Back at Sea
---- Imperator, June 8, 1915 - Late Evening
The evening meal had again been sumptuous, but Hadi's restiveness had begun to grow. Why, Hadi wondered, were they still lingering in this cold and bleak place, wherever it was? It may only have been a day or so, by the calendar, but it seemed like weeks to Hadi. Nor, he was confident, was he alone in this respect. He was certain that his sensitive perceptions were due to the growing risk that the Royal Navy would stumble upon them, here in this lifeless place. It was just coincidence that it was so cold in the evenings, summer or not, that he had had to cut short his time out on the Promenade. And the wind! Allah be praised, but Hadi was glad that it was the infidels that had to face such cold and constant draughts! The wind at home might etch rock with its sands, but at least it was warm.
So Hadi was delighted when Imperator upped anchor and began to edge out into the open waters. He braved the despicable cold, impressing his slaves with his sense of duty, he was sure, to monitor their exit in these, the last hours of light before the brief night.
"Sir, lookouts report smoke bearing 245."
"Helm, come to course 270. Ahead Full."
The new contact had presumably come from the west, perhaps getting past the patrol in that area in the dark, fog , or other weather that degraded visibility. The first thought was to close with the contact and get across her bows before she could duck into the fog that lingered closer to the Strait.
As the ship came about, the CO and XO studied the plume whose source was still out of sight in the low lying fog on the horizon.
"Could that be Rollonot?" The question came from the XO.
"Shouldn't be. She had the western leg. If that's her, she's some 30 miles out of position."
A few minutes passed as the officers considered. They had not seen land in over three days, so their own position was based mostly on dead reckoning. They had gotten a decent star shot last night, but just one. Rollonot could have strayed. Maybe.
"If that's not Rollonot, she got past her in the night," opined the XO, echoing the captain's own thoughts of several minutes before.
There had been repeated hints that several German ships in US eastern ports had begun to work up in the last week. No information had come to them that any had attempted to break past the blockade, let alone having tried and succeeded. But, if the runner had had true success, they could have gotten through clean. Until now.
"Well, we'll know soon enough."
The size of the plume made it obvious that the unidentified ship must be fairly near. Only the fast-thinning remnants of the morning fog were hiding her. Their combined closing speed could be as high at 35 knots, so visual sighting and identification were imminent.
More minutes passed. Right about the time the CO's brow began to furrow in suspicion, a new call came from above.
"Sir, the contact appears to be on a southerly heading."
"Southerly?" The XO muttered another comment. It had the word "bloody" in it.
"Helm, left five degrees rudder. Come to course 215. Ahead Flank."
"Charley," said the CO to the reservist JO who was his signals officer, "let's get a message out to Rollonot. I want to know where she thinks she is. If that's not her, then this character may just have come through the Strait, and in the dark at that."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The CO went over to the chart table. On a ledge below, was a tally book he kept of observations and related notes to himself. It was not the official ship's log, by any means, but the silver-haired CO had long ago learned not to trust his memory for various details that did not go into official records. The last time he'd seen that much smoke in one place had been when the Lusitania made her recent crossing. Before that, yes, there it was. The other time had been the troop convoy from Canada; the one escorted by Princess Royal, among others. A magnificent ship, Princess Royal, and he'd envied her captain. Gone now, she was. Still, it might've been worth it to have had her deck under his feet, to know that she was his. Not might've, would've. There was no way he could explain that to anyone aboard. You had to have been a captain, in command of a ship, to know the thrill of it. He felt the trembling grow as his elderly command labored up to flank speed. Princess Royal. He'd seen her sprint from one side of the convoy to the other, doing over 25 knots. Her bow wave had looked like a heavy comber breaking on a reef.
"Sir, answering ahead flank."
The CO looked up from his chart and book. At 18 knots, he thought, this little mystery should be cleared up shortly. He went over to the starboard side of the bridge where the XO still had his binoculars on the horizon. The source of the smoke was still below the horizon, apparently. There was no blaming the fog now. She had been further away than their first estimate. She had to be a big ship for her plume to be so great at such a distance.
"Sir, from Rollonot."
The CO looked over the message. Rollonot reported herself to be well to the west of this unknown contact. The course she gave put her on a NW heading. Whoever this was off their starboard bow, she definitely was not Rollonot. Well, they would know soon enough.
The plume seemed to grow larger over the next hour or so, but the source of all that smoke remained a mystery.
