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Chapter XX


DENIS CASTELLAN had put the situation tersely, but with a considerable amount of accuracy. Earth and sea and sky were ablaze with swarms of shooting, shifting lights, which kept crossing each other and making ever-changing patterns of a magnificent embroidery, and amidst these, huge shells and star-rockets were bursting in clouds of smoke and many-coloured flame. The thunder of the big guns, the grinding rattle of the quick-firers, and the hoarse, whistling shrieks of the shells, completed the awful pandemonium of destruction and death that was raging round Dover.

The truth was that the main naval attack of the Allies was being directed on the south-eastern stronghold. I am aware that this is not the usual plan followed by those who have written romantic forecasts of the invasion of England. It seems at first sight, provided that the enemy could pass the sentinels of the sea unnoticed, easy to land troops on unprotected portions of our shores; but, in actual warfare, this would be the most fatal policy that could be pursued, simply because, whatever the point selected, the invaders would always find themselves between two strong places, with one or more ahead of them. They would thus be outflanked on all sides, with no retreat open but the sea, which is the most easily closed of all retreats.

From their point of view, then, the Allies were perfectly right in their project of reducing the great strongholds of southern and eastern England, before advancing with their concentrated forces upon London. It would, of course, be a costly operation. In fact Britain's long immunity from invasion went far to prove that, to enemies possessing only the ordinary means of warfare, it would have been impossible, but, ever since the success of the experiment at Potsdam, German engineering firms had been working hard under John Castellan's directions turning out improved models of the Flying Fish. The various parts were manufactured at great distances apart, and no one firm knew what the others were doing. It was only when the parts of the vessels and the engines were delivered at the closely-guarded Imperial factory at Potsdam, that, under Castellan's own supervision, they became the terrible fighting machines that they were.

The Aerial Fleet numbered twenty when war broke out, and of these five had been detailed for the attack on Dover. They were in fact the elements which made that attack possible, and, as is already known, four were co-operating with the Northern Division of the Allied Fleets against the forts defending Chatham and London.

Dover was at that time one of the most strongly fortified places in the world. Its magnificent new harbour had been completed, and its fortifications vastly strengthened and re-armed with the new fourteen-inch gun which had superseded the old sixteen-inch gun of position, on account of its greater handiness, combined with greater penetrating power.

But at Dover, as at Portsmouth, the forts were powerless against the assaults of these winged demons of the air. They were able to use their terrible projectiles with reckless profusion, because only twenty-two miles away at Calais there were inexhaustible stores from which they could replenish their magazines. Moreover, the private factory at Kiel, where alone they were allowed to be manufactured, were turning them out by hundreds a day.

They had, of course, formed the vanguard of the attacking force which had advanced in three divisions in column of line abreast from Boulogne, Calais and Antwerp. The Boulogne and Calais divisions were French, and each consisted of six battleships with the usual screens of cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats: these two divisions constituted the French North Sea Squadron, whose place had been taken by the main German Fleet, assisted by the Belgian and Dutch squadron.

Another German and Russian division was advancing on London. It included four first-class battleships, and two heavily-armed coast defence ships, huge floating fortresses, rather slow in speed, but tremendous in power, which accompanied them for the purpose of battering the fortifications, and doing as much damage to Woolwich and other important places on both sides as their big guns could achieve. Four Flying Fishes accompanied this division.

Such was the general plan of action on that fatal night. Confident in the terrific powers of their Aerial Squadrons, and ignorant of the existence of the Ithuriel, the Allied Powers never considered the possibilities of anything but rapid victory. They knew that the forts could no more withstand the shock of the bombardment from the air than battleships or cruisers could resist the equally deadly blow which these same diabolical contrivances could deliver under the water.

They had not the slightest doubt but that forts would be silenced and fleets put out of action with a swiftness unknown before, and then the crowded transports would follow the victorious fleets, and the military promenade upon London would begin, headed by the winged messengers of destruction, from which neither flight nor protection was possible.

