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Short Fiction: Battle of the Channel

[Following my medical issues of a week-and-a-half ago, I’m going to be digging through my files for content for folks while I recover, and I have no idea how often I’ll post. This may be my only blog entry for the week — we’ll see how it goes.

The early versions of this snippet of fictional history have been sitting on my hard drive since I published Anachronistic Adventures, nearly a decade ago. It was supposed to be broken up as 1-2 paragraph chapter heads for a dieselpunk Second War of the Worlds setting book, which I played with but never got around to seriously developing for publication.

It appears here for the first time.]

From “A History of The Second War of the Worlds. Vol IV, Chapter 11: The First Battle of the Channel”

“Before it can be understood how a flotilla of Armored Rams was expected to hold the Straight of Dover against tripod war machines, and why those expectations were ill-grounded in the reality of the Second Martian Invasion, it’s necessary to understand the design of the Armored Rams as a class, and the Thunderchild in particular.

“Unlike older its namesake, Armored Ram Thunderchild was purpose-built to fight the Martian war machines, though no Earthly designer could have conceived of how much more dangerous the Second Invasion walkers were than what humanity had seen before. Displacing 21 long tons, the Thunderchild-class as a whole had no exposed turrets or smokestacks, as such protuberances would have been nothing but burs for Martian heat-rays to melt smooth in the opening seconds of any conflict. Its exterior was closer in appearance to the bottom of a typical boat, a curved wedge coming to its sharp, heavily reinforced point right at its waterline. Only the massive steel rivets running in long lines along the ship hinted at the thickness of its exterior hull armor, and the armored quarts viewports were nearly impossible to pick out from their metal frames.

“This exterior armor was just one of the Thunderchild’s defenses. The apparently-contiguous armored exterior was, in fact, a series of carefully overlapping plates. Behind that armor were more water pumps than any seaborne vessel had ever carried before, all fed by intakes along the ship’s belly. Combined, the pumps had a capacity of more than 500,000 gallons per minute, sprayed onto the armor from the inside, ready to cool it against the murderous burning of heat rays. The overlapping armored plates running its full 427-foot length allowed steam created by this cooling to escape as quickly as it was generated, and when the ship moved at speed the design was such that air was sucked through the space between the outer and inner hull for further cooling.

“After the outer hull and the radiators and the water-cooling system, thick layers of asbestos insulated the inner hull from the expected hellish conditions of the outer hull dissipating steel-melting temperatures, and then another layer of armor sat behind that. This inner armor was not vented, but instead able to form an airtight, pressurized seal adapted from the French Aigrette-class submarines. The Thunderchild-class was designed not to submerge, but to keep their crew safe in airtight chambers when tripod war machines covered the sea with their villainous black gas.

“The sole exception to this seal was the engine intakes, which drew in air from just above the waterline (assumed — correctly — by designers to be where air would be coolest in a heat ray-enabled battle) and passed it along sealed pipes to furnaces for the ship’s 18 Babcock & Wilcox boilers to power the ship’s mighty steam turbines. While black gas was deadly to any living creature that breathed or touched it, its effect on machines was more a question of greater anticorrosion measures. Having black gas potentially fill sections of the engines that might call for repair necessitated a new class of “smokesuit engineers,” but this was considered a small price to have engines at full power, and a crew safe from the horrors of Martian chemical weapons.

“Finally, carbon dioxide scrubbers and oxygen rebreathers were installed within the ship to form an  “air support system,” ensuring that it could operate in its fully-airtight “buttoned up” state for several hours if necessary under full steam, or for roughly 30 minutes if the ship was forced to run purely on battery power.

“Lacking any exterior guns, the offense of an Armored Ram was twofold. First, as the name suggests, the entire Thunderchild-class was a throwback to ram-armed ships of the galleys of Imperial Rome. The entire construction of the keel and ribbing was to brace the thickest, most heavily armor section of the ship, the ram prow or “beak,” which was shaped to carry the ship’s massive tonnage into and throw any other vehicle it struck, be that naval vessel or walker. Secondly, it carried five 18 in torpedo tubes, designed to fire the Mark VII torpedo, each carrying 320 lbs of TNT. The torpedo tubes were mounted forward, centered behind and under the Ram Beak, well below the waterline and presumed safe from both heat rays and black gas.

