The Iron Duke (Part 2 of 2)

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The Iron Duke (Part 2 of 2)

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The Kingdom frigates, led by the HMS Dagger, had disappeared into the maelstrom. Around the island they went, out of sight and into the jaws of hell. Their frantic telegraphers spoke of constant bombardment and enemies pressing from all sides. Through their hurried messages they revealed the depth of the carnage inflicted on the proud Kingdom cruisers, but they also relayed confirmation that their foes, indeed the Prussians, had sustained their own losses.

And then all the transmissions went silent.

The distant retort of the cannonades never ceased.

Aboard the Iron Duke all the officers and crew could do was wait. Ordnance was already loaded, equipment was readied and prayers had been said. Arthur paced while the marine Sloane looked on bemused. The scene was repeated in the lofty bridge where Captain McLaren busied himself on trivial tasks. Admiral Crowsdale, ever calm, watched from the window of the bridge through his telescope impassively. Finally, with a small sigh of satisfaction the Admiral laid eyes on his enemy.

“Ah, there she is,” Crowsdale said with a vicious little smile.

The intimidating sleek pointed prow of the Prussian battleship SMS Weslfalen slid from behind the concealing bulk of the rocky island. She shed her mask of cannon smoke like a gentleman discarding an old coat. The battleship was a potent symbol of Prussian industrial might and military endeavour. It embodied the characteristics the Prussians themselves held dear: strength, speed and an indefatigable spirit.

The Weslfalen’s fore and aft turrets each boasted three massive 18-inch cannons, each one weighing upward of 90 tonnes. Ship-killers one and all. An armoured generator, not unlike the Iron Duke’s, sat high on its aft castle while the distinctive Prussian Tesla weaponry gleamed with barely contained malevolence. It was a shark and the Kingdom vessel was its prey. But this steel sided goliath, menacing and ferocious in its dark grey majesty, bore the hallmarks of a hard fought fight. The Kingdom’s cruisers had fought with great tenacity, bravery and skill which were the defining traits of Britannia and its people. The Royal Navy ships had done their duty to the end and the Prussian vessel was scarred by this selfless devotion.

Aboard the great Prussian battleship sat a generator in an armoured bunker. Sitting to the ship’s aft, it was fire blackened and the flicker of flames were still visible across the expanse of cold grey sea. The thick belt of armour that protected its hull was dented and pockmarked. Small bites, but the overall effect was cheering to those watchers on the Iron Duke. But despite the superficial damage the great Prussian was still hale and hearty, eager to renew its glut of destruction. Slowly the Weslfalen’s turrets rotated to draw a bead on the lone Britannian warship and its huge 18-inch cannons roared out a challenge.

The Iron Duke could not match its daunting cannons in size, but it outstripped them in number. Letting out a savage snarl of its own the Kingdom ship unleashed a veritable wall of shellfire in earnest.

Lieutenant Arthur Redwood, watching on the port side facing the Prussians, felt the Iron Duke lean under the force of those broadsides. The sound itself was deafening but the wait was even more terrible. What went up, after all, had to come down. With a great, gut-wrenching impact, the first shells landed. Geysers of water fifty feet high erupted as the opening salvoes straddled the two foes. These were the ranging shots, part experience part guesswork, all guided by the telescopic targeted lenses and firing solution cogitators. But the labour of chambering the massive rounds at such great rates was all down to Prussian and Britannian muscle. In the cramped confines of the turrets that hot, sweltering work was repeated inexhaustibly at blistering pace in oven-hot air. It was a thankless, loveless role. The gunners would have it no other way.

Atop decks the blanket of gun smog wafted everywhere thanks to the explosive pressure changes of the big guns’ discharges. Even as the Iron Duke ploughed through the North Sea swells it shed a comet’s tail of fumes. It was with a sudden lurch and the sound of a thunderclap that the first Prussian shells struck home. They had been imperceptibly slowed by the invisible ‘Almighty’ above the Iron Duke. Robbed of their velocity and penetration the shells smashed straight into the Kingdom ship’s thick armour, exploding ineffectuality. Their violence still burned, bent, dented and buckled, but it did not gouge and cripple.

