Saturday, January 18, 2020

TERROR ON THE HIGH SEAS Part 2 - From HMAS Ovens to the U27


Penmore Press 2019
Submarine art U27 Danijel Frka
My challenge in the novel was to write a chapter that stemmed directly from my experience in HMAS Ovens (‘Terror on The High Seas’ posted 6 Jan 2020). It had to be written from the perspective of someone who knows little about submarines. That someone is Giovanni, a biology teacher from Florence. Now I had done a reasonable amount of research and, because I was a science teacher, I had a good working knowledge of physics, mechanics and maths – but I was not a submariner.

So the plan was to play it safe. Be simple and write about what you know. But I encountered a few problems.

Here was the biggest one:  I absolutely agonized over what to do about the hatches – open or closed?


The U27 in the novel, Austria’s most successful submarine, was launched in 1916. It was a small coastal vessel, only 37m long and not far above the waterline. It had the standard two hatches at the top and bottom of the conning tower, and the top one had to remain open to provide the oxygen that allowed the engines to burn diesel. 

But what about the bottom one? In order for poor Giovanni to be well and truly claustrophobic, it had to remain closed.

Now, I had spent a couple of weeks in the northern Adriatic where the novel is set and I knew that, although the sea doesn’t have the huge rolling swells of the Pacific, the surf can be vicious when the winds are up. I had seen it thundering over the breakwater in Novigrad, and the wind that had created that surf was not the famous Bora. The Bora is worse. Is it reasonable in the novel for the captain to order the bottom hatch closed in a high sea on the Adriatic? Yes, I believe so but, if he does, won’t the conning tower fill with water?

The answer to this will undoubtedly hit you straight away, but it took me several months of reading article after article on the internet to realize that the early submarines were very watery places and had numerous pumps, at least one of which drained the tower. So Giovanni has no option but to endure his claustrophobia as best he can. From my experience, what sort of mind games can he play to do this? If I was him what would I do?

And then I thought, ‘Well, I was him!’ when I visited HMAS Ovens back in 2016.    

Without further ado, here is the chapter:



His Most Italian City, Chapter Seven

Giovanni had lapsed into a state of controlled panic.

He had been unable to prevent himself losing consciousness again after the rat incident, and had woken an indefinite time later with no sign of the offending rodent, concluding that it was off pursuing its nefarious activities in another part of the vessel. He did not desire the company of the strange group he found himself with but neither did he relish solitude. While he’d slept, the bunks above and below him had filled with men, and three hammocks, also occupied, had been strung across the small space. Hot bodies and warm breath had produced condensation that bubbled visibly upon most surfaces, coalesced into rivulets and showered downwards sporadically, angling to the left or right as the boat rolled. Two of the men in the hammocks had covered their faces with oilcloths.

Giovanni thought briefly of remaining in what now resembled a campsite in a wet cave before deciding that men awake and silent were better company than men asleep. Scattered remnants of young male disorder lay around him: bunched-up socks, a crust of bread, a rind of cured meat, a water bottle in a canvas sack, a pair of discarded boots, a flat wicker basket designed to slot into a shelf, a balaclava and a thick cabled jumper whose intricacy of design bore witness to a patient parent and a warm hearth far from here. The boat chugged along with the same noise, smell and confinement he might have expected within the engine room of a coastal steamer and, feeling marginally better than he had earlier, he peeled himself from his bed and cautiously made his way through the narrow corridor, swaying with the roll of the vessel, supporting himself by placing his hands before him on the walls.

Scarcely had he left than he ran into a solid metal wall with a large round hole, through which he had to bend over double before at length unfolding into another space – he could not call it a room – lit by a single electric bulb strung in a cage from the ceiling. The space seemed to him like a narrow railway carriage with the blinds down and, though swarming in broad pipes and snaking cables, it had a higher ceiling than the sleeping quarters. Beside two spoked wheels, like a bicycle without a seat, a slender youth with buck teeth stood as patiently as though he had nothing with which to concern himself but to await orders. He might be about to milk the cows, thought Giovanni, observing the young man’s bovine tranquility, before upbraiding himself for his lack of charity. 

‘What is this?’ he asked.

