11A: HMS MARS.
Off Harwick and Felixstowe, 1898.
The sea was like smooth grey silk as Captain Povey, RN, watched the seagull skim across its surface. Raising his eyes from the surface of the sea he watched the multitude of steamers and sailing barges making their way in and out of the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe. He felt the signal clutched in his hand, it had been delivered only an hour ago; the Martians had overwhelmed the defences west of London and were expected to be on the coast by the end of the day.
Raising his binoculars to his eyes he scanned the dockside at Harwich only three miles distant. Through the powerful lenses he could make out craft of all types putting in to shore and taking off the refugees that packed the docksides. He could only imagine the panic and chaos ashore. He’d considered sending a landing party ashore to restore order but had decided against it. He couldn’t spare enough men to do any real good; they’d be better employed at their posts aboard ship.
HMS Mars was the seventh ship in the Majestic class; she was so new that he’d joked that you could still smell the paint on her. They’d joined the channel fleet only last year and had been cruising off the French coast when the signal had arrived telling him to deploy off Harwich. His escorting Torpedo Boat Destroyers had been sent up the Thames to use their Quick-Firers on any Martian that might break through the army’s defences. He wondered for a moment how they’d faired; as he’d seen nothing of them since the day before yesterday he guessed that it would be nothing good.
Lowering his glasses Povey watched as a paddle steamer steamed by. She was low in water and wallowed dangerously in the gentle swell. Her decks were packed with people and he wondered how many more must be crammed below. They were probably heading for the Hook of Holland or Belgium; he hoped the sea stayed calm for them.0=0=0=0
“Gentleman,” Povey turned to face his department heads who stood awaiting his orders on the open bridge, they straightened not quite to attention at his call.
“Gentlemen,” the captain repeated, “seems we have a nice day for it.”
Whatever ‘it’ might be; they could all be dead by sunset, the assembled officers chuckled quietly at the captain’s words.
“Scotty,” the captain’s eyes turned to Lt. Commander Murray, the Mars’ engineering officer, “report, please.”
“Engines in full working order,” announced the Scots engineer as he wiped his hands on an oily rag, “coal bunkers near full and steam for full power ready at your order sir.”
“Good, thank-you Mr Murray,” Philips nodded his head, “I may well be asking for a little more than that before the day is out.”
“Aye, sir,” the Scot replied with a slight smile, “I’m sure I can find a wee bit more for you, sir.”
“Mr Bates,” Philips turned to his gunnery officer Lt Bates, “I do not intent to open fire until we’re right on top of these Martian fellows. I intend to go straight at them and close the range as quickly as possible. ‘A’ turret will get the first shot, then I’ll turn to unmask the secondary batteries and ‘Z’ turret.”
Naval artillery had far outstripped the ability to actually hit a target at long range. The Mars’ twelve inch guns could hurl shells out to ranges of over 20,000 yards. However, the sights could only guarantee any hits at a maximum of 6000 yards.
“Any idea how big a target these Martians will present, sir?” Bates wanted to know.
“Sorry, Guns,” the captain shook his head slowly, “but I’d imagine not a very big one, and as for speed…well your guess is as good as mine,” the officers laughed quietly once more.
Captain Povey spoke with each of his officers before dismissing them to their posts leaving only Commander Weatherby, his First Officer, and Surgeon Commander DeForrest standing with him on the wing of the bridge.
“Bones,” Povey called to his friend the ship’s doctor, “I’m expecting a rather bloody fight…a lot of casualties. From the reports I’ve had they’ll likely to be mainly burns.”
“Rest assured, sir,” the doctor nodded, “I’ll do every thing I can…now if you’ll excuse me I have a sickbay to attend to…Captain,” the doctor straightened up and nodded to the captain, “Number One,” the two men shared a small smile before the doctor clattered down the companionway leading to the main deck and his sick bay.
Turning back to look out over the bow, Povey raised his glasses once more and swept the shore line looking for any sign of the Martians.
“Why is it, Miles,” Povey lowered his binoculars and turned slightly to look at his First Officer, “that every time I speak to someone today it feels like I’m saying goodbye?”0=0=0=0
It was just past four o’clock in the afternoon and a rating had just delivered the afternoon tea to the bridge, when the lookout called from the crows nest high above the bridge.
