HMS Mameluke, somewhere in the Pentland Firth
The seas were rough today, noted Commander Bennett. Green water over the bow of a ship with a green crew equalled many green faces in said crew.
Mameluke plunged head-on into another swell. Water swirled deeply around the base of the forward four-inch gun, dousing the gun crew before cascading aft and overboard as the destroyer's bow lifted again, while spray flew up into the bridge, extinguishing the cigar held by Mameluke's passenger.
Winton Churchill looked ruefully at the soaked stump between his fingers and flipped it overboard. "Bad for me anyway," he said. He shifted his attention to the bows. "How do they manage to hold on, Captain?" he asked.
"Safety lines, sir. They're lashed to the gun."
"Indeed, and how do they serve it in these seas?"
"Not sure I know the answer to that one, sir. We haven't had the opportunity to try it yet."
"No? Were the seas not this rough during the battle?"
"I don't know, sir. We weren't there - we're not even fully worked up yet." Bennett shifted his attention to the helmsman momentarily. "Left ten degrees rudder, come to new course zero-three-zero. Sir, we're approaching the Flow - that's Hoy off to port." Churchill could barely make out the island through the mist and fog that hung low over the Firth. "We'll be anchoring within half an hour, sir. Mind your helm, PO. Rudder amidships. Sir - ?" he looked at Churchill questioningly.
"Yes, Captain, I'll be going below now. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Of course, sir."
Mameluke's anchor rattled through the hawsepipe and splashed down into the waters of Scapa Flow, coming to rest in the muddy bottom five fathoms down. No sooner had it done so than a steam launch appeared and came alongside the destroyer, taking aboard the First Lord of the Admiralty and vanishing in the direction of the anchored capital ships out in the Flow. From the distance and through the fog Churchill could not see the battle scars they wore, though he had seen a few battered and bruised destroyers as Mameluke came in and anchored among them. Toppled funnels, missing masts, burned out superstructures, uprooted guns - these were the fruits of the light ship actions. A light cruiser had been there too, Galatea, a seaman had said, looking worse than any other ship in the vicinity. Her quarterdeck was awash, only the aftermost of her three funnels still stood - and that one shot through many times over - and her bridgework was a shattered wreck. That description very nearly fit the entire ship, Churchill thought. A shattered wreck.
Presently Churchill could make out the stern of a ship through the fog. The White Ensign dangled limply, wet with fog, from the flagstaff at the stern. The launch coxswain saw it too and made for it, closing in on the Jacob's ladder suspended from the quarterdeck. Expertly he brought the small craft alongside, barely touching the large steel side with his fragile wooden vessel. Churchill grasped the ladder and climbed aboard. Bosun's pipes greeted him.
"First Lord of the Admiralty, arriving."
A uniformed officer stepped out of the fog. The right side of his face was covered in bandages; his sleeves bore the stripes of a Royal Navy admiral. "Welcome to Iron Duke, sir," Admiral J[ellic]oe said.
Churchill gaped. "Admiral, you've been wounded!" he exclaimed.
J[ellic]oe fingered the bandage briefly. "I've had worse," he said. "The Boxers shoot better than the Germans. Would you care to follow me, sir?" he asked, motioning somewhere into the fog - forward on the ship, Churchill guessed.
The small party entered the flagship's superstructure and travelled down a passageway. Once Churchill gaped at a jagged hole that let fog drift down into the passage, and more often shook his head at minor splinter holes. "Twelve-inch," J[ellic]oe commented on seeing Churchill's face.
Presently they entered the flag quarters. This compartment at least bore no obvious signs of battle, Churchill noted. A steward set out a small tray, then withdrew, leaving the two men alone.
J[ellic]oe broke the silence first. "We had expected you a bit earlier, sir," he said.
"I had intended to be earlier, but it seems the aide you dispatched met the wrong train," Churchill replied. "It is of no account, though. I am here all the same."
"Indeed." J[ellic]oe looked down at his tea. "You know, of course, that our losses have been heavy."
"I know they have been heavy, but not how heavy."
"Victory never comes cheaply, Admiral."