‘The control room,’ answered the boy.

‘What do you do here?’

‘I’m the apprentice electrician. I stay until I’m relieved.’

‘May I sit down?’

He nodded, so Giovanni carefully arranged himself on the dampish deck plating, with a watchful eye on the bewildering tangle of ironwork surrounding him.

The control room resembled an automobile where body, muffler, exhaust and every moving part had been dismantled and reassembled into an area half the size, squashed and suffocating, for a complex network of pipes stretched over every available surface except the floor, even up into the arched roof. It was much hotter than the crew’s quarters and, through a further small curved door passing through a metal wall above him, he heard the booming rhythmic knock of the diesel engines from which the heat originated. Without windows the heat was unable to escape and the gloomy atmosphere had become very close, like summer without the sun. From time to time a young face flitted across the opening and another man, as youthful as his compatriot, seemed to busy himself at what might have been something electrical at the far end. Above him sprawled a structure like the many-headed hydra, its flanks mounted with dozens of wheels of all sizes, from fungus-sized buds to bloated gargoyles to enormous enteric flowers. In the turgid gloom, the complex and intimidating monstrosity loomed over Giovanni. Less and less easily could he call to mind the world he thought he belonged to, for he would never before have called a machine intimidating.

Under his arms and up into his groin his skin itched from being encased in his wet woolen suit – the crew worked only in trousers and shirts with the sleeves rolled up.

It’d be better to take my jacket off like them, he decided. Roll my sleeves up. Florence wouldn’t approve, but does Florence matter?

And he was just about to do that when an uncomfortable little voice whispered to him that by doing so he was condoning this situation. It would be best, his homunculus went on, if he did all he could to preserve the person he believed himself to be. So the boat stank with the odor of unwashed men and he just sat and sweated and added to it: sweat, diesel, urine, bile, rotten egg gas. To top it all off, they pitched and rolled in the swell and he was starting to feel seasick.

But worse, far worse than the stink, the machinery and his deteriorating self-perception was the need to leave this enclosure immediately: to escape the lowering ceiling and forge his way up to the sky. With the claustrophobia arose the conviction that there were not two people squashed into this iron cupboard but three. The third, an intangible menace, had arisen as he’d sloughed off his unconsciousness. Down the brief passage it had accompanied him, through the bulkhead and into the control room, and now it settled above his head, threatening and malevolent. By devious means it attacked his heart which began to thud wildly within his chest. Then it strangled his breathing. The weak tungsten globe fading in the clutch of its wire cage seemed like the last sliver of twilight and, as night closed in, the presence focused itself upon him. He felt as if he were travelling along a tunnel searching for daylight, with this awful phantom clinging to his back, and, at each moment, he anticipated the approach of the sunshine that would subdue it. But he saw no end to the tunnel. And no sun. And so the fear and the panic proliferated. It was distressing to think that he, a product of a comfortable home and a good education, had been reduced so rapidly to this desperation. The presence hovered just beyond his recognition so that he was unable to name it, but when he closed his eyes he saw its face melting like ice in a flame.

 Eventually he managed to control himself just enough to develop some distraction strategies while a dozen or more drops of warm condensation rained down upon him. First he said the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria, then he recited his times tables in his head from one to twenty. That took him ten minutes, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen being the challenging ones. Next he reviewed his knowledge of biological classification systems which forced him to recall his Latin and Greek, and that moved his thoughts on to Epicurean philosophy which he hoped to emulate by living modestly and learning about the natural world. Finally with the engines pounding in his ears he listed the dukes of Savoy, the kings of Italy, the emperors of Austria, thirteen of his favorite Italian wines and the church’s calendar from Advent to Pentecost.

If the men coming and going beside him paid him no attention in the meantime, as little did he notice them, and gradually he derived the reassuring notion that he might not be a prisoner at all. No one had in so many words stated the terms of his captivity and it looked like, as their leader had said, they were still working out what to do with him.

So he cleared his throat and addressed the control room electrician as moderately as he might have done before a biology class with his fingers spaced before him on the lectern. Only the topic fell short.

‘How do I get out of here?’

