Copyright
Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

The Dreadnought of the Air online

. (page 1 of 22)
Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanThe Dreadnought of the Air → online text (page 1 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


THE DREADNOUGHT OF THE AIR ***




Produced by R.G.P.M. van Giesen




[Illustration: cover art]




THE DREADNOUGHT OF THE AIR




GLORIES OF SEA
AND AIR SERIES

By
PERCY F.
WESTERMAN

THE MYSTERY SHIP
THE RIVAL SUBMARINES
BILLY BARCROFT OF THE R.N.A.S.
A WATCH-DOG OF THE NORTH SEA
A SUB OF THE R.N.R.
THE DREADNOUGHT OF THE AIR

Publishers
PARTRIDGE
LONDON




[Illustration: "She was describing a succession of 'loops,' while her
motors were still running." Frontispiece]




THE DREADNOUGHT
OF THE AIR



BY
PERCY F. WESTERMAN
AUTHOR OF "THE RIVAL SUBMARINES"
ETC., ETC., ETC



Publishers
PARTRIDGE
LONDON




MADE IN GREAT BRITAIN




CONTENTS.

CHAP.
I. CONCERNING SUB-LIEUTENANT DACRES
II. THE FRENCH INSTRUCTOR
III. REMOVED FROM THE NAVY LIST
IV. THE MYSTERIOUS AIRSHIP
V. A MOMENTOUS TRAIN JOURNEY
VI. CHALLENGED
VII. THE RETURN OF THE AIRSHIP
VIII. WHITTINGHAME'S NARRATIVE
IX. THE FLIGHT TO LONDON
X. THE STOLEN PLANS
XI. THE "METEOR"
XII. THE "METEOR'S" DEBUT
XIII. AN OFFICIAL AND AN UNOFFICIAL INSPECTION
XIV. ACROSS GREENLAND
XV. THE NORTH POLE
XVI. IN THE NICK OF TIME
XVII. ZAYPURU'S BOLD STROKE
XVIII. THE DISASTER TO THE "LIBERTAD"
XIX. INVESTIGATING THE WRECK
XX. A HAZARDOUS PROPOSAL
XXI. WITHIN THE CAVARALE PRISON
XXII. DACRES REMINDS THE ADMIRAL
XXIII. LOCOMOTIVE VERSUS AEROPLANE
XXIV. A BRUSH WITH THE INDIANS
XXV. THE CAPTURE OF THE CAVARALE
XXVI. UNABLE TO RISE
XXVII. PREPARING FOR THE PRESIDENT'S VISIT
XXVIII. A PRISONER OF WAR
XXIX. WORK FOR THE SEAPLANES
XXX. THE FALL OF NAOCUANHA
XXXI. A SURPRISE FOR DACRES
XXXII. A SUBMARINE ENCOUNTER
XXXIII. NEWS OF DURANGO
XXXIV. THE CHASE
XXXV. THE THUNDERSTORM
XXXVI. THE ABANDONED FLYING-BOAT
XXXVII. THE GALAPAGOS FISHERMEN
XXXVIII. CORNERED
XXXIX. DACRES' PROMOTION




THE DREADNOUGHT
OF THE AIR.


CHAPTER I.

CONCERNING SUB-LIEUTENANT DACRES.


IT was Thursday afternoon - Make and Mend Clothes Day as it is known
in the Royal Navy. H.M.S. "Royal Oak," a Super-Dreadnought now
relegated to the second class, lay at moorings off Singapore. Two
cables' length ahead of her swung her sister ship the "Repulse,"
flying the flag of Admiral Maynebrace commanding the Special
Squadron, now on a cruise round the world in order to display the
White Ensign in foreign waters as a gentle reminder to petty
potentates that the British Lion's tail could not be twisted with
impunity.

