Tides of Valor [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Peter Albano
eBook Category: Mainstream
eBook Description: Rodney and Nathan Higgins are of the same blood but they are destined to lead two very different lives. Rodney loves the life his father had worked for, living on New York's Fifth Avenue in all the luxury that comes with it. Nathan is a Marxist radical, opposed to all that is his brother. Rodney, following in his father's footsteps and defending his country on the sea, sails the Pacific for revenge on the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Nathan, pushed into the war at the last minute, finds himself in North Africa, an able killer. Both brothers must fight for their lives, their beliefs, and for glory in TIDES OF VALOR.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, Published: 1990
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2001
I The North Atlantic May 27, 1941
8 Reader Ratings:
The North Atlantic was gray and brooding, swirling mists and banks of fog obscuring the early morning sun and lending a leaden hue to the surging swell. Chains of atmospheric depressions swept across the frigid waters with gale-force winds, building sea upon sea, unchecked rollers sweeping implacably across the length of the ocean like an endless procession of gray hills.
High on the square, citadel-like bridge of battleship King George V, Lieutenant j.g. Rodney Higgins, USN, focused his glasses and leaned against the steel windscreen. Tall with sandy hair that spoke equally of Kansas wheat fields or California beaches, his broad shoulders tapered to the narrow waist and powerful legs of the trained fullback. Set in deep sockets, the American's intense blue eyes had the look of a man who could discuss poetry with Byron or savage a countryside with Attila the Hun. The jaw was square and strong as if fashioned by Rodin's chisel, nose straight and aristocratic, hinting at English antecedents. The entire visage was that of striking good looks--an aspect of matinee-idol perfection that inevitably turned female heads.
Sweeping his sector, he grunted in frustration as time and again his lenses were fogged by swirls of mist. Nearby, the sea was as hard and cold as slate, while on the eastern horizon, where occasional shafts of feeble sunlight broke through, it appeared like molten chrome. To the far north towering clouds massed and rolled across the horizon, flashing lightning as if doing battle, giant mushrooms colliding, blending, and darkening the horizon with solid sheets of rain. Turning his glasses astern, he caught glimpses of the rest of the force; battleship Rodney, battle cruiser Repulse, carrier Victorious, and escorting cruisers and destroyers charging through the mists like gray ghosts.
The cold was bitter, borne on the brunt of Arctic winds that mourned through the rigging and ripped the tops from the chop in gray-white sheets. The shock of the frozen air whipped Rodney's breath away in solid banners of vapor, causing him to gasp like a drowning man. Tears streamed from his eyes and across his cheeks, icy spray scoring his face like frozen sand and coating his lips with salt. He tried to contract his big bulk into his navy great coat and cinched his muffler until it almost strangled him. But the cold found its way in, between his gloves and sleeves, seeping around the muffler as if it were liquid. He tried to put it out of his mind. Pressing the glasses tighter against his eyes, he cursed the terrible visibility. The pride of the Kriegsmarine, battleship Bismarck, was out there somewhere. He had to find it before it found them.
Bismarck. Formidable with an awesome reputation most professionals knew was not completely earned, the great ship was a rework of the old World War I Baden design. Typical of World War I naval architecture, the German battleship had a low armored deck and lacked the dual-purpose secondary guns being adopted by the British and Americans. Eight hundred twenty-three feet long with the unusually wide beam of 118 feet, she was armed with a main battery of eight fifteen-inch guns and was capable of thirty knots. She was intricately compartmented and would be hard to sink. But the old design left her rudders and steering gear poorly protected, her communications and data-transmitting systems exposed. Worse, because her fifteen-inch ammunition was poorly fused, many of her shells would not explode. However, she was a convoy killer with massive secondary batteries: twelve 150-millimeter guns; sixteen 105-millimeter guns; sixteen 37-millimeter guns; twelve 20-millimeter guns. And she had already killed the pride of the Royal Navy, battle cruiser Hood.
Horror had filled the Allied camp when on May 21 Bismarck and her consort, the eight-inched gunned cruiser Prinz Eugen, sailed from the Kors Fjord near Bergen, Norway. There were eleven convoys at sea; one, bound for the Middle East, was loaded with troops. Battle cruiser Hood and the new battleship Prince of Wales, completed only two weeks earlier and still suffering teething problems with her fourteen inch turrets, put to sea in a line ahead from Scapa Flow and made for the Denmark Straits--the eighty-mile-wide passage between Greenland and Iceland. Here cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk had sighted the German ships and broadcast an alarm. Bismarck turned, opened her firing arcs, hurling several salvoes at her tormentors. Unharmed and continuing to broadcast sighting signals, the cruisers turned away and began shadowing just out of range or concealed by the mists. Hood and Prince of Wales, steaming just south of the exit to the Denmark Straits and skirting the Greenland ice, charged in.
May 24 was a day that rocked the British Navy, shattering confidence and depressing an entire nation. At 0552 hours at a range of twenty-five thousand yards the action began. Exchanging salvo after salvo, Hood and Prince of Wales concentrated on Bismarck, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen firing on Hood. Eight minutes after the action began, one of Bismarck's shells penetrated Hood's deck and plunged into her magazines. A flash like the birth of a new sun leapt from the sea, the whole bow of the ship hurled up out of the sea before the fore part of the ship began to sink. A giant black cloud of smoke covered the area like a pall and when it cleared, Hood had vanished. There were three survivors.
