Voyage into total darkness at a high rate of knots
Mr F. R. Cook, of 74 Ashburnham Road, Luton, has just arrived home after a most exciting voyage from Malta. Mr Cook, who is well known in Luton and St Albans, left for a business trip in the Mediterranean, and three weeks ago got back to Malta after visiting Egypt, Cyprus and various places in the Levant. When war was declared he was just about to return to England.
War was declared in England last on the Tuesday night, but for days before that it was evident at Malta that preparations were being made for hostilities, although it was not know what was to be expected. The harbour at Malta was closed with a boom, and the naval vessels were clearly preparing for active service. It was only thought, however, that they were taking precautionary measures, until it was known that the trouble was not be to confined to Servia (Serbia).
On the Sunday night before war was declared the boom was opened, the battleships went out into open water, and in a twinkling all lights were out, and they steamed away to some unknown destination.
On the Wednesday morning, when it was officially announced that war had been declared with Germany, there was tremendous excitement in the island. The fact was announced on great posters on the walls, and after the Governor of the Island had reviewed the troops he was met by massed bands which played "God Save the King" and "Marseillaise" and the Russian national anthem, amid a remarkable outburst of public feeling.
This was renewed within an hour or two when a German prize was brought in. The Goeben and Breslau had previously been seen and it was assumed that, although the British battleships left before war was declared, they were watching the German boats. Afterwards the situation became very tense, for all sorts of wild rumours were flying about and there was the possibility that Italy, which was not very far distant from Malta, might take a hand in the proceedings, and not in favour of England. When it became known that Italy was to remain neutral, the situation was very much relieved. The gravity of the international situation could not be lost sight of, however, and it was sternly impressed upon people when a German spy who was found tampering with the wireless station was shot.
The boat on which Mr Cook was to sail from Malta arrived a day late, and was then laid up. Eight or nine other boats were dealt with in the same way, and a P&O boat, on which Mr Cook afterwards booked a passage, was requisitioned by the authorities for use as a hospital ship. The passengers who were travelling by it were turned out and the cargo landed.
Hopes of getting away dwindled rapidly, but revived when it was stated that another P&O boat, the Persian, which was booked to travel direct from Port Said to Marseilles, would be stopped if possible. This boat did eventually arrived at Malta, and then Mr Cook was advised that he could get on board at once, though it could not be guaranteed the vessel would go any farther. With others anxious to get home, Mr Cook boarded the vessel, and then had a long wait, no-one being able to say what would happen. When the boom is in use at the harbour, vessels may only leave in daylight, and they waited all through the afternoon and evening and watched the sun set. Giving up hope of leaving that night, the passengers went down to dinner but had hardly done so when the boat began to move. Immediately afterwards all lights were extinguished, but they were under the glare of the Malta searchlights for a long time.
Then, travelling in darkness, they hugged the North African coast, and Mr Cook says the boat was pushed along at a speed she probably never attained before, until the engines broke down, causing the vessel to float idly while they were repaired. At Gibraltar they were admitted to a certain part of the harbour but were not allowed to land, nor was the boat allowed to proceed until it was dark.
Then they travelled without lights again, and kept close to the Spanish and Portuguese coast. Off Cape Ushant they experienced very dirty weather and a thick fog which lasted all the way across the Channel. The boat was brought through it at full tilt, all risks being taken, and when the fog lifted a bit one morning the passengers had the surprise of finding they were in the company of two cruisers and a torpedo boat. Plymouth was reached without any further excitement.
(The SS Persia with 500 passengers on board was sunk without warning off Crete by German U-boat U-38 on December 30th, 1915, while on a voyage to India)