1909, May 31, 1915. Starboard Casemate, HMS Benbow,
Sub-Lieutenant Dobson staggered to his feet. The compartment stank of
cordite, scorched flesh, burned cotton and charred wool. He shook his
head and hoped his ears would stop ringing. He tried to pat himself down,
looking for wounds. His left arm obeyed perfectly. His right did not.
He quickly ripped away the jacket sleeve and examined his wound. A small
piece of steel hung in his forearm. Further down, he felt bruises and
blood. When he reached the break, pain surged up his nerves and into his
head. He nearly passed out from the pain. He did collapse.
Further forward, Petty Officer Harlston pushed himself off the deck. He
saw Dobson fall. He looked forward. The casemate was eerily lit by the
burning of teak decks and human flesh. Bodies littered the decks. Some
were moving. Most did not. As he looked, Harlston saw orange and red flames
through hatchways and holes in the bulkheads. He looked aft. Where Dalrymple
and Connor had been standing, he saw a single body on the deck. Other
crewmen, those fortunate enough to survive, began to pull themselves up
off the deck.
Harlston began giving orders. The able bodied were to help the wounded.
They did not need to serve the six inch guns any longer. None of the six
inch guns could be served any longer. Harlston counted heads. Close to
one hundred bodies lay on the decks. Of that, thirty were clearly dead.
A young able seaman reached Dalrymple. "He's alive! MEDIC!"
The stretcher bearer party had been in the passageway belowdecks. They
quickly returned and began to remove the wounded. A young medic ran from
man to man, checking wounds and administering morphine.
Harlston stepped to the phone line to report the damage and casualties.
1910, Main One
Like every other department on Benbow, Main One was short handed.
Lieutenant Dawson was dead in the starboard casemates. Lieutenant Commander
Dalrymple was forward supervising the damage control party, and Sub-Lieutenant
Connor was running stretcher-bearer parties. Several crewmen had gone
with them. That left Chief Petty Officer Charles Jessen to run Main One
and Damage Control Central with less than half the enlisted and none of
the commissioned support he expected. Why did Dalrymple have to run
out? He's supposed to run DCC, not me. He could have at least left Dawson.
The line that Dawson had been manning rang. Great. Another damage report.
Just what we need. We're shorthanded already! Petty Officer Granby
answered it. As he heard the report, his face went into shock.
"Chief! Hit forward in the starboard casemate! It's bad! Commander Dalrymple
and Sub-Lieutenant Dobson are down. Lieutenant Garland and Sub-Lieutenant
Connor are missing. One hundred casualties, over thirty dead. All the
starboard six inch guns forward are knocked out. Major fires, Chief."
"Dammit! Granby, take twenty men to fight the fire. Smalling! Get stretcher
bearers forward! Kerwin, call sick bay and report the casualties. Tell
Doc Browne to expect shrapnel injuries and burns. Move people! Move!"
Damn! Damn! Damn! Unbeknownst to Jessen, the duties he had assigned
his petty officers were the light ones. He picked up Connor's phone to
report the damage to the bridge.
Commander George Callaghan stood inside the bridge. He and Captain Lord
Robert Herrick had fought about this many times. At the start of the action,
Herrick had ordered him into the conning tower. Callaghan refused. He
sent the Navigator, Lieutenant Grace, instead. He and his captain would
fight their ship from the bridge. Herrick hadn't had the time to order
him back to the conning tower. I'm not going to miss this scrap for
anything. It's high time to put the Germans in their place. The bottom
of the North Sea.
Callaghan watched the shells fly and the guns fire. He saw the huge fireball
as Conqueror exploded, and he saw the eye-tearing flash of Ajax's
death. Shortly thereafter another streak of light lit up the sky to the
east. It was the brilliant spear of light and energy released by the 13.5"
shells in Orion's magazine. Thankfully, we are not in the van.
We have only taken three hits. The flash of the cordite in the starboard
casemates was concealed by Benbow's armored deck and the light
from dying ships forward.
The phone rang. Callaghan answered.
