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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Seven

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

 


 

East of Dominica

    “Do we need to hit her again, Captain?” Rik Bjelke asked, looking at the smoke rising up from the side of third war galleon.

    Simonszoon squinted at the devastation wrought by the two hits that had been scored by the three guns in port battery one as they had crossed her bows. “Nee, she’s fighting a fire even as she’s taking water. And that mainmast won’t bear the pull of canvas in a strong wind anymore. It will be hours before she’s underway, and she’d be lucky to make two knots. We’ll be back before she gets as far as Dominica.”

     Tromp nodded. “Time to lead the rest of their van on a short chase. Engine to three-quarters, please, Captain. Time to catch up with the rest of ‘Hammer.'”

    “At three quarters, we’ll be past them in eight minutes.”

    Tromp put his nose into the wind. “Ten. The wind has shifted a point. They’ll have it full over their beam as they head southeast. But we’ll be turning again before then.” He pointed to the eight remaining war-galleons, which were less heavily built than the first three: fitted for war, but not built specifically for it. Like most galleons.

    Kees followed Tromp’s finger and smiled. “Already steering more southward to come after us. They’re confident, I will give them that.”

    “And brave,” Maarten added without any enthusiasm or rancor. “They’re falling under three knots as the wind starts coming more over their beam than their stern, and they are falling out of the current in the barga — “

    A bright flash, followed by a biblical-scale thunderclap, silenced Tromp mid-word. Simonszoon was the only one who did not start, did not even bother to look around. “And there’s the example you wanted to make, Maarten.”

    Tromp turned, scanning for the large war-galleon they had last seen drifting, its crew fighting fires breaking out at numerous points abaft her waist. In that location there was now a still-expanding ash-grey cloud, planks and spars beginning into a down-arc as the debris that had once been the immense galleon started falling, some it stippling the water four hundred yards from the site of its self-annihilation.

    “Fire reached the magazine,” Kees whispered. “Did she put down any boats, beforehand?”

    Sehested’s voice was sober. “I did not see any. And I was watching.”

    Tromp shrugged. It was a terrible loss of life and a terrible waste of a ship that would have proven very useful. But he had seen the same happen to his own ships at the hands of his current opponents.

    In the pilothouse below, there was staccato rush of chattering from the higher-pitched telegraph clapper dedicated to relaying the balloon reports being radioed by Provintie van Utrecht. The precise coordinates, speeds, and bearings for the remaining war-galleons matched what Tromp’s long-practiced eye had already discerned. Rather than wheeling as a whole formation, they were all turning individually. In short, their uneven line was rapidly becoming a still more uneven column.

    “How long do we lead the bull by the nose?” Dirck asked.

    Tromp checked the changes being made to the tactical plot, the anemometer, the compass, the speed at which they were cutting through the water. “Fifteen minutes. They’ll be heading due south by then. The wind and current will be fully on their beam, rather than astern.”

    “And then?” Sehested asked quietly.

    “And then,” Tromp answered, assessing the line of luffing enemy sails that started one thousand yards away and stretched to almost two-thousand-five-hundred, “we shall turn north to intercept and teach them the consequences of their current actions.”

 


 

    This time, Sehested watched the tactics unfold quietly. Possibly because he had begun to understand the profound differences between Resolve and her opponents, or possibly because these maneuvers seemed even more bold.

    By the time Resolve heeled hard to port to head north toward her foes, their speed had dropped under two knots. Spanish galleons were ill-designed and ill-rigged to make use of a reaching wind coming straight over their beam. Worse still, Tromp’s course made it clear that he meant to approach them along their eastern side: the same side as the wind was coming from. So to block him meant turning even more into the wind, and ultimately, would put their prows staring straight into the eye of it.

    They responded as would any competent captain: to luff up and trim the mainsails to reduce drag and catch the breeze with any canvas that could use a reaching wind to advantage. Their intent was obvious: to maneuver so as to make a close pass on Resolve‘s western side, staying on a southerly heading and thereby avoid putting their bows into the wind.

