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Chapter Forty-One: The Battle of London




London


United Kingdom, Timeline B
The sounds of distant explosions echoed up the Thames as French ships, mainly battleships and heavy cruisers, attempted to push their way through the heavy defences that had been built to counter a possible raid up the Thames, like one conducted by the Dutch so long ago. After several hours of shelling, the French ships – damaged and battered – withdrew, swearing to return.
Prime Minister Lord Harriman Grey shook his head slowly, reading through the latest reports in the War Room. He was almost alone; the War Cabinet, along with the Royal Family, had been evacuated to Liverpool. That was a carefully concealed secret, along with the damage to the Home Fleet; the damage to public morale if that particular news had gotten out would have been terrifying. The French, having developed more experience in propaganda, had been proclaiming that the combined Royal Navies had been destroyed…and that peace was still possible, if Britain surrendered now.
Grey shook his head again. Even if the entire island fell to the French, something that wasn’t that likely with the new defensive lines being constructed, the Royal Navies would regain control of the waters. He just didn’t expect to be around to see it.
“Prime Minister?” He looked up to see Air Marshall Bentley. “Prime Minister, I regret to report that several airfields have been overrun.”
His flippant words were undermined by the grimness in his tone. “I understand,” Grey said. It was a blow; the French were trying to move thousands of aircraft into airfields in Kent, allowing them to challenge the RFC at close range – certainly closer than they’d been when they were flying from France.”
“There’s also worse news,” Air Marshall Bentley said. His tone darkened. “They’ve landed on the Orkneys; French Marines invaded the islands half an hour ago.”
Grey shrugged. “Losing the base would be bad,” he said, trying to project confidence. “How bad is it?”
“It’s undecided, as of the last transmission,” Air Marshall Bentley said. He tapped the map of the Orkneys. “The main naval base remains intact and they have covering fire from some of the damaged ships, even though they have used their carriers to attack the few ships that have remained in the port.” He paused. “The Orkneys are several islands, sir, and they have the Royal Marine training site there, so…it won’t be decided in a hurry.”
Grey nodded, wishing that he had time to mourn. He would have plenty of time afterwards, but he suspected that it wasn’t quite the same. “Thank you,” he said. “Send in Cyril, will you?”
Air Marshall Bentley nodded, perhaps understanding the Prime Minister’s concern. He showed no anger at the dismissal, only a quiet nod of respect. He left the room, leaving the Prime Minister alone for a few moments of blessed solitude, and then Commissioner Cyril Mackey entered the room.
“Prime Minister,” he said. The Prime Minister smiled; despite his name Mackey was always the city gent, a tall man wearing a bowler hat and carrying a walking stick. “I have the latest updates, if you would like.”
Grey nodded slowly. Commissioner Cyril Mackey was responsible for coordinating the civilian response to the invasion of the United Kingdom; nine months ago, they’d all thought that it was just an attempt to reassure some of the wavering Members of Parliament. Now, with French troops only miles from London’s outer suburbs and bombs landing hourly, he silently blessed their panic.
“We have kept the rail lines open, despite some heavy French pressure,” Mackey said. Grey nodded; both of the French invasion forces had cut railway lines as a matter of course, along with bombers and some strike teams. “We’re currently moving people out of the city as fast as we can, towards Birmingham and then further north. For the record, all able-bodied men have been conscripted to aid with the defences – and a surprising number of women, led by the suffragettes, have volunteered to help in any way they can be useful.”
Grey’s lip quirked as he thought about what roles the soldiers might have liked to place the women in. He dismissed the thought angrily; there wasn’t time to deal with little problems like that. “Thank you,” he said. “How are the defences?”
“I’m not the officer commanding the defences,” Mackey reminded him. Grey shrugged. “Sir Benjamin pretends high confidence.”
Grey lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t you trust him?” He asked. “It’s a bit late to worry about that now.”
Mackey shrugged. “I don’t know him,” he said. “I would have felt much better if Douglas had survived the last battle.”
Grey winced. He’d known General Sir Douglas Highlander for years. Losing him hurt. “I miss him too,” he said. “Now…do you think that we can hold the French off from London?”
Mackey smiled. “Do you want my honest answer?” He asked. “I think that the French will either take the city by direct attack or seek to starve us out. Seeing that they must know as well as we do that the George Washington is on its way, they know that they have a time limit to become firmly entrenched here.”
Grey scowled. “I wish you didn’t agree with me,” he said wryly. “Tell me; what is the shape of morale on the streets?”
Mackey shook his head slowly, shaking it from side to side. His hat wobbled on his head as he moved, exposing close-cropped brown hair. “It’s pretty bad, sir,” he said. “A lot of people are listening to the French transmissions, the ones gloating about the Slaughter of Jutland, as they’re calling it. The lack of outright denials…”
“I get the message,” Grey snapped. He’d ordered the BBC to do anything, but lie on the subject. Lying was the one thing that could destroy his career with certainty. He sought a moment of peace. “I thought that listening to the French radio was illegal.”
Mackey snickered. “Prime Minister, with all due respected, there is absolutely no way to prevent people from listening,” he said. “We would have to arrest almost the entire population.”
Grey shook his head. “Very well; forget that,” he snapped. “So, you feel that London cannot be held?”
Mackey met his eyes. “Yes, Prime Minister,” he said. “Sir; you should be in Liverpool, with the rest of the government.”
“No,” Grey said. He sighed once in resignation. “I stand or fall with London.”
Mackey’s face altered sharply, becoming an angry scowl. “Sir – Harriman – you are the Prime Minister,” he snapped. “You are not a common soldier…”
“But don’t you see?” Grey whispered. He waved a hand over at the windows, now boarded up to prevent shell splinters from hurting the occupants of the room. “Out there, there are thousands of common soldiers. The least I can do is share the same risks as them…”
***

