July 31, 1914. Durazzo, Albania
Rear Admiral Sir Christopher George Francis Maurice Cradock strode briskly along the deck of his flagship, H.M.S. Defence, walking off the effects of last night's dinner with the officers of the S.M.S. Breslau. Despite the political tension of the past few weeks, it had been a pleasant evening of good food and good talk, punctuated by the clink of silver on china and the gurgle of wine into glasses as the mess stewards kept them filled.
Only once had Commander Kettner revealed any hint of that German confidence which so nearly approached arrogance. "You English—" he had said, his voice rising. Then he had chuckled affably. "You have so much invested in tradition," he had continued, more relaxed. "We Germans have a tradition to make. It is always so for vigorous youth, is it not?" The clear implication that the Royal Navy was superannuated had rankled, but Cradock had passed it off graciously. Time enough to compare traditions when the young eagle actually flew and dared its talons against Britannia's experience. He had no doubt that rashness would be well reproved.
Cradock took a deep breath and eyed the steep tile roofs, bright in morning sunlight, that stepped down to the harbor, its still water perfectly reflecting both ships and buildings. Behind them rose the mountains in which—in happier years—he had hunted boar. No foxhunting here, but a sportsman could find some game anywhere.
He glanced over at Breslau, admitting to himself that the Germans had certainly reached a high standard of seamanship. Every detail he had seen the day before had been correct. Several of the officers had read his books; they had asked him to expand on some of the points he'd made. Only courtesy, of course, but he could not help being pleased.
A thicker ooze of smoke from Breslau's funnels stained the morning air. Cradock slowed. On her decks a subdued flurry of movement he recognized at once. Astern, the smooth reflection of the mountains shattered like a dropped mirror as her screws churned. He turned to his flag lieutenant.
"What do we know of Admiral Souchon and the Goeben?" Cradock asked.
"At last report, sir, the Goeben had made port in Trieste, then gone to sea for gunnery practice."
A cold chill ran down Cradock's back. Gunnery practice? If the Germans were intending to declare war first, only they would know when. The Japanese had given no warning to the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904.
"When Breslau weighs anchor, send word to Admiral Milne," Cradock said. "And inform Captain Wray that we will be returning to Corfu immediately."
In short order, the German light cruiser was moving out of the anchorage, a demure curl of white at her bow that would, Cradock was sure, lengthen to a streak when she was out of sight.
August 6, 1914. Early morning off Corfu
Admiral Cradock considered, as he took several rashers of bacon onto his plate, at what point his duty to His Majesty might require disobedience to his superior, Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne. It was not a dilemma in which he had ever expected to find himself.
When he raised his flag in H.M.S. Defence, a British admiral in command of a cruiser squadron in the Mediterranean could expect a constant round of visits to attractive ports, dinners with dignitaries who all wanted some concession, meetings with other naval officials, all conducted with the utmost ceremony. Here were the smartest ships in the Royal Navy, and the most favored officers.
Now he commanded a squadron at war, a situation calling for very different talents than the ability to dance with a prime minister's daughter or make polite conversation with French magistrates and Turkish pashas. And—more to the point—a situation in which mistakes would imperil not merely an officer's reputation and future career, but the very survival of the Empire.
Cradock knew himself to be an old-fashioned sailor. Seamanship was his passion, correct and accurate handling of ships in all weathers, placing them where they could best effect strategy. Seamanship required comprehensive knowledge of exact details: how to organize coaling, how to coil ropes, how to turn a ship in formation precisely where she should turn. Most important, it required naval discipline, on which both naval tradition and the whole towering edifice of empire depended. Lack of discipline led to slovenly seamanship, and that, in the end, to disaster.
His responsibility, therefore, was to do what his commander told him. Therein lay the rub.
Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, had in the past few days revealed himself no Nelson. For three days, Milne had thrashed around the Mediterranean in vain pursuit of the German ships, shifting Cradock's own squadron about in useless dashes, a waste of coal and energy. Now, on the second full day of war, when the German ships were in Messina and could have been bottled up by placing adequate force at either end of the Strait of Messina, Milne had instead taken his battle cruisers off to coal in Bizerte—all the way to North Africa. He had ordered Cradock to stay at the mouth of the Adriatic, and placed only little Gloucester to watch the exit to the eastern Mediterranean, because he was sure the Germans would try to go west.
