First Blows From The Air
From: The World Peril Of 1910
The Flying Fish, the prototype of the extraordinary craft which played
such a terrible part in the invasion of England, was a magnified
reproduction, with improvements which suggested themselves during
construction, of the model whose performances had so astonished the
Kaiser at Potsdam. She was shaped exactly like her namesake of the deep,
upon which, indeed, her inventor had modelled her. She was one hundred
and fifty feet long and twenty feet broad by twenty-five feet deep in
her widest part, which, as she was fish-shaped, was considerably forward
of her centre.
She was built of a newly-discovered compound, something like
papier-mache, as hard and rigid as steel, with only about one-tenth the
weight. Her engines were of the simplest description in spite of the
fact that they developed enormous power. They consisted merely of
cylinders into which, by an automatic mechanism, two drops of liquid
were brought every second. These liquids when joined produced a gas of
enormously expansive power, more than a hundred times that of steam,
which actuated the pistons. There were sixteen of these cylinders, and
the pistons all connected with a small engine invented by Castellan,
which he called an accelerator. By means of this device he could
regulate the speed of the propellers which drove the vessel under water
and in the air from sixty up to two thousand revolutions a minute.
The Flying Fish was driven by nine propellers, three of these,
four-bladed and six feet diameter, revolved a little forward amidships
on either side under what might be called the fins. These fins collapsed
close against the sides of the vessel when under water and expanded to a
spread of twenty feet when she took the air. They worked on a pivot and
could be inclined either way from the horizontal to an angle of thirty
degrees. Midway between the end of these and the stern was a smaller
pair with one driving screw. The eighth screw was an ordinary propeller
at the stern, but the outside portion of the shaft worked on a ball and
socket joint so that it could be used for both steering and driving
purposes. It was in fact the tail of the Flying Fish. Steering in the
air was effected by means of a vertical fin placed right aft.
She was submerged as the Ithuriel was, by pumping water into the lower
part of her hull. When these chambers were empty she floated like a
cork. The difference between swimming and flying was merely the
difference between the revolutions of the screws and the inclination of
the fins. A thousand raised her from the water: twelve hundred gave her
twenty-five or thirty miles an hour through the air: fifteen hundred
gave her fifty, and two thousand gave her eighty to a hundred, according
to the state of the atmosphere.
Her armament consisted of four torpedo tubes which swung at any angle
from the horizontal to the vertical and so were capable of use both
under water and in the air. They discharged a small,
insignificant-looking torpedo containing twenty pounds of an explosive,
discovered almost accidentally by Castellan and known only to himself,
the German Emperor, the Chancellor, and the Commander-in-Chief. It was
this which he had used in tiny quantities in the experiment at Potsdam.
Its action was so terrific that it did not rend or crack metal or stone
which it struck. It overcame the chemical forces by which the substance
was held together and reduced them to gas and powder.
And now, after this somewhat formal but necessary description of the
most destructive fighting-machine ever created we can proceed with the
There were twenty Flying Fishes attached to the Allied Forces, all of
them under the command of German engineers, with the exception of the
original Flying Fish. Two of these were attached to the three
squadrons which were attacking Hull, Newcastle and Dover: three had been
detailed for the attack on Portsmouth: two more to Plymouth, two to
Bristol and Liverpool respectively, on which combined cruiser and
torpedo attacks were to be made, and two supported by a small swift
cruiser and torpedo flotilla for an assault on Cardiff, in order if
possible to terrorise that city into submission and so obtain what may
be called the life-blood of a modern navy. The rest, in case of
accidents to any of these, were reserved for the final attack on London.
When the Ithuriel disappeared and his torpedo struck a piece of
floating wreckage and exploded with a terrific shock, John Castellan,
standing in the conning-tower directing the movements of the Flying
Fish, naturally concluded that he had destroyed a British submarine
scout. He knew of the existence, but nothing of the real powers of the
Ithuriel. The only foreigner who knew that was Captain Count Karl von
Eckstein, and he was locked safely in a cabin on board her.
He had been searching the under-waters between Nettlestone Point and
Hayling Island for hours on the look-out for British submarines and
torpedo scouts, and had found nothing, therefore he was ignorant of the
destruction which the Ithuriel had already wrought, and as, of course,
he had heard no firing under the water, he believed that the three
destroyers supported by the Dupleix and Leger had succeeded in
slipping through the entrance to Spithead.
