1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 10

Chapter 6

East of Dominica

“Captain Simonszoon,” Rik Bjelke said sharply, “lead war galleon now approaching one thousand yards.”

“Forward mount reconfirm: target acquired and tracking?”

A pause as the signal went down the wires to the turrets and the reply sped back. “Aye, and aye, sir.”

Simonszoon glanced at Tromp.

Maarten relented and this time raised the binoculars to his eyes. “At your leisure, Capt –“

“Watch the rise and fire!” Simonszoon shouted, so loud that the forward mount heard him.

The master gunner, seated in what looked like an armor-plated pulpit mounted on the side of the eight-incher’s gunshield, hunched over the inclinometer that tracked the pitch and the yaw of the hull, a position that also gave him a good view of the water. A tense moment elapsed —

The naval rifle sounded like a lightning-throated lion: a report that was both a roar and a sharp crack. Tromp felt as much as heard the weapon slam back in its recoil carriage. A blink later, a tall jet of water appeared twenty yards abeam the lead galleon’s waist.

At a nod from Dirck, Bjelke sent the planned order to Mount One. “Load, adjust, fire when ready.” As the weapon drifted back from its recoil and the crew began unspinning the breech, the intraship signalman howled up through the tube from the pilot house: “Mount Two confirms target acquired, but could lose it behind the funnel.”

Duivels kont!” Simonszoon snapped, turned to his runner: “Send word: trim the main, and let ‘er drift a point to starboard.” Back down the tube: “Mount Two, reacquire.”

Bjelke, in addition to everything else, was watching a timepiece. Sehested made to ask him what he was doing, but Kees leaned over. “He’s timing the rounds.”

The Dane frowned. “You mean, how fast they are reloading?” He gestured beyond the mainmast. Half-concealed by the low ring-shaped wall, or “tub”, that screened them from small arms and splinters, the crew of Mount One was swabbing the open breech as four men approached with the next round. Almost thirty-two inches long and weighing over one-hundred and fifty pounds, the perversely delicate job of manhandling such shells into the weapon was not a job for scrawny men.

But Kees was shaking his head. “Nee, he is timing how fast they are firing.”

Sehested’s glance seemed to take in the oncoming ships, the water, the slight bob of the bowsprit all at once. “But given the conditions, how can one accurately predict that intervals?”

“How, indeed?” Simonszoon muttered. “We planned on firing twenty rounds per gun. Now, we’ll be lucky to get off ten before they come alongsi — “

Bjelke’s shout ended his sentence. “Mount Two reports target acquired and — “

Simonszoon chopped his hand downward.

“Fire!” Bjelke howled to the rear as he made a matching hand-signal to the comms rating in the pilot house.

As the breech of Mount One was being spun tight, Mount Two flung thunder downrange, the trailing jet of smoke slowing as it stretched toward the northernmost of the three galleons. Water gouted fifteen yards off the Spaniards port bow.

“Is this…typical?” Sehested asked in a low voice.

Tromp was about to reply — uncharitably — when Mount One fired again. Only when the round went through the rigging and put a hole in the mainsail did he realize that he had been holding his breath. “Typical for this weather, yes,” he murmured.

“Time?” Simonszoon asked, not taking his eyes away from his telescope.

“Forty-three seconds,” Bjelke answered. “Nine of which were for aiming,” he added as Simonszoon prepared to ask another question.

Simonszoon smiled at the young Norwegian’s anticipation of his request. No wonder Eddie was so disappointed to lose him as his executive officer, Tromp thought, and not for the first time.

“Closing on eight hundred yards,” Kees said calmly — right before both guns tore at their ears in back-to-back discharges that sent a tremor under their feet.

Mount One had evidently been a bit eager; its round was not quite so high, but did little more than punch a gap into the galleon’s starboard gunwale.

But Mount Two’s shot raised a spurt of dust, planks and rigging from its target. When the cloud of debris cleared, the Spaniard’s waist had a chunk torn out of its weatherdeck and nearby bulwark, the mainsail’s starboard shrouds swinging free and ratlines shredded.

