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THE ATLANTIC MONSTER

First episode, taken from The Wizard issue: 1084 September 1st 1945.

THE PERSONAL DIARY OF A NAVAL OFFICER WHO WITNESSED THE TERRIFYING SPECTACLE OF A HUGE WATERSPOUT MOVING ACROSS THE ATLANTIC DESTROYING EVERYTHING IN ITS PATH.

August 15, 1945

 

There are times when I almost convince myself that I am wasting a lot of paper with this diary of mine. Ever since I have been in the Fleet Air Arm I have recorded almost daily the things that have happened to me, and about me. Looking back over the records of the war years, I find there are hundreds of pages about things of no importance. The trouble is I never know in advance if the things I write about are going to be important. So it is today. Early this evening I was sitting in the wardroom aboard our carrier, the H.M.S. Golden Eagle, when Commander Earle appeared in the doorway. “Lieutenant Cagney!” he barked, and even though I was deep in the game of draughts with Gregory Albright, my pilot, I heard his voice and rose to my feet. “I want you for a few minutes in the briefing room.” In war-time such a request had been frequent, but as I walked along the narrow corridor in the wake of the stout Commander, I wondered what reason he had for summoning me when I was off duty. I’m in the Meteorological Branch, and spend most of my days chasing weather reports over the Atlantic. Since peace had been declared this work was no less important than in war-time, but I had rarely seen Commander Earle looking so grim. When we reached the briefing room he relaxed somewhat as he stabbed a large scale chart with his finger. “Sam, I’m worried!” he said. “There’s something funny going on about here, and I can’t imagine what it is.” His finger had stabbed the chart at a point about fifty miles south-east of the Bermudas, which meant some two hundred miles from where we were steaming with the Fleet. “What’s the trouble?” I asked. “A freak depression?” “Not exactly! It must be more than that. The Yanks send out weather planes over the Atlantic every day as you know. For the past three days the machine they have sent to this region has vanished. It’s never come back.” “Crashed?” I asked, eyebrows lifted. “We don’t exactly know. I’ve only had these reports by radio. The first two machines disappeared without a word of explanation, but the last one managed to get messages through until about five minutes before the final silence. They said they had met a strange up-current of air, a whirling vortex of air which was causing the pilot a good deal of trouble.

 

After that there was silence. That’s not all.” I began to get interested, and sat on the edge of the table, a position which I always find favourable to my long legs. I waited for the Commander to continue. “Our own people in the Bermudas have been kept aware of these strange happenings, and dispatched a fast motor-boat to see if there were any survivors. It was an M.T.B. of the latest type, equipped with life-saving apparatus and carrying two doctors. I’ve just had a wireless dispatch to say that all communication with it has ceased. Half a dozen stations are calling it, but without result. It seems to have vanished. They’ve asked us to do something about it.” I did some quick thinking. “Maybe an electric storm in that locality. What do the instruments say?” “Extremely low pressure in the atmosphere, but nothing else. It’s queer. That’s why I’m asking you to fly there tomorrow morning and have a look around. It’s not far off your beat.” I nodded. I knew what he meant. Each day the Fleet was at sea, several reconnaissance planes were sent up and ranged anything from two to five hundred miles in various directions. In war-time we had been spotting U-boats, but now we were interested in the weather, for the cruise we were on was connected with the establishment of an All British air route to the West Indies and the Panama. Already I had flown thousands of miles on such work. “Okay by me!” I said. “Can I have Albright as pilot?” “Certainly! You can use that latest Firefly, which has the new long-range tanks fitted, but be careful, Sam. I’ve an idea that something very strange is going on. Those three planes and an M.T.B. didn’t vanish for no reason at all. I’d hate to lose you.” I grinned. “You can forget that,” I told him. “I’m due for leave as soon as we touch back in England, and I’m not losing my leave for anyone.” “That’s the spirit. You’d better take off at dawn. Lighting conditions are best in those regions before the sun is high.” I nodded, and went back to finish my game, and to tell Gregory Albright that we had a special job on the morrow. Writing this in my cabin after 11 o’clock, I am wondering whether there is any real justification for the space I have filled in this diary, and for the unaccountable feeling of excitement which has gripped me.