The young man seemed surprised to be spoken to a second time, and his teeth protruded a little further from his mouth, but he answered Giovanni’s polite request agreeably enough.

‘Up there,’ and pointed to an aluminum ladder sliding into the room, which Giovanni had been too absorbed with itemizing Italian wines to notice.

 He shifted so that he could see what it led to, a heavy round object with a wheel, apparently sitting on the ceiling. 

 ‘The door? The lid?’

‘It’s a hatch.’

‘Oh yes, I see.’ Giovanni examined it through the humid murk. ‘It looks shut.’

‘We can open it. It’s not secured.’

‘Then why don’t you?’

‘Well,’ began the boy, before pausing in order to give his reply some placid consideration. (He has certainly come from a farm, decided Giovanni. He has milked the cows and now he is explaining the features of his new tractor.) ‘We’re not very big and we roll a lot, that’s all, especially when the sea’s up. You don’t want too much water getting into a submarine.’

‘Aren’t they like ships?’

‘No, no.’ He shook his head. ‘We’re not a ship. No superstructure. And a funny shape. Bit unstable.’

Dreadful things and dire warnings.

‘Are we going to sink?’ gasped Giovanni.

‘No,’ the boy answered, mildly startled at the alarm in Giovanni’s voice. He frowned before returning to the patient mode of explanation in which he was clearly more comfortable. ‘I don’t think so. But Captain doesn’t want water in the circuitry or the batteries.’

But Giovanni was already surrounded by water. Water draining in unseen cavities towards a slurp-gulp, slurp-gulp repeater that could only be a pump. Water chopping on the hull. Water in his hair, water on the walls and water in his dreams. In fact, water everywhere.

‘It does seem rather wet in here to me.’

Through the boy’s reserve came just the hint of a sly smile.

‘We’re not bailing the bilges yet. That would be wet.’

‘Ah, yes. Yes, I’m sure it would be. Thank you, um... what’s your name?’

‘Anton.’

‘And my name’s Giovanni. How are you, Anton?’

‘Good,’ mumbled the boy.

‘Well, you see, Anton,’ explained Giovanni, struggling not to sound desperate, ‘I don’t like being shut in. I would feel better if the hatch was opened a little.’

Anton seemed unsure how to answer and, though it was no use pretending the young man was part of one of his classes, Giovanni smiled to show that his reasoning was on the right track. The boy seemed pleased.

‘Well,’ he said, clearly relieved to feel that he had finally helped, ‘Captain might leave this one open for you if the sea were not so high… or if we were at war or something.’

‘What difference would war make?’

‘You’d probably want to get down quickly.’ He nodded as if he were agreeing with himself. ‘There’s also another hatch below the bridge, above the helm in the tower, but you’ve got to leave that one open for the diesels to breathe.’

Giovanni had not understood a word of this and he was beginning to see that any attempt to ask the boy to repeat himself would only end in more confusion. He gathered that the hatch was going to stay shut. Reflecting bleakly that teachers were doomed to consider duty of care in any and all circumstances, he commented in his attentive classroom manner, ‘You sound like you’re really interested in submarines.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Anton. ‘They are interesting.’  

This enterprising exchange was interrupted when a sudden shower of water tumbled into the control room, followed by a blast of cold salt air and a perfect ray of sunshine that played upon the floor at their feet. With a cry of joy, Giovanni grasped at it like a drowning man at a rope until the captain jumped down into the room from the middle rung of the ladder and shut the hatch behind him, cutting off the light.

As if the earth had shifted in its orbit, the atmosphere in the cramped room immediately tightened. Anton squared his shoulders, a face from the engine room checked to see if he were wanted, and even Giovanni sat up straighter. In his hand the captain held a sextant that he rested on the floor with a dull steel thud. Then he gave Anton some directions and presently the buck-toothed electrician disappeared into the crew’s quarters.

Giovanni waited alone on the lifeless floor. He had felt some companionship with the young man, and the sunbeam had heartened him. Now he sensed only a profound loss, and lurching back towards him inched that dark fear.

‘Please, please, could you leave that hatch open?’ he begged.

‘Not in these seas,’ said the man.

‘But not much water would get in if you opened it a little.’

‘Not now.’

