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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Ten

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



East of Dominica

    Maarten Tromp empathized with the Spanish, even if he felt less than an iota of sympathy for them.

    If they had had a balloon of their own, they could have foreseen each step of the disaster that had unfolded in the seaway before Dominica. And if they had had a radio, the cargo galleons might have fashioned an organized response to Resolve‘s dash into their midst at flank speed: a wolf plunging into a flock of sheep. For instance, they might have attempted to box in the USE warship from all points of the compass. However, even had they been able to coordinate, they were also massively under gunned and the wind and current was now against the majority of them. So such an undertaking would have been risky and quite perilous. At best.

    Instead, Resolve had struck terror into her foes, both near and far. Her carronades — split into forward and after batteries of three guns and two four-gun waist batteries, one afore the beam, one abaft — had engaged any target within four hundred yards or less. The percentage of hits was only moderate, but the impact upon Spanish morale was severe. The wallowing galleons veered away from the steam cruiser without any thought to wind or current. Their understandable instinct was to diminish their target profile in the face of gunnery that struck its targets with one out of four balls it fired, and in which every hit penetrated the stoutest hull and wreaked unprecedented havoc.

    Those few captains who did attempt to close with Resolve, either from an excess of martial spirit or dearth of tactical intelligence, found their boldness rewarded with catastrophe. Even two who had been able to find enough wind and current to make three knots toward the cruiser discovered that, in the three minutes it took to close from four hundred yards to one hundred, Resolve‘s rate of fire and murderous close-range accuracy reduced them to drifting hulks before they could turn and deliver a broadside. Even if two such galleons had chanced to close simultaneously from opposite sides of Resolve‘s compass rose, she would simply have added a bit of steam or set her sails to catch a little more wind until the range had opened once again. In the event that both ships had not been thoroughly brutalized, the survivor would then have had to choose between trying cases with her once again or to sheer off from another exercise in naval futility.

    After having roughed up, or outright mauled, half a dozen merchantmen in this fashion, the Dutch spyglasses saw what the reports from Tower were confirming: that the Spanish were now pressing north. Not in response to any orders — they were maneuvering so frantically that signals were all but useless — but simply because it was the only direction which offered any chance of survival. That the thirteen waiting ships of Tromp’s Anvil had more guns and were better rigged for reaching winds did not seem to deter them.

    At about that time, sails appeared behind the Spanish on the far northeastern and southeastern horizons: the nearest jachts of the net that Eddie had used to detect La Flota had now reached it, like the ends of a seine pulling close to seal behind a great school of trapped fish.

    Kees adjusted the plot, swallowed a cup of water handed to him by one of the runners. Although the breeze kept them cool and the awning over the flying bridge helped, they’d all been in and out of the tropical sun throughout the day, and it was nearing two in the afternoon. “Some of the galleons closest to us are coming about, Admiral.”

    Tromp nodded. “Like a school of fleeing fish, each is hoping it will be one of the lucky ones to slip past.”

    “Widen the head of our Hammer, sir?”

    “Yes. That time has come.”

    Kees sent a runner with a message. Within minutes, Resolve‘s four escorts sheered away from the cruiser, which they had been paralleling closely. No further instructions were needed. This was the next part of plan Alpha: to obstruct, and if necessary cripple, the ships. Under normal circumstances, achieving that would have been far more difficult than it sounded. But with the Spaniards fleeing and unable to out sail the Dutch warships, they could not maneuver to deliver a broadside, nor could they deny their adversaries the opportunity to cross their stern and lay into them with broadsides of shot and chain. The first two that tried to slip past Resolve in this fashion were soon nearly dead in the water, one with flames springing up at various points. Tromp tried to see that as a victory, but he could only see it as one less ship and cargo with which to strengthen his fleet and its home port.

    A very similar situation was playing out in the north. Although the Spanish outnumbered the Dutch ships of Tromp’s Anvil better than two to one, they were coming as scattered, desperate hulls, not a formation. Again, Tromp’s ships simply followed plan Alpha, with occasional tweaks and adjustments made possible by the Tower’s observations. And with Resolve heading into the rear of that diffuse collection of galleons, Anvil would not need to take on all of them alone.

    Tromp decided to come quite close to the rearmost of the fleeing merchantmen — five hundred yards — before ordering a standard round fired for ranging purposes. Ironically, it hit the afterdeck and the Spaniard’s progress became unsteady: damage to the tiller ropes, probably. He steamed past, changing his tactics as he went. Plan alpha called for controlled, high accuracy fire into the galleons, starting by hitting the rearmost until she burned high and fast. Then Resolve would work methodically forward through the other shaken Spaniards.