Of course, the leaders of the Allies were in ignorance of the misfortunes they had suffered at Portsmouth and Folkestone. All they knew they learned from aerograms, one from Admiral Durenne off the Isle of Wight saying that the Portsmouth forts had been silenced and the Fleet action had begun, and another from the Commodore of the squadron off Folkestone saying that all was going well, and the landing would shortly be effected: and thus they fully expected to have the three towns and the entrance to the Thames at their mercy by the following day.

Certainly, as far as Dover was concerned, things looked very much as though their anticipations would be realised, for when the Ithuriel arrived upon the scene, Dover Castle and its surrounding forts were vomiting flame and earth into the darkening sky, like so many volcanoes. The forts on Admiralty Pier, Shakespear Cliff, and those commanding the new harbour works, had been silenced and blown up, and the town and barracks were in flames in many places.

The scene was, in short, so inhumanly appalling, and horror followed horror with such paralysing rapidity, that the most practised correspondents and the most experienced officers, both afloat and ashore, were totally unable to follow them and describe what was happening with anything like coherence. It was simply an inferno of death and destruction, which no human words could have properly described, and perhaps the most ghastly feature of it was the fact that there was no human agency visible in it at all. There was no Homeric struggle of man with man, although many a gallant deed was done that night which never was seen nor heard of, and many a hero went to his death without so much as leaving behind him the memory of how he died.

It was a conflict of mechanical giants — giant ships, giant engines, giant guns, and explosives of something more than giant strength. These were the monsters which poor, deluded Humanity, like another Frankenstein, had thought out with infinite care and craft, and fashioned for its own mutual destruction. Men had made a hell out of their own passions and greed and jealousies; and now that hell had opened and mankind was about to descend into it.

The sea-defence of Dover itself consisted of the Home Fleet in three divisions, composed respectively of the England, London, Bulwark and Venerable, Queen and Prince of Wales battleships, and ten first-class armoured cruisers, the Duncan, Cornwallis, Exmouth and Russell battleships, with twelve armoured cruisers, and thirdly, the reconstructed and re-armed Empress of India, Revenge, Repulse and Resolution, with eight armoured cruisers. To the north between Dover and the North Foreland lay the Southern Division of the North Sea Squadron.

When the battle had commenced these three divisions were lying in their respective stations, in column of line ahead about six miles from the English shore. Behind them lay a swarm of destroyers and torpedo boats, ready to dart out and do their deadly work between the ships, and ten submarines were attached to each division. The harbour and approaches were, of course, plentifully strewn with mines.

"It's an awful sight," said Castellan, with a note of awe in his voice, when they had taken in the situation with the rapidity and precision of the professional eye. "And to me the worst of it is that it won't be safe for us to take a share in the row."

"What!" exclaimed Erskine, almost angrily. "Do you mean to tell me we sha'n't be able to help our fellows? Then what on earth have we come here for?"

"Just look there, now!" said Castellan, pointing ahead to where huge shapes, enveloped in a mist of flame and smoke, were circling round each other, vomiting their thunderbolts, like leviathans engaged in a veritable dance of death.

"D'ye see that!" continued Denis. "What good would we be among that lot? The Ithuriel hasn't eyes on her that can see through the dark water, and if she had, how would we tell the bottom of a French or German ship from a Britisher's, and a nice thing it would be for us to go about sinking the King's ships, and helping those foreign devils to land in old England! No, Erskine, this ship of yours is a holy terror, but she's a daylight fighter. Don't you see that we came too late, and wait till tomorrow we can't, and there's the Duke's orders.

"I'll tell you what," he continued more cheerfully, as the Ithuriel cleared the southern part of the battle, "if we could get at the transports we might have some fun with them, but they'll all be safe enough in port, loading up, and there's not much chance that they'll come out till our boys have been beaten and the roads are clear for them. Then they'll go across thinking they'll meet their pals from Portsmouth and Folkestone. Now, you see that line out there to the north-eastward?"

"Yes," said Erskine, looking towards a long row of dim shapes which every now and then were brought out into ominous distinctness by the flashes of the shells and searchlights.