"Victory, sir?" J[ellic]oe laughed mirthlessly. "You speak of victory, sir. Another such victory, my lord, and we are doomed. Oh, we have hurt the Germans, but not so badly as they have hurt us, sir. You cannot see through the fog, but do you know how many capital ships are left of the twenty-nine that sailed three days ago? Fourteen, sir. Fourteen - of twenty-nine. Fourteen. And of those, not more than ten could return to sea now if they were needed. How many dreadnoughts has the Kaiser, my lord?"
"Fourteen?" Churchill gasped, stunned. He had embarked on a train for Scotland while the battle still raged, and though he had had some preliminary reports, the final tally had been unknown to him. Dazedly he shook his head. All he could think of was Galatea.
"Fourteen left, sir, fifteen lost. And nearly forty other ships gone besides."
A shattered wreck, Churchill thought. Galatea - the Grand Fleet - all the same. A shattered wreck.
"And what did we do to the enemy, Admiral?"
"We think we sank three dreadnoughts, three predreadnoughts, the large armored cruiser Blucher, a few light cruisers, and up to twenty destroyers. We also confirmed serious damage on two battlecruisers - torpedo hits - and several other dreadnoughts. Most of the sunken heavies were done in by our torpedoes, sir. They resisted our shells very well - far better than our ships did theirs."
"Do we have any prisoners?"
"Just over a hundred of them, my lord. About seventy came from a light cruiser, Elbing, and the rest from a few destroyers. They will probably not be much use, sir."
J[ellic]oe had regained the professional veneer of calm he had temporarily dropped earlier, Churchill noted. He wondered if the next question would damage it again.
"Admiral, please tell me exactly what happened out there. I will have to brief the King in a few days."
J[ellic]oe nodded. "Very well. The full report is here -" he tapped a thick sheaf of paper on the table "- but this, in brief, is what happened..."
A few hours later J[ellic]oe had completed the story. Churchill sat back and exhaled, sending a large cloud of cigar smoke into the air. "Admiral, under the circumstances, I think you did fairly well, and I shall tell the King that when I see him."
"I will be dismissed anyway," J[ellic]oe observed.
"Probably," Churchill admitted. "So will I. So will the entirety of the present government, I think. Rumors are already flying thickly along Fleet Street. Admiral, I will do my best to see that you are not disgraced. It was not you who failed. It was the Admiralty. We gave you inferior ships. You handled them well - most of your commanders did - but when the enemy is your equal in tactics and your superior in ships, what else can you do? But I cannot promise it - there is always a scapagoat, you know." Churchill stubbed out the remnants of his cigar. "In any case, Admiral, you still have your post for now, and I know you will continue to carry out your duties to the best of your considerable abilities. In the meantime, I would like to see one of your captains before I return to London. Where is Queen Elizabeth anchored?"
Buckingham Palace, London
The audience was to be a private one, Churchill realized as he waited outside one of the many rooms of the royal residence. That did not happen every day. The thought frightened him. He tugged at his collar with one hand, conscious of the heavy weight he bore, a weight with which he was about to burden the King. His Majesty already knew of the heavy losses, of course, but even he did not know the extent of them. Churchill had no great desire to enlighten him, but it was his duty. He sighed. At least he did not have to report the loss of the King's eponymous battleship.
Unseen hands opened the heavy wooden doors, revealing a small stone-walled room. In the corner a glow came from a small fireplace. Sparks flew as the man before the fire prodded it with a long metal poker, breaking open a log and sending coals spilling across the grate. There was no formal announcement; the wooden doors merely swung shut behind Churchill, again by unseen hands, leaving the two of them alone. King George V replaced the poker, then turned.
"Welcome. I trust you are well?" he asked, politely but in a businesslike manner.
"Thank you, Your Majesty, yes," Churchill replied.
"Good. Have a seat, won't you? Now then, Mr. Churchill, please relate to me the events of the past battle. I should like to know how it was that the Royal Navy was so thoroughly bested by those upstart Germans for the second time in six months."
