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First Blood







From: The World Peril Of 1910

When they got to the end of the Railway Pier where the pinnace was lying
panting and puffing, a Flag-Lieutenant touched his cap to Erskine, took
him by the arm and led him aside. He took an envelope out of his pocket
and said, in a low tone:

"Here are your instructions, Erskine. They've jumped on us a bit more
quickly than we thought they would, but the Commander-in-Chief trusts to
you and your ship to do the needful. The position is this: one division
of the Russian, German and Dutch fleets is making a combined attack on
Hull and Newcastle. Two other divisions are going for the mouth of the
Thames, and the North Sea Squadron is going to look after them. The
French North Sea Squadron is making a rush on Dover, and will get very
considerably pounded in the process. Two French fleets from Cherbourg
and Brest are coming up Channel, and each of them has a screen of
torpedo boats and destroyers. The Southern Fleet Reserve is concentrated
here and at Portland. The Channel Fleet is outside, and we hope to get
it in their rear, so that we'll have them between the ships and the
forts. If we do, they'll have just about as hot a time of it as anybody
wants.

"As far as we've been able to learn, the French are going to try Togo's
tactics at Port Arthur, and rush Portsmouth with the small craft. You'll
find that it's your business to look after them. Sink, smash and
generally destroy. Go for everything you see. There isn't a craft of
ours within twenty miles outside. Good-bye, and good luck to you!"

"Good-bye!" said Erskine, as they shook hands, "and if we don't come
back, give my love to the Lords of the Admiralty and thank them for
giving me the chance with the Ithuriel. Bye-bye!"

Their hands gripped again and the captain of the Ithuriel ran down the
steps like a boy going to a picnic.

The pinnace gave a little squeak from its siren and sped away down the
harbour between the two forts, in which the gunners were standing by the
new fourteen-inch wire-wound guns, whose long chases were prevented from
drooping after continuous discharge by an ingenious application of the
principle of the cantilever bridge, invented by the creator of the
Ithuriel. In the breech-chamber of each of them was a thousand-pound
shell, carrying a bursting charge of five hundred pounds of an explosive
which was an improvement on blasting gelatine, and the guns were capable
of throwing these to a distance of twelve miles with precision. They
were the most formidable weapons either ashore or afloat.

Just outside the harbour the pinnace swung round to the westward and in
a few minutes stopped alongside the Ithuriel.

As far as Lennard could see she was neither cruiser nor destroyer nor
submarine, but a sort of compound of all three. She did not appear to be
a steamer because she had no funnels. She was not exactly a submarine
because she had a signal-mast forward and carried five long,
ugly-looking guns, three ahead and two astern, of a type that he had
never seen before. Forward of the mast there was a conning-tower of oval
shape, with the lesser curves fore and aft. The breech-ends of the guns
were covered by a long hood of steel, apparently of great thickness, and
that was all.

As soon as they got on board Erskine said to Lennard:

"Come into the conning-tower with me. I believe we can make use of this
invention of yours at once. I've got a pretty well-fitted laboratory
down below and we might have a try. But you must excuse me a moment, I
will just run through this."

He opened the envelope containing his instructions, put them down on
the little desk in front of him and then read a note that was enclosed
with them.

"By Jove," he said, "they're pretty quick up at headquarters. You'll
have to excuse me a minute or two, Mr Lennard. Just stand on that side,
will you, please? Close up, we haven't too much room here. Good-bye for
the present."

In front of the desk and above the little steering-wheel there was a
mahogany board studded with two sets of ivory buttons, disposed in two
lines of six each. He touched one of these, and Lennard saw him
disappear through the floor of the conning-tower. Within a few moments
the portion of the floor upon which he had stood returned to its place,
and Lennard said to himself:

"If the rest of her works like that, she ought to be a lovely study in
engineering."

While Captain Erskine is communicating his instructions to his second in
command, and arranging the details of the coming fight, there will be
time to give a brief description of the craft on board of which Lennard
so unexpectedly found himself, and which an invention of his own was
destined to make even more formidable than it was.

To put it as briefly as possible, the Ithuriel was a combination of
destroyer, cruiser, submarine and ram, and she had cost Erskine three
years of hard work to think out. She was three hundred feet long, fifty
feet broad, and thirty feet from her upper keel to her deck. This was of
course an abnormal depth for a vessel of her length, but then the
Ithuriel was quite an abnormal warship. One-third of her depth
consisted of a sinking-chamber, protected by twelve-inch armour, and
this chamber could be filled in a few minutes with four thousand tons of
water. This is of course the same thing as saying she had two
waterlines. The normal cruising line gave her a freeboard of ten feet.
Above the sinking-tanks her vitals were protected by ten-inch armour. In
short, as regards armour, she was an entire reversal of the ordinary
type of warship, and she had the advantage of being impervious to
torpedo attack. Loaded torpedoes had been fired at her and had burst
like eggs against a wall, with no more effect than to make her heel over
a few degrees to the other side. Submarines had attacked her and got
their noses badly bruised in the process. It was, indeed, admitted by
the experts of the Admiralty that under water she was impregnable.

