War Diaries of Geoffrey Owen. Part 2
In this further instalment of life at sea on HMS Achilles, Sub Lt. Owen reflects on the threat of submarines, the anticipation of going into action and the tedium of daily routine. He continues to make detailed diary entries, however does question whether it may be a waste of time, that they may end up dissolving in the North Sea. Fortunately, they did not and his diaries are now in the safekeeping of Shropshire Archives.
Saturday 8th August 1914
The chief excitement of the day was an intercepted wireless report from the Monarch, who was doing gunnery off Fair Island; ‘Am being attacked by submarines’. Another ship also reported seeing them. A Flotilla was sent to search for the Monarch’s one, but it was blowing three parts of a gale which made it very difficult to see such a low lying vessel.
August 9th Achilles to C-in-C Home Fleet.
My position now is etc.etc. Passed through a belt smelling strongly of petrol 2.52am.
3.45. Birmingham to C-in-C.
Have sunk a submarine by ramming.
At 2 in the morning a strong smell of petrol was detected – it was described by those on deck as just like a ‘London Motor Garage’. It was put down to submarines and the Captain reported it to the C-in-C. At some unearthly hour I was woken up by the alarm bells ringing furiously and after some pandemonium discovered that ‘all hands to night defence had been sounded off’ and the ‘alert’. It appeared that Heavy Firing had been heard near to. This stopped and I turned in again on the disperse of the watch below. In the morning it transpired that the Birmingham had reported being attacked by a submarine and later that she had rammed and sunk it. This was encouraging news indeed. Another submarine had been smelt at 5.0am also, but it was not seen.
The newspapers were full of this exploit. They all had it that the submarine was sunk by gunfire. The descriptions were vivid indeed – how this first shot carried away the periscope – then how the ‘poor blinded thing’ had to come to the surface and the next shot blew open the Conning Tower
I had the Forenoon watch and sure enough about 9.15 our noses indicated another. I sounded off Night Defence, altered course into the windseye, and we all glued our eyes to the water. We did not actually see one, but we fully expected to and that was quite enough to provide the thrill. There was a large amount of oil on the water and a very distinct track. What it was we shall never know. I am inclined to think it was where a submarine had been, and her fuel tanks must have been leaking.
At 9.40am. Natal to Achilles. Do you want any assistance
Achilles to Natal. Thanks for signal. I thought we smelt a submarine, but no result
I thought it was more a paraffiney smell than petrol and it appears that the German submarines have diesel engines. It is good business being able to smell theirs.
In the Forenoon we proceeded southerly course 8 miles apart and when we get to opposite Buchan Ness we turn to the eastward and sweep between 56 – 50 N and 57.00 N that is opposite the entrance to the Skaggerack. When I turned out for that alarm at 4 in the morning, I thought that we really were going into action at last. I strapped on my revolver, filled my water bottle, put on a clean vest and was altogether too busy to feel nervous. I hope I am like that all through when it does come.
About 8 in the evening we got an intercepted wireless from the Admiralty to the C-in-C ‘Take all the heavy ships North of the Orkneys and wait there’. People say that the Germans are going to launch their destroyers at us. Well let them come! I should think that a Destroyer attack on a ship is about as exciting an experience as one could wish for.
After Quarters this evening the Captain spoke to all hands on the subject of the war. It was a straightforward speech … We could rely on him to do his best to bring the ship back intact to port at the end of the war, but he himself was prepared to put aside his own personal safety for the sake of the whole cause and he was quite certain we would be ready to do so also.
Monday Aug. 10th
The Squadron was ordered to Scarpa to coal – we arrived at 3pm – took in 430 tons and were off again at 9.30 for an unknown destination. I must say the general arrangements for war are far better than I expected. There are three hospital carriers here, colliers galore, ships with flour, ships with corned beef, ammunition ships and several other varieties. The old ships of the 3rd fleet have arrived. There is the Majestic, pride of the Navy in 1892 – still not to be despised and wonderful to relate she can still do her 16 knots.
THE DAILY GRIND IN AREA V11
On Watch in War time
Watch keeping is a dull, monotonous, but necessary duty. The worst of watch keeping is that one is only an agent for the Captain. One has to call him if there is anything extraordinary to be done – but of course until he arrives one has to take the steps that may be necessary. One is responsible for an appalling number of things over which one has little control.
