1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 12

Chapter 7

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.