North American Union/New Spain (TimeLine B) The nine Benedict Arnold-class aircraft carriers, named for one of the heroes of the Global War, could carry around ninety aircraft. Despite being built on battlecruiser hulls – having been originally designed and constructed as battlecruisers – they were actually a little slower than the standard battlecruiser, such as the Amherst. From the bridge of his ship, Admiral Anderson watched as dawn rose slowly above his small force, only thirty-one ships.
And didn’t the name cause such a fuss, he thought, as the carriers turned into the wind, preparing to launch their aircraft. Benedict Arnold had served the United Empire well – in both timelines. Who would have thought that his service in the aborted revolution – which hadn’t been that impressive – had turned to outright treachery in the successful revolution?
Shaking his head, he resumed his worrying. One advantage, he supposed, of the enforced delay – apart from rebuilding the half-completed ships – had been the chance to rebuild parts of the Amherst and her consorts; he now had more mobile firepower than any comparable force – and he would even have been willing to take on a superdreadnaught. Simply having the perfect communications though the ship – and outside, with the other ships – had doubled the offensive capability of the ships – and as for the radar.
He smiled a hunter’s smile and then remembered the counterpart. No one – not even Admiral Jackson – knew exactly what the French alternatives from Timeline A could have done to their cousins. Had they introduced better radar? Had they invented something that would neglect all of the Amherst’s modifications? Had they brought some super weapons of their own to New Spain?
He frowned, remembering some of the briefings on board the Washington. If the French had transported to New Spain a full ECM system, then the French knew his force was here, simply by tracking his radar systems and radios. If so – in their place, he would be preparing a trap. Even with the new systems, defending carriers against air attack was difficult.
“The carriers are signalling that they’re ready to launch,” Commander Crun informed him. His CAG – Commander Air Group – was an innovation from the alternatives; an officer dedicated to operating the air wing. Normally, he would have been on the Benedict Arnold; Anderson had ordered him to remain on the Amherst for the first mission.
“Order the Benedict Arnold to launch the first AWACS,” Anderson ordered. The AWACS – another term borrowed from the alternatives – wasn’t anything like a capable as their AWACS, but it hardly required a specialised launch system. He’d thought of the concept; a Lancaster bomber adapted with the most powerful radar that the North American Union could build.
“Aye, aye sir,” Crun said, whispering orders into his radio set. Anderson turned, staring through the growing light to see the Benedict Arnold – and the aircraft slowly rising off its decks. He felt a moment of panic – surely it was rising too slowly – but then it faded; the aircraft was in the air.
If they have a dedicated ECM suite, we’re fucked, he thought wryly. His force had war-gamed with aircraft from the Washington – and it would be folly to assume that the French aircraft were less capable - and they’d lost, badly. Of course, the French would have the same problem with replacing their lost weapons, but it would still be chancy to engage the Charles de Gaulle itself.
Maggie, I wish you were weren’t here, he thought. Maggie had insisted on coming with the fleet - and Admiral Sir Joseph Porter hadn’t been willing to forbid it. That itself was…odd; a civilian had no place on board a warship, particularly one that was about to challenge the French naval base at Panama.
As if the thought itself was enough to summon her – his wild Irish rose – she stepped onto the bridge, escorted by the steward. Anderson nodded at him, dismissing him with a nod, and waved her over. He resisted the temptation to give her a hug; the bridge was no place for such games.
“Admiral, the AWACS is reporting clear skies,” Crun said. “All of the aircraft are ready.”
Anderson felt…nervous, a nervousness that hadn’t been a problem since stepping onto the bridge of the first ship he’d ever commanded. He was about to take a completely untested – at least in this reality – concept into battle…and he was nervous. Losing would probably cost him…his career.
“Signal the carriers,” he said. “They’re to launch at once…and proceed with the attack plan. God save the King.”