Take an afternoon watch. Myself reading in armchair after lunch. Enter Corporal of the Watch. ‘Mr Owen, sir. 12-25, sir’. I enquire as to the health of the weather – proceed to my cabin – put on the necessary amount of warm clothing – and wend my unwilling way to the Fore Bridge, arriving about the stroke of ‘One Bell’.
I light my pipe and proceed to gaze fixedly at the water and the horizon – intent on keeping a ‘Good look out’ for submarines and floating mines. My eye catches a commotion in the water a mile on the port bow – I up glasses – to find it is a black fish blowing – or a porpoise perambulating on the surface.
1.15 Look out reports ‘Object in the water ahead, sir.’ I, ‘Where.’ Oh I see it – to myself. I don’t think it’s a mine, but it’s not worth taking any risks. Aloud ‘Port fifteen amidships’. The object, an empty cask floats by and is soon lost astern.
At 2.30 smoke is sighted on the starboard bow and a tramp’s masts and funnel appear above the horizon. It is steering to cross our tracks and, when I realise that it is up to us, and not to one of the other ships of the squadron to board it – I have the Captain told of its presence. He comes up with a Fat Head and says steer towards it. I alter, and we approach a harmless looking Norwegian cargo steamer. I send down to tell the Commander, call away the seaboats crew etc. The Captain says ‘What a d…d waste of time it is – stopping to board these puny little steamers.
We hoist the International Code signal for her to stop. She takes no notice – we fire a blank charge and perhaps another and she heaves to. The Commander hoists out the cutter. Fausett goes away to inspect her papers etc. – returns to say that she is ‘Alright’ – bound for Goterberg to West Hartlepool – with cargo of paving stones etc. We hoist in the boat and proceed to catch up the squadron again.
At 3.45 I take steps to see my relief is awake and greet him very cheerfully at 4pm. I feel a sense of relief and go down to tea. Such is war.
Tuesday August 11th
I wonder whether this diary is destined to be a waste of labour or not, whether the ink will be dissolved and the paper emaciated by the salt water of the North Sea. Still even if it is I have not many more profitable ways of spending my spare time
Every time I write it up, I have to refer back to see what day of the week it is. One day is just the same as another and it is ‘quaint’ having no landmarks ahead, as to speak, and not having the remotest idea as to what may happen any time.
Everyone is very cheerful and what news we get from intercepted wireless signals is discussed with much vigour. We are all great tacticians and say freely what we would do were we the C-in-C. Thank god at all events I am not, as few men could have had a more responsible harassing time.
As regards uniform, things are allowed to be lax. We rarely think of wearing a stiff white collar; white flannel trousers are popular because they are nicer to sleep in than blues, and brown shoes are rather fashionable. Most of the men are starting to ‘grow’ but as yet all the officers keep up a semblance of being shaved, except Steel Perkins, who looks in his new beard a fearful Tough.
The Battle Squadrons are now kept well to the NW of the Orkneys – I imagine to keep them out of the way of submarines. It appears that the Monarch had a near shave with the one she met the other day. An aeroplane has once or twice been reported near the Orkneys. Today the C-in-C directed that a systematic search by Territorials and inhabitants was to be instituted in the Shetlands to see if the Germans had a base there anywhere. Also the Centurion reported having seen an airship near those parts.
Wednesday August 12th
Apparently the Drake has found something in the Faroe Islands – what I don’t know. A fragment of an Admiralty message talked of 405 being saved from somewhere. This looks as if some large English ship had gone down, and it was unfortunate that no fuller news of the subject was obtainable. I at last had the energy to get my hair cut – one of the Marine Sergeants obliging.
Midnight 12th – 13th. Wireless from the Admiralty ‘Commence hostilities against Austria at once’. Previous to this we didn’t quite know whether we were at war with them or not.
Came in to coal in the evening [430 tons from a good collier]. Cromarty this time, which is better as one gets mail earlier and the shops are better for the Messman. Heard from Mary and Mother. It was interesting to hear how they were taking the war ashore. Everyone seems to be volunteering for something or another. Bob is trying to get in somewhere, and I hope he succeeds.
An intercepted W.T. announced that a ship had sailed from Yarmouth with three aeroplanes on board for Scapa Flow. It is a great pity there was not one there before we could have found out the submarine’s lair. How our Expeditionary Force is getting on we don’t know.
It appears now from hearsay, that three ships were attacked, the Iron Duke, the Monarch and the Ajax. This appears to be authentic though others say two other ships were fired at also. At all events the one torpedo at the Monarch broke surface and that was the first indication they had of the presence of submarines.
