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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



East of Dominica

    “Captain Simonszoon,” Rik Bjelke said sharply, “lead war galleon now approaching one thousand yards.”

    “Forward mount reconfirm: target acquired and tracking?”

    A pause as the signal went down the wires to the turrets and the reply sped back. “Aye, and aye, sir.”

    Simonszoon glanced at Tromp.

    Maarten relented and this time raised the binoculars to his eyes. “At your leisure, Capt –“

    “Watch the rise and fire!” Simonszoon shouted, so loud that the forward mount heard him.

    The master gunner, seated in what looked like an armor-plated pulpit mounted on the side of the eight-incher’s gunshield, hunched over the inclinometer that tracked the pitch and the yaw of the hull, a position that also gave him a good view of the water. A tense moment elapsed —

    The naval rifle sounded like a lightning-throated lion: a report that was both a roar and a sharp crack. Tromp felt as much as heard the weapon slam back in its recoil carriage. A blink later, a tall jet of water appeared twenty yards abeam the lead galleon’s waist.

    At a nod from Dirck, Bjelke sent the planned order to Mount One. “Load, adjust, fire when ready.” As the weapon drifted back from its recoil and the crew began unspinning the breech, the intraship signalman howled up through the tube from the pilot house: “Mount Two confirms target acquired, but could lose it behind the funnel.”

    “Duivels kont!” Simonszoon snapped, turned to his runner: “Send word: trim the main, and let ‘er drift a point to starboard.” Back down the tube: “Mount Two, reacquire.”

    Bjelke, in addition to everything else, was watching a timepiece. Sehested made to ask him what he was doing, but Kees leaned over. “He’s timing the rounds.”

    The Dane frowned. “You mean, how fast they are reloading?” He gestured beyond the mainmast. Half-concealed by the low ring-shaped wall, or “tub”, that screened them from small arms and splinters, the crew of Mount One was swabbing the open breech as four men approached with the next round. Almost thirty-two inches long and weighing over one-hundred and fifty pounds, the perversely delicate job of manhandling such shells into the weapon was not a job for scrawny men.

    But Kees was shaking his head. “Nee, he is timing how fast they are firing.”

    Sehested’s glance seemed to take in the oncoming ships, the water, the slight bob of the bowsprit all at once. “But given the conditions, how can one accurately predict that intervals?”

    “How, indeed?” Simonszoon muttered. “We planned on firing twenty rounds per gun. Now, we’ll be lucky to get off ten before they come alongsi — “

    Bjelke’s shout ended his sentence. “Mount Two reports target acquired and — “

    Simonszoon chopped his hand downward.

    “Fire!” Bjelke howled to the rear as he made a matching hand-signal to the comms rating in the pilot house.

    As the breech of Mount One was being spun tight, Mount Two flung thunder downrange, the trailing jet of smoke slowing as it stretched toward the northernmost of the three galleons. Water gouted fifteen yards off the Spaniards port bow.

    “Is this…typical?” Sehested asked in a low voice.

    Tromp was about to reply — uncharitably — when Mount One fired again. Only when the round went through the rigging and put a hole in the mainsail did he realize that he had been holding his breath. “Typical for this weather, yes,” he murmured.

    “Time?” Simonszoon asked, not taking his eyes away from his telescope.

    “Forty-three seconds,” Bjelke answered. “Nine of which were for aiming,” he added as Simonszoon prepared to ask another question.

    Simonszoon smiled at the young Norwegian’s anticipation of his request. No wonder Eddie was so disappointed to lose him as his executive officer, Tromp thought, and not for the first time.

    “Closing on eight hundred yards,” Kees said calmly — right before both guns tore at their ears in back-to-back discharges that sent a tremor under their feet.

    Mount One had evidently been a bit eager; its round was not quite so high, but did little more than punch a gap into the galleon’s starboard gunwale.

    But Mount Two’s shot raised a spurt of dust, planks and rigging from its target. When the cloud of debris cleared, the Spaniard’s waist had a chunk torn out of its weatherdeck and nearby bulwark, the mainsail’s starboard shrouds swinging free and ratlines shredded.