Flying Officer Creswell took a breath as his Spitfire-I accelerated down towards the ramp, hitting it and climbing into the air. He watched as the carrier vanished below him, replaced by an endless blue sea, and sighed in relief as the aircraft kept rising. Back on training, several aircraft hadn’t caught properly – and promptly fallen off the end of the carrier instead of rising into the sea.
“This is Air Commodore Cromwell,” the commanding officer said. Apart from the AWACS, the Commodore rode in the only large aircraft; a modified Lancaster carrying an active radar set and one of the priceless ECM units from the Washington. “All planes; proceed along the following course” – he rattled off a series of instructions – “and prepare to engage the enemy.”
Creswell allowed himself a moment to feel nervous. The Spitfire-I aircraft hadn’t ever fought for real, unlike their comrades on the Southern Front. Scuttlebutt from the first major battle, two days ago, suggested that they had a slight turning advantage on the French aircraft, but the French aircraft were better armoured. The explosive bullets should make a difference, but no one knew for sure.
He wished that they had been allowed to actually practice on other planes, even though he understood that it wasn’t possible. The Spitfire-II aircraft had been permitted to sink several test ships with the new torpedoes; they knew what they were doing. It was Commodore Cromwell’s job to lead them to Panama - and Creswell’s job to keep the French planes off their back when they were attacking the French fleet.
“We’re picking up radar signals,” Cromwell said. Creswell scowled; as much as he appreciated radar, he thought that he would have appreciated it more if it had been an exclusive British technology. “We must assume that we have been detected.”
“Understood,” Creswell said, sounding off for his entire flight. “Any additional orders for us?”
“No,” Cromwell said. “Twenty minutes to target.”
Without false modesty, Duke Labara knew that he wasn’t the brightest Admiral in the French Navy, but he was a competent commander and a brilliant administrator. The fortification of the massive anchorage at Panama, right next to the canal itself, had been acknowledged as the foremost defensive work in the world – right next to the defences of London itself. With four admirals under him, one commanding each of his superdreadnaught squadrons, Duke Labara was well equipped to carry out his orders, which were to defend Panama and engage in a limited amount of raiding in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
His massive office had four clerks; all working to ensure that the French ships within the anchorage got the best that New Spain could produce, from equipment to food and women. The French Navy had always taken a pragmatic approach to prostitution, despite the loudly-expressed opinion of the Pope and his Church, and as long as the women were clean, they didn’t object. Duke Labara was reading the latest medical report when his telephone rang.
“Your Grace, there is something you should see on the radar,” Major Malfoy said. “You have to come to the radar room.”
The urgency in his voice did nothing to improve Duke Labara’s mood. He didn’t like radar, he didn’t like the radar operators – who were hardly the sort of men he wanted serving the Emperor – and he just plain didn’t like Malfoy. The young man was one of the technicians, which meant that instead of risking his life on the high seas, he sat in comfort in Panama, using the whores and doing his unprepossessing work.
“This had better be important,” he said sharply, putting down the phone. He nodded to his clerks as he left the room, before heading down to the radar room. Massive radar arrays had been constructed on Panama, covering all of the mountains…but all of the information was collected in the naval base itself – by Malfoy and his people. The room that housed the young men, a messy room filled with consoles and half-opened pieces of electronic equipment, didn’t really suit the attitudes of the French Navy at all - Duke Labara kept petitioning the Court to have Malfoy removed on the grounds that he was clearly unsuited to his role in the Navy.
“This had better be important,” he said, and then frowned as he saw Malfoy. The young man was always dapper, in a light blonde wig that had been moved into the most outrageous style, but sweat was pouring down his face. Unlike some of the Nordic people, Malfoy was from France itself; he should be used to the tamed jungle of Panama.
“We’re about to be attacked,” Malfoy said. He pointed to a screen; several lights glittered within the strange screen. Duke Labara had never even begun to understand radar. “That’s nearly nine hundred planes coming our way, Your Grace.”
