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1636: The Ottoman Onslaught: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Friday, August 19, 2016 13:33 EDT



Ingolstadt, Upper Palatinate

    “And there they are,” murmured Major Tom Simpson. He lowered his binoculars and leaned back from the gondola railing. Above his head, the great swollen envelope of the Pelican blocked out the sun.

    “All four of them?” asked his aide, Captain Bruno von Eichelberg. He was still leaning over the rail, peering down at Ingolstadt. Peering toward Ingolstadt, it might be better to say. They were at least a mile away from the city walls and only a thousand feet or so high.

    “Yup, all four,” replied Tom. “They’ve got them positioned just the way I would, too. One facing each way on the river and the other two facing north.”

    Von Eichelberg grunted. “Don’t see much point to the two facing north. Unless they’ve got much better carriages than I can imagine them building in the past three months, they can’t swivel them much. Those guns were designed to sink ships and destroy fortifications, not fire on cavalry and infantry.”

    “True enough — although God help any poor bastards that do come into the line of fire. Those are ten-inch rifles. Load ’em with canister or grapeshot and they’ll cut down anyone in front of them.”

    Von Eichelberg curled his lip. “And if General Schmidt has recently lost his mind — which didn’t seem to be the case the last time we spoke to him, two days ago — he’ll march his soldiers right into that line of fire. But assuming he’s still the same canny bastard I seem to recall, he’ll stay well away from those guns. So I still don’t see the point.”

    Tom made a little shrugging motion. “Where else are the Bavarians going to position them, Bruno? They don’t need more than one gun facing up and down the Danube. I grant you there’s only a limited value to where they have the other two placed, but the only alternative is to not use them at all.”

    Von Eichelberg leaned back from the railing also. “Should we go closer? To see what else we might be able to.”

    The young pilot of the Pelican, Stefano Franchetti, got a worried look on his face. “Ah… Major Simpson, by now the Bavarians almost certainly have some sort of anti-airship guns — or, well, something — in position.”

    Tom scratched at his beard. Like most American men since the Ring of Fire, he’d abandoned the effort to remain clean-shaven and adopted the almost universal down-time custom of men maintaining facial hair. He wasn’t all that partial to beards, actually — and neither was his wife Rita. But he was even less partial to shaving regularly under seventeenth century conditions, that being the only practical alternative almost anywhere outside of Grantville or the few other places with a reliable supply of electricity. The safety razors which had come through the Ring of Fire were long gone by now, and while most electrical razors were still functioning, they were useless for a soldier on campaign.

    There were now safety razors being made down-time by several companies, the best known of which was Burmashave. Of course, they were much more expensive than the ones which had been made up-time, but the price had come down far enough that they weren’t luxury items any more. Their use was still not widespread, however. Simply having safety razors wasn’t enough to make daily shaving a common practice, because there were so many other obstacles.

    Up-time, everyone had had easy and effectively instant access to hot running water. Down-time, they didn’t — even in big cities, much less on military campaign. There was no premade shaving cream, no convenient cans of shaving foam or gel. You had to do it the old fashioned way with a shaving brush and soap. It could be done and some people did it. But most men didn’t think it was worth the time and trouble.

    Besides, there was one definite advantage to being able to fiddle with a beard. It gave a man time to think. Cleanliness might or might not be next to godliness — Tom’s Episcopalian upbringing made him skeptical of simplistic Methodist saws — but he was quite sure that being clean-shaven was next to being a dumb-ass. How much silly trouble had men gotten into up-time because they hadn’t paused to scratch at their beards before saying something stupid?

    Or, worse, doing something stupid. Witness the proverbial last words of the redneck: Hey, guys, watch this!

    Ascribed to rednecks, anyway. Tom had known plenty of upstanding blue-blood wealthy young fellows back up-time who’d done things every bit as stupid as tease alligators or conduct drag races down city streets.


    “Take us a little closer, Stefano.”

    “But, Major –”

    Tom raised a big hand in a calming gesture. “Relax. I don’t intend to fly over the city, I just want to get a better look.”

    He saw no reason to add that what he specifically wanted to get a better look at was precisely the thing Stefano was afraid of — whatever anti-aircraft measures the Bavarians might have put in place since they seized Ingolstadt in January.

