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For All Nails #296: Red Sea Morning

by Jonathan Edelstein


Aboard the ENS Amr ibn al-As
Off Port Sudan
3 July 1981

Zero dark thirty, the first of Ramadan.

Another damned day.

Down in the mess hall, the crew was finishing breakfast and grumbling about not eating until sunset. Technically, Vartan Sardarian didn't have to worry about that - he had no religion, and the church he didn't go to was Orthodox - but if the men couldn't eat, he didn't eat. His XO laughed at that; he was Muslim, and he was in the galley scaring up lunch.

Up on deck, Vartan stood by the railing with a cup of coffee and looked out over the Red Sea. His watch began in half an hour and he should really have been on the bridge, but there wasn't any purpose. Nothing would happen today except the eternal game of chicken - trying to get close enough to the Arabian side to see something, and shooing away any Arabians who showed their faces in Egyptian waters. He'd been playing that game for six years, and he knew all the rules.

Damn, but he was tired of it.

His coffee finished, he threw the cup into the water and made his way to the bridge. The exec came in at about the same time with a wrap of sausage and chickpeas in hand; the look the duty lieutenant gave him was just short of dumb insolence. Sometime soon, Vartan was going to have to talk to him; Mohammed was worth five aristobrat lieutenants, but it didn't pay to antagonize them, and too blatant an apostasy could be trouble in its own right. Later, when they were in private.

The lieutenant saw Vartan and sketched a salute; that was also just short of dumb insolence, but for a different reason. Vartan was a Christian, an immigrant, a person of no family - which was also why he had six years in grade, why he still commanded a Red Sea corvette, and why the lieutenant would probably make captain before he did.

He'd have something to say about that later also. In the meantime, he acknowledged the salute. "Anything?"

"We've got something on radar, sir," the lieutenant replied. "It's been going in and out, but it's on a pretty steady heading." He didn't seem alarmed; an intermittent signal on Egyptian radar was as likely to be a log or a bird as anything they'd have to notice.

It still paid to make sure. "Range?"

"Eight point six klicks, bearing one three one. We should have confirmation on it in a few minutes..."

"We'll have confirmation sooner than that," said Vartan. He picked up a binoculars, walked to the window and peered vaguely southeast. Far in the distance, the dawn shadows resolved themselves into the shape of a cruiser. "Sometimes looking out the window helps," he said, knowing it was a cheap shot but deciding, just this once, to take it anyway. "It's headed straight for Port Sudan, and as far as I know, there's nothing of ours in the neighborhood."

By now, Mohammed was also at the window. "Arabian," he reported. "Nasirullah class."

"Very well, you know the drill. General quarters, give me a course to intercept, and get me on the mike." He keyed the handset next to the command chair. "Arabian ship, this is Commander Vartan Sardarian of the Egyptian corvette Amr ibn al-As. You are violating Egyptian territorial waters. You are directed to acknowledge and exit Egyptian territory forthwith. Sardarian out."

The silence lengthened as he waited for a response. Usually, the Arabians only had to be warned once; sometimes a second repetition was necessary, but never more than that. But now he gave a second and a third warning, and the other ship didn't deign to acknowledge him. He knew what the next step was, but he'd never had to take it until now.

"On my command, give them a warning shot across..."

"Sir, they've opened fire."

Vartan didn't know why, but the rules had just changed.

"Hard to port. Bring her around and run like hell." Staying to fight a cruiser was suicide; better to outrun it and call for help.

The first shot went wide to starboard, and Vartan realized that his evasive action hadn't been necessary; the Arabians were at least a hundred meters off their range. His estimation of them grew even lower as the Amr ibn al-As pulled away; Mohammed was laying smoke and dodging, but he didn't really need to.

"They could use some practice, couldn't they?" Mohammed said. "They must get their officers from the same place we do." Vartan grunted; he'd once mentioned his grievances against the Egyptian general staff in an unguarded moment, only to learn that Mohammed hated them worse than he did. The exec was a middle-class merchant's son from Alexandria who'd made it into the academy because even the high command knew you couldn't float a ship with a family name. The army officers were all sons of somebody; there were enough like that in the navy as well, but there was also room for the merely competent. Which was something for which Vartan was profoundly grateful, and never more so than now.

Then the Arabians got lucky.

The Amr ibn al-As lurched as it took the hit, and damage alarms screamed. Vartan knew he had wounded and dead - and what was almost worse, the corvette slackened its speed. "We've lost the port side engine," he heard someone say.

They could never outrun the Arabians now. "Cut the other engine," Vartan ordered. To cut the engine was to surrender, but it didn't seem like there was any choice.