The heat was terrific. The sun's scorching rays beat down with
relentless violence upon the white awnings that shrouded the warships
from bow to stern. The glare, reflected from the oily sea, seemed to
penetrate everywhere on board in spite of electric fans and the
latest type of ventilators. Officers and men, used though they were
to the heat of the Tropics, were reduced to a state of perspiring
listlessness. Alacrity seemed for the time being no longer the
characteristic of the British seamen. One and all they barely existed
in Nature's stew-pan and waited for the sun to set.

To add to the discomfort the crew of the "Royal Oak" were rankling
under a grievance. Hitherto first in the list for prize-firing, they
had been ousted from their proud position by the flagship: and the
flagship didn't forget to crow over her success. Had the contest been
carried out under equal conditions and the "Royal Oak" had "gone
under" the disappointment would not have been so great; but the
"Repulse" had gained the position of "top-dog" more by a fluke than
anything else.

"Makes one feel jolly rotten," remarked Eccles, the "Royal Oak's"
gunnery jack. "The Service papers at home will publish the results
and add a lot about the superb efficiency of the flagship and the
lamentable falling-off of the 'Royal Oak's' gun-layers. All that sort
of twaddle, you know: penny-a-line stuff from a fellow who does not
know a fifteen-inch from a seven-pounder."

"You'll bet your bottom dollar, Eccles, there won't be a word said
about the flagship making her record with the Beaufort Scale logged
as O (a flat calm), while our packet was shoving her nose into it
with the fo'c'sle awash and everything battened down. Ugh! It makes
me wild," rejoined Commander Bourne. "Healthy rivalry is all very
well, but - - "

"I don't know whether you heard the yarn," said Eccles, "but
indirectly an outstanding row between the Admiral and the skipper has
something to do with it: a little misunderstanding they had when they
were at Osborne, I believe. And the fact that Maynebrace is now an
admiral and Staggers only a captain doesn't improve matters. The
owner forgets sometimes that the Admiral's grandfather was an earl
and his only a post-captain."

"I did hear something of the sort," replied Bourne. "It's a pity that
personal matters are taken into consideration in the Service. Anyway,
Captain Staggers would be glad of a chance to pull the Admiral's
leg."

"Hear that?" asked little Dick Alderney, the midshipman of the watch.

"Rather," agreed Sub-lieutenant Basil Dacres emphatically. "It almost
gives one a cue."

Basil Dacres was a tall, alert-looking young officer of nineteen. His
features were clean cut, his complexion tanned to a deep brown by
reason of exposure to the sun and the salt breezes of three of the
five oceans. His athletic frame betokened a zest for sport, for in
spite of the heat he paced the deck with an elasticity of tread that
denoted exceptional physical energy. It did not take long for an
observer to come to the right conclusion that Basil Dacres' solemnity
of manner when on duty was an acquired one. Those dancing clear blue
eyes betrayed the inborn love of a high-spirited nature. Even the
rigid rules and regulations of the Service could not break his
fondness of practical Joking.

Yet, somehow, he contrived to wriggle out of the dire consequences
without dishonour, and upon calming down he would enter into the
preparatory stages of perpetrating another joke. Upon the eve of his
departure from home on the present commission this trait asserted
itself. Dacres' little pranks were invariably intended to be of a
harmless nature, but sometimes the result surpassed his expectations.

Dacres' father was a retired colonel who, possessed of ample private
means, kept a large establishment in the West End. The colonel was
absolutely military to the backbone, a martinet even in home life,
although "his bark was worse than his bite." One thing is certain,
Basil Dacres never inherited the lighter vein from his father, for
the latter was never known to have spoken a funny sentence except by
a sheer accident; and then, when the rest of the mess laughed, he was
completely puzzled to know why.

It happened that the Thursday on which the sub was to leave to join
his ship was his mother's at-home day, and Mrs. Dacres' at-homes were
always well-attended. On this occasion there were present a colonial
bishop and his wife in addition to the usual "smart-set" in which the
hostess moved.