Prince of Wales, with two turrets out of action, turned away but not before hitting Bismarck with two fourteen-inch shells, one of which crashed through her bow and started a leak in a fuel bunker. Losing oil, Bismarck turned south, shaping a course for St. Nazaire. Prinz Eugen steamed off to the north to carry out commerce raiding.
May 25 was another bad day for the British fleet, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Prince of Wales lost Bismarck. Worse, believing Bismarck was returning to her base by making for the Iceland-Faeroes gap, King George V, Rodney, Repulse, and Victorious turned to the northeast, away from the German battleship. But that afternoon Bismarck's commanding officer foolishly sent a long, thirty-minute message boasting of the victory over Hood. Picked up by radio direction finders, the English ships reversed course and closed in. But Bismarck was 110 miles ahead of her pursuers. Nothing short of a miracle would bring her to action. And the British were running low on fuel, too; Prince of Wales breaking off and heading for Iceland to replenish; Repulse making for Newfoundland with her tanks nearly dry.
On May 26 antique Swordfish biplanes flying from Ark Royal, which was steaming north from Gibraltar with battle cruiser Renown and cruiser Sheffield of Force H, found Bismarck. Throughout the day the old planes dogged her, reporting her position. They never let go. That evening fifteen Swordfish attacked Bismarck with torpedoes. Two hits were scored; one exploded amidships on the port side doing no appreciable damage while the second struck her starboard quarter, damaging her starboard propeller, wrecking the steering gear, and jamming her rudders. The great battleship began to turn in circles and her speed dropped to eight knots. The British had their miracle.
Lieutenant Rodney Higgins dropped his glasses and grabbed the teakwood rail below the windscreen as King George V slammed into a huge swell with the violence of a maddened bull, sending banners of gray-white water flying to both bows, sounds like great bass drums booming through her hull. Built with a low bow for zero elevation firing of her forward turrets, King George V challenged and fought the seas, crushing the swells and shouldering them aside arrogantly when other ships rode over. A two-fisted, barroom brawler of a ship, she gave her crew a rough ride, defying the Atlantic's worst efforts with her 38,000 tons and 110,000 horsepower.
Clutching the rail, Higgins reflected on how he, an American naval officer and a neutral, could find himself in the middle of a naval battle fought by the British and Germans. In essence, he was a stowaway--a neutral observer attached to the American embassy who had been aboard King George V (the British affectionately referred to her as KG V) when the first warning had been broadcast by cruiser Suffolk.
Rodney's first impulse was to return ashore as ordered by the ship's public-address system. But an inexplicable compulsion, a fascination for battle--the killer of many, yet the domain of only a few--drew him, pulled him, like metal shavings to a magnet. KG V was about to embark on a great adventure, lend her name to a footnote of history, live it and, perhaps, die with it. He knew he risked a hideous death and possibly a court-martial, if he survived, but he rigged a flimsy excuse of illness and sleep and remained in his tiny cabin until he felt the battleship rise to the North Atlantic swell as it sortied from Scapa Flow. Then feigning surprise and embarrassment, he emerged from his cabin.
The British were surprisingly sporting about the whole flimsy deception, handing him a greatcoat, "battle bowler" (steel helmet), binoculars, and actually assigning him as a lookout on the starboard wing of the navigation bridge. "By Jove, we never have enough good eyes on the bridge," the navigator, Commander John Reed-Davis, said the morning Rodney reported to the bridge. A Sandhurst graduate and a true professional, the tall, slender, middle-aged commander had brown, thinning hair streaked with gray, hollow cheeks, and blue-green eyes that glinted with good humor on the surface, but steely resolve, characteristic of his race, burned in the depths. And then, clapping the young American firmly on the back with his tongue firmly in his cheek, said, "Remember, Mr. Higgins, you're a neutral. If it comes to hand-to-hand combat, cast off the Krauts grappling hooks but keep your cutlass in its scabbard." He laughed while the other members of the bridge force chuckled.
Every member of the crew Rodney met from the nineteen-year-old Midshipman Ian Longacre to the commander of the battle fleet, commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet Admiral Sir John Tovey, had made him feel welcome. In fact, he even sensed the powerful bond of camaraderie that binds all men together on the eve of battle--the mutual sharing of mortal risks that made brothers of strangers. He was served hot chocolate laced with rum in a white mug with the ship's logo in gold, referred to as "Sir" by the enlisted men and "Mr. Higgins" by the officers. He became aware of the feeling of isolation and desperation endured by these brave people in the darkest of hours, Britain standing alone against the conquering, invincible madman, Adolph Hitler.
