June 2, 1915 - Meanwhile,
Back at Scapa Flow
Letterstime Stories - 7 Days in June - Scapa Flow
---- Scapa Flow, outside the office of the Commander, Grand Fleet
The two men sitting on one side of the waiting area wore splendid uniforms
and alert expressions. Several others, on the other side, though their
uniforms were quite proper, had far different expressions on their faces.
The former had come up with Admiral Fisher, while the latter had come
ashore with Admiral J[ellic]oe. The two admirals were meeting in private
in one of the rooms behind the door across the way.
The pair with alert expressions had given up any attempts at conversation
with those on the other side. The two groups had a great deal in common,
but shared experience was no longer one of them. They were about the same
ages, wore the same uniforms, and held similar ranks. Neither group of
men were currently assigned to ships. The difference was that one group
recently HAD been assigned to ships. No longer, though. Their ships had
been sunk. Their eyes, two days later, still seemed to be trying to focus
on something thousands of yards away in the gathering gloom, the mist,
smoke, ... fire, ... screams.
Outside, the wind freshened and trees scratched the building with their
branches. The patterns of sound altered with the wind, as harbor sounds
grew and the typewriter went silent as the yeoman looked to see if a storm
had begun to threaten. The officers did not move, as they all had other
storms on their minds. The staffers thought of the tempest they had endured
in the proximity of the admiral on the way up here. The others' minds
remained full of the thunder of cannons and the gusts of steel they had
managed to survive two days ago, though their ships had not, nor had many
of their mates. Tilting decks, cold waves.
There had been others there earlier, ones still with ships. They had
left hours ago, sent back to their commands immediately after introductions
and minimal exchanges. Three of them had, in fact, departed with other
officers "in tow" wearing those same disgustingly alert expressions
Papers fluttered on the yeoman's desk, and the window vibrated slightly
in its tracks and ....
.... fell shut.
The pair of staffers turned their heads at the sound. The others reacted
more strongly. Several jerked about and back in their chairs. One dropped
his leather folder, and another shot to his feet.
"Bloody wind is picking up," the now standing officer offered
in a low voice. He went over, raised the window, and carefully inserted
the wooden slat there to prop it firm. Then he simply stood there, as
though transfixed by the few rays of sun that snuck through the canopy.
He appeared almost surprised by the warm afternoon sky and the green.
" 'the wind up, alright," muttered one alert officer to the
other, in an even lower tone of voice. He tried not to flinch at the ram-sharp
look his "inaudible" remark drew from one of those across the
After another few minutes, a senior commander who had earlier briefly
been in the room with the admirals returned from whatever errand upon
which he'd been dispatched. The officer traded looks with the yeoman,
and a few words passed between them. Even the alert pair had been unable
to make out the exchange. The commander went to the door, knocked, paused,
then pulled the door open and went in. Just moments later, the doorknob
to the office made a noise and drew all eyes. Almost immediately, the
commander opened it again and the two admirals emerged as he held it.
While Fisher reached for his cover, J[ellicoe] looked over the assembly
and the commander turned to the yeoman.
"No word from Captain Smith, sir," the yeoman replied to an
The alert young men were already on their feet, and the others were rising.
Chairs scraped across the deck.
"... going down to the Duke ...," the commander was
"Sorry to have kept you gentlemen waiting," said J[ellic]oe
politely to the others in the sudden silence. "Change of plan. Two
hours, or so. Best grab a bit to eat while you can."
The hat rack rattled as the two men hurriedly sought their own from amidst
the others. The others nodded, made the ritual responses of naval courtesy,
and then looked at each other expressionlessly after the door closed behind
the departing fivesome.
The staffers trailed their seniors carefully; admirals demanded sea room
even ashore. They knew their place and their place was five or six paces
separation. Their eyes roamed only a trifle, as they knew to keep their
attention on the Sea Lord. Their duties lay with Admiral Fisher and should
he turn their way, they were to be there promptly.
J[ellic]oe was speaking as the two made their way to the quickly opened
doors of the vehicle.
" ... Lieutenant ... it first, sir. Every man jack of them down
there ... still hot enough to ...."
A heavy lorry rumbled by, but gave the party a wide berth.
"Through the ... ? Properly shut? Are you ...."
"... sir, over two feet on the other side ...."
"Scorched clear as day, sir. I'll ..."