“The Thunderchild-class were also called Peaceships (as opposed to Warships), because they were designed exclusively to deal with Martian war machines. Though a Thunderchild could theoretically ram an Earthly battleship, their total lack of heavy guns made them no match for modern naval vessels such as the American Virginia class, English King Edward VII class, or Italian Regina Margherita class battleships. As Martian war machines had never used heavy projectile weaponry, it was believed there was no need to develop tactics for anything other than heat rays and black gas, and while the heavy layer armor of a Thunderchild-class vessel could survive glancing blows from 9-inch guns and ignore smaller caliber weapons, the bigger 12-inch naval guns were able to sink an Armored Ram at ranges in the thousands of yards — well before torpedoes or a ramming run were a threat.

“Thus, when the Martians returned in 1909, it was expected the Thunderchild-class and similar ram ship designs worldwide would be crucial to keeping coasts and waterways clear of 100-120 ft. tall tripods. England invested more heavily in such ships because of the heavy fighting in and around harbors in 1896, and the belief that Martians would focus on disabling the English naval fleet. What no one expected was 250- to 300-foot tall tripods splashing down directly in waters all around England, as well as in its interior, and the English mainland falling to Martian forces within days. And, as Europe watched in horror, massive legions of the much-taller tripods marched towards the Straight of Dover, a narrow barrier between England and France no more than 180 feet deep.

“The Martians would not, it was realized, be limited to walking in rivers, coastlines, and harbors. The new War Machines were taller than the Straight was deep, and could simply walk the 20 or so miles to Europe. Fleets were rushed to the waters, but the taller tripods also had greatly increased range of their black gas canisters and could blanket the waves up to 10 miles away. Traditional warships could not get within gunnery ranges without being choked by the gas, their crews choked by the necrotic substance before a single shot could be fired.

“It would be up to the four Thunderchild-class ships.

“Volumes have been written on the command failures of the captains of the Ligetung, Stormspite, and Taranis, which lead to their destruction. Most of these analyses are unforgiving, placing it as purely tactical error for those ships to have stayed at their extreme torpedo ranges, rather than rushing in to ram foes as the Thunderchild did. However, it must be remembered that Martians had not revealed the existence of either their Kraken tendril-canisters or Scylla tendril-augmented black gas canisters. Had the captains of any of the three ships been alerted to the Martian equivalent of kinetic guns, able to fire whirling masses of sliding plate tendrils that could rips targets apart (and, in the case of Scylla canisters, flood an area with black gas while doing so), they no doubt would have closed range as quickly as possible.

“The more interesting question is why the crew of the Thunderchild bore toward the massed tripods walking across the Straight in the first moments of siting the enemy. True, the Armored Ram ships were conceived as close-combatants, but naval doctrine at the time leaned heavily toward soften up any enemy formation at range if possible. Arguably, it was the captain of the Thunderchild who acted in error despite being the only ship to survive the opening minutes of the battle as a result. Tragically, as there were no survivors, the question of whether the officers aboard were driven by tactical brilliance, reckless battle-lust, or a desire to match the boldness of their namesake from the first War of the Worlds will never be answered.

“Moving at its full 22 knots, the Thunderchild proved a difficult target for Martian canister launchers. Even tendril-enabled canisters bounced off its hull too quickly to gain purchase, and the massive spray created by its Ram Beak-enabled prow may have confused Martian gunners. In its first pass, the Thunderchild sank 4 Tripods with ram hits, and one with a lucky torpedo salvo, and disabled the legs of 3 more, leaving them unable to continue across the Straight.

“But this success was not without cost. The expected heat rays did splay across Thunderchild‘s hull to horrifying effect, literally melting and warping sections of its outer armor and largely destroying its port prow cooling pumps. Worse, each time the Thunderchild rammed a Tripod, the naval ship slowed enough for the walker’s tendrils to grasp and scrabble at its upper hull. Numerous plates were wrenched from true, leaving gaps and weak points in the ship’s defenses, and a few were torn free entirely. Reports of the day claim the Thunderchild remained at full fighting capacity after its initial charge, but careful analysis of photos f the conflict put lie to this claim, which was likely more propaganda than bad intelligence even at the time.