King’s Cross Railway Station was a madhouse, with thousands of people waiting to board trains to Birmingham, attempting to escape the two claws of the French pincer. Constable Plod, watching with several dozen other police officers, felt the weight of the service revolver at his belt and wondered what had happened to the police force. Even if they lived through a possible invasion of London, they would never be the same.


“Let me on that train,” a woman shouted. She struck out in a blind panic, slamming a heavy bag into an older woman. Constable Plod ran forward before a fight could break out, calling for medics as he did so. The older woman had been hurt, perhaps badly.
“Do not move,” he snapped, as he grabbed the aggressor. He wasn’t sure if he should feel sorry for her or angry; she was just one of the many women who wanted to get out of the city. The noise of French bombers grew louder as they pounded away at the defence, trying to hit the fortifications that had been built to protect the city.
“Let me go, you utter…prat,” the woman screeched at him. Constable Plod almost laughed; from her fine clothes the woman had clearly been raised in an upper-class home, without any of the words that she might have picked up in a lower-class household. “Let me go!”
“You are under arrest,” Constable Plod said, just as a series of shattering explosions echoed nearby. The entire station shook; women screamed, children started to panic…and a riot broke out. Even as the policemen ran forward, trying to calm everyone down, the woman kicked Constable Plod in the shins and ran for it.
Should have handcuffed her, he thought, letting her go. Where could she go, after all? The entire crowd was starting to panic, even as fire engines attempted to put out the new fires that could be seen in the distance. Captain Farthing blew several times on his whistle for silence, and then fired a gunshot into the air.
“Please, do not panic,” he snapped. “Everyone sit down, now, and remain calm.”
His voice worked wonders. The handful of people who disobeyed were arrested quickly and ended up under guard by the policemen. Captain Farthing nodded once, and then waved for his senior constables, including Plod.
“I just got bad news,” he said, and tapped the radio at his belt meaningfully. It was one of the newer inventions; Constable Plod wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Captain Farthing lowered his voice, leaning towards them. “The French have managed to surround the city,” he said. “There won’t be any more trains out.”
Constable Plod felt his blood run cold. “How will we handle these people?” He asked. “Where can they all go?”
Captain Farthing shook his head slowly. “I don’t know,” he said grimly. “I just don’t know.”
***

If there was one major difference between this London and his own, that existed in a world that was starting to seem more and more of a dream, it was the fortresses around the outskirts of the city. They reminded him more of Verdun than anything else; a series of fortresses designed to prevent an attack on the city.


“That, and the missing kebab houses, the missing embassies, the missing ethnic minorities,” he muttered to himself. He liked the new London, even though it was both grander and smaller than his own was; it housed an entire global government, but at the same time it only housed Englishmen. The Asian community – the Indians and Pakistanis of his home timeline – hardly existed here, mainly people who catered to specialist tastes.
“Sir?” General Machete asked. The British general, who’d adopted the name after losing a bet, had resented being placed under a ‘jumped-up colonel,’ resented it enough to be angry at Sir Benjamin, knighthood or no. “What are those?”
Sir Benjamin shook his head. “London though the looking glass,” he said. “It hardly matters; what matters is holding the city. What’s the latest?”
Machete scowled at him. A little informality always seemed to get on his nerves. “The French have almost completely surrounded the city,” he said. “If they plan to starve us out, they have succeeded.”
Sir Benjamin didn’t bother to reply. Fighting in the open, as Machete has urged, would have merely led to the defeat of the British Army in short order. With the new tanks and troops being raised in the north, victory could still be won even without the New Model Army…assuming that they had the time to build their forces. That meant holding London.
He scowled. By contrast, the French had to take London quickly, before they could move on to the other cities. If they were in a strong position on the mainland, then even a defeat to the George Washington might not prove fatal. If they were engaged in a siege…then they would not be in a strong position – QED.
“They will attempt to hold us here and head north,” Machete said, when Sir Benjamin didn’t reply. “That’s what I’d do.”
That’s what I would do too, if it was just them and I, Sir Benjamin thought. God knew that whoever was commanding the French forces was certainly more competent than anyone France had developed in his original timeline since Petain. The problem was that the French were operating to a time limit…and when that ran out…
“Sir, I’m sure that…” Machete began. A hail of shellfire interrupted him; both men dived for the ground and fell down the stairs to the bunker. “Report,” Machete bellowed, picking himself up with dispatch. The ground began to shake violently as burst after burst of shellfire impacted on the ground, sending dust drifting down to the ground.
“Sir, we’re under attack,” a dispatcher said. “The French are advancing along three separate axis.”
Sir Benjamin stepped forward, wishing for the reconnaissance capabilities of his own world. Blocks of wood on a map didn’t seem to cut it, somehow. “Have the reinforcements prepared,” he ordered. If the French did manage to break through, the breech would have to be sealed as soon as possible. “Keep me updated as soon as you hear anything new.”
***