Cradock was not so sure of that. What he knew, with absolute certainty, was that the Goeben would cause the Royal Navy immense trouble if she were not sunk, and that the Admiralty wanted her sunk. And he could not sink her from here, sitting idly off Corfu waiting for Milne to give sensible orders. That fox Souchon had plans of his own.
As a technical problem of naval tactics, it came down to speed and guns. The German ships were faster, especially the turbine-powered Goeben, and Goeben had bigger guns that outranged his by several nautical miles. Thus the Goeben could, in theory, stand off at a distance where her great shells could pound the cruisers, and their shots would all fall short.
He could think of ways to trap such a ship, ways to neutralize her superior speed and gunpower. What he could not imagine was any way to do it within the confines of his duty as a subordinate to Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne. This latter problem, one more of strategy than tactics, had occupied his mind the day before, disturbed his sleep, and—this hot August morning—it affected his appetite.
He stroked his beard. He could understand why Milne had not followed the German ships into the Strait of Messina. England had gone to war because the Germans violated Belgian neutrality; she could hardly, in such circumstances, violate neutral Italy's territorial waters. In terms of strategy, as well, Italy's unexpected neutrality was a precious gift, freeing the British and French fleets from the threat they had most feared.
But to leave the strait unguarded, except by ships too small to engage the Germans—that was folly indeed. Should he, even in the face of Milne's contrary orders, move his squadron over to back up Kelly inGloucester? No, because all that dashing about had left his destroyers short of coal, and in a fight with Goeben he would need their help. Coaling had to come first.
He finished his breakfast without really noticing the taste and smell, mechanically downing bite after bite, and put his mind to the easier problem.
He would need every ship under his command, cruisers and destroyers alike. If he could have ordered the weather, a storm at night would have been ideal, but this was the season of burning blue days, one after another, and bright moonlight made night attack in the open sea as dangerous as in daylight. Not in the open sea, then. Wherever the Germans went, after Messina, they would have to run to earth eventually. For all her speed, the Goeben devoured coal; that meant coming into harbors. Close to the intricate coastline of Greece or Albania, her speed and her range would be of less use, and he could—if he guessed where she was headed—be in position to intercept her, appear at his range, not hers.
But only if he was free to do so. The solution of one problem doubled back to the insoluble greater one: Milne's refusal to let him act as he thought best. Cradock felt like a horse reined in by a timid rider, unable to run freely down to his fences. And he knew he would be blamed for any failure, as a horse is blamed for a fall by the very rider who caused the problem.
He pushed that thought aside—it did no good—and in order to place himself ahead of Souchon considered where in the Mediterranean he might go. West to harry the French, or escape via Gibraltar into the Atlantic? Not with three battle cruisers who outgunned the Goeben, not to mention the French fleet, awaiting her there. North to the Austrians at Pola, their allies? No, because the Adriatic was a trap, and Souchon too smart a fox to run to an earth with only one door. Southeast to harry Port Said and the Suez, or Alexandria? Possibly, but where would he resupply? Or northeast, to Constantinople, with exits to both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, exits easily mined and guarded by forts on land?
If Souchon had reason to believe that the Turks would let him in, that they were thinking of allying with the Germans . . . that is where he would go. Of course the Turks should do no such thing—they had declared themselves neutral. But . . . were they?
That was the question. Cradock spread marmalade on his toast and considered. Turks were Orientals, with who knew what logical processes. The British had been advising their navy, but the Admiralty had just seized two Turkish dreadnoughts under construction in British yards. The British had helped defend the Turks against the Russians, but they had also helped Greece gain her independence from the Turks. Which, at this juncture, would sway those devious pashas?
A tap heralded the arrival of his captains for the morning conference. It began with a situation report from his flag lieutenant that located each ship in the Mediterranean, so far as was known. Cradock suppressed the comment he wanted to make. Milne was only just around the northwest corner of Sicily, and proceeding with measured pace back toward the Strait of Messina.
"Where's Indomitable?" one of the others asked.
"Back in Bizerte, coaling," Fawcett Wray, his flag captain said. "There was some problem with requisitions . . ."
Cradock said nothing. He had done his small best to improve the coaling efficiency of his squadron, but Milne's insistence on personally approving every detail made it almost impossible. He seemed to think initiative more dangerous than any enemy.
"Requisitions!" That was Coode, captain of destroyers. Cradock had heard him on other occasions; now he cocked an eyebrow at the young man, who subsided like a kettle moved off the fire, steam almost visibly puffing from his ears.