The year 1941 had seen a parade of disasters. German forces had smashed through the Balkans, conquering Greece and Yugoslavia in a mere three weeks. A British relief force was driven into the sea and took refuge on Crete. Incredibly, the British army on Crete was overwhelmed by an airborne assault. A new general named Erwin Rommel took command in North Africa and swept up the British forces and drove them back into Egypt, trapping over twenty thousand British troops in a Libyan port called Tobruk. Convoys attempting to relieve Malta were smashed. London was hit by the deadliest raid of the war, hundreds were killed, Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons, and the British Museum were all hit. At sea, U-boats were sinking ships at will. The only bright light came from the Italians. The British routed them whenever they met. But everyone knew the Italians couldn't fight, anyway.
Surrender, conciliation, even a negotiated "peace with honor," were out of the question. The mad "paper-hanging corporal" would be fought and beaten. The tradition of Nelson was there, the spirit of Drake. Nevertheless, the English needed more than tradition and spirit to survive. They needed America. Their warmth and congeniality were easy to understand. Of course, he was welcome.
The bugle calling the crew to "close to action stations" had been blown before dawn. Now Rodney had been at his station on the starboard wing of the navigation bridge for over an hour, searching the dark mists and finding absolutely nothing. Everyone knew that Bismarck had been damaged and everyone knew U-boats were about, prowling just below the surface, ready to sink the most powerful ship with salvoes of torpedoes. Between 0200 and 0300 lookouts had reported flashes over the far southeastern horizon and there had been reports of destroyer actions on the fleet circuits. But nothing was sighted. Probably just more lightning. It was all around.
Leaning forward Rodney could see the ship's long graceful bow, forecastle, and turrets A and B; A with four Mark VIII fourteen-inch guns, B with two. Aft, X turret mounted four more great cannon. In all, the ten guns could deliver an awesome 21,200-pound broadside at a range of 36,000 yards. However, the quadruple turret was an unusual arrangement; not one American ship used four-gun turrets because of the crowded conditions, slow rate of fire, and dangers inherent in loading the big guns. But KG V had been built in the late thirties under the restrictions of the London Naval Agreement of 1936 and her design had suffered. Still, she was a solid gun platform and powerful, the first ship to carry the 5.25 inch dual-purpose gun capable of an elevation of ninety degrees. Rodney Higgins had counted sixteen of the rapid-fire weapons mounted in twin turrets lining her sides from the bridge to the boat deck.
KG V's armor was designed on the "all or nothing" principle with a newly devised vertical external belt and increased thickness over the magazines. It was also deepened below the water-line where capital ships were vulnerable to plunging fire and the main horizontal armor was raised one deck to protect against the threat of aerial bombs. Discarding torpedo bulges, her builders, Vickers-Armstrong, Newcastle, relied on the double bottom and a longitudinal bulkhead with two watertight compartments sandwiching an oil-filled compartment between the bulkhead and the hull for torpedo protection.
Glancing over his shoulder, Rodney Higgins could see the foretop with its main gun director, lookout stations, banks of recognition lights, radar and radio antennas, searchlights, and signal halyards. One deck below was the flag and signal bridge while aft was the chart house, WT (wireless transmitter), and captain's and admiral's night cabins. Just abaft the superstructure were her two stacks; the first mounted too close to the bridge, occasional clouds of acrid smoke and fumes enveloping the crew whenever the ship was struck by a powerful following wind. The second was set well aft, just behind the two aircraft hangars and crane. 'Two blocked" during the night, the battle ensign whipped proudly from the gaff, just forward of X turret. Visible along her sides and cluttering the superstructure were nests of pom-poms; dozens of the unreliable 1.1-inch AA machine guns (the Americans called them "Chicago Pianos"). All were manned, the helmeted heads of their crews appearing like clusters of chamber pots.
"'E's out there, sir," Nives Quinn, a young cockney lookout from Wapping, said. Standing next to a gyro repeater with his glasses to his eyes, the young able seaman moved his glasses through his sector with the short jerky movements of the trained lookout. The son of a "costermonger," as fruit vendors were known in London's East Side, the short, burly Quinn had a particularly venomous hatred for the Germans who had killed his brother at Dunkirk. Typical of the battleship's crewmen, Quinn had started his training at sixteen and was a thoroughly trained and experienced professional. Only twenty-two years of age, the set of lines around Quinn's eyes and mouth were those of a much older man. "The buggers' knickers are in the twist," Quinn said, dropping his glasses to his waist and waving furiously at the hazy horizon. "You'll see, guvn'r--ah, I mean Mr. 'iggins."
Chuckling, the American refocused his glasses. Nothing. Nothing at all. He shifted his search to the east where the sun was fighting a losing battle with the clouds, smudging the seascape with bloody carmine and dull brass. The sun was not rising, it was hemorrhaging. Was nature's bloody display a harbinger? Would he die this day? If so, he would die in good company. With Englishmen. His father had been an Englishman, Commander Geoffry Higgins, the hero of battle cruiser Lion in the battle of Jutland who had saved his ship from a cataclysmic magazine fire at the cost of his own life--a frightful death in the incandescent heat of burning gunpowder. There had been a Victoria Cross, posthumous, of course, but Rodney had seen it only once. His mother had put it away where it could never be found or even seen again. He had heard her sobbing to his grandmother once, "It was a lousy trade--a monkey's paw."