Her propelling power consisted of four sets of engines, all well below
the waterline. Three of these drove three propellers astern: the fourth
drove a suction screw which revolved just underneath the ram. This was a
mass of steel weighing fifty tons and curved upwards like the inverted
beak of an eagle. Erskine had taken this idea from the Russian
ice-breakers which had been designed by the Russian Admiral Makaroff and
built at Elswick. The screw was protected by a steel grating of which
the forward protecting girder completed the curve of the stem. Aft,
there was a similar ram, weighing thirty tons and a like protection to
the after-screws.

The driving power was derived from a combination of petrol and
pulverised smokeless coal, treated with liquid oxygen, which made
combustion practically perfect. There was no boilers or furnaces, only
combustion chambers, and this fact made the carrying of the great weight
of armour under the waterline possible. The speed of the Ithuriel was
forty-five knots ahead when all four screws were driving and pulling,
and thirty knots astern when they were reversed. Her total capacity was
five thousand two hundred tons.

Behind the three forward guns was a dome-shaped conning-tower of
nine-inch steel, hardened like the rest of the armour by an improvement
on the Harvey process. Above the conning-tower were two searchlight
projectors, both capable of throwing a clear ray to a distance of four
miles and controlled from within the conning-tower.

"Well, I am afraid I have kept you waiting, Mr Lennard," said Erskine,
as the platform brought him up again into the conning-tower, in much
shorter time than was necessary to make this needful description of what
was probably the most formidable craft in the British Navy. "We're off
now. I've fitted up half a dozen shells with that diabolical invention
of yours. If we run across a battleship or a cruiser, we'll try them. I
think our friends the enemy will find them somewhat of a paralyser, and
there's nothing like beginning pretty strong."

"Nothing like hitting them hard at first, and I hope that those things
of mine will be what I think they are, and unless all my theories are
quite wrong, I fancy you'll find them all right."

"They would be the first theories of yours that have gone wrong, Mr
Lennard," replied Erskine, "but anyhow, we shall soon see. I have put
three of your shells in the forward guns. We'll try them there first,
and if they're all right we'll use the other three. I've got the after
guns loaded with my own shell, so if we come across anything big, we
shall be able to try them against each other. At present, my
instructions are to deal with the lighter craft only: destroyers and
that sort of thing, you know."

"But don't you fire on them?" said Lennard. "What would happen if they
got a torpedo under you?"

"Well," said Erskine, "as a matter of fact I don't think destroyers are
worth shooting at. Our guns are meant for bigger game. But it's no good
trying to explain things now. You'll see, pretty soon, and you'll learn
more in half an hour than I could tell you in four hours."

They were clear of the harbour by this time and running out at about ten
knots between the two old North and South Spithead forts on the top of
each of which one of the new fourteen-inch thousand-pounders had been
mounted on disappearing carriages.

"Now," he continued, "if we're going to find them anywhere, we shall
find them here, or hereabouts. My orders are to smash everything that I
can get at."

"Fairly comprehensive," said Lennard.

"Yes, Lennard, and it's an order that I'm going to fill. We may as well
quicken up a bit now. You understand, Castellan is looking after the
guns, and his sub., Mackenzie is communicating orders to my Chief
Engineer, who looks after the speed."

"And the speed?" asked Lennard.

"I'll leave you to judge that when we get to business," said Erskine,
putting his forefinger on one of the buttons on the left-hand side of
the board as he spoke.

The next moment Lennard felt the rubber-covered floor of the
conning-tower jump under his feet. All the coast lights were
extinguished but there was a half-moon and he saw the outlines of the
shore slip away faster behind them. The eastern heights of the Isle of
Wight loomed up like a cloud and dropped away astern.

"Pretty fast, that," he said.

"Only twenty-five knots," replied Erskine, as he gave the steering-wheel
a very gentle movement and swung the Ithuriel's head round to the
eastward. "If these chaps are going to make a rush in the way Togo did
at Port Arthur, they've got to do it between Selsey Bill and Nettlestone
Point. If they're mad enough to try the other way between Round Tower
Point and Hurst Castle, they'll get blown out of the water in very small
pieces, so we needn't worry about them there. Our business is to keep
them out of this side. Ah, look now, there are two or three of them
there. See, ahead of the port bow. We'll tackle these gentlemen first."