Duke Labara stared at him. “How could the British have gotten a flight of planes so close to us?” He demanded. “Don’t you have any idea how far this is from Cuba, let alone the closest British-held island?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Malfoy said. His tone was desperate. “Your Grace; we are about to be attacked. That’s an entire bomber force.”
Duke Labara hesitated. “You want me to scramble all of the fighters on the airfields?” He asked. “Just for nine hundred impossible aircraft?”
Malfoy hesitated. “Your Grace, ever since that ship from another reality turned up, we’ve seen dozens of impossible aircraft,” he said, rather gently. He hesitated. “They might be flying them off the…George Washington.”
Duke Labara took a breath. He really didn’t like the young man. On the other hand, even Malfoy would not be stupid enough to convince him to issue an alert for nothing. He held Malfoy’s eyes for a long moment, and then he made his decision.
“This is Duke Labara,” he said, into the telephone on the wall. “I am hereby declaring an emergency. All aircraft are to be launched at once, I repeat; launched at once. All anti-aircraft gunners are to take their stations at once. All personnel without duties during an emergency are to go to the shelters.”
The general alarm began to howl. “That’s our aircraft,” Malfoy said after a moment, pointing at new lights flickering on the screen. “And that’s the enemy aircraft.”
“All right, we’ve been made,” Cromwell said. Creswell nodded; he’d already seen the orbital Combat Air Patrol orbiting over Panama – and the aircraft that were straggling up to join them. “All fighters, chose your targets and dance.”
“Independent action,” Creswell ordered his group, and pushed the throttle forward. The Spitfire leapt forward, its speed increasing as it moved ahead of the other fighters and torpedo bombers, turning to face the enemy planes ahead. He pressed the trigger on his guns as soon as the first enemy plane came into range…and he was gratified to note it begin to smoke and fall towards the water far below.
“Watch out,” one of his wingmen snapped over the radio, as a French plane made a dive at him. He flipped out of the way, powering down towards the sea and spinning across the sky, finally pulling out of the dive just above another French plane. He fired at it as it flashed past, but he couldn’t see if he hit it or not.
“Fast little buggers,” he muttered, as a French aircraft dove on him. He pressed the trigger and raked it with bullets, watching as the bullets exploded and detonated the Frenchman’s fuel tank. “Sorry,” he said, as the plane exploded; there had been no chance of escape for the pilot.
“Don’t be sorry,” Cromwell snapped over the intercom. “Cover the torpedo-bombers!”
Creswell cursed rudely and spun around, watching as the torpedo-bombers made their run towards the harbour walls, ignoring the hail of fire from guns designed to take out superdreadnaughts. The French fighters were swooping down on the bombers, having realised what a threat they were to their ships, and hacking them out of the sky.
”Die, you bastards,” Creswell howled, and flung himself into the fight. The battle was savage and vicious, at point-blank range, all of the planes fighting at knife-range. He fired on two French aircraft and watched them explode – just before seeing one of the torpedo-bombers crash into a gun emplacement. The resulting series of explosions shattered the guns as the shells detonated – damaging the anti-aircraft guns on the walls.
“Die,” he snapped, and the fighting continued…
Duke Labara prayed as he ran up the stairs, passing concrete walls as he ran, until he reached the balcony of the main fortress. He knew that it was suicidal, perhaps, but he no longer cared – the inevitable inquest would ruin his career as certainly as a British bullet would cut his life short.
The radar men will inherit the Earth, he thought, as he flung the iron door opened and stared out across the harbour. It all seemed to be happening in a deadly slow motion; the British planes were making torpedo runs at the superdreadnaughts and battlecruisers in harbour, damaging and destroying them. Even as he watched, a battlecruiser exploded; it’s back broken when its powder magazines detonated.