His mother, Brenda Higgins. He saw her face gazing down at him, silken auburn hair in long folds to her shoulders, blue eyes glowing with love. In her middle age, Brenda Higgins was still one of the world's great beauties and wealthiest women. In fact, she was such a striking woman that even the unusual beauty of his "steady," Kay Stockard, seemed inconsequential when the women were together. His mother would be bitter and filled with horror if she knew of his foolish deception and risk. She had sacrificed two husbands and a brother to the gods of war--had bitterly opposed Rodney's entrance into Annapolis while coddling his war-hating brother, Nathan.
Restlessly, Rodney turned and glanced into the pilothouse. With the lids of its steel scuttles dogged closed, its interior was still very dark in the feeble morning light. Rodney could see a dozen men manning their stations, swaying gently with the motions of the ship like silent drunks. The soft green light of the compass repeater and binnacle tinted by the dim red glow of battle lamps rheostated down to their lowest settings gave an eerie aspect to every countenance. With the lower half of his face illuminated by the binnacle, the wheelman's features glowed faintly with the green hue of a week-old corpse. There was another green glow at the back of the compartment--the newfangled radio detection and ranging machine (the British called it by the acronym Radar). Higgins watched the remorseless sweep of the beam, but it showed nothing, too, except ships in their own formation.
Admiral Tovey and the ship's captain were in the armored conning tower with Commander Reed-Davis and the plotting team. The OOD (officer of the deck) was an experienced commander named Willard Blackstone. Standing just behind the helmsman and next to a manifold of voice tubes suspended from the overhead, Blackstone was in contact with the admiral and captain by both speaker and voice tube.
The speaker squawked and then Rodney heard Blackstone's basso profundo strident enough to fill Yankee Stadium, "Starboard ten."
"Starboard ten, sir. Ten of starboard wheel on, sir."
"Steer one-one-five. Passing one-one-zero, sir."
"Rudder is amidships, sir. Steady on one-one-five."
"Very well." Blackstone turned to the rating manning the engine-room telegraphs. "Full ahead together. Give me revs for twenty-nine knots."
There was a clang of bells and almost immediately the changed beat came up through the soles of Rodney Higgins's shoes as the four great Parsons turbines six decks below delivered every one of the ship's 110,000 horsepower to the four propellers.
"One-hundred-thirty-two revolutions, twenty-nine knots, sir."
Rodney stared into his glasses to the south and east where Bismarck was supposed to be but saw nothing but the same frustrating curtains of mist. At flank speed, KG V was straining her engines and pouring oil into her eight three-drum Admiralty boilers at a lavish rate that would run them out of fuel in a few hours. There must have been a report from a shadowing destroyer or cruiser. What other explanation was there for the change in course, the fuel-consuming speed? A U-boat? He felt a tremor. Was that it? But, there were no torpedo tracks. No wildly charging destroyers ripping the depths with depth charges. Every ship was holding station as before. It must be the Bismarck. But, damn, where was she?
Blackstone's voice: "Radar?"
"No new targets. Commander."
Blackstone's retort was filled with the frustration felt by every man, "Dash it all! Where are the buggers?"
Rodney felt a new presence on the bridge. It was the navigator, Commander Reed-Davis. Raising his glasses and pointing, the navigator said, "We've reports our Swordfish got two hits, Mr. Higgins."
Rodney dropped his glasses and let them dangle at his chest. "I know, sir. Should slow her a few knots, sir."
"Not if she took one up the arse, Lieutenant."
"You mean her steering gear is damaged, too?"
"You bloody well know it. The Fourth Destroyer Flotilla reports she's steaming at a reduced speed on an erratic course to the south of us. We'll bring her to book straightaway. And don't let this waiting about get on your wick. Keep a close watch." The commander returned to the conning tower.
Every man leaned into his binoculars like statues frozen by the Arctic winds. A tingling like electricity raced through Rodney's body. The air was frigid and his breaths puffs of steam, yet the tremor was not from the cold. It came from within. Fear. The coldness of formless dread. The moment of truth was near and he was feeling the atavistic stirring of mortal peril. His reaction was the same reaction of all frightened men in the presence of other frightened men on the eve of battle. He squared his massive shoulders, stood as tall as his six-foot-one-inch frame would permit. Then, for the first time in his young life, he found a sudden insight into men and battle, realizing pride in manhood would not allow him to be less than any of the men who surrounded him. He smiled slyly to himself.
The speaker gave a preliminary squawk and then crackled with the gunnery officer's voice: "All hoists filled, armor-piercing, full-charge powder, temperature of cordite sixty-three degrees, wind force five from two-eight-five.
The hoists were filled with silk-bagged powder and projectiles like unlighted fuses to the magazines. A hit, a tiny piece of burning silk, could ignite a chain of bags that could destroy the ship. It was rumored Hood had died this way. It was common knowledge that battle cruisers Invincible, Indefatigable and Queen Mary had all blown up after magazine fires at Jutland. Suddenly Higgins felt an amalgam of fear and helplessness--the helplessness all men feel when their lives are committed to battle by other men. Tovey in his steel tower, committees of faceless admirals at Whitehall, even Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street, had taken control of his fate, deciding if he were to live or die. And he did not belong here; yet, at that moment, would not have been anywhere else. Bewildered by his mercurial emotions that changed direction and clashed as aimlessly as the seas in the eye of a hurricane, he brought his glasses up and clenched his jaw.