But the Kingdom’s response was having more of an effect. Whether the bombardment had added to the flames, or merely driven off those who were fighting it, there where increasing signs of an inferno spreading along the rear of the Prussian ship. Other signs of damage were obfuscated by water plumes and the banks of cannon discharge. Even as the Kingdom Battleship seemed to be edging this initial exchange, more svelte matt-grey Prussian ships appeared from the all-concealing combination of island outcrop and endless smoke. Like younger brethren, these smaller cruisers mirrored the bigger battleship, cutting a different course like hounds as they raced.

“Well Admiral, that’s gonna complicate matters,” McLaren said drily. “I had hoped the Southampton would have seen these off!”

“From the looks of things Torbert went for that big fellow. Gave him a bloody nose too!” Admiral Crowsdale said loyally. “Time will tell if it was the right decision. Now, helm two points to starboard if you please. I want to make sure we cut across him cleanly.”

“We’re getting awfully close,” McLaren noted as the ship rocked beneath him.

“Excellent. Then there are no excuses to miss!”

McLaren didn’t point out the same held true for the Prussians. Their course was set. It was do or die time.

Arthur had a perfect view of the approaching Prussian ship, which seemed to grow and grow before his eyes. Soaked by spray, face blackened by smoke and semi-deafened by the broadsides, Arthur’s role had been reduced to that of spectator. The randomness of fate and chance alone dictated for exactly how long he would continue to watch.

A shell exploded down the ship, obliterating an ack-ack battery and immolating its three-man crew. Wooden decking had been shredded into splinters, the steel railings twisted beyond all recognition. The hull’s armour was dented and bruised by the explosion and deadly shrapnel had rattled off everywhere to add to the mayhem. Ducking behind the flimsy shelter of the nearest battery, Arthur sat out the rain of deadly indiscriminate metal shards. Another wave of brackish, near-black water washed over him from another near miss. Already drenched, the furious cascade did little but streak his soot grimy face. “Are we winning?” he shouted over to Sloane, his own ears ringing.

The marine shrugged then leant out over the railing for a better look. Arthur admired the man’s nerve. “We’ve a few holes, but beyond that?”

Arthur nodded, barely hearing or comprehending. His first taste of Capital ship combat was proving to be a shock to his senses. His body ached from being bounced against bulkheads by a combination of the impact of enemy fire, the Iron Duke’s own rapturous discourse and the buffeting from cleaving through the sea itself.

Arthur’s nerves were frayed from each near miss, tension straining his face and leaving his body jarringly tense. He needed to move. He needed to act. However Sloane, an old soldier, was outwardly calm. Only the white knuckles of the marine displayed his anxiety as he clenched his rifle.

All the while the Prussian battleship drew closer.

The bridge rocked from another thunderous impact, officers and midshipmen swaying at their stations. The most recent shell had landed next to ‘B’ turret, ripping into the ship’s hull before exploding with murderous vengeance. An aid station and a secondary signal point vanished in the blast, decorated surgeon Elliot Murray-Webster and eleven other sailors losing their lives instantly.

A shard of twisted metal shrapnel the length of a man’s arm smashed into the bridges armoured glass windows. The impact cracked the reinforced glass, leaving a spider’s web pattern for Admiral Crowsdale to peer through. The old seaman frowned, irritated.

“She’s defiantly slowing,” McLaren said from the Admiral’s side.

“And she’s not altered course,” Crowsdale said with a knowing smile.

“Her rudder’s gone. Or their engines,” the Scott said.

“Or both!” Crowsdale chuckled. “Either way, she’s lame. I suggest we put her out of her misery.”

“Those cruisers won’t just go away if we ignore them, sir,” McLaren warned.

“One thing at a time, Fergus,” Crowsdale said with a gleam in his eye. “We’ll swing around the battleship after we’ve crossed the ‘T’. Whatever the outcome of our exchange here, those cruisers will have a hard job firing through their own ship.”

“Right you are, sir,” McLaren said with a shrug, burying his unease. After all, it just wouldn’t do to argue with an Admiral. He watched through the cracked windows and resisted the urge to cross his fingers.

