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Death From Above

Airborne Units for Steampunk 1920

by Terry Sofian

Soon after the widespread appearance of liftwood flyers allowed man to gain the long held dream of conquest of the air, intrepid individuals set about experimenting with novel methods of regaining the ground from those lofty heights. The Earthly powers had long noted the tactical flexibility of the High Martians with their natural flying ability. Although unable to achieve independent flight for individuals on a large scale, the new aerial troops that the major colonial powers formed became yet another revolutionary element of the changing face of warfare at the close of the nineteenth century.

The use of flying parties by High Martians for boarding aerial vessels is an ancient tactic, and numerous Europeans and Martians have fallen afoul of it. Canal Martian legends speak of hordes of High Martians descending in near silence from the dark night sky to sack small cities. The small size of an individual Martian, when compared to even the most diminutive flyer, makes them easily concealable and highly maneuverable. They are nearly noiseless and tactically flexible, especially in restrictive terrain such as mountain passes. It has long been known that if it were not for their poor training, leadership, and armament, the High Martians would pose an even more serious threat then they already do.

Very early in the colonization of the Red Planet two of the Powers deployed special equipment designed to give their boarding parties the same kinds of advantages that High Martians enjoyed naturally. Both Great Britain and Belgium had realized that to lay an armored aerial steam gunboat alongside a Martian vessel was to surrender the advantages of speed, long range fire power, maneuverability, and invulnerability that such ships enjoy. Additionally, it opened the gunboats to counter-boarding by the more numerous crews of Martian flyers. In order to maintain the advantages of stand-off tactics the Royal Marines in 1886 procured a number of Throckmorton Personal Conveyors, small man-powered liftwood flyers.

The MK Ia Conveyor was capable of carrying a fully loaded Marine but was unarmored and itself unarmed. Also, though reasonably maneuverable, it is difficult for a pilot to both fire his rifle and fly. This restricted the combat potential of the Marine boarding party until they landed and disengaged themselves from their machines. Since the conveyors are man-powered, they have limited endurance and prevent a landing party from carrying all but the lightest weapons, rifles and such, rather than more effective ones like pack artillery or machine guns. As a result, the MK Ia was seldom used in combat and was quietly dropped from service in 1903.

The Belgian Colonial forces faced a greater threat to their holdings and engaged in more offensive boarding actions then their British counterparts. The Belgian solution to the problem of supplying stand-off options to aerial units conducting operations was therefore far more ambitious than that of the English. In 1887 the Belgians ordered a large steam gunboat whose most outstanding feature was the installation of a pair of large steam powered "accelerators" that could launch large turn-crank propelled assault boats. Each assault boat, in turn, could carry a platoon of troops and a bow-mounted Nordenfelt machine gun. This arrangement gave the boarding parties increased mobility, great fire power, and cohesiveness exactly where it is needed most: at the point of attack.

The Belgian assault boat idea proved much more successful than the British personal conveyor concept. Most colonial navies on Mars had adopted some variation of the Belgian idea by the early 1900s. This type of craft was never widely used on Earth, however, due to the heavy armoring of European aerial flyers and the proliferation of automatic weapons on board them. These design developments made attacks by light assault boats suicidal. Thus, by the early years of the 20th century, military men were looking for new methods for extending the reach of aerial units. The solution was found in the building of aerial flyers designed expressly for carrying troops into battle.

The idea of using aerial flyers to transport assault units was not a new one in the early 20th century. In fact, the first major use of aerially transported troops on a large scale used no special equipment what-so-ever. Late in 1893 Major General Charles Mansfield Clarke CB launched what was termed an "aerial outflanking" against forces that were threatening to overwhelm British troops along the Oenotria-Syrtis Major canal. Leaving a small covering force to deceive the enemy, Clarke placed the bulk of his forces aboard requisitioned commercial flyers and skillfully inserted them deep behind the front. Surprise was complete when they attacked the rear of the enemy, Clarke succeeded in not only preventing the destruction of his command, but also forced the Oenotrians to retire over fifteen miles south of their previous positions.