"Sir, Chief Jessen in Main One. One hit forward in the starboard six-inch
casemates. All six are knocked out. One hundred of the starboard gunnery
watch are casualties. Major fires belowdecks. Sir, Lieutenant-Commander
Dalrymple and Sub-Lieutenant Dobson are down. Lieutenant Garland and Sub-Lieutenant
Connor are missing and presumed dead."
Callaghan's face broke. The calm mask was shattered as a tide of emotions
swept over him. I never expected this . . . Not Dan. It can't be. He's
just a kid. Just a little kid. A tear or two rolled down his face.
Callaghan turned toward the bridge wings to hide his grief and emotion
from the crew.
Captain Herrick chose this moment to walk back onto the bridge. He saw
the tears and pain on Callaghan's face. He saw his dapper executive officer
shake as the emotion quickly claimed him. Oh no! Please God, no!
Herrick summed up his courage. "George?"
Callaghan somehow pulled together a measure of composure as he reported.
"Ssir, we took a major hit forwward. One hundred casualties. . . . All
starboard six-inch guns are inoperative. . . . Major fires, sir. Lieutenant
Commander Dalrymple is down. Same with Sub-Lieutenant Dobson. Lieutenant
Garland is missing . . . sir . . . and presumed dead."
While Dalrymple was a good friend, he knew that his injury was not causing
Callaghan's pain. He knew what it was, but he had to ask. "Dan?"
Callaghan's reply did not contain any of a Naval Officer's reserve. It
contained the pain of a parent who's lost their only child. "Missing .
. . and presumed dead, Sir"
NO! Not him! Charlotte asked me to take care of him right before
we sailed. He's too young. He's too young. Pain welled through the
usually strong Captain. Sub-Lieutenant Dan Connor was more than just any
junior officer. He was George Callaghan's nephew. More importantly, Callaghan
thought of Dan as his son. Dan Connor was also Davin Herrick's best friend.
They had grown up together, played together, gone to school together,
and joined the navy together. Herrick too thought of Connor as one of
his own sons. NO! I just promised to keep him safe! And now he's gone!
"I'm sorry George. I truly am. But we do not have time to mourn. Dalrymple
is down. We don't have any more Damage Control officers. Get down there
and get that fire under control. I can't spare anyone else. Go!"
Callaghan regained his composure, "Aye sir." He turned and ran out of
Herrick turned back to the battle. Anger raged within him. DAMN
THE GERMANS! Damn them for taking Dan! Damn them for taking my son!
Damn them for taking my crew!He picked up the phone to the armored
range finder above.
"GUNS! GET ME A TARGET!"
"Aye sir!" Lieutenant-Commander Spaulding's voice resonated over the phone.
I'll get those bastards for you, Captain.
Benbow shook as another German shell found her.
1912, Gunnery Control
This German shell came in high, passing well over the bridge before it
hit. The charge burst, and high explosive vented its fury against Benbow's
superstructure. Splinters flew everywhere. Searchlights were shattered
by the blast. The crewmen unfortunate enough to be manning them were shaken
like dolls. They landed on the deck, their broken bodies twitching for
a minute before they were still.
Further up, the shock shook Benbow's armored range finder. Part
of the armor spalled as the shockwave slammed into the soft steel. Most
of the fragments went over the heads of the crewmen in the range finder.
One did not. This particular fragment took a lower trajectory. It flew
through the air, glowing red hot. It buzzed like a saw, twirling as it
passed. Finally, it found resistance. This single fragment transferred
it's energy into the soft flesh. Yet, the flesh was not strong enough
to absorb it. Instead, it merely slowed the fragment as it reveled through
a human leg, slicing sinew, butchering bone and tearing flesh before the
fragment embedded itself in the opposite bulkhead.
Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Spaulding, Benbow's Gunnery officer
didn't know what hit him. One minute he was standing by the range finder.
The next, he was on the deck. He tried to get up. His left leg obeyed
his mental commands. His right leg did not. Instead, it twitched uncontrollably.
He ran a hand down his right leg. It came to a stop a few inches below
his knee. The rest of his leg below that was a sodden wreck of flesh,
bone and blood.