August 16, 1945

I may as well write down the beginning just what has happened today. I don’t suppose anyone but myself will ever read this account, but if they do they will want to get things clearly, for unless I am very much mistaken, something very unusual is taking place. We took off at dawn in one of the new Firefly reconnaissance machines, as nice a job as we have ever had on this work. Lieutenant Albright was the pilot, in the open cockpit forward, whilst I, the navigator, together with my instruments, was in the small enclosed cabin aft. The carrier and the rest of the Fleet vanished in the haze astern as we headed for the map reference given us. It was a magnificent morning, as clear as crystal overhead, but with a faint mist on the water. Everything sparkled in the sunshine, the sea was as blue as a picture postcard, and away on our port side we could see an old tramp steamer plodding across the Atlantic. We flew on at about eight thousand feet. At that height everything was very silent and peaceful. I watched my instruments. I must have dropped into a daydream, for the first thing I knew after that was a violent bump, then the voice of Gregory in the phone. “I bet that stopped your sleep! What’s happening? There’s no wind, and the sky’s clear enough.” I blinked at my instruments and noticed that air pressure had dropped remarkably. One would have expected to see a storm coming up somewhere nearby, but the sky was as clear as ever. “Search me!” I said. “Where are we?” “Just where we’re supposed to find the spooks! See anything funny? I’m going down to five thousand.” The nose of the Firefly turned downwards, and as it did so we dropped like a stone. It was the most startling thing that had ever happened to me in my career of flying. It was as though our wings had dropped off. We shrieked downwards in a nose-dive that was quite obviously out of control. “What’s the matter with you?” I roared. “Can’t you pull us out of this?” Albright sounded shakier than I had ever known him. “Trouble is I can’t! There doesn’t seem to be any air at all. It’s the sort of air-pocket without a bottom. Do you think those other poor blighters—” There was a bump which lifted me six inches from the seat, and miraculously we were on even keel.

 

The motor took up its usual note, and we proceeded on our way, not more than two thousand feet above the glittering sea. I heard the pilot heave a sigh. “Whee-eew! That was a humdinger. I don’t want to fall into a hole like that again. Have you noticed the sea?” I had not, but when I looked down I pursed my lips, for the surface was broken by a thousand little cones of water. They were not waves. It looked as though heavy suction was at work, and as though the water was trying to rise into the air in a thousand different places. It was most uncanny to look down on it. Salt spray filled the air close to the sea. It sparkled in the strong sunlight, for there was no wind down there. My instruments seemed to have gone mad. The low pressure registered would not have been out of the way in the centre of a typhoon, but we had come through no storm. I had never experienced anything like this before. “I think I’ll get in touch with—” I began, when the Firefly again nose-dived and hurled straight for the water. Down—down—down we sped, as though the bottom had dropped out of the world. I could hear the motor shrieking, but the screws seemed to get no grip on anything. They were racing as though in a vacuum. No word came from Albright. I wondered if he had fainted, but was too anxiously watching the up-rushing surface of the sea to worry about anything else. In a matter of seconds we would strike, and then— There was a jolt which broke the strap around my waist. Everything that was loose in the cabin jumped up and hit me, then we were side-slipping and skimming over the sparkling water which was no more than fifty feet away. It was a last minute reprieve. I closed my eyes and pinched myself; it was all real enough. “Sam, are you there?” came my pilot’s voice, and when I grunted he hurried on: “I don’t want any more of this. There is something uncanny about it. Let’s get back!” I pulled myself together with an effort. “I’ll make a report first,” I told him. “They’ll be wondering what’s happened to me. Keep away to the south and try to gain altitude. I don’t like this wave-hopping.” I adjusted my earphones and depressed the key. Thirty seconds later I was in touch with the Golden Eagle. I was in the act of sending a message to the ship when I suddenly looked away to starboard, and saw something that made my eyes grow round. It was a waterspout, the largest I had ever seen, rising from the sea to the clouds of mist that hovered above. Whirling slowly, it proceeded in the same direction as ourselves, and as I stared it seemed to me that the sea was flooding in from all directions to feed it.

