Intrépide: Part 4
By Blaine Lee Pardoe
Heavy Cruiser Intrépide
8 September 1900
Capitaine Rivenburg of the Python was not taking the bait. He coolly angled his ship the opposite direction, firing another salvo at long range. One shot whizzed past fire control, missing by a matter of twenty meters. The other slammed into the mangled armor belt at the aft of the ship. Smoke rose out of the hole—not a lot, but enough.
This one is crafty, so I must be as well. “We need to lure him in,” François said to the crew as he leaned into the mouthpiece again. “Engine room, I need you to create a 10-degree list to port.”
“Sir?” came the answering voice in the ear-tube.
“You heard me. We will be righting ourselves as soon as we lure in the enemy. I need you to fake our damage.” He turned to Miller. “Order the forward turret to depress her guns, set them a-gimble. I want it to look like we have lost that turret. Order the crews to load and stand by to turn and fire when the Python gets in close.”
Miller passed the orders down. “You realize you are gambling with our lives,” he said in a low tone so that the other gunnery officers could not hear.
“It is my life as well,” François replied.
He waited as the ship listed. Out before him, the turret turned and her guns dropped slowly as if they had lost power. Raising his binoculars, he watched and wondered if Capitaine Rivenburg would take the bait.
Suddenly the Python lunged almost straight in. François allowed himself a smile. He glanced over at Lieutenant Miller, whose face reddened.
“Order the turrets to stand by to engage the Python,” Francois said. The British destroyer fired again, another round slamming into the already damaged aft turret, plunging deeper into the guts of the Intrépide. There was a shudder as the shell went off.
“Engine room…” he said as the Python closed into optimum range. “Bring us back upright now!”
The electroid pumps churned and charged and the Intrépide slowly rolled back upright and level. “Lieutenant Miller, you may fire when ready.”
The nimble Python saw the sudden change and swung to port herself, making a recklessly tight turn. For a few moments it looked as if she would be able to spin and keep out of the starboard batteries’ gunnery arcs, but the angle of the Intrépide’s own gradual turn was sharp enough to allow the French cruiser’s long-range weapons to fire. The barrage came from the turrets and barbettes still in action. At least two of the larger shells found their mark, plowing into the Python’s armor belt. The holes they left billowed sickening black smoke from internal fires and damage. The destroyer seemed to vibrate visibly, even at the range between them. There were explosions taking place deep down inside the British ship.
The destroyer turned more and poured on steam, clearly attempting to put distance between her and the Intrépide. François craned his neck to look back and saw the enemy cruiser still moving in the same gentle, shallow arc, flying in the opposite direction.
“Your orders, mon Capitaine?” Lieutenant Miller asked. Weariness had replaced the bitterness in his voice.
It was tempting to go after the cruiser. François suspected her steering gear had been damaged—she had not altered course since the torpedo hit. With the destroyer fleeing the field of battle, the British cruiser would still be a tough nut to crack, but doable.
But we are not at war—not yet, anyway. Yes, the British had either sunk a French merchant or faked the distress call to lure the Intrépide out to the North Sea for the ambush. But their trap had backfired on them. To finish off one or both of the enemy vessels would only kill men senselessly. If this was war, he would not hesitate. But to do so now would be murder.
“We can finish off that cruiser,” Miller added, as if he could read his former junior officer’s thoughts.
“Qui. We could. But I have fulfilled Capitaine Guisarme’s last order to me. I suggest we execute the better part of valor and turn back home.” His injured leg throbbed as if to accentuate his words. He saw the piece of bloodied wood that had stuck in his leg lying on the deck. Almost without thought, he picked it up and put it in his pocket.
“What order was that, sir?” Dumont asked.
“It is time to get this mademoiselle back to port and tend to our injured.” For a moment, he felt his body sag under the weight of command.
To Be Continued…