Episode 144: Victory at Sea, In a Somewhat Indirect Fashion
MacKiernan eased the door shut, hoping no one had spotted him. The
situation was awkward enough. If someone had seen him sneaking back to his
cabin, it could become even more awkward. How did this happen? he
asked himself. And what will happen now?
He was still wondering when he heard a knock outside. "So you're finally
waukin'", came Abercombie's voice. "Ye were soond asleep when I came by
afair. We're about tae make landfall at Bougainville."
"Ah... yes... right..." he said brightly. "I'll be there as soon as
I've... ah... dressed."
"Aye," said Abercrombie. "But dinnae take too long." MacKiernan furrowed
his brow in suspicion. Had the Scotsman sounded unwontedly cheerful?
By the time he reached the bridge, their destination was visible to
starboard -- a long low jungle-covered shore rising to a row of volcanic
peaks. Wisps of smoke rose from one, trailing away to the northwest. To
the north, an indentation in the coastline marked the entrance to Buka
Helga smiled cheerfully as he entered the wheelhouse. "God dag! Did you
sleeping good? You not make the answer when Helga knock this morning."
"Um...," said MacKiernan. "So that's Bougainville. What are our plans?"
"We call Buka Town, see if the Predpriyatie visit. Captain
Tserkov have the girlfriend there."
"Here too?" asked Abercrombie in amazement. "How many burds does the mon
Helga laughed. "That Captain Tserkov very busy man. He have the
girlfriends everywhere! He not like... most of you in Royal Navy."
MacKiernan glanced at the woman, trying to guess whether her pause had been
intentional, but before he could reply, Miss Perkins appeared in the
doorway. She had put up her hair in preparation for their arrival and
resumed her severe secretarial garb. Her face, made up to Royal Naval
Airship Service specifications, gave away nothing of what had transpired
the night before.
Did I imagine it? wondered MacKiernan. Perhaps it was all a
"Miss Helga, Mister MacKiernan, Abercrombie, good day," she said pleasantly.
"So that's Bougainville, What's the name of that volcano?"
As the others turned to examine the cone, she gave MacKiernan a barely
So it wasn't a dream, he thought Go sabhailte Dia sinn!
A short time later, MacKiernan, Abercrombie, and Miss Perkins were standing
at the foot of Buka's wharf, studying the town. Helga had gone in search of
her informants, leaving them to see the sights, but there was little to see.
To their left, clerks chatted idly outside the offices of a copper mining
concern. Next to this, a Lutheran and Catholic church moldered side by side
in the sun. At the modest Government house, a sentry lounged at his post
watching the girls go by. The only exception to this pervasive air of
lethargy was an Improved Cricket Class torpedo boat anchored near the mouth
of the harbor. The Australian White Ensign flew proudly from her stern.
MacKiernan glanced it uneasily, wondering why an Australian warship should
have chosen just this moment to call at a German colony.
"What should we do now?" asked Abercrombie.
MacKiernan shrugged. "If we ask around, we might learn something useful."
"Are ye willing to put some money on that?"
"Gentlemen," said Miss Perkins sharply.
The search for news proved more difficult than they anticipated. In this
most distant corner of the German Empire, no one seemed to feel any
particular sense of urgency regarding events in the outside world. At last,
frustrated, the trio took refuge in the closest thing Buka had to a cafe,
where a waiter brought glasses of fermented coconut milk. MacKiernan was
examining his, wondering if it was safe for human consumption, when he
noticed a man in the dress whites of the Royal Australian Navy making his
way toward their table.
"Mister MacKiernan I believe," said the man. "And these would be your
companions Abercrombie and the lovely Miss Perkins." Like many upper-class
Australians, he affected a British public school accent.
"You have us at a disadvantage," MacKiernan observed politely.
The man gave an unconvincing smile. "I apologize. I am
Lieutenant-Commander Campbell, captain of the HMAS Swallowtail.
