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Gunboat Number 14

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Gunboat Number 14


  Jens Kuhn

  Gunboat Number 14

  Copyright ©Jens Kuhn 2009

  This book may be copied and distributed freely in digital form for private use only.

  In print or for commercial use all unauthorized copying or distribution is prohibited.

  All rights reserved.

  Cover picture by Jens Kuhn

  Second edition 2010

  Published by

  ISBN 978-1-4452-6151-5

  For Helena

  and Pickles

  I would like to thank Ken Powell, UK for his useful comments, as well as his stoic acceptance of my American spelling. Also the members of the Sailing Navies forum for some tips about the terminology used on rowing vessels and British ships in the Baltic at the time. And finally my wife, Helena for her faith in me. She actually wants me to write another book...

  Jens Kuhn is a journalist. He lives with his wife and cat in Stockholm, Sweden. During the summer months he sails his small yacht in the same waters where the action of this novel takes place.


  May 1808

  Lieutenant Johan Kuhlin stood at the window and looked down on the big inner harbor of Stockholm. It was crowded with ships and boats of all kinds. Most were smaller merchant vessels, waiting to bring supplies to the army which fought for its survival more than defending the Eastern part of the Swedish kingdom – Finland. Only a few weeks before, the big fortress at Svensksund had surrendered to the Russians and the whole Finnish gunboat squadron with it. Now only the little Stockholm squadron stood between the Russian inshore fleet and the Åland islands, let alone the Stockholm archipelago and Swedish capital. Sure, the high seas fleet had managed to blockade the bigger Russian ships in Estonia, with some help from the British Royal Navy. But there were enough galleys, sloops and gunboats left to worry about. Especially now, with the Finnish squadron added to the enemy’s forces. And those were the best and newest boats.

  Kuhlin thought about the commander of that fortress – the traitor as he already had been named by quite a few – Carl Olof Cronstedt. Kuhlin had met him once, long nose and quite small mouth. Aristocratic of course. But a coward nonetheless apparently. If he at least had burned the gunboats before surrendering to the Russians. More than 70 galleys and gunboats had fallen into Russian hands, which was more than the Stockholm squadron could muster altogether. And that did not even include the original Russian boats.

  He turned his head and looked to the right. In the distance he could just see the navy yard, where gunboats were built and repaired at this very moment. But the boats were not all. The inshore fleet was formally an army unit. Its primary purpose was to support the army by covering its seaward flank. Thus, while the boats were commanded by navy officers like himself, the rest of the crew was army. An army officer commanded the guns and the men at the oars were all new army conscripts with very limited seagoing experience. He did have a bosun, though, who was a real sailor and would no doubt be extremely useful.

  Talking about guns, Kuhlin thought. His boat would have two real guns, a 24 pounder in the bow and one in the stern. Then there were four small swivel guns, two in the bows and two aft. Kuhlin actually never had commanded a gunboat before, or any vessel by any means. He had been a second in command on a navy brig at most. The transfer to the inshore fleet was really Charlotte’s fault. She wanted him to be near her home at Stockholm and not to be away for so long periods as was customary in the navy. Of course he had wanted it too, newlywed and all in love. But then, the war had come and now he wasn’t so sure anymore. Maybe blockade duty off Estonia was better than fighting the Russians in what was essentially a big rowboat. There were two masts with lateen sails alright, but the rig was intended to be taken down during battle. And there wasn’t even a cabin to sleep in!

  Kuhlin heard a faint sound behind him and turned around. Charlotte, his wife, was still in bed, awake now, however, and looking at him. At least the boat was his own command, he thought before moving towards the bed and sitting down on the edge beside his wife.

  “Good morning, darling,” he said and kissed her softly.

  “Won’t you come back to bed?” she asked, lifting the sheet to invite him in. Of course this exposed her naked body. Kuhlin tried to resist, although he couldn’t avoid looking at her shapely breasts, nipples perkily stiffening in the chilly morning air.

  “I don’t have time, really,” he tried. But Charlotte took his hand and placed it firmly over her left breast.