"Gentlemen, the German ships will have to emerge today, or face internship." That got their attention. "Let me explain what I expect them to do." Quickly he retraced his reasoning on the possible courses of action open to the Germans.
"The Turks would not dare harbor them," Wray said. "They must know it would turn us against them. We are their naval advisors; they asked for an alliance with us only last year—"
"Which was refused," Cradock pointed out. "The government did not want to inflame the Russians or the Germans with a formal alliance there . . . but I daresay the Turks took it differently. In addition, on our most recent visit to Turkey, I heard from the locals that Admiral Souchon was a great man. When I asked why, they told me about his having sent the crew of the Goeben to help fight a fire in a Turkish barracks in Constantinople, back in May. Several of the Germans died; the Turks—you know how emotional they are—got up a celebration of some kind."
"But . . . the Turks are neutrals. Even if they admire Souchon—"
"They're Turks. Intrigue is their nature, along with theft and pillage. They have as well that touchy Oriental vanity, which a trifling matter like assistance in a barracks fire would flatter. For Orientals, this is enough. It does not occur to them that any British captain would have done the same."
"But you don't seriously believe they would come into the war as German allies? Not after all we've done for them—"
"I doubt very much they would ally with Germany . . . but I can imagine them giving sanctuary to the Goeben and then finding Souchon more than a match for them. With those guns leveled at the city, can you imagine the pashas refusing his demands?"
"Well, sir," Coode said, "if this is what you think the Germans are going to do, then why aren't we blockading the southern end of the Strait of Messina, instead of sitting over here watching for Austrians?"
"Admiral Milne's orders," Cradock said. "I intend to ask Admiral Milne for permission to position the squadron where we can engage the Goeben under more favorable terms. We will need to move south to do so. Therefore, we must attend to coaling the destroyers at once."
Cradock took a turn on the deck, observing every detail of his squadron, the sea, the signs of weather in the sky, trying to avert his mind from the signs of weather—heavy weather—ahead in his relationship with his commander. Across the blue water, Corfu rose in terraces of gold and green; the mingled scents of lemon groves, thyme, and roses on the breeze competed with the nearer whiff of coal, oil, metal polish, and the freshly holystoned deck. Westward, beyond the blue morning shadows, sunlight burned on the lapis sea, and in the distant haze Italy's heel formed a vague smudge on the horizon. In this second day of war, peace lingered here, where nothing but his own ships seemed warlike.
When Milne finally answered his signal, it was to refuse permission to reinforce Gloucester at the western exit of the Strait of Messina.
Cradock did not tell Milne he had sent the destroyers to coal at Ithaca. Half-formed in his mind, a plan grew, like a stormcloud on a summer's day, hidden in wreaths of haze. If the Goeben broke free and ran east, as he expected, where and how could he catch her, given that his ships were slower? Not by a stern chase—she had outpaced even the big battle cruisers. Not by an interception—she could spot his smoke as far away as he could spot hers, and with her speed easily avoid him. No—he had to decide where she was going to be, and surprise her.
Which he could not do if he waited to ask Milne's permission. Like a thundercloud suddenly revealed, his dilemma stood clear. Was he seriously considering ignoring his orders to guard the Adriatic, making an independent decision to anticipate Souchon's movements and engage the enemy ships? Without informing Milne, in direct contravention of custom and naval law?
The very thought made him wince. He had had it drummed into him, and he had drummed it into others: commanders command, and juniors obey. To act on his thoughts risked not only his ships and his men, but the very foundations of naval discipline. Even if he was right, even if he caught and sank the Goeben, he might well be court-martialed; he would certainly not be given another command. Milne would never forgive the insult; Beattie, Jellicoe . . . he winced again, imagining the astonishment and anger of men he respected, whose respect he desired. He was appalled himself. It was like a member of the field intervening in place of the M.F.H. and giving orders to the huntsmen.
Yet—he remembered the cold day when he'd first seen the bumptious red-headed young officer of hussars who was now First Lord of the Admiralty. For a moment he warmed himself in the glow of that infectious grin, that intensity so akin to his own. Stirrup to stirrup they had faced stone walls, sunken lanes, hedges that in memory seemed as much larger as last year's salmon. Bold, free-going, young Churchill's mistakes would be those of confidence and high courage; he might fall, but he would never shirk a fence. He would approve.
Yet again—Churchill was a civilian now, and had never been in the Navy. He had never been the model of an obedient young officer, even in a service as lenient as the cavalry. Moreover, he had a reputation as a weathercock, changing parties for profit. Cradock dared not trust that memory.
