Down The Hatch

By: John Winton


The pictures on the walls of the Admiral’s private office were all mementoes of a long career in submarines. By the door there was a group photograph of his submarine training class: three rows of grinning sub-lieutenants and a bearded training officer. Next to it was the Admiral’s first command coming to a buoy in Portsmouth Harbour; her elementary wireless aerials and angular conning tower had not been seen at sea for many years. More submarines followed, a string of them, growing longer and sleeker through the years. The last picture of the sequence was the barrel-sided submarine depot-ship which had been the Admiral’s last sea-going command. The other pictures were a mixed collection: a periscope photograph of a broken-backed Italian cruiser sinking against a pale Mediterranean sunset; a fox-terrier wearing a sailor’s cap; and a startling picture of a submarine returning from her last patrol, flying the Jolly Roger, with her ballast tanks ripped in great gashes where a Japanese destroyer’s screws had raked her.

The Admiral was not a sentimental man but he had held on to his pictures. They had travelled the world with him, survived all his removals and, he hoped, would go with him into retirement.

The Admiral himself was something of a celebrity in the Submarine Service. He had married very young and to the envy of his contemporaries, capturing by far the best-looking of the Admiral’s daughters to come out between the wars. He had had a stormy career, so stormy that many of his friends regarded it as a miracle that he had ever achieved the rank of Rear-Admiral; his enemies attributed it to a triumph of matter over mind. He had trampled roughshod over his opponents. He had never toned down his scorn for superiors he thought incompetent. Tact and finesse were unknown to him; he had achieved everything by brute driving force. His tactlessness had led him to one court martial, two D.S.O.s, and three lung-splitting cheers from every ship’s company he had ever commanded. He was of the school who learned about men rather than machines and who put charity before technique. But now the old fires were damped. The Admiral was left with a row of medal ribbons and his pictures. He often thought of retiring from the Navy and sitting for an agricultural constituency in the West of England.

The Admiral’s favourite view was from his office window (he had coveted the view since he was a sub-lieutenant). From where he was standing he looked out over the submarines where they lay at their trots. The nearest submarine was charging her batteries; a plume of spray and steam rose from her after-casing and the Admiral could hear the thumping of her main engines against his window. Ahead of her another submarine was loading torpedoes. The Admiral could see the dull blue shape of a torpedo being lowered into her hull.

The furthest submarine was the longest and largest of all. She overlapped her neighbours at both ends. Her tall fin soared above the stubby towers of the rest. She was painted dead black except for the white identification numbers on her fin and she was plainly brand new. The Admiral looked at her like a father recognizing his favourite daughter.

The Admiral allowed himself to gloat over her for a minute and then, as though struck by a painful memory, scowled and turned away from the window. The Captain who was standing on the other side of the desk braced himself apprehensively.

Captain S/M was the Admiral’s opposite in temperament. He was what was known in the service as “a charmer”. He was in command of the submarine squadron which operated from the base and he was well used to the Admiral’s moods. He had often been the sounding board for the Admiral’s hobby-horses. But it was not often that he was so peremptorily summoned into the presence. Captain S/M guessed that the Admiral must have something pretty serious on his mind.

“Sometimes,” the Admiral began, sadly, “I really wonder why we bother. We’ve all fought for years to get the Navy a new submarine instead of a new block of offices. We’ve fought, and beaten, every government department. We've fought every branch of the Navy. We’ve fought everybody from the Ministry of Pensions to the Y.M.C.A. to get this damned submarine. At last we got her approved. We got her designed, we got her started and now, by God, we’ve even got her finished. In spite of sympathy strikes, wildcat strikes, token strikes and every other bloody kind of strike. At last we got H.M.S. Seahorse, God bless her and all who sail in her. Admittedly she’s obsolete. She was obsolete before she was even designed. That’s not the point. The point is that we’ve survived the worst the trade union  s can do, we’ve survived two changes of government, three changes of First Lord and four financial crises to get her. And now that she’s finished her work-up and is ready to join the fleet, what happens? We find we can’t choose a captain for her. The whole thing is taken out of our hands. We get some passed-over bumpkin nobody’s ever heard of. . . .”