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The Tragedy Of The Two Squadrons







From: The World Peril Of 1910

It takes a good deal to shake the nerves of British naval officer or
seaman, but those on board the ships of the Spithead Squadron would have
been something more than human if they could have viewed the appalling
happenings of the last few terrible minutes with their accustomed
coolness. They were ready to fight anything on the face of the waters or
under them, but an enemy in the air who could rain down shells, a couple
of which were sufficient to destroy the most powerful forts in the
world, and who could not be hit back, was another matter. It was a
bitter truth, but there was no denying it. The events of the last ten
years had clearly proved that a day must come when the flying machine
would be used as an engine of war, and now that day had come--and the
fighting flying machine was in the hands of the enemy.

The anchors were torn from the ground, signals were flashed from the
flagship, the Prince George, and within four minutes the squadron was
under way to the south-eastward. After what had happened the Admiral in
command promptly and rightly decided that to keep his ships cramped up
in the narrow waters was only to court further disaster. His place was
now the open sea, and a general fleet action offered the only means of
preventing an occupation of almost defenceless Portsmouth, and the
landing of hostile troops in the very heart of England's southern
defences.

Fifteen first-class torpedo boats and ten destroyers ran out from the
Hampshire and Isle of Wight coasts, ran through the ships, and spread
themselves out in a wide curve ahead, and at the same time twenty
submarines crept out from the harbour and set to work laying contact
mines in the appointed fields across the harbour mouth and from shore to
shore behind the Spithead forts.

But the squadron had not steamed a mile beyond the forts before a series
of frightful disasters overtook them. First, a huge column of water rose
under the stern of the Jupiter. The great ship stopped and shuddered
like a stricken animal, and began to settle down stern first. Instantly
the Mars and Victorious which were on either side of her slowed
down, their boats splashed into the water and set to work to rescue
those who managed to get clear of the sinking ship.

But even while this was being done, the Banshee, the Flying Fish
which had destroyed the forts, had taken up her position a thousand feet
above the doomed squadron. A shell dropped upon the deck of the
Spartiate, almost amidships. The pink flash blazed out between her two
midship funnels. They crumpled up as if they had been made of brown
paper. The six-inch armoured casemates on either side seemed to crumble
away. The four-inch steel deck gaped and split as though it had been
made of matchboard. Then the Banshee dropped to within five hundred
feet and let go another shell almost in the same place. A terrific
explosion burst out in the very vitals of the stricken ship, and the
great cruiser seemed to split asunder. A vast volume of mingled smoke
and flame and steam rose up, and when it rolled away, the Spartiate
had almost vanished.

But that was the last act of destruction that the Banshee was destined
to accomplish. That moment the moon sailed out into a patch of clear
sky. Every eye in the squadron was turned upward. There was the airship
plainly visible. Her captain instantly saw his danger and quickened up
his engines, but it was too late. He was followed by a hurricane of
shells from the three-pound quick-firers in the upper tops of the
battleships. Then came an explosion in mid-air which seemed to shake the
very firmament itself. She had fifty or sixty of the terrible shells
which had wrought so much havoc on board, and as a dozen shells pierced
her hull and burst, they too exploded with the shock. A vast blaze of
pink flame shone out.

"Talk about going to glory in a blue flame," said Seaman Gunner
Tompkins, who had aimed one of the guns in the fore-top of the
Hannibal, and of course, like everybody else, piously believed that
his was one of the shells that got there. "That chap's gone to t'other
place in a red'un. War's war, but I don't hold with that sort of
fighting; it doesn't give a man a chance. Torpedoes is bad enough, Gawd
knows--"

The words were hardly out of his mouth when a shock and a shudder ran
through the mighty fabric of the battleship. The water rose in a
foam-clad mountain under her starboard quarter. She heeled over to port,
and then rolled back to starboard and began to settle.

"Torpedoed, by George! What did I tell you?" gasped Gunner Tompkins. The
next moment a lurch of the ship hurled him and his mates far out into
the water.

Even as his ship went down, Captain Barclay managed to signal to the
other ships, "Don't wait--get out." And when her shattered hull rested
on the bottom, the gallant signal was still flying from the upper yard.

It was obvious that the one chance of escaping their terrible unseen foe
was to obey the signal. By this time crowds of small craft of every
description had come off from both shores to the rescue of those who had
gone down with the ships, so the Admiral did what was the most practical
thing to do under the circumstances--he dropped his own boats, each with
a crew, and ordered the Victorious and Mars to do the same, and then
gave the signal for full speed ahead. The great engines panted and
throbbed, and the squadron moved forward with ever-increasing speed, the
cruisers and destroyers, according to signal, running ahead of the
battleships; but before full speed was reached, the Mars was struck
under the stern, stopped, shuddered, and went down with a mighty lurch.

This last misfortune convinced the Admiral that the destruction of his
battleships could not be the work of any ordinary submarine, for at the
time the Mars was struck she was steaming fifteen knots and the
underwater speed of the best submarine was only twelve, saving only the
Ithuriel, and she did not use torpedoes. The two remaining battleships
had now reached seventeen knots, which was their best speed. The
cruisers and their consorts were already disappearing round Foreland.