The success of Clarke's aerially outflanking quickly revolutionized military thinking on Earth. The aerial flyer was becoming an established element of all modern navies and some armies as well. Their high speed and ability to operate over both land and water were highly attractive assets. Military men soon realized that these craft were not just gunships, but could be used as transports as well. Although there was no question about their utility, the proper way to use flyerborne forces of considerable size became the object of intense military debate. At first, most theorists advocated the use of personal equipment like the Throckmorton Conveyer. These writers based their thinking directly on the way the High Martians fought. However, it soon became apparent that duplicating the High Martian flight capability with a machine was both too expensive and ineffective on the battlefield. Thus, by roughly 1905, all of the colonial powers had begun to build special attack craft designed to hold units of a battalion or more each.

One of the first uses for these craft was in the support of amphibious landings. Amphibious assaults have been conducted since classical times, but had always been restricted by accidents of geography. Beaches capable of supporting the logistical burden of an invading army are few and far between. Defenders are well aware of their locations and can deploy accordingly, ready to catch an attacking army when it is most vulnerable, with its feet in the water. An invading army could, with flyers, cross the coast at any point of its choosing and land its troops in any area suitably sized to contain them and located conveniently near important objectives. No defending army, unless of immense and unreasonably large size could hope to meet an attacking army at all the possible landing sites. Either it would be forced to place smaller detachments at each location, risking defeat in detail, or to concentrate in one area and perhaps be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this way the world's coastal fortifications were rendered of limited value.

The ability of aerial forces to give the flexibility of launching attacks deep into the rear of enemy armies appealed greatly to the so called "Continental Powers". These nations, namely Russia, Germany and France, had always been restricted in their wartime strategies to attacks along well known and heavily defended avenues dictated by topography. They had also surrendered a certain amount of the strategic initiative to naval powers who enjoyed the freedom of maneuver that amphibious operations provide. The Continental Powers saw the acquisition of aerial and aerially mobile forces as methods of gaining that flexibility without having to engage in a naval arms race with the then pre-eminent maritime power, Great Britain. Each of these countries quickly set about constructing the beginnings of aerially mobile forces. In Great Britain and in a totally horrified United States of America (which suddenly found itself stripped of the protection that the oceans had provided for over a hundred years) response was likewise immediate. Each of these five nations would begin the training and equipping of experimental aerial troop carriers and formations by 1908. Japan, which had already converted and deployed the aerial assault transport Mikasa on Mars in 1886, also began to build that type of craft on Earth in 1909.

The idea for squadrons of assault carriers may have originated amongst the Continental Powers, but England's vast holdings on Mars and her experience with aerial vessel construction allowed the Royal Navy to complete the first of this type of vessel well before any of its rivals. To ease design and building difficulties the new "aerial marine transports" were based on the successful Macefield-class heavy gunboat, and in fact the lead ship in the class was a half-finished Macefield converted before completion. The conversion required the removal of the 4.7 inch bow gun and remounting the aft 4 inch weapon in its place. The drogue torpedo and tether mines are also deleted. In the place of this armament, two complete companies of Royal Marines and two sections of Royal Marine Artillery were carried. In order to deliver this complement of troops to their destination, a pair of armoured steam launches were provided. These small vessels can each transport a company and gun section from the ship to the ground and support the landing with fire from its own Nordenfelt machine gun. These ships were widely used to support aerial fleet operations over Germany during the 1914 War, and they continue in service in 1920.

