Last week, I gave you a preview of Chapter 1 of my forthcoming South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaíso where you met Catalina, a feisty tavern-keeper’s daughter in the Chilean port-town of Valparaíso.
In Chapter 2, the action switches to the other side of the world to introduce another of the seven main characters.
While Catalina was my invention, Thomas Cochrane was very real and has been the basis for several famous fictional characters, such as Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower.
In fact, his life was so fantastic I had to be selective in which parts of his history to present so as not to stretch the credulity of the reader completely.
As I mentioned last time, none of this has been edited or even beta-ed, so there will be extensive polishing and possible rewriting before publication. I just wanted to show you that I am actually doing something while not posting here!
And don’t worry, I’m slightly further ahead than Chapter 2.
Chapter Two—The Sea Wolf
Lord Captain Thomas Cochrane waited in the musty, oak-paneled corridor and wondered what the next few hours would bring. He had been summoned for a meeting in Admiralty House, near Whitehall, by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Musgrave. He had no doubt they had received his report warmly—the mission had been a success; however, he also knew he had enemies within the Royal Navy. As an M.P. he had long fought against naval corruption, allying with the more radical elements in Parliament. In short, he was not expecting a warm welcome.
Members of the naval establishment were notoriously cautious. Cochrane felt their conservatism had not only held him back, but impeded England’s progress in the war with France. How he longed for a leader like Napoleon Bonaparte—someone who respected daring and inventiveness in commanders, rather than being suspicious of it. His superiors were pompous old farts who valued procedure and protocol over courage and verve.
He unfolded the article from the Naval Chronicle his uncle had kept for him:
Seeing what Captain Cochrane has done with a single ship upon the French shores, we may easily conceive what he would have achieved if he had been entrusted with a sufficient squadron of ships and a few thousand military, hovering over the whole extent of the French coast, which it would take a considerable portion of the army of France to defend.
The Admiralty might be narrow-minded, but Cochrane knew they were keenly aware of the public mood, and how important this was to their political masters. The door opened and a liveried servant summoned him inside. “Sir, if I beg your pardon, the Lord requests your presence.”
Cochrane rose, folded the newspaper cutting into his pocket, and entered the room. It was a grand, ornate chamber lined with portraits of dead kings and forgotten battles. Much of the space was taken up by a solid mahogany table, at which Lord Musgrave was seated, with a number of documents scattered in front of him. A blazing fire filled the room with heat, despite the sun streaming in from the ceiling-to-floor windows opposite.
Lord Musgrave gestured for Cochrane to sit and began leafing through his papers. “Well, I must say, events were concluded in a most satisfactory manner in Fort Trinidad. Napoleon’s armies will have been delayed for weeks, if not longer.”
Cochrane said nothing, his eye drawn to the outsized wind dial above the mantelpiece. He wondered if it still worked.
Lord Musgrave coughed, drawing his attention. “I won’t be too fulsome in my praise; we don’t want you losing your head.” Lord Musgrave locked eyes on Cochrane. “Press attention can lead one to get ideas above one’s station.” Cochrane bit his lip, attempting not to let his displeasure register on his face, as Lord Musgrave continued. “That being said, we have a… situation at present that could benefit from your, shall we say, unconventional approach. As you may have heard from the latest naval dispatches, the French have taken advantage of some rather strong winds and have broken through our blockade at Brest. Eleven battleships and a number of frigates got through. This means—”
“Napoleon is free to attack British shipping.”
“Indeed. As you have gathered, the situation is perilous in the extreme.” Lord Musgrave’s eyes darted towards the back of the room. “Stevens, if you don’t mind.” The servant unfurled a large map of France and placed it on the table, securing it with three silver paperweights. “As luck would have it, some of their ships took damage in the storm and regrouped here in The Basque Roads, just north of Rochefort-sur-mer in the Bay of Biscay.”
“Do we have any vessels nearby?”
Lord Musgrave nodded. “Admiral Gambier is some distance offshore observing their movements, without sufficient numbers to commence an immediate attack. He has suggested waiting for reinforcements, or until the French leave the sanctity of the port. The shore batteries are causing him some concern.”