“Even so, the ship barely slowed as it arced around for a second pass, which if not as effective as the first still sunk three Tripods and badly injured two more. Though more than two dozen walkers were involved in the Martian advance against the straight, the legend of the Thunderchild and the tripod’s clear focus on the Armored Ram spurred every British vessel able to float to pick that time to flee across the Channel. For dozens of miles up and down the coast, the few remaining naval ships made dashes for France, along with private craft, river ferries, and even makeshift barges. The exodus continued as long as the Thunderchild could float and fight, and is credited with evacuating more than 300,000 civilians and fighting forces. At the time, this was hailed as a great humanitarian victory, and in the years since we have come to understand just how great the impact to the Martian war effort was to remove the people it would otherwise have literally fed into its War Machines.

“By the end of its second pass, the Thunderchild was clearly in distress. It was visible on fire, and had slowed to less than half its maximum speed–a deadly limit for a ship dependent on kinetic impact to do damage. Pictures prove that at least one Kraken and one Scylla canister had found purchase on its outer hull at last, and numerous eyewitness accounts claim a Kraken tendril mass actually climbed into the Thunderchild midships, where only the crew’s small arms fire could possibly slow it. Wounded, boarded, and burning, no one could have faulted the Thunderchild if it had given quit to the battle, and turned toward France.

“But it did not.

“Whereas its previous attack runs had been the swift jabs of trained pugilists, its course plotted to ensure it deflected from each impact on a vector to bring it ramming into another tripod, the third pass of the Thunderchild was the ponderous swing of a drunken barroom brawl. Its only kill was from a final torpedo salvo that took advantage of a tripod attempting to directly block its path, and the two other walkers it damaged simply had their legs bent from glancing blows from the ram’s flanks.

“Though it managed to steam free of the remaining tripods massing to bring it down through sheer weight of tendril attacks, the Thunderchild was clearly in no condition for another attack run. Nearly half its exterior armor was gone, and in a few places its interior hull was also breached. Two explosions had rocked its starboard side below the waterline, and it listed toward that side as it came around. It moved sluggishly at best, and if any of the remaining tripods had tendril-canisters to spare, they could surely have dropped the deadly writhing weapons on Thunderchild‘s near-wreck, and torn it apart at a distance.

“But in a victory as great as the war machines it sank, the Thunderchild had shown the limit of the new Martian weapons. As horrifying as the Kraken and Scylla cannister-launchers were, their reload numbers within each tripod were limited. Most tripods carried only six canisters of this type, and those with prisoner cages carried only four. The slightly larger walkers later identified as command units could carry eight, but at the cost of not having any of the standard black gas dispensers. After the destruction of its sisterships at distance, and three full circuits of its own through the Tripod formation, the Thunderchild had taken the measure of the Martian’s new armament. If heat rays couldn’t sink it, and the ship showed no sign of going down despite belching steam and black smoke into the air, the Martians would have to tear the Armored Ram apart with their Tripod’s own tendrils, in close combat.

“Legend says the navigator for the Thunderchild was the sole survivor on its bridge by this point in the battle, and he lashed himself to the helm to make a final run into the Martian formation. It’s a heroic tale, and one popularized when the navigator’s wife became one of the most famous naval commanders later in the war. But there’s no way to confirm the story and, indeed, no way anyone could have known what happened on the bridge to begin with. But it takes no legends to acknowledge the bravery of the crew of the Thunderchild because, whether helmed by a lone hero lashed to the controls or a few brave men facing what they knew had to be their end, the Armored Ram turned toward the Tripod formation a fourth time.

“There would be no passing through the Martian forces this time. At no more than 10 knots, the Thunderchild made straight for the tallest of the walkers, and the Martian forces swarmed the point to ensure the ship could not escape again. The Armored Ram can be said to have drifted as much as steamed to the engagement, and was riding quite low in the water. As for what happened once it was surrounded, inhuman tripods using long tendrils to tear it apart and pluck bodies (though living or dead it is impossible to say) from its bulk, perhaps it was an inevitable coincidence given the ship’s damage.

“But a case can be made the timing was too perfect. The moment came just as the last War Machines surrounded the Thunderchild, and applied such pressure to its hull that the keel was heard to crack. It might have been coincidence, but if so the coincidence had timing as good as any lone engineer shut into the ship’s bowels could have hoped for.

“For it was only then the Thunderchild heaved in the water and, with a roar heard on the French mainland, exploded.

“No Martian force attempted to cross the Channel for a full2 days following that detonation. Was it fear that held them at the moment no effective defender remained to stop them? Loss of a commander sewing confusion through their ranks? A need to analyze how a lone ship named Thunderchild had, as a generation before, held them at bay?

“The thousands who escaped to France during those two days did not then, and do not today, have that answer.”

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