The French vessels were entirely different in concept and operation from those of her cross-channel rival. The French Army had begun construction of vessels designed not only to deliver their troops to the site of the battle, but also to support them with direct fire from heavy artillery. Each flyer carries two companies of Chasseurs l'Aviation, elite light infantry, as well as a 6 inch gun and two machine guns. The additional weight of heavy armor prevented these aerial turtles from reaching either great speed or altitude, but their performance seems well suited to supporting the stately advance of the infantry. The French planned on constructing sufficient craft to lift an entire regiment and envisioned using them both in support of colonial adventurism as well as a threat to their ancient enemies, the British. As it turned out, the French force was thrown into battle in the early days of the 1914 War and managed to blunt the German thrust into Belgium long enough for the front to stabilize. Many credit this action with insuring Germany's defeat, since it allowed the British aerial fleet to continue operations against the German rail network instead of being called back to support the BEF. The victory was purchased at a considerable price to the French army, however: every French assault transport was destroyed in the action. In 1920, the French maintain no assault transports they rely exclusively on parachute delivery for aerial attack by ground troops.

If the French plans prior to the 1914 War were impressive, then those of the Czar can in hindsight only be seen as staggering. Each Russian vessel was to carry a regiment and two artillery batteries as well. Realizing that its strength lay in numbers, the Czar's army planned on constructing enough of these cruiser sized flyers to transport both of the newly formed Aerial Grenadier Guards Divisions with all their artillery and supplies anywhere in the empire or beyond, most likely to Berlin. To accomplish this, sacrifices were made in terms of armament. Only three 3 inch guns and some lighter weapons were fitted to the completely unarmored hull. Apparently these huge ships were to move in fast convoys, escorted by the Czarina class gunboats, disembark their troops, and then depart the battle area as soon as possible, leaving the fighting to ground forces and more conventional gunboats. As it turned out, the Russian armada was destroyed by the German First Aerial Fleet over the Masurian Lakes of East Prussia, their unarmored hulls proving to be no match for Krupps 40cm guns.

Whereas the Russians elected to utilize large numbers of troops to achieve their strategic and tactical goals, the Imperial German Luftschiffabteilung built a number of small flyers each transporting only one company of Luftpioneertruppen and two of the new Panzer Kampdreifuss PzKpfd I Storch combat tripods. The role of these relatively small but powerfully armed ground detachments was seen by some observers as one of deep penetrating strikes in the rear of the enemy in order to disrupt his communications and cause confusion and despair.

These vessels could also land parties well ahead of the main advance to seize bridges and fortifications before they are properly manned. The flyers themselves were small and could carry both moderate armament and armor. The German troops acquitted themselves well in operations against Belgian fortifications early in the 1914 War, but after the destruction of the German Combined Aerial Fleet over Dortmund on September 26, their light zeppelins soon fell prey to Anglo-French hunter-killer teams. As a result of the Versailles treaty, none of the states of the former Germany maintain assault carrier capability, at least officially.

The vessels that the Imperial Japanese navy constructed prior to 1914 were much more heavily armed. Japanese experience on the Red Planet apparently had shown them the value of a transport that can fight off other flyers on the way to landing its troops and then use its guns in support of their mission. Comparable in armament and size to the French cruiser Gloire, but sacrificing some armor protection and altitude for speed and carrying capacity, the Kamikazi class carried its battalion of Imperial Guards infantry into the thick of battle on both Earth and Mars. These ships made short work of the garrisons of the German treaty ports, and the Japanese navy still maintains a large number of these ships.

The United States of America had few colonies of its own, but regarded South and Central America as its own since the days of the Monroe Doctrine. The United States Marine Corps has often been called to intervene in the affairs of local governments when they ran counter to the desires of Washington. To improve the capabilities of the Corps in this mission, the United States Congress authorized the construction of two Aerial Boarding Sloops on modified Eagle-class hulls in 1906. The main rocket armament of the Eagle-class was retained, but the bombs and one of the 3 inch guns were replaced by a near tripling, to battalion level, of the Eagle's already impressive marine complement. The performance remained identical to the original Eagle-class, allowing close cooperation between the two types. The heavy rocket batteries were intended to smother any enemy forces near the landing site and prevent their interference. Based on observations of the European war, several larger versions of these craft have been built since 1916, but American military secrecy laws mean that their capabilities are unknown at present.