Some cheers started in the two mounts, but each gun crew’s chief barked ferociously to still it: merely getting on target was not a cause for celebration.

As reloading commenced, Tromp glanced toward Rik, wondering if the young Norwegian had any revised gunnery estimates, yet . . .

Simonszoon’s XO was not just highly intelligent and swift with numbers, but apparently read minds, as well. “We are sustaining the projected rate of fire. Barely. The aiming interval will probably diminish as the range closes and target profile grows.” He glanced at Tromp and Simonszoon. “It is my duty to point out that, if we were to shift to explosive shell, we would inflict heavier damage and hasten our defeat of these first three ships.”

Tromp felt as much as saw Simonszoon’s quick sideways glance; Resolve was his ship, but the outcome of this first engagement would ultimately determine when and where the whole fleet began to move, and so, determine the course of the battle. Tromp shook his head. “One more round of solid shot. Have them load explosive after. Kees, distance to the rest of the Spanish van?”

“The closest of the eight following war galleons is five hundred yards behind these three, which look to be the largest of their kind. The rearmost is at seven hundred yards.”

Tromp nodded. “We continue with plan alpha: cripple these three if possible, and be sure to make one an example to the rest.”

Simonszoon curled an eyebrow. “Maarten, at four knots, that second pack of Spanish wolfhounds will be on us in eleven minutes. Maybe ten, since they’ve started crowding sail, now.”

Tromp nodded. “By which time we will be moving faster than they could reasonably expect. And if they decide to veer after us, as they must if they wish to keep us from getting among their cargo-carrying sheep, they’ll be turning out of the wind and the current.”

“Very well, so they’ll be at three knots then. Still, that’s only thirteen minutes.

Tromp inspected the northernmost galleon; although the damage had looked superficial, she was listing. The eight inch shells penetrated deep into ships; sometimes, they came out the other side. “Captain, let us assume the gods of the sea are blowing in our enemies’ sails to get them here in twelve minutes. Even then, we can still travel more than three times as far as they, a bit more with sail.” He allowed a small smile to emerge. “Assuming your engineers have not broken our engines.”

Simonszoon rolled his eyes but also returned the smile. “I’ll check.”

The next two discharges from Resolve‘s naval rifles came about four seconds apart; the forward mount had taken a few seconds longer to aim, this time.

Dust and debris vomited up from both galleons. The one that had already been hit showed a slight list. Tromp pointed at her. “Captain Simonszoon, I believe the next round is likely to put that Spaniard out of the fight. If it does, the aft mount is to acquire the third target.”

Simonszoon was already shouting those orders as Tromp lifted his glasses again. The second hit on the northernmost galleon had struck her low in the bows, near the stem of the prow, but her list was to the other, starboard side. Probably went through down near the waterline, he surmised. It was a wound she could probably control, given calm and time. But she would have neither.

He shifted his view to the other, central ship. It was not clear where Mount One’s shell had struck her, but there was frenzied activity amidships, and a small, persistent tell-tale of smoke. No decrease in speed, no sign of major structural damage. She might take more than one explosive shell to finish, off: she was the leviathan of the fleet, with over fifty guns. Resolve was still almost twice as long as she was, and sturdier, but the Spaniard was heavy-timbered and built to absorb punishment. Against Tromp’s own largest ships, and with the weather gauge, she would have been an extremely dangerous opponent.

Tromp stole a moment to check after the northern squadron of his “largest ships,” sweeping the binoculars around to port. The bulk of his fleet swam into view: the northern part his plan designated as the “Anvil.”

With its lighter hulls in the lead, those thirteen warships were moving northeast as briskly as a close reach would allow. They were significantly better at sailing close to the wind than their Spanish adversaries, but under these conditions, their movement could not be described as swift. However, it was also clearly unanticipated. The Spanish would logically have expected them to engage or flee, but their current course suggested neither. If the eleven war galleons that had formed up as La Flota’s van were perturbed by this development, they gave no sign of it. Indeed, it was quite probable that many of them were still not aware: unlike Tromp’s ships, which had all been retrofitted with the clever up-time innovation known as Aldis lamps, the Spanish ability to send signals to each other was slow and uncertain.