Captain Foch kept his head low as he ran forward, leading the rest of his platoon forward towards the British fort. The British had built several layers of defences around their capital, enough defences to give even the Emperor’s Own pause. Explosions and more explosions shook the ground, triggering mines ahead of him. He threw himself to the ground; when he looked up he saw the shape of the first British fort ahead of him.


“If we could take that, we would be heroes,” he muttered to his sergeant. The British had been careful, with heavy sticks and sharp objects on the roof – for a reason that Foch didn’t understand – but a shell had struck the fort hard enough to expose a corridor. There was a network of trenches around the fort, but hardly enough to hold them back.
“We need an ironclad,” the sergeant muttered back, as a hail of machine gun bullets rang over their heads. The British didn’t seem to have seen them, aiming at a French platoon that had unwisely stood up too soon. They were wiped out before they knew what had hit them.
“We only need stealth,” Foch snapped, examining the situation. Cowering as low as they were, it was unlikely that the British had seen them. Carefully, he pulled a grenade from his belt and lobbed it as hard as he could, tossing it towards the British trench.
“Come on,” he snapped, and moved as fast as he ever had in his life. The handful of British soldiers outside the fort were stunned or dead; the French killed the survivors quickly. The walls of the fort stood in front of them…with a caved-in section where a shell had landed. “Into the breach.”
Inside, the fortress was damp and cold. The French platoon moved carefully deeper and deeper within the fortress, trying to stay out of sight. It didn’t work; a British guard challenged them as they reached a large door.
“The red eagle is sitting on the black flower pot,” he snapped. Foch realised that it was one half of a pass code – and he didn’t know the other half. He lifted his weapon and opened fire, raking the corridors with gunfire. He tried to open the door and failed; whatever it was made of was too tough for them to break open.
“We have to move,” his sergeant snapped. It was too late; a British patrol had come around the corner at a run, weapons already raised. Two minutes later, the entire French platoon had been wiped out.
***

London was burning.


General Leblanc could see the battle from his position, but he also knew one thing that he hadn’t shared with anyone, not yet. The battle was going to be lost. He had hoped that the ironclads would have made a difference, but in close-quarters they were almost useless. After losing ten of them to antitank rockets, he'd ordered them to be pulled back and concentrated on the shellfire, but that…just wasn’t enough to force the British to surrender.
“My General, we have taken the third fort,” his aide proclaimed, with all the eagerness of a man who has won an auction – with no knowledge or heeding of the cost. “Surely we will now defeat them.”
“We won’t defeat them, you young fool,” General Leblanc snarled. “Can’t you see; we haven’t broken through, we’ve just…widened the battle zone for us and…”
A British shell landed far too close to them, impacting on a number of French army lorries and commandeered British vehicles. The chain explosion destroyed them and deafened General Leblanc, who was reduced to poking at his ear until it agreed to hear again.
“My General, we are pressing them hard,” the aide protested.
“Do they not teach you manners at officer training?” General Leblanc snapped. “We have lost; if we still manage to take the city, we’ll take a city in ruins and break the back of the army doing it.”
He ignored the aide’s protests. What he was about to do would earn him the enmity of the Crown Prince – and probably Contre-Admiral François Videzun as well. “Contact the commanders of the different thrusts,” he ordered. “Order them to fall back to defensible positions.”
The aide cowered in front of him. “Yes, My General,” he said. “It will be done.”
General Leblanc ignored his simpering and stared down at the map of England. It was bigger than it had seemed before, he understood, and everything depended on the ability of the navy to hold back the Royal North American Navy from saving Britain’s behind. If the American forces managed to punch through…then his force was doomed to a long and bloody land battle…without any certainty of victory.
The firing slacked off slightly as he issued further orders, ordering the men to stop bombarding the city and the defences. The French troops fell back in good order, leaving a burning city behind them. The British, perhaps battered just as badly, didn’t attempt to chase the French, settling for only a few local counterattacks.
Bastards, General Leblanc thought. What the hell am I going to tell the Crown Prince?
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