He knew that a second flotilla of six destroyers with three swift
second-class cruisers were following in to complete the work, which by
this time should have begun, and that after them came the main French
squadron, consisting of six first-class battleships with a screen of ten
first and five second-class cruisers, the work of which would be to
maintain a blockade against any relieving force, after the submarines
and destroyers had sunk and crippled the ships of the Fleet Reserve and
cut the connections of the contact mines.
He knew also that the See Adler, which was Flying Fish II., was
waiting about the Needles to attack Hurst Castle and the forts on the
Isle of Wight side, preparatory to a rush of two battleships and three
cruisers through the narrows, while another was lurking under Hayling
Island ready to take the air and rain destruction on the forts of
Portsmouth before the fight became general.
What thoroughly surprised him, however, was the absolute silence and
inaction of the British. True, two shots had been fired, but whether
from fort or warship, and with what intent, he hadn't the remotest
notion. The hour arranged upon for the general assault was fast
approaching. The British must be aware that an attack would be made, and
yet there was not so much as a second-class torpedo boat to be seen
outside Spithead. This puzzled him, so he decided to go and investigate
for himself. He took up a speaking-tube and said to his Lieutenant,
M'Carthy--one of too many renegade Irishmen who in the terrible times
that were to come joined their country's enemies as Lynch and his
traitors had done in the Boer War:
"I don't quite make it out, M'Carthy. We'll go down and get under--it's
about time the fun began--and I haven't heard a shot fired or seen an
English ship except that submarine we smashed. My orders are for twelve
o'clock, and I'm going to obey them."
There was one more device on board the Flying Fish which should be
described in order that her wonderful manoeuvering under water may be
understood. Just in front of the steering-wheel in the conning-tower was
a square glass box measuring a foot in the side, and in the centre of
this, attached to top and bottom by slender films of asbestos, was a
needle ten inches long, so hung that it could turn and dip in any
direction. The forward half of this needle was made of highly magnetised
steel, and the other of aluminium which exactly counter-balanced it. The
glass case was completely insulated and therefore the extremely
sensitive needle was unaffected by any of the steel parts used in the
construction of the vessel. But let any other vessel, save of course a
wooden ship, come within a thousand yards, the needle began to tremble
and sway, and the nearer the Flying Fish approached it, the steadier
it became and the more directly it pointed towards the object. If the
vessel was on the surface, it of course pointed upward: if it was a
submarine, it pointed either level or downwards with unerring precision.
This needle was, in fact, the eyes of the Flying Fish when she was
Castellan swung her head round to the north-west and dropped gently on
to the water about midway between Selsey Bill and the Isle of Wight.
Then the Flying Fish folded her wings and sank to a depth of twenty
feet. Then, at a speed of ten knots, she worked her way in a zigzag
course back and forth across the narrowing waters, up the channel
To his surprise, the needle remained steady, showing that there was
neither submarine nor torpedo boat near. This meant, as far as he could
see, that the main approach to the greatest naval fortress in England
had been left unguarded, a fact so extraordinary as to be exceedingly
suspicious. His water-ray apparatus, a recent development of the X-rays
which enabled him to see under water for a distance of fifty yards, had
detected no contact mines, and yet Spithead ought to be enstrewn with
them, just as it ought to have been swarming with submarines and
destroyers. There must be some deep meaning to such apparently
incomprehensible neglect, but what was it?
If his brother Denis had not happened to recognise Captain Count Karl
von Eckstein and haled him so unceremoniously on board the Ithuriel,
and if his portmanteau full of papers had been got on board a French
warship, instead of being left for the inspection of the British
Admiralty, that reason would have been made very plain to him.
Completely mystified, and fearing that either he was going into some
trap or that some unforeseen disaster had happened, he swung round, ran
out past the forts and rose into the air again. When he had reached the
height of about a thousand feet, three rockets rose into the air and
burst into three showers of stars, one red, one white, and the other
blue. It was the Tricolour in the air, and the signal from the French
Admiral to commence the attack. Castellan's orders were to cripple or
sink the battleships of the Reserve Fleet which was moored in two
divisions in Spithead and the Solent.