  Chapter 1 -Taking Command

  Lieutenant Johan Kuhlin was half an hour late when he arrived at the quay below the heights of Södermalm. And now he needed a boat that could take him to the navy yard on Djurgården Island. The only problem was that the quay showed a complete absence of the small ferry boats that normally plied the busy waters of the harbor. Something was keeping them busy somewhere else, he thought. Maybe one of the bigger merchantmen was about to leave. Suddenly he saw a small rowboat approaching the quay. An old woman was handling the only pair of oars and as he shouted to her she turned around and waved in acknowledgement.

  Kuhlin took up the canvas bag with the few belongings he had decided he would need on his voyage and stepped into the dangerously rocking boat. There was no cabin on a gunboat, only some big lockers along the gunwales, the most aft ones big enough for a man to lie down in and sleep, quite like in a coffin. Three of those were reserved for the commanding officer, the gunnery officer and the bosun, while the rest of the crew slept on the thwarts or wherever they could find space. Originally, the gunboats were intended to be moored somewhere during the nights and the crew would then sleep in big canvas tents. This was of course not always possible during wartime use of the boats. Even if long overnight passages were relatively uncommon, they had often to be in a state of alert with crew at their stations. If it was quiet enough, the boat could be covered by the sails to protect the crew from rain and cold.

  Kuhlin sat down in the stern of the boat. “To the galley wharf if you please,” he told the woman.

  “You on one of those gun shallops? Bloody uncomfortable things I hear. Dangerous as well, not worth much in a gale are they?,” the woman conversed gruffily. “Son of a neighbor of mine was on one of those over at Svensksund. Not heard from him since the...”

  “Yes, yes. Hurry up will you?” Kuhlin wasn’t in a mood for talking. He was well enough aware of the disadvantages of a gunboat in a gale. He thought about his canvas bag. He had taken only one extra uniform to be kept clean and used for special occasions. A blanket, his tobacco pouch, a bottle of brandy and the little book his wife had given him. Some poems or something. And his diary of course, which probably would double as a log, or were the gunboats provided with real log books, like real ships? Well he would find out shortly.

  The woman had stopped talking and rowed quietly and slowly between the moored ships in the harbor. They were now passing the fort on Kastellholmen with its bare flag pole, indicating that the country was at war. Sailors were exercising on the quay below the fort. Not real sailors, new conscripts without even proper uniforms. They looked more like peasants, which was probably exactly what they were. His own crew would also be made up of these unfortunate souls. Well, it was his duty to weld them into a working crew. If he failed, none of them would stand a chance to get home alive.

  The galley wharf had gotten its name from the galleys that originally were built there. Bigger than the gunboats but not as heavily armed, they looked very much like the old galleys from the Mediterranean. There were still a few in service in the inshore squadron, but now they were mostly used as command posts or support vessels for the much more effective gunboats. Right now only one galley was in sight, moored to the wh
arf and with her masts taken out she was probably about to be fitted out. The rest of the shoreline was occupied by gunboats in different states of completeness. Some were newly built and still unpainted and without guns. Some were of the older type with the gun mounted aft on a field carriage in order to be able to be put ashore easily and used as a land battery. This was the type of gunboat that their designer Fredrik Henrik af Chapman had used in 1776 to convince King Gustav III to have them mass produced. Most modern boats had the gun in the bows, some even had two big guns, one forward and one aft. 24 pounders mostly, except the older field guns who were only 12 pounders.

  Even the rigging was different. All boats had two masts that could be stepped or taken down without the boat having to be moored or anchored. In fact, the crew had to be trained to take down the masts very quickly as the boats were not designed to use their big guns while under sail. Instead, the guns were hauled down into the bottom of the boat to act as ballast and improve its ability to sail to windward. Which was bad enough to begin with. As for sails, the boats had either lug sails or lateen sails. Kuhlin preferred the lateen rigged boats. They looked better and would at least theoretically stand a chance to be able to go to windward.