"Aye, sir," said Mohammed; somewhere, the engine fell silent. The bridge was unnaturally still; once again, there was nothing to do but wait.

"They're not acknowledging, sir," said the duty lieutenant. "They're coming about... they're making a course straight for us."

Mohammed was the first to react. "They're going to ram us? If they're not going to let us surrender, why not just stand back and shell us?"

"It would take too long," Vartan answered. "This close to Port Sudan, someone might come bail us out. That, and we range them. Or maybe they just don't know what else to do." The Egyptians had scored at least one hit while they were running, so the Arabian commander knew that Vartan had better gunners than he did.

He thought fast. "Hisham," he said to the lieutenant. "Get down and open up the arms room. Do it now," he barked as the lieutenant stared.

He keyed the PA system as he watched Hisham disappear. "All crew. All crew. Starboard side weapons stand fast and keep firing until the enemy is five hundred meters out. Everyone else, get your asses to the deck. If the arms room is on your way, stop there and take what Lieutenant Tantawi gives you. If it isn't, grab anything that will do damage and move!" He turned to the other watch-standers in the bridge. "Find all the ropes and chains up here and anything that will make a hook, and start tying the bastards down."

Now it was Mohammed's turn to stare. "We're going to board them?"

Vartan returned a fierce grin.

"And me without my cutlass." Mohammed shook his head. "What if there are marines on board?"

"Then we're fucked. We're probably fucked anyway."

"Just checking." The two of them and the ops officer ran out into the gunfire and smoke, to corral the men who were milling around the deck and get the makeshift grappling hooks tied down. The Arabian ship grew closer, and the minutes stretched to eternity.

The ships collided with a sickening crunch. Metal pinwheeled and wounded men screamed; a piece of something grazed Vartan's scalp and stunned him momentarily. Then the grappling hooks went over. More metal flew as the enemy ship tried to back away and badly secured chains broke loose, but the others held and the men swarmed up.

Vartan was the first one onto the enemy ship. As he expected, the bow was clear; none of the Arabian sailors had been interested in standing point when the Amr ibn al-As was rammed. The cruiser had at least four times as many men as he did, but they were scattered, and if he was lucky, they wouldn't get together in time.

"You know what to do," he shouted. "Move, move, move!"

He obeyed his own order and ran toward the bridge entrance, with twenty men falling in beside him. Mohammed made a beeline for the engine room with another eighteen and the ops lieutenant took the others toward the arms room; two stayed behind to unhook the boarding chains and catch up if they could. Enemy sailors were appearing on deck, but in ones and twos and with no leadership; Vartan felled one with his sidearm while his men supported him with whatever they had. Beside him, Hisham had appeared from somewhere and was fighting like a demon. So the bastard was good for something after all.

A heavy iron bar staved in a hatch, and Vartan rushed through. "Hands up," he shouted. Only two of the officers had the presence of mind to fire; one of the Egyptian sailors was down, but then the two Arabians joined him. The others dropped their weapons and lay on the floor. Vartan told two of his men off to tie them up and set the rest to building barricades.

"Look at this, sir," Hisham said. He'd pulled a message off the teletype.

"Egyptian forces crossed the Victoria Canal at 0300 on 1 Ramadan 1401," Vartan read. "A state of war now exists with Egypt, and all Egyptian forces are to be presumed hostile." He crumpled the message and threw it to the floor in disgust. "Nice of the general staff to tell us." For once, Hisham only nodded.

Mohammed's voice came over the PA. "Engine room secure."

"Head count?"

"Eleven."

A moment later, the ops officer reported in from the arms room with fourteen men, which was the same as Vartan had. Thirty-nine left from a crew of ninety-seven. There were some still on the Amr ibn al-As who would escape in the lifeboats, but he'd still lost more than forty men.

"Son of a bitch," said Mohammed's voice. "It worked."

"Once," Vartan replied. And it hadn't worked yet; there were still more than two hundred Arabian sailors at large in the ship. The Egyptians had the weapons and the nerve centers, but they were badly outnumbered and they couldn't hold the ship for long.

"Let's head for Port Sudan," Vartan said. Even damaged and badly maintained as the Arabian ship was, it could make Port Sudan in three hours, and he could probably hold it until then. If he called ahead, the harbor patrol could meet him an hour out with reinforcements and shave his margin a little more.

The Arabian ship swung slowly to the west. Nearby, the Amr ibn al-As settled into the sea.


(Proceed to #297 (Sinai War, Africa, 3 July 1981): Jerusalem Folly.)

(Return to For All Nails.)

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