Until the war of 1904, it had been an undisputed axiom in naval warfare that a territorial attack upon an enemy’s coast by a fleet was foredoomed to failure unless that enemy’s fleet had been either crippled beyond effective action, or securely blockaded in distant ports. As an axiom secondary to this, it was also held that it would be impossible for an invading force, although convoyed by a powerful fleet, to make good its footing upon any portion of a hostile coast defended by forts mounting heavy long-range guns.
These principles have held good throughout the history of naval warfare from the time when Sir Walter Raleigh first laid them down in the early portion of his History of the World, written after the destruction of the Spanish Armada.
But now two elements had been introduced which altered the conditions of naval warfare even more radically than one of them had changed those of military warfare. Had it not been for this the attack upon the shores of England made by the commanders of the League would probably either have been a failure, or it would have stopped at a demonstration of force, as did that of the great Napoleon in 1803.
The portion of the Kentish coast selected for the attack was that stretching from Folkestone to Deal, and it would perhaps have been difficult to find in the whole world any portion of sea-coast more strongly defended than this was on the morning of October 28, 1904; and yet, as the event proved, the fortresses which lined it were as useless and impotent for defence as the old Martello towers of a hundred and fifty years before would have been.
As the war-balloons rose into the air from the heights above Boulogne, good telescopes at Dover enabled their possessors to count no less than seventy-five of them. Fifty of these were quite newly constructed, and were of a much improved type, as they had been built in view of the practical experience gained by the first fleet.
This aërial fleet divided into three squadrons; one, numbering twenty-five, steered south-westward in the direction of Folkestone, twelve shaped their course towards Deal, and the remaining thirty-eight steered directly across the Straits to Dover. As they approached the English coast they continually rose, until by the time they had reached the land, aided by the light south-easterly breeze which was then blowing, they floated at a height of more than five thousand feet.
All this while not a warship or a transport had put to sea. The whole fleet of the League lay along the coast of France between Calais and Dieppe, under the protection of shore batteries so powerful that it would have been madness for the British fleet to have assumed the offensive with regard to them. With the exception of two squadrons reserved for a possible attack upon Portsmouth and Harwich, all that remained from the disasters and costly victories of the war of the once mighty British naval armament was massed together for the defence of that portion of the coast which would evidently have to bear the brunt of the attack of the League.
Ranged along the coast from Folkestone to Deal was an armament consisting of forty-five battleships of the first, second, and third classes, supported by fifteen coast-defence ironclads, seventy armoured and thirty-two unarmoured cruisers, forty gunboats, and a hundred and fifty torpedo-boats.
Such was the still magnificent fleet that patrolled the waters of the narrow sea — a fleet as impotent for the time being as a flotilla of Thames steamboats would have been in face of the tactics employed against it by the League. Had the enemy’s fleet but come out into the open, as it would have been compelled to do under the old conditions of warfare, to fight its way across the narrow strip of water, there is little doubt but that the issue of the day would have been very different, and that what had been left of it would have been driven back, shattered and defeated, to the shelter of the French shore batteries.
But, in accordance with the invariable tactics of the League, the first and most deadly assault was delivered from the air. The war-balloons stationed themselves above the fortifications on land, totally ignoring the presence of the fleet, and a few minutes after ten o’clock began to rain their deadly hail of explosives down upon them. Fifteen were placed over Dover Castle, and five over the fort on the Admiralty Pier, while the rest were distributed over the town and the forts on the hills above it. In an hour everything was in a state of the most horrible confusion. The town was on fire in a hundred places from the effects of the fire-shells. The Castle hill seemed as if it had been suddenly turned into a volcano; jets of bright flame kept leaping up from its summit and sides, followed by thunderous explosions and masses of earth and masonry hurled into the air, mingled with guns and fragments of human bodies.
The end of the Admiralty Pier, with its huge blocks of stone wrenched asunder and pulverised by incessant explosions of dynamite and emmensite, collapsed and subsided into the sea, carrying fort, guns, and magazine with it; and all along the height of the Shakespeare cliff the earthworks had been blown up and scattered into dust, and a huge portion of the cliff itself had been blasted out and hurled down on to the beach.
Meanwhile the victims of this terrible assault had, in the nature of the case, been able to do nothing but keep up a vertical fire, in the hope of piercing the gas envelopes of the balloons, and so bringing them to the earth. For more than an hour this fusilade produced no effect; but at length the concentrated fire of several Maxim and Nordenfelt guns, projecting a hail of missiles into the sky, brought about a result which was even more disastrous to the town than it was to its assailants.
Four of the aerostats came within the zone swept by the bullets. Riddled through and through, their gas-holders collapsed, and their cars plunged downwards from a height of more than 5000 feet. A few seconds later four frightful explosions burst forth in different parts of the town, for the four cargoes exploded simultaneously as they struck the earth.
The emmensite and dynamite tore whole streets of houses to fragments, and hurled them far and wide into the air, to fall back again on other parts of the town, and at the same time the fire-shells ignited, and set the ruins blazing like so many furnaces. No more shots were fired into the air after that.
There was nothing for it but for British valour to bow to the inevitable, and evacuate the town and what remained of its fortifications; and so with sad and heavy hearts the remnant of the brave defenders turned their faces inland, leaving Dover to its fate. Meanwhile exactly the same havoc had been wrought upon Folkestone and Deal. Hour after hour the merciless work continued, until by three o’clock in the afternoon there was not a gun left upon the whole range of coast that was capable of firing a shot.