Lennard looked out through the narrow semicircular window of six-inch
crystal glass running across the front of the conning-tower, which was
almost as strong as steel, and saw three little dark, moving spots on
the half-moonlit water, about two miles ahead, stealing up in line
abreast.

"Those chaps are trying to get in between the Spithead forts," said
Erskine. "They're slowed down to almost nothing, waiting for the clouds
to come over the moon, and then they'll make a dash for it. At least,
they think they will. I don't."

As he spoke he gave another turn to the steering-wheel and touched
another button. The Ithuriel leapt forward again and swung about three
points to the eastward. In three minutes she was off Black Point, and
this movement brought her into a straight line with the three
destroyers. He gave the steering-wheel another half turn and her head
swung round in a short quarter circle. He put his finger on to the
bottom button on the right-hand side of the signal board and said to
Lennard:

"Hold tight now, she's going."

Lennard held tight, for he felt the floor jump harder under him this
time.

In the dim light he saw the nearest of the destroyers, as it seemed to
him, rush towards them sideways. Erskine touched another button. A
shudder ran through the fabric of the Ithuriel and her bow rose above
five feet from the water. A couple of minutes later it hit the destroyer
amidships, rolled her over, broke her in two like a log of wood, amidst
a roar of crackling guns and a scream of escaping steam, went over her
and headed for the next one.

Lennard clenched his teeth and said nothing. He was thinking too hard to
say anything just then.

The second destroyer opened fire with her twelve-and six-pounders and
dropped a couple of torpedoes as the Ithuriel rushed at her. The
Ithuriel was now travelling at forty knots an hour. The torpedoes at
thirty. The combined speed was therefore nearly a hundred statute miles
an hour. Erskine saw the two white shapes drop into the water, their
courses converging towards him. A half turn of the wheel to port swung
the Ithuriel out and just cleared them. It was a fairly narrow shave,
for one of them grated along her side, but the Ithuriel had no angles.
The actual result was that one of the torpedoes deflected from its
course, hit the other one and both exploded. A mountain of foam-crowned
water rose up and the commander of the French destroyer congratulated
himself on the annihilation of at least one of the English warships, but
the next moment the grey-blue, almost invisible shape of the Ithuriel
leapt up out of the semi-darkness, and her long pointed ram struck
amidships, cut him down to the waterline, and almost before the two
halves of his vessel had sunk the same fate had befallen the third
destroyer.

"Well, what do you think of that?" said Erskine, as he touched a couple
more buttons and the Ithuriel swung round to the eastward again.

"Well," said Lennard, slowly, "of course it's war, and those fellows
were coming in to do all the damage they could. But it is just a bit
terrible, for all that. It's just seven minutes since you rammed the
first boat: you haven't fired a shot and there are three big destroyers
and I suppose three hundred and fifty men at the bottom of the sea.
Pretty awful, you know."

"My dear sir," replied Erskine, without looking round, "all war is awful
and entirely horrible, and naval war is of course the most horrible of
all. There is no chance for the defeated: my orders do not even allow me
to pick up a man from one of those vessels. On the other hand, one must
remember that if one of those destroyers had got in, they could have let
go half a dozen torpedoes apiece among the ships of the Fleet Reserve,
and perhaps half a dozen ships and five or six thousand men might have
been at the bottom of the Solent by this time, and those torpedoes
wouldn't have had any sentiment in them. Hallo, there's another!"

A long, black shape surmounted by a signal-mast and four funnels slid up
and out of the darkness into a patch of moonlight lying on the water.
Erskine gave a quarter turn to the wheel and touched the two buttons
again. The Ithuriel swung round and ran down on her prey. The two
fifteen-and the six twelve-pounder guns ahead and astern and on the
broadside of the destroyer crackled out and a hail of shells came
whistling across the water. A few of them struck the Ithuriel, glanced
off and exploded.

"There," said Erskine, "they've knocked some of our nice new paint off.
Now they're going to pay for it."

"Couldn't you give them a shot back?" said Lennard.

"Not worth it, my dear sir," said Erskine. "We keep our guns for bigger
game. We haven't an angle that a shell would hit. You might just as well
fire boiled peas at a hippopotamus as those little things at us. Of
course a big shell square amidships would hurt us, but then she's so
handy that I think I could stop it hitting her straight."

While he was speaking the Ithuriel got up to full speed again. Lennard
shut his eyes. He felt a slight shock, and then a dull grinding. A crash
of guns and a roar of escaping steam, and when he looked out again, the
destroyer had disappeared. The next moment a blinding glare of light
streamed across the water from the direction of Selsey.

"A big cruiser, or battleship," said Erskine. "French or German. Now
we'll see what those shells of yours are made of."





Next: The Flying Fish Appears

Previous: Caught!



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