  Kuhlin paid the ferrywoman and stepped ashore. The shoreline was bustling with workers and sailors, most of the latter being in the same sorry state as those he had seen at Kastellholmen. Looking around he found a young man in a sub-lieutenant’s uniform and hailed him. “Any idea of how to find Number 14?”

  “Not sure, Sir, but if she’s supposed to be ready for sea she’ll be over there.” Pointing to the far side of the wharf.

  “Thank you kindly,” Kuhlin replied and moved on. He soon came to a part of the wharf where boats were moored bows-to the quay. Dockyard workers where busy loading them with supplies of all kinds. The quay was littered with crates, barrels and boxes. Heaps of sweeps, spars and rigging completed the picture. Suddenly Kuhlin saw his boat. She was empty except for two men who were working on the aft gun. One of them wore the uniform of an artillery officer and the other one wore a sailor’s rig. That would be the bosun, Carl Tapper, and the officer would be Eric af Klint, the gunnery officer. Kuhlin looked down on the men who would be the perhaps most important part of his crew. Tapper was small and sturdy but looked like a competent sailor. Af Klint, on the other hand, was an aristocratic looking thin figure with a nose that looked like a bird’s beak.

  Suddenly the bosun looked up and saw Kuhlin standing there. “Can I help you, Sir?” he asked.

  “I think you can,” Kuhlin replied. “I am supposed to take command of Number 14.”

  “Oh, lieutenant Kuhlin, Sir. Welcome aboard,” Tapper came to attention and saluted.

  “At ease, bosun,” Kuhlin stepped down into the boat and held out his hand. Tapper shook it, then turned to the gunnery officer who had stood silent. “That’s our artillery man, af Klint.”

  “Welcome, Sir,” said af Klint.

  “Thank you both. Now when do we expect to get any crew?”

  “I have no idea,” Tapper replied. “But there is a letter for you, Sir. I put it in your chest aft.”

  Kuhlin thanked him and started to make his way aft. His chest, or built-in locker was the aft-most one on the starboard side. He opened it and found the letter on top of some blankets. Sitting down on the aft gun mounting he opened it. The letter contained, as he had expected, his orders. He was to take his boat to Vaxholm Castle in order to meet with two more gunboats, numbers 34 and 35 as well as a supply boat. Taking command of this little squadron, he was to proceed over the sea of Åland to the Finnish archipelago and the main base there. Further orders would be issued after his arrival. Very well, thought Kuhlin. If he only had a crew. He looked up at the sky. It was overcast but would not rain for a while. There was not much wind, but he was sure there would be once they got out into more open water.

  “Bosun!” he called. Tapper came aft and saluted. “Yes, Sir?”

  “Try to send a messenger to Kastellholmen to find out if our crew is there. I saw some fairly new conscripts there on my way here...”

  “Aye,” Tapper replied and turned.

  “And Tapper! What’s wrong with the gun forward?”

  Tapper hesitated. “I’m not really sure, better ask the gunner!”

  Eric af Klint crouched over the gun mount and poked at it with some kind of knife. Kuhlin could not see anything that looked amiss with the piece, but he was no gunner, af Klint was.

  “What’s wrong with it?”

  Af Klint stopped poking. “It’s dirty like hell, won’t slide down as easily as it could, Sir,” he replied. “Also the gun tackles do look like they have been there since the last war. I would like to have them replaced.”

  “Then why don’t you?”

  “They won’t let me have any cordage, Sir. Claim there is a shortage and everything they have is reserved for masts and rigging.”

  “Oh, I see.” Kuhlin hadn’t expected it to be that bad. But with all the Finnish squadron gone and new boats under construction on literally every boatyard in the country, it probably was right to hold back on the stuff.

  “But will it shoot?” he asked.

  “It will shoot alright and maybe a few rounds fired will burn away the dirt and let it slide more easily. But I still would want to change the tackles, Sir.”

  “I’ll see what I can do. Meanwhile let’s hope we’ll get our crew soon. We are off to Vaxholm as soon as they are here.”