His mind strayed to the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis Battenburg. An able man, who had earned his rank and position, but—would he understand the dilemma in which Cradock found himself? If only Jacky Fisher were still First Sea Lord! There was a fire eater who would approve anything, were the Goeben destroyed.
He took a long breath of Corfu's aromatic air, and reminded himself that, after all, he might be wrong. Souchon might run for the Adriatic. Or even Gibraltar. He might not have to make that choice.
Cradock ate a lunch that had no more flavor, in his distraction, than his breakfast. His destroyers had had to search all the way into the Gulf of Corinth for their collier, whose foreign captain had somehow gone to the wrong Port Vathi. Now they were coaling. Milne had finally reached the western exit of the Strait of Messina, with battle cruisers who could surely defeat Goeben if Souchon were stupid enough to go that way. His own rebellious thoughts spurred him toward bigger obstacles.
He could not wait until a crisis to decide what his priorities were, just as a foxhunter could not wait until the last few strides before a fence to decide whether to jump. That way lay shies and refusals. No, the bold rider sent his horse at every fence resolved to clear it. His officers and men needed his direction, his resolution.
Nelson had been blind to a stupid order at Copenhagen—could he not be deaf to a stupid order in Greece?
Who was he, to compare himself to Nelson?
Should not every English admiral compare himself to Nelson, and strive to match his stature? Would Nelson be more afraid of displeasing a senior, or letting an enemy escape?
But Nelson had not had a wireless to pass on every whim of commanders far away. How would a Nelson have dealt with that distraction? Again he thought of Copenhagen, of Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye.
He had one advantage surely more valuable than speed or guns: a depth of knowledge of the Mediterranean which neither Milne nor Souchon could match. He knew it in all seasons, all weathers, in more detail than Souchon could possibly have acquired in only ten months. His mind held not only chart data, but mental images of bays and inlets and passages apt for coaling, for unseen passage from one island to another. Shingle beaches, sand beaches, steep cliffs dropping straight into deep water, sea caves . . . like familiar fields long hunted over, whose every hedge and fence and gate is known to members of the hunt, he could bring it all to mind.
August 6, 2030 hours.
On the broad breast of the sea, the moonlight shone, as it had for thousands of years, lighting sailors home. Now it lit dark billows of coal smoke against a sea like hammered pewter. Two long, lean shapes slid through the quiet sea, menacing even as they fled. Behind them, a third, much smaller: H.M.S. Gloucester trailing the German ships Goeben and Breslau, and by her own smoke they knew she was shadowing them. To port, the coast of Italy, opening northward into the Gulf of Otranto; far ahead, on this course, the boot heel of Taranto, aimed in a backward kick at the narrow strait that led into the Adriatic.
On Defence, south of Corfu, Cradock stared at the charts and finally shook his head. Gloucester had reported the German ships leaving the Strait of Messina just after 1700 GMT, 1800 local time. Now, over two hours later, the German ships were still steaming ENE, as if aiming for the Adriatic. If that was where they were going, it was time to move the squadron north to intercept them. Cradock did not believe it.
"He must turn, and turn soon," he said.
"If they go north . . ." Captain Wray glanced at him. The other cruiser captains said nothing; they would let the flag captain do the talking, for now. "Our orders said keep them out of the Adriatic."
"He is a fox; he will not run into that trap." He felt a prickle of annoyance; he had explained this before. He sensed in Wray less enthusiasm for the chase than he would have wished in his flag captain. Weeks before, during a discussion of the German ship, Wray had kept harping on the German battle cruiser's strength, the range of its guns. Now he repeated himself.
"But . . . even if you're right, sir . . . the Goeben is far too powerful for us to engage without at least one of the battle cruisers to assist."
Cradock smiled at Wray, trying to hearten him. "She has bigger guns, certainly. And more armor. And more speed. But she is only one—no—" He put up his hand to forestall the younger man's correction. "I know, she has Breslau. But we easily overmatch Breslau. At night, along the coast of Greece . . . the Goeben's advantages lessen markedly."
"Ah." Wray's face lightened. "You intend a night engagement in navigation waters? With the destroyers . . ."
"Yes. Pity it's so clear. But if we position ourselves where I am convinced she is likely to go, we can pick our best location, where the Goeben's speed and range cannot help her. Then our numbers must count. I expect she will pick up her pace after her turn—she is only luring Gloucester on, loafing along at eighteen knots or so, hoping her lookouts will slack off."