    A reasonable plan, Tromp allowed, if they’d had the speed to carry it out. But with Resolve moving almost six times as fast as the galleons, that was simply not possible. It might have been, had they been in a well-distributed pack, closing in from all sides as the steam cruiser approached them. But having turned so as to form a column, it was Resolve versus each galleon individually. Time and conditions had made their maneuver inevitable, and they had no doubt seen a benefit to it: as Resolve passed along each one, that side’s batteries would have the opportunity to fire a broadside at the infernal warship.

    The first of the galleons discovered the outcome of that stratagem only ten minutes after Tromp turned to the north to engage. With his screws turning slowly, just enough to give him added ability to outmaneuver and frustrate his opponents, he unveiled his plans only five hundred yards away from the target: he bore suddenly away from it, turning two points to starboard.

    Resolve’s speed dropped a bit and the canvas luffed fitfully. But in order to keep alive any hope of eventually unleashing a broadside at the steamship, the galleon now had to turn toward her. If the Spaniard did not do so, the Resolve would race past by moving outside the range of the broadside which had seemed imminent given the convergence of their courses. But of course, as the galleon made that turn, she put herself in a close reach and her speed dropped further.

    At which point, Tromp, now possessing the weather gauge, swung back to port, and closed to cross her bows. At two hundred yards, several of the Spaniard’s forward broadside guns spoke, but the shells landed almost a hundred yards short and even further behind Resolve. The Spaniard’s guns could neither be turned far enough to bear and the range was too great; half a pistol shot — or one hundred yards — was deemed the outer limit of a conventional cannon’s effective range at sea. Firing at two hundred yards was a sign of complete incompetence, wild optimism, or utter desperation — the latter being the case on this occasion.

    Conversely, Resolve‘s speed now had her cutting through the low swells that had made aiming problematical when she had been station-keeping. The vastly reduced chop meant she was now a far more stable platform, and her side batteries, now trained upon targets at less than three hundred yards range, boasted impressive first shot accuracy. 

    Still, Simonszoon waited until Resolve was at hundred fifty yards range and with a sixty degree angle of approach to the galleon before he signaled for Bjelke to call down to port battery one to confirm it had sufficient elevation. When the answer came back in the affirmative, Simonszoon gave the order for its guns to fire when ready. The three carronades — short-barreled guns which had shorter range, but also shorter recoil and heavier projectiles than regular cannons — were still for a few long moments, and then barked in a ragged chorus.

    But instead of three balls arcing toward the war galleon, three full sabots flew forth. Their casing fell apart and chain shot uncoiled into a wind-cutting moan. Although slow enough to track with the eye, the whirling lengths arced high and two of the three cut a path through the stays, shrouds, and sails of the fore- and main-mast both. The enemy’s already poor speed dropped precipitously and the foretopmast appeared to be tilting from the point where one of the chain ends — a sub-caliber ball — had cracked into it.

 



 

    Bjelke turned to Simonszoon. “Captain, battery two is asking: chain again, or ball?”

    Simonszoon glared at the Spaniard, as if willing its foremast to collapse. “Both,” he sighed.

    Tromp smiled at his reluctance to use chain shot, regardless of design, in the carronades. “The cases don’t harm the rifling of the barrels. That’s been proven.”

    Dirck mumbled darkly about the inherent untrustworthiness of mathematicians and engineers, just before all four guns of port battery two discharged in an uneven ripple as the ship crossed the bow of the galleon.

    One of the chain rounds went wide, but the other tore straight through the foretopsail and went on to splinter the mainyard behind it. The first ball sent up a white frothy divot just three yards to the port bow, but the other landed square on the foc’sle’s weatherdeck with a burst of dust, planks, and splinters.

    Bjelke looked to Simonszoon, who glanced over at Tromp. “Mount One says target is acquired. They are loaded with explosive round.”