Now Mrs. Dacres' Georgian silver tea service was the envy and
admiration of her guests, and Mrs. Colonial Bishop had been
previously told to pay particular attention to the magnificent
teapot. In came the head footman, resplendent in his fine livery and
powdered hair, and placed the tray in front of the hostess. The
far-famed teapot, enveloped in a huge cosy, was for the time being
hidden from admiring and covetous eyes.

"Pouring-out" was one of the great events of Mrs. Dacres' at-homes:
it was a sort of sacrifice at the altar of conventionality.

The hostess, after having asked whether the guests took cream and
sugar, made a preliminary flourish ere removing the covering that hid
the gorgeous silver teapot. The act was a silent appeal for
attention, and all eyes were fixed in anticipation upon the piece of
plate that held the fragrant beverage.

With the dexterity of a practised conjuror Mrs. Dacres lifted the
cosy. . . .

In the place of the teapot was a huge tortoise that blinked solemnly
at the sudden transit from darkness into light, and proceeded to
slowly waddle across the slippery silver tray.

The next instant, amidst a chorus of shrieks, tortoise and
tea-things, including the choicest Crown Derby, clattered on the
floor.

The sub's departure took place under a cloud. His mother's farewell
was somewhat chilly, while the colonel spoke his mind in a very blunt
manner.

"Mark my words, you confounded young fool!" he said, "unless you stop
this sort of thing there'll be trouble. It will end with your being
court-martialled and kicked out of the Service. And, by Jove! if you
are, don't look to me for any sympathy."

But the funny part about the whole business was that Basil knew
nothing about the tortoise episode until after the tea cosy was
removed. His part of the joke was to take the blame upon his broad
shoulders and to chuckle at the idea that he had been accused of what
he had not done. He was not asked for an explanation, nor did he give
one. He had no wish that punishment should fall upon the real
culprit - his ten-year-old brother, Clarence; for the fond parents
never for one moment suspected that guile could be found in their
cherub-faced youngest-born child.

"Give you a cue - what about?" asked the midshipman.

The sub brought himself up with a round turn. He realized that
perhaps it was not altogether wise to confide in his subordinate over
the plan that had readily resolved itself in his brain.

"H'm!" he ejaculated. "Eccles seems rather up the pole about the
prize-firing result. I suppose it's natural."

"Well, aren't you, sir?" asked Alderney. "I know I am, and so are the
rest of the gun-room. Just fancy! the midshipmen of the flagship,
whom we licked hollow at cricket, actually had the cheek to row round
the ship with a cock perched on a jack-staff in the bows, and the
whole crowd crowing like anything. Beastly bad form, I call it. After
all, gunnery isn't everything, as the Admiral ought to know he had
with the 'Aphrodite.'"

"The submarine? Yes, I remember. She's 'M. I.' now. That business has
given us a good lead in submarines and pretty well knocked the Flying
Branch into a cocked hat, worse luck."

And Dacres shook his shoulders deprecatingly. He had volunteered for
the Service with the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, but owing
to an unexpected decision on the part of the First Lord to cut down
that part of the Service his offer had been declined.

Just then Sinclair, the duty-sub for the First Dog Watch, came on
deck, and Dacres, freed from his responsible duty of doing nothing in
particular, made his way below to the gun-room.

There the conversation was mainly upon the bumptiousness of the
flagship. Dacres said little, but thought the more. After a while he
went to the half-deck and knocked at the Gunnery Lieutenant's cabin
door. He was there for nearly an hour, at the end of which time he
applied for leave till eight bells (noon) on the following day. This
he obtained without difficulty, then changing into mufti he went
ashore.




CHAPTER II.

THE FRENCH INSTRUCTOR.


SINGAPORE in the year 1919 was a very important naval station. During
the last six or seven years it had undergone great changes. The
practical abandonment of a powerful war-squadron on the China
Station, owing to the understanding with Japan, had led to a decline
in the greatness of Hong-Kong as a base. And what Hong-Kong had lost
Singapore had gained - with compound interest. Henceforth that little
island at the extreme south of the Malay Peninsula was to be the
greatest British naval station on the portals of the Pacific.