Staring through his binoculars a swelling excitement pushed his fears and doubts aside, his five senses fine-tuned--becoming the primeval sixth sense of the predator. He was both the hunter and the hunted, playing the most horrifying yet exhilarating game on earth--searching for like creatures of like intelligence. The air itself seemed to change, charged with static that brought up the hair on the back of his neck and made it tingle. A ship moving through the darkness filled with men determined to kill you gives off an energy you can feel. He wiped his glasses, narrowed his lids, hunched against the windscreen looking for a shudder in the patterns of sea, a shadow in the mists, the hint of something moving where nothing should move. Then, abruptly, the sun broke through the low-scudding clouds to the east, hurling shafts of brilliant sunlight like silver javelins to play upon the sea.
He gave a start as a dark shape on the far southeastern horizon stopped his glasses in midsweep. His heart barged against his chest furiously and he was suddenly incapable of swallowing. With trembling fingers he made fine adjustments to his focusing knob, pressed his glasses against his eyes until they watered with pain. Black smoke. A ship hull down. At that instant, it seemed that time slowed and his vision was suddenly concentrated to brilliant clarity. Clearly, he saw a director with its tube and lenses protruding like the ears of a startled rabbit. A great mast, the tip of a single raked stack. A British destroyer? Impossible. Not with a director that large, a single stack, massive upper works. It was a capital ship. Clearing his throat, he masked his excitement with a strained, flat voice, "Ship bearing zero-four-zero..." Hesitating in momentary confusion, he realized he was using American terminology instead of British. Correcting himself, he began again, "I mean, ship bearing green forty, hull down."
Seaman Quinn shouted, "It's 'im. Tally bloody ho! Kraut at green forty."
Leaping from the pilothouse, Commander Blackstone charged out to the wing of the bridge, hunched over the gyro repeater, and peered through the gun sight of the bearing ring. He read the azimuth, but before he could utter a word the foretop lookouts were heard, "Ship bearing green forty, range twenty thousand." Then the radar operator's excited shout as the target came onto his scope. Blackstone raced back into the pilothouse.
The sighting report spread throughout the ship like wildfire. Tinnily, the admiral's voice came through the speaker, "Ship's main and secondary armament load. Make the hoist, 'Engage vessel bearing green forty, range twenty thousand. Fire when ready.'"
Battle. They were going to fight. Lieutenant Higgins felt the excitement charge his veins with sexual intensity, heard the hum of blood in his ears, felt the warmth of it on his cheeks. Incongruously, Kay Stockard's nude body flashed in his mind--slender, long-limbed, hot, and trembling. Kay. He missed her. Maybe, he loved her. But why was he thinking of her now? He shook his head. Wondered at the mad kaleidoscope racing through his brain.
Rodney heard a hum overhead and Kay vanished. Looking up he saw the director turning slowly toward the enemy. A trained gunnery officer, in his mind's eye he could see the entire intricate fire-control system at work and the men who made it function: the main director's trainer and layer hunched over the eyepieces of the range finder, turning their cranks and bringing the split image of the target into a tangible whole; the control officer, spotting officer, rate officer, and cross-leveling officer poring over their instruments and plotting sheets. And far below in the transmitting station in the bowels of the ship--the brain of the fire-control system--were the deflection officer, clock operator, range operator, spotting plot operator, all working furiously over their fire-control table, computing speed of target, range, deflection, temperature of powder, curvature of the earth, even factoring in the number of times the guns had been fired. Then a continuous stream of elevations, ranges, and deflections were transmitted to the four turret captains who in turn relayed the data to their trainers and layers. An intricate system, but it worked with murderous efficiency.
Rodney heard the whine of electric motors and the whir of turret-training rack and pinion gears as below him turrets A and B swung to starboard, the six fourteen-inch guns pointing toward the stranger like tree trunks. He heard Quinn muttering, "I've 'ad a bloody jugful o' you Krauts. Killed me brother, you did--sank 'ood, bonked London. Now thank the Lord for what you're 'bout to get, you bloody sods." He giggled and salivated.
"Starboard ten," Blackstone said. "Steer one-two-five. Ahead standard together."
The mists pulled back like the curtains at the Metropolitan, the sun finally winning its battle with the haze and fog. Higgins could see the upper works of the intruder quite clearly. It was the Bismarck. Obviously not in full control, she was idling north and east on a meandering course. But she appeared intact, eight fifteen-inch guns trained to port, directly at Lieutenant j.g. Rodney Higgins. The American felt his guts turn to ice water and his Adam's apple became a stone that clung to the back of his throat. His mouth had never been so dry.
