The first winter of the war was unusually cold. Commander Bill King’s submarine Snapper served in the North Sea from April 1939 for 12 months. During that time it had numerous contact with enemy ships, mainly in the Skagerrat Strait, between the southeast coast of Norway and the southwest coast of Sweden.
At first there was a kind of chivalry displayed between friend and foe. Sinking one merchant ship by its deck gun, the target erupted in a sheet of flame. She was carrying aviation fuel. Yet despite knowing that the smoke would alert enemy aircraft of their presence, the Snapper still delayed valuable minutes hauling German survivors out of the sea, and lowering them, shaking with exhaustion and cold, down the forehatch. On one occasion, on the journey back to Harwich, a young Nazi survivor lectured them on Germany’s political necessities, while the British crew went about their duties. They listened politely.
One morning the sky was filled with German planes flying in thick streams northward. The invasion of Norway had begun. The sea was swarming with anti minesweepers and anti-submarine craft. But there were easy targets too as Germany urgently sent supplies for its invasion forces. Submarine technology, however, was primitive in places. Lining up a target Commander King had his own method. He would stand brazenly on the bridge, and aim his torpedoes with his knuckles. If the enemy ship was going slow, he would give nine degrees of lead, which approximates the width of the human fist at full arm’s length. If the ship was going fast, he used two fists.
Quickly surfacing, and before the escorts realised the convoy was under attack, King stood on the bridge, extending his arm over Snapper’s bow, using his knuckles as a gunsight. Within minutes the escort vessels spotted him, and rushed angrily towards him. On this occasion, as soon as King shouted the order to fire four torpedoes, his next order was “Dive! Dive! Dive!” while he jumped with lightening speed down the hatch. As his submarine slid beneath the waves, he heard the distant thud of four hits. Then followed the terrifying ordeal of depth-charge attack. Under-water bombs clicking and exploding close to the hull. ‘Snapper rocked on the impact, and it seemed impossible that her steel hull should not cave in. Hour after hour we remained silent or whispering necessary orders. I knew how unnatural this agonising suspense must seem to ordinary sailors who were my crew; they had to wait motionless for death...’*
The cold, however, was an enemy in itself. Standing on the conning tower, in the severe afternoon cold, the spray turned faces and clothes into‘ crackling icicles’; while the watch below lived in wet woollens, impossible to dry. For a two or three week patrol, King never undressed. When he lay down on his bunk, he removed his oilskin coat only, keeping on his seaboots and oilskin trousers, ready at all times to leap up and take command in emergency. And there were many.
Rest and romance
Exhausted and unwell, and severely shaken following the unexplained disappearance of Snapper (taken out by his second in command, Lt Jimmy Prowse, and lost on his first patrol ), Commander King was sent to Beirut on a restful mission as an executive officer of the submarine base there. His commanding officer was an old friend Capt Ruck-Keene who knew instinctively just what was needed to cure an exhausted submarine commander: Good food and mountain air. Soon, with others, he was trekking and skiing in the Bekaa valley which stretches between the Lebanon mountains and Syria. There was one woman among the party, a remarkable woman in her own right, Anita Leslie, from Co Monaghan.** She too was resting from her duties as an army driver, and would soon become an ambulance driver with the French army during the last year of the war (Her exceptional bravery earned her the Croix de Guerre, presented to her by General Charles de Gaulle in 1945 ). Romance blossomed. On one occasion, fed up with food rationing in England, saying that his crew needed some decent food, King brought his crew to Northern Ireland, and filled them up with bacon, eggs, and brown bread and butter. He crossed the border into the Republic, and walked into the Leslie estate. Anita was amazed to see him at the front door. The telegram announcing his arrival arrived the following day (They were married in 1949, and embarked on an extended honeymoon sailing around the West Indies in a small yacht, Galway Blazer. The idyll came to an end, when their first born, Tarka, learned to climb out of his basket, and to head for the side ).
But King’s courtship of Anita came to the notice of Winston Churchill, whose American mother and Anita’s grandmother were sisters. During the terrible first winter of the war, Britain’s losses at sea were 75 per cent. As First Lord of the Admiralty, and later as Prime Minister, Churchill always had time for his submarines, and their brave captains (Life expectation for submarine crews was abysmal. Bill King was the only submarine commander to survive the entire six years of the war ). King and Anita were frequently invited to Chartwell, a government residence, and after dinner, Churchill would motion that King was to remain behind by the fire. Churchill wanted to mull over first hand gossip, the state of play, and opinions on the war at sea. He clearly liked Bill King.**** He was well aware of what hell war at sea could be, and he admired enormously the men who fought there.
One evening he asked King what was his least happy experience; and King, with typical self-effacement, told a story against himself. On night patrol off the Norwegian coast, his submarine got stuck on a sand bank. There was nothing for it but to wait until the tide came in, shortly after dawn. If the boat failed to get off, it would be a sitting target for enemy planes which began their patrol at dawn. Just as two German war planes appeared on the horizon, engines straining, and men pushing, the submarine slipped back into deep water.
Stuck on a sand bank, and putting the entire crew and ship in danger, is a serious offence in any navy. In the Royal Navy it was always followed by a court of inquiry; and could result in the dismissal of the captain. But Captain Ruck-Keene, commander of submarines, and famous for his fiery temperament, and ability to blast an officer like any other, looked King in the eyes and said quietly: “ The grounding is a technicality. It need not be mentioned. We are too busy fighting this war to waste time with courts of inquiry.”
When Churchill asked him what moment did he enjoy most when at sea, he may have expected a particular victory, the fact that while still in his twenties King was treated as a senior officer by all naval staff, or moments coming home on leave...but instead King recalled an amazing spring patrol into the Arctic, with the sky ablaze with northern lights.
Next week: Oranmore, and reaching again to the sea, but this time ‘for healing’.
*Fron Adventure in Depth, by Commander Bill King, published by Putnam and Sons, 1975
**Anita Leslie became a prolific writer, notably Edwardians in Love, and Cousin Clare, the life of the sculptor Clare Sheridan, published by Hutchinson, London, 1976.
***Anita Leslie-King’s grandmother, Leonie Leslie, was one of the colourful, and well educated New York Jerome sisters, Jennie, and Clara. Jennie married Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874. They had two sons, one of whom was the famous Winston. The marriage, however, was not a success; but Winston adored his mother.
Clara and Leonie, also married, more or less disastrously, for love. Leonie, the youngest, married Jack Leslie, the son of an Anglo-Irish baronet. Even though the family was usually broke, at least it had the comfort of the family estate in Co Monaghan.
Clara married the interesting but fecklessly impecunious Morton Frewn (who owned an estate in Connemara ), but known to his friends as‘ Mortal Ruin’.
****King was awarded seven medals including the DSO, and Bar, and the Distinguished Service Cross. A typical citation reads: ‘For outstanding courage, skill and determination’... ‘For bravery and determination’, and ‘For daring, endurance and resource in the conduct of hazardous and successful operations against the enemy’...