The Komneniad: Warships in the Wine-dark Water

I was, technically, neutral in the war between Ethiopia and Bavaria over the former’s occupation of what was left of Persia. But my sympathy, obviously, lay with the side that was trying to re-establish an independent state in Anatolia. Unfortunately HoI2 doesn’t allow support for rebels; but it ought to.

August 3rd, 1940
Off the shore of Anatolia, near Rhodos
An hour before sunset

The unloading proceeded without haste. The heavy crates took four men to lift, and would have been impossible to carry down the rope ladders that connected the Elena Patropos to the smaller fishing vessel; but that was why she had the crane. They were on the eleventh crate when the lookout yelled a warning.

“Ship, hard astern!”

“What flag?” Myron shouted back. His skin crawled. Of course it was most likely just some tramp steamer or fishing trawler; unlike the broad Okhotsk Sea where he had learned his craft, this Mediterranean crawled with ships everywhere. But with their luck…

“She flies the Blue Ensign!”

Myros cursed silently, making for the stern at a quick walk to see for himself. The glasses confirmed it, showing clearly the royal blue flag with a tricolor splash in one corner. There was no need to make out the Lion of Judah crowned and crossed; Black Navy, right enough, nobody else flew a flag remotely like it.

Blue Ensign

He stood indecisively for a moment, taking in other details. It was a warship; a merchant ship would have flown the state flag, not the naval ensign – but anyway, the sleek lines would have been sufficient, and the speed; it must be making twenty knots. Of course, it was no great battleship, no cruiser, not even a destroyer – such combatants weren’t wasted on patrolling occupied coastlines. In fact it was actually smaller than the Elena; a customs cutter, or a frigate perhaps. But however the Ethiopians classified their brown-water ships, the single 37mm cannon on its forecastle could turn Myron’s unarmoured vessel into an abattoir, if its captain thought he had reason.

Well, if it came to that, Myron had a few things up his sleeve that weren’t displayed openly on his forecastle; the Elena looked like a peaceful merchantman, but looks were deceiving. A fight would be a chancy gamble, though. Even if they won, there was a good chance the Ethiopian could radio a warning to its fleet, and then they’d have the Devil’s own time getting out of the Med. For that matter, a sinking frigate might just rake them with that gun, which looked bigger every time Myron looked at it; and who knew what might get holed? To include Myron’s personal body, and the engine and hull that was going to take him back to Asia. No, better to brazen it out, at least at first. They had, after all, decoys for precisely this purpose.

Myron took a quick look at the Sun, then straightened in decision; there was no chance of running for it, though if the frigate had spotted them half an hour later he might have tried it. Surely the Ethiopians could not have installed the rumoured night-detectors on their customs patrols yet? Actually, he wouldn’t put it past them; the Black Navy had been cocks of the walk at sea for hundreds of years, and, as the saying went, always travelled first class. But in any case it was irrelevant; the Elena didn’t have the speed to open the range enough, and the Ethiopians had certainly installed the Mark One eyeball, which would suffice as long as the light held.

Back at the crane, his second in command was still supervising the unloading, and raised his eyebrow inquiringly. “Ethiopian frigate,” Myros responded, keeping his features calm. “We’ll try the decoy drill first. But, just in case, go make sure the tubes are loaded right.” Daeho nodded silently and headed for the cargo decks; the Korean was not much given to talking where an economical movement of the head would do. Myron dismissed the hidden torpedo tubes from his mind. Daeho would see that they were properly loaded and ready, and the thought of them might make it harder to play his role. He should be nervous, like any smuggler caught by the authorities; but not sweating and stammering like a man facing a firing squad, nor arrogant or even confident like a man who had a hidden trump up his sleeve and could sink the other officer’s ship any time he chose.

At length the Ethiopian pulled alongside, about a hundred meters to the starboard, and after a perfunctory “prepare to be boarded for inspection” sent a longboat across. There was no question of asking permission, less than five miles off a coast the Ethiopians controlled, even though they were technically in international waters. In this wartime, the Eastern Med was an Ethiopian lake, and anyone who disliked it could send battleships to enforce the three-mile limit. The officer in command was young, a lieutenant if Myros remembered the insignia correctly. He couldn’t recall what heathen name the Ethiopians gave that rank, but it hardly mattered; the captain of a Greek merchantman wouldn’t be expected to know such niceties. Besides, there was an interpreter, an Anatolian Greek who turned his woolen cap in his hands; Myros suspected the man’s sympathies were with him, not his foreign employer. In fact for all he knew the interpreter’s surname might be ‘Komnenos’; Anatolia still held many of the Imperial dynasty, descendants of those who had not followed Alexandros into exile. Although, admittedly, few of them spoke with the thick sailor’s accent of the Rhodos docks; Myros had to concentrate to follow the fellow’s Greek, which was quite different from the version spoken in New Byzantium, lacking Chinese loanwords and Mongolian affricates.