Churchill winced inwardly but gave no sign of it to his sovereign. "Yes, Your Majesty. As you know, the Grand Fleet sortied to meet a reported sortie by the High Seas Fleet last Tuesday, May thirtieth. At about 1:30 on the following afternoon, Commodore Alexander-Sinclair in the cruiser Galatea sighted smoke and turned to investigate. It proved to be a group of German scouts, which fled. Sinclair pursued, calling Vice Admiral Sturdee's battlecruisers to assist. Approximately two hours later, the Battlecruiser Force encountered the German battlecruisers and turned to engage. These were the same enemy ships which we faced at Dogger Bank in January. Apparently they suffered no losses then, Your Majesty. We faced every one of them, plus Von der Tann, again Wednesday.
"At 3:48 our ships opened fire. The Germans followed suit moments later." Churchill hesitated and looked away. "At 3:50 Australia was hit by a salvo and blew up. Your Majesty, there were no survivors. A few minutes later, with his other ships badly damaged and the Germans apparently suffering no ill effects, Admiral Sturdee chose to disengage, in accordance with his orders regarding superior force. He ordered a torpedo attack to cover his withdrawal. During the withdrawal Indefatigable foundered, as did Invincible. Our light ships were able to pick up some survivors, but they were heavily engaged, and about fifteen hundred men were lost. The torpedo attack was unsuccessful, but we did destroy a number of enemy light units. Some of ours were lost as well - the cruiser Fearless among them. Her entire crew is missing.
"Your Majesty, Sturdee's withdrawal was a failure. The Germans pursued and executed a torpedo attack which sank both Inflexible and Queen Mary. We were able to rescue the majority of their crews, however."
The King interrupted for a moment. "What about Admiral Sturdee?"
"Sire, Admiral Sturdee is missing. He was last seen assisting a number of sailors as they abandoned ship."
"Very well. Continue," the King said.
"Sire, the withdrawal was a greater failure than it might have been. Sturdee almost made it to safety - he was sunk nearly within sight of the main body. Unfortunately that gave away J[ellic]oe's location to the Germans, and as the pursuit lasted approximately two hours the enemy had time to deploy their battle fleet accordingly. At approximately 6:20 the main force screens clashed. The German battlecruisers were involved. We lost a few ships, but believe we destroyed a German light cruiser. Among our losses was the armored cruiser Defence, blown up with the loss of all but ten of her crew. Rear Admiral Arbuthnot was among those lost.
"At 6:48 the lines of battle met and engaged. Visibility was low and the range was close, approximately ten thousand yards and closing, so the hits came early and often. We scored as often as the Germans during this early phase, but their ships appeared to shrug off our hits. Ours did not, Your Majesty. Approximately ten minutes after the lines opened fire Ajax blew up. Most of her crew perished, but we did rescue a few. Two minutes later Centurion was destroyed in a similar fashion." Churchill hesitated again. "Conqueror was destroyed nearly simultaneously."
"Three ships gone in two minutes?" The King's voice was incredulous, nearly a whisper.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"My God. How many men?"
"Twenty-five hundred, Sire. We rescued a few from the first two, none from Conqueror. The Germans may have picked up a few more, but..." Churchill's tone made it clear that he did not think so.
"Dear God. Continue, Mr. Churchill."
"Yes, Your Majesty. The lines continued trading blows. A few of our ships were forced out of line, as was at least one of theirs. We may have sunk it, Sire - reports vary. At 7:10 Admiral J[ellic]oe was wounded, but he was able to continue in action. It was approximately then that he ordered a turn away. His intent was to disengage, assess the damage, and then decide what to do next. He also then ordered a torpedo attack.
"Sire, it was then that Orion blew up. Rear Admiral Leveson was lost with her. A number of our other ships took crippling damage, some from the German battlecruisers, which had slipped up unobserved and engaged our ships in the flank. However, the enemy paid dearly for it. Our battleships apparently sank one enemy predreadnought then and drove another battleship out of the line. It may have sunk. The torpedo attack J[ellic]oe ordered also struck then, hitting three enemy ships, two of them battlecruisers. They survived, for the moment at least. At that time the enemy commander ordered a general pursuit, while his battlecruisers were themselves pursued to the east.
"It was Admiral Letters in command, Your Majesty. It had to have been. We intercepted his pursuit order, which was in the form of Montrose's Toast. You are familiar with it?" Churchill asked.