“Strange object, ten points off the port bow,” called Able Seaman ‘Taffy’ Goldstein.
Immediately Captain Povey put his binoculars to his eyes and searched the horizon. There, coming over a low ridge behind the grey smoke stained town of Harwich strode what Povey could only assume to be a Martian fighting machine.
“My god,” muttered Povey as he sensed Weatherby come to stand beside him, “odd looking brute don’t-cha-think?”
“Indeed sir,” replied the First Officer, “hold on!” Weatherby strained to see through his own binoculars, “There’s another and…”
“Below!” came the thin cry from the crows nest, “Two more strange objects, same bearing.”
“Right, Number One,” Povey let his binoculars fall to his chest, “be so good as to sound ‘Battle Stations’.”
“Aye-aye sir,” Weatherby strode purposely across the bridge giving orders.
Moments later the electric alarm bells started to ring as the Royal Marine bugler blew ‘Battle Stations’ on his instrument. Povey could hear the sound of running feet on the wooden deck as ratings made their way to their battle stations. The beat of the engines increased as revolutions for twelve knots were rung down to the engine room.
Stopping next to a frightened looking Midshipman, Povey looked down at the youngster and smiled, “Don’t worry, lad,” confided the captain, “it’ll soon be over…one way or another.”
The captain turned to another junior officer.
“Flags!” he called, “Wireless message to their Lordships, if you please,” the young office took out a message pad and pencil, “Inform their Lordships that we’ve sighted the enemy and will engage them as soon as we are in range…add the time and our position, if you would.”
“Sir!” the younger officer turned to run to the wireless room, he was stopped in his tracks by a call from the captain.
“Sir?” the young man stopped on the steps leading down to the main deck.
“No need to run,” observed Povey, “calmly does it.”
“Aye-aye sir,” the officer continued his journey at a more sedate pace.
“Someone sound a blast on the whistle,” Povey brought his binoculars to his eyes once more, “better let everyone know there’s trouble in the wind.”0=0=0=0
The sound of the Mars’ siren acted like a starter’s pistol shot or a small boy kicking an anthill. Ships of all shapes and sizes started to move away from the shore and the advancing Martians and towards the open sea. Great clouds of smoke and steam rose from steamers as they gathered way towards the safety of the open sea. Sails were shaken out as barges and yachts made their slower escape behind the faster steamers. Ships criss-crossed each others bows as Povey saw a hundred near collisions in as many seconds. One barge was cut neatly in two as it was run down by a Hamburg liner, he saw people thrown into the sea and dragged under by the suction caused by the liner’s passing.
Turning towards the land he saw the Martians continue their approach; one good shot was all he asked for; just let him get close enough and he was confident that his guns would bring these alien monsters low. He didn’t need his binoculars now, the enemy was so close, maybe only two or three miles off his port bow.
The first of the glittering tripods paused on the sea shore before plunging into the water; it was quickly followed by the other two machines. They splashed through the water like small boys on a half holiday. Now he had them, Povey smiled to himself, they had come into his element. Like a man wading in the sea they would inevitably slow as the water got deeper. Also as the sea bed sloped away from shore, the control cabins housing the Martians themselves would come closer to the water’s surface.
Ordering the Mars to turn towards the Martians and increase speed, Povey stood with legs braced against the roll of the ship as she turned in the slight swell of the bay. Ordering ‘utmost speed’, Captain Povey walked over to his gunnery officer whose finger hovered over the buttons which would fire the main armament electrically.
“Easy, John,” the Captain spoke just loud enough for the young officer to hear. “We’ll get as close as we can to the blighter furthest on the left. Then I’ll turn to starboard and let the mid-ships battery have a go at the middle one. Y’never know ‘Z’ turret might even get to bear…after that,” the Captain smiled, “we’ll see, eh?”
The Mars cut through the water like a knife aimed directly at the Martian on the left of their long line. The Martians appeared puzzled by the Mars’ approach; they obviously didn’t know what to make of her. By not firing her guns Captain Povey increased the Martians confusion, one shot and the Martians would have brought their deadly heat guns to bear. But as she didn’t fire it seemed that they didn’t think she posed a threat.