 

The buzzing of the instrument recalled me to my senses. As yet the pilot had seen nothing, for he was looking straight ahead. “Sorry!” I called into the transmitter. “We’ve just spotted a giant waterspout, something larger than I’ve ever seen before. There’s unusually low pressure around here, and the sea seems troubled. The temperature is dropping. We’ve been meeting air-pockets worse than anything I’ve known before. It’s a good thing this is a tough machine.” I switched over. There came a voice of the control man from the Golden Eagle. “You are to circle the waterspout at a distance of five miles. Try to get a photo of it, and record the readings on your instruments.” “Right!” I called, and even as I switched off a spot of water shot up from the sea below and caught us below. It reminded me of those glass balls at rifle ranges, found at travelling fairs, glass balls which bounced up and down on jets of water. We bounced in the same way, and must have shot to ten thousand feet before we escaped and side slipped into more equable conditions. How the Firefly held together, I could not imagine. Gregory Albright’s voice came through the intercom. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I’m heading for home! One of my oil gauges is bust, and I don’t like the look of things.” We headed for home, and when we looked back we saw that the small waterspout which had bounced us skywards had lapsed into the sea again, if the main spout was thicker and taller than before. I saw some fish gleaming in the channel-steel struts on the wing. They must have been hurled out of the sea by the smaller waterspout. I watched the main spout until it was hidden by mist. It was heading straight for the West Indies.

 

August 17, 1945

After having talked matters over with the Commander last night there is no doubt in my mind that the missing planes must have been caught in one of those air-pockets that we experienced, or were hit by a waterspout. Our radio reports to America and Britain seem to have caused a certain amount of excitement. Our carrier has been detached from the Fleet and I can guess why. We are to follow and investigate the marine conditions arising from the waterspout. I was off duty today, and spent a good deal of my time in the control-room with Chips Bowers, the radio operator. He had been through some sticky moments with me during the war, and for that reason we were friends in spite of the difference in our ranks. Young Holman and his navigator took off in a Firefly to try and locate the waterspout this morning. They were silent for nearly two hours, then there came over the radiophone the navigator’s excited voice: “Jove, we’ve seen it! It’s a monster. It must be a quarter of a mile thick, and it reaches higher than we can see. The sea for miles around seems to be boiling. There are dozens of small waterspouts jumping up, and—” His voice stopped, there was a crackling sound, then silence. Chips Bowers called and recalled to try and pick up the sender. He tested his instruments and made adjustments. He continued to call for another fifteen minutes, then turned towards me with a white face. “Nothing doing! What do you imagine can have happened to them? They were talking about smaller waterspouts.” I remembered how we had been hurled several thousand feet into the air by a jet of water, and shivered. “I’m going to report to Earle myself,” I said and hurried away. To my surprise I found Commander Earle, Captain Fitcher, and several others of the leading officers collected round a table on which the Captain had just spread one of the flimsy message forms from the ship’s main radio room. When I attempted to explain what I had heard in the control-room, Captain Fitcher pushed the paper towards me. It was an urgent S O S from the liner President Garfield II., an American passenger vessel, and said: “Struck by waterspout. All engine rooms and holds flooded. Doubt whether can remain afloat ten minutes. Help. Am taking to boats.” A map reference was given. I began to understand why we had altered course some five minutes earlier, and why our speed had been boosted up. Whilst I read this dramatic message the Captain stared at the chart. He asked me to report what I had heard from the Firefly, and checked positions. They were not fifty miles apart, the plane and the liner,” he growled. “Maybe we’ll manage to save them both.” For the next two hours we raced across the Atlantic as a speed rarely touched by one of His Majesty’s ships in peacetime.

