Intrépide: Part 2
By Blaine Lee Pardoe
Heavy Cruiser Intrépide
8 September 1900
François saw that the binnacle had been torn asunder. Along with the scent of cordite was another smell, awareness of which he fought to suppress: the odor of cooking meat. Through the haze of thinning smoke, he could see the helm was twisted by the impact of the shell; the giant wheel was no more than broken pieces of wood scattered around the remains of the shattered bridge. There was no way to steer the ship from the bridge, not now. The ship quaked again, followed by the boom of British cannon. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the British cruiser was now moving. Cutting in the other direction from behind it, masked by the smoke of her engines, was a destroyer. Two ships!
He grabbed the Enseigne and shook him hard to get his focus. “Get him to the infirmary!” he yelled as he made his way to the staircase. François was now in command of the Intrépide—but how long could they last against two enemy ships?* * * * *
As François entered fire control, he barked to Dumont, “All guns, fire at will! Target that cruiser first.” Dumont and Bechtel immediately relayed the commands through their mouthpieces to the turrets. The aging Intrépide roared in response, firing as the British cruiser started to get underway. Her trap had been laid almost perfectly. Now it was up to François Moreau to get them out of it.
With the bridge helm gone, the ship could still be steered from engineering. François grabbed the mouthpiece that relayed orders to the engineering section. “This is Sous-lieutenant François Moreau. The Capitaine has turned over the ship to me. The bridge is out of action. You will need to pilot the ship from steerage.”
The earhorn crackled back. “Who is this?”
“Capitaine Moreau!” François said through gritted teeth. “You heard me right. I am in command. Flank speed immediately. Order the auxiliary helm to turn us 30 degrees to starboard. Do it now.”
“Qui, mon Capitaine!” came acknowledgement from the Enseigne decks below him. The Intrépide surged forward with a burst of speed. Slowly, methodically, she began to turn to port.
“What ships are we facing?” François called to the lookout, who was watching the British ships through his binoculars.
“The cruiser appears to be the Renown, sir. The destroyer, she is the Python… Capitaine,” the lookout replied. François’s mind danced. He knew the ships and their classes. All those late nights spent memorizing the statistics of the British fleet had paid off. The Renown was a new ship, only christened two years ago. The Python was well known to the French. Her Capitaine, Andrew Rivenburg, was infamous for his aggressive tactics. It was not his first dance at the ball.
“Someone run to the wireless shack and send a message back to Brest. Let them know who we are facing here. Let them know we have been lured into a trap.” It would not make much difference. By the time the rest of the squadron got the word and turned about, the engagement would be long over.
The forward turrets fired and François’s injured ear ached for a moment with the explosions of the cannons. Using his binoculars, he saw at least one of the shells plunge into the upper deck of the British cruiser. An explosion threw pieces of teak into the air and smoke rolled from the hole just in front of the enemy’s forward turret.
The faster-moving Python was getting up steam as well, swinging around to come behind him, hoping to cross his T from the aft. For now, he was more concerned about the British cruiser. He was already putting distance between the Intrépide and the destroyer, but with her speed that was a short-lived hope. Her shorter range guns would only be able to get in a lucky shot or two. The Renown, on the other hand…
His thoughts were shattered as the ship rocked hard again from two shells that slammed into her port armor belt. The boom of the British guns followed a second later. François moved to the exterior hatch and opened it, leaning out to see the damage for himself. There was no smoke…hopefully the armor had held. Looking around the ship, he muttered to himself, “If you are going to make it through one more scrap, mademoiselle, let it be this one…”
The Renown started a turn towards him, matching his own turn. She aimed to keep in close. François wasted no time. Returning to his communications tube, he called out, “Engineering—damage report.” His voice was almost drowned out as the Intrépide’s secondary barbette turrets opened up at maximum range.
It took a long few seconds for someone to respond, and as they did they coughed hard. They are fighting their own kind of war down below decks, François thought. “We’ve taken a hit in coal bin number three,” came the voice of the engineer. “There is a fire there, so we are going to dump the reserves before it gets out of control. Other than that, we have a hole on the aft deck. Damage control crews are working that fire.”
“Dump the reserve,” François replied. He watched as the aft turrets of the Intrépide roared with another barrage. The British ship took a hit in her electrode tanks on the side, the impact gnarling the external piping tubes and making the ship rock hard. He studied where the ships were in relation to each other. His own vessel was in front in their race, but the Renown was catching up. He tuned out the chatter of the fire control officers measuring distances and calculating angles and powder charges. If he did a tight turn to port, he might be able to cross the T of the enemy ship…
The Intrépide rocked from a strike to her aft. Running to the rear of the fire control deck, François saw that the Python had scored a lucky hit. Gray-black smoke, whipped in the wind, was billowing from the aft turret. For now, it was apparently out of action. “We’ve lost number three. Get damage control teams down there now.” The last thing he needed was a magazine fire, which could take out a ship in a matter of seconds.
“Engine room. Swing us 90 degrees to port,” he yelled into the communications tube. “Dumont. Have all port batteries load and take aim as we make the sweep in front of him. Await my command before firing.”
The ship gracefully arced to port. François watched as the British cruiser attempted to turn to counter, then changed his mind and swung starboard instead. Suddenly, it was the Intrépide’s T that was going to be crossed, to the aft where her guns were out of action.
“Engine room, bring us 180 degrees to port now!” François turned to the gunnery officer. “Dumont. New orders. Starboard batteries, load. All turrets swing to starboard and wait for my order.” Now the two ships were going to pass right by each other. And looming in the distance, the British destroyer Python, toward which he was heading after the turn completed.
To Be Continued…