"Not Captain Kelly's lookouts," Wray said, grinning.
"Quite so. So when she turns, I expect her to pick up speed, to twenty-four knots or more, and be off the southern capes of Greece before dawn. Now—this is what I propose—" He spread the chart back out and explained in more detail.
Cradock was dozing in his cabin, taking what rest he could, when Captain Wray called him. "Signal's just in from Gloucester, Admiral," he said. "The Germans have turned, just as you thought. They were trying to jam the signal, but Gloucester kept sending. I took the liberty of informing Admiral Milne, but have received no reply yet."
Milne, Cradock thought, would be sure it was a trick. Luckily Milne would still be at dinner, and unlikely to give a return signal until he had finished. Cradock didn't want to talk to Milne about what he planned, and be told not to do it. "What's her speed?" he asked.
"Nineteen knots," Wray said.
"Odd," Cradock said. "I expected a spurt. Souchon must want to evade Gloucester; that would have been the ideal time to do so."
"She just turned."
"Mm. Ask Gloucester to inform us instantly of any change in her course or speed. And set the squadron's course to take us south to Sapienza behind Cephalonia and Zante." If the German ships kept that speed, his ships could easily arrive at Sapienza well before them, and choose their best place to engage.
Within minutes, he felt the cruiser thrust into the gentle swell with more urgency. Far below, sweating stokers would be shoveling coal into the furnaces . . . coal he would have to replenish. His mind ranged ahead, to the location of colliers.
It was near midnight when Captain Wray tapped at his door. Cradock woke instantly, the quick response of the seaman.
"Another report from Gloucester, sir. The German ships have separated; Captain Kelly's following the Goeben, and she is on the same course, at 17 knots. Dublin's trying to find them; she has two destroyers with her, Bulldog and Beagle."
"Seventeen knots." Cradock ran a hand through his hair. Why was such an admiral, with such a ship, crawling across the Mediterranean at a mere 17 knots when he could have outpaced the Gloucester and been free of her surveillance? "He has some problem," Cradock said. "He didn't get coal—no, we know he got some coal. He didn't get enough to go where he wants to go—he's moving at his most economical speed to conserve it until he meets a collier somewhere. Or . . . he has boiler trouble."
"You can't know that, sir."
He didn't know it. He knew only that no man with a ship fast enough to shake a shadower would fail to do so unless something had gone wrong. And Goeben had been snugged away at the Austrian naval base of Pola for weeks before the war started. She could have been undergoing repairs . . . and those repairs could have been interrupted by the outbreak of war, just as his own ships' repairs had been.
"And our position?"
"About eight miles off Santa Maura, sir, here . . ." Wray pointed out their position on the chart. "We'll be entering the channel between Santa Maura and Cephalonia in the next hour. Oh—and Admiral Milne wants to know your dispositions."
"I'm sure he does," Cradock said, stretching. "So do the Germans. Signal Admiral Milne that we are patrolling. I'm going up on deck for a while." Wray looked as he himself might have looked, had his admiral ever told him to send a false signal. But they were, he thought, following the orders Milne would have given—that the Admiralty wanted him to give—if Milne had but the wits to give them. They don't pay me to think, Milne had said once . . . but they might pay a high price because Milne didn't.
The moon swung high overhead. To either side, the other cruisers knifed through the water, pewter ships on a pewter sea, blackening the starry sky with smoke. Behind them, sea-fire flared and coiled from their passage. Ahead, he could see the signal cones of the destroyers, and the white churn of their wakes, the phosphorescence spreading to either side. To port, Santa Maura, Leucas to most Greeks, rose from the sea in a tumble of jet and silver, the moon picking out white stone like a searchlight. Southward, the complicated shapes of Cephalonia and Ithaca, with the narrow straight passage between them.
"Have the squadron fall into line astern," he told Wray. The signal passed from ship to ship; the cruisers dropped smartly into line at four cables . . . his drills had accomplished that much. He hoped the gunnery drills had done as well. He noticed that the cones were all correctly hung. "Reduce speed if necessary, but not below fifteen knots."
