1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 11
The three Dutch man-of-wars with forty or more guns — Prins Willem, Amsterdam, and Gelderland — were actually keeping pace with the smaller, faster hulls, thanks to the three small steam tugs, powered by down-time-manufactured steam plants from Germany. Not particularly powerful, they still provided an extra knot or so of speed no matter the wind or seas, which was enabling Tromp’s Anvil to maneuver steadily north of La Flota’s main body.
Tromp lowered the glasses as cries from both gun mounts announced that the loaders were finished and clear.
Sehested sounded like a man forcing himself to maintain an admirably calm demeanor while only seven hundred yards from three of the most dreaded ships upon the waves of any sea. “Lieutenant Bjelke, is there still time to — succeed?”
“Lord Sehested, I –“
“This is the last explanation you shall provide to Lord Sehested,” Tromp interrupted. “I mean no disrespect to our visitor, but until we resolve matters with the enemy’s van, I will not tolerate further digressions from the task at hand.”
Bjelke nodded, might have looked relieved. “Lord Sehested, our revised estimates are that, at the worst, we should strike our enemies with seven of the twenty rounds we fire. Nine is a more likely number, given the decreasing range.”
“And is that enough to disable … no, er…what is that up-time term…?”
“To achieve three ‘mission kills’?”
Sehested nodded uncertainly. “Yes: that.”
“It is possible. We can increase the odds if — “
“Don’t get lost in your math, schoolboy,” Simonszoon muttered as he watched the gunners hunch over their sights. “If we’ve hit them twice by the time they come within two hundred and fifty yards the carronades of the first portside battery will be able to bear. That’s about two more minutes, and three more rounds each time they fire.”
Tromp tried to keep his tone level. “And three more rounds we will not have for later in this engagement.”
Kees nodded. “If necessary, you could order Salamander and Amelia to — “
“No, it is imperative that they remain unengaged, lest we become embroiled here. We must retain freedom of movement. Our entire battle plan depends upon it.”
Dirck smiled darkly. “Which is to say, our entire battle plan depends upon this hull.”
Tromp shrugged. “As if that was ever in question,” he said — just before the two naval rifles fired, nearly in unison.
The effect upon the already-listing galleon was so obvious that Tromp did not need his binoculars. The shell struck the ship just aft of its waist and the resulting explosion vomited out strakes, bulkheads, guns, and men.
The larger one was also hit, but in something of a freak of gunnery, the shell impacted the foremast dead center, just beneath the foreyard. Whereas most crippled masts tip and fall, this one, being bisected by the explosion, half jumped out of its stays and crashed forward in a rush. The men on the foc’sle who had not been riven by splinters or other fragments from the blast disappeared under the ruin of wood and rigging, the twisting canvas pulled after like a phantom being sucked down to hell.
Sehested cut off his satisfied grunt when he realized he was the only one enthused by the result.
Simonszoon growled in Bjelke’s direction. “Tell Mount One to lower its aim or I will lower the rank of every man on that crew.” He glanced at Tromp. “Admiral — “
“I know, Dirck. They will still be able to fight that hull.”
“Can’t catch us, though,” Kees offered.
“No, but . . . ” Tromp turned to look aft, measuring the distance between Resolve and the ships of the balloon detachment he’d labeled “Tower.” Three and a half nautical miles astern, and the only actual warship was the one being used as the balloon’s platform: Provintie van Utrecht. Besides a jacht and a steam pinnace that was lashed to her to provide extra speed and maneuverability, the only other ships were two fluyts and the USE cargo ship Serendipity. He frowned.
Simonszoon’s voice echoed his thoughts from over his shoulder. “Ja, when that Spanish leviathan realizes she can’t catch us, she’ll go after those pigeons. Won’t catch ’em, but that’s because they’ll have to run or be torn to matchsticks. And when they do, there goes our ‘Tower.'”
Tromp nodded. “Mr. Bjelke,” he said loudly.
“Instruct Mount One to use explosive shells until its target is destroyed.”
“Destroyed, sir? Or do you mean disab — ?”
“I said, and mean, destroyed.” He turned back forward as Simonszoon was instructing Mount Two to shift to the third war galleon, now barely six hundred yards away and still untouched. It turned out they were already tracking it.
Kees mumbled. “So the biggest ship is going to be made the example for the rest of La Flota. Expensive, but probably worth the rounds.”
Tromp shook his head bitterly. “Nee, it’s a waste. But we’ve no choice, after that shot. We have to stop her, and she’s taken no significant hull damage that we know of. We have to assume she could absorb at least two explosive shells before she begins to burn badly enough that they cannot save her.”
The rifles fired again. Predictably, Mount Two missed her new target, but only by ten yards in front of her bowsprit. However, Mount One’s fourth round finally found its proper mark: the starboard waist, down on the lowest gundeck. The explosion seemed to go off from within the ship; possibly the shell had gone through a gun-port. Although it did not leave a vast hole in the leviathan’s hull, the blast propelled two guns half-way through their ports, flames licking the rims, and black smoke leaking out.
Tromp leaned toward Kees. “Alert the other ships of ‘Hammer’; raise anchors all haste. Course and instructions as per plan Alpha on our signal. Mr. Bjelke, inform engineering and deck crew: prepare to get under way.”
The two young officers sent the orders, which raised urgent shouts and replies from the bowels, and along the length, of Resolve.
The after mount fired again. The solid shell hit the third galleon, sent timbers spinning out from its hull and leaving a ragged scar just behind her foc’sle. But Tromp’s focus returned immediately to the largest of the three. He raised his binoculars —
— just in time to hear and feel the faint backdraft from Mount One’s fifth shot.
Maarten knew, an instant before the shell exploded, where it was ultimately going to hit; for no apparent reason, half of the big galleon’s mainsail’s starboard ratlines flew asunder in a confused spasm of rope and rigging, like a nest of furious, beheaded snakes. The shell had torn through the shrouds just before it plunged into the lower margin of where the quarterdeck rose up from the maindeck.
An explosion shook the stern of the ship, followed quickly by an even more ferocious and fiery detonation which blew open almost every hatch, door, and gunport lid abaft the beam. Black smoke began pouring out of half them. Flames were visible in several. She veered away from her course, but not dramatically.
“Steering ropes are gone,” Simonszoon speculated as a tongue of flame licked up along the mizzenmast, just high enough to be seen above the gunwale. “She’s done.”
Tromp spoke from instinct as much as experience. “She’s more than done. Ahead one half, and give her a wide berth.”
“At last,” the captain grumbled. “Port battery one! Prepare to acquire target: third galleon!”
Resolve began creeping forward . . . but suddenly, was not creeping at all. Her speed built so rapidly that it still surprised Tromp. “Kees,” he muttered, “have your lads update the tactical plot. From here on, our primary focus is on moving, not shooting.”
As Simonszoon kept a firm leash on the over-eager gun crews of port battery one, Bjelke was already calling new targets for Mounts One and Two: the closest of the next eight war galleons. Telegraph chatter from the “Tower” drove Kees’ instructions for drawing updates on the tactical plot’s clear, gridded overlay. And the Chief Engineer’s voice was a dim, hoarse shout emerging from the dedicated speaking tube; the boilers were at temperature. He could give full steam.
Tromp let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Finally, they were no longer measuring seconds and yards and rounds, no longer acting like book-keepers rather than naval officers. Finally, they were doing what every fleet and every admiral since the beginning of time had been built and bred to do:
To close with the enemy and defeat him.