Now we were on our way to the great thing—to our look behind the curtain at the hidden hosts of sea-power. Of some eight hundred tons burden our steed, doing eighteen knots, which was a dog-trot for one of her speed.
“A destroyer is like a motor-car,” said the commander. “If you rush her all the time she wears out. We give her the limit only when necessary.”
On the bridge the zest of travel on a dolphin of steel held the bridle on eagerness to reach the journey’s end. We all like to see things well done, and here one had his first taste of how well things are done in the British navy, which did not have to make ready for war after the war began. With an open eye one went, and the experience of other navies as a balance for his observation; but one lost one’s heart to the British navy and might as well confess it now. A six months’ cruise with our own battleship fleet was a proper introduction to the experience.
After the arduous monotony of the trenches and after the traffic of London, it was freedom and sport and ecstasy to be there, with the rush of salt air on the face! Our commander was under thirty years of age; and that destroyer responded to his will like a stringed instrument. He seemed a part of her, her nerves welded to his.
“Specialized in torpedo work,” he said, in answer to a question. “That is the way of the British navy: to learn one thing well before you go on with another. If in the course of it you learn how to command, larger responsibilities await you. If not—there’s retired pay.”
Behind a shield which sheltered them from the spray on the forward deck, significantly free of everything but that four-inch gun, its crew was stationed. The commander had only to lean over and speak through a tube and give a range, and the music began. For the tube was bifurcated at the end to an ear-mask over a youngster’s head; a youngster who had real sailor’s smiling blue eyes, like the commander’s own. For hours he would sit waiting in the hope that game would be sighted. No fisherman could be more patient or more cheerful.
“Before he came into the navy he was a chauffeur. He likes this,” said the commander.
“In case of a submarine you do not want to lose any time; is that it?”
“Yes,” he replied. “You never can tell when we might have a chance to put a shot into Fritz’s periscope or ram him—Fritz is our name for submarines.”
Were all the commanders of destroyers up to his mark? How many more had the British navy caught young and trained to such quickness of decision and in the art of imparting it to his men?