    Some cheers started in the two mounts, but each gun crew’s chief barked ferociously to still it: merely getting on target was not a cause for celebration.

    As reloading commenced, Tromp glanced toward Rik, wondering if the young Norwegian had any revised gunnery estimates, yet . . .

    Simonszoon’s XO was not just highly intelligent and swift with numbers, but apparently read minds, as well. “We are sustaining the projected rate of fire. Barely. The aiming interval will probably diminish as the range closes and target profile grows.” He glanced at Tromp and Simonszoon. “It is my duty to point out that, if we were to shift to explosive shell, we would inflict heavier damage and hasten our defeat of these first three ships.”

    Tromp felt as much as saw Simonszoon’s quick sideways glance; Resolve was his ship, but the outcome of this first engagement would ultimately determine when and where the whole fleet began to move, and so, determine the course of the battle. Tromp shook his head. “One more round of solid shot. Have them load explosive after. Kees, distance to the rest of the Spanish van?”

    “The closest of the eight following war galleons is five hundred yards behind these three, which look to be the largest of their kind. The rearmost is at seven hundred yards.”

    Tromp nodded. “We continue with plan alpha: cripple these three if possible, and be sure to make one an example to the rest.”

    Simonszoon curled an eyebrow. “Maarten, at four knots, that second pack of Spanish wolfhounds will be on us in eleven minutes. Maybe ten, since they’ve started crowding sail, now.”

    Tromp nodded. “By which time we will be moving faster than they could reasonably expect. And if they decide to veer after us, as they must if they wish to keep us from getting among their cargo-carrying sheep, they’ll be turning out of the wind and the current.”

    “Very well, so they’ll be at three knots then. Still, that’s only thirteen minutes.

    Tromp inspected the northernmost galleon; although the damage had looked superficial, she was listing. The eight inch shells penetrated deep into ships; sometimes, they came out the other side. “Captain, let us assume the gods of the sea are blowing in our enemies’ sails to get them here in twelve minutes. Even then, we can still travel more than three times as far as they, a bit more with sail.” He allowed a small smile to emerge. “Assuming your engineers have not broken our engines.”

    Simonszoon rolled his eyes but also returned the smile. “I’ll check.”

    The next two discharges from Resolve‘s naval rifles came about four seconds apart; the forward mount had taken a few seconds longer to aim, this time.

    Dust and debris vomited up from both galleons. The one that had already been hit showed a slight list. Tromp pointed at her. “Captain Simonszoon, I believe the next round is likely to put that Spaniard out of the fight. If it does, the aft mount is to acquire the third target.”

    Simonszoon was already shouting those orders as Tromp lifted his glasses again. The second hit on the northernmost galleon had struck her low in the bows, near the stem of the prow, but her list was to the other, starboard side. Probably went through down near the waterline, he surmised. It was a wound she could probably control, given calm and time. But she would have neither.

    He shifted his view to the other, central ship. It was not clear where Mount One’s shell had struck her, but there was frenzied activity amidships, and a small, persistent tell-tale of smoke. No decrease in speed, no sign of major structural damage. She might take more than one explosive shell to finish, off: she was the leviathan of the fleet, with over fifty guns. Resolve was still almost twice as long as she was, and sturdier, but the Spaniard was heavy-timbered and built to absorb punishment. Against Tromp’s own largest ships, and with the weather gauge, she would have been an extremely dangerous opponent.

    Tromp stole a moment to check after the northern squadron of his “largest ships,” sweeping the binoculars around to port. The bulk of his fleet swam into view: the northern part his plan designated as the “Anvil.”

    With its lighter hulls in the lead, those thirteen warships were moving northeast as briskly as a close reach would allow. They were significantly better at sailing close to the wind than their Spanish adversaries, but under these conditions, their movement could not be described as swift. However, it was also clearly unanticipated. The Spanish would logically have expected them to engage or flee, but their current course suggested neither. If the eleven war galleons that had formed up as La Flota’s van were perturbed by this development, they gave no sign of it. Indeed, it was quite probable that many of them were still not aware: unlike Tromp’s ships, which had all been retrofitted with the clever up-time innovation known as Aldis lamps, the Spanish ability to send signals to each other was slow and uncertain.



