Wednesday, September 30, 2009


It's 1808 and Sweden is at war with Russia. The war is not going well. On land, the Swedish army is retreating continuously and all that stands between the Russians and the Swedish mainland are the gunboats of the inshore fleet. The sea war amongst the islands of the Finnish and Swedish archipelagos is a special kind of war, fought in open boats by badly equipped men without proper training. Fighting the weather as much as the Russians, Lieutenant Johan Kuhlin commands a small squadron of three gunboats on special duty. During the short and wet summer, he learns that an independent command isn't all glory and that spies can be more dangerous than Russian guns.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Author's final note

Don't read this first if you intend to read the novel - contains spoilers.

This tale is of course fiction in the sense that it's not a true story. However, it has been composed of fragments that more ore less did really happen. Most of these fragments come from a wonderful little book, published in Swedish with the title "Dessa evinnerligt förbannade sluparna" (Those eternally damned gunboats"). The book contains a collection of letters and diaries from actual people serving on those boats in 1808 and 1809. And the characters of lieutenant Kuhlin and his men are very much inspired by those men, and a certain woman.

This woman, Miss Anna, deserves a special comment. There was indeed a priest's daughter who was observed participating in certain sexual activities with members of the inshore fleet. And while there is no prove that she was involved in the intelligence business in any way, I chose to use her to not only spice up my novel, but also make a certain point about women not only being of second hand importance for the effort of the war. There were quite a few women involved in this particular war, some disguised as men, but some openly accompanying their spouses and working on supply ships. One of them is very rewardingly depicted in Björn Holm's"Affären vid Ratan", a novel about the last battle of this war, in 1809.

As for the action itself, it's mostly fiction. Some cornerstones of the plot, however, are true. HMS Tartar was in the Baltic at the time, and her captain's name was Baker. The final battle, where Gran's gunboat gets blown to pieces, took place at Palva sund on September 18th, 1808. The tactics of this battle are accurately described, but the Russians did in fact come from the south, not the northeast. This little geographic alteration was necessary in order to get poor Gran trapped between the fleets.

The political background is also quite accurate. It is always difficult to describe people's feelings during a completely different period of time, but historians do quite agree that the Finnish War was fought half-heartedly at best. On land, the Swedish army was conducting some sort of fighting retreat most of the time. Many people did not like the king, both in Finland and on the mainland. Especially in Finland, many thought they'd at least not be worse off with the czar.

On the water, the war did go a little better. The navy had the Russians blocked in with British help and the inshore fleet fought well. It had, however depended very heavily on the sea forts, especially the one at Svensksund which was treacherously given up early in the war, together with a squadron of the most modern gunboats. This did definitely have an enormous impact on how the remaining inshore fleet could act. Considering this, they did very well. And in 1809, at Ratan, the very gunboats saved the army from complete defeat. But that's another story.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chapter 19 - Resolve

The small sailing boat ghosted quietly up the Aura River, towards the city of Turku. It was a dark night for once, the moon only temporarily visible behind the low clouds that announced yet another rain front from the southwest. The air wasn't warm any more either, it being September. Still, at least the nights were longer now, making covert operations like this one easier.

Lieutenant Kuhlin wrinkled his nose. The boat was reeking of fish and the coat he wore did not smell much better. They had found the boat abandoned, near a fishing cottage on one of the smaller islands off Turku, while they had borrowed their coats from some of their own crew, men who were not at all happy to give up the only warm garment they possessed, even though it was temporary. Both Eric af Klint and Kuhlin had only changed their coats, keeping the rest of their uniforms on underneath. In case of being discovered, they would at least still be able to claim that they were officers and had to be treated accordingly. As for weapons, they had a pistol each, and a heavy seaman's knife. Fishermen did not carry swords, so those had to be left behind. In any case it wasn't likely they would have to do much fighting, deep inside enemy territory they would have no chance of winning anyway.

"Where do we start looking, Sir?" Eric af Klint looked warily around, not seeing very much in the dark.
"At the docks. We'll try to find some cheap inn, ask some questions...try to get some grip on the situation here".
"Oh well. It's not much of a plan is it, Sir?"
Lieutenant Kuhlin shrugged.

On both sides of the river the docks were littered with Russian gunboats, galleys and other kinds of small warships. There was not much activity around them at this time, though. Some fires were burning ashore and they could see the movements of some guards, but most men were probably asleep after a good meal and a reasonable amount of vodka.

"Do you thing we should try counting them?" Eric af Klint wondered.
"I don't think so, Eric. It's too dark really."
"It's a lot of ships."
Lieutenant Kuhlin grunted in reply. Sure, there was a lot of boats. The Russians had had the advantage of numbers all the time since the fall of the fort at Svenssund. And even though most shipyards on the mainland now were building gunboats as fast as they could, there would still not be enough by spring to even out the numbers completely. But then again, it wasn't at all sure that there would be anything left of Finland's archipelago to defend the following summer. The gunboats would then have to protect the Swedish side of the archipelago instead, the entrance to the very capital itself. Stockholm. Kuhlin thought about the beautiful city, built on several islands just where the Baltic Sea met the freshwater lake Mälaren. Where his wife lived, Charlotte. He wondered what she was doing now. Sleeping of course. Hopefully, he thought.

They went ashore on the northern riverbank, just a little outside of the city center. There were some inns here, but most seemed to be closed and those that were not seemed mostly be frequented by Russian sailors. The two officers moved carefully towards the first of the bridges connecting the two parts of the town. Halfway across they encountered a half-drunk man who was leaning over the edge. Fortunately he was Swedish and eager to volunteer information as for places where a visiting priest might stay.

