The Last Days of Thunder Child

The Last Days of Thunder Child
War of the Worlds - spin off adaptation novel.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Giving Readers A Thrilling Steampunk/Sci-Fi Adventure

This pastiche SciFi story was inspired by H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds set in Victorian Britain in the year of 1898. I suppose it crosses a number of genres in this day and age. Obviously Science Fiction, but also Alternative Reality and even Steampunk. 

I went on a journey of discovery trying to imagine what H.M.S. Thunder Child might have looked like and fell fancifully in love with the first revolving turret ship without sails. It was H.M.S. Devastation - blogs of which are featured here. She also had a sister ship called HMS Thunderer.

At first these revolving ship's had muzzle loading guns with short stumpy barrels that barely protruded from the gun ports. I wanted to keep these on the ship of 1898. Even though they were obsolete by such times. I used poetic license to do such thing and used a credible excuse.

The whole endeavour of this written work was done during an evening school writing class and it sort of developed from there. It was a wonderful project that I found most absorbing. I got it edited properly and a front cover picture from an artist living in Cambridgeshire.

It cannot be published in the UK or the EU until 2017, but the USA, CANADA, AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND can sell it.

Read H.M.S. Thunder Child's adventure against the Martian tripods. Victorian Britain is now a dystopian land. The world has gone mad and the British Empire is exposed for all the weakness it has against an alien technology it cannot compete against. One small out dated ironclad steps up to the mark with a brave crew. In the River Blackwater, Thunder Child makes a defiant stand. Follow the crew and her last voyage.

Enlarge image and get better view of internal ship

My Pastiche novel about H.G. Wells' fictional battleship H.M.S. Thunder Child (The Last Days of Thunder Child) was based on H.M.S. Devastation. In my imagination, I could see this design for Thunder Child going into battle against three Martian tripods on the River Blackwater in the county of Essex, England, UK in 1898.

Muzzle loading guns went obsolete around 1889. All Royal navy ships, including Devastation were converted to Breech loading. However, I invented a political excuse to keep Thunder Child antiquated and still retaining the short stubby muzzle loading guns inside revolving turrets. 

This was to give Thunder Child a feeling of being behind the times, but still plucky when the occasion demanded. The diagram above, was found in a library book and then I was fortunate enough to find it on line. This gives a great internal view of the working of H.M.S. Devastation and I used this plan for my vision of H.M.S. Thunder Child in: The Last Days of Thunder Child by C.A. Powell. 

The book is only on sale in the USA at the moment but will be able to be sold in the EU and other places in 2017. On USA kindle, the novel is available for download and it can be bought in print too. Check out the advert below.

For reviews on USA please click here and scroll down.

H.M.S. Devastation in all her glory, launched 1871 Portsmouth

The first recorded battleship to put to sea without the array of sail and rope was the Royal Navy’s H.M.S. Devastation. She was launched in Portsmouth on 12th July 1871 and was designed by Sir Edward J. Reed. She was the first of two Devastation class battleships – the other being H.M.S. Thunderer, her sister ship. She sat low in the water but her freeboard was raised above the stern and bow. The bow must have been awash with water when she ploughed through the high seas. In the above model, the waterline is roughly where the black paint meets the light brown. You can then imagine how much of the vessel sat below the water. At the bow, you can see the pointed ram, which is of course below the water line. The reason for building this ram was said to have come about after the successful ramming during the battle of Lissa in 1866. This was a battle that took place between the Austrian Empire and the Italian forces close to a small island in the Adriatic sea, close to Croatia. It was the first major battle between ironclads and one of the last to involve deliberate ramming. 

There were of course coal driven ships, made of iron, about and they had been for some time, but for a ship to rely exclusively on steam engine gear as a means of propulsion; this was a first. She had two horizontal trunk engines – a design of John Penn of Greenwich and each of these engines drove screw propellers that moved the vessel at 13.5 knots (25.6km/h)

She could hold around 18,000 tons of fuel and this gave her a range of 5,500 miles, which was very good in 1871.