Planes flashed by overhead, so fast he could hardly make them out, locked in a deadly mortal combat. There was no tactics in the midst of anti-aircraft fire, no long-term strategy, just endless bloody combat. The noise was appalling; a deafening crescendo of fire and death, explosions and screams. He stared as a fresh cloud of aircraft descended upon a superdreadnaught, launching seven torpedoes directly at its heart. A shattering series of explosions tore the hull to ribbons.
Should have installed anti-torpedo nets, Duke Labara thought, stunned. He’d heard about the attack on the Falklands, but he hadn’t really believed, not until…not until his career had been wrecked beyond repair – along with most of the fleet in Caribbean waters. The attack seemed to be fading…and then one final explosion shattered the fuel tanks, specifically targeted by the enemy. A blast wave swept across the harbour, plucked Duke Labara from his balcony…and sent him falling to his death, seven floors below.
Creswell cursed as he ran out of ammunition, firing his last bullets at a French fighter that had been within moments of blasting a bomber out of the air. He muttered into his radio, reporting his sudden inability to fight, and was ordered to return home.
“I think it’s time to take our leave,” Cromwell said. “Radar reports more aircraft coming at us, and that’s not good at all.”
“Be seeing you,” Creswell called, down towards the harbour below, and set course for the carriers. “We’ll be back.”
There were three people in the stateroom; Anderson, Maggie and Crun. Anderson knew that there should have been a chaperone for Maggie, now that their relationship was…blossoming, but he found it hard to care. As night fell, the task force was counting up its losses…and steaming as hard as it could for American waters.
“We launched eight hundred aircraft,” Crun said. His tiredness showed in his face, in his voice. “Three hundred or thereabouts have been lost outright; one hundred and seventy will require various amounts of repairs before they can fly again. As it was, we were lucky; the Elizabeth was nearly destroyed by a crashed fighter.”
Anderson shook his head slowly. “How much damage did we do?”
“Hard to be certain,” Crun said. “A recon drone is on its way – it should get there before night falls completely – but at least three of the primary targets were destroyed.”
Anderson nodded. It wouldn’t take the French long to repair the radar installations, but it would take them longer to repair the fuel depots and the damaged buildings. As for the ships…
“We must have damaged them quite badly,” he said.
Crun nodded. “We caught them with their pants down…sorry madam,” he said. Maggie shrugged. “Next time; they’ll pay more attention to their radar and have more fighters aloft at any one time.”
Anderson scowled. “And perhaps submarines to defend the approaches,” he said. One of the reasons his force was moving so fast was that submarines, by and large, were very slow. If one of them were close enough to take a shot, it would almost certainly miss – and probably pass unnoticed.
“We’ll think of some new tricks,” Crun said. “Perhaps raids with fighters only, sir; ones designed to strip away their fighter cover.”
“They’ll be launching counter-attacks,” Anderson said. “New Orleans is about to get hammered, along with the bases in Florida.”
“I’m afraid so,” Crun said. He yawned. “Sorry, sir,” he said. “It’s been a long day.”
“Go get some sleep,” Anderson said. He waited until Crun was out of the door before turning to Maggie. “Was it as exciting as you thought?”
Maggie smiled up at him. “It was interesting,” she said. “Admiral – Felix – is it always this way?”
Anderson understood the unasked question. “Yes,” he said, standing up and pacing the stateroom. “People go out, live or die, and the enemy learns from us as much as we learn from him.”
“And they’ll have new tricks from the French ship,” Maggie said. “Felix, thank you for all of this.”
Anderson came over to her as she stood up. She was no longer seasick; she’d adapted better than many men did on their first sea voyage. “You’re welcome,” he said, suddenly feeling as tongue-tied as a teenager on his first chaperoned meeting with a girl. “Thanks for coming.”
Maggie reached out and drew him to her, taking comfort from his hug. On their own, his lips reached down and met hers and they kissed. “Felix…”
“I understand,” Anderson said, as they broke the kiss. He bent down for another one. “I love you too.”