Additional docks, capable of taking the largest battleships afloat,
had been constructed, with smaller basins for submarines, of which
twelve of the "C" class and six of the "D" type were stationed there.
Bomb-proof sheds for seaplanes had been built, and the whole defended
by modern forts armed with the most up-to-date and powerful guns.

At half-past eight on the morning following the event recorded in the
first chapter a signal was made from the dockyard to the flagship of
Rear-Admiral Maynebrace. It read: "Commander-in-Chief to 'Repulse':
French instructor will proceed on board at four bells. Please send
boat to meet him at Kelang Steps."

The receipt of this message was duly acknowledged and then
communicated through the manifold yet proper channels to the
gun-room, where the midshipmen received it with ill-concealed
disgust.

They had planned a picnic along the well-kept country road that,
fringed on either side by unbroken avenues of fruit-trees and
luxuriant palms, led to the lofty Who Hen Kang. There they had hoped
to revel in the gorgeous glades, eating pine-apples and coco-nuts
till the services of the sick-bay staff might have to be called into
requisition. The prospect, ignoring the consequences of their
injudicious appetites, was most alluring; till almost on the eve of
the anticipated picnic came this disconcerting message that the
French instructor was about to come off to the ship.

French lessons with the temperature at ninety-eight in the shade!
This ordeal was sufficient to crush even the resistance of a
punch-ball, let alone a dozen irresponsible midshipmen.

Such terrors did not exist for Rear-Admiral Maynebrace. He had
forgotten all the foreign languages that had been dinned into his
head forty years ago, and since the King's Regulations say nothing
about flag officers polishing up their French, Maynebrace felt no
qualms. As it happened he had an invitation to meet the Governor.

With due ceremony the Admiral was piped over the side and his
motor-pinnace landed him at the Kelang Steps. Somehow there was no
conveyance in waiting, not even a rickshaw, so Maynebrace and his
flag-lieutenant had to walk.

On his way through the dockyard the Admiral's attention was directed
towards an individual who, even amidst the quaintly-costumed
inhabitants of Singapore, looked singularly bizarre.

The person who attracted the notice of the mighty Maynebrace was
tall, inclined to corpulence, and bowed in the shoulders. His
sun-dried face was partly concealed by a bristling black moustache
and an imperial. His hair, or at least what was visible outside a top
hat of wondrous style, was grey.

A white waistcoat, buttoned almost to bursting strain over his
_embonpoint_ and fitting where it touched elsewhere, was cut deeply
at the throat, revealing a wide, turned-down collar and an enormous
red silk tie. His frock coat was of a late nineteenth century
pattern; while his trousers, baggy fore and aft, were at one time
"white ducks": now they were saffron colour. Sky-blue socks and brown
canvas shoes completed the extraordinary "get-up."

As this remarkable personage passed the Admiral he hesitated a
moment, then removing his "stove-pipe" made a most elaborate bow, a
compliment that Maynebrace returned by stiffly bringing his right
hand up to the edge of his white-covered peaked cap.

"Rummy codger," remarked the Admiral.

"It's the French instructor, I believe, sir," said the
flag-lieutenant.

"H'm! fancy that on board my ship!"

"Regulations, sir; paragraph 574d says: Whenever practicable
instruction in French is to be given to midshipmen by French
instructors domiciled in British ports."

"Well, well. Thank goodness I'm not a midshipman," ejaculated
Maynebrace, as he frantically signalled to a passing rickshaw-man.

Whatever opinion the Frenchman had of Rear-Admiral Maynebrace he
wisely kept it to himself, and trotting along with short jerky steps
he reached the place where the gig from H.M.S. "Repulse" awaited him.

The coxswain could scarce suppress a grin as the instructor stepped
into the stern sheets. His surprise was still greater when the latter
took the yoke-lines and gave the order to "Pull you to ze ship!"