Battleship Rodney was bearing off on the enemy in a reckless head-on approach, unmasking all nine of her forward-mounted sixteen-inch guns. KG V was closing the range and slowing. Bismarck must be damaged. Turning toward Bismarck reduced the range but cut down on X turret's firing arcs. A silence so heavy it was a palpable force had settled over the ship. With blowers secured and vents closed, KG V seemed to be holding her breath. Higgins could only hear the gentle ticking of the gyro repeater and the sluicing of water as the ship's stem slashed through the water. Then the voices of the gun-control personnel putting the guns on target broke through the gunnery circuits. "Guns loaded," came from the turret captains. "On target, on target,'' came from the trainers and layers.
Immediately the American heard the calm voice of the director-layer piped down from the main director, "Director-layer sees the target." Rodney caught his breath. Those few simple words meant the man was ready, guns loaded, finger itching to pull the trigger. He heard Admiral Tovey's shout through the speaker, "Shoot!" There was a high, festive tinkling of a chime much like the gay sound of bells on the harness of a horse pulling a sleigh through Christmas snow.
Despite clinging to the windscreen, Rodney was staggered by the concussion as six fourteen-inch guns fired as one, brilliant orange flame leaping thirty feet from the muzzles. The Vesuvian eruption lighted the sea and reflected from a cluster of low-streaming clouds, the ship jerking with the shock like a harpooned blue whale. Dust and chips of paint rained in the pilothouse. Flung high into the air, the bearing ring clattered on the steel deck. Quinn scooped it up. Rodney heard the radar man curse: his set had been knocked out of commission.
Although the American had clapped his hands over his ears, the great booming sounds of thousands of pounds of nitrocellulose exploding assaulted his ears as if he were sitting in the percussion section of a great symphony orchestra, played by mad musicians. Immediately a great cloud of brown smoke stinking of cordite enveloped the bridge with a smell like burned solvent and vaporized Vaseline. Thankfully, it was swept away abruptly by the stiff breeze. All eyes watched for the fall of shot. Taught a bloody lesson by the High Seas Fleet at Jutland, the British had given up on single ranging shots and adopted the Germans' "ladder" method of ranging. Firing full salvoes, the spotters looked for ladder short, ladder long, then down ladder and rapid fire. "Short!" rang through the speaker.
Battleship Rodney's six sixteen-inch guns flowered to life in a single gigantic hibiscus-orange flash followed by a billowing cloud of brown smoke. At that instant. Lieutenant Higgins saw a sight that froze his blood, sent tremors of horror racing up and down his spine like the clawed frozen feet of a hundred loathsome insects. Bismarck, looming large in his binoculars, had opened fire, the flash of her main armament lighting up scattered patches of fog and low clouds with scarlets and yellow like the open door of a giant blast furnace. With his glasses pointed directly at the muzzles, the blast leapt at Higgins with a glare that sent afterimages winking off his retinas. Hell. He was staring into the bowels of hell.
He dropped his glasses, blinked his watering eyes, and then he saw them--the most frightening sight he would ever see in his life. Eight fifteen-inch shells were actually visible, stubby purple-black pipes arching slowly in the clearing blue of the morning sky and dropping down toward him--directly at him. Lieutenant j.g. Rodney Higgins, USN. He stared with disbelief and a thought all men have when first exposed to enemy fire roared through his mind: They're trying to kill me--Rodney Higgins. Why me? What have I done to them?"
Bismarck's salvo was at least two hundred yards short, a great curtain hundreds of feet high rising majestically into the sky, the flash of exploding lyddite drowned immediately by the sea. One round was short, a defective barrel or broken driving band on the shell. Its impact was flat and it skipped across the surface like a flat rock thrown by a boy across a pond. Lazily, it sailed toward KG V. Mesmerized like a man menaced by a coiled cobra, Higgins watched the one-ton projectile leap from a crest not more than seventy yards away, turn end over end, flail the surface with first its base and then its AP tip like a ponderous pinwheel, and then finally crash in a burst of spray, disappearing into a cresting swell not more than fifty feet from the bridge. Rodney released his pent-up breath with a hiss.
The gunnery circuits crackled with flat, dehumanized voices, "Elevation two-four-zero-zero minutes, direction forty-seven degrees, deflection thirty-seven left, range one hundred minus eighteen thousand, four-zero-zero..."
Blackstone's' commands could be heard over the crackle of the speaker: "Starboard ten."
"Starboard ten. Ten of starboard wheel on, sir."
"Course one-three-zero. Passing one-two-zero, sir."
"Rudder amidships, ship steady on one-three-zero."
"Very well. All ahead together two-thirds. Give me revs for twenty-four knots."
They were closing on the enemy, coming to point-blank range. Cruisers Norfolk, Dorsetshire, and the escorting destroyers scurried out of the line of fire, like small boys leaving the arena to the heavyweights. The great ships were built to duel at ranges that exceeded twenty miles. Yet, the men who commanded were rushing in close--near enough to fire over open sights. It would be a barroom brawl at murderous ranges where the great ships would pound each other to pieces like giants wielding sledgehammers against egg crates.
The ship rocked and staggered, the main armament firing again with barrels nearly horizontal. More waiting and watching. Huge fountains leapt a hundred yards beyond Bismarck. "Long! Long!" the cockney shouted. "We've bracketed the buggers."