    Anti-airship, rather. In the here and now, no one had yet come up with any effective way to shoot down airplanes unless the pilot did something reckless. The one and only instance in which ground fire had brought down an airplane was the killing of Hans Richter in the battle at Wismar during the Baltic War.

    Hans had become a national hero as a result of that action — due in large part to Mike Stearns’ propaganda. But the truth was, Hans had screwed the pooch. He’d let his anger override his judgment in that battle. Even then, the shot that took him down was something of a “golden BB.”

    Shooting down airships — or at least damaging them, or their crews — might be more feasible, though. The speed of airplanes, even the primitive ones being built in this era, was at least an order of magnitude greater than that of airships. As much as two orders of magnitude, for an airship moving slowly enough to be a good bombing platform, which meant no more than one or two miles per hour — just enough to keep steady in the wind. The Pelican and her two sister ships, the Petrel and the Albatross, had delivered a terrible blow to a Bavarian cavalry force when they dropped incendiary bombs on them. But they’d been completely stationary above the village where the cavalrymen were bivouacked and their victims had either been asleep or drunk — or both, most of them.

    It remained to be seen what sober and alert defenders could do, especially now that they’d had three months to develop something. Ingolstadt was one of the centers of weapons-making in central Europe, so they would have had the resources to do so.



    “Fire!” ordered Major von Eckersdörfer. A moment later, the first rocket in the barrage hissed its way into the sky. Within two or three seconds, eight others had followed suit. The tenth and last rocket in the planned barrage was a misfire.

    And, as such, a source of considerable apprehension to the artillerymen handling the rockets. Most likely, the fuse had simply sputtered out and could be replaced. But there’d been one apparent misfire which had ignited just as an artilleryman had come up to it, taking most of the man’s face off along with his jaw. Perhaps thankfully, he’d died of the injuries within a day. Another rocket had exploded as the fuse was being withdrawn, killing another man instantly.

    The standard procedure now with misfires was to wait a while, then toss a bucket of water over it — from as great a distance as possible — and wait a while longer before doing anything further. That “further” consisted of shoving it over an embankment with a long pole and waiting at least an hour before approaching the rocket.

    And then… hope for the best.

    Watching from a distance, Captain Johann Heinrich von Haslang thanked providence — again — that he was not assigned to the rocket unit. He was in command of a different sort of anti-airship effort, which was based on much more reliable weaponry.

    He watched as the flight of rockets headed toward the still-distant airship. He thought von Eckersdörfer had given the order to fire too soon — much too soon, in fact. The rockets were of the new “Hale” design, copied from an American encyclopedia. The rockets were given a rotary motion in flight by the use of canted exhausts and small fins, which greatly improved their accuracy from the simple “Congreve” design.

    But they still weren’t that accurate and the airship was at the very limit of their range. Von Haslang wasn’t surprised to see one, then two, then five rockets veer aside explode harmlessly in mid-air. Only the ninth rocket came anywhere close to the airship — and that was only “close” in relative terms. When its timed fuse set off the warhead it was much too far from the enemy craft to do any possible damage.



    “They’re shooting at us, Major Simpson,” said Stefano, doing his best to control his anxiety and not succeeding particularly well.

    Tom refrained from the obvious response: I am not blind, thank you. That would just hurt the youngster’s feelings. Push came to shove, Franchetti was a civilian, not a soldier. He’d volunteered for this mission — more likely, been volunteered by his employer, Estuban Miro — and had been reasonably cooperative. But he didn’t have much experience coming under enemy fire, so he had no good way to gauge how great the risk might be.

    “Stop fretting, Stefano,” said Bruno von Eichelberg. “They fired much too soon.”

    He pointed at the small smoke clouds left by the exploding rockets, which were rapidly being eddied away by the winds. “The nearest explosion — that one, see it? — is at least a quarter of a mile away and a hundred meters below us. Those warheads can’t weigh more than a few pounds. One of them would have to explode within twenty yards of us — no, more like ten yards — before it could do much damage.”



    “It’d have to hit us here in the gondola, too,” Tom added. “This is a hot air vessel, not hydrogen. There’s nothing that even incendiaries could blow up.”