"Charley, signal to Rollonot that we're in pursuit of an unidentified contact that looks like it will take us into her area. Give our course and speed, and that we still have not gotten a good sighting of her yet. Put her speed at 17 knots, or better. Recommend Rollonot move to intercept from ahead."
It would not do for a squall or something to come up and let this blockade runner get away. He realized that he had decided that was what this ship must be. Certainly, there'd been no word of any friendly liner expected in his area. And, while some un-noticed neutral vessel might surprise him out of the west, one with the European continent on her after quarter was definitely suspect. Could it be Lusitania, or one of her kin, and they had not gotten the word due to some monumental bollix? Possibly. Damn, it really was possible. He sure hated to get on the wireless only with what he had right then. He could hear it now: "Hello, this is one of your superannuated AMC captains. Did the Admiralty perhaps forget to inform me that one of Cunard's finest was passing through my area?"
More minutes slipped by, and the smoke tower stubbornly refused to yield up any sight of its source. He began to consider just when he might feel comfortable about making some sort of wireless inquiry. When Rear Admiral De Robeck had been Admiral of Patrols, he'd known exactly where he stood. De Robeck, though, had been gone for some time, and was now a Vice-Admiral and in charge of the Dardanelles Campaign. Churchill had been quoted in the Times predicting that the effort would put the Ottomans out of the war, succor the Czar's armies, and force the Huns to sue for peace. If it was all that important, the captain was willing to begrudge that De Robeck's place was there, in Constantinople.
Vice-Admiral De Robeck, a long way from Constantinople though it would never entirely leave him, eyed the party on the dock with something akin to startlement and with considerable suspicion. There were too many of them, far too many, and there were entirely too many braided ropes and glittering stars on epaulettes. It seemed unlikely that the Admiralty would convene a court martial right there on the pier but, he snorted half to himself, a great many very strange things had happened in the Royal Navy over the centuries. Certainly, there appeared enough rank there to sit such a court. De Robeck had deliberately avoided lifting binoculars or long glass to look over the group from a distance. These were his last minutes on a warship under his fleet command. Instead, until just a few moments ago, he'd contented himself with looking over the innumerable ships in port. One in particular drew his attention. She appeared to be a private steam yacht, pressed into war service with some of her peacetime paint and trim still intact - a brave bit of color amongst the many grim, gray hulls. A fast courier or mail packet, perhaps; her lines bespoke of speed and competent sea keeping. He finally made out her name, "The Turquoise Vixen." A bonny ship, she was, and her name explained the color of her trim.
Well, the gangway had been lowered. The impact of it shook the ship slightly, and De Robeck more than slightly. The trills and whistles of salutes began and the side boys hustled into place. Formality and ritual, do it proper no matter what was about to transpire. Chatham was now docked, so he had reluctantly turned back to face the shore and look over those waiting on the dock. Several of the officers, he noted, were French, including two admirals. Well, no few Frenchmen were among the dead he'd left on those rocky shores to the east-southeast. There were many civilians amongst the small crowd. They wore immaculate suits and he could smell the scent of politics wafting from their coats and ties and silly hats. More than a couple even affected walking sticks. Nothing they would ever do or say could surprise him.
Quite wrong, he was.
"Are you sure, man?"
The seaman was, but reluctant to admit it.
"Aye, s'or. I am."
The captain sighed. This was terrible news. Hateful.
"She's reaching on us, s'or," the gnarled seaman repeated. "Two knots, or better."
The man's features, browned by decades of sea and sun, betrayed an inner conflict.
"Speak out, Soammes," the captain encouraged. The man clearly had more to tell, but he was less sure of it, whatever it was.
"Thinking there's more than one, I am, s'or," he offered after a moment. "When e went s'west'erly a bit ago, it looked to me to be from different ships."
"How many's your guess?" The captain had learned to take these sorts of observations seriously, which was why his crew continued to voice them.
"Dunno, sir, beggin' you pardon. Could be just the two of em. But, if'n so, big ships, they are. Liner or two might make that smoke. Not much else. Not out ere, sir, if'n I might make so bold."
"Thank you, Soammes."
"Aye, aye, s'or."
"Charley, any word from Rollonot?"
The captain joined those at the plot. A few moments with the protractors confirmed his fears. Rollonot would catch sight of their mystery contact's smoke within the hour, right enough. However, as long as the contact generally remained on her (or their) present heading, Rollonot was not going to get across her bows. She might not even get a good look. Soammes was correct on one point, the captain reflected. If the contact was a German raider, then she'd have short legs unless she were a converted liner. Lord knows, he thought, his own engineer had reminded him that they'd been going through their own bunkers at a prodigious rate, these last several hours, and they'd been at sea a full week. It was just possible that their contact would have to slow in a bit.