Battleship Rodney fired and Bismarck let go another salvo. But the German was forced to divide his fire against his two attackers. His shells roared over both targets. Higgins not only saw them, but he heard them this time, ripping overhead with a thundering sound like the Twentieth Century Limited. Four geysers shot into the sky two hundred yards beyond the battleship.
"Ranging! Ranging," came from the director. "Secondary battery on target."
The gunnery officer's voice: "Main armament, down one hundred! Deflection eight right! Barrage! Commence! Commence! Secondary battery shoot!"
Lieutenant Higgins groaned as eight 5.25-inch guns in four turrets on the starboard side of KG V came to life with harsh cracking sounds like the tip of a whip snapping in a man's ear. Firing eighteen rounds per minute, per gun, the battery set up a continuous drumfire, a torrent of shells deluging the enemy. Six fourteen-inch guns crashed out another salvo.
Higgins had his binoculars on Bismarck when at least five one-ton projectiles struck her amidships. Strakes of plates, chunks of a splintered whale boat, and an entire crane that appeared intact shot into the sky on the tips of flame-red explosions. He could see the bodies of a dozen men cartwheeling in the air like rag dolls. Cheers. "We've taped the buggers!" Quinn screamed. "Kill 'em!"
Blackstone's calm voice: 'Port ten."
The equally calm reply from the quartermaster; "Ten of port wheel on, sir."
"Steady up on zero-nine-zero. Watch your head, Quartermaster. All ahead together one-half."
There were new sounds overhead. Ripping canvas, warbling and sighing. Bismarck's secondaries; 150-and 105-millimeter shells fired from at least fourteen guns that should bear on King George V, But the fire was wild, the German had taken too many hits. If her directors had not been destroyed already, they had been damaged, perhaps knocked from their circular ball-bearing mounts.
They were so close to Bismarck Rodney Higgins could see small details: her forward director turned toward him; the emerging sun reflecting from the glass on the bridge; life rafts hanging from the superstructure; searchlights mounted on her upper works and single raked stack; her rigging, antennas, and even her battle ensign whipping from her mainmast. Her guns were pointed at him, the fire of her secondary armament continuous rippling red flashes, her main battery firing about every thirty seconds. Big shells hurled waterspouts as high as her masts all around the great ship, spray reaching out in vast circles to mark the power of each one. Flashes winked and smoke puffed where she was struck by 5.25-inch projectiles. They could do terrible execution, but it would take big shells to sink her.
Battleship Rodney veered to the south across Bismarck's bow to keep her firing arcs open and to stand clear of KG V's fire. Again and again KG V fired, her big guns at zero elevation now. The hits came. Fourteen and sixteen-inch shells poured in, their soft steel AP caps weakening the German's face-hardened armor before the shell proper plunged through. For three quarters of an hour annihilation rained on the battleship.
Bismarck's A turret was flung into the sky, number-one gun flying off like a twig in a gale. The main director was blown into the sea like a piece of trash thrown into a garbage pail. The mainmast tilted slowly and then plunged into the water like a tree felled by an ax, trapping every man in the aft director and drowning most of her lookouts. Struck by at least a half-dozen hits, the bridge disintegrated in a cyclonic whirl of shattered plate, glinting fragments of glass from her scuttles and recognition lights. Bodies and pieces of bodies rained into the water. Her stack exploded and flames leapt up amidships, black smoke roiling, clinging to the sea in greasy rolls. Plates, men, and secondary turrets shot into the air, fires burst from her hull, and ready ammunition began to explode and bum on her main deck. Slowing, she began to wallow deep in the swells. But Y turret fired defiantly until a full salvo blew it off its barrette and it skidded across the fantail and toppled overboard.
Rodney Higgins shuddered. The exhilaration of battle, the blood lust was fading. Men were dying horribly, blown to pieces, trapped in flooding compartments or flung about in engine compartments by the compression and concussion of big shells, blasted into the machinery and chewed to death by gears and flailing pistons. He tried to depersonalize as all men do in battle. She was a ship. That's all she was, he told himself. But at three thousand yards his binoculars almost took him aboard the wreck. He could actually see men being killed, blown high into the air, dismembered. His stomach was suddenly sick and empty. Was this the triumph of battle--the garden of glory? These witty, warm, jolly Englishmen were killing hundreds and enjoying it.
Quinn's eyes were wild and saliva streaked his chin. "Stuff that lot, guttersnipes! Fill your Kraut bellies with British steel." He laughed, waving his fist, eyes glinting with the savage joy of a predator making his kill. Rodney turned his glasses back to the stricken enemy.
Bismarck was dead in the water, guns silent, burning from a dozen fires. Although she was down by the head, she appeared in no danger of sinking. Her superb compartmentation and excellent damage-control parties were keeping her afloat.
Her executioners were so close, their shells fired on flat trajectories could blow away her upper works, but her hull was relatively immune to the heavy shells. An old naval adage wisely suggests, "Let water into them. Air won't sink a ship." Admiral Tovey had come to that realization. Plunging fire was needed. They had to open the range.
