Underwater dreams

April 14 2015

“1906

“Call me Captain Sirius. [Melville.] My creator’s name is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, better known as the author of the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels, which offer a strictly scientific account of criminology. But almost as a sideline he attempted to warn his insular England of a danger in the offing when, eight years after our first seaworthy submarine was launched, he published a brief book which he called Danger! and Other Stories [text here], which came out in German translation during the war, in 1916, under the title The Submarine War, or How Captain Sirius Did England In, and was reprinted here seventeen times before the war was over, but now unfortunately seems to have fallen into oblivion.

“Thanks to this prophetic little book I, in the person of Captain Sirius, succeeded in convincing the King of Norland, the Reich’s ally, of the daring yet perfectly rational possibility of using a mere eight submarines – which was all we had – to cut England off from her supplies and literally starve her to death. Our [the Norlanders’] submarines were called the Alpha, the Beta, the Gamma, the Theta, the Delta, the Epsilon, the Iota, and the Kappa. Unfortunately, the last was lost in the Irish Sea during our otherwise successful mission. I was the captain of the Iota and commanded the entire flotilla. We scored our first successes at the mouth of the Thames near Sheerness: aiming my torpedoes amidships, I sank in quick succession the Adela, laden with mutton from New Zealand, the Oriental Company’s Moldavia, and the Cusco, the latter two laden with grain. After further successes along the Channel coast and all the way to the Irish Sea, involving the whole flotilla either in squadrons or one by one, prices – first in London, then throughout the island – began to rise: a fivepenny loaf of bread soon cost a shilling and a half. By systematically blocking all major ports of entry we drove already exorbitant prices higher and unleashed a countrywide famine. The starving populace protested against the government with acts of violence. It stormed the Empire’s sanctuary, the Stock Exchange. Anyone belonging to the upper classes and able to afford it fled to Ireland, where there were still at least potatoes to be had. In the end proud Albion was forced to conclude a humiliating peace with Norland.

“The second part of the book consists of statements by naval officers and other experts, all of whom confirmed Sir Arthur’s warning of the submarine menace. One of them, a retired vice admiral, advised England to build storehouses for grain, like Joseph in Egypt, and to protect homegrown agricultural products by means of tariffs. There were urgent pleas to abandon England’s dogmatic insular mentality and finally get down to building the tunnel to France. Another vice admiral suggested that trading vessels be allowed to ply the seas only in convoys and that swiftly moving dirigibles be specially equipped to hunt out submarines. Intelligent proposals all, their worth alas, having been corroborated during the course of the war. I could wax particularly eloquent on the subject of the depth- or water-bombs.

“My creator, Sir Arthur, unfortunately forgot to report that while a young lieutenant in Kiel I was present as the crane lowered the first seaworthy submarine into the water – all hush-hush, top secret – at the Germania Shipworks on 4 August 1906. Before that I had been second officer on a torpedo ship, but I volunteered to test our new underwater weapon in its early stages. As a member of the crew I was in the U-1 when it was lowered thirty meters under water and made it to the open sea on its own steam. I should point out, however, that Krupp, using the design of a Spanish engineer, had even earlier built a thirteen-meter craft that went five-and-a-half knots under water. This Forelle aroused even the Kaiser’s interest. Prince Heinrich himself went down in it once. Regrettably, the Reich’s Naval Office obstructed the Forelle’s expeditious development. There were, moreover, difficulties with the gasoline engine. But when the U-1 was put into commission in Eckernförde a year behind schedule, nothing could stop it, even though the Forelle and our thirty-nine-meter ship, the Kambala, which came equipped with three torpedoes, were later sold to Russia. [Is a submarine a ship?] I was unfortunately detailed to attend the ceremony at which they were handed over. Orthodox priests, dispatched specially from Petersburg, anointed the vessels with holy water fore and aft. Following a lengthy overland journey they were launched in Vladivostok – too late to use them against Japan.

“Still, my dream came true. Much as he shows an instinct for sleuthing in his books, Sir Arthur could never have suspected how many German youths – like me – had dreamed of the speedy descent, the wandering eye of the periscope, the bobbing tanker just waiting to be torpedoed, the command of ‘Fire!,’ the many and much acclaimed hits, the intimate camaraderie, and the pennants waving on the triumphant return home. And not even I, who have been involved from the start and have entered literature along the way, not even I could have suspected that tens of thousands of our lads would never emerge from their underwater dream.

“Thanks to Sir Arthur’s warning, our repeated attempts to bring England to her knees unfortunately came to naught. All those deaths. But only Captain Sirius was condemned to survive every descent.”

___

The 1906 chapter (which doesn’t have that name) of Günter Grass’s My Century (Mein Jahrhundert) (1999). A German identifies himself with an enemy of England imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Extract deemed fair use as shorter than an Amazon preview and from near the front of the book: please inform me if it infringes copyright and I will remove it.

The translation by Michael Henry Heim is idiomatically uncertain and not up to the many voices Grass adopts in the hundred vignettes which make up this quasi-novel. I think this is part of the reason many felt this late Grassian tour-de-force did not work. Perhaps it doesn’t work in German. I enjoyed it. I posted the 1900 chapter here.

I’m not sure how Danger! and Other Stories could have been published in Germany in 1916 if it only appeared in England, published by John Murray, in 1918. The title story was written, according to Doyle, about eighteen months before the outbreak of the war and, according to Wikipedia, was published in the Strand Magazine in July 1914. It might have appeared in Germany in 1916 on its own or in another collection.

The Royal Navy had launched its first submarine in 1901. The experience of the crews must have been terrible, but “tens of thousands” of German casualties seems wrong. Here is a list of all the German U-boats. Allegedly 329 served. If the average crew was as high as fifty and two-thirds were killed, that does not get us close.

Before Germany had launched its U-boat, Britain, in the same year, had launched HMS Dreadnought. German and English artists, scholars and scientists, instigated by Count Harry Kessler, and including my great-grandfather, wrote to The Times to express their concern about the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. Their letter was published on January 12.

U-1

After suffering damage from a collision while on a training exercise in 1919, U-1 was sold to the Germaniawerft foundation at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where it was restored and can be still seen. 

Invasion literature (Wikipedia).

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