    Tromp regretted every one he used, but they had been intended for the war galleons, so⦠“At the captain’s discretion.”

    Simonszoon’s grin was feral. “Mount One: fire!”

    The weapon roared, and, as if in reply, the quarterdeck of the galleon blasted outward almost instantly, with two smaller explosions following immediately afterward.

    “We hit a 32 pounder dead-on, or I’m a goose,” Kees muttered.

    Tromp nodded at Kee’s comment, then toward to Simonszoon, who while watching the admiral, was already giving helm directions for turning two points to starboard, thereby keeping Resolve out of the arc of the stricken galleon’s batteries. “On to the next?”

    Tromp nodded. “As soon as we get an update from Tower. Let’s see what plan they’re trying to come up with so that we can ruin it.”

    Simonszoon smiled and started giving the pilot instructions for approaching toward the next galleon in line.  

 


 

    With the balloon’s constant updates on the enemy’s positions and courses, Resolve‘s only surprises came from her own side. The other ships in Tromp’s Hammer element occasionally had to be brought back in line, like bloodhounds eagerly pulling at the leash to run after and bring down wounded prey: in this case, the galleons that Resolve had already crippled. The worst was Salamander, a particularly swift ship with a new captain who was eager to prove himself. The other three hulls — Amelia, Prins Hendrik, and Crown of Waves — were better behaved, if no less impatient to join the battle. But for now, their job was crucial (if dull) and two-fold: to present a terrifying and swift wedge of ships ready to pounce upon the unprotected cargo galleons of the main body to the north, and as a reaction force in the event that one of the damaged war-galleons managed to get sorted out well enough to pose a risk to Resolve or the progress of the battle.

    But as Tromp worked down the line of eight galleons, and the “cased chainshot” proved itself during its first use in combat, he took more time with each Spaniard, closing a little more as he crossed the bows and using shot instead of ball. Less damage to the ships, yes, but the losses to their crew and troops were profound, not to say ghastly. Also, with each successive engagement, it was becoming more certain that he would not need to use a second explosive shell to incapacitate any of these hulls. In consequence, he became less concerned with trying to save those precious rounds possible. In most cases, between the losses to crew, rigging, and sails, and the fires that usually sprouted in the wake of the explosive shell, it was dubious that many of these ships would be under way before the sun sank behind Dominica.

    Another surprise occurred when the balloon had to return to the Provintie van Utrecht earlier than anticipated; the batteries for the radio in the balloon had either leaked or discharged more rapidly than anticipated. So when Resolve reached the fifth galleon in line, it was necessary to engage without benefit of updates. However, in some respects, it was a welcome break to fight a ship the way men had always fought them up to now; by eye, and experience, and instincts born of long hours at sea. The outcome of the engagement with the fifth Spaniard was, for all intents and purposes, identical, and the sixth was different only insofar as the marksmanship of both Resolve’s side batteries and deck mounts had both improved so markedly that the explosive round might not have been necessary. Indeed, judging from the fires which began raging along its length, Tromp realized that it might eventually prove to have been an unintentional coup de grace.

    As Resolve began sweeping toward the seventh galleon, the main barrelman — the lookout in the mainmast’s crow’s nest — cried that the last two war galleons were putting their bows over to starboard to get the breeze and current behind them once again. But having steered so near to the eye of the wind, they were slow in turning.

    Simonszoon leaned back just as, miles to the west, the balloon surged aloft again, and the higher-pitched clicks and clacks of its dedicated receiver recommenced with a vigor. “Now, it’s just a chase.”

    Bjelke nodded. “We’ll be on that next galleon before she’ll feel any wind upon her stern.”

    “Which we shall cross at fifty yards and rake with shot. Never mind the stern cannons, either. They’re such small bore that they will barely dent the pitch on our strakes.”