Cochrane couldn’t hold back any longer. “But if we wait, the French will have repaired their fleet. We can’t let this opportunity slip through our fingers. While Gambier is sitting on his hands—”
“Enough!” Lord Musgrave rose to his feet. “We know you prefer a direct approach, which is why you were summoned. If you calm down, I would like to hear your thoughts on how we should proceed.”
Cochrane inhaled, collecting himself. He decided to change tack. “I think Admiral Gambier is correct, a direct attack would be disastrous.” Cochrane pointed at Rochefort-sur-mer. “I’m wondering why the French would choose to shelter here. I’m not worried about their shore cannon, but my instinct tells me that they have afforded themselves a greater level of protection than we realize. If I was commanding the French, I wouldn’t have docked here, unless my suspicions are correct.”
“Which are?” said Lord Musgrave, growing a little irritated with Cochrane’s grandstanding.
“I suspect the French have erected a boom across the mouth of the bay, from here, to here.” Cochrane traced a path across the map.
“A boom? Are you sure?”
“Almost certain. And if I am right, it will block all access to the port, only leaving a small gap to let ships pass through. It would prevent our fleet from attacking the harbor, because, as they slowed down to pass through one-by-one, they could be easily picked off by the shore guns here, and here.”
“Are you suggesting we should draw them out somehow?”
“Not in the least. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have been working on a modified fireship that should be able to blow a hole in the boom wide enough for an attack to proceed. With a few of these explosion ships, as I like to call them, we will be able to cause sufficient damage to the boom to allow an attack.”
“And if you are wrong about the boom?”
Cochrane smiled. “Well then the explosion ships shall just sail right in and blow up the French!”
It took a few moments before the audacity of Cochrane’s plan began to sink in. Lord Musgrave slowly raised an eyebrow. A smile flickered at the edge of his lips. “Tell me what you need.”
Three weeks later, Admiral Gambier waited aboard his ship for his visitor. He was not amused. The last thing he needed was this hot-headed Scot, Cochrane, charging into what was already a delicately-balanced position. How could the Admiralty send in this backward fellow, this impudent pup, to assist him? He had several well-educated, better officers, good Navy men, and this uncouth ruffian from some godforsaken glen had a hare-brained scheme to get himself in the newspapers again. He seethed as Cochrane approached.
“You may have been sent here by the Admiralty on special assignment, Captain Cochrane, but I want you to be clear on one thing: I am the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy Fleet in the Bay of Biscay, and you take your orders from me.”
Cochrane stopped just short of Admiral Gambier and saluted. “I apologize for my presence sir, particularly as you seem to find it so odious. I did attempt to refuse command of the fireships.” Admiral Gambier’s mouth opened in shock. “Unfortunately for both of us, Lord Musgrave ordered me to accept. I will be on my ship if you need me.”
Admiral Gambier was taken aback. He had never been spoken to in such a manner, certainly not by a subordinate. He gathered himself. “One moment, Captain Cochrane. I gather you have convinced the Admiralty that we should use fireships in the attack. In your haste, you have failed to take account of one extremely pertinent fact. The French have erected a two-mile long sturdy wooden boom at the mouth of the harbour. Doubtless, this is anchored with heavy chains.” Gambier paused to let this sink in, before continuing in a shrill tone. “If you choose to rush headlong into self-destruction that is your own affair. But it is my duty to take care of the lives of the men, and I will not place the crews of the fireships in palpable danger.”
Cochrane smiled at Gambier. “Do not worry yourself. I will take care of the boom. Just make sure the fireships are released when you get my signal.”
Gambier’s face darkened as he watched Cochrane climb down to his rowboat. Everything he had heard about this wastrel Scot was correct. Fuming, he entered his cabin, determined to reign in this upstart.
Back aboard the Imperieuse, Cochrane made preparations with his Quartermaster. “For each of the explosion ships, I need fifteen hundred barrels of gunpowder, the same amount of ten inch shells, and three thousand grenades. Before these are placed aboard, reinforce the hulls in the rear as well as both sides. This should focus the blast forwards. When this is complete, I want all of the explosives placed carefully in the hold and bound together.”
“It’s like one giant floating mortar.”
“How much of a fuse will you need, sir?”
“Longer than usual. I will need ten minutes to get the men far enough back. I am expecting quite a bang. Now get me those supplies.”
