A Monster In The Sky_Part 2
by Steven Mohan, Jr.
The black smoke of battle stung Togo Heihachiro’s eyes, burned them, clawed at them, until tears streamed down his cheeks and he had to lower the heavy binoculars that made his old hands ache and wipe away the tears with his dark blue sleeve. His ears—his head—rang with the constant report of Mikasa‘s forward pair of twelve-inch, 38-caliber guns. He smelled the stink of battle—steam and burning coal, the bittersweet odor of spent explosives and, because the Russian flagship, Knyaz Suvorov, had managed to land several blows with her own twelve-inch guns, the coppery stink of spilled blood.
It was glorious, all of it.
He stood on Mikasa‘s topgallant forecastle above the battleship’s boxy bridge. His station was the compass stand where he could monitor the ship’s heading and pass orders down to the captain through the twin voice tubes. But the real advantage of his station was that he could see.
Behind him the ship’s two stacks belched smoke and steam into the blue sky, and the sea was a roiled turquoise. Three capital ships steamed in a neat line behind him, the four battleships the beating heart of his fleet. Officers clustered all around him, dressed in dark blue, wearing gold aiguillettes draped across their shoulders to mark them as his aides as they bustled about their duties.
But what really commanded Togo’s attention was the signal flag overhead, rippling and flapping in the gale of Mikasa‘s flank bell. The flag was a square, built from four triangles, one black, one yellow, one blue and one red, the apex of each meeting in the flag’s center.
What the English called the Zed flag.
Today, Togo was using it to send a special message to his fleet: “The Empire’s fate depends on the result of this battle. Let every man do his utmost duty.”
And his men and ships were doing their duty. This is almost over.
He raised the binoculars to his eyes.
The Russians were running flat out, for all the good it would do them; their remaining battleships and cruisers holding their battle line, torpedo boats and destroyers screening the capital ships’ port and starboard quarters. Toho ignored the smaller vessels, intently watching the battleships.
He saw a slight jog in the white wake that stretched out from the lead vessel’s wake. “Suvorov‘s showing starboard aspect,” he called out.
“Enemy’s turning due west,” agreed Taniguchi Shintaro, Togo’s flag lieutenant. “It looks like a turn together.”
The boy was right. The Russians weren’t turning in sequence; they had turned all at once, which meant they weren’t holding their battle line. They spread out before him, running west, fleeing at best possible speed to the safety of their base at Port Arthur.
They were not going to make it.
“We can cross their tee again,” said Taniguchi eagerly.
Togo’s fleet was capable of sixteen knots. The Baltic Fleet, its hulls fouled and its machinery taxed by the long journey to the Pacific, was capable of perhaps nine or ten. The admiral had used his advantage in speed and maneuverability to cross the Russians’ tee twice, with devastating results. While he could smash the Russian vessels with full broadsides, they could only answer with their forward turrets. That tactic, combined with the superior Japanese gunnery, had taken a toll.
If Togo executed the maneuver again, he could send perhaps a third of the remaining Russian ships to the bottom. But for his entire battle force to pass along the tee and then turn back to pursue would take perhaps forty, forty-five minutes. At ten knots, the surviving Russians would gain almost seven nautical miles.
Fourteen thousand yards.
He could send a third of them to the bottom. But he wanted them all.
“Iie,” Togo barked. He was silent for a long moment, vectors and times and speeds spinning in his head. When he spoke there was steel in his voice. “We will turn in sequence in eight minutes to new course two six one. Verify my calculations and then haul up the signal flags.”
“Hai, Admiral-sama,” Taniguchi barked.
Togo had just committed his fleet to a flat-out run followed by a ship-to-ship battle at close range. It was a brutal decision, but looking at the Russian vessels, he could make no other.
He would have them all.
And then a lookout called, “Leviathans. West-northwest.”
Togo dropped his binoculars and turned to look where the boy was pointing. He saw a cloud of the small gunboats the Russians called Berkuts, and two of the bigger vessels, the RVS Aleksandr Nevsky and a second vessel that looked like it might be the Nevsky‘s sister.
He felt a flutter of unease in his stomach. No commander liked the words might be.
“Maneuvering calculations place us on an intercept course if we turn to . . . ” the flag navigator looked up. “Two five eight.”
Togo heard the awe in the young man’s voice and allowed himself a small smile. He had been off by three degrees; he had eyeballed the enemy’s course and speed and his calculation had been off by only three degrees.
“Raise the signal flags,” said Togo. “Turn in sequence to two five eight.”
“Hai,” said his signal officer. “Raise the signal flags. Turn in sequence to two five eight.”
Taniguchi stepped to his side and pitched his voice so only the admiral could hear him. “Admiral—” The boy hesitated.
“Out with it, Lieutenant,” said Togo evenly.
“Sir, perhaps we should reconsider the pursuit. The leviathans—”
The admiral snorted. “Get hold of yourself, Taniguchi-san. The skyships are toys. This is the age of the gun, and their weight restrictions guarantee that the leviathans will never match our firepower.”
“Hai, Admiral Togo-sama,” said the boy uneasily.
“We will smash the Russian fleet and the world’s interest in leviathans all in one instant.” Togo’s eyes found the Zed flag. “And Japan will rule the east.”
This time the boy’s answer wasn’t hesitant. “Hai!”
“Sir,” called out the navigator, “recommend you mark the turn in ten seconds.” He held up a gold pocket watch so the admiral could see the sweep of its second hand.
When it hit twelve, Togo leaned over the voice tube. “Captain, come to new course two five eight.”
“Come to new course two five eight, yes sir,” came the reply.
Behind him, the flag signal officer was hauling down the tactical signal, ordering the fleet to execute the order. As each of his battleships and cruisers came to the point in the ocean where Mikasa had turned, they would follow the flagship right.
In that moment the die was cast; the fate of the Russians sealed.
And then, Togo looked up. The leviathans had organized themselves into a long line abreast across his intended course, the two great ships in the center, ten or eleven gunboats on either side, stretching out like the wings of some great and terrible bird. The Russians hovered only a hundred feet off the water, a skirmish line set between Togo and his prey.
Togo studied the vessel he did not know; sister to Nevsky, the size of a naval destroyer or a light cruiser, her bow massive and blunt over a forward-sloping skirt. Her bridge was set in a tower behind her forward gun turret. And her guns— This was supposed to be a sister to Nevsky, but—
Were those bigger guns?
Togo watched the vessel as his battleship swept toward her at sixteen knots. Watched it hovering in the sky, finding the sight as fantastic as ever. Five or six thousand tons of steel and coal and guns and men floating in the air as light as a soap bubble. Casting its dark shadow on the blue, blue sea. It was an abomination.
It was a monster in the sky.
Togo was going to destroy it, was going to destroy them all. Today and for always. These playthings had no place in the honorable affairs of men.
And again, Admiral Togo Heihachiro felt that light flutter of unease in his stomach.
Nothing more than unease.
To Be Continued…