The King nodded.
"Apparently Admiral Rudburg had taken command of the enemy's battleships. We do not know what happened to Admiral Scheer," Churchill said.
"As the pursuit began, the screens continued to engage. Here the Germans enjoyed a decisive advantage, as they had the backing of their battlecruiser guns. The battlecruisers sank three more armored cruisers and crippled a fourth, comprising the entirety of the 2nd Cruiser Squadron. Sire, Minotaur, Shannon, and Cochrane were all lost with all hands. Hampshire was severely crippled but survived. Rear Admiral Heath is believed to have perished."
"Just how many flag officers did we lose?" the King asked.
"Seven if you include commodores, Your Majesty. Vice Admiral Sturdee, Rear Admirals Arbuthnot, Leveson, Heath, and Duff, and Commodores Sinclair and Hawksley."
"Dear God. Continue."
"Your Majesty, more of our light units were committed to stopping the enemy advance. It was truly a knife fight, Sire. It was then that Commodore Hawksley was lost, leading the 11th Flotilla. We destroyed many of the enemy light units there, but many of our own were destroyed as well. Only one of the 11th Flotilla's destroyers survived. Fourteen - and the cruiser Castor - were lost. There were no survivors from any. They destroyed one large enemy ship, the semi-battlecruiser Blucher. She was seen stopped and obviously sinking from the effects of at least one torpedo and many shells."
"Isn't that the ship that the Germans rescued at Dogger Bank?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"At least we finally got her," the King muttered, half to himself.
"The Germans continued to pursue after repulsing Hawksley. J[ellic]oe was attempting to close up his formation to provide mutual support, but there were crippled stragglers there, and shortly before 8:00 the Germans engaged and sank Monarch and Emperor of India. Accordingly J[ellic]oe ordered a reforming of the line of battle. As this was being done, Temeraire was destroyed. The Germans attempted to cap our T from astern, and while they closed they sank two more cripples - Superb and Dreadnought. It was not all one-sided, Your Majesty. Their leading ship fell out of line, badly crippled, and we believe she sank. Their other ships suffered heavy damage as well.
"Sire, their last maneuver failed. Our remaining heavy ships escaped into the darkness, while light units recalled from pursuing the enemy battlecruisers attacked their line. The result was decisive - we sank three battleships. One was a dreadnought, one was a predreadnought, and one is of uncertain vintage. After this the Germans had had enough, and broke away. Our light units suffered heavy losses, but they scored more confirmed successes than our battleships on this night.
"I have one more dreadnought loss to report, Your Majesty. While withdrawing independently, Thunderer was apparently sunk by an enemy submarine. An escorting destroyer picked up about three hundred men."
"What was the final tally of enemy losses?" the King asked.
"Six capital ships sunk, three or four of them dreadnoughts, a large armored cruiser, three light cruisers - we have prisoners from one of them, Sire - and up to twenty destroyers. We also have prisoners from two of them, 112 in all."
"And what of ours?" King George inquired, more quietly now.
"Ten battleships, five battlecruisers, four armored cruisers, three light cruisers, and thirty-two destroyers were sunk, Your Majesty. Four more battleships, an armored cruiser, and a light cruiser will be out of action for at least three months," Churchill answered.
"Casualties? Ships can be replaced. Sailors cannot," the King said.
"Sire, six of the lost capital ships were apparently lost with all hands - Australia, Conqueror, Monarch, Emperor of India, Temeraire, and Superb. So were three armored cruisers, also with large crews, and the three light cruisers. So were a number of destroyers. There were many casualties in some surviving ships. The Germans probably picked up some prisoners, but we have no way of knowing how many."
"Read me the list."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Churchill took a deep breath. "In the Battlecruiser Force - Queen Mary: 605 rescued, 112 of them wounded, 413 missing, including Vice Admiral Sturdee. Australia: all hands missing, 1,011. Indefatigable: 157 rescued, 45 of them wounded, 810 missing. Invincible: 203 rescued, 77 of them wounded, 702 missing. Inflexible: 588 rescued, 42 of them wounded, 337 missing.
