The Charlotte News

NOVEMBER14, 1940


Sea Fight

This widely admired editorial is indicative of the prayerful admiration with which Cash viewed Churchill's Britain during its awful "Year Alone"—those desperate twelve months between the fall of France and Hitler's onslaught against Russia. Cash was put up for a Pulitzer Prize in 1941, and this editorial was the chief argument for it.

--Note from W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet by Joseph L. Morrison
(This article appeared in the Reader section of Prophet.)

If blood be the price of Admiralty, Lord God, we ha' paid in full. 1


She was just a fat merchantman of 14,000 tons, crawling while the swift ships of war ran. In the days of peace, the men on the swift ships smiled contemptuously upon her as they passed, scorned her crew in port as a lesser breed. Her name was reminiscent of a butler in a novel by Mr. Wodehouse.

But in the Jervis Bay the British navy had today a new name to stand by that of the Ajax and the destroyers which went storming to destruction in Narvik Bay—the newest in the long line of gallant ships since the Great Harry, with the Victory at their head. And one more pressing reason to tighten its belt and vow that the Nazi pocket battleship, now loose in the Atlantic, should not be long in paying in full.

Her sides were tissue paper for the eleven-inch guns of the Nazi. Her guns were, relatively speaking, pop-guns. She was the turtle to the Nazi's fox.

There was no illusion aboard her. The men remembered well the fate of her sister ship, the Rawalpindi, expected that it was certain death they confronted as they raised the British cheer. It would be her business to engross the Nazi until the convoy of 38 freighters could get clear away. And once away it would be the business of those freighters to steam hard for England, not to look back or remember the fate of the men of the Jervis Bay.

Wherefore, she laid down her smoke screen to cover the convoy and steamed for the Nazi, her pop-guns roaring. It was a sunny afternoon and on the bright sea the Nazi was not long in finding the range. His terrific salvos turned her poor sides into sieves. He smashed her steering gear and she wallowed helplessly in the sea's insensate grasp. He tore away the arm of her commander, Captain Fogarty Fegan (the saga-men of Iceland and the Great Red Kings of Ireland would have known that name), and still she roared defiance. He shot away her ensign, and a new one was lashed to the masthead as fast as men could climb. The afterbridge was gone now and the wounded captain was staggering to the main bridge, great shells were exploding below the water line and she was on fire—a rapidly sinking hulk. But until the very last moment before it was necessary to abandon ship or go down with her, her guns kept on firing coldly and methodically. Not until the survivors of the battle were in the lifeboats did the Nazi draw off to chase his real prey—the merchantmen of the convoy. And not even then until he had first vented his brutal spite by shelling the lifeboats with shrapnel. Then she went down, her ensign still flying, Captain Fogarty Fegan aboard, in a great cloud of hissing steam.

Not quite fully had she succeeded in her appointed work. For the Nazi was swift in his pursuit of the convoy. But by Tuesday afternoon 28 of the 38 ships had come safely to port in England, and there was another which would come a little later. He was a Swede. If it was binding upon British freighters to make for England, regardless, it was not binding on him. And he had seen what stirred the heritage in him from his Viking ancestors. Nazi or no Nazi, back he went to pick up 65 of the survivors and carry them safely home.

Three hundred and fifty-two years ago, men of a tough and nameless merchant and fishing sailor breed met the might of Spain in the Channel and established the basis of England's sea greatness. The breed survives unchanged.

Note: Since this was written the British Admiralty has announced that six more ships have arrived safely, leaving the Nazi's bag at only three.—W.J.C.

1 From Rudyard Kipling: The Song of the Dead, II, from A Song of the English.

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