Race for Survival


Steve Snelling explains how this event changed the way VCs were awarded

When a humble horse transport encountered a U-boat in the Atlantic it marked the start of a ruthless war of nerves between their respective commanders

Harry Read’s early watch on the bridge of the SS Anglo-Californian was drawing to a close. Breakfast waited and all being well they would be out of the Atlantic ‘danger zone’ and in Avonmouth, Bristol, before nightfall.

So far, their luck held. Since Germany declared its submarine blockade of Britain they had completed four voyages through the Western Approaches without incident. But Read was taking no chances. With relief due at any moment the Chief Officer scanned the horizon one last time. Lifting his binoculars, he swivelled to take in the full sweep only to pause at a point off the port beam. There, about a mile away, he saw “a small cloud of blue smoke on the surface”.

At first, he was more puzzled than alarmed. It didn’t make sense. The smoke was clear enough, but there was no sign of any craft from which it could come. Before long he had his answer. “As the cloud of smoke gradually lifted,” he wrote, “I caught sight of the conning tower and long, low hull of a submarine, which I knew at once must be a German.”

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