Andrew Wareham: End to Illusion

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Andrew Wareham End to Illusion
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    End to Illusion
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April 1915, and it has become apparent that the war will be neither glorious nor short. England is changing, rapidly in some aspects, and the feuding between military and politicians is just beginning. The three remaining midshipmen, two successful, one disgraced, have survived so far. Simon Sturton is still with the destroyers of the Harwich Patrol, fighting in the unending series of minor actions that keep the Channel open for the troopships to cross to France. Christopher Adams, once the bright star of his year at Dartmouth, is sent from one temporary, insignificant posting to another, mostly in minesweeping trawlers manned by Reservists, managing to find action in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Richard Baker, a failure at sea, finds his new life in the Army increasingly to his taste, enjoying the social prominence of his VC in London, while he trains his new battalion and takes them back to France.

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Andrew Wareham


- Book Three -


Chapter One

Christopher Adams stood silent on Connaught’s bridge. As Navigator he had few duties in action; being disgraced, his advice was not wanted. He watched as the light cruiser, Salford, made her run on the old battleship. He could not see the name on the Austrian ship’s stern but recognised her as one of the Habsburg class.

The Commander was watching the performance of the light cruiser through his glasses, professionally interested as well as making his report on a member of the squadron. He gave a running commentary, somewhat unnecessarily, the captain being on the bridge at his side with his own glasses.

“Four torpedoes running, sir. Launched at about five cables. Two and three running wild, sir, veering off track. Coming onto our bearing… off line now, curving back… turning again. Gyroscope must be malfunctioning, sir. One and four are running true, sir. Battleship is sounding alarm, sir. Steam siren, sir – audible in the town, one must imagine. Garrison alerted.”

“Open fire, main armament.”

The four nine point twos that would bear had been tracking their target and fired immediately. Their shells all hit home at a range of little more than a thousand yards.

Christopher noted the shell bursts, saying nothing still. One in the hull, well forward and above the waterline, possibly in the messdecks of the forecastle and, if so, likely to have caused massive casualties among the crew. The second was towards the bridge, again possibly effective in crippling the command of the ship. Third and fourth both struck home on the armour belt and did little damage; possibly splinters would have reached the secondary armament, the small guns having little protection. They were firing common shell, high explosive, not armour-piercing; he wondered why.

“Change targets! All guns.”

The order had been pre-arranged. The main armament turned onto the three lesser warships and the six inch and three pounders fired for the first time.

Turning his glasses across the anchorage Christopher identified two newer destroyers and a gunship of some sort. None had steam up and their lack of response suggested they had not even had a single gun crew at overnight readiness. The Commander saw the same.

“Damned poor, sir. Italy expected to enter the war any day now and yet they have spent the night asleep. No readiness at all!”

“Not as poor as our gunnery, Commander!”

Captain Archdale was severe, scowling at the waterspouts rising as much as a hundred yards away from their targets.

The two torpedoes hit and exploded, white water rising as high as the battleship’s masthead.

One was precisely central, penetrating the engineroom and probably opening up some of the boilers. The fourth fired hit towards the stern, beyond the armour belt and blowing a massive hole in the hull.

There was a sudden cloud of steam. A plume of smoke jetted high from one stack.

“Steam up on one furnace overnight, sir. Blown now. Engineroom finished, sir.”

The Commander said no more – all of the stokers and officers on duty would be dead, most unpleasantly, scalded by live steam.

“Sinking by the stern, sir. Rolling towards. On fire towards the fore, sir. Where are her magazines?”

Silence. None of the bridge party had looked up the information on their target.

Christopher ventured to speak.

“Towards the fore, sir. Engineroom and bunkers and boilers are mostly aft in this class.”

Captain Archdale reacted immediately.

“Ten of the port wheel!”

Connaught pulled away from the sinking ship. If the magazines blew then it would not be wise to be within half a mile of her.

The bridge party was openly jubilant.

“Going fast, sir.”

Captain Archdale scowled at the gleeful young lieutenant.

“At anchor and unprepared, Syston! No chance to hit back. Not a kill to glory in. Have you located the shore batteries?”

As if in response, a first shell fell into the water a cable distant.

“What was that?”

The waterspout was wrong for an explosive shell. There was no response from the young officers.

“Early armour-piercing, sir. Solid shot. Probably large bore. Cylindrical, sir and sometimes called bolts. Probably an old muzzle loader. Dating back to the 1860s, sir.”

“Thank you, Adams. Good to know that one officer on my bridge is professionally competent, has a broad knowledge beyond his specialisation!”

Captain Archdale bent to the speaking tubes, called to the Gunnery Officer sat up in his small tower.

“Guns, did you spot that battery?”

“Yes, sir. Eight guns, sir, placed near to the old castle on the hill and close to the town centre. I can see four other batteries, sir – men running towards them from what seems to be a barracks a good half mile distant. No sign that any of the batteries are manned, no more than the single gun that just fired, sir. The other batteries are all at the waterfront, sir, or on the low cliffs. All in the middle of housing and warehouses, sir.”

There would be civilian casualties which should be avoided under the Laws of War.

“Do not return fire, Guns. Can you see the coaling wharves?”

“Centrally placed, sir, close to the shipyard and the slum housing around it. Impossible to hit without causing casualties, sir. Any overs would certainly land in the terraces.”

Further bombardment must kill women and children.

“Cease fire.”

The Royal Navy fought a gentleman’s war, when possible and in European waters.

Captain Archdale stood from the voice pipes.

“Signal recall to Salford. Bring us on course for rendezvous with sloops, Navigator.”

“Five of starboard wheel!” Christopher waited while Connaught came round, steadied her on a course for the centre of the channel heading southeast.

“Forty minutes at twenty knots, sir.”

“Very good, Mr Adams.”

A lookout shouted down that the battleship had sunk.

“Only shore boats, sir. None of her own launched.”

“Totally unprepared, gentlemen. Satisfactory from our point of view. Let us hope many of her crew had overnight leave.”

The younger men seemed unconcerned – the tribulations of the Austrians were not their business, it seemed.

“Small ships all sunk, sir.”

The Commander was still examining the anchorage through his glasses.

“As well, sir, harbour gunboats tied up at a wharf, sir. Four of them, it seems, all sunk by Salford. A pair of tugs as well, at the naval berths and legitimate targets of war. No other naval vessels in sight, sir. Just the single shot fired, sir. Suggests one gun kept loaded with a duty crew.”

“And reloads down in the magazine, Commander! Very poor. We won’t find any other ports as ill defended as this.”

They shook their heads, deploring the inefficiency of the old Empire.

“Signal Salford. Congratulations on effective gunnery. Report on torpedoes. Overhaul reloads.”

The Yeoman of the Signals sent the message by flag, light signals working better at night and the two ships’ radio communication with each other inclined to be unreliable inshore under the shelter of the mountains. Flags were better, anyway – they were the way a seaman should choose. Flags had been good enough for Nelson.

“Guns to bridge.”

The Gunnery Officer reported within the minute, smiling and waiting for his commendation.

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