Intrépide: Part 1
By Blaine Lee Pardoe
Heavy Cruiser Intrépide
8 September 1900
Sous-Lieutenant aérien François Moreau stared out of the armored glass window of the fire control deck aboard the Intrépide, wondering where his career had gone so wrong. He had been one of the top students at the École d’Aviation, the Aviation School for the French fleet seven months earlier. He and his friends had a bet as to who would be the first of their class to captain a Gany in the name of France. It looked as if he was not even in contention.
His posting to the cruiser Intrépide seemed promising; she was a heavy cruiser, after all. But the positive aspects ended there. His classmates had been posted to newer ships, with the latest technologies. Fast, sleek ships that garnered quick career advancement. François had been assigned to one of the oldest ships in the French fleet. The entire Intrépide-class was being retired from service, in fact, with only the namesake ship remaining on active duty. The others had been scrapped or sold to some South American country. Many in the fleet now saw this once grand old mademoiselle as an obsolete rust bucket. His posting here was no career advancement for François; it was a slap in the face. He was not sure who he had insulted in the high command or what he had done, but he was surely paying the price for some crime—real or perceived.
Now the ship was slipping out over the North Sea. A wireless message had come in from a French seagoing merchant vessel that it was under attack. The merchant ship was silent now, but she had managed to give her position before going quiet. Capitaine Guisarme believed it was a trap, a typical English trick. Still, the merchant vessel was listed on the French registry and the English were not the only enemies of France that flew the skies over the North Sea. The Boche also were known to go after French seagoing ships, striking like jackals if they could get away with it. The signal had come eight hours after the rest of the squadron began its patrol route along the coast, leaving only the Intrépide poised to investigate. No doubt spies in port relayed this information. They must have known that we were alone.
They had been in the air for six hours without a sign or signal from the allegedly distressed vessel. François held his post as junior gunnery control officer. He enjoyed the job, if not the posting. At least from fire control, he had a good view of any battle that might start. Many junior officers found themselves posted to roles in the bowels of the ship. They experienced battle as a series of rocking explosions, the sound of groaning metal, and possibly sudden death.
The lookouts sounded an alarm when they spotted the smoke in the distance. There was a Gany out there, another cruiser, hanging in the air. She wasn’t moving, just hovering a thousand meters over the turbulent seas. An ominous sign, according to Lieutenant aérien Miller, the chief gunnery officer. The Capitaine had said the mystery ship was right over the position from which the seagoing French merchant vessel had sent its last message.
“That is a lot of smoke for a cruiser to be putting out,” François said as he lowered his binoculars.
“Perhaps she is damaged,” Gunnery Enseigne Bechtel said, with a hint of enthusiasm that François tried to ignore.
François shook his head. “I don’t think so. Something isn’t right.”
“The Capitaine knows what he is doing,” Bechtel replied. “He has commanded this old girl for eight years. You must learn to trust him.” He patted the hand rail at this station as if he were comforting a female companion.
François turned away from the window. “I do trust him, I just—”
The entire ship rocked under an explosion which made his right ear pop. His words were cut off as he toppled to the floor of the fire control deck. He picked himself up, wiping his upper lip. His fingers came back reddened; his nose was bleeding.
“We’ve been hit!” Enseigne Bechtel hollered from his post, where he communicated with the forward turrets.
“General quarters,” François said. “Alert your turrets to prepare to fire. Dumont,” he called to the assistant gunnery officer, “contact the bridge. Get authorization to fire.” He wondered where Lieutenant Miller was, his commanding officer. A hell of a time not to be in fire control.
Sous-Lieutenant Dumont called into his mouthpiece several times but got no response. “The bridge is not responding.”
Damn. “I will go to the bridge and run relay. Dumont, you have fire control. All guns, prepare for action!” François grabbed one of the thick leather belts and a hooking harness, strapping it on. You didn’t dare run out on a deck without one, especially in battle. The North Sea was a long way down.
He opened the exterior hatch to make the climb up the stairs to the bridge and was immediately hit by a stinging blast of cold air. There was no time to put on his overcoat— the ship was under attack! He looked upward towards the bridge and was stunned by what he saw. At the top of the stairs was a jumble of gnarled and twisted metal, billowing smoke. The bridge had been hit! Using his snap hook line on the safety rail, he made his way up to see just how bad the damage was.
The deck was slick, and in a second he realized it was with blood. The bitter taste of cordite stung his nostrils as the coppery taste of his own bloody nose drizzled on his lip. The bridge crew was scattered about like a child’s dolls tossed carelessly in a toy box. An Enseigne cradled Capitaine Guisarme in his lap. The Capitaine’s face was smeared with blood and his left arm was broken, the bone sticking through his torn uniform coat.
François leaned over him, “Mon Capitaine!”
Guisarme’s eyes opened and he focused sharply on François’s face. “You must take command,” he said firmly, as if summoning his reserves of strength to fulfill his duty. With his good arm, he grabbed at François’s uniform lapel and pulled him closer. He winced in pain for a moment, then it passed. His face grew pale beneath his white hair as he fought to keep a fragment of consciousness. “Make France proud,” he said, and then his head lolled back.
To Be Continued…