There were nearly fifty boats in all, boats which had nothing in common but their rigs. Culled by fishermen from the harbors of the north coast of Rance, the vessels were ex-anything but fishermen. Submarine chasers, admirals' barges, lifeboats, lighters, torpedo boats, motor-sailers and, in short, almost anything which would float and could be handled by two or three men. Their superstructures bore no resemblance to the original architectural designs. Without exception one or two masts rose from the deck of each to which was affixed a patchwork of rags and booms to make up the crudest kind of sails.
Uh huh. I'm hesitant to describe any arrangement of masts on something as small as a lifeboat as a "superstructure."
Just as the boats' propulsion systems have been modified, so have the dingies themselves been outfitted with hillbilly armor, scrap metal and sandbags or even simple boards that convert the vessels from defenseless little rafts to unsinkable aquatic killing machines, several of which are supporting Fourth Brigade's artillery and heavy machine guns. But the boats are still as silent as they are deadly, and are ghosting up the river towards their objective. It helps that the river is covered in fog, but you can bet that if it wasn't, the lieutenant would have found a way to maintain stealth. Maybe camouflage the fleet as a bunch of curious sea lions.
Oh yeah, and our hero is still abducting people, from "impressed" French sailors to English fishermen whose boats and food were seized along with their operators. They're only civilians, though, and not worth raising a fuss about.
Lefty is in the lead boat, of course, listening to some guy counting how many fathoms to the bottom and trying to navigate based on five-year-old memories of the river and the habits of its fog. And yet, despite the armada being led by our incredible master tactician, there's still a mishap when "a great cliff" suddenly looms out of the murk to force some hasty evasive maneuvers. Now don't be thinking our protagonist is so incompetent that he nearly ran them aground, that would just be ridiculous. No, this cliff is
A great battleship was here, solidly held up by mud. It had burned to the water and its plates were twisted and gaping. The turrets were all awry and half the guns had been blown away. The masts were trailing overside, eaten by rust and still clutched by the tattered dead. This had happened long ago and the name of the vessel was not decipherable.
Little bits like this are the highlights - which is to say, probably the only good parts - of the book. They aren't characters gushing over how wonderful the hero is, or simple misdirection overcoming incompetent adversaries being portrayed as a masterstroke of military strategy. They're just paragraphs that do a decent job of establishing the post-apocalyptic setting and describing the grim but compelling sights you might find in it.
Just as Lefty planned, the boats reach the collapsing ruins of Gravesend three hours after whenever this chapter started, just as the fog begins to lift. They make it past Tilbury, whose famous Fort and docks are nearly vanished, before they're finally spotted by someone on the shore, but that's okay because the lieutenant planned for that to happen. He orders his ships to drop anchor about a hundred yards from the shore, parallel to an open beach, and wait.
Soon about six hundred soldiers march through the surrounding marsh and take position on the beach, and an officer and his command squad step forward to hail Lefty's boats. Of course he yells "Where from?" instead of "Who are you?" because that might force the author to come up with a name for his main character.
Lefty says they're out of France and identifies the fleet as "The Fourth Brigade, coming home!" The officer commands them to turn back because they've got "order to annihilate you if you attempt to land," and I just can't see that. Orders to 'engage,' maybe, even orders to 'terminate.' But what kind of officer is so cartoonishly evil as to tell his men to utterly 'annihilate' an enemy?
A Hubbard Villain, that's who.
Lefty just grins at this threat, and asks for the motive behind it, so the officer reveals that General Victor has sent word that Fourth Brigade has mutinied. Now, we might wonder how Victor did this, if the field HQ in France is no longer in radio communication with England proper and Fourth Brigade had a head start on getting home. But remember that Malcolm, Xenu rest his soul, was able to move much faster on his own than Fourth Brigade does as a unit, and the force has only grown larger over the course of the book. Plus we all know how much time Lefty likes to spend attacking neutral settlements and stuffing his backpacks full of crap.
Anyway, as soon as the officer finishes his explanation, Lefty tells the machine guns to cut the enemy emissaries down. They do. Pretty sure there's nothing in the rules of warfare about shooting people right after parley, right?
The machine guns are told to stop shooting once the offending officers are all perforated to satisfaction, so Fourth Brigade just watches as the enemy army frantically start digging foxholes in the sand and shooting at the boats. But all the boats' occupants are down behind cover, so gradually the incoming fire peters out when the bad guys realize they aren't accomplishing anything. After the baddies send runners to summon reinforcements, Lefty orders a brief flurry of shots at the shore, killing thirty-five and provoking another storm of ineffective gunfire. Well, two guys from Fourth Brigade are wounded, but that's the extent of the damage.
