Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Naval Report

To: Flag Officer Commanding,
RN Aerial Forces, Mars
Copy to:   Cdr. H. Villard
Commander, RN Light Aerial Forces, Mars
From: Lt Cdr Mitchell, RNVR, Commanding HMS Viper

Please inform their Lordships:

On June 17, 1889, the recently converted 200 ton prize HMS Viper left Syrtis Major, escorting 3 merchant vessels, pursuant to our orders. We steamed first toward Haatt where, due to the limited number of Royal Marines available, I would request a platoon of the Australian Mounted Infantry, with whom we had worked before, to assist in the defense of our vital convoy and fill out our complement of 29 officers and men.
On June 18, 1889, 10 miles SW of Haatt, while proceeding NE toward the city, we were intercepted by the RN Auxiliary vessel HMAS Swift, sailing out of Haatt. The Swift joined our stately procession toward the city. Immediately thereafter, at 1500 hours local time, another aerial vessel was sighted approaching us, also from the direction of the city. The vessel was large, 500 tons, and of the Oenotrian Endtime-class. The Swift was ordered to break from our track and circle downwind, escorting the convoy into Haatt while we dealt with the Endtime. As the wind was blowing strongly, the merchant kites would have no trouble outrunning the enemy vessel. The Endtime-class can make 15 knots, while the kites were making 35 knots in the near gale force winds. It was a great day to be flying. The Viper closed on the Endtime at 15 knots indicated airspeed and 30 knots closure. The Oenotrian could not escape us - we expected an easy victory. The battle turned out to be a very near thing, however.
As we entered gun range, 1200 yards, the Endtime fired its lob gun. We were holding our fire until optimum range (about 400 yards for our three gun battery of bow mounted quick firing guns), for maximum effect. Unfortunately, the massive stone projectile stuck the Viper hard. This was an incredible piece of luck for the Oenotrians. The thing hit aft. Luckily for us it was abaft the boiler. The ship pitched, nose up, and rolled sharply to the left. The helmsman caught her smartly, leveling her off laterally. This proved a great help to Petty Officer George Hitsman, our trimsman, as he struggled to regain trim control of the Viper. We passed through the horizontal at a large and growing pitching rate. Petty officer Hitsman regained control expertly, leveling the Viper out at high altitude - making our total altitude loss only about 600 feet. Many a ship our size would have crashed after taking such a hit from the massive Martian lob gun - our survival is due only to the expert skill of our fine trimsman.
It took us a minute or so to get ourselves straightened out and back aboard the ship (Several men were left dangling over the side, saved only by their safety lines; they had to be retrieved). This delay in our opening fire, caused by the precipitous drop and the loss of trim, gave the Oenotrians the opportunity to damage us severely with impunity. The enemy captain extended us no mercy, attacking viciously with a close range barrage from his two heavy guns, and his bow swivel-mounted rod gun. All of the weapons struck us, damaging the hull and causing several casualties. He then rammed us! Again, Petty Officer Hitsman again proved his skill by maintaining trim through an incredible impact. Our helmsman steered skillfully to minimize the impact, saving us further hull damage. With the Endtime two and a half times our weight, however, the shock was still extremely dangerous. Our nine-pounder battery aft fired on the enemy as he passed to our rear, the gunners having managed to return to their posts. Finally we could hit back! And strike we did, sending two of our three nine pounder starshell rounds into the enemy; starting an immediate fire (the reason for firing the special ammo).
I ordered hard right rudder and full ahead flank in order to bring our bow mounted rapid fire battery of two one pound Hotchkiss Rotating Cannon and an experimental one pound "Pom-Pom" gun to bear. The sluggish acceleration, which answered this order, was a great disappointment. The stone, whilst not smashing our hull to bits or bursting our boiler, had, however, seriously damaged our screw and steam drive system. Our maximum speed was a mere 6 knots. Now we were the caught, unable to escape while the Endtime pounded us into the ground from his superior altitude. I ordered a change to standard high explosive ammo for the nine pounders, as our lower altitude made the chance of giving him fires from the starshell rounds very unlikely.
All the rest of the battle, the Oenotrian captain used his altitude advantage to pour a withering rifle fire onto our decks, wounding man after man (they were using fine German Mausers, we later found). Once we got our bows on him, however, the tide of the battle turned. Our rapid-fire guns proved their worth, making continuous hits into and through their unarmored hull for the remainder of the action. Our furious fusillade had an immediate effect, causing a noticeable slackening in his rate of fire, and causing sufficient hull damage to bring him down to our altitude. Unfortunately, this just allowed him to ram us again! With our ship moving only slightly faster than a baby carriage, we braced for the impact. The hull splintering crash infuriated us. Again somehow, Petty Officer Hitsman maintained our trim through the terrible battering. We immediately slipped to low altitude, with over half our liftwood vanes jammed and otherwise damaged. Unfortunately, the Endtime barely missed colliding with the tether mine we had been patiently towing behind us during the engagement.