    At that, Franchetti visibly relaxed. He might not be familiar with enemy fire, but he did know airships. Unless an explosion tore a great rent in the envelope above them — which was not very likely — they wouldn’t lose altitude quickly. Just punching a bunch of holes in the fabric wouldn’t do much at all.

    And while the gondola they were riding in wasn’t armored, as such, it was still pretty tough. A big wicker basket, basically. A cannon ball striking it head on would probably punch through, as would an up-time rifle bullet fired from a heavy caliber gun. Or, even if it didn’t, the impact would probably send splinters flying everywhere, which might cause even worse casualties if not structural damage. But a round musket ball probably wouldn’t penetrate, unless it was fired at point blank range — and how would anyone get that close in the first place?

    There was no real chance that shrapnel could penetrate. The biggest danger would be from an explosion that sent shrapnel over the rim of the gondola and struck the crew directly. But that would take a very lucky shot indeed.

    Another rocket volley came their way — defining “their way” very loosely — but Tom ignored it. He’d just spotted an odd-looking portion of the city’s walls and was now studying it through his binoculars.

    “I will be good God — Gnu damned,” he said, remembering at the last instant to modify his unthinking blasphemy. People in the seventeenth century didn’t hesitate to swear like the proverbial trooper, but they avoided blasphemy.

    “What is it, Major?” asked von Eichelberg.

    “I do believe some Bavarian fellow has been using his noggin.”

    “And a ‘noggin’ would be…”

    “Sorry. American slang. It means using his head. Thinking.”

    He leaned back from the railing and offered the binoculars to von Eichelberg. Then, pointed at something on the walls below.

    “Look at that bastion,” he said. “At least, I’ll call it a bastion for lack of a better term. It’s new. It wasn’t there when we held Ingolstadt.”

    Von Eichelberg spent a couple of minutes studying the structure in question through the binoculars.

    “It looks like… some sort of pit? But what for?”

    “You see the radial design?” Tom replied. “What looks like a bunch of rails leading up to those shrouded… whatever-they-ares at the top of the pit?”

    “Yes,” said Bruno. He lowered the binoculars and frowned.

    “I think those are gun carriages,” said Tom. “Slanted up at something like thirty degrees and covering at least one-sixth of the visible sky. And the shrouds would be covering the guns themselves. I’m willing to bet that if we got closer you’d see them stripping those shrouds — they’re probably canvas — right off.”

    Von Eichelberg issued a grunt. The sound combined surprise with something close to admiration. “Shrewd!”

    Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I’m willing to bet that design’s brand new and never been tested.”

    His subordinate grinned. “Well, then. What better time than now?”

    Franchetti was looking alarmed again — very alarmed.

    “Major Simpson, what are you thinking?”

    Tom pointed down to the bastion. Down — and away. They were still the better part of a mile from the city walls.

    “Head toward it, Stefano. I want to see what happens.”

    “But — but –”

    Tom clapped his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Re-lax, will you? Whatever that emplacement is, it’s got to be some sort of prototype. That’s a fancy up-time word that means ‘wild-ass idea that nobody’s tried out yet.’ Almost no prototype ever made worked the way it was supposed to the first time out.”

    Little Boy and Fat Man did, he thought to himself. But he saw no reason to worry the youngster with hypotheticals. Besides, Oppenheimer and his team had spent a lot longer — not to mention a lot more money — developing the first atomic bombs than whatever Bavarian bright boys down there could have spent developing whatever this thingamajig was.

    Franchetti’s expression made it clear he still had his doubts, but he steered the blimp in the direction Tom had indicated. He had the four lawnmower engines going full blast now, to give the vessel maximum speed. The things were unmuffled and made an incredible racket. Anyone who wanted to say anything now would have to shout — and do it almost in someone’s ear.



    “How soon should we fire, Captain?” asked one of the gunners. “And shouldn’t we start taking off the covers?”

    Von Haslang didn’t reply immediately. He was too intent on studying the oncoming airship.

    “Captain?” the gunner repeated.

    Von Haslang shook his head. “They’re still much too far away. And leave the covers on. Once we take them off, they’ll know exactly what they’re facing and they’ll turn aside.”