Thrilling stuff. I guess even the author realized that this one-sided farce of a battle isn't very compelling, because Hubbard glosses over the rest of the afternoon with the assurance that the lieutenant kept this up all day, having his men take occasional potshots at the enemy to encourage them to waste ammo. No, the sheer volume of fire doesn't compromise some of the improvised armor on the boats. No, the enemy never wises up and pulls back to better cover, instead the opposing force spends the afternoon entrenching itself in the sodden sand. The only changes are that by nightfall the bad guys have caught on that they shouldn't throw away so many bullets, and Fourth Brigade actually loses a guy, a Frenchman who did the thing where his helmet stops a bullet, and he takes it off to boggle at it, and then another bullet zips through his unprotected skull. Never be that guy, it's an undignified way to die. Better to be the guy with the flamethrower whose fuel tank backpack gets hit and explodes, that's exciting.
Lefty tells the brigade to be on the lookout for incoming boats from upriver, but otherwise is content to relax for the evening with a game of solitaire. His men, though, are less at ease, and worry that the lieutenant's luck has finally run out. After all, the enemy has been sending runners and reports all day long, so not only is it impossible to attempt a landing at their current location, but it's only a matter of time before the enemy assembles a force capable of crushing them once and for all. What could they, a fleet of ships able to raise anchors and pass effortlessly up the river under the cover of fog to a more strategic landing site, do to avoid such a fate?
Like I said, it's not so much that the lieutenant is a military genius as it is that he's surrounded by idiots.
Carstair and Swinburne hop aboard Lefty's boat to express their concerns.
"Lieutenant," said Swinburne at last, "we have every confidence in you. Your feats in getting these boats and the supplies for them, your additions to our artillery all speak for themselves.
No. No they don't. Hubbard, you don't get to shill your hero with 'feats' that happened offscreen over a timeskip.
But we believe that if we are to land we should do it on the opposite bank, where there is no force."
"Every confidence?" smiled the Lieutenant. "Captain Swinburne, I may miss a trick or two in solitaire, but I never miss a trick in battle.
Let's just imagine what masterful tricks Lefty pulled out of his sleeve to win those great off-camera battles. Maybe he captured a fort's worth of artillery after discovering the enemy forgot to lock their doors, and seized a fleet of boats after throwing a rock into some bushes in the opposite direction from the harbor, thus distracting the sentries long enough to grab the ships they were guarding.
I at least hope I don't. Let them collect their forces and alarm the countryside. This is one of those rare moments when we can relax.
This is after telling his men to post lookouts for enemy ships, mind you.
Our men have food and are happy. We have good, dry beds. We have just finished a most harrowing sea voyage in cockleshells. Let us rest."
What did I just say, Hubbard?
Something almost exciting happens at two thirty in the morning, when some enemy ships do indeed try to come at them from upriver, only to get their teeth kicked in by Gian's mortars, some incendiary grenades, and the brigade's return fire. The final score after a barely page-long battle: four minutes of combat, three Brigade losses, and eight prisoners taken from the few surviving enemy sailors. I have no idea what happens to the bad guys' boats - there's mention of flames and shrapnel, but not of the boats actually sinking or anything, but if they're left to drift unmanned the author doesn't say, and the aimless boats don't crash into Fourth Brigade or force them to move. Or maybe it should be Fourth Fleet right now.
At any rate, Lefty gets to question a prisoner, who gives them a good page of information. The British Communist Party is still in control of the country, which is to say that it controls the army and the majority of England, and Comrade Hogarthy currently has the most power thanks to his force of six thousand men. He's headquartered in the Tower of Freedom, previously the Tower of London, and "Most of it is still standing." Hogarthy for whatever reason destroyed most of the country's artillery, but has some three-inch guns left, if not much ammunition for them.
Lefty is nice enough not to spill the prisoner's guts after he spills his guts, and lets him swim to safety if he passes on a message that Hogarthy is to surrender immediately or else Fourth Brigade will attack those men dug in on the shore. Then our hero declares it's time for a celebratory drink, no doubt while his soldiers wonder what he's up to.
And that was Chapter VI. Some shooting happened, but it all went the good guys' way and they barely lost anyone. Our hero has the bad guys right where he wants them, even if it looks like his defeat is inevitable. We're about two thirds of the way through the book, and Lefty has his ultimate objective in sight. And there is absolutely no dramatic tension. No excitement, no question whether or not anything can stop the heroic lieutenant, and nothing at stake.
Well, I guess the heroes' actions could decide the fate of England, but it's not like they're trying to overthrow a tyrannical government or anything. We've seen no examples of the BCP's rule to make us hate them, and we haven't seen our heroes give a rat's ass about anyone not in a uniform. So this is all... what, a revenge plot? 'Try to relieve me of my command, will you?'
Tune in next time for more guns on boats.
Chapter V part II