By Tabac Iberez
Editor's note: A slight change of scheduling here - rather than showcasing one of our competition vignettes, we are delighted to run a new vignette penned by SLP author Tabac Iberez, set in the world of "A Century Turns" (a world where swashbucklers ply the skies in airships in a late Victorian Era), ready for the imminent release of "A Night on the Bosporus"
Guantanamo Bay, 1898
“All hands, brace for engagement.” Captain McCalla muttered, looking over his control boards carefully. Guantanamo Bay was below him, the obsolete fortifications standing ready. The rebel guerrillas had already proven adept with light airships to steal and raid from impenetrable jungle bases, so the old Spanish fort was in possession of a pair of high-angle six pound guns, as well as rumors of a new one-pounder rapid fire piece. Against a trio of American air-schooners and an older cruiser, it wouldn’t be enough to ground them, but a shell at the right time could seriously damage them and turn the landing zone into a killing ground.
“Aye sir.” came the reply from the helmsman. The lead ship, Constellation, came into a gentle swoop, her hull’s sleek lines hiding a devastating payload- ten one-thousand pound bombs, designed to shatter fortifications to gravel. Her sisters, Chesapeake and United States, were both carrying general purpose bombs of five hundred pounds to suppress the suspected artillery or ships. Not many countries had done definitive testing on the effects of an aerial bomb of more than seventy-five or a hundred pounds, presuming that more were needed to hit their targets and that thousand-pound fortress crackers couldn’t be carried in numbers to guarantee a hit. At five hundred pounds, however, there was a sweet spot in penetration and number carried that let you cover a grid square in death, as well as presume a kill.
Right now, that presumption was going to very much be put to the test. As Constellation moved in on her attack run, United States began patrolling the estuary where the gunboats were presumed to be while Chesapeake kept her altitude in overwatch. Once the fort and blockhouse were shut down by a pair of the titanic bombs apiece, the overladen cruiser Columbia came down in a serene arc. Her contents, the Ninth Cavalry Airborne’s Third and Fourth squadrons, immediately started advancing from the landing zone and into the brush. A bare few in the Navy had argued in favor of using Marines for the operation, but the singular intact Marine regiment that could be retrieved at short notice had already been deployed with reinforcements for the Asiatic squadron. As such, the operation fell to the Army, who had generously placed one cruiser zeppelin and embarked troops into the Naval Air Arm’s welcoming embrace. Aviators would keep safe their own.
Night fell, and with it the pretensions that anything less than a war was ongoing. The Spaniards had abandoned their positions in poor order, leaving a great deal behind in their haste to escape the American airships who demolished their stationary defenses. The Columbia had departed after depositing the last of her supplies, her mission complete here. The Army Air Corps was mostly ‘cruisers’ like her, barely more than transports- but when all you needed was transportation, it was enough. Now the Columbia was tasked for supplies to keep the Northern Force hale against the yellow fever, an enemy more deadly than any number of Spanish soldiers. The beginnings of the Southern Force had to keep this in mind as well, taking the time to torch the abandoned buildings and fort in an attempt to ward of the disease. Light trench lines were dug, in preparation for a squall as much as anything else, and the Ninth’s men bedded down.
Naturally, that’s when the Spanish attacked. From the light of burning embers, marksmen started firing on the Third Troop, while hidden in the jungle the Spanish regulars opened up on Fourth Troop. It was a mad scramble, the men of the Ninth with barely any cover and almost no artillery. As the front soldiers pushed, signalmen frantically lit flares to direct fire.
Chesapeake did not disappoint. Flying a wide arc around the camp, she let her bombs go one at a time, each blast sending shrapnel in deathly arcs. When she was done, the firefights had gone from a blazing exchange to a dull roar. The enemy had either been killed where they fought, or retreated in order.
Skirmishers next morning proved the later. Fast, smokeless rounds made handling the enemy difficult, as the cavalrymen would need to decimate entire swaths of forest to even hope to suppress the enemy. Calls for airborne bombardment were not made again, as it was known that the Naval squadron had a limited supply of weapons. Once their effort was spent, they would need to rearm at the hastily constructed Miami Aerodrome or the more established Mobile Bay base. Fortunately, a small band of the local guerrillas friendly to the Americans had been found, and with their advice a march was decided for Cuzco’s Well, where clean water could be taken on to keep off disease.
The heat was bad, the humidity was terrible, and as the two troops moved out there was little optimism in the force. Neither unit was well-embraced with logistic material, and most of it was dedicated to food and munitions. Water was provided by United States every evening to top off reserves, the ship’s boiler crews desalinating the water and using it as ballast until giving it to the troops. When the small force finally reached Cuzco’s Well, though, the battle began nearly immediately. The men of the Ninth needed to push for the hills to get out of the jungle, while the Spanish needed to spread out their superior numbers to avoid destruction by bombing. It was a race to the high ground, while the Naval Airships quickly learned their mastery of the sky was not absolute. The Spaniards did in fact have the rumored anti-air guns, and they began firing on the Chesapeake. While six-inch guns weren’t a large threat by themselves, as the schooner advanced the enemy proved they had a depth of guns with the opening fire of the one-pound QF piece. Not enough to ground the Chesapeake, it did manage to throw off her attack run considerably, the majority of her weapons falling long.
This bought time for the high-soaring Constellation to get into position, however, and a thousand pound bomb cared not for altitude in accuracy. The enemy battery was silenced in short order with the titanic explosions, and even though they were not aimed at the main force, it still rattled the Spaniards who were fighting for their lives. Spanish hornets or no, the men of the Ninth had captured the crest of the hill, and they were digging in with fervor. Without the anti-air battery stopping the bombardment from the sky, there was only so much the Spanish could do before morale flagged. Cuzco’s Well was already lost, either destroyed wholesale in the bombing, or utterly indefensible with the presence of the Ninth’s men on the hill. As the evening crawled around, one Spanish unit after another disengaged and made their way out of the area. Guantanamo Bay had been definitively secured, and with small losses.
It would be a brief salve for the blood-soaked victory at Santiago a week later.