After two years of bloody fighting and heavy losses, after enduring the hurricane of November 1824, HMS SURPRISE struggles to make home to Falmouth in a truly dreadful state, very severely damaged and sinking, dozens of her crew wounded and injured, all her officers and men utterly exhausted.
Battered and broken, HMS SURPRISE’s very existence is in doubt. Will she be hulked or even broken up? The First Lord ponders the frigate’s future as her men are paid off.
Doctor Simon Ferguson, traumatised by the deaths of so many of his shipmates, who he has been unable to save, has had enough and leaves for his Tobermory home in the Hebridean Isles.
Actual historical events form the stirring backcloth to a story about fighting men in violent times and the continuing aftermath with which they continue to suffer. Life and Death in the turmoil and terror they endure is described in vivid detail as the barky comes alive once more in an exciting climax to one of the most famous sea battles in the Greek war of independence.
“There is a breaking point at sea… it brought tears to my eyes” Ilene Bennett, Pennsylvania
The great Bay of Navarino is famous in history for being the place where the destruction of the Ottoman fleet in 1827 by Allied squadrons from Britain, France and Russia occurred. However, it is less well known for a much earlier conflict, in 425 BC when the Athenians invaded the island of Sphacteria (which forms the west side of the bay) to defeat the Spartans, a very influential battle in the Greek Peloponnesian wars.
Much less well known than either of the above two battles is the invasion of Sphacteria by Egyptian troops in 1825 (the subject of the closing chapters of this book) when Ibrahim, their general, determined that the island was the key to capturing the bay, the town of Pylos on its eastern side having endured his land siege whilst being resupplied by sea.
The miraculous escape of the Greek brig “Aris” from the Bay of Navarino on the 8th May 1825 is something of a legend in Greek revolutionary history. It is commemorated by the celebrated Greek artist Konstantinos Volanakis with his famous painting “The Sortie of Aris“.
That the brig did escape from dozens of Ottoman ships blockading the bay exit and that she did so in a near total lack of wind whilst being bombarded for four hours or more by many of those enemy ships must count as something of a minor miracle, but it was also a feat of naval tenacity and courage that must surely be one of the greatest in military history, the odds against her, against surviving being simply staggering.
‘Oh, Macleod will carry my letter to the First Lord,’ Pellew had declared in a rising tone, one not wholly convincing, as if seeking to cast off all the ills of the world.
‘But… sir…’ a rush of dismay had flooded Pat’s thoughts in that jarring instant, ‘… Macleod has departed… with Eleanor.’
The old face shifted from a picture of internal reflection, ‘Yes, he did. It had not escaped my notice, O’Connor,’ Pellew brightened, ‘and bearing my letter.’
‘But… but you had yet to inspect her, sir?’ exclaimed Pat, astonished.
‘Oh, indeed; but a glass from the quay was all I required. I dare say there is a deal of bow and perhaps other caulking to remedy – that is perfectly plain to the eye – and a new mizzen with all its rigging to install, but doubtless there will be a plentiful supply of suchlike at the Dock; likewise a new suit of sails.’ Pat could only stare agape, speechless as the admiral had continued, ‘She is in want of a trifle of paint… but we will pay that no mind; it is no matter… and she may be in need of some little of attention to her copper, no doubt…’ Pellew looked directly into Pat’s anxious gaze, lowered his voice, ‘but I could not – may Saint Patrick preserve me, as you yourself might remark – I could not, with the best will in the world, give the First Lord the smallest doubt that she should be preserved; indeed, she must be restored, and without the loss of a moment.’
‘That is hellfire good of you, sir!’ cried Pat; the significance, the consequence of what Pellew had just said sinking in, he fairly gushed with effusive thanks, ‘That is exceedingly generous in you, sir; handsome, so it is; I take that very kindly, more than I can ever say.’
Pat’s heart raced, a tide of joy surging through his every fibre as Pellew continued, ‘Since he is a landsman, the gentleman may find it something of a difficulty to reach a decision about the ship; indeed, he may come to that particular conclusion which I do not much care to consider of.’
‘Sir, I am very much indebted to you… I am so,’ Pat found his voice at last, a tide of warmth for Edward Pellew, wonderful Edward Pellew engulfing him, happiness unleashed once more and, it seemed, from a very distant place within his being, so cast down had he been; no wonder this man was long a legend within the service. ‘Upon my word, that is exceedingly handsome in you, sir,’ and uncommon irregular the unuttered thought even as the strain in his face relented and softened with a small and tentative smile.
‘We must not concern ourselves with a guinea or two of honest expenditure here and there,’ Pellew had grinned without the slightest hesitancy, his face radiating unfeigned pleasure, ‘… a trifling consideration it is, for sure. Where would we be, O’Connor, without we could read of the reports and voyages of an active Surprise in the fleet, eh? Something is surely to be done, for all love.’
‘I am much obliged, infinitely obliged, sir,’ Pat’s words had been whispered, barely audible, coming concurrent with a sudden and illuminating revelation cutting through the fog of his uncertainty, through the confusion which had beset him since shortly after the Falmouth arrival. The raw, burning flush of realisation of how dearly he wished to see his ship restored and to be with his men, his shipmates aboard her once again had become a lifting conviction, a purpose of great importance, of strong merit, one much subduing the unwelcome confusion he had endured since the aftermath of devastation inflicted upon him by the hurricane.