May 50AD – Mouth of the Mediterranean.
José Pablo Martínez de Calderón García-Batista stared out over the Strait of Gibraltar on the last day of his life. Sitting at the command console in the bascule tower of the Puente de Fransisco José de Goya he idly flicked through a sheaf of papers detailing the day’s shipping traffic due to pass under the bridge. The first rays of dawn skipped across the tiny crests of an almost placid Mediterranean Sea, creating a sheet of pinkish diamonds that seemed to dance and shimmer in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Calderón yawned, stretched, and smiled. Barely an hour into his shift as Controlador he had little to do for another two hours except enjoy the sunrise. The next scheduled vessel was not due until around half past six. Life was good, he decided. Yes, it was very good. He watched the light creep across the water for a little while longer until his eye was caught by something in one of the mirrors mounted high up in the control room. He turned and looked out towards the Atlantic, where the last vestige of night was retreating before daylight’s advance. Against the fading darkness he could see something that puzzled him. Calderón watched and waited. As the light slowly improved he was sure he was right: there was smoke on the horizon; funnel smoke. Lots of funnel smoke. And it was coming his way. Concerned now, Calderón continued to watch until the first mast became visible. Then he reached for the telephone to contact the mainland.
The stunning gothic bridge was a triumph of Spanish engineering, linking Europe to Africa, from Tarifa to Eddalya, in a ten mile long arc of stone and steel, declaring to the world that the Primera República Española was now a technological giant. It had been the most expensive engineering project the world had known and yet, thanks to prudent investment and reasonable levies, the whole scheme was predicted to pay for itself within fifteen years. Not only was there now a direct link to the African provinces of the Empire but also a tollgate across one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Ships meant tolls. Tolls meant money fed back into the Empire’s coffers, though most of the money came from vehicles travelling across the bridge between the continents.
Of course, the rest of the world had not been terribly happy about the plan, but when you have the largest and most powerful army in a disunited Europe who is going to stand in your way? La Troisième République was particularly incensed, the bridge effectively halving the amount of tonnage passing through the Suez Canal as shipping owners, finding the route around the Cape more economical than paying two tolls, despite the extra time and distance. However, since the fall of Napoleon III and the disastrous Franco-Russian war of 32AD, the République was in no position to rattle sabres.
On the bridge of the SMS Derfflinger, Admiral Reinhard Freiherr von Steinheim stood impassively as the Prussian battlecruiser squadron scythed through the calm Atlantic waters, line astern, entering the Strait of Gibraltar. The silhouette of the Puente de Fransisco José de Goya grew slowly larger, the bascule towers distinctly outlined and the low sunlight flashing off the glass of the observation platform. Von Steinheim raised his binoculars and focussed his attention on the centre of the structure. He then followed the long stone ribbon towards the northern shore and then back again to the south where it joined the Moroccan mainland. He noted some movement along the top of the northern mole; a convoy of vehicles setting out from the fort at Tarifa, steam billowing from the tractor units towing trailers. Sloppy, he thought, very sloppy. The Spanish defences appeared unprepared. Von Steinheim surmised that the convoy would be ferrying ammunition to the chain of gun emplacements built into the massive granite moles that stretched out for several miles from either shore, suggesting that the emplacement magazines held the minimum of charges. Good news for us. Von Steinheim turned to his captain. “How long?”
“Speed eighteen knots. Twelve minutes until we turn bearing three three six, sir,” Kapitän zur See Günther Joachim Abdecker responded. “Second flotilla to bear one five six.”
Steinheim nodded. “Very good, Kapitän. As rehearsed, all ships know their allocated targets. Some resistance to be expected. Damage crews ready?”
“Damage crews in position. Main armaments ready. Secondary armaments on standby in the unlikely event of attack by small vessels,” Abdecker responded sharply.
