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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Theirs the Job to Keep the Cables Mended (1943)
by Capt. Frank H. Shaw

Introduction: Little has been written on the wartime service of the civilian cable staff, much of it undertaken in hazardous circumstances. This 1943 article from The War Illustrated, edited by Sir John Hammerton, Volume 7 No 163, October 15th 1943, gives some insight into this work.

Thanks to Richard Holladay for providing a copy of this article from the newspaper.

--Bill Burns

Theirs the Job to Keep the Cables Mended

In spite of the development of wireless, submarine cables are still of immense importance, particularly in time of war. Here Capt. Frank H. Shaw tells of the ships whose job it is to keep the cables functioning in face of enemy attack as well as the wear and tear of Nature.

Since no wireless code is absolutely safe from solution, our deep-sea cables have an added importance in wartime; and since the armoured wires are vulnerable to enemy action, and even to chance mishap, their maintenance is a matter of utmost concern to those responsible. So the cable-ships play no small part in our island war-plan; and, notwithstanding the risk of U-boat and aircraft attack, they carry on their job, day in, day out, without advertisement. Indeed, the less advertisement they get the better pleased their crews are. No need to invite hostile attack unnecessarily!

With so many depth-charges bursting in their vicinity, under-sea cables are liable to “faults” on a far greater scale than ever before. Mines explode in startling proximity too; and airborne bombs are no respecters of locality, any more than is a hurrying destroyer in chase of a U-boat. No self-respecting destroyer-commander is going to miss an opportunity to “put paid” to a submarine through any consideration for the sea-cables. If such wires happen to be in the way of the bursting charge, so much the worse; it's just too bad. Hurriedly dropped anchors, too, might easily foul a cable and drag it to breaking-point; and it has been known for enemy vessels to grapple for, and cut, the submarine links with the outer world, just to prevent secret messages being transmitted from one ally to another. So the ring-nosed cable-ships are kept constantly under steam, ready for action at a moment's notice, prepared to go anywhere and take heart-stopping risks in fulfilment of their duty.

Cable-ships—Granny-ships they are styled—are fitted both to lay and repair the cables. Internally they are fitted with vast tanks, capable of holding a thousand miles of armoured wire. They are also mobile workshops; for when a cable is parted the break may well be a thousand miles from shore, and repair work must be carried out on the spot where the fault is discovered.

Work on a cable-ship in wartime is as dangerous as it is important. Here cable is being taken aboard—over the vessel's bow-sheaves and engine-drum—for coiling in one of the vast tanks below deck. From that store it will later be “fed” to the sea-bed as a new subterranean link, or used, in part, for replacement of a faulty length of existing cable.

Photo, Keystone

Needless to say the enemy does his best to frustrate such attempts; since, by breaking a line of communication, a tactical plan of campaign might well be thwarted. So, if it is at all possible, the “Grannies” are given armed protection, both against aircraft and against U-boats. Being defensively armed, too, they are able to play a part in their own protection; and the expert cable-mender of one minute may well become the determined gunlayer of the next.

Peacetime life in a cable-ship, though tending to monotony, is apt to be pleasant. There are no up-to-the-minute schedules to which to adhere, and there is ample society aboard; for the technical experts are always carried in addition to the actual crew. Moreover, if the cable-laying causes the cable-ship to use ports frequently, good contacts are made with desirable acquaintances ashore. The work is well-paid, food and accommodation are up to liner standard; and since such a ship may be sent to any corner of the world, the opportunities for varied travel are frequent. But war brings changes.

The ship, lying in a snug port, is suddenly warned that a fault exists in such and such,a cable; she must stand by for instant service. An immediate hurry starts. Last-minute necessities are got on board. If the fault persists, off goes the Granny-ship. The break has probably been located to within a dozen miles, more or less; but, electricity being so instantaneous in action, only an approximate position can be given beforehand. The ship steams fast along the charted line taken by the cable when laid. She has to avoid mines and suchlike dangers, and she has to maintain tireless vigilance against air attack. Every object breaking the sea's surface is naturally cause for suspicion; it might be a U-boat's periscope—and U-boats sink at sight, irrespective of the nature of the target.