He thought of little Dublin, with her two destroyers, desperately trying to find the Germans by their smoke. She might be lucky, but she surely could not sneak up on Goeben in this clear moonlit night. The Germans could not fail to see her any more than he could fail to see the ships of his squadron. Perhaps he should send her to guard the Adriatic gate which he had left wide open? That made sense, but so did another plan. Let her go to Crete, where the Germans might have another collier standing by. At dawn, when he hoped to spring his trap on the Germans near the Peloponnese, the smoke of Dublin and her destroyers might make the Germans swing closer to the Greek capes.
He gave these instructions, and eventually—atmospherics, the radioman explained—Dublin acknowledged them.
August 7, 0230.
He had dozed again, his body registering every slight change of course, every variation in speed, while the squadron passed Santa Maura, Ithaca, the rugged heights of southern Cephalonia, the northern part of Zante. The tap at his door roused him instantly. It was Wray.
"Sir . . . I have to say I don't like it."
"What?" Cradock yawned as he checked the time. Two-thirty.
"At the speed Goeben is making, sir, she will not be at the Greek coast until late morning. We cannot bring her to battle in daylight; you said so yourself." Wray stood there like someone who expected a vice admiral to have the sun at his command. Cradock yawned again and shook his head to clear it.
"Where is she now?"
Wray moved to the table and pointed out Gloucester's most recent position on the chart. Cradock smoothed his beard, thinking. "It's inconvenient," he murmured.
"It's impossible," Wray said.
Cradock looked at him. Surely he could not mean what that sounded like. "Explain, Captain."
"It's what I said before, sir. She's too fast, and her guns outrange ours. She can circle outside our range, picking off the cruisers one by one before they can get a shot." Cradock frowned; was Wray seriously suggesting they abandon the attempt?
"And you propose?"
"To preserve the squadron for action in which it can have an effect," Wray said. "We cannot possibly sink the Germans . . ."
"I think you're missing something," Cradock said, smiling.
"If the Germans do not appear until late morning—as it now appears—then we have time to entrap them where their greater speed will do them no good."
"But sir—she will see us if we're in the Messinian Gulf. She can stand off Sapienza far enough—in fact it would be prudent to do so. We cannot fight her there."
"That is not the only place, not with the lead we seem to have. But it will require a new plan. Signal the squadron and the destroyers: we will heave to while I decide what to do."
"Yes, sir." Wray left for the bridge; Cradock leaned over the charts.
"Is it cleverness, or some difficulty?" Cradock said, to himself. Souchon had the reputation of a bold man. He had thrust all the way to Bone and Phillipeville, and made it safely back to Messina. Clever of him to leave Messina in daylight, clever to attempt that feint to the north. If he anticipated trouble in navigation waters, it was clever of him to slow, to arrive when he had the best visibility, when he could see a waiting collier, or British warships.
He felt Defence shiver successively, like a horse shaking a fly from its skin, as the revolutions slowed and her speed dropped. Deliberately, he did not go on deck to see how the following cruisers obeyed the signals.Defence shuddered through her secondary period of vibration and steadied again.
How many hours ahead were they? If they pressed on as quickly as possible and Goeben did not speed up, they would be a clear eight hours ahead . . . she could not possibly spot them. What then? His fingers traced the familiar contours of the Morean coast. If Goeben held on the shortest course for the east, she would pass between Cythera and Elafonisi. But that provided the obvious place for a trap, and if she chose to go south of Cythera—or worse, south of Cerigotto—his ships could not catch her. He must not head his fox; he trusted that Gloucester's pressure would keep Souchon running a straight course.
Behind the rocky coast of the Peloponnese, the rosy fingered dawn broadened in classical design over a wine-dark sea. Westward, day's arch ran to a distant horizon unblemished by German smoke. They had passed Navarino, where almost ninety years before the British had—with grudging help from their French and Russian allies—scotched a Turkish fleet. Under the cliffs to the east, little villages hugged narrow beaches. Spears of sunlight probed between the rough summits, alive with swallows' wings.
As they cleared the point of Sapienza, the squadron came out of the shadows of the heights, and into a sea spangled with early sun. To port, the Gulf of Messenia opened, long golden beaches between rocky headlands; the old Venetian fort at Korona pushed into the water like a beached ship. Ahead, the longer finger of Cape Matapan reached even farther south. Water more green than blue planed aside from the bows; Cradock felt his heart lift to the change in the air, the light, the old magic of the Aegean reaching even this far west.
He glanced aloft at the lookout searching for the smoke of German ships. One of the destroyers had already peeled off to investigate the gulf for a German collier in concealment; another had gone ahead to investigate the Gulf of Kolokythia. Here he could have ambushed Goeben in the dark, but in daylight these gulfs were traps for slower ships.