"I thought it a good idea to go for Wetterstrand first", Kuhlin explained later. "If we are lucky, Miss Anna will be somewhere near him, and if not, he still might know where she is."
Eric af Klint agreed reluctantly. For his own part, he was not very interested in Wetterstrand's whereabouts, but he realized that they would have to find them both anyway, and it was probably easier to find him. As a priest, he would certainly move somewhat predictably, something that could scarcely be said about the woman.

"Nikolai, darling", Anna said softly, her mouth only inches away from his ear. "Have I not been exceptionally co-operative, do you think?"
The young Russian officer moved slightly against her body, his eyes closed.
"Never tried to escape, and have I not fulfilled you every wish?"
Nikolai sighed. She was right of course. She had been very complaisant indeed, satisfied him completely in every way. Of course, he knew why she did it, initially at least, and he had not cared to think about it. However, lately he had sensed some change in her attitude, an ever so slight change, but still a change. He knew that he probably was wrong, there was no reason why she suddenly should actually like him. He opened his eyes and saw her looking at him questioningly?
"I was wondering what you were thinking about. You had this you were concentrating so hard."
"I was trying to make sense of you, Anna".
She laughed. Nikolai tightened his arms around her and pulled her closer.
"Don't laugh at me. I really don't understand you any more". His mouth was on hers now, feeling her lips part willingly when he kissed her almost desperately. She was so responsive to every single one of his body's moves, it really felt like she wanted him as much as he wanted her. But could it really be true?

"Anna, what are we going to do?" He caressed her back, while her head rested on his chest.
"There are some things I can imagine." She sighed.
"Like what?"
"Like us taking a walk downtown in the autumn sun..."
"Oh, that would be nice". Nikolai saw the picture clearly in his head. Walking with her on his arm, like a real couple. Like lovers. His heartbeat increased with the thought."
"You do like the idea", sensing his excitement. "We could just do it?"
"I don't know. I am to guard you, remember?"
"I won't run away, Nikolai".
He really wanted to believe her.

By dawn, Kuhlin and af Klint had checked several boarding houses which looked promising enough. Most had Russian guards outside, one or two of them, almost asleep on watch. Vigilance was not very high over all in Turku, but that was not surprising considering the Russians having won most battles during this war and the nearest regular Swedish army hundreds of miles away to the north. Of course there was the threat of landings being planned, and Wetterstrand would have told the Russians everything he knew about them by now. Kuhlin wondered how many Russian troops were garrisoned here and around the town. In any case they were regular troops which the Swedish ones to be landed were not. They were also well trained and had been in battle before. He shuddered. The Swedish conscripts were no use against regular troops. His own crew had done well enough alright, back at the farm, but it had not been their first fight, and if sub-lieutenant Gran and his boats had not arrived in time, they had never withstood the Russians in hand-to-hand combat.

They stood in a doorway across the street from another inn, when the carriage arrived. Three Russian officers emerged and walked to the door. They were high ranking according to their uniforms and they looked like they were on their way to a meeting. One of them wore a naval uniform, while the other two were land soldiers, probably cavalry and infantry.
"Interesting", Kuhlin said. "We'll stay here for a while and see what's happening."

Anna had her breakfast in her room, as usual. It was brought up by one of the guards who glanced at her cleavage as he usually did, but said nothing and left the room quickly. Anna had been thinking of trying to seduce him, but sensed that Nikolai had made it clear to him that he would at least lose his head if he as much as talked to her. She smiled for herself. Nikolai was clearly learning the game. Not fast enough, though. Poor boy. She had taken a liking to him, admitted it freely now. She might actually have become far too emotional for this kind of game lately. It was of course Eric's fault. He had softened her considerably, almost to such a degree that she could not rule out the possibility of being in love. Which was a concept utterly strange to her. She had never wanted to be that dependent on a man. But then again, she had never felt so empty when she wasn't near him.

Nikolai was a completely different matter of course. She did not love him, but due to her softened state of mind, she had opened herself to admit that she liked him. And that made it yet easier to lead him into the direction she wanted, because he felt her affection and, being in love with her, he chose to feel loved back. On the other hand, she felt a little guilty because she knew that she finally had to disappoint him. And that was a new feeling for her as well. She had never cared very much about how the men she used felt afterwards.

Thus, she wasn't very surprised when he came back a few hours later, in order to take her for a walk. She had promised him yet again not to run away, sealed it with a kiss even. Then she had opened the parcel he had brought with him.
"Oh!" She exclaimed when she saw the dress. "Where did you find this?"
"Never mind. I can't have you walk with me in that torn dress of yours, can I?"
She threw her arms around him, kissing him again. "You are so sweet, Nikolai."
"So put it on then." He smiled, making no move as to leave the room or even turn around. Anna giggled, then took off her dress slowly.

Half an hour later they were walking towards the center of the town, indeed looking like a pair of lovers. It was a sunny day at last, albeit not as warm as only a week before. Anna savored the fresh autumn air, while Nikolai mostly was peering at her, at least when he wasn't smiling proudly at everyone they met.
"Where do you want to go, Anna?"
"I don't know, we can just walk for a while, can't we? I have not stretched my legs for so long."
"I think you have", he winked at her.
"You know what I mean." She laughed, punching an elbow into his ribs.
"By the way, do you know where Wetterstrand might stay?"
"Yes, I do. But I don't think we..."
"Oh, I don't want to go there, Nikolai."
He sighed. "He isn't at home anyway, you know. They are all at a meeting this morning. That's why I could take you out. They are all occupied, in that inn over there actually."