The bow battery scored multiple hits, but the enemy's fire continued to damage our hull. We were barely able to maintain very low altitude at this point. As one more unlucky hit could have sent us crashing to the Martian sand below, I ordered the ship to land. We would crouch there, and pound him on the way in. With luck, we might still damage him enough to drive him off before he finished us. We continued long range nine pounder fire as our tormentor turned back toward us. Unfortunately, firing up about 1200 feet made it very difficult to hit. At fifteen knots and low altitude, he made his last pass. Our nine pounders did telling damage. Only the murderous rifle fire was still emanating from the heavily damaged enemy ship now (after the battle, we surmised that all his guns were knocked out of action at this point). Yet still he closed on our crippled ship. We were all but shot down, we could barely rise the 20 feet needed to keep all three of our aft battery guns bearing as he came around, our propeller shaft vibrating wildly with each turn of the damaged screw. Our guns fired madly. I ordered the ship down again as his heavy guns came into range. If he did hit us, at least we wouldn't die from gravity.
A group of Royal Navy officers in Syrtis Major including 
Lt Cdr Mitchell (fourth from left, with hand in pocket).
The nine pounders aft went silent as he crossed above their training limits. Again the Oenotrian's damnable luck held as he avoided our tether mine one more time (the hope we placed in that silly tether mine shows our desperation). He was heavily damaged. We knew that once our formidable forward battery came to bear, we would shoot him into the sand. Yet still he came. Then in one flashing second of realization I knew what the fiendish Oenotrian captain had planned for us; why he had driven his badly damaged ship over ours, risking certain death after passing us if his plan failed. He had somehow brought two of the five hundred-pound stone lob gun shells to the sides of his ship. As he passed overhead, his crew rolled them through the bulwarks and onto us! They had to roll them off both sides almost simultaneously - a single seconds delay on one side would have tipped the ship too far to recover in the altitude they had left to lose. Their incredible gamble worked. They continued on, with nothing but a slight lateral rocking to mark their captain's diabolic audacity.
That my report is being read today, rather than his, is due only to the incredible luck of the Viper. Somehow, perhaps due to his having to dodge the tether mine, those vicious stones he dropped on our helpless, grounded ship missed. I will never forget the sight of those huge stones tumbling toward us. As he passed forward, the ship was totally silent - except for the rattle of the dirt raining down over everything. Even the wounded were shocked into silence. The stones had straddled us. They had seemed close enough to touch as they hurtled past the rails.
Realizing that his guns must have been silenced to try something so incredibly foolhardy, I ordered the ship up and around to follow as best we could. It was not necessary. The Oenotrian ship, burning fiercly, crashed after the fifth or sixth hit from the forward battery.
As we passed over the crash site at our shaky six knots we heard him still firing! This enemy ship was unbelievable. After the lob gun hit, the repeated ramming, the murderous rifle fire, and dropping the huge stones on us, we had shot him down. Yet still they fought on! At this point, I am sure many of my crew were as worried as I was. What manner of enemy was this madman? What would it take to make him strike? The aft battery continued rapid fire as we staggered around. When the ship came into view, I knew then what had happened. Our light guns had started a fire that was now raging out of control. The flames were roaring at least fifty feet high. I rang the cease fire alarm immediately. We all watched in horror, (well tempered with relief) as the last of his magazines blew. It was the magazine explosions that we had heard as we passed ahead of the crash site. We landed to give what aid we could to the shocked survivors.
Seventeen were taken aboard, half of them severely wounded. Alas, the enemy captain was not among the survivors. Even though he had caused the death of two of my men, and wounded eight more of our understrength nineteen man complement, coming closer to ending my career than any other enemy I had ever encountered, I was saddened by his death. He had fought with incredible bravery, incredible tenacity, incredible cunning, and incredible skill. He had, with little more than luck and courage, turned a battle that should have been suicide for him into a near victory.
Some will criticize my words of praise to a hated enemy. I reject that criticism. I respect this captain as my foe. What glory is there in defeating an unskilled enemy? Yesterday, many of my newly commissioned ship's crew were strangers to each other. Today, we have gone through the fire together. Tomorrow, we will fight as one. We now know what our ship can do. We can face the best the enemy has to offer, and emerge victorious - for we did so today.
Lt. Colin Mitchell, RNVR,
Commanding HMS Viper

About the Author

Matthew V. Jessick is a former aerospace engineer. Currently, he works at Motorsport Simulations (Motorsims) as a vehicle dynamics engineer. He resides in Texas.

This article originally appeared in issue #3 of GDW's "in-house" Space: 1889 'zine, the Ether Society Newsletter, ©1990. The article is used here with the permission of Mr. Jessick.

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  1. I had not heard about the Ether Society before - thank you indeed!
    Where can I find old copies of this gem?

    1. Paul, ESN is long out of print. There were five issues (which included an introductory issue #0) before the 'zine was folded into the second volume of TRMGS. I was lucky and got all five "back in the day",


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