Note the small muzzle loading cannons barely portruding from the turret ports. They would be replaced with longer barrelled breech loders in 1890. Also note the gantry ladders leading down from the bridge on to the top of the turret. There was a ladder fixed to the back of the turret so crewmen could climb down onto the deck. The same could be done on the rear turret.

What gave her the look of the future battleships to come were her revolving turret guns, which we are familiar with when visualising battleships of the two world wars. However, her first guns placed inside the revolving turrets were muzzle loaded and barely protruded from the gun ports. The two guns to each turret would be rolled back on a small rail and the front would be tilted down so the muzzle was to the deck, where an opening leads to the deck below. Here, the armourers could load the guns by thrusting charge and shell up ducting and into the waiting gun muzzle. When this was done the guns were levelled and wheeled forward towards the gun ports.

It is said that this particular turret and gun design were the same as those used on an earlier invention by a man called Captain Cowper Phipps Coles. He had the same turrets on the ill fated H.M.S. Captain – a ship that had masts as well as the steam engines and iron turrets. She sank off of Cape Finisterre with many of the crew including Cowper Phipps Coles. Only 18 men of a compliment of 500 survived the terrible event.

H.M.S. Devastation’s revolving forward and aft turret guns gave the ability to fire at 260 degrees. She never saw action, though there is an American blog that states she did during the Crimean war. This, of course, is untrue because she was not built until 1871 and the Crimean War was in the early 1850s. There was, however, an earlier H.M.S. Devastation sailing ship and maybe she is recorded as having seen action at this time.

The turret battleship, H.M.S. Devastation was sent out to represent the UK in the Mediterranean and she was a very common sight in the island of Malta with her twelve inch guns inside the strange turrets, when other ships still displayed their broadside guns. She had a crew compliment of 410 men.

Her sister ship, H.M.S. Thunderer suffered a terrible accident during a firing practice drill. It was in the aft turret – as both guns were rolled forward with charge and shell rammed down into each muzzle – the gunner ordered to fire. The gun crew covered their ears as both guns fired. However, just one gun went off and the other remained dormant. The gun crew, who cover their ears to mask the roar of the guns were unaware that one of the guns had not gone off. Each cannon was then wheeled back and dipped down to the loading opening in the turret floor which lead down to the deck below. Another shell and charge was rammed home – shell and charge sitting on top of another unexploded shell and charge. They were wheeled forward once again and when the gun master ordered the crew to fire, it was to be their last act as the explosion within the confines of the turret would have been dreadful. All men of the turret were killed. The consequence of this horrific accident hastened a change in all ship’s turret guns. The old muzzle loading cannons were changed to the longer barrelled breech loading guns. In 1890 H.M.S. Devastation was refitted with these new guns and other modification and then re-assigned to the First Reserve Fleet which was based in Scotland. By now she was old and there were many more modern and more powerful turret ships.
In 1908 she was sold for scrap and broken up, which was a shame, being as she was the first of her kind.

Other historical and navy stories:

First Submarine success of any war

H.M.S. Thunder Child

CSS Alabama

China's civil war that claimed 30 million lives

Ship of the first Opium War

Cyclops class coastal defence ships

Victorian Royal Navy accident

Graf Spee commerce raider of WWII

What would it have been like for the crew of HMS Thunder Child? The fictitious ship from the War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. 

I had a fascination with Victorian ironclads and the first revolving turret ships. These steel beasts of the British Empire never really saw action of note because during this day and age, the Royal Navy was very advanced with many ships to call upon to serve its vast empire. It was never put to the test until the time of the dreadnoughts in WWI. There was a 100 year period when Great Britain's navy cruised, at will, around the entire planet. Nothing of substance could face it upon our Earth. Nothing of note did. These wonderful ships came and went during that period of peace at sea, for Great Britain.

Then, to my delight, I read H.G.Wells' fabulous SciFi novel set in the Victorian era. This author created the ultimate for me. Nothing on Earth could face this proud navy. So he brought us 'off world aliens' from Mars in gigantic machines that roamed, at will, on three legs. The story contained a small exert of an old ironclad called HMS Thunder Child. It lasted but half a page within the novel, but gave me cause to wonder.

