home   |   А-Я   |   A-Z   |   меню


CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Ramage was wakened next morning before daylight by the urgent voice of Orsini repeating: "Captain, sir; Captain, sir!" When Ramage sat up in his swinging cot, Orsini said: "Mr Southwick's compliments, sir, but the wind seems to have set in from the north."

"Tell Mr Southwick I'll be on deck in a few minutes."

With that a drowsy Ramage swung himself out of the cot and hurriedly dressed in the dark, cursing as he stubbed his toe against a chair. Why the devil did things always happen at night? Up on deck he found it a starlit night and the breeze was steady; it was obviously set in for several hours.

"What's the course for Sidi Rezegh?" Ramage asked South-wick.

"South by west, sir,"

"Very well, hoist lights telling the flotilla to get under way, and then hoist the signal for the course."

Southwick shouted for the watch to prepare lanterns and the wooden frame which would hoist them in a set pattern. As soon as the lanterns were lit and hoisted, Ramage gave another order: "Stand by to get under way, Mr Southwick."

It was a warm night and Ramage noticed Aitken joining him at the quarterdeck rail. "A very good time for the wind to change, sir," the first lieutenant commented.

"What time is it?"

"Just before four o'clock, sir. It should take us down to be off the port just after dawn."

"Couldn't be better. I wonder if Saracens are early risers."

"I suspect they are; they probably go to bed when it gets dark and rise with the sun."

"But do they keep lookouts in that fort, I wonder?"

"I doubt it," Aitken said. "Why should they? They probably haven't been attacked for a hundred years so they won't be expecting anything."

At that moment, as the frame was lowered again and the lanterns extinguished, Ramage told Southwick: "We'll get under way, course south by west, you said."

The watch on deck scurried round as Southwick shouted orders. Topmen hurried aloft to cast off gaskets and let fall the topgallants and topsails; the afterguard braced up the yards and tended the sheets. Soon the Calypso stirred to life: instead of being an inert mass wallowing in the sea, she began to pitch gently as the sails filled. The hull creaked as the planking worked against the frames; the yards creaked as they pulled against the pressure of the wind. And Ramage gave a shiver as the down draught from the mainsail chilled him.

Then he remembered the rest of the flotilla. "Mr Southwick -we've no stern lantern!"

"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the startled master. "I completely forgot," he admitted. "I'll see to it at once."

The flotilla leader, in this case the Calypso, had to burn a lantern for the rest of the flotilla to follow, particularly at a time like this when all the ships were forming up again after lying to. For a few moments Ramage thought of the responsibility of getting a fleet under way; twenty or thirty ships of the line, not to mention attendant frigates. He thought of Lord Nelson manoeuvring his fleet the night before Trafalgar. Not only did his Lordship have the problem of manoeuvring the fleet, but he was having to work out what the enemy was doing, and make moves to counter them. And the enemy that night had made some strange moves. Suddenly he felt very humble; he had another frigate and two sloops under his command, and he had forgotten the elementary thing of a stern-light. Well, he thought, let's hope the lamp trimmer has done his job properly and the light is bright enough for the rest of the flotilla to follow.

Sidi Rezegh - at last they were really on their way to attack it. He wondered what Rear-Admiral Rudd's thoughts had been when he gave him the orders. It was strange that the Admiral had not committed any of his 74s. Admittedly it was unlikely that any of them would have been able to enter the port because of their draft, but they had enough guns to pound the place before landing a considerable number of troops, Marines and seamen. A 74 could easily land three times as many men as a frigate, and she carried more than twice the number of guns, of vastly superior calibre.

But Admiral Rudd had not seen fit to send even one 74. Why? Ramage thought the answer to that was simple and twofold: he did not think a 74 would be able to do the job, and he did not want either of his two captains saddled with failure. So he had been reduced to sending a couple of frigates and a couple of sloops, to show the British Minister (and the King of the Two Sicilies) that at least he was doing something. Ministers would know nothing of the tactical problems of attacking an enemy port, especially a strange one with the natural problems of Sidi Rezegh.

There was even a touch of irony: one of the frigate captains was his favourite, and he would suffer if the venture failed. Indeed, Ramage thought wryly, he might spend the rest of his life chained to an oar in one of the galleys if the failure was complete. He shivered: the price of failure would be very high.

That was the worst of these early starts: one's spirits were at a very low ebb at this time of the morning: prey to fears which would never enter one's mind in daylight, or when one's stomach was decently full of food and a hot drink. He guessed that most men were cowards at four o'clock in the morning - he was, and he freely admitted it. Now, Southwick was a man who never suffered from it; Southwick exuded four o'clock in the morning courage.