"You must signal Admiral Milne," Wray said.
"And let the Goeben hear how close we are? I think not," Cradock said. "Admiral Milne is . . . cruising somewhere around Sicily. He will follow when he thinks it convenient, when he feels certain of events." Cradock smiled, that wry smile which had won other captains' loyalties. "We are the events. We will sink Goeben—or, failing that, we will turn her back toward him, and the 12-inch guns of the battle cruisers."
"But if we don't—" Wray was clearly prepared to argue the whole thing again.
"I had a hunter once," Cradock said, meditatively. He gazed at the cliffs rising out of the sea as if he had no interest in anything but his story. "A decent enough horse, plenty of scope. But—he didn't like big fences. Every time out, the same thing . . . you know the feeling, I suppose, the way a reluctant hunter backs off before a jump."
"I don't hunt," Wray said, repressively.
"Ah. I thought perhaps you didn't." Cradock smiled to himself. "Well, there was only one thing to do, you see, if I didn't want to spend all day searching for gaps and gates."
"And what was that, sir?" asked Wray, in the tone of one clearly humoring a superior.
Cradock turned and looked at him full face. "Put the spurs to him," he said. "Convince him he had more to fear from me than any fence." Wray reddened. "I thought you'd understand," Cradock said, and turned away. He hoped that would be enough.
By 0730, they were clearing Cape Matapan; Cythera lay clear on the starboard bow. Cradock peered up at the cliffs of the Mani, at the narrow white stone towers like fangs . . . still full of brigands and fleas, he supposed. Some of the brigands might even be spying for the Germans. They would do anything for gold, except, possibly, spy for the Turks.
The German ships were likely to pass Matapan fairly close, if they wanted to take the passage north of Cythera . . . plenty of places along that coast to hide his cruisers. But none of them were close enough, especially if the Germans went south. He dared not enter those gulfs, to be trapped by the longer reach of the German guns.
No. The simplest plan was the best, and he had time for it. Ahead now was the meeting of the Aegean, the white sea with its wind-whipped waters, and the deeper blue Ionian. This early on a fair summer's day, the passage went smoothly; the treacherous currents hardly affected the warships on their steady progress past Elafonisi's beaches, the fishing village of Neapolis, and the steep coast of Cythera, that the Venetians had called Cerigo.
Around the tip of Cape Malea, he found the first proof that Souchon intended to use that northern passage. Off the port bow, a smallish steamer rocked uneasily in the Aegean chop.
"Greek flag, sir," the lookout reported. "The Polymytis."
"If I were Souchon," Cradock said, "this is where I would want to find a collier. I would want one very badly."
"But it's Greek."
"Souchon flew a Russian flag at Phillipeville," Cradock said. "And our destroyers could use more coal." He sipped his tea. "I think we will have a word with this collier. An honest Greek collier—if that is not a contradiction in terms—should be willing to sell the Royal Navy coal, in consideration of all the English did to free Greece . . ." He peered at the ship. Something tickled his memory . . . something about the way her derrick was rigged, her lines. The German ship General had appeared in Messina tarted up like a Rotterdam-Lloyd mail steamer, though she belonged to the German East Africa Line.
"From where, and where bound?" he asked; Wray passed on his questions.
The dark-haired man answered in some foreign gibberish that sounded vaguely Turkish or Arabic, not Greek.
"He says he doesn't understand," he heard bawled up from below.
"He understands," Cradock said quietly. His eye roved over the steamer again. Ignore the paint (too new for such a ship), the unseamanlike jumble of gear on the deck, the derrick . . . and she looked very much like a ship he had seen less than a year before putting out from Alexandria, when she had flown the German ensign. He even thought he could put a name to her.
"We'll have a look at her," he said to Wray.
Wray swallowed. "Yes, sir, but—if I may—she is flying a neutral flag."
"She's a German Levant Line ship—imagine her in the right colors. She's no more neutral than Goeben. She is most likely old Bogadir with her face made up. If, as I suspect, she's carrying coal, then—one of our problems is solved. Possibly two."
Under the guns of the secondary battery, Polymytis's captain submitted to a search.
"She's not a very good collier," the sublieutenant remarked when he came back aboard, much smudged. "Her bunkers are even harder to get at than ours . . . but she's bung full of coal, and her engineering crew is German, I'd swear. White men, anyway."
