A Crime And A Mistake
From: The World Peril Of 1910
When the destruction of the forts and the sinking of the battleships at
Portsmouth had been accomplished, John Castellan made about the greatest
mistake in his life, a mistake which had very serious consequences for
those to whom he had sold himself and his terrible invention.
He and his brother Denis formed a very curious contrast, which is
nevertheless not uncommon in Irish families. The British army and navy
can boast no finer soldiers or sailors, and the Empire no more devoted
servants than those who claim Ireland as the land of their birth, and
Denis Castellan was one of these. As the reader may have guessed
already, he and Erskine had only been on the Cormorant because it was
the policy of the Naval Council to keep two of the ablest men in the
service out of sight for a while. Denis, who had a remarkable gift of
tongues, was really one of the most skilful naval attaches in service,
and what he didn't know about the naval affairs of Europe was hardly
worth learning. Erskine had been recognised by the Naval Council which,
under Sir John Fisher, had raised the British Navy to a pitch of
efficiency that was the envy of every nation in the world, except Japan,
as an engineer and inventor of quite extraordinary ability, and while
the Ithuriel was building, they had given him the command of the
Cormorant, chiefly because there was hardly anything to do, and
therefore he had ample leisure to do his thinking.
On the other hand John Castellan was an unhappily brilliant example of
that type of Keltic intellect which is incapable of believing the
world-wide truism that the day of small states is passed. He had two
articles of political faith. One was an unshakable belief in the
possibility of Irish independence, and the other, which naturally
followed from the first, was implacable hatred of the Saxon oppressor
whose power and wealth had saved Ireland from invasion for centuries. He
was utterly unable to grasp the Imperial idea, while his brother was as
enthusiastic an Imperialist as ever sailed the seas.
Had it not been for this blind hatred, the disaster which had befallen
the Reserve Fleet would have been repeated at sea on a much vaster
scale; but he allowed his passions to overcome his judgment, and so
saved the Channel Fleet. There lay beneath him defenceless the greatest
naval port of England, with its docks and dockyards, its barracks and
arsenals, its garrisons of soldiers and sailors, and its crowds of
workmen. The temptation was too strong for him, and he yielded to it.
When the Prince George had gone down he rose into the air, and ran
over the Isle of Wight, signalling to the See Adler. The signals were
answered, and the two airships met about two miles south-west of the
Needles, and Castellan informed Captain Frenkel of his intention to
destroy Portsmouth and Gosport. The German demurred strongly. He had no
personal hatred to satisfy, and he suggested that it would be much
better to go out to sea and discover the whereabouts of the Channel
Fleet; but Castellan was Commander-in-Chief of the Aerial Squadrons of
the Allies, and so his word was law, and within the next two hours one
of the greatest crimes in the history of civilised warfare was
The two airships circled slowly over Gosport and Portsmouth, dropping
their torpedoes wherever a worthy mark presented itself. The first one
discharged from the Flying Fish fell on the deck of the old Victory.
The deck burst up, as though all the powder she had carried at
Trafalgar had exploded beneath it, and the next moment she broke out in
inextinguishable flames. The old Resolution met the same fate from the
See Adler, and then the pitiless hail of destruction fell on the docks
and jetties. In a few minutes the harbour was ringed with flame.
Portsmouth Station, built almost entirely of wood, blazed up like
matchwood; then came the turn of the dockyards at Portsea, which were
soon ablaze from end to end.
Then the two airships spread their wings like destroying angels over
Portsmouth town. Half a dozen torpedoes wrecked the Town Hall and set
the ruins on fire. This was the work of the See Adler. The Flying
Fish devoted her attention to the naval and military barracks, the
Naval College and the Gunnery School on Whale Island. As soon as these
were reduced to burning ruins, the two airships scattered their
torpedoes indiscriminately over churches, shops and houses, and in the
streets crowded by terrified mobs of soldiers, sailors and civilians.
The effect of the torpedoes in the streets was too appalling for
description. Everyone within ten or a dozen yards of the focus of the
explosion was literally blown to atoms, and for fifty yards round every
living creature dropped dead, killed either by the force of the
concussion or the poisonous gases which were liberated by the explosion.
Hundreds fell thus without the mark of a wound, and when some of their
bodies were examined afterwards, it was found that their hearts were
split open as cleanly as though they had been divided with a razor, just
as are the hearts of fishes which have been killed with dynamite.
John Castellan and his lieutenant, M'Carthy, for the time being gloried
in the work of destruction. Captain Frenkel was a soldier and a
gentleman, and he saw nothing in it save wanton killing of defenceless
people and a wicked waste of ammunition; but the terrible War Lord of
Germany had given Castellan supreme command, and to disobey meant
degradation, and possibly death, and so the See Adler perforce took
her share in the tragedy.