Every man aboard began to realise the urgency of the occasion. All eyes were strained ahead. From time to time the radio operators sent word to say there was no word from either the liner or Firefly. The sea became rougher. The air-pressure dropped alarmingly, and the captain looked around the horizon for the tell-tale signs of a hurricane. It was not the hurricane season, but there was no knowing what might happen under normal conditions in these waters. The horizons were as clear as could be. There was no sign of bad weather. And then the look-outs saw it—the waterspout! It was a dozen miles ahead, and linked sea and sky. It appeared to be whirling slowly, giving the immense column of water a corkscrew effect. For ten miles around the sea boiled in frenzy. Even the most hardened of us paled. Waterspouts were not uncommon. Sometimes I had seen as many as a dozen at one time in southern waters, but never anything as large as this. I heard Captain Fitcher say the column must be a mile thick. It seemed to be growing. We scanned the troubled waters for a sign of the liner, but saw nothing. We searched the sky for the Firefly but all was empty. The radio calls were going out all the time, but without result. Both the President Garfield and the Firefly had vanished into the blue. I could not help wondering if the waterspout had been responsible. “Circle the darned thing, and search the water for wreckage!” snapped Captain Fitcher and at 33 knots we came round in a wide curve. It was then something happened to the waterspout. It bulged on one side, a balloon-like growth forming halfway up the mighty column, on our side of the column. This hung lower and lower, as though it was going to detach itself, then it receded, and to our horror the entire waterspout began to speed across the sea directly towards us. It was still eight or nine miles away, but the faces of those around me turned pale. It was almost as though some malignant being had sighted us and had ordered the attack. Even I could have sworn that the immense column of water increased its speed as it hurled in our direction.

Far around its base the water was frothing and boiling as it surged to feed the revolving column that rose to the clouds. Bells rang, the ship’s course was altered. We sped away on a new course further west, aiming to pass about ten miles to port of the moving menace. This put the waterspout between us and the sun, and everyone gasped when they saw something suspended in mid-air midst that mighty pillar of water. It was a liner, or what was left of a liner. It was bouncing up and down, just as those glass balls had done in the fairs. Maybe six hundred feet in length, the shattered liner was being turned over and over, sometimes dropped a thousand feet, sometimes hurled upwards for twice that distance. Only for a few seconds did we see it against the sun, then the mists and the water that formed the core of the column blotted out everything, and we felt a chill as the sun was screened from us. “Ye gods!” said someone. “That’s the President Garfield! It’s been picked up as though it was a toy ship.” I looked at Captain Fitcher, and saw that his lips had turned grey. He was a man who had faced every peril that the oceans could provide in peace and war, but he was scared now. Again the bells rang, as he ordered the course to be changed even further to the west. Then the waterspout, as though aware of what we were doing, likewise changed its direction to the west, once more bearing down on us at great speed! Never in my life have I felt so helpless. I knew that if it came within three or four miles of us we would be sucked into that vortex and hurled skywards with the water which was being drawn from the sea. We would share the fate of the President Garfield. Nothing on earth could save us. At all costs we must keep our distance. We came about, and at 34 knots sped away from the oncoming column. The decks throbbed to the strain imposed by the engines, a dense cloud of smoke and steam poured from our funnels, and the wind hissed along the deck. Everyone watched astern. At first it seemed that the waterspout was gaining on us. Its speed was extraordinary, and it was obvious even to us that it was increasing in size every minute. “The whole sea’s being sucked up!” growled an A.B. near me. “What’s the blinkin’ idea? It’s like one of these siphons. How’s it done?” His eyes, worried and puzzled, met mine. “It’s to do with air-pressures,” I explained. “For some reason the normal atmospheric pressure had dropped to almost nothing over the centre of that column, and the water beneath it has been sucked into the air. That’s formed a siphon, as you say, and that’s sucking up more and more water.” “Strewth!” murmured the man, rubbing his nose. “But where’s it all go?” “Somewhere up there above the mists it’s mushrooming out to form a great blob in the sky,” I said. “If it ever comes down on any ship—or on any shore—”

Captain Fitcher suddenly changed course, and most of us were thrown off our balance. It was almost as though the waterspout was deliberately following us. We had to double and dodge like a hare pursued by a dog. Something fell into the sea about five miles distant, with a force which sent water half a mile into the air. It was the American liner. It had slipped out of the core of the whirling vortex, and gravity had done the rest. A mass of twisted metal, it went straight to the bottom, and I wondered what had happened to the hundreds of people aboard it. The waterspout was running amok like a mad thing. Was there some natural explanation of why it was drawn towards ships and aeroplanes, or was it the other way about? I was glad to see we were getting away from it, and getting out of its path. It finally passed us to starboard, and we pitched and tossed more wildly than I had ever known this big ship do. The sea seemed to have been stirred by a giant jam-spoon.