Bad weather is not permitted to interfere: cables are vital. Arrived at the approximate position, the grapnels are let go to the depth at which the cable is supposed to lie. When laid in deep ocean the electric link might stretch fairly tightly across from submarine mountain peak to mountain peak; but normally it follows the contours of the sea-floor. If an old cable, it is probably so overgrown with weed or coral formation as to be practically a part of the underwater geography. The ship zigzags systematically across the charted course of the wire; the many-tined grapnel dragging steadily. Maybe that grapnel fouls a solid body: if the rope is not paid out sufficiently quickly, or the engines are stopped too late, the grapnel and much of its rope may well become a total loss.

Sometimes it means days and nights, of slow groping before the cable is discovered. It can be a tiring, exasperating toil. Even when the armoured wire is found, bringing the bight aboard is no light task. If the strain of three thousand miles of cable is considered, to drag a bight of that weight up from several thousand feet is heroic work. It sometimes happens that the dead drag breaks off the tines of the grapnel, thus releasing the enormously heavy catch; whereupon the long, slow, tedious sweeping has to recommence.

When the snared cable is got aboard, it is immediately cut for testing. This is no small matter. The deep-sea cable is a formidable affair, sheathed in protective coverings varying from rubber to hardened copper—this latter to resist the attack of undersea creatures, which gnaw through rubber as mice gnaw through cheese. Once cut, sparks are sent both ways of the wire: presently the fault is more or less precisely located. This done, the cut is repaired, the bight of the cable is passed over the wheel in the ship's bows, and the cable itself is “under-run”—being picked up, passed over the wheel, and dropped, clear of the propellers, until the scene of the fault is reached. This may take days. There may be more than one fault. The fault may be so distant from the point where the first pick-up was effected as to make it unprofitable to under-run all the way; whereupon the cable is thrown overboard, the ship steams back, grapples again until successful, and then carries on repair-work. Maybe a whole damaged section of cable needs to be cut out and replaced. Cable-splicing is an expert's job. Each cable might carry scores of individual wires, and the right ends must be brazed to those corresponding. Then the armouring has to be renewed.

Not until signals have been tapped from one end of the line to the other is the task completed. Once the repairs are satisfactory the connecting link between great nations is lowered again to its ocean-bed for further functioning. The Granny-ship steams home, unless a wireless call deflects her to another fault in another line.

In dangerous seas, where air attack is frequent, repair work is preferably carried on by night, though the sweeping is a daylight task. Cases have been reported where enemy ships have themselves grappled the cables—their routes being marked on international charts— and either cut them for good, or tapped them to read the vitally secret messages constantly flashing to and fro. To grapple and cut a submarine cable also tends to bring a vitally important ship within range of the lurking U-boat that did the damage. So cable-ship men must work under similar conditions to the Biblical men of old who toiled with a spear in one hand and a spade in the other— only for spade substitute brazing iron and for spear an Oerlikon A.A. gun.

All cables in wartime are under G.P.O. control; and the Granny-ships are run under G.P.O. instructions. In peacetime the cable companies concerned with ownership maintain their own repair and laying ships.

It may be, of course, that the chances of war demand entirely new cables shall be laid from land to land. If, say, Norway were occupied, an early movement would be to effect invulnerable communications between this country and that—across the stickiest stretch of water in the world, perhaps. The cable-ships would have to perform this service, notwithstanding the enemy's most vicious attacks. But their crews were trained well in peacetime; and they show no sign now of shrinking from the important, hazardous duty. It is doubly hazardous because of the slow pace at which a cable must be laid; this makes the ship a sitting shot for attack, though her escort naturally does its best to safeguard her in her precarious occupation. Many sensational victories are credited to these ships and men. They do great honour to the flag under which they sail.

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