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11 March 2009
  Histories & Tales of the Gunboat Wars
Essays & Stories by Walter D. Reimer

"Battle of Blefuscu Atoll"

an essay of the Pirate Raids

Blefuscu Atoll
Excerpted © 2008 by Walter D. Reimer
 from ‘Minor Warship Actions’ - part of the Battle Problems series –
 Rain Island Military Collective Press, 1964)

        The last major conflict of the Gunboat Wars was fought at Blefuscu Atoll, an island group in the northern Nimitz Sea area, beginning on July 6, 1913 and ending when all resistance by the ‘pirate’ forces was crushed on July 9.  In one important case it was also the bitterest of the many battles and actions fought from 1911 to 1913, because the battle was fought exclusively between units of the Rain Coast Naval Militias.
        Blefuscu Atoll, comprising the major islands of Murgu, Muntz and Margo, lies some 125 miles NNE of the Spontoon Independencies and has a greater surface area than the entire Spontoon Atoll.  Up until 1910 it and its larger neighbor to the north, Brackett Island, had been only sparsely inhabited and there is some evidence that either disease or repeated raids had succeeded in wiping out the original settlers of the islands.  Blefuscu and Brackett have sources of fresh water and forests (fir, cedar, Sitka spruce and cycads) that could aid in the resupply and refit of passing ships, and the atoll is a protected harbor nearly the same size as Spontoon Main Island.  This latter feature makes Blefuscu desirable as a fleet anchorage for the later Rain Island Naval Syndicate’s Southwest Group.

        The Rain Coast naval militias were an anomaly among the other navies in the northern Pacific area, composed largely of independent groups of sailors who voted for their officers and were armed with whatever was readily available.  These units operated under prize rules and could, in wartime, seize opposing ships as a profit-making venture.  Naval militias were established by the Rain Coast Assembly in 1905 to fight in the Northern War, and had been retained as part of the Republic’s defense apparatus. 
        However, the fact that, historically, such a profit-based mode of operation lent itself to abuses and eventual corrupt practices was overlooked by the Assembly.  Largely ignored by succeeding governments, some of the militia crews eventually took matters into their own paws and began operating to suit themselves and not the communities that had hired them.  It is estimated that as many as 15% of the naval militias had turned to freebooting or outright piracy as a means of supplementing their regular income by 1911-12.
        At least one group of these (named ‘pirates’ for the purposes of differentiating them from units that were still loyal to their constituencies) had established a base on Muntz Island and were using the island’s resources to provide fresh water and fish to friendly crews.  The crew that founded the base was led by a woman named Elizabeth Bering, later known as the “Madwoman of Muntz” or “Crazy Liz.”  Her crew carried out numerous raids on inhabited islands with a complete disregard for civilized behavior, a matter of some note at her trial in 1914 (the log of her ship, the Mystic, is available for the perusal of scholars and historians at the Maritime Museum in Carlin).
        Pirates operated openly in the waters around Blefuscu and Brackett and ventured into the sea lanes between Rain Coast and Spontoon.  Their raids became so brazen that a motion was carried unanimously in the Assembly for the naval militias to rid the area of all pirates and their activities.

        In order to succeed in their mission, the commanders of the naval militia forces (Captains Stalking Wolf, Two Bears, and William Kirov) realized that an amphibious landing was required to sweep the islands clear.  Three land-based militias were called upon for the assault, including one Mountain unit who would act as shock troops and lead the attack.  Two aerial militias, equipped with the new Nanaimo-class “baby Zeppelin” airships, would provide aerial reconnaissance and support the landings. 
        It should be noted here that any amphibious landing in force against an entrenched opposing force is one of the most difficult battle problems in any military repertoire, even in the 1960s.  The American landings at Daiquiri, Cuba in 1898 had resulted in unintended casualties in both men and materiel and, had the landings been opposed, the Americans would have been forced to withdraw.
        The Americans also enjoyed certain advantages; good weather, a beach with few natural obstacles, and most importantly a friendly Cuban insurgency that kept the occupying Spanish forces engaged.

        Intelligence regarding the pirate forces came from informants and captured pirates who, under varying degrees of interrogation (at least one dying under questioning) revealed that there were 'probably' nine ships in the lagoon at any one time, and there were only two channels capable of allowing access between Muntz and Mungo. A stockade fort was situated on Muntz, while smaller structures were built on Mungo.
        Weather was also a factor. July in the Nimitz Sea is predominantly tropical, with wind-effect rain showers occurring seemingly at random, and prevailing winds from the southwest. Weather data for the area was, however, not comprehensive.

        Based on the gathered intelligence, the Rain Coast War Ministry determined that operations would commence on or about July 6, 1913, and directed the three captains accordingly. Captain Kirov, commanding the transport group of six ships, passed the orders on to War Leaders Red Deer and Henderson, the commanders of the pioneer and invasion forces respectively.
        The content of the orders caused a great deal of discussion among the crews and militia members, particularly the demand by the Assembly that no quarter be asked or given. Wiping out the pirate forces bit deep; as more than one diarist has remarked, "We knew these people, and to be asked to kill them without at least asking for their surrender would be a hard thing."
        This matter was brought up while tactical planning was in progress, and engendered much debate. Finally the commanders convened an executive committee composed of representatives from each ship. A compromise was reached; if any pirate surrendered or was too wounded to speak, their life would be spared, while any resistance was to be crushed. According to Captain Two Bears' log, the vote was close, but the motion carried.