I wanted the ship (Thunder Child) to be like HMS Devastation or HMS Thunderer the sister ship. They were among the first revolving turrets ships without sails. I wanted the old fictitious ironclad (HMS Thunder Child) to be like one of these. It would have been built in 1971 and therefore would be old by 1898. For poetic licence I wanted it to have retained its muzzle loading guns with short stumpy barrels that barely protruded from the revolving turret's ports. I needed to invent a reason for the old (and by this time) obsolete guns to still be in use. Muzzle loaders were changed for long barrel breech loaders across the Royal Navy in the 1880s decade, after a terrible accident with HMS Thunderer.

All this was created to give fictitious HMS Thunder Child an excuse to still have the muzzle loaders, years after them becoming obsolete in the Royal Navy. It lent the ship a vulnerability, to my mind, as I decided to write a pastiche novel set in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds Universe. I wanted to go aboard Thunder Child in the days prior to her encounter with three Martian tripods in the River Blackwater, off the Coast of Maldon in Essex, England, UK. The River Blackwater is a small tributary that leads out into the North Sea. What happened in the days leading up to the dramatic event?

Writing - The Last Days of Thunder Child - a pastiche story 

It took me upon a fantasy of my own and an enjoyable adventure. It was a wonderfully engrossing project. If anyone reads H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds or even listens to Jeff Wayne's musical adaptation of the book, they will delight in the tale of Thunder Child's grand moment as the brave ironclad attacks the Martians to save a paddle steamer crammed with refugees.  I decided to go back a few days hence the confrontation, and join the crew upon its journey that would lead to the ultimate meeting. 

Images below of Thunder Child and HMS Devastation - the way I imagined the ficticious ship from War of the Worlds.

Artist's impression of HMS Devastation in Malta

A Sci/Fi artist's great image of Thunder Child.
To enjoy The Last Days of Thunder Child - a pastiche from War of the Worlds please check out.

HMS Thunderer's starboard boiler
exploded in September 1876

H.M.S. Thunderer was the sister ship of H.M.S. Devastation. She  was an early British Victorian battleship  that suffered two major accidents in her early years. The first being an explosion on the 2nd September 1876.

One of her two boilers was over heating due to pressure valves corroding in the upper section. This was on her starboard boiler. Also this boiler's pressure gauge was out of order so it was simply shut off. Such a thing is inconceivable today and its hard to think it was then, but as the starboard boiler began to over heat, the men in the engine room were unaware of the serious and deadly conditions they were working in. The commanding officer was down in the engine room at the time. (Perhaps he was there because of the fault.)

Starboard boiler after explosion
While the commanding officer was in the vicinity, the top half of the boiler exploded killing 15 men instantly, including the commanding officer. A further 70 men were seriously injured, of which another 30 of these would die later from the wounds they suffered. 

As a result of this accident, new protocols were introduced concerning engine checks and stability - careful monitoring that had to be maintained and procedures concerning engine shutdown.

Then on 2nd of January 1879 a second accident aboard H.M.S. Thunderer, brought about further changes within the Royal Navy. This time with the phasing out of muzzle loading turret guns to breech loaders with longer barrels. On this particular day after the New Year's Day, H.M.S. Thunderer was in the Sea of Mamora on a gunnery exercise.

H.M.S. Thunderer was testing her guns when the left hand cannon of the fore turret had misfired. The right hand gun had gone off but the left had not. The gunners inside the turret may have held their ears as the two guns were fired and so be unaware that only one gun had fired. When the muzzle loaders were wheeled back inside the turret, each gun barrel was lowered to hatches in the floor where ducting led down to the armourers below. They would slide a charge up the ducting into the waiting muzzle followed by a shell.
Fore turret destruction by left hand guns double loading.
The gun crew and the armourers below deck would have been unaware that as the guns were rolled forward out of the turret's gun ports, the left hand cannon had an explosive and shell sitting upon another explosive and shell. It was double loaded.

