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Disaster







From: The World Peril Of 1910

About eight o'clock, as the half-wrecked victors and vanquished were
slowly struggling into the half-ruined harbour, five winged shapes
became visible against the grey sky over Calais, rapidly growing in
size, and a few minutes later two more appeared, approaching from the
north-east. They, alas, were the heralds of a fate against which all the
gallantry and skill of Britain's best sailors and soldiers would fight
in vain.

The two from the north-east were, of course, the Flying Fish and the
See Adler; the others were those which had been ordered to load up at
the Calais depot, and complete that victory of the Allied Fleets which
the science and devotion of British sailors had turned into utter
defeat.

John Castellan, standing in the conning-tower of the Flying Fish,
looking down over sea and land through his prismatic binoculars,
suddenly ground his teeth hard together, and sent a hearty Irish curse
hissing between them. He had a complete plan of the operations in his
possession, and knew perfectly what to expect--but what was this?

Dover and its fortifications were in ruins, as they ought to have been
by this time; but the British Flag still floated over them! The harbour
was almost filled with mutilated warships, and others were slowly
steaming towards the two entrances; but every one of these was flying
the White Ensign of England! There was not a French or German flag to be
seen--and there, all along the coast, which should have been in the
possession of the Allies by now, lay the ragged line of helpless hulks
which would never take the sea again.

What had happened? Where were the splendid fleets which were to have
battered the English defence into impotence? Where was the Reserve,
which was to have convoyed the transports across the narrow waters?
Where were the transports themselves and the half million men, horses
and artillery which to-day they were to land upon the stricken shores of
Kent?

With that marvellous intuition which is so often allied with the Keltic
genius, he saw in a flash all, or something like all, that had really
happened as a consequence of the loss of the depot ship at Spithead, and
the venting of his own mad hatred of the Saxon on the three defenceless
towns. The Channel Fleet had come, after all, in time, and defeated
Admiral Durenne's fleet; the Reserve cruisers had escaped, and
Portsmouth had been re-taken!

Would that have happened if he had used the scores of shells which he
had wasted in mere murder and destruction against the ships of the
Channel Fleet? It would not, and no one knew it better than he did.

Still, even now there was time to retrieve that ghastly mistake which
had cost the Allies a good deal more than even he had guessed at. He was
Admiral of the Aerial Squadrons, and, save under orders from
headquarters, free to act as he thought fit against the enemy. If his
passion had lost victory he could do nothing less than avenge defeat.

He ran up his telescopic mast and swerved to the southward to meet the
squadron from Calais, flying his admiral's flag, and under it the
signal:

"I wish to speak to you."

The Flying Fish and the See Adler quickened up, and the others
slowed down until they met about two thousand feet above the sea.
Castellan ran the Flying Fish alongside the Commodore of the other
Squadron, and in ten minutes he had learned what the other had to tell,
and arranged a plan of operations.

Within the next five minutes three of the seven craft had dropped to
the water and disappeared beneath it. The other four, led by the Flying
Fish, winged their way towards Dover.

The aerial section of the squadron made straight for the harbour. The
submarine section made south-westward to cut off the half dozen "lame
ducks" which were still struggling towards it. With these, unhappily,
was the Scotland, the huge flagship of the North Sea Squadron, which
still full of fight, was towing the battleship Commonwealth, whose
rudder and propellers had been disabled by a torpedo from a French
submarine.

She was, of course, the first victim selected. Two Flying Fishes
dived, one under her bows and one under her stern, and each discharged
two torpedoes.

No fabric made by human hands could have withstood the shock of the four
explosions which burst out simultaneously. The sore-stricken leviathan
stopped, shuddered and reeled, smitten to death. For a few moments she
floundered and wallowed in the vast masses of foaming water that rose up
round her--and when they sank she took a mighty sideward reel and
followed them.

The rest met their inevitable fate in quick succession, and went down
with their ensigns and pennants flying--to death, but not to defeat or
disgrace.

The ten British submarines which were left from the fight had already
put out to try conclusions with the Flying Fishes; but a porpoise
might as well have tried to hunt down a northern diver. As soon as each
Flying Fish had finished its work of destruction it spread its wings
and leapt into the air--and woe betide the submarine whose periscope
showed for a moment above the water, for in that moment a torpedo fell
on or close to it, and that submarine dived for the last time.

Meanwhile the horrors of the past afternoon and evening were being
repeated in the crowded harbour, and on shore, until a frightful
catastrophe befell the remains of the British Fleet.

John Castellan, with two other craft, was examining the forts from a
height of four thousand feet, and dropping a few torpedoes into any
which did not appear to be completely wrecked. The captain of another
was amusing himself by dispersing, in more senses than one, the
helpless, terror-stricken crowds on the cliffs whence they had lately
cheered the last of Britain's naval victories, and the rest were
circling over the harbour at a height of three thousand feet, letting go
torpedoes whenever a fair mark presented itself.