There was some hope that they might escape the assaults of the
mysterious and invisible enemy now that the airship had been destroyed,
but unless the submarine had exhausted her torpedoes, or some accident
had happened to her, there was very little for the Prince George and
the Victorious, and so it turned out. Castellan's strict orders had
been to confine his attentions to the battleships, and he obeyed his
pitiless instructions to the letter. First the Victorious and then the
flagship, smitten by an unseen and irresistible bolt in their weakest
parts, succumbed to the great gaping wounds torn in the thin
under-plating, reeled once or twice to and fro like leviathans
struggling for life, and went down. And so for the time being, at least,
ended the awful work of the Flying Fish.

Leaving the cruisers and smaller craft to continue their dash for the
open Channel, we must now look westward.

When Vice-Admiral Codrington, who was flying his flag on the
Irresistible, saw the flashes along the Hillsea ridge and Portsdown
height and heard the roar of the explosions, he at once up-anchor and
got his squadron under way. Then came the appallingly swift destruction
of Hurst Castle and Fort Victoria. Like all good sailors, he was a man
of instant decision. His orders were to guard the entrance to the
Solent, and the destruction of the forts made it impossible for him to
do this inside. How that destruction had been wrought, he had of course
no idea, beyond a guess that the destroying agent must have come from
the air, since it could not have come from sea or land without provoking
a very vigorous reply from the forts. Instead of that they had simply
blown up without firing a shot.

He therefore decided to steam out through the narrow channel between
Hurst Castle and the Isle of Wight as quickly as possible.

It was a risky thing to do at night and at full speed, for the Channel
and the entrance to it was strewn with contact mines, but one of the
principal businesses of the British Navy is to take risks where
necessary, so he put his own ship at the head of the long line, and with
a mine chart in front of him went ahead at eighteen knots.

When Captain Adolph Frenkel, who was in command of the See Adler, saw
the column of warships twining and wriggling its way out through the
Channel, each ship handled with consummate skill and keeping its
position exactly, he could not repress an admiring "Ach!" Still it was
not his business to admire, but destroy.

He rose to a thousand feet, swung round to the north-eastward until the
whole line had passed beneath him, and then quickened up and dropped to
seven hundred feet, swung round again and crept up over the Hogue,
which was bringing up the rear. When he was just over her fore part, he
let go a shell, which dropped between the conning-tower and the forward
barbette.

The navigating bridge vanished; the twelve-inch armoured conning-tower
cracked like an eggshell; the barbette collapsed like the crust of a
loaf, and the big 9.2 gun lurched backwards and lay with its muzzle
staring helplessly at the clouds. The deck crumpled up as though it had
been burnt parchment, and the ammunition for the 9.2 and the forward
six-inch guns which had been placed ready for action exploded, blowing
the whole of the upper forepart of the vessel into scrap-iron.

But an even worse disaster than this was to befall the great
twelve-thousand-ton cruiser. Her steering gear was, of course,
shattered. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable, she swung swiftly round to
starboard, struck a mine, and inside three minutes she was lying on the
mud.

Almost at the moment of the first explosion, the beams of twenty
searchlights leapt up into the air, and in the midst of the broad white
glare hundreds of keen angry eyes saw a winged shape darting up into the
air, heading southward as though it would cross the Isle of Wight over
Yarmouth. Almost simultaneously, every gun from the tops of the
battleships spoke, and a storm of shells rent the air.

But Captain Frenkel had already seen his mistake. The See Adler's
wings were inclined at an angle of twenty degrees, her propellers were
revolving at their utmost velocity, and at a speed of nearly a hundred
miles an hour, she took the Isle of Wight in a leap. She slowed down
rapidly over Freshwater Bay. Captain Frenkel took a careful observation
of the position and course of the squadron, dropped into the water,
folded his wings and crept round the Needles with his conning-tower just
awash, and lay in wait for his prey about two miles off the Needles.

The huge black hull of the Irresistible was only a couple of hundred
yards away. He instantly sank and turned on his water-ray. As the
flagship passed within forty yards he let go his first torpedo. It hit
her sternpost, smashed her rudder and propellers, and tore a great hole
in her run. The steel monster stopped, shuddered, and slid sternward
with her mighty ram high in the air into the depths of the smooth grey
sea.

There is no need to repeat the ghastly story which has already been
told--the story of the swift and pitiless destruction of these miracles
of human skill, huge in size and mighty in armament and manned by the
bravest men on land or sea, by a foe puny in size but of awful
potentiality. It was a fight, if fight it could be called, between the
visible and the invisible, and it could only have one end. Battleship
after battleship received her death-wound, and went down without being
able to fire a shot in defence, until the Magnificent, smitten in the
side under her boilers, blew up and sank amidst a cloud of steam and
foam, and the Western Squadron had met the fate of the Eastern.