Bending their backs to the supple ash oars the boats crew made the
gig dart rapidly through the water. Some of them, possibly, wondered
what order the grotesque object in the stern-sheets would give as the
boat ran alongside the flagship. As a matter of fact he gave none,
but pulling at the wrong yoke-line he made the light gig collide bows
on with the accommodation ladder, jerking the rowers backwards off
their thwarts, and causing himself to sit ungracefully upon the
gratings.

Considering his corpulence the instructor picked himself up with
agility and, not waiting for the boat to be brought properly
alongside, made his way from thwart to thwart, gaining the foot of
the accommodation-ladder by way of the bows of the gig.

At the head of the ladder he was met by the Officer of the watch.
Greatly to the latter's disgust the instructor committed a most
heinous offence: he spat upon the sacred precincts of the
quarter-deck and coolly threw his cigarette end upon the snowy
planks!

So flabbergasted was the duty-lieutenant that he said not a word, and
before he could recover his composure he was anticipated by
First-lieutenant Garboard.

Garboard was an officer who owed his position to influence rather
than to merit. He shone in the reflected light of his parent, Sir
Peter Garboard, till lately Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth.

He was one of those officers, luckily becoming rarer, who believe in
cast-iron discipline amounting almost to tyranny. He would bully and
brow-beat at the ship's-police when there were not enough defaulters
to do the odd jobs requisitioned by the commander. When the childish
punishment known as 10_a_ (which consisted of compelling blacklist
men to stand on the lee side of the quarter-deck from 8 to 10 p.m.,
to have their meals under the sentry's charge and to be deprived of
grog and tobacco) was abolished, Garboard, then a junior lieutenant,
asserted that the Service was going, to the dogs. He was never
happier than when bully-ragging the men of his watch, under the plea
of efficiency.

Wishing to air his French the first lieutenant remarked: "_Il fait
très chaud, monsieur._"

The instructor whisked off his stove-pipe hat and bowed
ceremoniously.

"Show?" he repeated. "_Oui_, ver' fine show," and looked about him as
if he expected to see a floating Agricultural Hall.

"Blockhead!" muttered the discomfited Garboard as he beat a retreat,
signing to a quarter-master to take the Frenchman below to the
midshipmen's study.

The dozen disconsolate youngsters were already mustered, and awaited
with no great zest the arrival of their instructor; but their apathy
changed when the Frenchman appeared. They seemed to scent a lark.

But they were sadly mistaken if they hoped to rag that oddly-garbed
individual.

"Sit you down," he said sternly. "Sit you down. You tink I haf not
imparted ze instruction to ze midsheepmens before, eh? You make great
mistake. Ze first zat acts ze light-headed goat he go in ze capitan's
report: zen, no leave for a whole veek."

Taking up a piece of chalk the instructor wrote in a firm hand: -

"_Mon frère a raison, mais ma soeur a tort._"

"Now, zen," he continued, "zat young zhentleman with ze red hair. How
you translate zat, eh?"

Mr. Midshipman Moxitter's particular weakness was French translation.
It had caused him hours of uneasiness at Osborne and Dartmouth. By a
succession of lucky shots he had foiled the examiners and had managed
to scrape through in that particular subject.

Upon being asked to translate the sentence, Moxitter stood up,
squared his shoulders, and said solemnly: -

"'My brother has reasons that my sister's a tart,' sir."

A roar of laughter, audible even in the captain's cabin, greeted this
information. The rest of the midshipmen nearly succumbed to apoplexy,
while even the Frenchman was obliged to pull out his pink silk
handkerchief and press it tightly to his face.

"We vill not dispute ze point, monsieur," he said after an awkward
pause. "Ze affairs of your family are of no concern to ze rest of ze
class, mais you are a good-for-nothing rascal, I say. If you no
better are at ze rest of ze work on ze sheep zen I say you are a
young rotter."

