1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 85:
The river was unpleasantly cold in the bright morning light.
Well, of course it was. It was only late March, and the Elbe River was never exactly what one might have called toasty warm, Admiral John Simpson reflected as he stood with hopefully impressive calm in the conning tower of SSIM Constitution. He’d been a bit surprised that the river hadn’t frozen, although intellectually he’d understood that the past winter hadn’t really been as cold as it had sometimes felt, Little Ice Age or not.
It was still cold enough to offer the very real threat of hypothermia to anyone who found himself immersed in it, though. A thought which John Chandler Simpson found rather reassuring as he contemplated the intelligence reports about possible threats his command might face. Not that there weren’t entirely enough purely physical problems, without any need for enemy action behind them, to make his current task sufficiently daunting.
Captain Franz Halberstat maneuvered Constitution cautiously away from her dockside mooring. “Give me ten degrees of starboard rudder, reverse thrust on the starboard jet, and increase to ten percent power on the port jet,” he said.
“Ten degree starboard rudder, ten percent power on the port jet, aye, aye, Sir!” his helmsman repeated crisply, and the engineroom telegraph jangled as the quartermaster transmitted the orders.
The ironclad’s twin rudders moved, and a curved section of pipe lowered itself over the nozzle of the starboard pump as a pair of engineers spun the geared wheel which controlled it. The pipe clamped tight, capturing the output from the pump and directing it forward, underneath the ship’s hull, while the port jet continued to push forward. The combination turned the vessel sharply, and Constitution’s five hundred-ton bulk seemed to quiver slightly underfoot.
That was probably his imagination, Admiral Simpson told himself. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t.
The ironclad moved slowly but smoothly towards midstream and away from her mooring, and Halberstat’s quiet orders returned the starboard jet to normal operation. Simpson nodded in satisfaction, and then stepped out onto the bridge wing, looking astern as the other six ships began to move as well.
He wasn’t the only person watching them. The navy yard’s entire workforce was out in strength, standing on the river banks, bobbing about in every rowboat they could lay hands on, shouting and cheering and stamping their feet. The sound of their voices would probably have been deafening, if the raucous sound of the ironclads’ sirens (actually, horns purloined from diesel trucks which weren’t going to require them any longer), the timberclads’ whistles, and the ringing of Magdeburg’s bells hadn’t drowned out any purely human sounds.
So much for operational security, Simpson thought dryly.
Of course, there’d never been much chance of maintaining any sort of security, even if Mike Stearns—or John Chandler Simpson—had wanted to in the first place. Everyone in Magdeburg, which undoubtedly included literally hordes of spies for everyone from Richelieu to Christian of Denmark to Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to the Wizard of Oz, had known the Navy would be moving out as soon as possible for its spring showdown in the Baltic. There’d been no possible way to conceal that. Nor was Simpson particularly averse to letting the other side know what was coming.
There’s damn-all they’re going to be able to do about it, anyway, he thought with a certain grim satisfaction. It wasn’t a thought which someone with his own profound respect for the Demon Murphy was prepared to express out loud, but Simpson was well aware of the potency of the weapon he had forged.
Standing there and simply watching the ships of his squadron was one of the more difficult things Simpson had ever done. Every nerve ending in his body cried out to take the con himself, at least for his flagship. Certainly, even ten or twelve months ago, the mere thought of allowing seventeenth-century officers to command vessels like this would have been a guaranteed source of permanent insomnia. After the exhausting weeks and months he’d spent working with and training the officers in question, that problem at least no longer applied.
Well, he thought, let’s be honest with ourselves here, John. It doesn’t apply very much, anymore.
He snorted with humor carefully concealed behind his impassive “the Admiral is on duty” expression as he admitted the real reason his entire epidermis itched with the need to give the helm and power orders himself. These ships were very much his babies. Building them, and the Navy to employ them, had been probably the most satisfying task he’d ever undertaken in a life filled with substantial accomplishments. He wasn’t prepared to admit that to anyone except, possibly, his wife Mary, but he knew it was true, and he simply hated the thought of delegating responsibility for what happened to his ships in any way to someone else.
At least the skippers he’d appointed to command the ironclads had all been given the opportunity to practice with the slower, clumsier, smaller river steamers already in commission. In fact, Simpson had used those practice and training sessions to wash out several prospective watch-standing officers. The transition from sail or oar power to paddlewheel steamers had required greater mental flexibility than most up-timers would have expected, for a lot of reasons, and some people—whether up-timer or seventeenth-century—simply lacked that flexibility.
One problem which had caused quite a bit of confusion for the Down-timers, at least initially, was the fact that Simpson had insisted upon providing all of his new vessels with wheels, rather than the simple tillers virtually all seventeenth-century ships utilized. There were several reasons for that particular decision, and the opinion which he knew some people had expressed—that it was simply the system with which he was familiar—wasn’t actually one of them. The use of a geared quadrant system to shift the rudder not only permitted him to build in a much greater mechanical advantage for the helmsman, but also offered a substantially greater amount of maneuverability.