  The crew however, did not arrive until early next morning. The bosun’s messenger had not returned until late that evening, and drunk as well. Apparently, the conscripts had tried to delay their departure in order to wait for the uniforms they had been promised. Now they would have to go to war in their own clothes. Kuhlin was just as angry about that as they were themselves, but he could not do a thing about it. The uniforms, so he was told, were ordered but hadn’t been delivered in time. And yes, they would be sent after them to Finland one way or another. Kuhlin wasn’t so sure about that, but he had told his crew nothing about his doubts. They were a sorry enough lot as it were, having been marched from the inland villages around the capital for days and weeks, without being properly fed just in order to start rowing the gunboat without even any proper training. But they would learn on the way. Fortunately, between Stockholm and the Åland Sea lay one of the biggest archipelagos in the world. Thousands of islands and skerries sheltered it from the swell and winds of the Baltic Sea and made it into an easy enough training ground for the new oarsmen. Or so Kuhlin hoped.

  Chapter 2 - The crew

  “Let go forward,” ordered Kuhlin. “Haul in on the kedge.” Slowly gunboat no 14 moved away from the quay, stern first. 56 men where seated on the thwarts, 28 to each side, two at each of the 14 sweeps that would propel the boat while under oars. Between them the two masts and lateen yards were lashed in place above the guns that had been hauled down into the bottom of the boat in order to serve as ballast when under sail. Kuhlin stood in the stern of the boat next to the bosun who had the tiller as long as they were in confined space – or at least until he had trained someone else to act as coxswain. Two men where heaving on the stout line that was connected to the kedge anchor.

  “Easy on that line,” Kuhlin ordered when the boat was getting close to the anchor. He didn’t want her to overshoot the kedge, risking making a mess of anchor line and sweeps while in sight of everyone ashore.

  “Kedge is up and down,” the bosun reported. Tapper stood, supervising the handling of the anchor, while controlling the tiller with his right foot.

  “Haul in the kedge. Ready by the sweeps,” ordered Kuhlin.

  Although most of the men never had been aboard a gunboat it had been explained to them by Tapper what was expected of them. Many also had some experience in rowing fishing skiffs or the like. About a dozen men had served on gunboats before, and Tapper had tried to place them as strategically as possible in order for them to be able to help the landsmen. Kuhlin l
ooked around. The kedge was up and currently being stowed in its locker. Fortunately no other boats were around. They might as well give it a go, he thought. He raised his voice.

  “Easy now, slowly and one thing at a time, men!”

  Then: “Out sweeps.”

  Slowly and carefully, like a cat that stretches its paw after a good nap, the long sweeps moved outwards.

  “Down sweeps.” The blades dropped into the water. “Give way together slowly!” This was the most difficult part. When rowing a vessel with many sweeps everything depended on the movement of the oars to be simultaneous. If one or several sweeps moved out of stroke they could collide with others and the whole symmetry would be destroyed, the boat would stop moving and in the worst of cases, sweeps could break. Thus every pair of oarsmen had to time their strokes with one specific sweep, normally the aft-most one on each side as the oarsmen sat with their backs to the bows of the gunboat. While they rowed they had to keep their eyes on those leading sweeps and all they had to do was keep the same beat.

  Slowly the sweeps started to move and gunboat no 14 started to make way through the water.

  “Hard a starboard,” ordered Kuhlin. Tapper moved the tiller and the boat moved away from the shore.

  “Midships. Keep her along the shore.”

  When underway inshore between the islands and skerries, compass courses normally were not used. It was much easier to order the coxswain to steer by sight.

  This was going quite well, Kuhlin thought. Surely, the rows of sweeps did not look like anything that would impress an admiral, but they would certainly get better. Number 14 was now slowly moving along the coastline. When they passed the island of Beckholmen his nose was filled by the strong smell of tar. It was here most of the famous Stockholm tar was produced. Or had been, as the tar came mostly from Finland and with that part of the country now threatened by Russia the supplies had started to dwindle. The boat now turned to larboard, into more open water. Time to try the men some more.

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