His deputy, Lieutenant Thompson, rushed to the telephone. "Main One, this
is Gunnery Control. Send Stretcher Bearers. Commander Spaulding is . .
"BELAY THAT!" Spaulding's shout interrupted Thompson's report.
"Get me up. The Captain wants a target. Find one!"
A petty officer helped Spaulding to the range finder. He was a sight,
blood pouring from his leg as he searched the sea. The sky behind them
streaked as another German shell, so similar to the ones that had wreaked
their vengeance on Benbow thudded home. All but Spaulding were
distracted by the plume of fire rising from Temeraire Spaulding
kept looking, every second precious as his life's blood stained the deck.
He did not have much time left. Finally, he found something.
"Captain! Target to starboard. Helgoland Class Dreadnought."
Over the telephone, he could hear the vengeance in his captain's voice.
Benbow's 13.5" guns rang out. Spaulding watched the shells land.
"Short! Up two hundred!"
Down in her turrets, gunners raced to correct. Another salvo quickly followed
the first. A Helgoland would make a nice down payment on the
Captain's revenge. Spaulding's thoughts began to cloud as he grew
weaker. Yet he clung more fiercely to consciousness. He clung to the range
finder. The Captain needs me here. My men need me here. I will not
Benbow pitched as she took another hit and kept on charging.
1915, Starboard Casemates
Commander Callaghan looked through the hatch into the starboard casemate.
It was a small patch of hell. Fires burned brightly. Medics and stretcher
bearers swarmed over men lying on the deck. A team hustled a badly burned
petty officer past him to Sick Bay. As he entered the compartment, he
was amazed that anyone was alive. With every body he passed, he feared
that one would be Dan. Every bloodstain could be where he died. Callaghan's
measured strides quickly covered the distance to Petty Officer Granby.
"Sir, we have removed most of the remaining six-inch ammunition and sealed
the hoists. I have twenty men containing the fire forward, and another
twenty here with me. Below, I have a crew patching the hole in the armor.
It won't keep enemy shells out, but it will keep out the splinters."
"There is no fire below?"
"No sir. Apparently it is just on this deck. We'll have it out in twenty
minutes." As if to emphasize Granby's point, one of his teams put out
the last fire in that particular compartment and turned their hoses on
the blaze forward.
"Very good, Granby. Carry on."
"Aye sir! Watkins, Kelley! Get that bucket up here! Malcolm, help with
the stretchers! Move! We don't have all day!"
Callaghan moved aft to supervise the stretcher bearers. Smalling's party
were moving the last of the critically injured out of the compartment.
A few medics went from man to man, removing wooden splinters and checking
on cuts and bruises. Yet these men were the walking wounded. They would
be fine in a few minutes.
He continued moving aft, deep in thought. How am I going to tell Charlotte
and Alan? How am I going to tell Caroline? How do you tell someone their
son is dead? How do I deal with it? I am the reason he went into the Navy.
He wanted to be just like his Uncle George. He was so proud to be in the
Navy. He was so young. Just barely sixteen. How can he just be gone?
A tear rolled from his eyes where nobody could see it.
"SIR!" A shout broke his ruminations. "We found him!"
"Sir, come here." It was Petty Officer Smalling. He was standing at the
bottom of the hatch the stretcher bearers had been using to carry the
wounded aft. With his right hand he gestured to a small figure in blue
lying crumpled on the deck. A medic bent over him, and a stretcher team
prepared to carry him to Sick Bay. His brown hair was mussed and his wool
uniform scorched. A large bruise decorated his right temple. Yet his blue
eyes were open and moving, and no blood turned his blue uniform black.
George Callaghan recognized those blue eyes and the cut face.
He walked to the phone on the bulkhead and picked it up.
1920, Starboard Casemates
The phone on the Bridge rang. A petty officer answered. He quickly called
to Captain Herrick. The Captain entered the bridge and took the phone
from the petty officer.
"George?" He braced for the worst.
"We found him, sir." Callaghan's voice was light with relief. "Dan's alive."