The more he thought about it, the less sense it all seemed to make.
The XO offered a new theory.
"Captain," he suggested, "what if she's a liner that was trying to make the crossing from America, caught sight of us, got the wind up, and now's trying to get back? Kronprincess Cecille did that last year."
"True enough," the captain conceded. Soammes, however, was convinced there was more than one ship. How many, the seaman had refused to guess, but the captain would hazard his money on Soammes anytime.
"Of course," added the XO, "their present course would take them into the Caribbean."
That seemed sufficiently preposterous so as not to merit a response.
"Sir, contact may have just altered course."
"What heading?" If they had altered to the north, they'd get a warm reception from Rollonot.
"Looks like another point, point and a half to the south, sir. Yes, sir. It's pretty definite now. I make her now going SSW."
"Probably just caught sight of Rollonot's smoke," the XO said.
"Yes, that's likely enough," the CO agreed. He had his glass on the smoke, thinking about Soammes as he did. He couldn't tell, he admitted to himself finally. The contact apparently had reached on them several miles in the last several hours. If that was more than one ship, they were keeping close company.
"Helm, come left to 210."
"Come left to 210, aye, aye, sir."
"Charley, give Rollonot their new heading." He had already shifted from "her" to "their."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Acting-Admiral De Robeck continued to stare sightlessly into the sheets spread out before him on the table in his private compartment. Stunned was far too mild a word for his current condition. Only his firm insistence had bought him his present privacy. His aide had turned white as a sheet when he'd learned he was now the aide to Commander, Grand Fleet. De Robeck only hoped he had not similarly betrayed his own dismay.
De Robeck had felt much the same as this not long ago, though now it seemed an eternity indeed. It had been just under three months ago, on March 15, when Admiral Carden had been declared medically unfit and De Robeck had found himself in charge of all of the Dardanelles. All, that is, except the loading of the attack transports. His experience in picking up the litter, putting it right, and making a good show of it would doubtless serve him well. Perhaps, in fact, that was what was behind this otherwise unfathomable promotion.
Indeed, the comparison appeared frightfully apt. Where else could Their Lordships find an admiral who had lost over 15,000 men and continued to wage war? It bothered him a great deal that those Grand Fleet's losses in men had at first made less of an impact on him than the losses in dreadnoughts. He now feared that his losing five to ten times that many men had apparently caused him to immure some basic portion of his humanity. How did the generals and field marshals on the battlefields of France manage it? It was only when he began to put faces to the ships, Hawksley, Arbuthnot, Heath, ....
This was a dirk into the heart of the Royal Navy, already seriously wounded at Dogger Bank and the Dardanelles. De Robeck wondered no longer why the campaign behind him had been abandoned. Churchill, whose fair haired manchild the whole invasion had been, had himself had put the finis to it even before leaving office. Churchill being gone was not that much of a surprise to De Robeck. It was the loss of Admiral Fisher that really bothered him. Though Jackie had threatened to resign over the Dardnanelles, now proven right point-by-point, the report in front of him of the old admiral's resignation felt wrong.
De Robeck sat back in his seat and stretched, with a creak of leather. There was so much missing. Repair estimates, new construction schedules, shell deliveries - the list was endless. It was like the Dardanelles again. He could see only what was put in front of him, and he was so very distant from the heart of the matter. He had no Flight Officer Sampson to see over the hills, however imperfectly. Hmmm, balloon ships, airships. They had managed to hit at least one ship with a torpedo from an aeroplane, but the conditions had been vastly different from the North Sea. Maybe, with a few years of development .... He caught himself. Years? God, but he wished this damn war would end.
"Admiral?" It was the aide to the Commander Grand Fleet, who'd been hovering on the other side of door for the sound of any movement within. "A spot of tea?"
"Yes, quite. Thank you."
"Sir, from Rollonot. They spotted the smoke on the distant horizon, but do not think they're closing the range."
They plotted Rollonot's information, drew sight lines, and triangulated.
"These guys are in a bloody hurry," commented the captain.
"Sir," added the XO, "we're not going to catch them."
"Not today," agreed the captain. "Not if they can keep this speed up. We don't have to catch them. The two of us just have to keep on them. The North American Station will just have to do the intercept. Charley, to Admiral of Patrols ...."