"Well," continued Castellan, "if I know anything of naval tactics, that's the Reserve lot waiting till the battle's over. They think they'll win, and I think so too, thanks to those devil-ships my brother has made for them. Even if Beresford does come up in time, he can no more fight against them than anybody else. Now, there's just one chance that we can give him, and that is sinking the Reserve; for, you see, if we've only half a dozen ships left that can shoot a bit in the morning, they won't dare to put their transports out without a convoy, and unless they land them, well, they're no use."

"Castellan," said Erskine, putting his hand on his shoulder, "you'll be an admiral some day. Certainly, we'll go for the convoy, for I'll be kicked if I can stand here watching all that going on and not have a hand in it. We'd better sink, and use nothing but the ram, I suppose."

"Why, of course," replied Castellan. "It would never do to shoot at them. There are too many, and besides, we don't want them to know that we're here until we've sent them to the bottom."

"And a lot they'll know about it then!" laughed Erskine. "All right," he continued, taking down the receiver. "Courtney and Mac can see to the sinking, so you'd better stop here with me and see the fun."

"That I will, with all the pleasure in life and death," said Castellan grimly, as Erskine gave his orders and the Ithuriel immediately began to sink.

Castellan was perfectly right in his conjecture as to the purpose of the Reserve.

The French and German Squadron, which was intended for the last rush through the remnants of the crippled British fleet, consisted of four French and three German battleships, old and rather slow, but heavily armed, and much more than a match for the vessels which had already passed through the terrible ordeal of battle. In addition there were six fast second-class cruisers, and about a score of torpedo boats.

With her decks awash and the conning-tower just on a level with the short, choppy waves, the Ithuriel ran round to the south of the line at ten knots, as they were anxious not to kick up any fuss in the water, lest a chance searchlight from the enemy might fall upon them, and lead to trouble. She got within a mile of the first cruiser unobserved, and then Erskine gave the order to quicken up. They had noticed that the wind was rising, and they knew that within half an hour the tide would be setting southward like a mill-race through the narrow strait.

Their tactics therefore were very simple. Every cruiser and battleship was rammed in the sternpost; not very hard, but with sufficient force to crumple up the sternpost, and disable the rudder and the propellers, and with such precision was this done, that, until the signals of distress began to flash, the uninjured ships and the nearest of those engaged in the battle were under the impression that orders had been given for the Reserve to move south. But this supposition very soon gave place to panic as ship after ship swung helplessly inshore, impelled by the ever-strengthening tide towards the sands of Calais and the rocks of Gris Nez.

Searchlights flashed furiously, but Erskine and Castellan had already taken the bearings of the remaining ships, and the Ithuriel, now ten feet below the water, and steered solely by compass, struck ship after ship, till the whole of the Reserve was drifting helplessly to destruction.

This, as they had both guessed, produced a double effect on the battle. In the first place it was impossible for the Allies to see their Reserve, upon which so much might depend, in such a helpless plight, and the admirals commanding were therefore obliged to detach ships to help them; and on the other hand, the British were by no means slow to take advantage of the position. A score of torpedo boats, and half as many destroyers, dashed out from behind the British lines, and, rushing through the hurricane of shell that was directed upon them, ran past the broken line of unmanageable cruisers and battleships, and torpedoed them at easy range. True, half of them were crumpled up, and sent to the bottom during the process, but that is a contingency which British torpedo officers and men never take the slightest notice of. The disabled ships were magnificent marks for torpedoes, and they had to go down, wherefore down they went.

Meanwhile the Ithuriel had been having a merry time among the torpedo flotilla of the Reserve Squadron. She rose flush with the water, put on full speed, and picked them up one after another on the end of her ram, and tossed them aside into the depths as rapidly as an enraged whale might have disposed of a fleet of whaleboats.

The last boat had hardly gone down when signals were seen flashing up into the sky from over Dungeness.

"That's Beresford to the rescue," said Castellan, in a not over-cheerful voice. "Now if it wasn't for those devil-ships of my brother's there'd be mighty little left of the Allied Fleet to-morrow morning; but I'm afraid he won't be able to do anything against those amphibious Flying Fishes, as he calls them. Now, we'd better be off to London."

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