At the car, Fisher gave the others a swift glance, energy and intensity
practically erupting from his countenance, despite the dark circles under
his eyes. Although he said not one word, both recognized they were not
to attempt to join the admirals' party, or even to vocalize a question.
They were to follow as soon as they could in another vehicle. And promptly.
There were no staff cars in immediate evidence. Muttering ungentlemanly
phrases, they scrambled to lay on transportation. The situation was far
from unprecedented. One kept his eyes on the receding vehicle until it
was lost from view, shifting his vantage and climbing onto the porch.
They knew the admirals were heading for the former flagship of the Grand
Fleet, but it would not be the first time should Admiral Fisher change
destinations in mid-route. Under these kinds of circumstances, keeping
the car in sight as long as possible had proven the best they could do.
---- Iron Duke, course 225, speed 0 (at pier)
It was well over an hour later before they caught up with the admirals.
Transportation was harder to find if one was not of flag rank. Iron Duke
had been hotly engaged in battle, that much was obvious to them even under
the hoses, cables, and canvas covers as they approached the quarterdeck
gangway. Dock workers were clustered over some piece of machinery amidships,
possibly a boat winch, and sparks rained down from grinding and welding
above. They went aboard and been directed down into the damaged barbette.
Gingerly they picked their way over yard gear, tools, and machinery. Sailors
knuckled their brows briefly as they passed, and fellow junior officers
nodded carefully from a distance, busy overseeing various half-visible
activities. Eventually, they got down into the armored hole, only to find
that Fisher and J[ellic]oe had been there and left. So they climbed back
up, each nearly ripping his uniform on one particularly sharp jagged thrust
of armor, went down into the magazines but, again, the flag officers had
left several minutes earlier. The bridge was were they finally found them.
The two admirals stood at the heart of the bridge with no one near them,
though the scars of battle were all around them and the din of men and
machines intent on their remedy was a physical onslaught to the ears of
all. Canvas sheeting whip-cracked in the breeze, straining at the hemp
ropes double-tethered due to the large surface area over the missing section
on the starboard side.
"... nonsense, I say!" Fisher struck the wheel in emphasis.
"... us all ... a week at most ...."
Fisher halted in mid-sentence, and appeared to study the ship's wheel.
He ran his hand over the rope-wrapped oak, then cast his eyes about the
"A near thing, that," the Sea Lord said, shaking his head slightly,
turning away from the ship's wheel. "Admiral, leave those right there,
for all to see. Yes, a lesson to us all, and to those that will follow."
Two shards of steel, each larger than a man's thumb, were standing out
of the polished wood, like poorly driven ten pennyweight nails.
The bosun pipes trilled the arrival of Vice-Admiral Burney. Captain Dryer,
who had just come onto the bridge, quickly gave his complements and exited
to greet the latest of this gathering of flags. After a few minutes, Admiral
Burney made his entrance. The admiral's aide stopped off to join Fisher's
duo as the senior officers fell into their own conversation.
"Why here?" Asked Burney's aide in a low tone, his eyes on
"The Huns made a bloody mess of the rest," said one.
" 'Blimey!" Fisher's other aide agreed. "Captain's quarters,
flag country, even the wardroom, they're all bloody rubbish bins! And
let me tell you, lad, we've seen them, been through the lot of them chasing
after that pair. Gull nests and monkey cages, that's all they're good
for right now!"
"His lordship sure looks to be in fine form," Burney's aide
"Hmmph, true enough, though how he's doing it ...."
" ' Struth, yes, Sir Jackie hasn't sleep more'n a wink since."
"Running us into the ground, he is." The other aide nodded
"Sir," said Dryer to J[ellic]oe, "from your chief of staff,
he reports that Captain White did get into see Admiral Jerram and expects
to be back at HQ shortly."
"Thank you, captain." J[ellic]oe turned to Fisher, but the
Sea Lord was already shaking his head.
"No, admiral. Your place is here," Fisher gestured about the
harbor. "Sir Winston and I disagree on many things, but not on this.
Letters is an unknown. Unpredictable. Sir Winston claims to have met the
man, once. Now it seems Willy has given him the High Seas Fleet."
Fisher paused and looked around the bridge, eyes stopping on the shrapnel
embedded in the wheel.
"Hipper would have skirmished with the battlecruisers, right enough,"
he continued, "but Scheer would've turned back rather than go fleet-to-fleet
- sure as grape shot. That 'Montrose's Toast' bit, he's bloody mad, is
what he is! No, you gentlemen ready yourselves for sea. Stores, re-coal,
the lot. Push the yards, push them hard. And I'll have a word with them
myself before I go."