You've led quite the chase since you left Lifuka, but your journey ends
here. I've been instructed to make sure you do not leave Bougainville."
"Instructed by whom?"
The Australian shook his head. "You really don't expect an answer to that
question, do you?"
"And how are you going to prevent us from leaving?" asked MacKiernan.
"Will you open fire on a civilian vessel here in a German harbor?"
"No, but who can say what might happen once you are out of sight of land?"
"You might find you've bitten off more than you can chew," said MacKiernan,
but they both knew he was bluffing. The Viking Girl II's deck gun
might be adequate to deal with an ungainly and vulnerable submarine handled
by an inexperienced crew. Against a warship manned by trained naval
personnel, it would be of little use.
Helga grinned when they reported the encounter. "Ha!" she said. "Helga know
how to deal with Australian!" She tossed her axe to a crewman and vanished
into her cabin. Through the door, they could hear her rummaging through her
"Does she mean to murder the man?" asked Miss Perkins.
"Nae," said Abercrombie. "I ken the lassie has something roogher in mind."
"What do you mean?"
The Swede emerged from her cabin clad in a black silk dress designed by
someone who'd clearly wished to economize on silk. The effect was stunning.
"You wait here tonight," she announced gleefully. "Helga go make sure
fellow in no shape to follow us tomorrow."
Miss Perkins watched the woman depart, momentarily at loss for words. "Does
she... is she... could she really mean to..."
MacKiernan nodded. "I'm afraid so."
The Irishman awoke the next morning to the sound of the anchor being
raised. He made his way to the wheelhouse to find Helga conning the
Viking Girl II through the tricky passage between the north shore
of Madehas and Buka.
"Helga take care of Captain Campbell!" she said with a laugh. "He not good
for much today!"
MacKiernan resolved not to speculate how this had been accomplished. The
answer was likely to be distressing. Instead, he watched the jungle slide
by as he reviewed their situation. How had the Australian found them?
The man's words had suggested he'd known where to look. Would more
adversaries be waiting at Rabaul? If so, how could they avoid discovery?
They had cleared the channel and were heading out to sea when the lookout
cried out from atop the aft derrick.
To port, the HMAS Swallowtail had rounded the southern tip of
Madehas. Smoke billowed from her stacks as she turned to speed in their
"Oopsies," said Helga, "that captain stronger than Helga thought. Or
maybe he have lieutenant take over. What we do now?"
MacKiernan glanced at the afterdeck, where their improvised depth charges
rested in their rack. "Perhaps we could rig those into some sort of mines.
It`s a long shot, but..."
"Thar she blows again!" came a cry from the mast.
"Would you stop that!" grumbled someone.
To starboard, a periscope had broken the surface. Water boiled and a
torpedo track began streaking toward their vessel. Helga snapped out a
quick set of commands.
"Hard to starboard! Dodge torpedo! Then full speed ahead! We deal with
The freighter swung, quicker than MacKiernan would have believed possible.
As they turned toward the periscope, it vanished with what he imagined was
a faint plunk. Then the torpedo was racing past, almost close enough to
"Ha," said someone, "it missed!"
"No it didn't," said someone else. "Lookie!"
MacKiernan turned to see the track heading toward the torpedo boat. Her
crew seemed entirely unprepared for such an eventuality. MacKiernan found
it hard to blame them -- they must have thought the situation dreadfully
unfair. There was a muffled thump and the vessel began to settle by the
"We reach where submarine been!" yelled Helga. "Drop the charges!"
On the fantail, the bosun yanked a lever. Six steel drums packed with
dynamite rolled over the stern. Cords pulled tight, triggers fired, and a
titanic explosion raised a mountain of water and spray behind them. The
Swedes applauded. Abercrombie frowned.
"Wasn't that all of our depth charges?"
"Yes," said MacKiernan. "Let's hope that was all of their torpedoes."
Next week: Rabaul Without a Pause...
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