"In the Battlecruiser Force flotillas - 1st Flotilla: Fearless sunk, all hands missing, 364. Five destroyers sunk, all hands, 516, missing. Three destroyers damaged, 42 killed, 43 wounded. 9th and 10th Combined Flotillas: four destroyers sunk, all hands, 420, missing. Three destroyers damaged, 37 killed, 67 wounded. 13th Flotilla: four destroyers sunk, all hands, 412, missing. Light cruiser Champion and four destroyers damaged, 69 dead, 63 wounded.
"Now the Battle Fleet proper, Your Majesty. In the Second Battle Squadron - King George V: severely damaged, 237 killed, 87 wounded. Ajax: sunk, 22 rescued, three of them wounded, 790 missing. Centurion: sunk, 12 rescued, eight of them wounded, 802 missing. Erin: severely damaged, 233 killed, 89 wounded. Orion: sunk, 26 rescued, nine of them wounded, 889 missing, including Rear Admiral Leveson. Monarch: sunk with all hands missing, 892. Conqueror: sunk with all hands missing, 895. Thunderer: sunk, 333 rescued, 24 of them wounded, 466 missing.
"In the Fourth Battle Squadron - Iron Duke: severely damaged, 168 killed, 96 wounded. Dreadnought: sunk, 32 rescued, six of them wounded, 702 missing. Superb: sunk with all hands missing, 757, including Rear Admiral Duff. Emperor of India: sunk with all hands missing, 998. Benbow: 42 killed, 51 wounded. Bellerophon: 77 dead, 36 wounded. Temeraire: sunk with all hands missing, 748. Vanguard: two killed, 11 wounded."
Churchill paused from the litany of destruction and looked up. His sovereign's face resembled nothing so much as the stone walls.
"Go on," he said.
"In the First Battle Squadron - Colossus: eight killed, three wounded. Collingwood: 108 dead, 58 wounded. Sire, Prince Albert was not harmed." King George nodded. Churchill continued. "Neptune: 106 killed, 22 wounded. St. Vincent: 21 killed, 11 wounded. Marlborough: no casualties. Hercules: 19 killed, 24 wounded. Queen Elizabeth: 12 killed, 12 wounded. Agincourt: one killed, four wounded.
"In the attached squadrons - 1st Cruiser Squadron: Defence sunk, 10 rescued, 845 missing, including Rear Admiral Arbuthnot. 2nd Cruiser Squadron: Minotaur sunk, all hands missing, 757, including Rear Admiral Heath. Shannon sunk with all hands, 788, missing. Cochrane sunk with all hands, 713, missing. Hampshire severely damaged, 115 killed, 65 wounded. 1st Light Cruiser Squadron: Galatea badly damaged, 35 dead, including Commodor Alexander-Sinclair, 30 wounded." Churchill paused, remembering the sight of the battered cruiser at Scapa Flow. "Phaeton damaged, three killed, nine wounded. Fourth Light Cruiser Squadron: Royalist sunk with all hands, 338, missing. Minor damage to the rest of the squadron, totalling four dead and 16 wounded.
"In the attached flotillas - light cruiser Castor sunk with all hands missing, 351, including Commodore Hawksley. 4th Flotilla: one destroyer sunk, three damaged, 59 killed or missing, 43 wounded. 11th Flotilla: fourteen destroyers sunk, one damaged, 35 killed, 35 wounded, 1,464 missing. 12th Flotilla: four destroyers sunk, four more damaged, 43 killed, 42 wounded, 408 missing." Churchill realized he was finished and looked up at the king, who was now standing, staring into the fire.
It took a controlled effort for King George V to face Churchill and speak. "What is the total human cost?" he asked.
Churchill turned to another piece of paper. "Your Majesty, we are at present listing 1,243 men as wounded in action; 1,674 men as killed in action; and -" he paused momentarily "- 15,027 as missing in action."
"Fifteen thousand?" the King whispered.
"Yes." Churchill could not look at the monarch.
King George turned back to the fire, his head hanging down. The insides
of his closed eyelids glowed red from the light of the flickering flames.
"Dear God," he whispered inaudibly. "What have we done?"