While this tragedy was being enacted, the cruisers scattered in all
directions and headed for the open at their highest speed. It was a
bitter necessity, and it was bitterly felt by every man and boy on board
them; but the captains knew that to stop and attempt the rescue of even
some of their comrades meant losing the ships which it was their duty at
all costs to preserve, and so they took the only possible chance to
escape from this terrible unseen foe which struck out of the silence and
the darkness with such awful effect.

But despite the tremendous disaster which had befallen the Reserve
Fleet, the work of death and destruction was by no means all on one
side. When he sank the Leger, Erskine had done a great deal more
damage to the enemy than he knew, for she had been sent not for fighting
purposes, but as a depot ship for the Flying Fishes, from which they
could renew their torpedoes and the gas cylinders which furnished their
driving power. Being a light craft, she was to take up an agreed
position off Bracklesham Bay three miles to the north-west of Selsey
Bill, the loneliest and shallowest part of the coast, with all lights
out, ready to supply all that was wanted or to make any repairs that
might be necessary. Her sinking, therefore, deprived John Castellan's
craft of their base.

After the Dupleix had gone down, the Ithuriel rose again, and
Erskine said to Lennard:

"There must be more of them outside, they wouldn't be such fools as to
rush Portsmouth with three destroyers and a couple of cruisers. We'd
better go on and reconnoitre."

The Ithuriel ran out south-eastward at twenty knots in a series of
broad curves, and she was just beginning to make the fourth of these
when six black shapes crowned with wreaths of smoke loomed up out of the
semi-darkness.

"Thought so--destroyers," said Erskine. "Yes, and look there, behind
them--cruiser supports, three of them--these are for the second rush.
Coming up pretty fast, too; they'll be there in half an hour. We shall
have something to say about that. Hold on, Lennard."

"Same tactics, I suppose," said Lennard.

"Yes," replied Erskine, taking down the receiver. "Are you there,
Castellan? All right. We've six more destroyers to get rid of. Full
speed ahead, as soon as you like--guns all ready, I suppose? Good--go
ahead."

The Ithuriel was now about two miles to the westward and about a mile
in front of the line of destroyers, which just gave her room to get up
full speed. As she gathered way, Lennard saw the nose of the great ram
rise slowly out of the water. The destroyer's guns crackled, but it is
not easy to hit a low-lying object moving at fifty miles an hour, end
on, when you are yourself moving nearly twenty-five. Just the same thing
happened as before. The point of the ram passed over the destroyer's
bows, crumpled them up and crushed them down, and the Ithuriel rushed
on over the sinking wreck, swerved a quarter turn, and bore down on her
next victim. It was all over in ten minutes. The Ithuriel rushed
hither and thither among the destroyers like some leviathan of the deep.
A crash, a swift grinding scrape, and a mass of crumpled steel was
dropping to the bottom of the Channel.

While the attack on the destroyers was taking place, the cruisers were
only half a mile away. Their captains had found themselves in curiously
difficult positions. The destroyers were so close together, and the
movements of this strange monster which was running them down so
rapidly, that if they opened fire they were more likely to hit their own
vessels than it, but when the last had gone down, every available gun
spoke, and a hurricane of shells, large and small, ploughed up the sea
where the Ithuriel had been. After the first volley, the captains
looked at their officers and the officers looked at the captains, and
said things which strained the capabilities of the French language to
the utmost. The monster had vanished.

The fact was that Erskine had foreseen that storm of shell, and the
pumps had been working hard while the ramming was going on. The result
was that the Ithuriel sank almost as soon as her last victim, and in
thirty seconds there was nothing to shoot at.

"I shall ram those chaps from underneath," he said. "They've too many
guns for a shooting match."

He reduced the speed to thirty knots, rose for a moment till the
conning-tower was just above the water, took his bearings, sank, called
for full speed, and in four minutes the ram crashed into the Alger's
stern, carried away her sternpost and rudder, and smashed her
propellers. The Ithuriel passed on as if she had hit a log of wood and
knocked it aside. A slight turn of the steering-wheel, and within four
minutes the ram was buried in the vitals of the Suchet. Then the
Ithuriel reversed engines, the fore screw sucked the water away, and
the cruiser slid off the ram as she might have done off a rock. As she
went down, the Ithuriel rose to the surface. The third cruiser, the
Davout, was half a mile away. She had changed her course and was
evidently making frantic efforts to get back to sea.

"Going to warn the fleet, are you, my friend?" said Erskine, between
his teeth. "Not if I know it!"

He asked for full speed again and the terror-stricken Frenchmen saw the
monster, just visible on the surface of the water, flying towards them
in the midst of a cloud of spray. A sheep might as well have tried to
escape from a tiger. Many of the crew flung themselves overboard in the
madness of despair. There was a shock and a grinding crash, and the ram
bored its way twenty feet into the unarmoured quarter. Then the
Ithuriel's screws dragged her free, and the Davout followed her
sisters to the bottom of the Channel.





Next: How London Took The News

Previous: First Blows From The Air



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