By the evening of April 11th, conditions were perfect: both wind and tide were heading in the direction of the port. Cochrane had meticulously assembled twenty-two fireships as well as three of his explosion ships. Admiral Gambier cautiously had the flotilla of fireships drop anchor eight miles from the coast, while Cochrane began piloting the first of the explosion ships towards the giant boom with Lieutenant Bissel and a crew of just four men. The two others would be timed to strike the boom moments later.
On the deck of the first explosion ship, Cochrane addressed his crewmen. “Listen up, we only get one chance at this. If we mess it up it could cost us our lives.” Cochrane paused, glancing at each of them, making sure this point was understood. “When I give the order, I want everyone off this ship. Only when you are all safely in the gig will I light the fuse. Once the fuse is lit, we have less than ten minutes to get as far away as we can. The wind and the tide will be against us, so I will need everyone pulling their weight. Understood?”
The men knew it was a dangerous mission, but had readily volunteered. Cochrane had worked his way up the ranks and commanded a great deal of respect amongst his men. They knew that he would never order anyone to take a risk he would not take himself, and that he was not ready to die. “Aye, Captain.”
Cochrane resumed his position at the prow. He clenched his jaw and drummed his fingers against the wooden rail, his eyes fixed on the horizon. If he misjudged the distance, the vessel would explode harmlessly before the boom. If the fuse burned too quickly, he and his men would perish. If the explosives failed to ignite, half of Admiral Gambier’s munitions stockpile would fall to the French, and the boats laden with precious gunpowder could be turned against them. They were close, but Cochrane waited. Too many things could go wrong. If only he had an opportunity to test the explosion ship first, he thought. But, he didn’t have that luxury. It was time.
To the gig, go!” The men rushed to the rope-ladders, scrambling down into the small rowboat tethered to the ship’s side. Cochrane lit the fuse and paused, wanting to make sure it caught. There was something else at the back of his mind, something he couldn’t quite remember… he shook his head, ran to the rope-ladder and clambered into the gig, grabbing the remaining oar.
“Row! For God’s sake, row! I don’t want to be anywhere near this damned thing when she blows.” They had only put sixty yards between themselves and the ship when Cochrane stood in panic, nearly toppling the small rowboat. “Back! Back!” he screamed, his arms flailing. “We must go back.” The men held on to his legs, attempting to steady the gig. “Captain, the fuse is lit, we must press on.” Cochrane glowered at the crewman. “Turn around, that’s an order.” They were even more scared of their Captain than of the imminent explosion. Moments later, Cochrane was back at the ship, scaling the rope-ladder.
The crewman stared at each other, the only sound coming from the waves slamming into the side of the gig. Just as one of them was about to speak, Cochrane appeared, sliding down the rope-ladder, landing awkwardly in the boat. From inside his coat, a little dog’s head appeared. Cochrane smiled. “We couldn’t leave a man behind lads, even if it was only wee Blackie.”
The men didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but they knew they had to row. They worked hard, but time and tide were against them. Wave after wave crashed over the small boat, knocking the frightened rowers into one another, each crash sapping energy from their weakening arms, their eyes shut tight against the stinging salt. Desperate to put some distance between themselves and the ship, mortal fear propelled their aching arms. Cochrane urged them forward, his exhortations cut short by slapping mouthfuls of brine.
Then the sky had ripped itself apart. A fireball tore through the heavens as the little rowboat trembled, as if in anticipation of what was to come. A giant wave threw them forward at a frightening speed, but somehow their vessel remained upright, as debris and shrapnel whizzed over their heads.
The sea now calm, Cochrane stood, his face painted red by the fire raining from above. Nobody was looking at the shattered remains of the French boom. All eyes were fixed on the point where the remnants of the explosion ship had landed.
“Good God,” said one of the crewmen, “if he hadn’t gone back for Blackie, we would have snuffed it.”
Cochrane looked at his men before turning to face the boom, the boat rocking gently under his feet. “Perhaps a little less gunpowder next time.”
They laughed, congratulating each other on their good fortune. Cochrane surveyed the broken and twisted remains of the French defenses; his chest tightened. No longer could they ignore him. Finally, they would give him the ships to win this war.