1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 04
“It’d have to hit us here in the gondola, too,” Tom added. “This is a hot air vessel, not hydrogen. There’s nothing that even incendiaries could blow up.”
At that, Franchetti visibly relaxed. He might not be familiar with enemy fire, but he did know airships. Unless an explosion tore a great rent in the envelope above them — which was not very likely — they wouldn’t lose altitude quickly. Just punching a bunch of holes in the fabric wouldn’t do much at all.
And while the gondola they were riding in wasn’t armored, as such, it was still pretty tough. A big wicker basket, basically. A cannon ball striking it head on would probably punch through, as would an up-time rifle bullet fired from a heavy caliber gun. Or, even if it didn’t, the impact would probably send splinters flying everywhere, which might cause even worse casualties if not structural damage. But a round musket ball probably wouldn’t penetrate, unless it was fired at point blank range — and how would anyone get that close in the first place?
There was no real chance that shrapnel could penetrate. The biggest danger would be from an explosion that sent shrapnel over the rim of the gondola and struck the crew directly. But that would take a very lucky shot indeed.
Another rocket volley came their way — defining “their way” very loosely — but Tom ignored it. He’d just spotted an odd-looking portion of the city’s walls and was now studying it through his binoculars.
“I will be good God — Gnu damned,” he said, remembering at the last instant to modify his unthinking blasphemy. People in the seventeenth century didn’t hesitate to swear like the proverbial trooper, but they avoided blasphemy.
“What is it, Major?” asked von Eichelberg.
“I do believe some Bavarian fellow has been using his noggin.”
“And a ‘noggin’ would beâ€¦”
“Sorry. American slang. It means using his head. Thinking.”
He leaned back from the railing and offered the binoculars to von Eichelberg. Then, pointed at something on the walls below.
“Look at that bastion,” he said. “At least, I’ll call it a bastion for lack of a better term. It’s new. It wasn’t there when we held Ingolstadt.”
Von Eichelberg spent a couple of minutes studying the structure in question through the binoculars.
“It looks likeâ€¦ some sort of pit? But what for?”
“You see the radial design?” Tom replied. “What looks like a bunch of rails leading up to those shroudedâ€¦ whatever-they-ares at the top of the pit?”
“Yes,” said Bruno. He lowered the binoculars and frowned.
“I think those are gun carriages,” said Tom. “Slanted up at something like thirty degrees and covering at least one-sixth of the visible sky. And the shrouds would be covering the guns themselves. I’m willing to bet that if we got closer you’d see them stripping those shrouds — they’re probably canvas — right off.”
Von Eichelberg issued a grunt. The sound combined surprise with something close to admiration. “Shrewd!”
Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I’m willing to bet that design’s brand new and never been tested.”
His subordinate grinned. “Well, then. What better time than now?”
Franchetti was looking alarmed again — very alarmed.
“Major Simpson, what are you thinking?”
Tom pointed down to the bastion. Down — and away. They were still the better part of a mile from the city walls.
“Head toward it, Stefano. I want to see what happens.”
“But — but –”
Tom clapped his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Re-lax, will you? Whatever that emplacement is, it’s got to be some sort of prototype. That’s a fancy up-time word that means ‘wild-ass idea that nobody’s tried out yet.’ Almost no prototype ever made worked the way it was supposed to the first time out.”
Little Boy and Fat Man did, he thought to himself. But he saw no reason to worry the youngster with hypotheticals. Besides, Oppenheimer and his team had spent a lot longer — not to mention a lot more money — developing the first atomic bombs than whatever Bavarian bright boys down there could have spent developing whatever this thingamajig was.
Franchetti’s expression made it clear he still had his doubts, but he steered the blimp in the direction Tom had indicated. He had the four lawnmower engines going full blast now, to give the vessel maximum speed. The things were unmuffled and made an incredible racket. Anyone who wanted to say anything now would have to shout — and do it almost in someone’s ear.
“How soon should we fire, Captain?” asked one of the gunners. “And shouldn’t we start taking off the covers?”
Von Haslang didn’t reply immediately. He was too intent on studying the oncoming airship.
“Captain?” the gunner repeated.
