1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 13

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.”