The combination of all three of the Iron Duke’s turrets blazing away had a considerable effect on the Weslfalen. Holes appeared in the Prussian ship’s superstructure, craters marring her once majestic visage. Huge armoured plate had been prised away by the jagged violence of shellfire. Yet still the Prussian fought back. As the range fell the secondary batteries opened up on both ships as the furious exchange rose to a fever pitch. The dry crackle of the Prussian Teslas and their ozone reek added their touch.

Arthur, now accustomed to the rumble of each gun, merely swayed instead of stumbled as the duel continued. Yet he was caught out as the Iron Duke shifted her course, cutting to starboard to run parallel to the Prussian ship. Arthur swore as he regained his footing, ignoring his throbbing knees. “What are we doing?” he yelled to the world at large.

“What we must,” Sloane answered philosophically.

“We’re running alongside them!” Arthur despaired. “Their secondaries are going to give us a roasting.” Even as he said the words the smaller cannons flashed out their murderous payloads. After the impact of the colossal 18” shells these smaller hits hardly registered.

“It’s not them I’m worried about,” Sloane roared over the din. He pointed with his rifle. “Look!” Aboard the Prussian ship, silhouetted by the flaming decks, scores of men could be seen mustering. “Luftlancer,” the Master Sergeant said, spitting even as he reached into his redcoat for a silver whistle on a chain.

Arthur stood bemused as the shrill notes rang out. “Who are Luftlancers?”

“Air Lancers, boy. The Prussian damned marine corps,” Sloane explained as more red-coated marines rushed into position. “Man your station, Lieutenant, they mean to board us!”

Arthur blinked in amazement before readying his ack-ack teams. The batteries swung around to counter the threat, barrels rising. Arthur was still uncertain how the Luftlancers intend to cross the expanse of churning North Sea. After the mind-numbing insanity of the battle he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had swum.

“They’ll jump soon,” Sloane warned, somehow able to decipher their intent across the smoke-obscured divide. He slipped a bayonet onto his rifle with a practical twist. It made the rifle front heavy and harder to aim, but when the action was thick and fast, reloading wasn’t a luxury the veteran marine could count on.

“Jump?” Arthur clarified, dubious, as he drew his rapier in readiness.

“They’re air-lancers. They wear ruddy big rocket packs and carry long Tesla spears!” Sloane said, kneeling and drawing a bead. The Prussians lined up ready.

“They’re mad,” Arthur said reeling, “Utterly mad.” He shook his head and raised his arm. With a whoosh of propellant the Prussian marines soared into the sky, above the banks of smoke. “Those poor fools,” Arthur said with feeling before dropping his arm and unleashing hell at the fearless Prussians.

Those brave men of Prussia took flight into that wall of steel and fire. Arthur was profoundly moved by their devotion to duty, but his respect turned into revulsion and shame as a grisly butcher’s shop of debris rained down, that and a drizzle of red mist. The rhythmic thud of the batteries drowned out the screams of the dying and the doomed. Those Luftlancers that survived the madness found Master Sergeant Sloane and his marines waiting. With disciplined volleys and the point of a bayonet the Kingdom troopers finished the grim work.

Stepping away from the ringing guns, Arthur spied the black-pointed steel helmet of a Luftlancer complete with its breathing mask and visor. Without thought he bent to pick it up, recoiling in horror at the dead eyes staring back at him. He kicked the helmet with its accusing eyes over the side. But the young Lieutenant knew he would never forget those hazel eyes until the end of his days.

As the two sparring battleships pulled apart the cascade of cannon fire stuttered and ceased altogether. Low in the water and listing dangerously, the Prussian battleship was going down. The Luftlancers’ assault had been a last desperate throw of the dice that had failed. Men on the Weslfalen ran for the few lifeboats not ruined by the ill fortunes of battle. With a slow grinding of metal bearings, the turrets of the Iron Duke rotated away from the sinking battleship. The big cannons raised their aim to bracket the two cruisers as the Kingdom ship edged out from behind the shelter of the Prussian battleship.

With a display of foresight the pair, having witnessed the systematic destruction of their battleship, aborted their buccaneering charge. The two cruisers altered their course and made a fighting withdrawal as the arcing shellfire from the Kingdom ship sent up a wall of sea spray around the smaller vessels.