Von Haslang shook his head. “They’re still much too far away. And leave the covers on. Once we take them off, they’ll know exactly what they’re facing and they’ll turn aside.”
He didn’t add what he could have, which was that the airship wouldn’t be able to turn away quickly. He’d spent quite a bit of time studying the enemy vessels in the course of the four day pursuit of the USE artillery unit which had escaped from Ingolstadt three months earlier. True, he’d never gotten a close look at any of them, but he hadn’t needed to in order to determine that the airships had one great weakness. They were unwieldy. In that respect, nothing at all like the much smaller but also much faster enemy airplanes.
Those famous airplanes weren’t really much of a threat as weapons, though, certainly not to land forces. They simply couldn’t carry enough in the way of explosives. Their real utility in time of war was that they provided superb reconnaissance except in bad weather.
The airships, on the other hand, did have a significant capability to drop bombs. Butâ€¦ they were slow. Faster than infantry, certainly, and even faster than cavalry except when heading directly into a wind. But they could not change direction quickly at all. Even a man on foot below an airship could easily outmaneuver the thing.
Hence, the design of what von Haslang and the other officers and artificers who’d developed it called “the hedgehog.” It was somewhat akin to a stationary and very big volley gun or organ gun. They had two inch guns on rails slanted about thirty degrees into the air and a few degrees apart from each other. The guns fired explosive shells with timed fuses. Once an airship came within range one of them would begin to fire, and if the vessel veered aside it would come into the line of sight of the adjoining guns.
Once fired, the recoil would send the gun sliding down the rail into the pit, but it would be arrested in time by pulleys and counter-weights and brakes. It could then be reloaded and hoisted back up.
Not quickly, of course. But the airships weren’t that quick either.
That was the theory, at any rate. No one had any idea yet if the hedgehogs would work. They’d built two of them, so far.
“Steady,” von Haslang said. “Steadyâ€¦ Still too soonâ€¦”
But his plans were overthrown.
“What are you waiting for?” demanded a voice from behind him.
Von Haslang’s jaws tightened. He didn’t have to look to recognize the voice of the garrison’s commander, General Timon von Lintelo. Who was, in von Haslang’s now-well-considered opinion, an incompetent over-bearing ass — but also, sadly, highly regarded by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria.
“Answer me, von Haslang! Why haven’t you fired yet?”
Now turning, von Haslang saw that the general wasn’t even going to wait for a reply. Von Lintelo was already gesturing fiercely at the crew of the gun which was — or would have been in a couple of minutes, rather — in line of sight of the airship.
“Shoot at them!” he shouted. “Quickly, before they pass us by!”
The gun crew stripped the canvas covering from the gun. Seeing that, the other gun crews did likewise.
“Shoot! Shoot! They’ll get away!”
It was utterly exasperating. The USE airship was still well out of range. It wasn’t even in proper line of sight, although it had gotten close.
The gun fired. The recoil sent it racing down the rails toward the bottom of the pit. Before it could reach the bottom, however, the restraining apparatus brought it to a stop.
That much, at least, had gone according to plan.
The shell’s warhead exploded just about the proper time also.
Somewhere between two and three hundred meters short of the target.
The airship began to veer aside. Slowly, slowly.
Compounding his folly, von Lintelo ordered the next three guns to fire as the airship moved into line with them. None of those shots came within three hundred meters of the enemy when the warheads exploded — the last two, not within four hundred yards.
The general shook a finger under von Haslang’s nose. “If you’d been more alert, we might have had them!” The statement was ridiculous and on some level even von Lintelo had to know that. But among the general’s many unpleasant traits was his invariant habit of blaming his subordinates for his own errors.
All they’d accomplished was to give the enemy advance warning of what lay in store for them.
“Interesting,” said Tom.
Captain von Eichelberg was less impressed. “It seems quite ungainly.”
“Oh, yeah — but then, so are we. And unlike the rockets, those shells went where they were fired.”
He went back to beard-scratching. “It’s more like a mine field than a weapon system. As long as you know where it is, you can stay away from it. But I could see where it might make a decent area defense system.”
“I only saw one other pit like that,” said von Eichelberg.
“Me, too. But I wonder how many there’ll be at Munich, by the time we get there?”