    Tromp did not add that if a full battery of carronades loaded with canister swept a galleon from the stern, there was a better than even chance that her rear-aiming guns would not be able to retaliate. “It won’t be much different with the last of the Spaniards. We’ll close the distance to her in five minutes, assuming she’s already making two knots in that time. Like the other, she has to show us her stern in order to run, and that will be the end of the combat. And finally, after we’ve finished with her, we can get to work.”

    Sehested sputtered in amused surprise, held up hands when critical eyes turned his way. “Gentlemen, please understand: I am not laughing. I am simply amazed that all of what has transpired is somehow not work.”

    “Well,” Simonszoon offered in a surprisingly thoughtful tone, “I cannot disagree with that. But, this has all been the work we are hungry for — the work we dream about. What comes next, is, well –“

    “Dull?” Sehested interrupted. “Boring?”

    Tromp saw that his surprise at Sehested’s confident tone was reprised in the faces of the other officers on the flying bridge.

    The Danish diplomat waved a hand. “Gentlemen, I may not be a naval officer, but I like to think that I learn relatively quickly. I have seen, all day, in your eyes, that the risks, the challenge, of this battle are what you live for. It is why you became and remain naval officers. And as much as you worried and argued about the risks, that is all part of what excites you.

    “You remained still to draw their warships closer to you and away from the main body. That audacity went against all naval wisdom, which is why you alternated between complaining about it and being alert and eager. And then, when it worked, you still had to turn the tables upon them. Which you have done, by using this ship and that balloon and even those steam tugs in ways that the Spanish could not hope to understand.”

 



 

    He saw Klees’ quizzical look. “Yes, I understand the point of the steam tugs, Lieutenant. It was not enough that the Spanish war galleons sped ahead of their main body and then could not maneuver back to engage you without turning into the wind and the current.” He smiled. “You had begun the engagement motionless. That way, it wasn’t just the war galleons that kept coming on, but the cargo ships of La Flota as well. In order to get Anvil — the largest part of your fleet — to the north of their main body, the tugs had to move the largest ships at the same rate as the smaller, swifter ones. And because of that, they now are just where you need them: opposite your Hammer and with the Spanish merchantmen between.”

    He smiled back at the slow appreciative smiles arising around him. “Come now, gentlemen, even a child would understand that if the northern squadron is called Anvil, then we can predict the role of this small but incredibly powerful Hammer.” He gestured to Resolve and her escorts. “Now, with the Spanish warships almost all accounted for, you are just south of La Flota’s main body, and ready to strike. Dominica blocks them to the west, and the currents and the wind from the east keep them from making way in that direction. Their only choice is to flee north: toward the Anvil as the Hammer pressed hard after them.” His smile faded slightly. “But, I must ask: can you actually hope to destroy so many ships?”

    “Maybe, thanks to our admiral’s inherent stinginess,” Simonszoon grinned. “By making their warships come to us, we also conserved a great deal of fuel and ammunition. Most of which we’re going to need in this last phase.”

    “I am not stingy; I am thrifty,” Tromp amended while maintaining a straight face. “But to answer your question, Lord Sehested, we do not intend to destroy all those ships. We mean to capture them. Or at least as many as we can.”

    Sehested stared. “How can you hope to achieve that? You haven’t enough boarding parties. And even if you did, there are so many galleons and naos before us that you would be fighting for days.”

    Simonszoon pointed astern, first at the flaming fragments that had once been the mightiest war galleon in La Flota, and then at the one that they had more recently set aflame from stem to stern. “All the wallowing cargo haulers have seen how that happened, and know it could happen to them, too. With just a few rounds. No broadsides required.”

    “And do you have so many of the explosive rounds that you can fire one at every ship which decides to challenge you, despite those fears?”

    “Not for our rifles, no,” Tromp suppressing a grin, “but the Spanish don’t know that. Once we finish crippling these last two war galleons, we shall steam straight into the midst of the main body. They have seen that we are too fast for them to elude, and that also, from beyond the maximum range of their guns, we can inflict crippling damage with but a few shells. Just as we did to their war galleons. Given their slow and uncertain signalling, they will not be able to coordinate movements and so will almost certainly scatter in all directions. Some are already discovering that in order to maneuver — either to escape south through us or north through our Anvil — they are having to gather in their mainsails and make what way they can.