The Spithead Division lay in column of line abreast between Gilkicker
Point and Ryde Pier. It consisted of the Formidable, Irresistible,
Implacable, Majestic and Magnificent, and the cruisers Hogue,
Sutlej, Ariadne, Argonaut, Diadem and Hawke. The western
Division consisted of the battleships Prince George, Victoria,
Jupiter, Mars and Hannibal, and the cruisers Amphitrite,
Spartiate, Andromeda, Europa, Niobe, Blenheim and Blake.
It had of course been perfectly easy for Castellan to mark the position
of the two squadrons from the air, and he knew that though they were
comparatively old vessels they were quite powerful enough, with the
assistance of the shore batteries, to hold even Admiral Durenne's
splendid fleet until the Channel Fleet, which for the time being seemed
to have vanished from the face of the waters, came up and took the
French in the rear.
In such a case, the finest fleet of France would be like a nut in a
vice, and that was the reason for the remorseless orders which had been
given to him, orders which he was prepared to carry out to the letter,
in spite of the appalling loss of life which they entailed; for, as the
Flying Fish sank down into the water, he thought of that swimming race
in Clifden Bay and of the girl whose marriage with himself, willing or
unwilling, was to be one of the terms of peace when the British Navy lay
shattered round her shores, and the millions of the Leagued Nations had
trampled the land forces of Britain into submission.
Just as she touched the water a brilliant flash of pink flame leapt up
from the eastern fort on the Hillsea Lines, followed by a sharp crash
which shook the atmosphere. A thin ray of light fell from the clouds,
then came a quick succession of flashes moving in the direction of the
great fort on Portsdown, until two rose in quick succession from
Portsdown itself, and almost at the same moment another from Hurst
Castle, and yet another from the direction of Fort Victoria.
"God bless my soul, what's that?" exclaimed the Commander-in-Chief,
Admiral Sir Compton Domville, who had just completed his final
inspection of the defences of Portsmouth Harbour, and was standing on
the roof of Southsea Castle, taking a general look round before going
back to headquarters. "Here, Markham," he said, turning to the Commander
of the Fort, "just telephone up to Portsdown at once and ask them what
they're up to."
An orderly instantly dived below to the telephone room. The Fort
Commander took Sir Compton aside and said in a low voice:
"I am afraid, sir, that the forts are being attacked from the air."
"What's that?" replied Sir Compton, with a start. "Do you mean that
infernal thing that Erskine and Castellan and the watch of the
Cormorant saw in the North Sea?"
"Yes, sir," was the reply. "There is no reason why the enemy should not
possess a whole fleet of these craft by this time, and naturally they
would act in concert with the attack of the French Fleet. I've heard
rumours of a terrible new explosive they've got, too, which shatters
steel into splinters and poisons everyone within a dozen yards of it. If
that's true and they're dropping it on the forts, they'll probably smash
the guns as well. For heaven's sake, sir, let me beg of you to go back
at once to headquarters! It will probably be our turn next. You will be
safe there, for they're not likely to waste their shells on Government
"Well, I suppose I shall be of more use there," growled Sir Compton.
At this moment the orderly returned, looking rather scared. He saluted
"If you please, sir, they've tried Portsdown and all the Hillsea forts
and can't get an answer."
"Good heavens!" said the Commander-in-Chief, "that looks almost as if
you were right, Markham. Signal to Squadron A to up-anchor at once and
telephone to Squadron B to do the same. Telephone Gilkicker to turn all
searchlights on. Now I must be off and have a talk with General
He ran down to his pinnace and went away full speed for the harbour, but
before he reached the pier another flash burst out from the direction of
Fort Gilkicker, followed by a terrific roar. To those standing on the
top of Southsea Castle the fort seemed turned into a volcano, spouting
flame and clouds of smoke, in the midst of which they could see for an
instant whirling shapes, most of which would probably be the remains of
the gallant defenders, hurled into eternity before they had a chance of
firing a shot at the invaders. The huge guns roared for the first and
last time in the war, and the great projectiles plunged aimlessly among
the ships of the squadron, carrying wreck and ruin along the line.
"Our turn now, I suppose," said the Fort Commander, quietly, as he
looked up and by a chance gleam of moonlight through the breaking clouds
saw a dim grey, winged shape drift across the harbour entrance.
They were the last words he ever spoke, for the next moment the roof
crumbled under his feet, and his body was scattered in fragments through
the air, and in that moment Portsmouth had ceased to be a fortified
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