Saturday, February 21, 2009

Chapter 1 - Taking command

Lieutenant Johan Kuhlin was half an hour late when he arrived at the quay below the heights of Södermalm. And now he needed a boat that could take him to the navy yard on Djurgården Island. The problem only was that the quay showed a complete absence of the small ferry boats that normally plied the busy waters of the harbor. Something was keeping them busy somewhere else, he thought. Maybe one of the bigger merchantmen was about to leave. Suddenly he saw a small rowboat approaching the quay. An old woman was handling the only pair of oars and as he shouted to her she turned around and waved in acknowledegement.
Kuhlin took up the canvas bag with the few belongings he had decided to be needing on his voyage and stepped into the dangerously rocking boat. As there was no real cabin on a gunboat, only some big lockers along the gunwales the most aft ones big enough for a man to lie down in and sleep, quite like in a coffin. Three of those were reserved for the commanding officer, the gunnery officer and the boatswain, while the rest of the crew slept on the thwarts or wherever they could find space. Originally the gunboats were intended to be moored somewhere during the nights and the crew would then sleep in big canvas tents. This was of course not always possible during wartime use of the boats. Even if long overnight passages were relatively uncommon, they had often to be in a state of alert with crew at their stations. If it was quiet enough the boat could be covered by the sails to protect the crew from rain and cold.

Kuhlin sat down in the stern of the boat. "To the galley wharf if you please", he told the woman.
"You on one of those gun shallops? Bloody uncomfortable things I hear. Dangerous as well, not worth much in a gale are they?, the woman conversed gruffily. "Son of a neighbor of mine was on one of those over at Svensksund. Not heard from him since the..."
"Yes, yes. Hurry up will you?" Kuhlin wasn't in a mood for talking. He was well enough aware of the disadvantages of a gunboat in a gale. He thought about his canvas bag. He had taken only one extra uniform to be kept clean and used for special occasions. A blanket, his tobacco pouch, a bottle of brandy and the little book his wife had given him. Some poems or something. And his diary of course, which probably would double as a log, or were the gunboats provided with real log books, like real ships? Well he would find out shortly.

The woman had stopped talking and rowed quietly and slowly between the moored ships in the harbour. They were now passing the fort on Kastellholmen with it's bare flag pole, indicating that the country was at war. Sailors were exercising on the quay below the fort. Not real sailors, new conscripts without even proper uniforms. They looked more like peasants, which was probably exactly what they were. His own crew would also be made up of these unfortunate souls. Well, it was his duty to weld them into a working crew. If he failed, none of them would stand a chance to get home alive.

The galley wharf had gotten it's name from the galleys that originally were built there. Bigger than the gunboats but not as heavily armed they looked very much like the old galleys from the Mediterranean. There were still some in service in the inshore squadron, but now they were mostly uses as command posts or support vessels for the much more effective gunboats. Right now only one galley was in sight, moored to the wharf and with her masts taken out she was probably about to be fitted out. The rest of the shoreline was occupied by gunboats in different states of completeness. Some were newly built and still unpainted and without guns. Some were of the older type with the gun mounted aft on a field carriage in order to be able to be put ashore easily used as a land battery. This was the type of gunboat that their designer Fredrik Henrik af Chapman had used in 1776 to convince King Gustav III to have them mass produced. Most modern boats had the gun in the bows, some even had two big guns, one forward and one aft. 24 pounders mostly, except the older field guns who were only 12 pounders.

Even the rigging was different. All boats had two masts that could be stepped or taken down without the boat having to be moored or anchored. In fact, the crew had to be trained to take down the masts very quickly as the boats were not designed to use their big guns while under sail. Instead the guns were hauled down into the bottom of the boat to act as ballast and improve it's ability to sail to windward. Which was bad enough to begin with. As for sails the boats had either lug sails or lateen sails. Kuhlin preferred the lateen rigged boats. They looked better and would at least theoretically stand a chance to be able to go to windward.