‘But I could climb that ladder and you could close it behind me.’

‘There’s no room on the bridge at the moment.’

‘You don’t understand… I’m frightened. I’m so lonely.’

Given the tasks he had at hand, the captain allowed a look to cross his face that was midway between incredulity and annoyance. In its muted tone, Giovanni suspected that there may have been a time when he comforted small children but right now he’d forgotten how to do that. So he made an incorrect assumption and instead of soothing he said, ‘If you want to go up I can take you before sunset, after this watch.’

‘Sunset!’ lamented Giovanni. ‘I’m never going to get out of here! How long till sunset?’ He scrutinized his wrist watch, scrunched his eyes up, and managed only to look like a myopic clod. His academic colleagues would not have recognized him. Either through his dip in the salt water or because he had not wound it last night, the timing mechanism of the watch had stopped at three o’clock. He tapped it, fiddled with the winder, frowned at the hands. Why wasn’t it working?

The captain realized that it was broken but was not sure why Giovanni was looking prehistoric. ‘The sun sets at half past four,’ he said. ‘This watch ends at three.’

‘What time is it now?’

‘It’s gone midday.’

Giovanni sank back upon his soggy floor plate. Two drips landed on his forehead and ran down his nose.

‘I’ll just amuse myself until then,’ he volunteered miserably. ‘If you’ve no objections.’

Irony was not what the captain expected to hear. From his crew he expected, ‘yes, Captain’ or ‘no, Captain.’ He let out a terse sigh, as if he had been pumping up tires all morning and finally they were all filled. The last heave. He faced Giovanni as if he’d had enough of pumping.

‘What do you want?’

‘I want you to open that hatch.’

So the man heaved himself halfway up the ladder and shoved open the recalcitrant hatch. With finality. Don’t ask me again.

‘Thank you,’ said Giovanni.

The sun hovered just over the meridian. Giovanni couldn’t see it but it announced its presence by softening the silver of the aluminum rungs leading down from the world above, though it lacked the angle to dapple them. He thought that if he lay flat on the floor beneath the open hatch he might just have a chance to see it before it dipped westward. Only a fine mist was seeping down the cold tower. So he rested his head upon the slimy floor, positioned himself beneath the tower and scanned hopefully. Almost immediately he was hit in the face by a jet of water – a big whoosh as if from a blowhole – that cut him like a blast from a fire hose. Dripping wet, he shuffled along the floor plates into a safer position and watched the ladder change color as the vessel rolled. Back, gray, and forth, silver, back and forth, gray and silver, back and forth, gray and silver. As if launched from the hands of demented bailers, random showers started to spray the floor plates below the tower and soon Giovanni was aware of a substantial slosh of bilge water below him that until now he had noticed as no more than the purring of a tide. In response to the sound, he kept his eyes on the ladder as if it were a lifeline, despite the deluge further drenching him, so that he wished, bizarrely, that he had brought his umbrella.

One thing, though, salt water smelled clean. In the midst of Giovanni’s bath, the captain glanced up reproachfully but said nothing and after a moment more under the waterfall, Giovanni retreated to what he was coming to think of as his scullery. And the hatch stayed open.

He was getting his head together now, but the loss of control and his panic had been outside his experience and he remembered how they had possessed him. Here he was learning what fears prowled around the outskirts of his world.

 Above him the captain inspected a book and scribbled some figures with a pencil on a scrap of paper inserted between the pages. He transferred the result of his sums to what Giovanni assumed was a log, and placed both book and log on a flat iron surface adjacent to the phalanx of wheels. Next, he commenced scrutinizing a sea chart. Occasionally he tapped the pencil on his teeth or angled the chart away to protect it from getting wet, but he did not talk to himself, or belch, or fart or yawn. He did not even stretch. He seemed the most physically composed person Giovanni had seen for some time and he commenced observation of the captain.

For I have nothing else to do, he mused. And it is astonishing how one’s discernment is sharpened by captivity, monotony and the desperation to hold fear at arm’s length.

The dark hazel eyes turned upon the chart did not invite conversation; rather, they were focused on the task. Even the captain’s breathing in the stale air was regular, and seemed under his control. If he had thoughts to share, then within himself they would stay until he felt inclined to share them. Nevertheless, Giovanni passed the time formulating possible scenarios based on the man’s physical features combined with what he already knew.