For the full three-quarters of an hour the instructor bullied and
badgered the midshipmen in a manner that outvied Lieutenant
Garboard's treatment of the men. They had to submit: the alternative
of having their leave stopped by the captain put all idea of
resistance out of their heads. Finally he made each midshipman write
in bold characters, "_Mais, que je suis sot,_" and sign this
humiliating confession.

Gathering up the papers the instructor went on deck.

"Will you take any refreshment before you leave?" asked the officer
of the watch.

"No, sare, with many tanks. Permit me: my card."

The lieutenant took the proffered piece of pasteboard, and watched
the Frenchman go over the side. The coxswain of the gig had been
previously cautioned not to allow the instructor to handle the
yoke-lines again.

As the boat headed for Kelang Steps the officer of the watch glanced
at the instructor's card. It was written in a flowing hand: -

"_Jean le Plaisant, professeur de litérature et des langues,
Singapore._"

The second time the officer of the watch looked at the piece of
pasteboard more intently. He even tilted his cap on one side and
scratched his closely-cut hair.

"Fetch me the French dictionary from the wardroom," he ordered, and
the quarter-deck messenger hastened to carry out his instructions.

Seizing the book the lieutenant hurriedly turned over the pages, then
looked dubiously at the retreating gig, now out of hailing distance.

"H'm," he muttered. "I'll speak to the commander. By Jove! I
will."




CHAPTER III.

REMOVED FROM THE NAVY LIST.


"WELL?" asked Eccles, as Sub-lieutenant Basil Dacres came off to the
ship at the expiration of his leave.

"Ripping time, by Jove! I'll tell you about it when you've done your
trick. Is the commander below?"

Receiving an affirmative reply the sub made his way to Commander
Bourne's cabin, bubbling over with suppressed excitement.

"I've done it, sir," he announced. "Spoofed the whole jolly lot of
them, Admiral included."

"Hope you've covered up your tracks?" asked his superior anxiously.

"Rather! I snubbed Garboard, twitted Oxley and played the very
dickens with the flagship's midshipmen. It was hot work, though.
Fancy spending a couple of hours on a day like this with a pillow
stuffed under your waistcoat, and false moustaches tickling like
billy-ho."

Bourne laughed heartily as Dacres related the details of the joke he
had played, but his face grew serious as he remarked: -

"'Pon my word, Dacres, I'm rather sorry I let you carry out this mad
prank, after all. It's bound to leak out."

"It may, sir. If it does the flagship's people won't say much. The
less they say the better, for they will be the laughing-stock of the
squadron."

"I don't know so much about that," rejoined the commander. "You see,
we must do our best to keep it to ourselves. The culprit must be
screened. If there is a row, of course I must own up to my share."

"You must do nothing of the sort, sir," said the sub firmly. "This is
my pigeon, you know. Anyway, they haven't tumbled to it yet, and when
they do they'll have to go a long way to spot me."

During the First Dog Watch the commander told the captain, who
laughed till the tears rolled down his mahogany-coloured cheeks. The
chaplain had it third hand from the skipper, and passed the news on
to the ward-room. As for the gun-room they heard it directly from
Dacres.

So far so good. Loyalty to a brother officer joke a sure bond that
the joke against the unpopular flagship would be kept a secret. But
Jones, the captain's valet, heard his master and the padre laughing
immoderately - was human enough to put his ear to the keyhole of the
captain's cabin. In less than an hour the whole of the lower deck
heard the yarn, and Mr. Dacres was unanimously acclaimed a
"thunderin' brick."

Everything passed off quietly until the following afternoon. It was
the calm before the storm.

Basil Dacres had just completed his trick as "Duty Sub," and was
enjoying a cooling glass of lime juice in the gun-room when a
signalman knocked at the door.

"Chit for Mr. Dacres, sir," he announced.

The sub held out his hand for the folded slip of paper. His intuition
told him that something was amiss: it was.

"Flag to officer commanding H.M.S. 'Royal Oak.' Mr. Basil Dacres,
sub-lieutenant, is to report himself on board the flagship as soon as


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanThe Dreadnought of the Air → online text (page 1 of 22)