The War in the Air – Day 46 of 115

The fleets came into contact on Wednesday before any actual declaration of war. The Americans had strung out in the modern fashion at distances of thirty miles or so, and were steaming to keep themselves between the Germans and either the eastern states or Panama; because, vital as it was to defend the seaboard cities and particularly New York, it was still more vital to save the canal from any attack that might prevent the return of the main fleet from the Pacific. No doubt, said Kurt, this was now making records across that ocean, “unless the Japanese have had the same idea as the Germans.” It was obviously beyond human possibility that the American North Atlantic fleet could hope to meet and defeat the German; but, on the other hand, with luck it might fight a delaying action and inflict such damage as to greatly weaken the attack upon the coast defences. Its duty, indeed, was not victory but devotion, the severest task in the world. Meanwhile the submarine defences of New York, Panama, and the other more vital points could be put in some sort of order.

This was the naval situation, and until Wednesday in Whit week it was the only situation the American people had realised. It was then they heard for the first time of the real scale of the Dornhof aeronautic park and the possibility of an attack coming upon them not only by sea, but by the air. But it is curious that so discredited were the newspapers of that period that a large majority of New Yorkers, for example, did not believe the most copious and circumstantial accounts of the German air-fleet until it was actually in sight of New York.

Kurt’s talk was half soliloquy. He stood with a map on Mercator’s projection before him, swaying to the swinging of the ship and talking of guns and tonnage, of ships and their build and powers and speed, of strategic points, and bases of operation. A certain shyness that reduced him to the status of a listener at the officers’ table no longer silenced him.

Bert stood by, saying very little, but watching Kurt’s finger on the map. “They’ve been saying things like this in the papers for a long time,” he remarked. “Fancy it coming real!”

Kurt had a detailed knowledge of the Miles Standish. “She used to be a crack ship for gunnery–held the record. I wonder if we beat her shooting, or how? I wish I was in it. I wonder which of our ships beat her. Maybe she got a shell in her engines. It’s a running fight! I wonder what the Barbarossa is doing,” he went on, “She’s my old ship. Not a first-rater, but good stuff. I bet she’s got a shot or two home by now if old Schneider’s up to form. Just think of it! There they are whacking away at each other, great guns going, shells exploding, magazines bursting, ironwork flying about like straw in a gale, all we’ve been dreaming of for years! I suppose we shall fly right away to New York–just as though it wasn’t anything at all. I suppose we shall reckon we aren’t wanted down there. It’s no more than a covering fight on our side. All those tenders and store-ships of ours are going on southwest by west to New York to make a floating depot for us. See?” He dabbed his forefinger on the map. “Here we are. Our train of stores goes there, our battleships elbow the Americans out of our way there.”

When Bert went down to the men’s mess-room to get his evening ration, hardly any one took notice of him except just to point him out for an instant. Every one was talking of the battle, suggesting, contradicting–at times, until the petty officers hushed them, it rose to a great uproar. There was a new bulletin, but what it said he did not gather except that it concerned the Barbarossa. Some of the men stared at him, and he heard the name of “Booteraidge” several times; but no one molested him, and there was no difficulty about his soup and bread when his turn at the end of the queue came. He had feared there might be no ration for him, and if so he did not know what he would have done.

Afterwards he ventured out upon the little hanging gallery with the solitary sentinel. The weather was still fine, but the wind was rising and the rolling swing of the airship increasing. He clutched the rail tightly and felt rather giddy. They were now out of sight of land, and over blue water rising and falling in great masses. A dingy old brigantine under the British flag rose and plunged amid the broad blue waves–the only ship in sight.

In the evening it began to blow and the air-ship to roll like a porpoise as it swung through the air. Kurt said that several of the men were sea-sick, but the motion did not inconvenience Bert, whose luck it was to be of that mysterious gastric disposition which constitutes a good sailor. He slept well, but in the small hours the light awoke him, and he found Kurt staggering about in search of something. He found it at last in the locker, and held it in his hand unsteadily–a compass. Then he compared his map.

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