Fisher coughed violently from coal dust brought in by the wind. All three
aides were scribbling fiercely in their books.
"When a Hun starts quoting Scottish lairds at us," Fisher went
on after wiping at his mouth, "there's no telling what's next. Sir
Winston thinks he'll sortie within the week, and I told him well, then
by God, so would we. So, see to your commands. I want a full battle squadron
ready, no less. See to your ships, gentleman; I'll go to Admiral Jerram."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied the others.
The aides, of course, had recognized him building up to an exit line.
One had left moments ago at a near run down to the quarterdeck to see
to the admiral's car. The other stood at the ready. He knew that Fisher
might order anything, do anything, anything at all. Just like that Hun
admiral he'd been talking about.
---- Hospital, corridor just outside the room of Vice-Admiral Jerram
The ward mistress had been singularly and, in the aides' experience,
uniquely unimpressed by Admiral Fisher. Indeed, the two might have been
cut from the same cloth. She was a short, stout lady, who looked to the
young men like she should have a rolling pin in her hand and an oven behind
her. She'd stood at Jerram's door in front of the Sea Lord, arms on her
impressive hips, and looked him right in the eye. It might be his fleet,
by Heaven the entire navy might be his, but this was her ward, and let
there be no mistake about it. To the aides' surprise, their principal
had just nodded his head politely, and answered "aye, aye, ma'am." And so the door remained open.
"They had already deployed, my lord," they heard Jerram saying.
"Their turrets were already facing abeam. They knew right where we
were, I'm sure of it. Their guns were aimed right where we'd show in the
mist." The maimed admiral occasionally had to pause to labor at his
breath, but his determination was obvious even to the young men out of
sight in the corridor.
"The lads were keen and both sides opened fire within seconds. We
hit them first, I think, hit them hard and kept hitting them. The van
ship was hurt almost from the start and showed fire enough to steady our
aim. I steadied up on due east to keep them on our beam. We had the better
of it. Then Ajax," there was a cough, at least it sounded
like a cough, then another. "Ajax just went up, right astern
of us. Centurion had been hit early. Her fires probably drew half
the German fleet to her. She was heavily on fire, though still shooting
and hitting, when she, when she blew up. The explosions blinded our spotters,
I think, and made us clear to the Huns. There was another explosion well
astern not long after. That must have been Conqueror."
"Tell me," asked Fisher quietly, "were our shells hurting
them? Were they duds?"
"The hits were good, my lord. I saw fireballs in their casemates.
I saw glow through ports and hatches. Several times I saw turrets gush
out flame. Twice, I think, I saw turrets thrown up and overboard in blazing
pyres. No, sir, the shells went home. I swear it. I just don't know what,
what, I don't know what happened to my squadron. I don't."
"We know now. Admiral J[ellic]oe showed me just an hour gone. It
was a design flaw. A bloody botched design." Fisher's voice shook
with his rage.
"The flashtight doors. The bloody things aren't flashtight at all.
J[ellic]oe showed me. One of the Duke's barbette's doors was charred
at the edges, and the deck was scorched 29 inches into the magazine. The
Duke almost went up, just like Ajax and the others. That's
what probably did in Sturdee, too."
"Flash doors." Jerram muttered an agony of disbelief.
"Yes, old friend. We hit them and they lost turrets. They hit us
and sometimes we lost ships. That was the difference. I'm sure of it!"
"Flash doors, did Scheer know that? Spies? Is that why he engaged
in Line of Battle? I had never thought him so bold."
"It wasn't Scheer. It was another, Admiral Letters."
"I don't know him either. Sir Winston says he does. He was in command
of the battlecruisers."
"The battlecruisers! Yes, they came directly across the vans!"
Jerram's voice began to rise. "I was trying to disengage and suddenly
they were pouring fire into us from ahead. That's all I remember, my lord.
It must have been one of their ...."
"Gentlemen! That's quite enough for today."
The aides had been so engrossed in the exchange just out of their view
that the ward mistress had swept right past them with out their notice.
The scraping of a chair moving told that Fisher was not going to make
an issue of it. One aide headed out to the car and the other waited.
"J[ellic]oe was about to come, but I have him readying the fleet
just in case this Letters tries us again."
There was a last exchange, and Fisher emerged, his full lips drawn in
a tight line. The aide fell in and followed in his wake.