence - and the privilege accorded to officers which exempted them from work galled the dictatorial Petty Officer worse than a sore wound.
All the Officers included in eighty-two company were sent away to an Officers’ Camp at Krefeldt and we saw them no more. For some reason, probably quite clear to some bureaucrat in London, the Officers who had been longer in captivity were denied the privilege end languished in Brandenburg to the discontent of Mallett - and no doubt themselves. I believe the reason was buried deep in the legal significance of the attitude adopted by the British Government with regard to the civilian status of merchant seamen. When however, the German U-boats began to sink British merchant ships in a most unsportsmanlike manner, the British Government attempted to square the circle by (a) arming the merchant ships with obsolete pop-guns while (b) declaring that merchant seamen were still civilians. This asinine piece of bad reasoning on the part of some mentally costive legislator cost the Master of the BRUSSELS his life at the hands of a firing squad - for civilians, as the Germans pointed out, are not allowed to use guns to shoot at U-boats. After this, to avoid more legalized murder, the British Government evidently decided that the Merchant seaman wasn’t quite a civilian and therefore merchant ship officers could go to Officers camps and merchant seamen could work for the Germans like their fellows in the services.
Just to carry inconsistency a little further the cadets and Apprentices were lumped in with merchant seamen to profit by the rigours of an Arbeiten Lager instead of having their proper privilege of being quartered with the Officers, who, according to our indentures, were supposed to give us instruction in our profession and see that we trod the straight and narrow path of moral rectitude. We Cadets made enquiries through our diplomatic representative as to the reason for the anomaly. We received no satisfactory answer but there was a suggestion that certain shipping companies, who were doing very nicely out of the war but were loath to admit it, prevailed against the Board of Trade classification apprentices as officers on the grounds that it would have cost them 2/6d per day per boy. I am glad to be able to say that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company were not one of the firms concerned in this piece of commercial skulduggery.
After nearly three months on camp rations and several nasty skirmishes over the soup tubs, eighty two company were looking forward hungrily to the time when their food parcels would begin to arrive from home. You get to a state when nothing in the world matters except something to save the sharp stab of the hunger pain. You chew grass stems for something to exercise your teeth. You hide half your hunk of bread away, so that when the hunger gets you again you can dodge round a corner and gnaw a mouthful of the sour but satisfying black stuff. It would have been indiscreet to have produced it in public - and you count the days until, in the experiences of the well-fed old hands, you can reasonably expect to get a PARCEL. Then, for most of eighty-two company the blow fell.
I don't know whether Mallett had anything to do with it, probably not but after nearly three months in the camp the majority of our lot left Brandenburg. About a hundred men were drafted to Sassnitz, a Baltic port near Stettin, to act as stevedores loading and unloading ships trading mostly to Scandinavia and Finland. I was in, the remnant left behind; a remnant which included 22 apprentices and a few of the old men who were obviously not fit for hard labour. In case anybody else was wanted we hid on the top layer of bunks in the hut watching the ragged, unshaven starving crew mustering in the sunshine outside. They were counted, and counted and counted again by German soldiers until we could scream at the thought that someone was missing and one of us would be hauled out. But with shouted orders they turned at last and shuffled away hopelessly across the yellow sand, disappearing through the distant gate in a cloud of dust. We reckoned it would be at least another month before their parcels would catch up with them. We sighed and came down from our top bunk. A few days later some of us got parcels and we lived again.
We who were left behind soon settled down into our niche in the life of the camp. Some of the apprentices were drafted to work as clerks in the battalion office. Giller, Delap and I were amongst that party, with Rooney, the FRENCH PRINCE apprentice with whom we had shared the famous Oxo cube. In the same office was Grünkow, a Russian soldier, and the leading Telegraphist of the destroyer NESTOR.
My particular job was to attend the daily visits of the German doctor bearing with me the personal records of British prisoners scheduled to see the doctor. It was part of my duty to see that the patients were present, mustered and properly prepared for inspection. This latter part usually constituted a sort of guessing game, matching my guess on how late the doctor would be against the ability of the half clad prisoners to withstand the rigours of the climate without actual collapse. My opposite number for ten company (the naval men) was an Adonis - like young man named Charlie Hanson who was the Leading Telegraphist I spoke of earlier.
Delap, Giller and Rooney confined themselves to purely clerical work in the battalion office. I felt myself far removed from them in importance in my close daily personal contact with the camp doctor as the spokesman for the merchant seamen patients. Sometime those contacts were rather trying, for the doctor was a young Prussian whose bedside manner was not calculated to soothe the troubled breast. To be quite fair, some of the symptoms of his patients were not calculated to convince a sceptical young medical practitioner either.
But I find it incredibly hard to tell a connected story of those days in Brandenburg. Day after day was so much alike. We saw the same faces around us day in and day out, sometimes cheerful enough, with that special kind of cheer which British people seem to find under the most trying of conditions. At other times gloom hit every one of us as rumour of a camp strafe or punishment for some misdeeds by stoppage of parcels hit the camp. The Germans had a number of ‘legal’ ways of putting the screw on if we became too troublesome. If a number of escapes occurred the German ‘censors’ who inspected food parcels before they were handed over to us were instructed to open every tin – just to make sure they really contained what they purported too. I have seen buckets full of a horrid mess of jam, army rations, bread, corned beef and pickles piled up in the parcels hut while the empty packages were handed over to their lawful recipients. It speaks volumes for German discipline that rarely was anything stolen from parcels and few attempts were made by the German Inspectors to extract a percentage from each parcel as they inspected them.
Sometimes people returned to the camp from the ‘commandos' but they were usually sick and often quite broken. They disappeared into the lazarette, sometimes only to come out in one of those long boxes which the Russian carpenters were kept busy making. And all the time there was the gnawing fear of being utterly helpless in the hands of a ruthless enemy; of the anxiety of stopped parcels; the salt mines and the coal mines from which people seldom returned. Those two years seemed to crawl by in a series of slow-motion pictures of which only some vivid ‘stills’ remain.