"Port ten," came from the pilothouse. Then Higgins heard Blackstone give a series of commands that turned the ship away from Bismarck and opened the range at a high speed. Dutifully, three destroyers assumed escort stations; Cossack ahead, Maori off the starboard beam, Zulu to port. Battleship Rodney, escorted by two other destroyers, continued firing at the helpless German at close range while KG V's X turret fired over her fantail. At a range of fourteen thousand yards, the battleship turned and unmasked her entire main battery. Now, with a longer range, the barrels were elevated and the big shells would arc high and then plunge into Bismarck's bowels and hopefully sink her. The secondary battery fell silent.
The bombardment continued for almost an hour, yet Bismarck refused to sink. Quinn was delighted. He jumped up and down and actually danced a jig while humming a music-hall ditty, "'ave a jugful, you bloody tiffies."
Suddenly Reed-Davis was on the bridge, standing next to Rodney Higgins and staring into his glasses. He licked his lips and muttered, "That'll settle their lot." He turned to the American, "What do you think of your first battle, old boy?"
"The battle was over long ago. Commander."
"What do you mean?"
Higgins waved. "She's helpless. In a battle, your opponent can fight back."
The Englishman bristled. "They're Huns. They've bloody well earned what they're getting."
"They're men and this has become an execution. Why don't you take prisoners?"
Reed-Davis waved irritably. "Her battle ensign is still flying--look for yourself."
Swinging his glasses, Higgins saw a flag whipping from a stub of the mainmast. His voice was filled with incredulity, "You'll kill hundreds because of that rag?"
The voice was acid. "That's what this lot's all about, Lieutenant." Whirling on his heel, he vanished back into the conning tower. Higgins returned to the windscreen, seething with anger. Quinn stared through his glasses sullenly as if he had heard nothing.
"Cease fire! Cease fire," echoed through the ship. Immediately the cease fire gong rang at each gun station.
Quinn turned to the conning tower and spoke as if the admiral could hear him. "Bonk 'em, your nibs! Some of them buggers ain't bought it yet." He eyed the American angrily.
Rodney Higgins sighed with relief, the silence washing through his ears like a soothing salve. Everyone knew they were low on fuel. He suspected the admiral would let escorts finish off Bismarck with torpedoes. Tovey's tinny voice coming through the speaker confirmed his suspicion, "We're very low on fuel. We will disengage and return to port for fuel."
Quinn shouted, "No!" and shook a fist at the conning tower.
Tovey continued, "I am ordering Dorsetshire to finish off our enemy." There was a cheer. "Well done. I'm proud of every man jack of you. Each of you has made his mark on history--a mark that will stick in Hitler's craw like unboiled cabbage. Well done. Well done."
There was a rumble that came through the closed vents, dogged doors and scuttles; from the engine rooms, handling rooms, turrets. Thousands of boots thudding against the steel decks and floor plates, and the cheers swelled and echoed through the ship. It was the joy of victory, the tribal scream of the victorious warrior who was holding his enemy's head on high for all to see. Quinn added his voice. To Rodney, he seemed to be hearing the cry of a wild beast dipping his fangs into his quarry's entrails. He stared at the dying German as Dorsetshire moved in with her torpedo tubes ready and felt no joy, no feelings of triumph.
"Fall out action stations. Port watch to defense stations," came through the speaker.
Men stirred in the pilothouse and there were the sounds of scuttles being opened, doors and hatches undogged and locked in open positions, and the welcome sound of blowers coming to life. The great guns came back to battery and the turrets were trained fore and aft. There were excited shouts as men began to be relieved on the bridge and foretop. Crawling out of the small hatches under the foot-thick armor at the rear of the turrets, gunners still encased in their flash-resistant clothing began to pour out of A and B turrets. They gathered in groups at the rail, gesticulating at the dying battleship and talking excitedly.
Then, as King George V turned for home, Dorsetshire fired three torpedoes into the wreck. Looking back at the horizon, Rodney saw the great ship finally roll over, her red-leaded bottom rocking and kicking up spray, her three bronze screws still turning. Higgins felt a start of horror; there must still be live men in her engine rooms. Within minutes, she vanished, only a black cloud lingering. Quickly, the smoke yielded to the wind and faded away, leaving nothing to mark the grave of over two thousand men.
Lieutenant Higgins lingered by the windscreen. He wondered about the strange gamut of emotion that had wracked him and wrung him dry of feelings. He had felt the blood lust of battle, triumph, and then near despair when he realized men were really being killed. But had he not trained for this? Pointed his entire life at this moment? But never in his training had he ever conceived of actually killing anyone. And then a revelation on a day of revelations--nothing prepares a man for battle except battle itself.
He should not have felt despair--regret. Bismarck had been the enemy of KG V and he had been part of KG V. With a little luck the Germans would have killed him just as they had killed the crew of Hood. And they would have celebrated his death with cheers and backslapping. He was convinced of one thing: the battleship was the supreme power at sea. Nothing could stand up to her power.
The kaleidoscope was racing again and he felt exhausted. He pounded his temple with a clenched fist. He needed a drink. And he needed to see home again. Yes. That was it. He was due for a leave. He would return to his home on Fifth Avenue. To his mother. To Kay Stockard.