In a couple of hours Portsmouth, Gosport and Portsea had ceased to be
towns. They were only areas of flaming ruins; but at last the ammunition
gave out, and Castellan was compelled to signal the See Adler to shape
her course for Bracklesham Bay in order to replenish the magazines. They
reached the bay, and descended at the spot where the Leger ought to
have been at anchor. She was not there, for the sufficient reason that
the Ithuriel's ram had sent her to the bottom of the Channel.
For half an hour the Flying Fish and the See Adler hunted over the
narrow waters, but neither was the Leger nor any other craft to be
seen between the Selsey coast and the Isle of Wight. When they came
together again in Bracklesham Bay, John Castellan's rage against the
hated Saxon had very considerably cooled. Evidently something serious
had happened, and something that he knew nothing about, and now that the
excitement of destruction had died away, he remembered more than one
thing which he ought to have thought of before.
The two rushes of the torpedo boats, supported by the swift cruisers,
had not taken place. Not a hostile vessel had entered either Spithead or
the Solent, and the British cruisers, which he had been ordered to
spare, had got away untouched. It was perfectly evident that some
disaster had befallen the expedition, and that the Leger had been
involved in it. In spite of the terrible destruction that the Flying
Fish, the See Adler and the Banshee had wrought on sea and land, it
was plain that the first part of the invader's programme had been
brought to nothing by some unknown agency.
He was, of course, aware of the general plan of attack. He had destroyed
the battleships of the Fleet Reserve. While he was doing that the
destroyers should have been busy among the cruisers, and then the main
force, under Admiral Durenne, would follow, and take possession of
Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. A detachment of cruisers
and destroyers was then to be despatched to Littlehampton, and land a
sufficient force to seize and hold the railway at Ford and Arundel, so
that the coast line of the L.B.S.C.R., as well as the main line to
Horsham and London, should be at the command of the invaders.
Littlehampton was also particularly valuable on account of its tidal
river and harbour, which would give shelter and protection to a couple
of hundred torpedo boats and destroyers, and its wharves from which
transports could easily coal. It is hardly worth while to add that it
had been left entirely undefended. It had been proposed to mount a
couple of 9.2 guns on the old fort on the west side of the river mouth,
with half a dozen twelve-pound quick-firers at the Coast-Guard station
on the east side to repel torpedo attack, but the War Office had laughed
at the idea of an enemy getting within gunshot of the inviolate English
shore, and so one of the most vulnerable points on the south coast had
been left undefended.
What would Castellan have given now for the torpedoes which the two
ships had wasted in the wanton destruction of Portsmouth, and the murder
of its helpless citizens. The main French Fleet by this time could not
be very far off. Behind it, somewhere, was the British Channel Fleet,
the most powerful sea force that had ever ridden the subject waves, and
here he was without a torpedo on either of his ships, and no supplies
nearer than Kiel. The Leger had carried two thousand torpedoes and
five hundred cylinders of the gases which supplied the motive power. She
was gone, and for all offensive purposes the Flying Fish and See
Adler were as harmless as a couple of balloons.
When it was too late, John Castellan remembered in the bitterness of his
soul that the torpedoes which had destroyed Portsmouth would have been
sufficient to have wrecked the Channel Fleet, and now there was nothing
for it but to leave Admiral Durenne to fight his own battle against the
most powerful fleet in the world, and to use what was left of the motive
power to get back to Kiel, and replenish their magazines.
Horrible as had been the fate which had fallen on the great arsenal of
southern England, it had not been sacrificed in vain, and very sick at
heart was John Castellan when he gave the order for the two vessels,
which a few hours ago had been such terrible engines of destruction, to
rise into the air and wing their harmless flight towards Kiel.
When the Flying Fish and the See Adler took the air, and shipped
their course eastward, the position of the opposing fleets was somewhat
as follows: The cruisers of the A Squadron, Amphitrite, Andromeda,
Europa, Niobe, Blenheim and Blake, with fifteen first-class
torpedo boats and ten destroyers, had got out to sea from Spithead
unharmed. All these cruisers were good for twenty knots, the torpedo
boats for twenty-five, and the destroyers for thirty. The Sutlej,
Ariadne, Argonaut and Diadem had got clear away from the Solent,
with ten first-class torpedo boats and five destroyers. They met about
four miles south-east of St Catherine's Point. Commodore Hoskins of the
Diadem was the senior officer in command, and so he signalled for
Captain Pennell, of the Andromeda, to come on board, and talk matters
over with him, but before the conversation was half-way through, a black
shape, with four funnels crowned with smoke and flame, came tearing up
from the westward, made the private signal, and ran alongside the
The news that her commander brought was this--Admiral Lord Beresford had
succeeded in eluding the notice of the French Channel Fleet, and was on
his way up the south-west with the intention of getting behind Admiral
Durenne's fleet, and crushing it between his own force to seaward and
the batteries and Reserve Fleet on the landward side. The Commander of
the destroyer was, of course, quite ignorant of the disaster which had
befallen the battleships of the Reserve Fleet and Portsmouth, and when
the captain of the cruiser told him the tidings, though he received the
news with the almost fatalistic sang froid of the British naval
officer, turned a shade or two paler under the bronze of his skin.