The Mars’ engines pounded away taking her at twenty-one knots (three knots above her designed top speed) towards the Martians whose control cabins were now only feet above the surface of the water. The range dropped rapidly until, at a thousand yards, the Martian that was the target of the Mars’ wild charge grew nervous and raised the canister containing the heat gun.
“FIRE!” ordered Captain Povey.
Lt. Bates’ fingers jammed down on the firing buttons; the twelve inch guns of ‘A’ turret belched forth fire and smoke and the sound of their firing rumbled across the bay louder than any natural thunder. As the smoke blew towards the stern of the battleship, Povey saw one of the shells strike home with devastating effect. The Martian simply ceased to exist; the control cabin disappeared in a cloud of smoke, flame and disintegrating metal.
The steel-like tentacles holding the heat gun whirled away through the air to land with a great splash and a huge cloud of steam a hundred yards to port. The war machine’s three legs stood motionless for a moment before slowly slipping beneath the waves. The second shell fired only half a second after the first flew through the cloud of smoke and wreckage to dash to pieces a wooden sailing barge that had been too slow in leaving the shelter of the bay.
“HARD A’STARBOARD!” cried the Captain, “PORT BATTERY FIRE AS Y’GUNS BEAR!”
The Mars heeled over as she slowly turned towards the second Martian trying to bring the six inch guns of her port battery to bear and unmask the twelve inchers of ‘Z’ turret. The Martians for their part realized their mistake in letting this strange machine get so close to them. The second Martian in line raised its heat gun and fired just as three of the Mars’ six inchers fired in unison.
The heat gun’s beam cut through the Mars’ armoured hull like a hot knife through butter slicing into her inner working as clouds of steam rose from the sea and smoke and flame poured from the Mars’ ventilators. Raggedly the last three guns in the port battery fired their shells flying wide of the Martian. However the first three gun crews had done their job well.
The first shot landed within yards of the Martian drenching it with a mountain of sea water. The second shell hit the roof of the control cabin a glancing blow spinning it around and away from the Mars’ attack. The third shell stuck the cabin’s protective cover squarely and splashed the Martian within to the four winds.
Hanging onto the ships wheel, Captain Povey aimed his burning ship towards the third and final Martian. All around him men he had known for years lay dead at his feet, smoke belched from the great melted hole in the Mars’ port side; but still the ship drove on towards her last enemy.
Closer and closer drove the Mars as she bore down on the Martian who almost appeared to be panicking. It didn’t seem to be able to decide whether to run or fire its heat gun at this charging leviathan of the deep. However, its indecision didn’t last for long, as the Mars closed the last hundred yards towards its target the Martian raised its heat gun and fired.
The beam hit ‘A’ turret squarely on its forward armour slicing through the metal and stabbing deep into the Mars’ vitals. The ship shuddered and seemed to lift out of the water as the propellant charges for the forward twelve inch guns exploded. Captain Povey, still holding on to the wheel of his ship steering her to certain doom, but also certain victory, simply vaporised in the heat of the explosion.
Whether the Martian realised that it had left firing its weapon until too late or what it thought, if anything, as the burning, exploding wreck smashed into him no one can ever know. Although doomed to a watery grave, the Mars’ engines drove what remained of that once proud ship onwards until it hit the Martian. The cold sea water rushed in to find her red hot boilers and the valiant Mars exploded as her boilers ruptured and her magazines exploded in an ecstercy of destruction.
When the smoke cleared, all that could be seen of the Mars’ passing was a great pillar of steam rising from the water where the Mars now rested.
If you’d like to type ‘Majestic class battleship’ into wiki, you’ll be able to see and read about the real HMS Mars and her sisters.
Once again HG showed his lack of knowledge concerning things military/naval. The way he describes the ‘Thunder Child’ makes her sound more like a warship from twenty or thirty years prior to when the story is supposed to take place. I always thought that the artist that drew the illustrations for ‘Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’ was closer to the mark. He showed a Canopus class battleship in combat with a rather oversized Martian War Machine.
The names of the Mars’ crew members were taken from the old BBC radio sitcom, ‘The Navy Lark’, except, of course, for Surgeon Commander DeForrest…now I wonder where I got that from?