1636: The Ottoman Onslaught – Snippet 36
Bavaria, just north of Zolling on the Amper River
General Ottavio Piccolomini lowered his spyglass. “You are certain of this, Captain? If I anchor my plans on your claim and you are mistaken, it could be a disaster. Almost certainly will be a disaster because I will have divided my forces.”
He spoke in Italian, not German. Most of the officers in the Bavarian army, like Piccolomini himself, were mercenaries and Italian had been something in the way of a lingua franca for such soldiers since the late Middle Ages. The transition of military practice from feudal levies to mercenaries employed by a centralized state had begun in Europe with the condottieri of the thirteenth and fourteenth century Italian city-states like Florence, Genoa and Venice. Many of those Italian traditions were carried on by those who practiced war as a profession, including the language, even after the rise to prominence of Swiss pikemen and German landsknechts in later centuries.
As was true of most mercenary captains, Piccolomini spoke German and Spanish as well as his native Italian — German fluently, albeit with a heavy Florentine accent, and Spanish passably. The reason he was using Italian as the common tongue of the Bavarian forces was not so much due to his own preferences as it was to the heavy Italian element in his army. His immediate staff and most of his commanders were German, but since they all spoke Italian reasonably well he had decided it would be wiser to use that language than run the risk that orders transmitted farther down the line in the course of a battle might be mistranslated.
The officer to whom he’d addressed his question was Johann Heinrich von Haslang, newly promoted from captain to colonel. Shortly after Piccolomini took control of Bavaria’s army he had begun a reorganization of the officer corps. Many of General von Lintelo’s favorites had been eased out, replaced by officers in whom Piccolomini had more confidence.
His judgment had generally been very good, thought von Haslang — even allowing for the obvious bias he had, being himself one of the beneficiaries of the new regime. Piccolomini was a humorless man, whose thick body and heavy face were a good reflection of his temperament. But he was competent and experienced and didn’t seem to suffer from the tendency of all too many mercenary commanders to play favorites with his subordinates.
“I can only give you a conditional assurance, General,” said von Haslang. He nodded toward the receding airship in the sky, still quite visible despite now being several miles away. “I have kept extensive and careful records of these vessels. The one we are watching now is the one they call the Pelican and it is the one which the USE has maintained in service here in Bavaria since the beginning of the conflict. But they have two others at their disposal should they choose to use them, the Albatross and the Petrel.”
He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve. It was an unseasonably hot day this early in May. “Normally, they employ the Albatross as something of a general-purpose transport vehicle. It can be almost anywhere in central Europe on any given day. At the moment — but please keep in mind that these reports always lag days behind the reality because –”
He broke off. Because our pig-headed duke insists on keeping Bavaria’s few radios in Munich where they do no one any good at all instead of letting me give at least one of them to our spiesâ€¦ would be impolitic, even though Piccolomini himself probably would have agreed.
“– because they do,” he finished a bit lamely. “But for whatever it’s worth, the last reports I received placed the Albatross at Luebeck.”
Piccolomini grunted. “How fast could they get it back down here?”
Von Haslang shrugged. “That depends on how much urgency they felt, General. These airships operate with hot air and have a very limited range because of the fuel that needs to be expended to keep the air in the envelope heated. Eighty miles or so — a hundred miles, at the most. Luebeck is about four hundred miles to the north.”
Piccolomini frowned. “Much farther than that, I would think.”
“By road, yes. But I am speaking of the straight line distance which is more or less how these airships travel.”
“Ah. Yes.” Piccolomini pursed his lips, doing the calculations himself. “So, at least four legs to the trips; probably five or six.”
“Six, in this case, General. I know the specific stops they’d make. Each leg would take two to three hours, depending on the winds. If they had fuel ready to go at each stage and made a priority of refueling, they could be back in the air in an hour or so.”
“Can they fly at night?”
“Yes, but they try to avoid it whenever possible.”
“So, about two days, you’re saying.”