Kuhlin paid the ferrywoman and stepped ashore. The shoreline was bustling with workers and sailors, most of the latter being in the same sorry state as those he had seen at Kastellholmen. Looking around he found a young man in a sub-lieutenant's uniform and hailed him. "Any idea of how to find number 14?"
"Not sure, Sir, but if she's supposed to be ready for sea she'll be over there." Pointing to the far side of the wharf.
"Thank you kindly", Kuhlin replied and moved on. He soon came to a part of the wharf where boats were moored bows-to the quay. Dockyard workers where busy loading them with supplies of all kinds. The quay was littered with crates, barrels and boxes. Heaps of sweeps, spars and rigging completed the picture. Suddenly Kuhlin saw his boat. She was empty except two men who were working on the aft gun. One of them wore the uniform of an artillery officer and the other one wore a sailor's rig. That would be the boatswain, Carl Tapper, and the officer would be Eric af Klint, the gunnery officer. Kuhlin looked down on the men who would be the perhaps most important part of his crew. Tapper was small and sturdy but looked like a competent sailor. Af Klint, on the other hand, was an aristocratic looking thin figure with a nose that looked like a bird's beak.

Suddenly the boatwain looked up and saw Kuhlin standing there. "Can I help you, Sir?" he asked.
"I think you can," Kuhlin replied. "I am supposed to take command of number 14".
"Oh, lieutenant Kuhlin, Sir. Welcome aboard", Tapper came to attention and saluted.
"At ease, boatswain", Kuhlin stepped down into the boat and held out his hand. Tapper shook it, then turned to the gunnery officer who had stood silent. "That's our artillery man, af Klint".
"Welcome, Sir", said af Klint.
"Thank you both. Now when do we expect to get any crew?"
"I have no idea", Tapper replied. "But there is a letter for you, Sir. I put it in your chest aft."
Kuhlin thanked him and started to make his way aft. His chest, or built in locker was the aftmost one on the starboard side. He opened it and found the letter on top of some blankets. Sitting down on the aft gun mounting he opened it. The letter contained, as he had expected, his orders. He was to take his boat to Vaxholm castle in order to meet with two more gunboats, numbers 34 and 35 as well as a supply boat. Taking command of this little squadron he was to proceed over the sea of Åland to the Finnish archipelago and the main base there. Further orders would be issued after his arrival. Very well, thought Kuhlin. If he only had a crew. He looked up at the sky. It was overcast but would not rain for a while. There was not much wind, but he was sure there would be once they got out into more open water.
"Boatswain!" he called. Tapper came aft and saluted. "Yes, Sir?"
"Try to send some messenger to Kastellholmen to find out if our crew is there. I saw some fairly new conscripts there on my way here..."
"Aye" Tapper replied and turned.
"And Tapper! What's wrong with the gun forward?"
Tapper hesitated. "I'm not really sure, better ask the gunner!"

Carl af Klint croached over the gun mount and poked at it with some kind of a knife. Kuhlin could not see anything that looked amiss with the piece, but he was no gunner, af Klint was.
"What's wrong with it?"
Af Klint stopped poking. "It's dirty like hell, won't slide down as easily as it could, Sir", he replied. "Also the gun tackles do look like they have been there since the last war. I would like to have them replaced."
"Then why don't you?"
"They won't let me have any cordage, Sir. Claim there is a shortage and everything they have is reserved for masts and rigging".
"Oh, I see". Kuhlin hadn't it expected to be that bad. But with all the Finnish squadron gone and news boats under construction on literally every boatyard in the country it probably was right to hold back on the stuff.
"But will it shoot?" he asked.
"It will shoot alright and maybe a few rounds fired will burn away the dirt and let it slide more easily. But I still would want to change the tackles, Sir".
"I'll see what I can do. Meanwhile let's hope we'll get our crew soon. We are off to Vaxholm as soon as they are here."

The crew however, did not arrive until early next morning. The boatswain's messenger had not returned until late that evening, and drunk as well. Apparently the conscripts had tried to delay their departure in order to wait for the uniforms they had been promised. Now they would have to go to war in their own clothes. Kuhlin was just as angry about that as they were themselves, but he could not do a thing about it. The uniforms, so he was told, were ordered but hadn't been delivered in time. And yes, they would be sent after them to Finland one way or another. Kuhlin wasn't so sure about that, but he had told his crew nothing about his doubts. They were a sorry enough lot as it were, having been marched from the inland villages around the capital for days and weeks, without being properly fed just in order to start rowing the gunboat without even any proper training. But they would learn on the way. Fortunately, between Stockholm and the Åland Sea lay one of the biggest archipelagos in the world. Thousands of islands and skerries sheltered it from the swell and winds of the Baltic Sea and made it into an easy enough training ground for the new oarsmen. Or so Kuhlin hoped.

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