Admiral George Crowsdale slowly closed down his telescope, thumbing the power off and returning it to the leather case on his belt. Orange light reflected off the cracked glass as outside a fireball lit up the horizon. The trailing cruiser had been snapped in half by a cataclysmic eruption, and cheering had echoed out across the bridge.

“Cease fire if you please,” the Admiral said rubbing at tired eyes. “That’s enough for one day.”

“Aye, sir,” McLaren said with a nod, scratching at his beard, equally drained by the harrowing battle. The order was relayed from officer to midshipman down the speaking tubes until, entrenched in the turrets, the gun crews were bathed in a green light where no sound could compete with the cannon roar. Weary men, exhausted and sensually removed from the outside world, regarded each other blankly, their fatigue total.

“Crews to standby stations, Captain. Let’s make way for that spur yonder and collect the survivors from the cruisers.”

“And the Prussians?” McLaren asked.

“Our brave boys first. The Prussians can tread water for a while,” Crowsdale replied. “They’ll have to spend the night on that rock until we can appropriate some transport.”

“I was thinking more of that cruiser, sir,” the Scotsman clarified. “It may have friends about. Zeppelins from some Norwegian base?”

“Then by golly we’ll beat them too!” the Admiral responded cheerfully as he headed for the hatch to his ready room. Pausing, he collected his tin mug of tea from the chart table and with a disgusted face determined it had gone cold.

Fergus McLaren watched him go and shook his head in bewilderment. As long as he sailed he would never understand the sometimes-overwhelming arrogance of the English. Still, the Admiral’s confidence made him smile and it was with good humour he oversaw the bridge that was now strangely serene. The relief watch took charge from the exhausted bridge crew, taking charge of stations, consoles and the big brass and oak wheel of the ship. Transcriptors were sent to both Whitehall and the Admiralty detailing the chance encounter. Fergus wandered over to the chart table, avoiding his own stone cold tea. Instead he picked up a tin wax pencil, making minor updates on course and position.

As an afterthought he erased the cross marking the enemy contact, wiping it clean with his thumb, smiling as the huzzahs of the crew rang out.

Epilogue

Standing by the railing at his watch station, Lieutenant Arthur Redwood of the HMS Iron Duke sipped at his tea. He was silently watching the tugs and steamers from the Scapa Flow as they carried out the salvage of the ruined HMS Sheffield. The defiant Kingdom cruiser, the Shiny Shef as it was known, had been driven onto an underwater shelf of Norwegian rock by enemy fire. Its turrets knocked out and lodged in place, the ship had been a reluctant bystander to the ensuing battle. Now, after three days of critical repairs she was scarcely deemed able to be towed back to port. All the other Kingdom ships had been destroyed.

Sensing a presence Arthur turned, snapping off a smart salute as Captain McLaren appeared beside him. For a big man he was remarkably light on his feet.

“As you were, Lieutenant” the Scotsman said with a brief smile. Once again the pair stood silently as the sea roiled endlessly. “You did well for your first taste of combat,” he said eventually, breaking the silence. “Master Sergeant Sloane speaks very highly of you. That speaks volumes, as his praise is as rare as mermaids out here.”

“I merely did my duty, sir,” Arthur said conservatively. “Just as those brave Prussians did.” The eyes looked through him even now.

“Aye, that they did,” McLaren said gravely. “They were fine men one and all,” he admitted.

“What will happen to the survivors?”

“They will be debriefed, interviewed and detained. I’m sure most will be released in some sort of prisoner exchange, but until then they will enjoy some good old Scottish hospitality!”

“They will go free? To fight again?”

“Aye. But we’ve beaten them once already. In that defeat we will seem mightier than ever. That is the legacy they will take home to Prussia.”

“But they will be back,” Arthur said with conviction.

“That they may. And if that’s the case we will do battle once more. Me and the old Iron Duke will be waiting,” McLaren promised.

“And me too, sir”.

The pair continued to watch the manoeuvring steamers until the ship’s bell tolled the end of the watch. Young and old, united in iron hard determination. The war would go on. It truly was a dystopian time.