"That is terrible news, sir," he said, "and it will probably alter the
Admiral's plans considerably. I must be off as soon as possible, and let
him know: meanwhile, of course, you will use your own judgment."
"Yes," replied the Commodore, "but I think you had better take one of
our destroyers, say the Greyhound, back with you. She's got her
bunkers full, and she can manage thirty-two knots in a sea like this."
At this moment the sentry knocked at the door of the Commodore's room.
"Come in," said Commodore Hoskins. The door opened, a sentry came in and
saluted, and said:
"The Ithuriel's alongside, sir, and Captain Erskine will be glad to
speak to you."
"Ah!" exclaimed the Commodore, "the very thing. I wonder what that young
devil has been up to. Send him in at once, sentry."
The sentry retired, and presently Erskine entered the room, saluted, and
"I've come to report, sir, I have sunk everything that tried to get in
through Spithead. First division of three destroyers, the old Leger,
the Dupleix cruiser, six destroyers of the second division, and three
cruisers, the Alger, Suchet and Davout. They're all at the
The Commodore stared for a moment or two at the man who so quietly
described the terrific destruction that he had wrought with a single
ship, and then he said:
"Well, Erskine, we expected a good deal from that infernal craft of
yours, but this is rather more than we could have hoped for. You've done
splendidly. Now, what's your best speed?"
"Forty-five knots, sir."
"Good Lord!" exclaimed the Commander of the Greyhound. "You don't say
"Oh, yes," said Erskine with a smile. "You ought to have seen us walk
over those destroyers. I hit them at full speed, and they crumpled up
like paper boats."
By this time the Commodore had sat down, and was writing his report as
fast as he could get his pencil over the paper. It was a short, terse,
but quite comprehensive account of the happenings of the last three
hours, and a clear statement of the strength and position of the torpedo
and cruiser squadron under his command. When he had finished, he put the
paper into an envelope, and said to the Commander of the Greyhound:
"I am afraid you are no good here, Hawkins. I shall have to give the
message to Captain Erskine, he'll be there and back before you're there.
Just give him the bearings of the Fleet and he'll be off at once. There
you are, Erskine, give that to the Admiral, and bring me instructions
back as soon as you can. You've just time for a whisky-and-soda, and
then you must be off."
Erskine took the letter, and they drank their whisky-and-soda. Then they
went on deck. The Ithuriel was lying outside the Greyhound, half
submerged--that is to say, with three feet of freeboard showing.
Commander Hawkins looked at her with envious eyes. It is an article of
faith with all good commanders of destroyers that their own craft is the
fastest and most efficient of her class. At a pinch he could get
thirty-two knots out of the Greyhound, and here was this quiet,
determined-looking young man, who had created a vessel of his own, and
had reached the rank of captain by sheer genius over the heads of men
ten years older than himself, talking calmly of forty-five knots, and of
the sinking of destroyers and cruisers, as though it was a mere matter
of cracking egg-shells. Wherefore there was wrath in his soul when he
went on board and gave the order to cast loose. Erskine went with him.
They shook hands on the deck of the Greyhound, and Erskine went aboard
of the Ithuriel, saying:
"Well, Hawkins, I expect I shall meet you coming back."
"I'm damned if I believe in your forty-five knots," replied Captain
"Cast off, and come with me then," laughed Erskine, "you soon will."
Inside three minutes the two craft were clear of the Diadem. Erskine
gave the Greyhound right of way until they had cleared the squadron.
The sea was smooth, and there was scarcely any wind, for it had been a
wonderfully fine November. The Greyhound got on her thirty-two knots
as soon as there was no danger of hitting anything.
"That chap thinks he can race us," said Erskine to Lennard, as he got
into the conning-tower, "and I'm just going to make him the maddest man
in the British navy. He's doing thirty-two--we're doing twenty-five. Now
that we're clear I'll wake him up." He took down the receiver and said:
"Pump her out, Castellan, and give her full speed as soon as you can."
The Ithuriel rose in the water, and began to shudder from stem to
stern with the vibrations of the engines, as they gradually worked up to
their highest capacity. Commander Hawkins saw something coming up
astern, half hidden by a cloud of spray and foam. It went past him as
though he had been standing still instead of steaming at thirty-two
knots. A few moments more and it was lost in the darkness.
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