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  • Taxis in the Mid Atlantic August 19, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Sometimes novels, films and, yes, history books throw up scenes that are simply impossible to forget, even though in themselves they are of relative unimportance. The episode quoted here comes from an account of the Battle for the Atlantic which was fought with a particularly savage intensity from 1940-1941. German U-boats were enjoying their ‘happy time’, making a mockery of British convoys, their corvettes and destroyers. And in that, for Britain, unhappy time, when well over 500 boats were sent to the bottom by submarines, horror story piled upon horror story.

    The background to understanding the horror is not to be found in poor British armour or the (later) virtues of German torpedoes. Rather it is all a question of convoy discipline when there is a wolf pack around.

    After all, if you are a boat travelling in a peace time squadron and one of your companion vessels keels over and starts to sink you stop to pull out every man, woman and child from the water. You do whatever it takes.

    However, if you are in a Second World War convoy you leave charity at home with the wife and kids. Destroyers start throwing depth charges into the water – that will kill survivors who are close enough: memories of a dreadful scene in The Cruel Sea. Merchant vessel, meanwhile, scatter and get as far and as fast away as possible.

    Those who did end up in the water, even in life boats or life rafts usually died. Ships would come to look for them hours later if at all. And often there was not time to pick everyone out of the water even when rescuers turned up, as captains had to save their own boats and feared that there were still submarines in the environs.

    If you want nightmares there are plenty to choose from. A famous example concerns a lifeboat full of tens of freezing children that capsized soon after it had got away from a sinking liner, the Benares.  Naturally almost all the children perished after a night in the freezing water.

    But though this is hellish more striking in its way, at least for Beach, is a curious account of the death of a single man. In late 1940 in one of the convoys from the Americas that, in that year, saved Britain a U-boat managed to pick off a vessel and men were scattered treading water.The witness was on a British destroyer.

    And sometimes if it was very, very rough, you had to leave [those in the sea] anyway, you couldn’t get a boat down. We had survivor’s nets but they’d never be able to hang on to them. And they knew it as you swept past them. I remember one bloke, he must have been a very brave man. In the night there was two or three of these blokes and we were speeding up to get in with the convoy. They’d got lifebelts on but they were going to die. And this bloke realised it, and he was shouting out ‘Taxi! Taxi!, Taxi!’ just taking the mickey, like, because he knew he was going to die, he knew we couldn’t stop. And all we could hear in the distance was him shouting ‘Taxi! Taxi!’. And it just faded away.’ (368-9 Clayton, Finest Hour)

    Taxi, Taxi? What was this about? Delirium, heroism, ‘taking the mickey’, a sardonic bent brought out by impending death…

    The witness who later recounted this episode noted that it was enough to make hard men cry. It sounds like enough to send weaker souls on a week-long bender.

    Other Battle of the Atlantic stories? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    PS Beachcombing going writing mad for next big project for the next two days: he’ll answer emails as soon as he gets his first draft down.