    But the Spanish were now so panicked that Maarten feared such a spectacle of destruction abaft would only resolve them to more desperate measures. Better to make the path ahead more fearsome, and so, propel them into a state of indecision. Once in that state of mind, the notion of surrender might have enough time to push up through their panic as a reasonable option.

    Tromp called for the range to the galleon closest to Anvil.

    Bjelke was about twenty seconds in getting the measurement. “Twenty-two hundred yards, sir.”

    Tromp glanced at Dirck whose gesture was one of invitation and his permission; the Admiral was cleared to give direct orders to Resolve.

    “Engineer, full speed.”

    “Full speed, aye.”

    “Helm, give me a course toward that lead galleon, but adjust for the current and the swells. I need low chop rather than maximum speed.”

    “Understood, Admiral.”

    “Mounts One and Two, can you both bear on lead ship?” Affirmatives came in. “Commence tracking. Load standard round. You will commence fire at fifteen hundred yards, pending my orders.”

    More affirmatives as the full measure of steam reached the propellers and Resolve surged forward.

    Galleons struggled away from the cruiser’s path like lead-coated pigeons. There was little conversation on the flying bridge; the day had been long and this was not the thrill of the hunt, so much as it was ending a battle that was already decided.

    At fifteen hundred yards, Tromp called for speed to reduce to one half, and, as soon as Resolve had settled into what felt like an almost frictionless glide, he gave the order for both mounts to fire. As expected, both mounts missed, but only by thirty yards or so. Forty second later, the mounts reported ready and the range had dropped to just over twelve hundred. Both mounts fired, both missed again, but the forward mount’s round was so close that as it passed harmlessly through the rigging, the sheets and ratlines swayed in its wake. Another forty seconds: nine hundred yards, two more rounds, and this time, two hits. Pieces and dust flew up from both the stern and foc’sle of the galleon. The other Spanish ships that Resolve has sped past were sheering off from her line of advance. Their northward rush was rapidly becoming a roiling, multidirectional chaos that Tower was updating every minute. Tromp ordered the rifles loaded with explosive round. He had about a dozen left for them: the last in the New World except what remained in Intrepid‘s magazine.

    At seven hundred yards, Mounts One and Two fired.



    In a day that had been difficult for gunnery to begin with, and with marginally substandard accuracy, the gun crews of Resolve‘s naval rifles redeemed themselves in that moment: one round went in amidships, the other into the starboard quarter. The explosions were akin to flame demons bursting out through its sides, multiple secondary explosions cracking and blasting in their wake. Smoke poured out of her. The sea around her was thick with smoking debris.

    Rik looked over at Tromp. “Sir, what orders for the rifles?”

    Tromp took a quick look around; at least half of the galleons were still trying to flee north, but they had all sheered away from Resolve and her victim. Maarten had seen captains in a fleet lose their nerve before — and it looked just like this.

    “Mounts One and Two load explosive shell.”

    Dirck Simonszoon raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

    The cries of the forward gun crew announced the start of the reloading process which had taken on the sound of a familiar ritual, one that might be practiced in the temple of a dispassionate god of war. Tromp looked up —

    — just in time to see the stricken galleon vanish in a furious flash, followed closely by a deafening — literally deafening — roar. From almost a third of a mile, a sudden puff of wind marked the power of the explosion as smoke jetted out in every direction. The top half of the foremast flew upward even faster, a malformed and broken javelin.

    Dirck made a teeth-sucking sound. “Well, that’s two rounds saved.”

    Tromp muttered to Rik. “Mounts One and Two, secure from battery. Prepare to reload with standard. Await instructions.”

    Then he sighed and tried not to think of all the human souls he had just sent to their Maker in parts too small for even God Himself to recognize.



    The standard rounds that were readied for loading never went into the breeches of their respective rifles. The Spanish had had enough. However, it took a while for all of them to actually realize that they were out of options.

    One or two still tried running north. The smaller and faster of the Dutch ships gave chase, crossing the Spaniards’ sterns at will, peppering them shot and chain until the much bigger galleons struck their colors. So heavily laden that they were low in the water and sluggish, they could barely run at all, and fighting the speedy and maneuverable jachts while doing so was out of the question. And then there was the concern that doing so might attract the attention and displeasure of the satanic steam cruiser that could run down and destroy any ship at will. Indeed, it moved and inflicted so much damage so quickly, that the primal logic of what Tromp had mentally labelled the “fleeing sheep reflex” — scattering with the knowledge that a single predator could not bring down more than one or two prey — no longer obtained. Resolve had demonstrated why that desperate logic no longer applied: she was a wolf so swift and so deadly that she could lay waste to the whole flock — or certainly, any sheep that called attention to themselves by daring to kick at the lesser wolves in the pack.