The order to fire was given and as the guns ignited the left hand one exploded in the turret. The 12" gun of 38 tons of steel in the confines of metal walls was horrendous. The luckless gun crew inside the revolving turret did not stand much chance. 
Testing right hand gun at Woolwich Arsenal
As a result 11 men were killed and 34 wounded. At first the crew were not sure what happened and the ship returned to Britain. The remaining right hand gun of the fore turret was dismantled and taken to Woolwich Arsenal in London. The cannon wheeled inside a tunnel of a mounded hill composed of dirt and sand bags - an armoured cell of containment. It was double loaded to create the same condition. When the gun was fired it exploded in the same way and upon checking damage they were able to prove that this was the cause of the accident - double loading the barrel.

As a result the admiralty brought in a directive for all ships to have muzzle loaders withdrawn and replaced with breech loaders. This would prevent an accident of such nature occurring in future.

HMS Thunderer (British Royal Navy Devastation – class battleship)

This Victorian battleship brought about two major changes during the time of Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy because of two terrible accidents. HMS Thunderer was the sister ship of HMS Devastation – an ironclad revolving turret ship designed by Edward James Read. The ship was launched in 1872. Some of the innovations on Thunderer were regarded with suspicion by other designers. This would become well founded because of the horrendous accidents she would suffer.

On 14 July 1876 there was a disastrous boiler explosion. Forty five people were killed when one her eight box boilers burst. HMS Thunderer was cruising from Portsmouth Harbour doing a full power trial.

The terrible explosion tore through the hold and killed 15 people instantly. Among the dead was the ship’s captain. He was in the boiler room when the explosion occurred. About 70 others were injured beside the initial 15 killed, but a further 30 crewmen died later. In all 45 men lost their lives. The explosion brought a swift end to the boilers in use. They were replaced with Scotch cylindrical boilers.

The second serious accident occurred in January 1879 when one of the guns in the forward turret exploded during firing practice. This resulted in the deaths of 11 crewmen with 35 injured. The accident happened when a muzzle-loading gun was accidentally double loaded after a misfire. The gun crew inside the turret would cover their ears as both guns fired. Only one gun went off and the gun crew did not realise. They loaded another charge and shell on top of the one still inside the barrel. The consequences were terrible.

After this dreadful accident, the Royal Navy changed to breech loading guns. It brought about better loading procedures. HMS Thunderer was re-equipped with longer barrelled breech-loading guns.

Other ships of simular build that caught my attention

Cyclops class ship
There is something about this coastal defence ship that I like. It was not really up to much and did not need to prove itself during its time in service with Queen Victoria's Royal Navy. It was an odd shaped little vessel and was rather ugly - yet it still flicks a little switch for me. HMS Hecate was one of four Cyclops class ships that Parliament wanted built because of the Franco - Prussian war in 1870.

Parliament regarded these ships as necessary because they were small and cheap with a shallow draft and offered coastal water defence. The, attack minded, Admiralty thought that because of their shallow draft, they might make good attack vessels in shallow water ports of the enemy. However, the majority of people believed them unfit for open sea and heavy weather. The low fore and aft decks were often awash with sea even in conditions not regarded as severe.

Cyclops class like miniature versions of HMS Devastation.
Admiral George Alexander Ballard thought the armament was fine but stability in open sea questionable. He was known to have referred to the Cyclops class ships as 'full armoured knights on donkeys.' This was perhaps cruel, but probably right. However as coastal or river boats, they were fine little ships.

HMS Hecate did make a journey across the North Sea and for this reason, I have a soft spot for her and the rest of these odd little ships. She had a compliment of 156 men was 225ft from bow to stern with a beam of 45ft. She had two engines and a fore and aft turret, each with two 10 inch rifled muzzle loaders. The little lady could pack a punch if an enemy vessel was to get in her way.

These four ships (Cyclops, Hecate, Hydra and Gorgon) were smaller versions of the HMS Devastation class battleship. They had one funnel instead of the two that HMS Devastation had and looked like a miniature version of this first turret Battleship with no sails.