“Approximately. And unfortunatelyâ€¦”
“That’s quite a bit quicker than our spies can alert us” — Piccolomini’s heavy lips quirked into what might have been a smile of sorts — “since Duke Maximilian is unwilling to risk the few radios he has out in the field.”
He copied von Haslang’s hat-removal and use of a sleeve to wipe the sweat off his brow. Added to the heat of the day was the weight of the buff coat the general was wearing — as was von Haslang himself. Most cavalrymen favored buff coats, no matter the temperature. Risking a gaping wound in the side or even on an arm was not worth the comfort of light clothing.
“And what about the third airship? The Petrel, was it?”
“There, we are on firmer footing. They have been using it in their salvage operations in Ingolstadt, trying to raise those two ten-inch guns we tossed into the river before we evacuated.”
“It’s still very close — closer than the Albatross, most likely.”
Von Haslang smiled. “Yes, it is — but they’ve altered it rather drastically in order to lighten it as much possible so they can get the most lift from the envelope. Instead of four engines, it now only has two — and our spies tell me that they keep as little fuel on board as possible for the salvage operation.”
He pointed to the still-visible but now very distant airship. “I can’t promise you anything, General. But the odds are quite good that the Pelican is the only airship we will need to worry about for the next few days.”
Piccolomini grunted again. “Better odds, you’re suggesting, that what we face against Stearns’ forces if we don’t take the risk.”
After wiping his brow, Piccolomini had kept his hat still in his fist. Now he placed it back on his head. “We’ll do it, then.” He turned his horse toward von Haslang’s immediate superior, General Caspar von Schnetter — who had been a mere colonel a week earlier. He was another of the Bavarian officers who’d enjoyed a promotion.
“You will lead the attack on the enemy’s flank, von Schnetter,” said Piccolomini. “Remember — speed is critical. We won’t launch the attack unless the diversion succeeds in drawing off the enemy’s flying artillery — but they don’t call them ‘flying’ for no reason. If you dawdle, Stearns will be able to get them back on his right flank soon enough to face you. And those batteries have a fearsome reputation against cavalry, which is all you’ll have at first.”
“I understand, sir,” said von Schnetter.
“Make sure you do, General.” Piccolomini’s tone was forceful. “I have heard all too many officers since I arrived in Bavaria spout the opinion that Stearns is simply lucky rather than capable. Maybe so — but only a fool would operate on that assumption. He’s won every battle he’s fought so far, which in my experience indicates that something more than mere luck is involved.”
Piccolomini looked up at the sky, scowling. It was not a clear day; a good third of the sky was covered with clouds. But those clouds foresaged nothing more than an occasional sprinkling.
“I wondered why Koniecpolski chose to attack Gustavus Adolphus in the middle of a storm,” he said. “Now I understand the reason. Damn and blast those airships — and the airplanes may be even worse. Your enemy can see everything you’re doing.”
Thankfully, Gustavus Adolphus seemed to be keeping his few airplanes in the Polish theater. Proving once again — as if the passing millennia had not already given proof enough — that rulers were prone to being pigheaded. If they’d had to face airplanes as well down here in Bavariaâ€¦
About ten miles north of Zolling
Ulbrecht Duerr’s finger touched a place on the map spread out across the table in the center of the small tavern’s main room. “Here, upstream of where the Amper makes that big bend southwest of Moosburg, a bit east of Zolling. That’s the place where Captain Finck says a crossing of the Amper would be easiest.”
“Anywhere else?” Mike Stearns asked. “And how recent is the information?”
“The information concerning the spot near Zolling is now a day old. There hasn’t been any rainfall worth talking about lately and the weather seems to be staying good, so nothing will have changed as far as the condition of the river is concerned.” Duerr shrugged. “Of course, there is no way to know if Bavarian forces have moved into the area since Finck was there.”
He now tapped a spot on the map that was just north of Moosburg. “This does us little good, of course, but Finck reports there’s a place here on the Isar where the river could be easily forded. Cavalry and flying artillery could cross directly, he says, with no preparation at all. For infantry — certainly heavier artillery — you’d want to lay down a corduroy road. But no bridge would have to be thrown up.”