Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XIII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 12

The Naval Campaign

Commodore Dekker's plan was for the sloop to protect their right flank and block any attack on his main body by the enemy warships holding station farther out to sea to keep the weather gage. The three frigates would attack the major concentration of warships, those in the roadstead, supported by the air wing from the carrier.

For the Sandpiper it looked like a very uneven match, a single sloop against fourteen fore-and-aft rigged ketches and sloops. Though they were converted merchantmen and deep sea fishing vessels and not purpose built warships, they were armed with a ballista at the bow and a pair of catapults, one on each beam. The later could fling pots of flammable oil or a dozen small red hot iron balls at an enemy's sails to set them on fire. The raiders were also equipped with boarding crows, essentially a plank with a spike at the end which would nail the attacking vessel to its victim.

Now ship to ship armaments like catapults and ballistas and boarding crow required the raiders to get fairly close to their foes. The flaw in such tactics was that the Sandpiper was a warship equipped with modern stand-off weaponry which could destroy the enemy at long range. Its two magnetic cannon could propel incendiary shells close to a mile or blast canister shot at closer ranges.

Then there were the torpedoes, a stealthy weapon which approached underwater which meant that there was no way to counter a torpedo attack. Torpedoes were neutrally buoyant so a fetcher had no trouble controlling its depth. Operators were trained to tip the torpedo slightly downward or upward so that the water pressing on the dive planes fixed along its sides would help it dive or rise smoothly.

Now the Sandpiper usually carried only six torpedoes but for this attack they had taken a dozen more from the stores aboard the carrier and towed them behind the sloop. On deck were two extra fetchers, Liam and Drew who would help propel the torpedoes, which were of two kinds: incendiaries which set ships on fire and the Long Lance, a kinetic attack weapon which might sink or simply disable an enemy vessel in preparation for boarding and capture or to encourage a surrender.

As the most powerful fetchers, Drew Altair and Liam propelled the Long Lance Torpedoes at high speed toward the two closest enemy ships, not needing to take course corrections from sounders for a surface attack. Sounders came into play for attacks from submersibles below periscope depth.

Both Long Lances struck hard and deep into the enemy hulls. The fetchers yanked them out by main force, the barbs ripping large holes in the hull. Not content to merely disable the enemy Drew and Liam backed their torpedoes off a ways and struck again and again, striking each hull two more times to make sure it would sink. Very soon the decks of the stricken vessels were awash. Both went down fast with only a few quick thinkers among them having thrown off their armor and clung to something which would float.

Drew and Altair turned their attention to another pair of warships and attacked them the same way, though the tip of Liam's torpedo broke off after the third strike, leaving the barbed warhead stuck in the hull. Meanwhile the Sandpiper's regular team directed incendiary torpedoes at the enemy. Their attacks went faster than with the Long Lances. One hit was all it took to set a ship on fire though a second torpedo made its doom certain.

To make matters worse for the raiders the Sandpiper was now within gun range. Captain Anduriel crossed the enemy's T sailing directly across their course, trained the sloop's two cannon to starboard and began lobbing shells at the enemy. Ship after ship went up in flames. The doughty little warship came about, reversed direction, turned her guns to port, and again raked the enemy with her guns. And so it went. The enemy sailed closer but the nimble Sandpiper kept her distance and lead them on.

Only one vessel got anywhere near the Sandpiper, close enough for an elven firecaster to attack the sloop. His first effort was a large ball of clinging fire which sailed across the gap between the ships but fell just short and dropped into the sea generating a cloud of steam. After waiting to get closer he threw a narrow stream of fire aimed at the hull of the sloop.

Liam blocked it. Not sure he could generate white fire yet again that day he called upon his water magic and intercepted the stream of fire with a cresting wave which swamped the flames and put them out. The gunner at the bow of the sloop ended the exchange when he fired canister shot at the firecaster blasting him to ribbons, forestalling Drew who was just then freeing his edged disk from its wooden holster intending to whirl it at the elf and take his head off.

The battle was so one-sided that it became little more than target practice. The Sandpiper destroyed every single enemy ship at the cost of only one casualty and that from an accident; a sailor tripped over a hatch cover and broke his wrist trying to catch his fall.

Yet the result was due as much to the seamanship of captain and crew as to her modern armaments. The enemy had the wind at their backs while the Sandpiper had to deal with an ebbing tide and tricky currents and winds around the headland. Yet they had handled their ship so well as to make the raiders look like a pack of landlubbers.

As for the survivors swimming and floating amid the wreckage of their ships, the Sandpiper left them for the sharks if any were about.

The tactical situation in the roadstead was different. Wide though the bay was, the flotilla had only so much sea room. The main body of the flotilla could not just keep falling back like the sloop to maintain their distance from the enemy. Nor could the water wizards in the flotilla push the enemy ships back with water currents. They were too numerous and too spread out for that tactic to work.

