1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 19

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.