    He didn’t add what he could have, which was that the airship wouldn’t be able to turn away quickly. He’d spent quite a bit of time studying the enemy vessels in the course of the four day pursuit of the USE artillery unit which had escaped from Ingolstadt three months earlier. True, he’d never gotten a close look at any of them, but he hadn’t needed to in order to determine that the airships had one great weakness. They were unwieldy. In that respect, nothing at all like the much smaller but also much faster enemy airplanes.

    Those famous airplanes weren’t really much of a threat as weapons, though, certainly not to land forces. They simply couldn’t carry enough in the way of explosives. Their real utility in time of war was that they provided superb reconnaissance except in bad weather.

    The airships, on the other hand, did have a significant capability to drop bombs. But… they were slow. Faster than infantry, certainly, and even faster than cavalry except when heading directly into a wind. But they could not change direction quickly at all. Even a man on foot below an airship could easily outmaneuver the thing.

    Hence, the design of what von Haslang and the other officers and artificers who’d developed it called “the hedgehog.” It was somewhat akin to a stationary and very big volley gun or organ gun. They had two inch guns on rails slanted about thirty degrees into the air and a few degrees apart from each other. The guns fired explosive shells with timed fuses. Once an airship came within range one of them would begin to fire, and if the vessel veered aside it would come into the line of sight of the adjoining guns.

    Once fired, the recoil would send the gun sliding down the rail into the pit, but it would be arrested in time by pulleys and counter-weights and brakes. It could then be reloaded and hoisted back up.

    Not quickly, of course. But the airships weren’t that quick either.

    That was the theory, at any rate. No one had any idea yet if the hedgehogs would work. They’d built two of them, so far.

    “Steady,” von Haslang said. “Steady… Still too soon…”

    But his plans were overthrown.

    “What are you waiting for?” demanded a voice from behind him.

    Von Haslang’s jaws tightened. He didn’t have to look to recognize the voice of the garrison’s commander, General Timon von Lintelo. Who was, in von Haslang’s now-well-considered opinion, an incompetent over-bearing ass — but also, sadly, highly regarded by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria.

    “Answer me, von Haslang! Why haven’t you fired yet?”

    Now turning, von Haslang saw that the general wasn’t even going to wait for a reply. Von Lintelo was already gesturing fiercely at the crew of the gun which was — or would have been in a couple of minutes, rather — in line of sight of the airship.

    “Shoot at them!” he shouted. “Quickly, before they pass us by!”

    The gun crew stripped the canvas covering from the gun. Seeing that, the other gun crews did likewise.

    “Shoot! Shoot! They’ll get away!”

    It was utterly exasperating. The USE airship was still well out of range. It wasn’t even in proper line of sight, although it had gotten close.

    The gun fired. The recoil sent it racing down the rails toward the bottom of the pit. Before it could reach the bottom, however, the restraining apparatus brought it to a stop.

    That much, at least, had gone according to plan.

    The shell’s warhead exploded just about the proper time also.

    Somewhere between two and three hundred meters short of the target.

    The airship began to veer aside. Slowly, slowly.

    Compounding his folly, von Lintelo ordered the next three guns to fire as the airship moved into line with them. None of those shots came within three hundred meters of the enemy when the warheads exploded — the last two, not within four hundred yards.

    The general shook a finger under von Haslang’s nose. “If you’d been more alert, we might have had them!” The statement was ridiculous and on some level even von Lintelo had to know that. But among the general’s many unpleasant traits was his invariant habit of blaming his subordinates for his own errors.

    All they’d accomplished was to give the enemy advance warning of what lay in store for them.



    “Interesting,” said Tom.

    Captain von Eichelberg was less impressed. “It seems quite ungainly.”

    “Oh, yeah — but then, so are we. And unlike the rockets, those shells went where they were fired.”

    He went back to beard-scratching. “It’s more like a mine field than a weapon system. As long as you know where it is, you can stay away from it. But I could see where it might make a decent area defense system.”

    “I only saw one other pit like that,” said von Eichelberg.

    “Me, too. But I wonder how many there’ll be at Munich, by the time we get there?”

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