1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 03
Ingolstadt, Upper Palatinate
“And there they are,” murmured Major Tom Simpson. He lowered his binoculars and leaned back from the gondola railing. Above his head, the great swollen envelope of the Pelican blocked out the sun.
“All four of them?” asked his aide, Captain Bruno von Eichelberg. He was still leaning over the rail, peering down at Ingolstadt. Peering toward Ingolstadt, it might be better to say. They were at least a mile away from the city walls and only a thousand feet or so high.
“Yup, all four,” replied Tom. “They’ve got them positioned just the way I would, too. One facing each way on the river and the other two facing north.”
Von Eichelberg grunted. “Don’t see much point to the two facing north. Unless they’ve got much better carriages than I can imagine them building in the past three months, they can’t swivel them much. Those guns were designed to sink ships and destroy fortifications, not fire on cavalry and infantry.”
“True enough — although God help any poor bastards that do come into the line of fire. Those are ten-inch rifles. Load ’em with canister or grapeshot and they’ll cut down anyone in front of them.”
Von Eichelberg curled his lip. “And if General Schmidt has recently lost his mind — which didn’t seem to be the case the last time we spoke to him, two days ago — he’ll march his soldiers right into that line of fire. But assuming he’s still the same canny bastard I seem to recall, he’ll stay well away from those guns. So I still don’t see the point.”
Tom made a little shrugging motion. “Where else are the Bavarians going to position them, Bruno? They don’t need more than one gun facing up and down the Danube. I grant you there’s only a limited value to where they have the other two placed, but the only alternative is to not use them at all.”
Von Eichelberg leaned back from the railing also. “Should we go closer? To see what else we might be able to.”
The young pilot of the Pelican, Stefano Franchetti, got a worried look on his face. “Ahâ€¦ Major Simpson, by now the Bavarians almost certainly have some sort of anti-airship guns — or, well, something — in position.”
Tom scratched at his beard. Like most American men since the Ring of Fire, he’d abandoned the effort to remain clean-shaven and adopted the almost universal down-time custom of men maintaining facial hair. He wasn’t all that partial to beards, actually — and neither was his wife Rita. But he was even less partial to shaving regularly under seventeenth century conditions, that being the only practical alternative almost anywhere outside of Grantville or the few other places with a reliable supply of electricity. The safety razors which had come through the Ring of Fire were long gone by now, and while most electrical razors were still functioning, they were useless for a soldier on campaign.
There were now safety razors being made down-time by several companies, the best known of which was Burmashave. Of course, they were much more expensive than the ones which had been made up-time, but the price had come down far enough that they weren’t luxury items any more. Their use was still not widespread, however. Simply having safety razors wasn’t enough to make daily shaving a common practice, because there were so many other obstacles.
Up-time, everyone had had easy and effectively instant access to hot running water. Down-time, they didn’t — even in big cities, much less on military campaign. There was no premade shaving cream, no convenient cans of shaving foam or gel. You had to do it the old fashioned way with a shaving brush and soap. It could be done and some people did it. But most men didn’t think it was worth the time and trouble.
Besides, there was one definite advantage to being able to fiddle with a beard. It gave a man time to think. Cleanliness might or might not be next to godliness — Tom’s Episcopalian upbringing made him skeptical of simplistic Methodist saws — but he was quite sure that being clean-shaven was next to being a dumb-ass. How much silly trouble had men gotten into up-time because they hadn’t paused to scratch at their beards before saying something stupid?
Or, worse, doing something stupid. Witness the proverbial last words of the redneck: Hey, guys, watch this!
Ascribed to rednecks, anyway. Tom had known plenty of upstanding blue-blood wealthy young fellows back up-time who’d done things every bit as stupid as tease alligators or conduct drag races down city streets.
“Take us a little closer, Stefano.”
“But, Major –”
Tom raised a big hand in a calming gesture. “Relax. I don’t intend to fly over the city, I just want to get a better look.”
He saw no reason to add that what he specifically wanted to get a better look at was precisely the thing Stefano was afraid of — whatever anti-aircraft measures the Bavarians might have put in place since they seized Ingolstadt in January.