The flotilla would have to hit them hard with naval gunfire to hold them at bay while the carrier's air wing bombed the enemy from above. The approach of the flotilla did make the enemy call off the attack on the harbor so that those ships could regroup with the main body.

The enemy thus numbered forty-seven warships, mostly sloops and ketches, including five of the little fireships which had such a shallow draft as to make a torpedo attack impractical. No matter, each of the frigates could bring six guns at a time to bear in a broadside to starboard or to port or even fore and aft for that matter. The enemy soon found that the worst place to be in a battle with the frigates was aboard a vessel filled with an inflammable liquid. Each was hit by a half-dozen incendiary shells. Huge fires burned the hitherto invincible fireships down to the water line, funeral pyres for their hapless crews.

The frigates turned their guns on the other vessels with similar results. One enemy ship got close enough to engage with a catapult and hurl clusters of small red hot iron balls at the Arctic Tern's sails, but Sailing Master Crawley was a master of magnetism. He invoked his gift -- visible as a grey nimbus which surrounded him -- and grabbed the iron balls magnetically, flinging them right back at the enemy, neatly turning the tables.

Liam took out another vessel which got within ballista range, smashing in its bow and then the bulkheads behind it with a small boulder manipulated telekinetically.

Four enemy vessels broke away from the fight. Blocked from reaching the sea, their crews ran them up on the far shore of the bay, abandoned ship, and fled on foot into the interior.

Nathan Lathrop had made a wager with his fellow frigate captains as to which one would sink the most ships, but, in the end, he tied with captain Dahlgren of the Cormorant with a score of seven.

In truth the trophy should have gone to the sloop, but her commander hadn't been in on the bet. His consolation prizes were a promotion to Lieutenant and later his nation's second highest award for valor, the Shield of the Commonwealth. As an eyewitness and participant in the Sandpiper's fight, Drew celebrated her commander's role in his reporting on the naval battle.

Then too the carrier would have had a claim as well. Her air wing used incendiary bombs to sink even more enemy vessels than the sloop though at the cost of two pilots downed by unlucky shots with levin bolts thrown at long range.

Another autogyro plunged toward the sea after an enemy fetcher propelled a belaying pin through its fuselage snapping the shaft in two and shattering the free-spinning rotor which provided most of the lift. As a fetcher the pilot was not strong enough to hold a missile shield and propel his aerocraft at the same time even if he had been trained in the technique.

With considerable presence of mind the pilot extricated himself from his cockpit even as his aerocraft fell toward the sea and flew over to the nearest frigate using the yoke built into his cuirass. He might need the airfoils of an autogyro to fly any real distance, but a short flight on his own power was within his capabilities.

The townsfolk were all for celebrating, but Dekker told them that the war was not yet won. He reminded them that their enemy likely had reserves and the resources to replace at least some of their losses and resume their depredations. The only thing for it was to destroy their base, burn their shipyards and warehouses of naval stores, kill the experienced shipbuilders who worked in them, and carry off every single anvil their tool and weapons makers used. That would permanently declaw the Communalists till, in the fullness of time, their repugnant system collapsed of its own weight.

That was a job for a massive airstrike. No way Dekker was going to send his ships into unfamiliar narrow waters to bombard their base with guns. Who knew what defenses the enemy had built to block a hostile naval force from their base? They might have blocked channels with hidden piles, or the enemy might use small boats full of fighters to swarm the Navy ships in the narrow waters.

The more he thought about it, the less Dekker liked the idea of attacking the enemy base with just the resources at hand. He needed reinforcements, and thanks to space portals, he could get them.

It took ten days to coordinate with the naval High Command and the base at Southport via Mind Speech, open a portal, and bring reinforcements through it. The augmented flotilla, now designated a task force, was ready to take the offensive. The townsfolk of Argyll watched with as the proud ships of the Commonwealth Navy put out to sea.

The carrier Sovereign of the Seas had temporarily offloaded the extra supplies so she could take aboard the rest of her air wing and replenish her expended munitions: mainly bombs and torpedoes. She had also taken aboard a combat load of Steel Rain, the new anti-personnel weapon which had proven its worth in the campaign against the trolls in the Western Dividing Range.

It was just the latest invention from the fertile mind of the naval architect and inventor Karl-Eike Thyssen. Commodore Dekker's old ship the Petrel had rescued the n fifteen year old castaway from a deserted island in the Great Inland Freshwater Sea and brought him back to civilization. Maybe unleashed him on civilization was a better way of putting it -- the impact of his many inventions had been that significant.

Sailing with the task force was a second aerocraft carrier, the Formidable, sister ship of the Sovereign of the Seas plus an escorting frigate and a cargo ship carrying extra munitions.

Their order of battle was two carriers, Sovereign of the Seas and Formidable, the four heavy frigates Arctic Tern, Cormorant, Gull, and Albatross, and the plucky sloop the Sandpiper.

There was no need for transports to ferry naval infantry into battle. Two regiments totaling four thousand frost giants had been assigned to the campaign. Along with them came their organic field artillery, a battalion of magnetic cannon mounted on limbers. The Frost giants were armed with the larger and more powerful version of the pneumatic air gun to which a bayonet could be fixed for close-in fighting.