He has stolen a submarine, Giovanni decided, because he wishes to approach by stealth. Therefore his actions reinforce the traditional criticism of submarines as being ungentlemanly. Opposed to this is the observation that he has the loyalty of his crew. They are quite pleasant, except that big fat one whose one redeeming feature seems to be his loyalty to his captain. The boy by the wheels could have been tense, but he wasn’t, and that other motherly man was almost kind. Not something one expects from terrorists.

He actually carries a sextant. He must be a pirate! Kind as his crew may be, I don’t know anyone who carries sextants except pirates, and people who kidnap biology teachers on the high seas are obviously pirates. It suits me to call him captain because an adventure story is the only scenario I can summon under the circumstances. He would be Captain Under the Water or Captain Unscrupulous or Capitano Sotto Voce, or something along those lines. This pirate captain, then, is only a little taller than I am, and a moderate height must be an advantage in a confined space. His face is tanned but not thickened by sun exposure, like fishermen, and his hair is plastered to his scalp with salt spray. I can smell the salt and his shirt is wet. It has welded to his skin, becoming the color of dried bone. Through it I can see him breathing in and out, as shallow as a fish. His chest is defined by his wet shirt, rather broad, and he has gills, certainly. (Giovanni spent some minutes determining how gills might  develop from human respiration.)

He is considerably older than his crew, perhaps twice as old, maybe more. One would expect a man of that age to have settled down to a desk job and not be gallivanting around the Adriatic badly dressed and bearded. Something in his past has rendered him an outlaw, or, more likely, somebody has done something to him. I wonder what it is?

He squinted his eyes towards the face that until now he had only wanted to elude.

There’s nothing more tantalizing than a man with a past, but how do you read a face that is unreadable? How do you discover his story? No one here is going to tell me because I am just part of the background. I have no purpose but to frame the purposeful. I cannot be found because I was never lost.

A single drop of condensation hung poised on the sextant’s telescope until it fell imperceptibly onto the measuring arc below.

That drop is my insignificance, mused Giovanni. Nobody wants me at all.

 So he continued to watch the captain with the same detached curiosity, as if they were moving in separate worlds, until the man completed his navigating and again approached the ladder and Giovanni comprehended that he was about to disappear and take with him the answers to his questions. Worse, he might close the hatch. He shook himself from his reverie, reached out and tapped the man on the calf. He turned around. Giovanni looked up.

‘Excuse me. Where are we going?’

‘Back,’ the captain passed a grimy hand through his beard. ‘To do what we should have done when we picked you up.’

‘Home?’ Hope sprung in his heart. ‘When? I mean, where are we now?’ 

‘South coast. Just off the shipping lanes.’

‘You mean…’

‘Not far away.’ He shot Giovanni a malicious grin. ‘Does that please you?’

The phrasing of this curt remark did not tally with his appearance.

He certainly has a past, concluded Giovanni to himself. Something has brought him to this, for in other circumstances he has been clean shaven and better dressed. He has come from a different world.

‘You’re educated?’

‘Less educated than you,’ the captain answered shrewdly.

‘I’m only a teacher.’

‘You teach in Italy but you’re not Italian. Enlighten me: what gives Italy the right to suppress another race? Education or a treaty drawn up by foreigners?’

Giovanni was struck by the inconsistency between his words and his looks. 

‘Who are you to ask me this?’

The man began to reply then apparently thought better of it.

‘Just curious,’ he said.

‘I don’t think you’d go to all this trouble over a treaty.’

‘I might.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t,’ replied Giovanni. ‘I know treaties are not fair. Allies betray each other. People who were once neighbors are now enemies. That’s what happens after a war. It’s a shame.’

‘You’ve got a comfortable view.’      

‘Yes, that’s true. I have fitted in, but I had little choice.’

Giovanni’s interest had been sparked and he felt determined, now he finally had a conversation established, that he would not let the subject go and meekly resume the role of prisoner. He pushed himself up on one elbow. ‘Referring to your earlier comment, I would like to know what it is you think you should have done.’