(Incidentally there is an Australian Ship called HMVS Cererbus that was in service three years before HMS Devastation and is still about - part submerged in a bay off the Australian coast. She is very much like the Cyclops class ships but was built earlier. There is a Save the Cerebus movement to protect and look after this unique ship. You can find out more on: Friends of the Cerebus Inc. Please click link below.)

Below is a newspaper report of HMS Hecate from the Glasgow Herald on 26th December 1883:

Some important experiments were made on Saturday off Plymouth on board the Hecate, 4, double-screw iron armour-plated turret-ship. This vessel, together with Gorgon, Cyclops, and Hydra, her sister ships, was built on the same principle as the Devastation, but on a much smaller scale. It was discovered that they could in no way stand rough weather, and the belief was that powerful as they were, they could only be used for coast defence. About twelve months ago it was proposed to erect a superstructure on one as a test, with a view to secure not only greater stability but better accomodation for officers and crew. The Hecate was selected to be experimented upon, and in January last Messrs H. & R. Green, of Blackwall, who were entrusted by the Admiralty with the work took, the ship in hand.

The improvement made included the extension of the breastwork to the ship's side and the lengthening aft about 20 feet. The captain's apartments are now within the superstructure, instead of below the upper deck, and are well supplied with light and natural ventilation. The officers generally have the advantage of a commodious reading room. A sick bay has been fitted up, and provision made for carrying a quantity of patent fuel. Additional mess accomodation has been secured on the lower deck by the removal of the sick bay, and better cabins have been alloted to the warrant officers.

The sea-going qualities of the Hecate under her altered condition were fully tested on her way from the Nore to Devonport. Saturday's experiments were directed to firing the four guns in the turrets, to test the strength of the superstructure, which is composed of ½ inch steel. Another object **** was to discover the best places for fixing the four Nordenfelt guns with which the ship is to be supplied.

The vessel is armed with four 18 ton guns, two in each turret, both of which revolve. The four guns were first discharged with scaling charges. Then the left gun in the fore turret was loaded with a full charge of 44lb of powder and a common shell weighing 400 lb, and was discharged bearing on the port beam, at a horizontal elevation. The right gun in the same turret was next fired under similar conditions, but bearing on the starboard beam. Upon examining the superstructure it was found that two rivets had been started on the starboard side. The guns of the same turret were then fired with a battering charge of 70lb. of powder each and 400lb shell, but the concussion did no damage. They were then discharged simultaneously. The final experiment was the firing of an electric broadside of all four guns at once, bearing on the port beam. The concussion was considerable, but beyond the two rivets started, after the smallest charge, not the slightest damage was done — not even a pane of glass.

Other things that flicked my interest

I saw a model ship from Victorian times in a military Museum in Norfolk as I drove along the coastal road back to my home in the Fenlands. It was a pleasant surprise because the museum had a little more to look at than I expected.

In one section I saw a number of model boats. One of them HMS Hornet of the Dreadnought class or just pre-Dreadnought. I wrote a pastiche novel of H.G.Wells' War of the Worlds. It is called: The Last Days of Thunder Child. Although in my book, Thunder Child is visualised as a ship looking more like HMS Devastation the HMS Hornet, the models figures of the sailors on board would look the same. I loved the look of the superstructure and the wheel house and the figure standing about in their RN uniforms of the era.

I could not help but excitedly snap the model in order to get a look at the sailors aboard. It sets my old imagination going into overdrive.  

To my further delight, I saw a paddle steamer called the Waverly. This little boat still exists and goes all around the British Isles to various seaside locations each year. When I lived at Southend-on-Sea she often came to the pier and took people out on excursions. I based the paddle steamer on the one in H.G.Wells' War of the Worlds when I wrote the Thunder Child pastiche story. Therefore, I had to click all. I have the image of the sailors aboard HMS Hornet for the uniforms of the day, the paddle steamer Waverly (re-named Southend Belle) for the fleeing boat full of refugees and the model of HMS Devastation for my mind's image of the fictitious  HMS Thunder Child.  

The model of HMS Devastation with her short barrelled muzzle loading guns are what I imagined Thunder Child to look like. Outdated, even in 1898, but able to pack a punch for the people on the paddle steamer in the Last Days of Thunder Child.

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