Trends for Aerial Units in 1920

One of the major lessons of the 1914 War was the vulnerability of assault transports to both ground fire and other aerial vessels. Ships that could carry a large enough number of troops to make a tactical difference were just too vulnerable to attack due to their lack of armor and weapons, and those that were well protected just could not carry enough men to make a difference on the ground. Moreover, the well-armed transports were often pressed into the role of aerial gunboats, a task for which they were not suited, and therefore suffered a high casualty rate. Thus, by 1920 both the French and the Russians had developed new units and transports centered around an old device: the parachute.

The spirit of adventure and daring-do motivated many of the Victorians. This devil-may-care attitude was reflected in their willingness to attempt any feat, face any challenge. The parachute, a device originally described by Leonardo De Vinci, was "re-invented" in numerous places during the late 1880s. Quickly parachute or "aerial diving" clubs sprang up and records were made and then shattered. By 1900, there were over ten clubs in Great Britain and almost as many in the U.S. Thousands of men and dozens of women had undergone the exhilarating experience that was said to be "like dying and being reborn" by a young Winston Churchill. In August of 1902, Henry Brunel, son of the famous engineer I. K. Brunel, was knighted by Queen Victoria for his leap in a special pressure suit of his own design from the ether flyer RMF Vulcania at an altitude of 75,000 feet. Sir Henry plunged almost thirteen miles before he deployed his first ribbon parachute, and another 3500 feet before he could open his more conventional parasol-shaped main one. He landed safely on the Salisbury Plain not more then three miles from his intended target, the ancient monument of Stonehenge.

Despite this activity, the parachute only began to attract military attention after 1915. The primary reason for the interest was the growing power and accuracy of anti-aerial flyer artillery (AAFA). These weapons made traditional operations where flyers landed troops directly increasingly dangerous. Since these operations had been very successful in the past, military men wanted to preserve the capability of performing aerial landings. Thus, all of the colonial powers now maintain airborne units capable of making mass parachute drops from high altitude, out of the reach of AAFA. The French have by far the largest units, and can deposit a full division within a few hours when the army is on full alert and has activated the reserves. The other European powers have smaller capabilities along the same lines.

The Aeriallyborne Soldier's Companion

The introduction of highly mobile, flyer-transported troops of various types with a range of carriers will influence the conduct of war in the Space: 1889 timeline just as gliders and paratroops did in 1940 in our universe. The front line ceases to be a concept of real meaning, and a prudent general must now allocate resources to defend his non-combat support elements which would be far better spent elsewhere. Just as the paratroops and commandos in our century are élite, highly trained specialist troops, so should the ones in Space: 1889 have been. Included below are some troop profiles for each nation's aeriallyborne forces in Soldier's Companion statistics. Feel free to modify them to suit your purposes and confound your players. The arrival on Mars of a Moltke class vessel and her troops and armored tripods could be disastrous for Great Britain, but player characters caught up in a nasty Latin American revolt will cry with joy when they see the United States Marines arrive behind a barrage of rockets. Add a squadron of troop carrying ships in any of the campaign games from Ironclads and Etherflyers.

The new mobility of assaulting units will force, or open the way for, new tactics and strategies. By introducing highly mobile units into the world the slaughter of the trenches will be no more then an unrealized nightmare. With these new ships, even more then gunboats, the flyer becomes a pivotal technology on the battlefield.

Aeriallyborne Soldier's Companion Statistics


Imperial Guards Aerial Infantry

As Guards Infantry. UV:V1


Aerial Grenadier Guards

As Grenadier Guards. UV:V2

United States of America


As normal. Some individual units had Eagle emblem on cuffs of sleeves. UV:V2


Chasseurs l'Aviation

As light infantry with white coat and sky blue piping. UV:V2S



As Line infantry with steel "coal shuttle" helmet. UV:V3S

Great Britain

Royal Marine Light Aerial Infantry [sky blue] UV:V2

Royal Marine Aerial Pack Artillery [sky blue] UV:V0

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:50:13 EDT

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