Snifter of Brandy, if You Please..."
7:00 pm., Admiralty, London
31st May, 1915
Winston Churchill strode into the Signals office of the Admiralty brusquely,
unlit cigar in hand. He had been going over the Dardanelles situation
with other officers; the meeting had run long, and though he knew the
Grand Fleet was at sea, he was not aware of the fleet action even now
"Lieutenant, is there anything from Jellicoe?"
"Yes, sir, several dispatches." The young officer looked a
bit pale, Churchill noted. Well, it was a rather dreary day in London,
and who wanted to be on duty in this drafty room anyway?
"Well then, give them to me. I'd like to see just what's been about
"Of course, sir." The Signals lieutenant handed over a sheaf
of papers, comprising both signals intercepts and messages addressed specifically
to the Admiralty, and organized chronologically. Churchill took them to
a large armchair and sat down to read them. The cigar moved to his mouth,
while he unconsciously read the dispatches half-aloud.
"From Jellicoe... 'Grand Fleet sailed. BCF, Sturdee, already at
sea. Routine sweep anticipated. Jellicoe'." Churchill hurried to
the next one.
"Intercept, HMS Galatea... 'Enemy in sight. '" The First
Sea Lord scanned the next few, one a weather report and the others similarly
"Aha! Sturdee: 'Engaging enemy battlecruisers.' Good! A bit of payback
for Dogger Bank, then! There'll be no stringing out of the force this
time, I'll wager." He laid that paper aside, then reached for the
"'Retiring on main body ... request light ship support ... heavily
damaged.' Elaborate, man, elaborate! What in Hell does 'heavily damaged'
"That's what it means." Churchill read from the next page:
" 'Australia lost, Indefatigable heavily damaged, other
ships hit. No damage observed on enemy. Sturdee.' "
Damn! Churchill thought. No emotion crossed his face, however. "Lieutenant,
would you please call a steward?"
"Aye aye, sir." The officer put his head into an anteroom.
A steward appeared moments later.
"Sir, how may I serve you?" he asked.
"A snifter of brandy, if you please, and a glass - Lieutenant, would
you care for a glass of brandy? Yes? Two glasses, then," the First
Sea Lord said.
"Very good, sir. It'll be only a moment." Churchill nodded
and turned back to the dispatches.
"From Sturdee ... 'Invincible disabled, Indefatigable crippled, remaining ships withdrawing. Best speed 15 knots. Attack by
destroyers without observed result, hits on enemy possible. Much smoke
in battle area. Enemy no longer in view.' Good, good. A bit of payback
by the destroyers."
The steward reappeared as Churchill reached for the next dispatch. "Ah,
thank you. Lieutenant, there you are...good brandy, isn't it? Thank you,
steward, that'll be all."
"From one of the cruisers: 'Invincible and Indefatigable
believed lost. Inflexible abandoned. Queen Mary crippled
and sinking. Enemy torpedo craft withdrawing. Heavy enemy units in sight,
Churchill's hand shook as he reached for the brandy and took a large
swallow. He read on.
"From Jellicoe: 'BCF believed defeated. Inconclusive cruiser action,
one armored cruiser lost, one claimed sunk. Indications are that one or
more enemy battlecruisers may be damaged and withdrawing.' "
Churchill's hand now steadied a bit as he flipped to the next sheet.
"From Galatea: 'Possible enemy battleships in sight.' "
"Intercept from Iron Duke: 'Equal Speed Charlie London.' "
The Grand Fleet had deployed into the line of battle!
"Is there anything more, Lieutenant!" Churchill fairly shouted
at the Signals officer, now bent over a table at the other end of the
"Yes, sir! From Admiral Jellicoe, sir!"
Churchill jumped from his chair and dashed to the table. "Give it
to me, man!"
" 'Confirmed enemy battleships. General action imminent. Jellicoe.' "
The door opened before either man could react.
"What is it?" demanded a highly excited and impatient First
"It's the wireless receiver on this end, sir! It's broken down!
I think a fuse blew - we'll be on it right away!"
"You had better, young man," roared Churchill, "or I shall
blow a fuse!"
I would rather be with the Grand Fleet right now, the Signals
lieutenant thought. The Germans would only be trying to kill me.
Room 40, approximately 7:30 pm. May 31, 1915
"Well?" Churchill asked.
"Sir, it's not fixable with what we have on hand. The fuse didn't
just blow; it burned out. I'm sorry, sir."