The plan was for Liam to deliver that infantry force directly to the battle field via a second space portal. The naval infantry would march straight into the fight from their base on Valentia, engage the enemy, and withdraw when their job was done. Follow-on forces were at the ready if the opposition proved stronger than expected.

Each regiment would go into battle supported by a detachment of war mages typically pairs of firecasters, fetchers, lightning throwers and wielders of ball lightning, with the odd air or weather wizard thrown in.

The flotilla's own war wizards and mages would orbit overhead in autogyros in case their support was needed during the hit and run raid on the enemy capital which the naval infantry had planned.

As its foes had come to learn fighting the Commonwealth was a no-win proposition. It did not win its wars with overwhelming numbers. The Commonwealth fought smart. Because its population was so large, well over one-hundred million, in an emergency it could readily enlist a cadre of mage and wizards in its defense, either in detachments in its regular Army and Navy or as volunteers, called up during hostilities, much as Klutz and Blok had been.

Moreover, that edge in magical support was reinforced by an industrial economy with numberless mines, smelters, foundries, and manufactories linked by iron roads and paved highways, an economy able to churn out the instruments of war in very large numbers many of them revolutionary innovations like autogyros, air guns, magnetic cannon, submersibles, and torpedoes, and even the bicycles which allowed dragoons to deploy much faster along the road network of the Commonwealth than atop live mounts.

The naval campaign would be an exercise in force projection with a vengeance. Normally that phrase referred to the ability of a state to rapidly deploy and sustain military forces well beyond the bounds of its territory. Space portals, or rifts as some called them, added a whole new dimension both for transport and for communication, though admittedly the druid's Mind Speech was even handier for the latter purpose.

The task force met no challenge as it sailed south along the coast of what they had learned was a small continent which the locals called Sarmantia. The climate this far south was temperate rather than sub-tropical. Cooler weather to fight in was something the Frost Giants would appreciate when they redeployed from the tropics.

As it turned out, this was one of those rare battles where the plan largely survived contact with the main body of the enemy. The Communalists had no idea that flight was possible much less any notion of aerial reconnaissance, so they had done nothing to camouflage or conceal their military installations. Scouts had no trouble pinpointing their naval base, their shipyards, and the warehouses full of naval stores, all of which were fire-bombed into ashes. With the attack timed for mid-morning the bombs which destroyed the shipyards also killed their skilled craftsmen such as shipwrights and carpenters.

The land campaign was less of a surprise to the enemy as far as timing went. The massive airstrike had stirred up a hornets' nest and given their army and gendarmerie the chance to muster in the main square of their capital where they took cover behind barricades made with stone pavers taken up from the surrounding streets. All told they numbered some eight thousand men and elves.

The barricades largely neutralized the direct fire of the air guns of the Frost Giants who also found themselves unable to deploy from column of march into a battle line hemmed in as they were by the narrow streets leading to the square. Dozens of enemy ballistas poked out second and third storey windows trained at the exits of the streets threatening to turn them into killing grounds. In the press of troops there was little room to emplace magnetic cannon. So a direct assault would prove costly.

The war wizards and mages orbiting overhead out of arrow range could have attacked the defenders but only after they neutralized the mages among the defenders. Several mages from the fleet wielded ball lightning which could counter levin bolts, and the missile shield raised by fetchers like Liam could defeat any attack by enemy counterparts. Similarly the firecasters in the fleet could block anti-aerocraft fire from the ground. However an air-to-ground battle fought with magic would inflict extensive collateral damage on the town and likely set it afire, endangering non-combatants.

So the attack was made with Steel Rain, a kinetic energy weapon dropped from aerocraft in great numbers. Looking like pointy tear drops with tiny fins crimped to the back end to stabilize their descent, they were a bit less than two inches long and half an inch thick.

Autogyros from the two aerocraft carriers stationed off shore made scores of sorties and dropped tens of thousands on the things from an altitude of four thousand feet. As they fell gravity accelerated the weapons to three hundred miles per hour, enough to punch through a shield or armor and keep going. Thanks to hydrostatic shock their momentum was deadly regardless of where they hit a body. Perhaps twenty percent of the enemy force survived the attack. The naval infantry left the wounded for the locals to care for.

In the rest of the town the naval infantry acted with restraint. They did not torch the residential districts or even the public buildings though they did remove official records and toss them onto huge bonfires. They also emptied the treasury of its silver and gold, but took the wealth as reparations to the towns and villages on the Benign Coast which had been attacked.

The Frost Giants made sure to round up the anvils in every smithy or weapons shop. There was no instances of looting or rape, and the land forces spared all of the town's inhabitants who stood aside and did not try to resist them.

In short the operation was a complete success with negligible casualties among the Commonwealth forces. The task force sailed back to Argyll and joined in celebrating the lifting of the deadly threat to the Benign Coast.

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