The resting head turned slightly.

‘When?’

‘When you picked me up. You said,’ he persisted, ‘“what we should have done when we picked you up.” You can only be looking for the person I was mistaken for.’ 

The captain paused. In the set of his jaw and the stillness that veiled his gaze, Giovanni knew, as if by second sight, that he nursed a hurt that differed as much from a grudge as a tree did from a splinter.

I was right! he thought, allowing himself some modest triumph.

That certainty quickened his emotional antennae. People said he was soft but his answer to this would have been that the natural sympathy that he possessed in abundance would not permit him to either deliberately hurt another person or stand by unmoved when he could help. It particularly pleased him, as well, that his instincts had been correct, and, as if the man were one of his pupils with a personal problem, he forged ahead when he should have held back.

‘You are, aren’t you?’

He moved his body forward into an attitude of compassion.

‘Whatever’s happened in your past,’ he pursued gently, ‘is none of my business, but I’m happy to listen.’

Now he had laid down the gauntlet. He had probed the man’s life like a seer. He had looked into his heart and seen its secrets. In his professional opinion, the time for revelation had arrived.

But the ploy could not have been more obvious if he had asked him to relate his story and offered support, and, too late, Giovanni realized his mistake. The captain’s composure disintegrated in front of him. Horror swept his face as he battled the rush of emotions Giovanni had provoked. His hands clenched by his side, the firm mouth warped and, for an instant, such a mask of penetrating regret obscured his features that Giovanni forgot his own troubles in his surprise. And, just as quickly, it was gone, replaced by anger, shame at a moment of weakness, and, with it, the desire of the wounded to wound.

In a second he had sloughed off the moment as if it were a pretense. He was in control again and his indifference was more terrifying than his anger.

He snapped his fingers. ‘Zorko!’

Zorko’s huge mass at once squeezed in through the engine room hatch, scraping his big ear. He’d had it pressed to the engine room bulkhead the whole time and he’d been looking forward to this.

The captain jerked his head at the conning tower.

‘Throw him overboard.’

The giant commenced pacing forward. As Giovanni struggled to his feet and backed away, Zorko grasped one of his shoulders and shoved it into the ladder.

‘Up!’ he barked.

Giovanni noticed little things then: the sunbeam had come back and, in the patch of seawater on the floor, a rainbow was shining on its scum of diesel. The frosty winter air swarmed into the high narrow opening like a gale through a tunnel, sweeping out the stench and the dead rankness, filling the steel hull with hope. But he could see nothing save the ladder leading up to the world he had loved and feel only a terrible sadness at leaving it. He shut his eyes. Somewhere very close were his parents, frantically wondering what had become of him. Close were the green hills, the parks of oak and pine, the fishermen sorting their catch, the blue waters of the bay, the grand and overarching sky. Giovanni stared numbly at the first rung, unable to move, wiping away the tears that would not stop.

When he saw him weep, Zorko slapped him on the back as if he were the presenter at a boxing tournament, leered familiarly into his face and said, ‘You’re not navy material, we regret, but have you tried the army?’

Then he roared so heartily at his own joke that at length he was forced to wipe his eyes with a sleeve smudged with oil, until he imagined he resembled the pistons he had just been lubricating. This notion caused him to laugh with even greater gusto and, as he returned to the engine room, his snorts were drowned out by the diesels, but only just.

The captain remained, watching Giovanni, pensive and grim, while something akin to gratification flickered across his features.

‘Nearly got what you wanted. And you’d better hope that we don’t run into any ships because, the minute I see something, we’re diving. You won’t like that.’

Back he went up the ladder, the hatch closed behind him and the end of Giovanni’s bid for freedom was like its beginning: the walls, the stink and the gloom.

A hollow shudder rocked his soul. He seemed lost in a moonless night upon a black ocean, alone but for the mournful cry of a sea bird and the clang of a warning bell laid upon a rock. Only that old fear to keep him company. Then grief surged in and its wave broke at the crest, snatching him away, sweeping him on towards the beach. Left alone on the swell, his unpleasant familiar drifted out to sea. And there was some sort of peace without it. Giovanni sat down and abandoned himself to sleep. 




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