August 18, 1945

My eyes are heavy as I write this page in my diary, for there was no sleep last night. Everyone remained on watch for the waterspout. We knew it was circling somewhere about us, and our searchlights were kept on all night as we scanned the waters for its approach. During the war we had had many restless nights because of lurking U-boats, but I never remember a night as nerve-packing as the one that had passed. I did not get a wink of sleep. Chips Bowers, who had come off duty, told me that just before he had handed over a series of S O S messages had come through from various small vessels caught in the path of the waterspout. They were calling for aid, yet no one could aid them. The biggest ship in the world would have stood no chance close to the waterspout. Actual contact with it was not necessary, for the effect was felt for miles around. Bowers said that at least two other vessels had vanished whilst sending out calls for aid. One of these had been a cruise-ship, with a thousand passengers aboard. It was horrible to think about it. “What course was it taking the last time reported?” I asked him, as he closed his weary eyes and tried to doze. He told me, and I went across to the chart to check up. If it continued in that direction long enough it would cut across the main route of the liners from England to America. I could see even greater tragedies coming. Gregory Albright, and some of the other pilots, came to share my vigil. No one thought of turning in. They were of the opinion that all the planes on the ship should be ordered to chase the spout and bomb it. They spoke of past instances in the Pacific when this had been done with good effect. Waterspouts collapsed if they were broken near the base by explosions. The siphon would be interrupted. “But this is too big a spout for that treatment,” I told them. “It’s a freak. You’d need some 12,000 pounders to make any impression on it.” They did not agree with me, and we argued into the small hours of the morning, when shouts from the deck were followed by the general alarm. We rushed up above to see a freighter in the beam of our searchlights. It was making all possible speed towards the north, and as it sped past someone shouted from the freighter’s deck through a megaphone: “It’s coming! It’s moving northwards now it nearly got us. At one time we were lifted clear of the water.” The freighter hurried on its way, and we swung our searchlights in the other direction. If the waterspout was there, it must have changed direction again. Before long the sea began to bubble and froth. Little cones of water rose for a matter of ten feet, then broke off.

 

We knew the signs. The waterspout was coming. It had circled behind us during the night, and was now approaching. We clapped on all possible speed and followed the freighter towards the north. Half an hour later we overtook her. She was stationary. Something had happened to her engines. They had broken down. Wallowing like a lame duck in the path of the whirling waterspout, those men were doomed unless we did something for them. Distress signals were being shown. Captain Fitcher gritted his teeth. He had the responsibility of his own ship and his own men, but he could not leave fellow-countrymen to die in this terrible fashion. He came down to dead slow, and told the men aboard the freighter that he would stand by until they got across. A cheer went up as they lowered their boats. They had not expected him to stop. Laden boats commenced to pull in our direction, and we all stood ready to give a hand. No time was wasted. The occupants were hauled aboard, but it seemed there were still seven or eight men left aboard, including the skipper. There had been no room for them on the first trip. “Then for the love of Pete—hurry!” roared Captain Fitcher, through the megaphone, and he glanced anxiously over his shoulder, for the tell-tale signs were showing in the waters around him. Even the rowing-boat was lifted and dropped as it sped towards the freighter. We stared astern. Again the searchlights were directed there. Every moment we expected to see the massive column advancing on us. Dozens of smaller spouts were making tentative efforts to rise, and were dropping back with thunderous splashes. The boat reached the freighter and the captain and his companions came tumbling down the ladder. The men at the oars worked like furies, and then—we saw the waterspout! It was coming straight for us. In ghostly silence those millions of tons of water were spinning between sea and sky. Our searchlights made it glisten like molten silver, and formed rainbows in the mists that surrounded it. Like some evil monster that had tracked us down, the spout came for the two vessels. “Hurry men, hurry!” roared Captain Fitcher, through the megaphone. “In another few minutes it will be too late.” Nearer came the spout. The carrier was now bouncing and rolling. Men found it difficult to keep their feet. Some were muttering silently to themselves. No one suggested that we should flee and leave those men in the boat to fend for themselves. I was one of those waiting to receive them. We did not care about the boat. Directly the occupants had leapt on to the ladder, or had been seized by one of us, someone shouted that we were clear and the bells rang for full speed ahead.