    “At that point, the other ships of our flotilla are simply there to prevent them from escaping; like sheepdogs working with frightened ewes. One by one our warships shall approach the Spanish merchantmen. If any galleon or nao so much as fires a warning shot, we put a shell into it from one of our naval rifles. A few such demonstrations and I predict that most of them will strike colors as soon as one of our other ships comes alongside.”

    Simonszoon shrugged. “Me? I suspect most of them will still need to have the personal experience of at least one non-explosive round before they’ll comply. But since we will be sailing and moving at our leisure, beyond the range of their guns, and putting crushing damage upon them while rarely missing, I am hopeful that a good number of the others will realize the futility of fighting us at all.”

    Sehested nodded, understanding. “That is why you have cargo ships back with the Tower; to offload the Spanish goods.”

    Trompe scratched his ear. “Well, in part…but mostly, those ships with Tower are carrying prize crews. We don’t mean to just take the Spanish goods; we mean to take their ships.”

    Sehested shook his head. “Admiral, to attempt all by depending upon the performance of this one ship goes beyond mere audacity. It is — is breath-taking.”

    “Yes.” Simonszoon’s grin would have looked atypically fierce on a wolf. “Isn’t it, though?”

    “But…but was it really necessary?” Sehested persisted. “After all, Commodore Cantrell’s Intrepid was present, as well. He could certainly have loitered nearby, entered the battle at any time. And two hulls instead of one would certainly have made gathering this unruly flock of Spanish merchantmen much easier.”

    “Yes, it would have,” Tromp agreed. “But that was exactly why we did not do so.”

    “I beg your pardon?”

    Tromp turned to face him directly. “Lord Sehested, this war we are fighting beyond the Tordesillas Line — for let us not delude ourselves; we are at war with Spain, here — is unique in two ways. Firstly, neither one of us knows the full disposition of the other’s forces. Such uncertainty applies to all military campaigns to some degree, but it is several orders of magnitude greater, here. Secondly, one of the combatants — us — possesses a variety of capabilities that are not merely unavailable to, but are incompletely comprehended by, our opponent. Now consider how both of these factors influence our decision to carry out this entire operation with — apparently — only Resolve.

    “Firstly, the Spanish — and now the Bermudans — will know and report that only one of our cruisers was here. Consider what they will be told by witnesses: that all the losses inflicted upon them were orchestrated and enabled by a single steam warship. There can be no greater display of how powerful they are individually.

    “But secondly, knowing that we have two such ships, it also tells them that our threat to them is actually twice that of what we demonstrated today. Or, to put it in terms of a defender’s worst nightmare, it means that we can exercise this power at two different locations in the Caribbean at the same time. This will at least double the apprehension of the Spanish, as well as the amount of assets they will deem necessary for defense.” Tromp shrugged. “Besides, two ships would have been overkill.”

    “Would have been what?” Sehested asked.

    Tromp managed to suppress a pleased smile. Some up-time terms seemed intrinsically rich with echoes of lethality and dark panache. “Over-kill,” Tromp repeated. “More force than is needed to complete a task.” He glanced north. “Besides, Intrepid was needed elsewhere.”

    Sehested nodded. “Guadeloupe?”

    Of course he would have heard. Tromp nodded back. “It is essential that we secure certain arrangements and come to certain agreements with the Kalinago of that island.”

    “Well,” drawled Simonszoon, as the gun crews started readying for action against the seventh galleon, “Intrepid is quite a show of force. Quite enough to shock the natives into meek complacency, I suspect.”

    “I hope so,” Tromp answered. His eyes were not on the enemy ship; they were still fixed on the northern horizon. “I truly hope so.”


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