All this time the ammunition tenders of the aërial fleet had been winging their way to and fro across the Strait constantly renewing the shells of the war-balloons.
As soon as it began to grow dusk the naval battle commenced. Numerically speaking the attacking force was somewhat inferior to that of the defenders, but now the second element, which so completely altered the tactics of sea fighting, was for the first time in the war brought into play.
As the battleships of the League steamed out to engage the opponents, who were thirsting to avenge the destruction that had been wrought upon the land, a small flotilla of twenty-five insignificant-looking little craft, with neither masts nor funnels, and looking more like half-submerged elongated turtles than anything else, followed in tow close under their quarters. Hardly had the furious cannonade broken out into thunder and flame along the two opposing lines, than these strange craft sank gently and silently beneath the waves. They were submarine vessels belonging to the French navy, an improved type of the Zédé class, which had been in existence for more than ten years.2
These vessels were capable of sinking to a depth of twenty feet, and remaining for four hours without returning to the surface. They were propelled by twin screws worked by electricity at a speed of twenty knots, and were provided with an electric searchlight, which enabled them to find the hulls of hostile ships in the dark.
Each carried three torpedoes, which could be launched from a tube forward so as to strike the hull of the doomed ship from beneath. As soon as the torpedo was discharged the submarine boat spun round on her heel and headed away at full speed in an opposite direction out of the area of the explosion.
The effects of such terrible and, indeed, irresistible engines of naval warfare were soon made manifest upon the ships of the British fleet. In the heat of the battle, with every gun in action, and raining a hail of shot and shell upon her adversary, a great battleship would receive an unseen blow, struck in the dark upon her most vulnerable part, a huge column of water would rise up from under her side, and a few minutes later the splendid fabric would heel over and go down like a floating volcano, to be quenched by the waves that closed over her.
But as if it were not enough that the defending fleet should be attacked from the surface of the water and the depths of the sea, the war-balloons, winging their way out from the scene of ruin that they had wrought on shore, soon began to take their part in the work of death and destruction.
Each of them was provided with a mirror set a little in front of the bow of the car, at an angle which could be varied according to the elevation. A little forward of the centre of the car was a tube fixed on a level with the centre of the mirror. The ship selected for destruction was brought under the car, and the speed of the balloon was regulated so that the ship was relatively stationary to it.
As soon as the glare from one of the funnels could be seen through the tube reflected in the centre of the mirror, a trap was sprung in the floor of the car, and a shell charged with dynamite, which, it will be remembered, explodes vertically downwards, was released, and, where the calculations were accurately made, passed down the funnel and exploded in the interior of the vessel, bursting her boilers and reducing her to a helpless wreck at a single stroke.
Every time this horribly ingenious contrivance was successfully brought into play a battleship or a cruiser was either sunk or reduced to impotence. In order to make their aim the surer, the aerostats descended to within three hundred yards of their prey, and where the missile failed to pass through the funnel it invariably struck the deck close to it, tearing up the armour sheathing, and wrecking the funnel itself so completely that the steaming-power of the vessel was very seriously reduced.
All night long the battle raged incessantly along a semicircle some twelve miles long, the centre of which was Dover. Crowds of anxious watchers on the shore watched the continuous flashes of the guns through the darkness, varied ever and anon by some tremendous explosion which told the fate of a warship that had fired her last shot.
All night long the incessant thunder of the battle rolled to and fro along the echoing coast, and when morning broke the light dawned upon a scene of desolation and destruction on sea and shore such as had never been witnessed before in the history of warfare. On land were the smoking ruins of houses, still smouldering in the remains of the fires which had consumed them; forts which twenty-four hours before had grinned defiance at the enemy were shapeless heaps of earth and stone, and armour-plating torn into great jagged fragments; and on sea were a few half-crippled wrecks, the remains of the British fleet, with their flags still flying, and such guns as were not disabled firing their last rounds at the victorious foe.
To the eastward of these about half the fleet of the League, in but little better condition, was advancing in now overwhelming force upon them, and behind these again a swarm of troopships and transports were heading out from the French shore. About an hour after dawn the Centurion, the last of the British battleships, was struck by one of the submarine torpedoes, broke in two, and went down with her flag flying and her guns blazing away to the last moment. So ended the battle of Dover, the most disastrous sea-fight in the history of the world, and the death-struggle of the Mistress of the Seas.
The last news of the tremendous tragedy reached the now panic-stricken capital half an hour before the receipt of similar tidings from Harwich, announcing the destruction of the defending fleet and forts, and the capture of the town by exactly the same means as those employed against Dover. Nothing now lay between London and the invading forces but the utterly inadequate army and the lines of fortifications, which could not be expected to offer any more effective resistance to the assault of the war-balloons than had those of the three towns on the Kentish coast.
2 The Naval Annual for 1893 mentions two types of submarine boats, the Zédé and the Goubet, both belonging to the French navy, which had then been tried with success. The same work mentions no such vessels belonging to Britain, nor yet any prospect of her possessing one. The effects described here as produced by these terrible machines are little, if at all, exaggerated. Granted ten years of progress, and they will be reproduced to a certainty. — AUTHOR.]
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