Steinheim stepped out onto the port wing of the bridge and trained his binoculars on the northern shore. Abdecker joined him and they both scanned the scene for signs of activity. “It is unlikely that destroyers or torpedo boats will attack us out here,” Steinheim rumbled, “but not impossible, Günther. More likely when we make our run through to Gibraltar.”
“Gun crews are eager for action, Reinhard,” Abdecker grinned. Steinheim may be know throughout the fleet as Steinhammer, ‘stony hammer’, but Abdecker and he were close. With twenty three years together in the Kaiserlichen Preußischen Marine, comfortable familiarity existed, but only when alone together. In front of the men normal protocol was observed. Out on the wing with just his friend for company Steinheim felt relaxed and allowed himself to smile ever so slightly.
“I’m sure they are, Günti, I’m sure they are.”
Calderón watched, mesmerised through his binoculars as the ships drew closer. He counted six battlecruisers sailing line astern. Either side a small flotilla of destroyers kept pace with their charges. He estimated their distance at around seven nautical miles. On the desk in front of him a large volume of Jane’s eponymous work lay open at the Prussian fleet. Calderón was sure he was not mistaken; the distinct bulges of the supercavitating propellor housings could be seen even from this distance. Surely they wouldn’t… he muttered to himself. He glanced towards Tarifa. The ponderous trucks still ambled towards him. The nearest had practically reached the bascules below Calderón’s tower. A few had stopped by the various gun emplacements and he could see men hurriedly unloading crates of high calibre shells with cranes. Well, if that doesn’t provoke the Prussians… He swung his attention back to the approaching fleet. The lead ship had turned and was now sailing parallel to the bridge. The two battlecruisers behind followed suit. The three aft warships peeled off in the opposite direction and headed southwards. The destroyers distributed themselves equally between the divided squadron. What the hell are they up to?
Derfflinger, Seydlitz and Von der Tann headed north; Moltke, Lützow and Hindenburg turned south. Admiral von Steinheim took out his pocket watch, regarded it for around half a minute, then nodded to Abdecker. “Train guns, primary target,” the Kapitän barked into the brass voice tube. A harsh clanging alarm resonated the length of the ship as the forward and aft turrets swung round, barrels pointing menacingly at the de Goya Bridge.
“Advise when target ranged and guns ready,” von Steinheim snapped. Within fifteen seconds Abdecker signalled that this was so; the familiar whining of the capacitor banks charging up the hybrid gauss guns permeated the bridge. “All ships to follow lead – fire when ready Kapitän.”
Abdecker snapped smartly to attention and saluted. “Thank you, sir,” he beamed and grabbed the voice tube. “Northern flotilla; God save the Kaiser – fire!”
Calderón was in no doubt of the fleet’s intentions as soon as he saw the guns swing in his direction. He threw down his binoculars and dived for the telephone. Stabbing the call button as fast as he could with trembling fingers he got a direct line to the command centre at Castillo de Guzmán el Bueno on the mainland. A rather tired, irritated voice at the other end answered, “¿Hola?”
“It’s happening,” screamed Calderón, as he watched a ripple of flashes along the length of the fleet, “it’s really bloody happening. The bloody Prussians are attacking the bridge!”
“Jesus, Calderón!” replied the voice, suddenly much more alert, “Are you sure?”
Huge columns of water erupted all around the tower as the shells impacted with the sea and exploded. The air filled with brine and noise.
“Of course I’m bloody sure!” yelled José Pablo Martínez de Calderón García-Batista, those being the last words he ever spoke.
Both von Steinheim and Abdecker clutched binoculars to their eyes, holding their breath as they waited for the first salvo to land. Several large columns of water erupted around the bascule section as shells landed fractionally short of target. Suddenly there was a colossal explosion and the central portion of the bridge disappeared in an expanding ball of fire and smoke. A lucky shot had hit the ammunition truck crossing the bascules. The explosion momentarily obscured the rising sun. “Gott in Himmel!” exclaimed Abdecker.
Von Steinheim’s expression did not change. “All guns to secondary targets,” he said without emotion. “Fire when ready.”