Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Naval Action

"We will strike them head-on," Commander Adams told the flag captain, leaning over a chart. "The Maryland has recently had its hull refitted, so it will take the lead in the formation. Delaware, Virginia, Florida, and Deseret will follow. We will stay in the rear while Baja California, Tejas, and Dakota spread out and look for opportunities."

"The Tejas is vulnerable, sir," Adams' flag captain noted. "Her stern was sheared off a skirmish near the Virgin Isles, and it's still a weak point."

"What time is it?" Adams asked.

The flag captain pulled out his timepiece from his pocket. "Ten to the hour, sir," he reported.

"Well, then, she'll just have to be more careful," Adams snapped. "Give the orders."

The flag captain saluted and walked away. Shortly, the semaphore flags went up at the rear of the ship, waving gaily in the air. Shortly, the rest of the formation sent confirmation signals. They were ready for battle.

The first thing the Americans saw of the enemy was the gray of their engine smoke. One by one, they came over the horizon; six of them in all, when the lookout had finished his count. It was long minutes until they could see more, as the iron hulls were hard to make out against the water. Most of the enemy ships were of the same size as the American fleet, but two of them, in the fore, were much larger: heavy cruisers, as the Americans classed them. A murmur went through the crew as they beheld the size of the vessels, but Adams retained his posture, as stiff and straight as though his spine were made of steel, and the men gained heart.

By this time they were all armed with rifle and grenade, but the greater number of them, having no particular purpose at this stage of the battle, milled about aimlessly. The fleets closed relentlessly. The enemy ships loomed ever larger, gigantic wedge-prows largest in view. When they were close enough to see the names painted on the enemy ships' sides, Adams turned sharply and called out, "All men to battle stations! Prepare to engage the enemy more closely!"

Now the sailors and marines scurried about the deck, most of the sailors vanishing below. The signal officer stayed, performing his duties with commendable dedication, though he glanced frequently at the enemy fleet ahead. The noise from the engine, already horrendous, redoubled as the engineers struggled to increase speed. The waves swept by, and the cruisers loomed ever larger. Riding half again as high in the water as the American destroyers, and likely having twice the length, their intimidation factor was not to be underestimated. Adams leaned forward unconsciously, gritting his teeth as the battle's beginning neared.

Then, with a screech and clash of grinding and breaking metal that could be heard across hundreds of feet and the engine's deafening roar, the fleets collided. The Delaware and Florida had each rammed a cruiser head-on, while the Deseret struck a cruiser in the flank to assist the Florida. The Virginia struck a destroyer moments later, driving into its side as it turned to assist a cruiser.

Troops from the cruisers swarmed onto the American vessels, attacking viciously as their comrades assisted them from the cruisers' decks. The marines held their own with shrapnel and bomb-flinging deck guns, but it was a bloody affair, and the enemy had the advantage in numbers on the Delaware, making it merely a matter of time. Adams ordered the Virginia to abandon the destroyer it had struck and assist the Delaware, but as it pulled away, a furious battle raging on its decks, another enemy destroyer sped in and struck the Virginia on its own flank. Several American marines perished instantly with the blow, smashed to death, but the others responded quickly, rushing to the attack before the ramming destroyer could withdraw in turn. Already the destroyer the Virginia had rammed was capsizing, dropping like the iron weight it was; marines and sailors alike abandoned firing and jumped, swimming for dear life to the two enemy destroyers not yet engaged.

Those two destroyers were engaged in a sort of game of chicken with the Baja California, Dakota, and Tejas, each maneuvering for position to avoid the fate of the Virginia. Given time, the three American ships would be able to gain the advantage over their opponents; but if the Delaware was to be saved, there was no time. Impatiently, Adams ordered the attack, snapping out, "Are their captains men or mice?" The Tejas went to the assistance of the Delaware while the Baja California and Dakota each steamed straight at a destroyer, forcing them either to flee or ram head-on. The Baja California hit its target, but the Dakota's counterpart turned aside at the last moment to pursue the Tejas. Reacting too slowly, the Dakota failed to take advantage and steamed straight past the enemy destroyer, crews exchanging shots as they went. They turned, belatedly, but it would be long minutes before they could catch the ship; and meanwhile, it pursued the Tejas, damaged stern all too clearly visible.

Adams cursed at the setback. He took a moment more to study the situation; the Virginia still bloodily engaged (having managed to grapple itself to the foe, preventing it from withdrawing and allowing the Virginia to capsize); the Deseret's crew boarding the enemy cruiser; the Tejas in flight, pursued by the enemy destroyer (pursued in turn by the Dakota!); the Baja California boarding the destroyer they rammed, and the Delaware, weightiest in Adams' mind, raising the white flag.

Turning to the flag captain, Adams inquired again, "What is the time?"

"It is half past the hour," the flag captain replied.

"We must keep the enemy fleet fully engaged," Adams complained. "I had thought that this fleet was of higher quality, but I must work with what I am given. Captain, strike the enemy cruiser to port."

His face turned pale. "Sir, are you ordering me to attack an enemy outnumbering me two-to-one and, furthermore, one who has already taken the flag of one of our own ships?"

Adams turned quite red. "Are you refusing an order from a superior officer?" he asked. Voice rising, he said, "One who is ordering you to strike a foe bloody and wearied with a fresh force, which, moreover, can strike the flank, their ship being too slow to manuever?"

"No, sir!" the flag captain replied hurriedly. The flag captain gave the orders, and the ship built up speed. A marine fired early; his sergeant reprimanded him. As the gray hull of the cruiser loomed out of the water at Adams, he turned to the flag captain. "What is the time?"

"Thirty-three past!" he yelled - then all was the noise of iron on iron.

When the crash was over, moments that seemed an eternity later, the cruiser-marines sprang to the attack, lining up at the gunwale to fire down on the flagship. Adams' marines returned fire, and both sides wreaked a dreadful toll on the other. Adams remained to the rear, occasionally offering a shot from his pistol.

At this point, somewhat more would occur; but there is a necessary interruption to make.

A listener inquires, "Sir, are you writing some fiction loosely based on the old notion you once read, wherein the advent of the ironclad (before the invention of armour-piercing shot) led naval strategists to think that cannon would be eschewed, lacking to power to penetrate iron hulls, being replaced by some manner of ramming-ship?"

The listener is correct.

"Did you have any particular point in mind, other than that?" the listener inquires.

In fact, the answer would be: No.

"Would you rather mind telling us what would happen if every participant in the battle were, quite suddenly, transformed into a narwhal?" the listener suggests.

Commodore Adams looked down at himself. "Why, I am a narwhal!" he said - or rather snorted, narwhals not being known for their capabilities for speech. "Also, I have a gigantic horn!"

The others present on the ship honked in agreement. Then they all slid off and went swimming for fish!

Commodore Adams was much happier as a narwhal, so it's probably for the best.

EDIT: If you want to know the original ending: the Americans withdraw with about half their fleet (all that remains), and Adams thinks happily to himself about how he managed to delay the foe long enough to keep them from stopping transports (not pictured) from reaching the invasion target. Britain, maybe? Could be.

It's not really as interesting as Plan Narwhal.