A cast of the log every hour showed that the flotilla was making just under six knots with a fair wind, and dawn brought a cloudless day, the early dawn shadowing the four hummocks of hills surrounding Sidi Rezegh. There was an air of excitement in the Calypso, whether it was among the men holystoning the deck, the watchkeepers occasionally hauling on braces and sheets to trim the sails to a slight change in wind direction, or the successive officers of the deck as the watches changed.

Major Golightly had his troops formed up on deck as soon as there was light enough to see and Ramage watched them performing arms drill amid clouds of pipeclay. Their boots thumped as they marched and countermarched v and Aitken, who was on watch, shuddered with each stamp.

"I hope they're not tearing up my deck with their damned boots," he muttered to Ramage. "If I'd known Golightly was going to march them up and down, I'd have waited before having the deck holystoned."

"The gallant major means well," Ramage said consolingly. "Just think of those soldiers thundering down the quay and chasing those Saracens. Why, the sound of their boots pounding alone should frighten them!"

By now the hummocks were getting close and with the glass Ramage could distinguish the town of Sidi Rezegh. It comprised a clump of white buildings, still pinkish in the early light, and the round fort at the end of the quay showed up dark. It was easy to make out the dome-shaped roof of the mosque, which seemed to be built on a slight hill in the middle of the town.

How many miles off? Ramage guessed at three and Southwick agreed. Half an hour's sailing. Well, the flotilla had its orders and knew what to do. "Stand by to hoist out the boats, Mr Aitken," Ramage said and then turned to Orsini. "Make the first signal!"

In less than five minutes the two frigates and two sloops were hove-to and hoisting out their boats, leading the painters aft so that they would tow astern. As soon as he saw all the boats in the water, Ramage told Orsini to hoist the second signal, to get under way.

It was the first time in his life that Ramage had issued a list of signals to ships under his command, but having special signals got rid of some shortcomings of the signal book. For instance, he would want to signal "Sloops to go alongside the wall", a signal which could not be made with the standard signal book. He only needed- or might need - a dozen signals, but they were important, and he had numbered them in the order in which they were likely to be used, Thus signal number one had been to heave-to and hoist out boats; number two had been to get under way again towing boats. From number three onwards the signals would be concerned with the actual attack.

Two miles to go. He turned to Aitken. "Beat to quarters, if you please, Mr Aitken."

Aitken picked up his speaking trumpet and shouted the order and a few moments later the Marine drummer was at work sending the staccato order through the ship. Ramage had heard it dozens of times (no, hundreds) but it always excited him: to an actor it would be like the moments before the curtain rose on the first act. Of course, one could look at it another way: to the man about to be hanged, it was like having the noose adjusted round his neck.

"Orsini," he said, "my compliments to Major Golightly: in fifteen minutes' time I would like his detachment drawn up ready for landing."

By now the washdeck pump had been rigged and was spluttering water across the deck, and men were following behind it flinging sand on the planking as though sowing seeds.

Down below the gunner would have unlocked the magazine and let fall the thick felt "fearnought" curtains intended to prevent an accidental flash from reaching the powder. While men wetted the curtains he would be preparing to issue flintlocks and prickers to the second captains as soon as they arrived at the halfdoor. They would be followed by powder monkeys, boys whose job it was to take cartridges up to the guns, using wooden cylinders to carry them.

It was all a drill which had long since become a ritual the men could perform with their eyes shut. On the quarterdeck men prepared the carronades, and Lieutenant Rennick inspected his Marines, all of whom were standing stiffly at attention, eyes fixed firmly to the front.

Ramage reflected that he had to do no more than give a few orders: thanks to training - years of training by now - he did not have to go round making sure that his orders had been obeyed properly. The young lieutenants, Kenton, Martin and Hill, would all be standing by their division of guns.

Up here on the quarterdeck an extra two men had gone to the wheel, so that there were now four, and Jackson had taken over as quartermaster. That meant a change on Jackson's gun, Ramage knew; Stafford would now be the gun captain and Rossi the second captain. Aitken and Southwick stood close to him by the quarterdeck rail. The Calypso, in other words, was ready for action.

The same drill would be carried out on board the other frigate and the two sloops. Altogether, counting the troops, more than nine hundred men would be prepared for battle. How many would answer a roll call in two or three hours' time?