As yet, except for the one sunk by the Birmingham, none of these submarines have been accounted for. What a difference it would have made to the war if these had been Bullseyes! On the other hand it seems bad luck on the submarine’s people to have travelled all that way and then to miss by inches only.
Sunday August 16th
The war grows older but it does not grow any more interesting.
At 3am yesterday, Saturday, we rendezvoused for the general advance. It was a noble array first a line of light Cruisers spread, then the two squadrons of armoured Cruisers [with a squadron or two of the older ones] then the Battle Cruisers, shielded by Destroyers and mine sweepers and finally the 3 Battle Squadrons, also attended by Destroyers.
In the forenoon the New Zealand reported having seen a submarine close to her. Apparently she was not attacked. We kept and extra sharp look out as German submarines were known to be in the Skaggerack. We steamed up towards Norway and then altered so as to pass just off the Coast.
Monday August 17th
In the morning we proceeded close up to the Norwegian coast but failed to nab even a good looking tramp.
Wednesday 19th Aug
Returned to Cromarty to coal. A dreadful day. Got in at 6am and did not finish till 1.15am as we had to sweep one collier and nearly empty another. From the papers we learnt that the Expeditionary Force had landed safely and they must be near the frontier by now.
There are five thousand troops – chiefly Territorials ashore here; all the roads are picketed; the oil tanks and other important parts are protected by trenches, barb wire entanglements; there are all sorts of terrifying notices such as ‘Anyone seen in this lane after dark will be shot on sight’. I am surprised that our arrangements are so complete; they even have two anti-aeroplane guns guarding the oil tanks. Spurway provided us with an amusing story of the measures taken to guard the local reservoir – which holds fifty tons – in the sleepy little Somersetshire village in which he lives. His brother and the local parson are guarding it by night, turn and turn about armed with shot guns.
Thursday. An unaccustomed luxury – a day in harbour – at four hours notice, to adjust machinery. Officers were allowed ashore but I could not get as I was the unfortunate who had to keep a day on.
August 23rd 8.10pm. Admiralty to all ships.
Japan declared war against Germany at noon on August 23rd
There were a few territorials about ashore and that is all – most of the soldiers are north of the Bridge. Mr Griffin, the chief Boatswain distinguished himself by arresting two motorists as spies. They had foreign accents and were counting the ships in here.
Mr Griffin’s Spy Affair.
The next day two people called at the police station to make enquiries. Nothing was known of the matter beyond the fact that ‘an officer of the Achilles had called a sergeant’s attention to a suspected motor car’. The motor car moved off before it was arrested and no trace of it has been heard since. This is an extraordinary example of how a man can be carried away by his own verbosity. When we had Mr Griffin into the Wardroom he described how to brought the policemen to the motor car and even what the men said, when charged. At that time he certainly thought he was speaking the truth, while in reality nothing of the sort had happened.
Heard news that Highflyer had sunk Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse – that Marines had been landed at Ostend – that Kennett had been engaged – that Allies had retired. Things are not too bright in Belgium but the Russians seem to be getting on well.
Aug. 28th. Rosyth to Shannon [W.T.]
Submarines off St Abbs Head.
S.N.O to General
The military authorities at Rosyth have been requested to scout for submarines. Great care to be taken not to fire on aeroplane.
Rosyth to Shannon [W.T.]
Lighthouse keeper at St Abbs Head saw submarine in beam of his light. Observed officer in conning tower.
Tuesday. A slack forenoon – after lunch Ammunition steamer came alongside and I spent the afternoon hoisting in shell and cordite. This steamer is an example of the organisation by the Navy in this war. I can only say it has been wonderful, far better than I ever dreamt it would be. This steamer was only one of very many. She contained provisions, ammunition, stores of all sorts – the way the ammunition was stowed alone was noteworthy. When one thinks that this steamer had to be chartered, a crew provided, the stores collected – from innumerable departments, hoisted on board and stowed there in an orderly fashion, one ought to give someone credit.
Apparently several trawlers have been found laying mines under the Red Ensign and many other neutral flags. Before war broke out Germany purchased six English trawlers and she, having preserved their original colour and registration numbers, is using them as minelayers.
Sunday Sept 6th
Heard the news of the pathfinders destruction – great loss of life. Went into Cromarty to coal.
Slack day in harbour. Went for bicycle ride with Spurway. Absolutely delightful in country after being at sea.
By Delaine Haynes
War diaries of Geoffrey Owen, Shropshire Archives accession number 5756