Anti-airship, rather. In the here and now, no one had yet come up with any effective way to shoot down airplanes unless the pilot did something reckless. The one and only instance in which ground fire had brought down an airplane was the killing of Hans Richter in the battle at Wismar during the Baltic War.
Hans had become a national hero as a result of that action — due in large part to Mike Stearns’ propaganda. But the truth was, Hans had screwed the pooch. He’d let his anger override his judgment in that battle. Even then, the shot that took him down was something of a “golden BB.”
Shooting down airships — or at least damaging them, or their crews — might be more feasible, though. The speed of airplanes, even the primitive ones being built in this era, was at least an order of magnitude greater than that of airships. As much as two orders of magnitude, for an airship moving slowly enough to be a good bombing platform, which meant no more than one or two miles per hour — just enough to keep steady in the wind. The Pelican and her two sister ships, the Petrel and the Albatross, had delivered a terrible blow to a Bavarian cavalry force when they dropped incendiary bombs on them. But they’d been completely stationary above the village where the cavalrymen were bivouacked and their victims had either been asleep or drunk — or both, most of them.
It remained to be seen what sober and alert defenders could do, especially now that they’d had three months to develop something. Ingolstadt was one of the centers of weapons-making in central Europe, so they would have had the resources to do so.
“Fire!” ordered Major von EckersdÃ¶rfer. A moment later, the first rocket in the barrage hissed its way into the sky. Within two or three seconds, eight others had followed suit. The tenth and last rocket in the planned barrage was a misfire.
And, as such, a source of considerable apprehension to the artillerymen handling the rockets. Most likely, the fuse had simply sputtered out and could be replaced. But there’d been one apparent misfire which had ignited just as an artilleryman had come up to it, taking most of the man’s face off along with his jaw. Perhaps thankfully, he’d died of the injuries within a day. Another rocket had exploded as the fuse was being withdrawn, killing another man instantly.
The standard procedure now with misfires was to wait a while, then toss a bucket of water over it — from as great a distance as possible — and wait a while longer before doing anything further. That “further” consisted of shoving it over an embankment with a long pole and waiting at least an hour before approaching the rocket.
And thenâ€¦ hope for the best.
Watching from a distance, Captain Johann Heinrich von Haslang thanked providence — again — that he was not assigned to the rocket unit. He was in command of a different sort of anti-airship effort, which was based on much more reliable weaponry.
He watched as the flight of rockets headed toward the still-distant airship. He thought von EckersdÃ¶rfer had given the order to fire too soon — much too soon, in fact. The rockets were of the new “Hale” design, copied from an American encyclopedia. The rockets were given a rotary motion in flight by the use of canted exhausts and small fins, which greatly improved their accuracy from the simple “Congreve” design.
But they still weren’t that accurate and the airship was at the very limit of their range. Von Haslang wasn’t surprised to see one, then two, then five rockets veer aside explode harmlessly in mid-air. Only the ninth rocket came anywhere close to the airship — and that was only “close” in relative terms. When its timed fuse set off the warhead it was much too far from the enemy craft to do any possible damage.
“They’re shooting at us, Major Simpson,” said Stefano, doing his best to control his anxiety and not succeeding particularly well.
Tom refrained from the obvious response: I am not blind, thank you. That would just hurt the youngster’s feelings. Push came to shove, Franchetti was a civilian, not a soldier. He’d volunteered for this mission — more likely, been volunteered by his employer, Estuban Miro — and had been reasonably cooperative. But he didn’t have much experience coming under enemy fire, so he had no good way to gauge how great the risk might be.
“Stop fretting, Stefano,” said Bruno von Eichelberg. “They fired much too soon.”
He pointed at the small smoke clouds left by the exploding rockets, which were rapidly being eddied away by the winds. “The nearest explosion — that one, see it? — is at least a quarter of a mile away and a hundred meters below us. Those warheads can’t weigh more than a few pounds. One of them would have to explode within twenty yards of us — no, more like ten yards — before it could do much damage.”