Ramage cursed himself; this was always the time when he started having black thoughts like that. He would be all right by the time the first shot was fired, it was just the waiting that left him prey to doubts and fears for success or failure This time failure meant the galleys - or worse Over on the starboard bow he could make out Sidi Rezegh with the naked eye he could distinguish buildings and clumps of palm trees, and on either side the dun-coloured desert, sand scattered with rocks throwing shadows, and scrub bushes which fought hard for life amid drought and broiling sun Had the approaching flotilla been spotted and the alarm raised7 Even now were the Saracens preparing what weapons they had9 Were the cannon on the fort being made ready9 There were plenty of questions and no answers He turned and looked astern First there were the Calypso's four boats towing quietly in her wake, then a cable astern of them came the Amalie frigate, looking fine under all plain sail Roper had already run out her guns, and Ramage could imagine the soldiers and Marines paraded on deck Then came the Betty, and Ramage could picture the stocky figure of King watching the coast through his telescope Much depended on the Betty and the Rose, and Ramage was confident of both King and Payne In fact he was lucky with all three of them Roper was a level-headed young man, even though he was the Admiral's favourite In fact, for a favourite, Ramage thought wryly, he was a sound type of person Ramage took another look at the port through his telescope The entrance, lying at right angles to the Calypso's present course, was clearly defined With this north wind it would be easy enough to turn and reach in to get alongside the quay He thanked the former slaves they had good memories and they had built up an accurate picture for Southwick to turn into a chart His own elevation drawing had been fairly accurate but, thanks to Southwick's chart and the humpbacked hills, not really necessary And there were the galleys, five of them, masts sticking up behind the breakwater A mile to go9 Perhaps a little more The ship was cleared for action and it only remained for the guns to be loaded and run out Ramage gave the order to Aitken, who repeated it through his speaking trumpet Behind him the carronades grumbled as they were run out They I

were easier to load and run out than the 12-pounders All the guns were being loaded with caseshot - forty-two four-ounce shot packed into tin cans which rated the bore of the guns and which burst after being fired, spreading out a deadly hail and best suited to cutting a swathe through a crowd of men Caseshot had been very effective at Licata against the hordes of Saracens, and they should be equally effective here He had given orders for the other three ships to use case, and particularly the sloops at the wall By now they were closing fast with the entrance if anything the wind seemed to be freshening and he guessed the Calypso was making a good six knots The Calypso was to be the first through the entrance, and as soon as she turned the Amalie would follow The Betty and the Rose would come round in turn and while the frigates made for the quay, the sloops would pass outside them and head for the wall, turning at the last moment to come alongside opposite the barracks Ramage was thankful that each captain knew what he had to do King's suggestion had been so simple, and like the rest of the plan for the attack on Sidi Rezegh, depended on only one factor - the depth of water inside the port Depths had been the only thing that the former prisoners had had to guess at, depths were the only question marks on Southwick's chart Depths could ruin the attack Ramage looked at the land on either side of Sidi Rezegh It was low flat and sandy with grazing suitable only for camels and goats Low shore shallow water it was an old rule of thumb, whether one was in the cold North Sea, the temperate Mediterranean or the heat of the Tropics Cliffs meant deep water close in, and if there was anything that Sidi Rezegh lacked it was anything approaching a cliff Now the entrance was coming up fine on the starboard bow and Ramage glanced across at Aitken and Southwick Both men were ready 'Stand by Jackson he called There were no defiant shots from the fort, which was almost abeam Perhaps they had caught the Saracens unawares there was nothing like a hundred years of security for making you careless Nor were the Saracens great fishermen he had half expected to find several fishing boats clustered oft the entrance - boats which would spot the flotilla as it approached and raise the alarm But he had been lucky: Sidi Rezegh's fishermen had stayed in their beds.

And then it all happened in a rush: a shout to Jackson to put the wheel over, an order to Aitken to brace up the yards and trim the sheets, and an instruction to Southwick to watch the following ships.

The Calypso turned to starboard amid the flapping of sails and the creaking of yards as they were braced up. Now she was heading for the centre of the entrance, perfectly positioned, with the wind on the starboard beam and the sails soon drawing well.

Two hundred yards to go before she was abeam of the fort at the entrance, and still not a shot fired.

"The Amalie's just beginning to turn," Southwick reported.

Aitken put down his speaking trumpet: the yards were braced and the sails trimmed.

Ramage picked up the speaking trumpet and called down: "Major Golightly, are your men ready?"

"Ready and willing!" shouted back the major.

Ramage aimed the speaking trumpet at the Marines.

"Mr Rennick, how about you?"

"Ready, sir," he replied.

The fort was fifty yards ahead, now thirty, and then the Calypso was surging through the entrance, followed by the Amalie and the two sloops. Then she was abreast the fort, then on the quarter, and the Calypso slowed to a stop.

It was gentle but there was no mistaking what had happened. The fort and the beginning of the quay, which had been speeding past, came to a stop. The Calypso was aground, forty yards short of the quay. And astern the Amalie, further out, came to a stop on the same sandbank.

Just as Ramage swung round to watch her and the sloops, he saw the Betty and the Rose turn slightly to larboard: Jason King was taking a chance that deeper water lay on the side away from the quay.



CHAPTER FIFTEEN | Ramage and the Saracens | CHAPTER SEVENTEEN



Loading...