Of course the fight, if fight it could be called, was hopeless from the
first; but your British sailor is not the man to take even a hopeless
fight lying down, and so certain gallant but desperate spirits on board
the England, which was lying under what was left of the Admiralty
Pier, got permission to dismount six 3-pounders and remount them as a
battery for high-angle fire. The intention, of course, was, as the
originator of the idea put it: "To bring down a few of those flying
devils before they could go inland and do more damage there."

The intention was as good as it was unselfish, for the ingenious officer
in charge of the battery knew as well as his admiral that the fleet was
doomed to destruction in detail--but the first volley that battery fired
was the last.

A few of the shells must have hit a French Flying Fish, which was
circling above the centre of the harbour, and disabled the wings and
propellors on one side, for she lurched and wobbled for an instant like
a bird with a broken wing. Then she swooped downwards in a spiral
course, falling ever faster and faster, till she struck the deck of the
Britain.

What happened the next instant no one ever knew. Those who survived said
that they heard a crashing roar like the firing of a thousand cannon
together; a blinding sheet of flame overspread the harbour; the water
rose into mountains of foam, ships rocked and crashed against each
other--and then came darkness and oblivion.

When human eyes next looked on Dover Harbour there was not a ship in it
afloat.

Dover, the great stronghold of the south-east, was now as defenceless as
a fishing village, and there was nothing to prevent a constant stream of
transports filled with men and materials of war being poured into it, or
any other port along the eastern Kentish coast. Then would come seizure
of railway stations and rolling stock, rapid landing of men and horses
and guns, and the beginning of the great advance.

On the whole, John Castellan was well satisfied with his work. He
regretted the loss of his consort; but she had not been wasted. The
remains of the British fleets had gone with her to destruction.

Certainly what had been done had brought nearer the time when he, the
real organiser of victory, the man who had made the conquest of England
possible, would be able to claim his double reward--the independence of
Ireland, and the girl whom he intended to make the uncrowned Queen of
Erin.

It was a splendid and, to him, a delicious dream as well; but between
him and its fulfilment, what a chaos of bloodshed, ruin and human misery
lay! And yet he felt not a tremor of compunction or of pity for the
thousands of brave men who would be flung dead and mangled and tortured
into the bloody mire of battle, for the countless homes that would be
left desolate, or for the widows and the fatherless whose agony would
cry to Heaven for justice on him.

No; these things were of no account in his eyes. Ireland must be free,
and the girl he had come to love so swiftly, and with such consuming
passion, must be his. Nothing else mattered. Was he not Lord of the Air,
and should the desire of his heart be denied him?

Thus mused John Castellan in the conning-tower of the Flying Fish, as
he circled slowly above the ruins of Dover, while the man who had
beaten him in the swimming-race was sitting in the observatory on
far-off Whernside, verifying his night's observations and calculating
for the hundredth time the moment of the coming of an Invader, compared
with which all the armed legions of Europe were of no more importance
than a swarm of flies.

When he had satisfied himself that Dover was quite defenceless he sent
one of the French Flying Fishes across to Calais with a letter to the
District Commander, describing briefly what had taken place, and telling
him that it would be now quite safe for the transports to cross the
Straits and land the troops at Portsmouth, Newhaven, Folkestone, Dover
and Ramsgate.

He would station one of his airships over each of these places to
prevent any resistance from land or sea, and would himself make a
general reconnaissance of the military dispositions of the defenders. He
advised that the three Flying Fishes, which had been reserved for the
defence of the Kiel Canal, should be telegraphed for as convoys, as
there was now no danger of attack, and that the depot of torpedoes and
motive power for his ships should be transferred from Calais to Dover.

As soon as he had despatched this letter, Castellan ordered two of his
remaining ships to cruise northward to Ramsgate, keeping mainly along
the track of the railway, one on each side of it, and to wreck the first
train they saw approaching Dover, Deal, Sandwich and Ramsgate from the
north. The other two he ordered to take the Western Coast line as far as
Portsmouth, and do the same with trains coming east.

Then he swung the Flying Fish inland, and took a run over Canterbury,
Ashford, Maidstone, Tonbridge, Guildford and Winchester, to Southampton
and Portsmouth, returning by Chichester, Horsham and Tunbridge Wells.

It was only a tour of observation for the purpose of discovering the
main military dispositions of the defenders--who were now concentrating
as rapidly as possible upon Folkestone and Dover--but he found time to
stop and drop a torpedo or two into each town or fort that he passed
over--just leaving cards, as he said to M'Carthy--as a promise of
favours to come.

He also wrecked half a dozen long trains, apparently carrying troops,
and incidentally caused a very considerable loss of good lives and much
confusion, to say nothing of the moral effect which this new and
terrible form of attack produced upon the nerves of Mr Thomas Atkins.

When he got back to Dover he found a letter waiting for him from the
General informing him that the transports would sail at once, and that
his requests would be complied with.





Next: The Other Campaign Begins

Previous: And Ends



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