        Inserting the pioneer force posed a problem. It was decided that the force would be divided into two teams, for both Muntz and Mungo, with the objective of clearing the assault beaches (designated A and B). The original idea was to have the soldiers swim ashore, an idea that engendered much shaking of heads until one aerial militia observer had an idea. The airships would drift over the targeted islands, engines off, with the pioneers hanging from rope harness beneath the gondola. After some discussion, this novel idea was agreed upon.
        At about 0200 on July 6 the invasion force raised Muntz Island and the force moved to blockade the channels. The aerial militias lifted off with some difficulty from the added weight of the troops hanging from them. The pioneers were lightly armed with small arms, knives and war clubs. The actual assault was scheduled to begin at 0500.
        Things started poorly. Unknown to the assault planners a low-pressure system had moved into the area earlier in the night and winds were variable in both direction and speed. One airship nearly crashed into the trees on Mungo, venting ballast to stay aloft.  When the teams started to disembark, the drop in weight caused the airships to gain altitude rapidly. Casualties among the pioneer force amounted to 10%; Red Deer was thrown to the beach, dragged and then literally thrown into the trees before he could cut himself free from his ropes. He suffered a bloody nose, bruised ribs, fractures of his tail and a badly injured pride. Another soldier was far less fortunate; his rope threaded between two trees and literally cut him in half as the airship shot away.
        Nevertheless the pioneers started accomplishing their tasks and by 0500 Beaches A and B were waiting for the landing force.

        The Rain Coast forces started bombarding the fort on Muntz Island as well as firing on the pirate ships in the lagoon from long range. There were nine ships in the lagoon at the time. After bombarding the targets for nearly half an hour the invasion force moved in. One RCR ship almost ran aground on the barrier reef and had to withdraw momentarily to assess any damage.
        The Mystic, Captain Bering's ship, was identified in the lagoon and she made a successful attempt to run the channel blockade, damaging 2 RCR ships while sustaining damage herself. Three ships pursued her (the Mystic was taken in Gilbert & Sullivan waters in August 1913 as she was coaling). Several other pirate vessels tried unsuccessfully to exit the channel and were harried by the aerial militia units.

        Because there were no specialized landing craft (nor would there be until at least 1920) the bulk of the Rain Coast invasion force, some 650 soldiers, was put ashore using wooden oceangoing canoes. These vessels had been used by First Race tribes for thousands of years in whaling or seal-hunting expeditions, and were very effective. The troops and their arms and supplies were put ashore with almost no mishap.
        The pioneer teams, as described earlier, were armed with small arms, knives and war clubs; the invading force was similarly armed with the addition of Gatling and Maxim machine guns, and a few small pieces of artillery. It soon became evident that the pirates were not similarly equipped.
        The Mungo Island force quickly achieved its objective, killing or accepting the surrender of the few pirates on the island and liberating a number of captives it found there. The captives, obviously bound for slavery, had been kept in barbed-wire pens in appalling conditions while awaiting transport. Reports of their treatment figured prominently in the Muntz Island operations and subsequent events.

        The pirate stockade on Muntz Island fell on the afternoon of 7th July, with the remnant of the pirate naval force surrendering soon afterward. The Mungo Island force was then shipped to Brackett Island (Margo having been determined by aerial reconnaissance to be deserted); Brackett was declared clear on July 9, and the operation was halted. The commanders of the force declared the operation a success.

        Nevertheless, the cost was a heavy one. The casualty rate among the RCR forces approached 22% (39 dead, 101 wounded). 301 pirates were killed and only twenty-seven taken prisoner, fifteen of them wounded (five would later die of their injuries).
        The remaining thirty-seven pirates were brought to trial before a special tribunal in Seathl on July 29, 1913. Nine were hanged; eleven received life sentences, fifteen were sentenced to lesser amounts of time in prison, one was committed to hospital because of insanity, and one (a boy of twelve) was acquitted.
        Blefuscu Atoll (the original names of the islands effaced) and Brackett Island later became the headquarters of the Rain Coast Naval Militia's main weather station in the Nimitz Sea, and later was used as a base by the Naval Syndicate.
        Lessons learned from the conflict started with the need to know the geography of the area; the Military Collective's mandate, under the Contract with Spontoon and Tillamook, includes many of the atolls and islands in the Nimitz Sea, and it is desirable to know what you might end up having to defend or take back. Comprehensive knowledge of the weather in the area is also desirable, and the Rain Coast started setting up a chain of weather stations throughout the region.
        The major lesson was the glaring need to rein in the militias and impose some sort of order on them to prevent them from lapsing into unethical or even criminal behavior. A set of regulations were enacted that would be codified into the anarcho-syndicalist Rules used today by units in the Military Collective. This need also manifested itself in the Military Collectivization Act of 1920, which created the present-day Naval Syndicate and Army Union.

        Advances in military hardware and techniques were also a lesson learned. Amphibious landing techniques are now rigorously studied and specialized craft started being developed in the Rain Coast almost immediately after the British demonstrated a prototype in 1920. The practice of dropping troops from airships was eclipsed with the first tactical demonstration of the parachute in 1917, and work began on paratrooper training. This stimulated the need for actual transport aircraft, starting with the acquisition of the post-War Barling Bomber and leading up to the Conwing L-25 "Winged Bear," currently in development (1964).

        Assessment: Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th-Century Italian political scientist (q.v.) stated that mercenary troops are far inferior to professional armies because of their susceptibility to corruption. It was a lesson that the people of the Rain Coast Republic learned to their sorrow. The Battle of Blefuscu Atoll remains the only example of a purely fratricidal conflict between RCR forces, and it was a very bloody affair indeed.  One historian, paraphrasing Gambetta (q.v.) said, “We don’t talk about it, but we’ll never allow ourselves to forget it.”
        As living memories fade away, it is hoped that this unsavory part of Rain Coast's history will be discussed in greater detail.

end of excerpt

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