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SINK THAT DHOW
By Bob Maxwell
It was 1945. The hostilities in Europe had just ended and we were hurrying out to help to finish off the war in the Far East. I was serving onboard HMS Devonshire a heavy cruiser, a greyhound of the ocean as cruisers were of times named. The ship displaced 10,000 tons and was over 600 feet in length. She was armed with six 8inch guns, 8 four inch, 6 four barrelled pompoms, 52 close range 25mm anti aircraft guns and 8 torpedo tubes. A strong, powerful ship of war carrying some 900 of a well trained and spirited crew most of whom had seen active service during the war. We left Plymouth hurried south across the Bay of Biscay through the straits of Gibraltar then east across the Med to Port Said and through the Suez Canal to Port Tewfik.
Twenty four hours after leaving Port Tewfik we were well into the Red Sea when one of the lookouts reported a boat in the water ahead. When we closed it turned out to be a dismasted dhow. Her crew, 5 men and a boy, were lined up on deck waving their gowns.
After stopping and lowering our sea boat to bring her alongside we learnt, by a dint, of Pidgin English, sign language and the odd word of Arabic that the dhow had been sailing for Port Sudan. Seven nights before she had been flung on her beam ends in a sudden storm. The only way the crew had got her upright was to sacrifice the mast. If there had been any cargo it had been ditched. The dhow captain refused food and water and a spar to replace her mast The hull timbers were rotten he said and they would be happy to take passage to Aden, our next port of call, thank you very much. Our captain gave them permission to come aboard and ordered our Executive Officer to sink the dhow as she would be a danger to navigation if left floating.
A burly leading seaman was lowered into the dhow and had a large, sharp, damage control axe swung down to him. From the after end of the bridge I watched him spit on his hands, grasp the axe, swing it above his head and bring it down with all his strength into the bottom timbers. A sound like a cathedral bell rang out, the axe shot into the air as it jumped out of his paralysed fingers he crossed his arms put a hand under each armpit and squeezed till his face went red.
The Executive officer leant over the guard rail demanding to know what was happening and was told in no uncertain terms that the timbers were not rotten but were made of tempered steel, or words to that effect.
By this time our Captain was getting fidgety because of his ship getting held up and ordered that the leading seaman be retrieved, the dhow cast off and the close range anti aircraft armament crews closed up so as to sink the dhow by gunfire. Getting underway we circled the dhow at slow speed and at a range of a thousand yards opened fire.
The air was filled with the solid thump, thump of the pom poms intermingled with the more staccato sound of the Oerlikons. The smell of cordite drifted across the bridge and our view of the dhow was obscured by the smoke of the guns and the curtain of water thrown up by the bullets and shells. When the smoke cleared away and the water subsided the dhow came into view, sitting there bobbing gently in the swell. Apart from a few sooty black marks on her side she appeared to be unscathed. The Gunnery Officer looking slightly askance and a bit downcast before he ordered the guns to fire again. The guns opened up as before and after ceasing fire the dhow was still curtseying in the swell without any obvious signs of damage
To say that our Captain was getting rather exasperated was putting it mildly. There was a war waiting for him a few thousand miles away and here he was getting held up with a stupid boat which refused to sink. With a withering look and a rather sarcastic tone he ordered Gunnery Officer to secure the close range weapons and man the four inch guns while he opened the range to 3000 yards, Some minutes later with the ship stopped we fired off some twenty shells from the four starboard side four inch guns in the general direction of the dhow. As the fountains of water subsided it was obvious that the dhow had suffered some damage with holes in her side but she was still well afloat. By this time our Captain appeared to be doing an impersonation of Fred Astaire tap dancing on the bridge. The last straw was when the Major of Marines asked permission to engage the dhow with X turret’s twin 8 inch guns.
“Secure all guns” the Captain shouted,” I’ll ram her and be done with it”. The dhow had nearly disappeared over the horizon by the time we made a wide turn and headed back towards her. The Devonshire started juddering, the boiler intake fans screaming at high pitch as the four propellers driven by 80,000 horse power built up speed to 25 knots. Our stem cut through the water like a sharp knife the bow waves curling over in white tipped crests before joining our broad frenzied foaming wake. I watched our Captain bending over the binnacle giving minute alterations of course as we rushed towards the dhow. She loomed up, growing rapidly larger and larger our jack staff centred dead amidships on her hull.
There was no sound as we struck. For a moment the dhow disappeared below our bows before reappearing, split in two, each half flung upwards, outwards and then astern by our bow wave.
From the after end of the bridge the two pieces remained in view in my binoculars as we sped on our way. The increasing distance tended to foreshorten my view of them and as they started to fade over the horizon it appeared visually as if they were joining together again.
As I strained my eyes for a last sighting it seemed strangely stirring that a centuries old design of boat, crafted by hand in wood with primitive tools had stood up to a steel riveted warship designed and built for death and destruction and, although broken, the dhow had certainly remained unbowed. I felt someone near me and looked up. It was my boss the Chief Yeoman of Signals. He lowered his telescope. “I hope the Japs haven’t got a lot of them” he said, “Or it’s going to be a long bloody war”