“Captain, he asks what you are doing here. He, ah, thinks he is being funny.”

Indeed, Myros could see the supercilious lift of the Ethiopian’s brows, and sighed internally in well-hidden relief. A man who thought he knew what was going on could be shown what he expected to see. He coughed as if nervous, then smiled ingratiatingly.

“Well, if the truth were told, ah, we realised somewhat too late that our cargo would perhaps not entirely meet with the approval of the inspectors at Marmaris. Of course, these are international waters, so we are perfectly legally transferring a cargo for our own good reasons, no? So, perhaps it is not something that need concern the Black Navy, yes?” That was, at any rate, what Myros’s superiors had told him: That the Ethiopians were, in strict theory, still enforcing the Shah’s laws in their occupied territories, including the prohibition on importing alcohol. But, not Muslims themselves, the officers charged with enforcing the law often found it silly, and could be persuaded to look the other way if there was any sort of excuse. Myros rubbed his thumb and two forefingers together, down by his hip. It was a deniable gesture; if the Ethiopian turned out to be excessively rigid – some of them had strong views about the honour of their uniform – he could deny any intent to bribe, and say that he had merely been scratching an itch.

The Ethiopian smiled sardonically and spoke, and the interpreter translated: “He says, that’s for him to judge; he demands to see your cargo.”

Myros nodded, gesturing for the boarding party to follow him to the decoy crates. Technically the penalty for smuggling good brandy into the Persian Empire, when that polity still existed, had been two years in prison. Which for him was as good as a death sentence, for if they decided to haul him in they would certainly look at the rest of the cargo, and then they’d shoot him. But the Black Navy took pride in its capacity for drink, and sneered at what they considered an effeminate law; and besides, merchant shipping was the lifeblood of their empire, the more so now they were at war with the world’s premier power. They didn’t like to keep ships in dock for what they considered trivial reasons, even temporarily. But sometimes they did make an example, to keep their Moslem subjects happy. Myros licked his lips in what had to be a convincing display of nervousness as he opened the crate, revealing layers of green bottles wrapped in paper. He tried another ingratiating smile; it felt like a grimace on his face. “Ah… perhaps the officer would care for a few bottles, as a gift? Or a crate?” He waited nervously as the Ethiopian spoke again.

“He says, thank you, but his teacher taught him to always bring enough for everyone. And he says, there’s two extra squads of Marines on his ship, and they are hard drinkers and rather cramped and cranky. Ah, he’s still trying to be funny, but he’ll just take what he wants if you don’t give it to him.”

“Yes, of course,” Myron agreed, wincing visibly for the officer’s benefit. He didn’t really have to worry about the bribe cutting into his profit, but his persona would. “Tell him I mis-spoke, of course I meant to offer him three, no, four crates as the gift of my ship’s company to his, in honour of the Black Navy’s well-known capacity for drink. Lay it on thick.”

The officer smiled and nodded, and Myros almost melted in relief. He gave orders, and his crew began to hoist crates into the longboat. The officer parted without another word, but did give Myros a reasonably polite nod, one seaman to another; Myros found himself glad he hadn’t had to shoot the man and sink his ship. After all you could hardly dislike such a reasonable fellow, even if their nations were at war. As the frigate hove out of sight – still at twenty knots – he wiped his brow and sent a crewman down to tell Daeho to disarm the tubes, then returned his attention to the unloading of the real cargo.

The men were laughing and grinning, elated by their narrow escape, and in such moods men made mistakes. “Belay that chatter!” he shouted. “Attention on your task, if you please.” Relieved men might get careless, and a moment’s carelessness with the stuff they were sending the resistance movement in Anatolia could be rather worse than a minute of bombardment with the frigate’s 37mm.

Even allowing for the space the torpedo tubes took up, you could fit a lot of explosives and guns in a Q-ship’s hull.

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