Monday, September 26, 2022

Bombardment of Heligoland ~ Part 1

"The range has closed to 20,000 yards, sir." The Royal Sovereign's gunnery officer's voice carried down the pipe from the director tower high overhead. 

The dark green hump of Heligoland Island loomed ahead, a thin line of gentle surf showing white along the foot of the russet cliffs. Most of the island appeared to be green and dozing beneath the May sunlight. Thin plumes of smoke from domestic fires rose above the red rooftops of the village at the eastern end. Nothing suggested massed German artillery waited for the British squadron to come into effective range. Nothing suggested the smiling sea to the west had been sown with mines, thus restricting the attacking ships' field of maneuver. 

Rear Admiral Crabtree turned to Captain Ramsay and smiled. "Here we go then, Jeff. We're about to see if the Hero's adage is correct. Is a ship a fool to fight a fort in our modern age?"

Captain Ramsay smiled back. "As much as I respect Lord Nelson, sir, my ship and I are determined to prove him wrong."

"Excellent! That's the spirit. I'll be off to the flag bridge." Crabtree clapped Ramsay on the arm. "Good luck, then, Jeff, and have at 'em!"

Within minutes the Bombardment Group had approached the designated firing area. The signal for a turn to port played out from the semaphore. As the arms swung through the message, distant flashes broke along the green line of the island. Moments later the express-train roar of plunging shells filled the air. Towering plumes of water rose all around the Royal Sovereign.

Lieutenant Tom Edwards, the 2-i-C, glanced at the bridge chronometer then his fob watch. As water fell in torrents upon the deck and superstructure he turned to the duty midshipman standing wide eyed alongside him. "Make a note in the log, Mr. Watson. The enemy opened fire at 12.10 hours precisely..."

Royal Sovereign leads Empress of India, Resolution and Repulse (below, off camera) into action.

The second salvo from the island screamed in. Moments later a cataclysmic explosion shook Royal Sovereign to her core. Edwards saw the thick armour of the after 13.5 inch turret open up like an obscene flower with fire at its heart. When he looked back at the Captain, Ramsay's face wore an expression more suited to a man seeing a kid throwing stones at his conservatory. "Damned annoying, that," Ramsay muttered. "See to it, Tom."

Royal Sovereign's aft turret explodes.

As Edward gave orders to damage control, above his head the calm voice of the gunnery officer gave the word to fire. Royal Sovereign's forward turret guns belched flame and smoke as the wounded ship retaliated. Hits were observed.

Royal Sovereign at 'Windy Corner,' Empress of India following faithfully astern. Smoke pours from the gaping hole in the deck where the after turret stood.

The ships of the Bombardment Group turned in succession, and the guns of Heligoland followed them along, shells raining upon the Royal Sovereign, making her shudder and rattle with every impact. It was not all one-way traffic. As more ships made the turn, so their guns came to bear. Soon, 13.5 inch shells rained down upon the island.

German fire concentrates on Royal Sovereign.

Suddenly a plume of dirty smoke shot into the air above the cliffs facing the squadron. A cheer rose from the embattled Royal Sovereign, sounding thin amidst the cacophony of exploding howitzer shells and thundering guns. "A hit, a hit, a palpable hit!" cried Ramsay, rubbing his hands.

"We'll need a few more of those to finish the business, sir," Edwards remarked.

"They'll get 'em," Ramsay replied.

They both braced themselves as the German gunners' reply slammed into their vessel.

On the island a 13.5 inch shell found a weak spot on the westernmost 11 inch gun turret. Plunging through the armour it exploded deep inside the magazine, blowing the turret off as if it weighed no more than a tin can.

The Bombardment Group went about, but the turn and the resulting predictable course served to aid the German gunners. More shells rained down on the flagship, penetrating her hull and creating havoc with the steam lines. As pressure fell and hull damage mounted she found it difficult to maintain speed and station. 

A midshipman ran onto the bridge, eyes shining with excitement, one hand holding a handkerchief to a gory shrapnel wound on his left cheek. He saluted the Captain. "Admiral's compliments, sir, and he requests you signal Empress of India to take the lead."

Ramsay lowered his binoculars long enough to regard the boy. "My compliments to the Admiral, and I shall comply with his wish." 

As the boy ran off, Ramsay gave his 2-i-C a faint smile. "He's half excited, half terrified. The lad reminds me of my own days as a 'Snotty,' Tom, at the bombardment of Alexandria."

"I was at Rugby at the time, sir, but remember reading about it." Edwards nodded in the direction of the flag bridge. "If he survives, at least he'll have a dashing scar with which to impress the girls."

Ramsay chuckled as he raised his binoculars again to study the effects of the bombardment. Moments later he groaned. "Oh Christ. Resolution's hit the village." He grimaced. "We hoped to avoid that. Let's hope the civvies are down deep in their cellars. There may be a few more hits on the town before this is over."

"I'm afraid so, sir." Edwards examined the island through his own binoculars as the next salvo roared away. "Ah, that's better. I believe we hit another of their emplacements, sir."

The din of battle lessened as Royal Sovereign eased out of the line. Edwards suppressed an uncharitable sense of relief as he saw the German defensive fire switch to pummel the Empress of India.

Empress of India takes a battering.

A plume of smoke rose above the island's cliffs. Ramsay frowned. "I think we hit something else over there, but I don't believe it's a gun position. I wonder what the devil it was?"

After a few minutes Edwards smiled. "I believe that last hit was their gunnery control, sir. Their fire is increasingly erratic."

"Good show!" Ramsay replied. 

The next salvo was the most effective to date. Two more emplacements erupted into ruin. 

"Now we're talking!" Ramsay said. "I do believe we've set the gorse and bracken alight, too. That'll also hinder their fire direction."

Moments later his smile turned into a scowl. "Bloody hell, Tom! Resolution's hit the town again - and there's another hit, from Repulse! Who the hell's the gunnery officer aboard Resolution?" 

"Thessiger, sir. George Thessiger. He was in my class at Dartmouth."

"I hope Palmer rakes him over the coals after this is finished," Ramsay fumed.

"Quite, sir..."

* * * *

The concluding part of this action will be posted soon.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Wonderful narrative and looking forward to the next post.


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