All contemporary vessels used a tiller. For all intents and purposes, it was simply a stout bar, attached to the head of the rudder stock, and used to steer much as the tiller was used in a modern sailing dinghy or outboard motorboat. Unfortunately, the length of the tiller had to be in direct proportion to the forces required to shift the rudder, and its maximum length was restricted by the width of the ship itself. In larger ships, a “whipstaff” was required simply to control the rudder, and that made things even worse. The whipstaff was essentially a vertical lever, mounted on a pivoting center and extending from the ship’s quarterdeck down to the level of the tiller, where it was attached to the end of the bar. It provided the helmsmen with a powerful mechanical advantage, but meant that the rudder’s range of movement was even more sharply restricted. As a result, a large sailing ship (although “large” was a relative term) found it impossible to apply more than five or six degrees of rudder.
Simpson’s ships, on the other hand, could apply up to eighty degrees of rudder, would have made them immensely more maneuverable even without the fact that they weren’t solely reliant on wind power or oars. It had taken his seventeenth-century officers a while to make that mental adjustment, and then to make the necessary counter-adjustment and learn to respect the limitations which still existed. Actually, the second adjustment had been rather more harrowing for Simpson to observe. For a while, it had reminded him forcefully of Hans Richter’s adventures behind the wheels of up-timer vehicles.
After that, they’d settled down, and Simpson felt reasonably confident of their ability to handle the paddlewheel timberclads. The ironclads, though, were a different kettle of fish entirely. Crude as they might still appear to up-timer eyes, they were far more advanced in both concept and execution than the steam kettle timberclads. For all their greater size, they actually accelerated faster and had a tighter turning radius (proportionately) and a higher sustained speed than any of the steamboats which had yet been produced here in the United States of Europe.
And they were lots, lots bigger.
“Meet her,” Captain Halberstat said.
The captain’s voice came faintly but clearly through the open armored door. Simpson couldn’t hear the helmsman’s response, but Constitution steadied on her new heading, steaming directly down the center of the river. Well, not “steaming,” precisely.
The pair of pumps around which each of the four ironclads had been built turned each of them into what Simpson sometimes thought of as the world’s biggest jet skis. They’d allowed him to avoid all sorts of problems in building the things, and they offered significant tactical advantages. They didn’t come without drawbacks of their own, of course. For one thing, they were big, and designing their intakes and flow lines had presented quite a few headaches. Foreign object damage was also a consideration, and designing screens to protect the intakes against objects large enough to inflict damage without thoroughly obstructing water flow had provided another set of headaches.
On the other hand, they’d kept Simpson from having to figure out how to design truly efficient propellers—something he was going to have to do by the time they started laying down the proposed screw-frigates. They were also far less vulnerable (and far more mechanically reliable) than the paddlewheels he’d used for the supporting steamers. And they were immensely more efficient at moving water . . . which, after all, was what any mechanical propulsion system had to do.
He stepped to the front of the open bridgework wrapped around the armored conning tower and looked ahead down the river. The pair of up-time power boats leading the ponderous line of gunboats downstream looked particularly anachronistic this morning. The fact that they were stuffed with Marines armed with flintlock rifles only added to their incongruity, but Simpson couldn’t have cared less. Each of those boats, like each of his ironclads, mounted one of the precious up-time fishing fathometers and carried one of the experienced Elbe River barge pilots. Over the last several weeks, those boats and pilots had scoured the upper reaches of the Elbe, familiarizing themselves with its waters in order to pick practicable channels for Simpson’s vessels.
The fact that the river was running springtime deep and that the ironclads’ draft could be reduced to as little as five feet by pumping out their trim tanks had helped immeasurably with that task, but there were still a few problem areas waiting for them. Most of those had been addressed by building staustufen, or temporary holding dams, on the shallow bits. Like the more permanent wehrleucken, the staustufen’s function was to raise the water level in a given section of river to something which would float the gunboats. Unlike the wehrleucken, staustufen were intended from the beginning to be temporary structures. Once the water had risen sufficiently, they were simply breached and the vessels upstream of them rode down with the released wave. Wehrleucken, on the other hand, were permanent dams with central spillways which were supposed to be broad enough for barges and other river traffic to pass through.
Unfortunately, none of the existing wehrleucken had been built to handle anything like the size of the USE’s steamboats and gunboats. In the long run, a more formal and efficient system of locks was going to be necessary, and its construction was already underway. But for now, Simpson was stuck with what was already in place.
And what’s already in place is stuck with me, too, he thought with a certain grim satisfaction. You should have listened to Matthias, Freiherr. He was trying to be much more reasonable than I’m going to be.
One thing about Mike Stearns, the admiral reflected. The man had nerves of steel and an intelligent ruthlessness whose depth Simpson, for one, had been woefully slow to recognize. In his own way, Stearns was every bit as ruthless and willing to resort to bare knuckles at need as Gustav Adolf himself . . . and just as pragmatic.
The prefix for the ships themselves, in fact, were a reflection of that characteristic of the man. SSIM stood for Schiff seiner imperialen Majestät—“His Imperial Majesty’s Ship,” in English. The CoCs had raised a ruckus, wanting USES instead. But since there’d been no substance to the matter beyond pure symbolism, and the issue was raising the emperor’s hackles—more because the he saw the CoCs as challenging him, than because he really cared himself—Stearns had squelched the CoCs and settled the issue to Gustav Adolf’s preference. Figuring, Simpson had no doubt, that he’d save his bargaining leverage for issues that really mattered. When the time came to fish or cut bait, Prime Minister Stearns, unlike certain other up-time political leaders Simpson could have named, never waffled.
Careful, John, he told himself. You’re actually starting to like the man!