1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 39
Chapter 15: Cocktail Hour
Five Miles Upriver from Sviyazhsk, Volga River
Andrei Fefilatevich Danilov had expected to be in sight of Sviyazhsk in a day and a half. Of course, he hadn’t expected to be dead either. Petr Ivanovich Chaplygin was a wiser, or at least more cynical, man. He had been personally less sure of the steamboat as a weapon of war from the beginning. But the Danilov family were the patrons of his family and he had supported his patron.
After the first ambush where Andrei Fefilatevich had been killed, they had put troops out on the southwest side of the river. Then they’d been ambushed from the northeast side. Two more mines had gone off, neither sinking a boat but both doing serious damage that had forced them to hole up and make repairs. Almost three weeks to cover sixty miles. Leaving the damn boats in Moscow would have been faster. Petr was just angry and he knew it. The truth was that for most of the trip from Moscow the steamboats had traveled at a speed to put the fastest cavalry to shame. But once they got into enemy territory, the weakness of the steamboats became apparent. They were incredibly vulnerable to ambush and the underwater explosives were deadly.
Kruglaya Mountain, Sviyazhsk
Lieutenant Vadim Viktorovich Lagunov walked up the hill to the citadel in good spirits, if utterly exhausted. After the first four days, Major Ivan Maslov had left him in charge and he had spent the rest of the time leading his contingent of scouts and his one supporting steamboat back ahead of the attacking force, slowing them. He was quite proud of his accomplishment.
“Sergei!” He waved at his brother.
“Vadim! I have been worried since the red-headed bastard left you out there with just a bunch of Cossacks.”
Vadim felt himself stiffen. He remembered calling Major Maslov the red-headed bastard himself. Now it was like something from another life. But his brother hadn’t been with them, hadn’t seen . . . didn’t know. “It wasn’t like that, Sergei. The major . . . he knows what he’s doing. We delayed four steamboats for almost three weeks, and we only lost four men. They crawled every step of the way, always looking around for us. We bought you the time to get the rockets. Where are they?”
Sergei was clearly not impressed. “He left you out there, outnumbered and on your own, while he got fireworks. He’s been playing with them for the last couple of days. Taking ranging shots, he calls it. And they don’t even have explosive heads! They have something he’s calling Molotov vodka bottles.”
“How do they work?”
“They mostly don’t. Just land in the river and go to the bottom.” Then, apparently trying to be fair, Sergei added, “Well, he got a couple to the far bank and one of them lit the bank on fire for a few minutes.”
They continued walking up the hill, then climbed up to the bunkered platform where the rocket stands were set up. Major Maslov was bending over a framework, talking to a craftsman in the uniform of a Gorchakov retainer. The captain looked up. “Welcome back, Lieutenant. You did well. You bought us more time than I expected. I’d show you the results, but if we fire a rocket now they will be able to see its arc. And I want them to come as a surprise for our guests.”
Vadim looked at the stands and then at the rockets. There seemed a lot of rockets. “Do we need so many?”
“I’m afraid we won’t have enough. They aren’t all that accurate and the Molotovs don’t always ignite. I’m afraid they will get past us.”
“Should I take the men back out and continue the harassment?”
Major Maslov shook his head. “No. If we can savage them, so much the better. But General Lebedev has cannon at the Kazan kremlin. They aren’t great cannon, but he does have cannon. And they are making more rockets even as we speak. Also, the general now has over a thousand men under his command. Those four boats aren’t going to take Kazan. Besides, have you noticed the Volga is freezing at night? The ice is thin and it breaks up when the sun comes out, but steamboats are going to stop being an issue in another month or so. The best we can do is the best we can do. Now we wait for the battle.”
Ivan looked through the telescope at a stake pounded into the far bank of the Volga and waited. Impatiently. He looked up from the telescope, and saw the riverboats. Eye back at the telescope, he waited some more. Finally the bowsprit of the first converted riverboat came into sight through the telescope and Ivan yelled, “Fire.”
It took a few seconds. The rockets had fuses and the fuses had to be lit and burn down. That had all been taken into account, the calculations made. In theory, the salvo of rockets — twenty of them — would arrive at a point in the river at precisely the same time as the lead riverboat got to the same place.
The fuses burned down and the rockets flew and Ivan enjoyed the consternation of the crew as they saw the lines of white smoke tracing the rockets’ route across the sky.
They flew mostly straight, but at almost two miles “mostly” isn’t nearly good enough. Of those twenty rockets, only one hit the lead steamer. And all it seemed to do was crash through the rear decking and disappear into the ship. The ship didn’t slow and there was no visible fire.
Ivan was disappointed, but not dismayed. He had hoped for better, but it wasn’t like he had expected every missile to hit. “Ready the next salvo.”
Petr Ivanovich Chaplygin was on the second ship again. He had decided early on that the place for the commander of the expedition wasn’t on the first ship. Also, he had spread the ships out so that they would have more time to respond in case of mines. It was, he decided, a very good thing he had. Because one of the rockets landed in the water not thirty feet ahead of his boat. And that meant that he would be in the shot pattern of the next set of rockets. Petr was a quick-thinking man, and the first thing he thought of was keeping Petr alive. This wasn’t cowardice, just pragmatism. He couldn’t do his job if he was dead. Going into that shot pattern would do no good. He could try getting away, either turning around or making for the far bank. But he didn’t know what might be waiting on the far bank and putting his tail between his legs wasn’t going to win him any points with the Director-General. “Hard to port,” he shouted. “Make for Kruglaya Mountain and have the other boats do the same. Let’s take the fort.” His ship was the first to turn and it took a bit of time to signal the leader and get it turned. A bit too much time as it happened.
The lead ship was still in its turn as two rockets from the second salvo hit amidships and in the stern. Blind chance had the second hit strike the edge of the hole that the first rocket had made. It ripped the Molotov cocktail warhead wide open, spreading burning alcohol and fish oil throughout the aft hold. That hold already had quite a bit of flammable liquid in it from the first hit, and that ignited as well. There was a gusher of flame from the stern of the steam boat, then a delay. The crew was busy fighting the fire at the bow, and they failed to notice the fire igniting the fuel for the steam engine. The flames spread and the engine crew were forced to retreat from the engine room. The boiler explosion almost managed to save the day by driving the oxygen out of the compartments, but it didn’t quite put the fire out. Once the steam escaped, the fire came back.
All this took time, and by the time steamboat one was abandoned, no one else had time to notice.
The last thing that Ivan Maslov was expecting was that the steamboats would turn and attack. In part that was because it was, in Ivan’s opinion, incredibly stupid. The enemy would be attacking uphill and Ivan had almost a hundred men at arms, not counting the monks, who would probably fight on his side.
Even if all three boats got here, there wouldn’t be more than three hundred men attacking. Three to one up against defensive positions was not good odds. Ivan looked around to see if there were any more troops coming from another angle. From his position atop the small mountain, he had an excellent field of view. But nothing seemed to be coming this way. There were some troops ashore, but they were on the other side of the Volga.
Ivan looked back at the boats. The tactic looked like it would work, at least to throw off the aim of his rockets. He would have to raise the rocket troughs and that would increase the flight time while the targets were moving straight at them, so it would be hard to gauge their speed. Ivan calculated in his head and gave instructions. Then another salvo was launched. It flew up and up and seemed to hang there at the top of its arc forever. Then the rockets slowly started back down. By the time they hit the water, they were all well behind the steamboats heading for the docks.