 

The decks trembled, the screws threshed the troubled waters astern, and we began to move. “We won’t do it!” gasped my pilot, and Albright’s face shone with sweat as he nodded astern to the monster that towered over us. “We’re going to be sucked back.” It seemed that he was right. The water was already receding under our keel. The level of the sea was dropping as the waterspout gathered more and more to it. With the screws driving for full speed ahead, we made scarcely any speed at all. It almost seemed that we would be drawn back. Just what the engineers below did to get that extra knot, I do not know, but gradually we got the better of the fierce current against us, and made some headway. Once we had started, we did better. The distance increased a little further, and the waterspout changed direction slightly to starboard. The water did not drag at us so much. Yet there was not a man there whose throat was not contracted, and whose hands were not tightly clenched, as he watched the whirling waters circle us. Then came a shout of horror from those on the starboard side. Something was happening to the freighter. She was beginning to move astern—in the direction of the spout. Gathering speed, the doomed vessel went stern first towards the pillar of revolving water. One of our searchlights was swung around to illuminate the scene, and we saw clearly what happened. When the freighter was about three miles from the base of the waterspout, she reared up stern first and seemed to be trying to rise from the sea. The upward suck of the air disturbed by the waterspout was affecting her. Prevented by her weight, the freighter skidded in closer to the advancing mass of water, and then, with a suddenness which made us gasp, she was sucked into the air. It was as though a giant hand had gripped her. One moment she was bobbing on the sea, and the next she was a thousand feet aloft, lost in that whirling maelstrom which rose to the clouds. Men cried out in terror, some covered their eyes. Someone shouted. “Get us out of this, Cap’n!” Captain Fitcher was doing his best. The Golden Eagle was making all possible speed towards the north. Her bows rose high, and astern our wake boiled and foamed for many a mile. Along our flush decks the wind howled and whistled. We found it hard to stand. Having snatched the freighter into its maw, the waterspout seemed content to hover on the same spot for a while. We managed to get three or four miles away from it, and Captain Fitcher tried to gauge which way it would go next.

 

The trouble was the movements of this natural freak were unpredictable. They seemed to follow no rule. Moving this way and that, sometimes swiftly, sometimes quite slowly, those millions of tons of water spelled disaster for any vessel that came within a few miles. We all knew that if the waterspout collapsed, it would churn up the seas for scores of miles around, and would sink us just as surely as the broadsides of an enemy battle-cruiser. We tried not to think of that. There was no moon, but the stars were exceptionally bright, and as I stared up at them above the wireless aerials I wondered what the end of all this would be. No such waterspout as this had ever been reported in history. The horrifying part about it was that it was still growing. It was five times as bulky as when Lieutenant Albright and I had first seen it. It seemed to gather more volume every time it turned. If it went on sucking up the Atlantic Ocean in this way, there was no knowing what the end would be. Once a siphon of this kind was formed, it was difficult to stop it growing. I tried to imagine what would happen if half the Atlantic Ocean was sucked into the air. Then it flashed into my mind: “What will happen if it moves towards Europe—towards the British Isles?” I was so horrified at this thought that I scarcely noticed the relieved expressions on the faces of those around me. Gregory Albright slapped me on the back. “Cheer up, Sam! We’ve shaken it off. It’s gone off in a different direction—towards the north-east. We’re safe!” “Safe!” I echoed. “Yes, so it seems, but—but have you thought that if it keeps travelling in a north-east direction it will come to the British Isles? What do you think would happen if it struck the coast somewhere near Bristol—or Glasgow?” “Stow it!” he advised. “Let’s go and get some sleep. Don’t make my flesh creep. I’m told we’re going to try and bomb it tomorrow, and that the main Fleet is coming back to help deal with it. What with bombs and 16-inch shells we’ll make that waterspout look pretty sick.” “I hope so!” I said, but even as I sit writing this diary, I’m wondering if his hopes are going to be fulfilled. If that waterspout cannot be broken, and if it does keep on in the direction of the British Isles, the world may be about to see a disaster greater than anything brought about by the recent war!

 

 

THE ATLANTIC MONSTER 16 episodes appeared in The Wizard issues 1084 – 1099 (1945)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007