1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 18

Chapter 10

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.