    The three Dutch man-of-wars with forty or more guns — Prins Willem, Amsterdam, and Gelderland — were actually keeping pace with the smaller, faster hulls, thanks to the three small steam tugs, powered by down-time-manufactured steam plants from Germany. Not particularly powerful, they still provided an extra knot or so of speed no matter the wind or seas, which was enabling Tromp’s Anvil to maneuver steadily north of La Flota’s main body.

    Tromp lowered the glasses as cries from both gun mounts announced that the loaders were finished and clear.

    Sehested sounded like a man forcing himself to maintain an admirably calm demeanor while only seven hundred yards from three of the most dreaded ships upon the waves of any sea. “Lieutenant Bjelke, is there still time to — succeed?”

    “Lord Sehested, I –“

    “This is the last explanation you shall provide to Lord Sehested,” Tromp interrupted. “I mean no disrespect to our visitor, but until we resolve matters with the enemy’s van, I will not tolerate further digressions from the task at hand.”

    Bjelke nodded, might have looked relieved. “Lord Sehested, our revised estimates are that, at the worst, we should strike our enemies with seven of the twenty rounds we fire. Nine is a more likely number, given the decreasing range.”

    “And is that enough to disable … no, er…what is that up-time term…?”

    “To achieve three ‘mission kills’?”

    Sehested nodded uncertainly. “Yes: that.”

    “It is possible. We can increase the odds if — “

    “Don’t get lost in your math, schoolboy,” Simonszoon muttered as he watched the gunners hunch over their sights. “If we’ve hit them twice by the time they come within two hundred and fifty yards the carronades of the first portside battery will be able to bear. That’s about two more minutes, and three more rounds each time they fire.”

    Tromp tried to keep his tone level. “And three more rounds we will not have for later in this engagement.”

    Kees nodded. “If necessary, you could order Salamander and Amelia to — “

    “No, it is imperative that they remain unengaged, lest we become embroiled here. We must retain freedom of movement. Our entire battle plan depends upon it.”

    Dirck smiled darkly. “Which is to say, our entire battle plan depends upon this hull.”

    Tromp shrugged. “As if that was ever in question,” he said — just before the two naval rifles fired, nearly in unison.

    The effect upon the already-listing galleon was so obvious that Tromp did not need his binoculars. The shell struck the ship just aft of its waist and the resulting explosion vomited out strakes, bulkheads, guns, and men.

    The larger one was also hit, but in something of a freak of gunnery, the shell impacted the foremast dead center, just beneath the foreyard. Whereas most crippled masts tip and fall, this one, being bisected by the explosion, half jumped out of its stays and crashed forward in a rush. The men on the foc’sle who had not been riven by splinters or other fragments from the blast disappeared under the ruin of wood and rigging, the twisting canvas pulled after like a phantom being sucked down to hell.

    Sehested cut off his satisfied grunt when he realized he was the only one enthused by the result.

    Simonszoon growled in Bjelke’s direction. “Tell Mount One to lower its aim or I will lower the rank of every man on that crew.” He glanced at Tromp. “Admiral — “

    “I know, Dirck. They will still be able to fight that hull.”

    “Can’t catch us, though,” Kees offered.

    “No, but . . . ” Tromp turned to look aft, measuring the distance between Resolve and the ships of the balloon detachment he’d labeled “Tower.” Three and a half nautical miles astern, and the only actual warship was the one being used as the balloon’s platform: Provintie van Utrecht. Besides a jacht and a steam pinnace that was lashed to her to provide extra speed and maneuverability, the only other ships were two fluyts and the USE cargo ship Serendipity. He frowned.