That moment, the Vice Admiral commanding the 4th Battle Squadron chose
to enter the bridge. He saw Captain Herrick receive Commander Callaghan's
news. He saw Herrick try to turn and hide his tears of joy. He saw Herrick's
shoulders buck as his Captain's countenance broke down. He turned to block
the view of the Captain from the Bridge. He would protect Captain Herrick's
secret. His son was ALIVE!
2304, Sick Bay
It was late in the night of May 31, 1915 before Commander Callaghan and
Captain Herrick could find the time to make the trip to sick bay. Surgeon
Commander Kevin Browne saluted as they entered Sick Bay.
Browne too bore the signs of the engagement. His apron was red with blood.
Blood from those he had managed to save in backbreaking surgery. Blood
from those who had died on his table. Blood from those who never lived
long enough to make it to his table.
Browne knew that the Captain and Exec were here to visit the wounded.
He led them past the ruins of surgery and triage, into the ward. Here,
Benbow's wounded filled the room. Those who could sat up, trying
to eat. Others just lay on their cots. A few were asleep. Most of the
men were from the starboard gunnery watch. They bore gauze to cover burns,
casts for broken bones, and bandages of all kinds. Lieutenant-Commander
Spaulding lay on one of the bunks. He wasn't conscious. Blood stained
the sheets where his right leg should be. Herrick looked at Browne. Browne
shook his head. "He lost too much blood, sir. If we had gotten to him
earlier, sir, we might have been able to save him. It would be a miracle
if he lived out the night. If the blood loss doesn't claim him, he is
too weak to fight off infection. I'm sorry sir. We did the best we could."
And we failed. We failed all too many times. Browne's enemy wore
no uniform. Browne fought him to the last, and had lost all too many times.
More times than he would ever comfortably live with.
The trio continued down the row. They arrived at a bunk that contained
a body too small and too young to be an officer. All three knew who it
was. Dan Connor. The blue eyes that carried so much hope were closed.
The face that was so expressive lacked one. From their vantagepoint, the
knot on Connor's temple looked bad. So did the scrapes on his arms and
the bruises on his chest. Both Callaghan and Herrick looked at Browne.
Please let him be all right. Please God, let him be all right.
"He's fine, sir. He took a nasty blow to the head, but he will be fine
in a day or two. He's asleep now." Thank you God. Thank you very much.
Browne led them further down the row
They arrived at Dalrymple's bed. While his face was uninjured, both arms
bore horrible burns. While Herrick couldn't see it, the backs of his legs
were equally burned. His back and legs had bore many shrapnel wounds.
Browne's face was a mask. Herrick looked at him. "If he makes it through
the night. We are worried about so many things. Burns are infected too
easily. Even without the burns, there is serious damage to his back and
legs. I don't know, sir. I just don't know."
Callaghan stayed at Dalrymple's berth while Herrick and Browne continued.
Earlier that night, Callaghan had learned from Dobson and Harlston exactly
what happened when the German shell went off in the casemate. I owe
you so much. I owe you more than I can ever repay. If you hadn't thrown
Dan down that hatch, I don't know what I would have done. I don't know
how I would have coped. Two words crossed Callaghan's lips as he knelt
Herrick and Browne left the ward and entered another compartment. Here
there were also many men on cots. However, in this room, every man had
a sheet pulled over his head. "How many?"
"Fifty, sir." Herrick managed to keep his composure, but his mind rankled
at the number. Fifty men? Fifty good men? And for what? What did they
die for? Why couldn't I have saved them? If I had been better, or faster,
or smarter, these men would still be alive. They would not leave widows,
orphans, and parents behind. If only I were better.
Browne could not read his captain's thoughts. Yet, he knew what was running
through Herrick's mind. It was the same thing running through his own.
If only I had been better. "Sir, I learned one thing at a medical
conference before the war. A US Lieutenant Colonel said there were two
rules to war. The first rule is: young men die. The second rule is that
doctors and captains can't change rule number one." Browne saw that his
words were of little comfort to his captain. They are of little comfort
to me either.
by Rob Herrick
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