    Similar outcomes prevailed in the seaway that had been the site of most of the day’s action. But here, a few galleons — possibly taking confidence from being in an areas still thick with their own numbers — actually fired defiant shots at the larger Dutch vessels. Which, although not as swiftly as jachts, were easily able to gain the wind gauge and cross either the bows or sterns of their adversaries with horrific effect. And when one such pass failed to compel a Spanish captain to strike his colors, a quick set of signals by flag, Aldis, or both brought Resolve around, heading for the recalcitrant galleon. Which hastily relented and suffered to be taken. So Resolve spent the better part of the following hour moving toward one troublesome Spaniard after another, her dire intent working in place of her guns.

    Even when all the jachts of Tromp’s detection net arrived, the number of hulls in his fleet still did not equal the number of galleons that were undamaged or only moderately. The enemy ships were all ordered to fix each gun’s tompion in its muzzle, lower their anchors, reef their sails, and have their full crews gather on deck. Compliance with the latter was no doubt woefully incomplete, but with so many men staring into shot-loaded guns less than fifty yards away, they well understood the gruesome execution that would follow the slightest sign of defiance. On those galleons where Dutch captains detected suspiciously restive or lethargic reactions to their orders, they loudly added that they were already sorely tempted to show the same kind of “mercy” that the Spanish had shown the Dutch at Dunkirk, two and a half years ago. That did not fail to produce swift if bitter compliance.

    However, when the Spanish sullenly asked if the formal surrender was to be effected aboard the galleon or the Dutch hull that was its warder, they were told to hold fast. Philip the IV’s captains were baffled: did the Dutch not mean to take the ship, to board it? In our good time, was the only answer they got. In the meantime, the each prize hull was visited by one of the Dutch steam tugs, which remained long enough to affix a crude spar torpedo directly to the stern, close on to the rudder. Once the tug began moved on, a skiff from the Dutch warder put down and its well-armored team fastened its painter to the rudder itself. If the crews of those captive galleons had begun to entertain thought of treachery, of turning on their captors either now or when they attempted to board, it was now entirely defused. Clearly, first response of the Dutch would be to sweep their decks, followed shortly by lighting the fuse of the explosive and so, destroy their rudder and probably breach the hull.

    As if to establish these outcomes as a rule, there were several exceptions where a junior officer or a deckhand was resolved to die for the glory (or more dubiously, the honor) of Spain. Their actions varied: a ragged broadside that surprised the Dutch because of its utter hopelessness; a cannon discharged moments after a captain had struck his colors; an attempt to surprise the enemy with a flurry of fire from hidden muskets. Tromp had known from the outset that there was no such thing as a perfect outcome. If battles were replete with dead and mangled bodies, they evinced an unthinkable superabundance of mishaps, mistakes, misunderstandings, and what Eddie called Murphy’s Law. In sum, and in short, anything that could go wrong would, at some point and time in any given engagement.

    The resulting consequences to the Dutch were minimal; some damage was done, some lives were lost. The consequences to the Spanish were severe but, contra intuitively, were worst in the case where the Spanish captain who struck his colors at the mere approach of an enemy warship was killed by his own men. They turned their guns toward the approaching Omlandia, perhaps emboldened by its modest gun-decks. However, their attack was made in haste, no doubt to commit any uncertain crewmembers to an unalterable course of action. In consequence, only one of her twelve portside guns hit home at one hundred yards range. Omlandia was still under enough sail to come sharply about and cross the Spaniard’s stern, raking it with shot. Whether from lack of control, heat of battle, or both, the galleon’s crew did not rethink their course of action, but turned toward Omlandia as she passed, thereby giving her starboard batteries a shot as well. The results were inconclusive and within a few minutes, the speedy Wappen van Rotterdam arrived and brought her thirty-eight guns into play. The result: Omlandia would require some minor repairs and would have to consign several of her crew to the deeps, whereas the Spaniard was sprouting fires both on and below the weather deck while lacking the crew or organization to control them promptly.

    And so, Tromp thought as he felt the onset of regret and anticlimax that followed every battle he had ever won, La Flota of 1636 is no more.

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