    Simonszoon’s voice echoed his thoughts from over his shoulder. “Ja, when that Spanish leviathan realizes she can’t catch us, she’ll go after those pigeons. Won’t catch ’em, but that’s because they’ll have to run or be torn to matchsticks. And when they do, there goes our ‘Tower.'”

    Tromp nodded. “Mr. Bjelke,” he said loudly.


    “Instruct Mount One to use explosive shells until its target is destroyed.”

    “Destroyed, sir? Or do you mean disab — ?”

    “I said, and mean, destroyed.” He turned back forward as Simonszoon was instructing Mount Two to shift to the third war galleon, now barely six hundred yards away and still untouched. It turned out they were already tracking it.

    Kees mumbled. “So the biggest ship is going to be made the example for the rest of La Flota. Expensive, but probably worth the rounds.”

    Tromp shook his head bitterly. “Nee, it’s a waste. But we’ve no choice, after that shot. We have to stop her, and she’s taken no significant hull damage that we know of. We have to assume she could absorb at least two explosive shells before she begins to burn badly enough that they cannot save her.”

    The rifles fired again. Predictably, Mount Two missed her new target, but only by ten yards in front of her bowsprit. However, Mount One’s fourth round finally found its proper mark: the starboard waist, down on the lowest gundeck. The explosion seemed to go off from within the ship; possibly the shell had gone through a gun-port. Although it did not leave a vast hole in the leviathan’s hull, the blast propelled two guns half-way through their ports, flames licking the rims, and black smoke leaking out.

    Tromp leaned toward Kees. “Alert the other ships of ‘Hammer’; raise anchors all haste. Course and instructions as per plan Alpha on our signal. Mr. Bjelke, inform engineering and deck crew: prepare to get under way.”

    The two young officers sent the orders, which raised urgent shouts and replies from the bowels, and along the length, of Resolve.

    The after mount fired again. The solid shell hit the third galleon, sent timbers spinning out from its hull and leaving a ragged scar just behind her foc’sle. But Tromp’s focus returned immediately to the largest of the three. He raised his binoculars —

     — just in time to hear and feel the faint backdraft from Mount One’s fifth shot.

     Maarten knew, an instant before the shell exploded, where it was ultimately going to hit; for no apparent reason, half of the big galleon’s mainsail’s starboard ratlines flew asunder in a confused spasm of rope and rigging, like a nest of furious, beheaded snakes. The shell had torn through the shrouds just before it plunged into the lower margin of where the quarterdeck rose up from the maindeck.

    An explosion shook the stern of the ship, followed quickly by an even more ferocious and fiery detonation which blew open almost every hatch, door, and gunport lid abaft the beam. Black smoke began pouring out of half them. Flames were visible in several. She veered away from her course, but not dramatically.

    “Steering ropes are gone,” Simonszoon speculated as a tongue of flame licked up along the mizzenmast, just high enough to be seen above the gunwale. “She’s done.”

    Tromp spoke from instinct as much as experience. “She’s more than done. Ahead one half, and give her a wide berth.”

    “At last,” the captain grumbled. “Port battery one! Prepare to acquire target: third galleon!”

    Resolve began creeping forward . . . but suddenly, was not creeping at all. Her speed built so rapidly that it still surprised Tromp. “Kees,” he muttered, “have your lads update the tactical plot. From here on, our primary focus is on moving, not shooting.”

    “Aye, sir.”

    As Simonszoon kept a firm leash on the over-eager gun crews of port battery one, Bjelke was already calling new targets for Mounts One and Two: the closest of the next eight war galleons. Telegraph chatter from the “Tower” drove Kees’ instructions for drawing updates on the tactical plot’s clear, gridded overlay. And the Chief Engineer’s voice was a dim, hoarse shout emerging from the dedicated speaking tube; the boilers were at temperature. He could give full steam.

    Tromp let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Finally, they were no longer measuring seconds and yards and rounds, no longer acting like book-keepers rather than naval officers. Finally, they were doing what every fleet and every admiral since the beginning of time had been built and bred to do:

    To close with the enemy and defeat him.

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