Churchill was silent a moment. He tilted his glass and swallowed the
rest of his brandy, then held the glass while he contemplated the situation.
"Lieutenant," he said, "is Room 40 still operating?"
"I assume so, sir," replied the Signals officer.
"Very well, then. I shall adjourn to Room 40 and keep track of the
battle there. Thank you for the brandy." With that the First Sea
Lord set his glass down, turned, and left the room.
Room 40, some minutes later.
Churchill entered the office in which signals intelligence from both
the British and German navies were interpreted and disseminated with barely
a notice from the busy men within, but that was rectified when he lit
one of his cigars and took a puff. The odor attracted the attention of
an RNR commander who stopped what he was doing and came over to greet
"To what do we owe this honor, sir?" Commander Barkely asked.
"To the wireless at the Admiralty, Commander. It malfunctioned,
something about a fuse. I know that the battle lines were about to collide,
but I have seen no more since then. What do you have?"
Barkely led Churchill over to a table piled high with intercepts. "Sir,
we have intercepted a number of tactical communications from both fleets."
His voice trailed off. "The news has not been good thus far, Your
"What do you mean, Commander? Let me see that," Churchill demanded.
Wordlessly, Commander Barkely handed over a pile of message forms to
the First Sea Lord. Churchill read them, then slowly handed them back.
"My God," was all he said.
Barkely waited and watched. "My God," Churchill repeated. "That
damnable Letters! And Rudburg? Who in the name of Saint George is he?"
What the messages had disclosed was the transfer of control from Scheer
to Baron Letters and Admiral Rudburg. While Churchill had met Letters
before the war, he knew nothing of Rudburg. But what was more disturbing
was that the messages revealed the destruction of three British dreadnoughts,
against no Germans observed sunk.
"Rudburg is a relatively unknown and recently promoted rear admiral,
sir," Barkely said. "Apparently, he is a confidant of Letters'
and a tactical disciple. Combined they're apparently formidable opponents."
"Formidable indeed! I know Baron Letters, you know." Churchill
took a puff on his cigar. "Is there an ashtray about, Commander ...
thank you. Yes, I met him in 1911, I believe it was. We had an interesting
conversation, although we steered clear of naval matters. He's a well-educated
man, this Baron. Very well versed in the classics. 'Formidable' is exactly
the word to describe him ...." Churchill trailed off as a sub-lieutenant
came up to Commander Barkely with a message form.
"More from the fleet, Commander?" Barkely nodded. "Read
it, then, would you?"
"From Jellicoe, to the battle line: 'course North by divisions.'
" Barkely looked up. "Disengagement course, sir."
Churchill swore to himself. "Well, Commander, it seems the Germans
may have outdone us today, but if there shall be no Trafalgar, neither
shall there be a Dungeness. Jellicoe may not be Nelson, but Letters is
Commander Barkely nodded agreement, but inside he wondered if Churchill
Several minutes passed while Churchill sat quietly and smoked his cigar.
The business of Room 40 went on around him as the First Sea Lord sat and
contemplated the known situation. Eight capital ships lost, more crippled,
and the Grand Fleet disengaging. But at least in the coming darkness Jellicoe
should be able to escape without further loss, Churchill thought, and
the Germans must be hurting too, even if reports were not forthcoming.
"Sir?" It was Commander Barkely again.
The First Sea Lord snapped out of his reverie. "Yes, Commander,
what is it?"
"We have two intercepts from the Germans, sir. The first indicates
that one of their division leaders is hauling out of the line. The second,
sir ... sir, we don't know what the second one means."
Churchill took the proffered page and read it. " 'Admiral Rudburg,
general pursuit. Good hunting, Montrose's Toast. Letters.' "
Montrose's Toast, Montrose's Toast, Churchill thought. Somewhere in the
back of his mind Churchill could almost grasp the meaning.
"That son of a bitch," he whispered without realizing he what
he had said.
"Montrose's Toast, gentlemen. I heard Baron Letters give it once,
during the reception at which we met some years ago." Churchill quoted
"He either fears his fate too much,
Or his desserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch,
To win or lose it all."
Churchill looked up at the quiet assemblage in the room. "Gentlemen,
Letters will 'put it to the touch.' Jellicoe's retreat has not ended the
battle. It has only introduced a new phase of it. Letters will pursue
the Grand Fleet all the way back to Scapa Flow if he can. Gentlemen, the
Germans mean to win the war tonight."
There was not a sound in the room as Churchill took a puff on his cigar
and looked away.