"Take her crew into custody, and put a prize crew aboard." Collecting the collier might be enough. But it might not. The Goeben still might have enough coal to reach the Dardanelles, and she would surely be able to call on other colliers. Even a lame fox could kill chickens. He would have to bring her to battle.
The sea was near calm, but that wouldn't last, not here at the meeting of the two seas. Already he could see the glitter off the water that meant the Aegean was about to live up to its name. The Etesian wind off Asia Minor crisped little waves toward him . . . and at day's end it would blow stronger.
Unfortunately, it would blow his smoke to the south; if he stayed here, off Cape Malea, that black banner across the channel would reveal his presence to the Germans. How could he make them come this way, the only place where he could be sure his guns would reach them?
They must see nothing to alarm them. He would position three cruisers south of the passage, behind the crook of Cythera's northeast corner, where the smoke would blow away behind that tall island, invisible. The other, with the destroyers, would wait well around the tip of Cape Malea, far enough north that their smoke would be dispersed up its steep slopes. He would put parties ashore who could signal when the Germans were well into the channel.
The signal flashed, and flashed again. Cradock smiled at the charts, and then at his flag captain. Souchon was as bold and resolute as his reputation. He had chosen the direct route, after shaking off Gloucester back at Matapan. Cradock had fretted over the signals from above that told of exchange of shots between Gloucester and Breslau; the minutes when the Goeben turned back to support Breslau—when he feared she might turn away from the northern passage altogether—had racked his nerves, the more so as he could not see for himself what was going on.
But the Germans had gone straight on when Gloucester turned away, and now—now they were well into the passage.
Defence grumbled beneath him, power held in check like a horse before the start of a run. Below, stokers shoveled more coal into the maws of the furnaces; boilers hissed as the pressure rose. Thicker smoke oozed from the funnels, whirled away in dark tendrils by the wind. Cradock could almost see the engineering officers and engine crew, alert for every overheated bearing, every doubtful boiler tube. Gun crews were at their stations, the first rounds already loaded and primed, awaiting only the gunlayers' signals.
But ships could not reach racing speed as fast as horses; he had to guess, from the positions signalled to him, the moment to begin the run-up. He wanted the cruisers to be moving fast when they cleared the island. So much depended on things he could not know—how fast the Goeben was, how fast she could still go, how Souchon would react to the sudden appearance of hostile ships in front of him.
Signals flashed down, translated quickly into Goeben's position on the chart in front of him. She was not racing through; she was up to nineteen knots now, but keeping a steady course, well out from either side of the channel, Breslau trailing her. When . . . when . . . ? He felt it, more than saw it in the figures on the chart. Now.
Defence surged forward, behind Black Prince, and ahead of Warrior. Cradock squinted up at the lookout. The Germans would be watching carefully; they had the sun over their shoulders, perfect viewing. But surprise should still gain Black Prince the first shot. She had won her vanguard position on the basis of an extra knot of speed and her gunnery record. He put into his ears the little glass plugs the Admiralty provided.
Across the passage, fourteen sea miles, he saw dark smoke gush from the funnels of the Duke of Edinburgh and the destroyers. In minutes, it would drift out across the passage, but by then they would be visible anyway.
For an instant, the beauty of the scene caught him: on a fair summer afternoon, the trim ships steaming in order under the rugged cliffs. Then his vision exploded in fire and smoke, as Black Prince fired her port 9.2-inch guns; the smoke blew down upon Defence coming along behind, and obscured his vision for an instant. Then Defence was clear of the point, and at that moment he saw the raw fire of Goeben's forward turrets, just asDefense rocked to the recoil of her own. White spouts of water near Goeben showed that Black Prince's gunners had almost found her range.
Too late now for fear or anxiety; his heart lifted to the raw savagery of the guns, shaking every fiber, the heart-stopping stink of cordite smoke, chocolate in the afternoon sun, blowing over him. Black Prince's port guns fired again, and behind, he heard the bellow of Warrior's, as she too cleared the point. The shells screamed on their way like harpies out of Greek legend.
The Goeben's first shots rocked the sea nearby, sending up spouts of white. Had she picked out the Defence? She would surely try to sink the flagship, but he trusted his captains to carry on. His orders had been clear enough: "Our objective is to sink the Goeben, first, and the Breslau second."
The German ship's guns belched again; she could bring six of her ten 11-inch guns to bear on any of the three ships on her starboard bow. Cradock hoped her gun crews were not as good as he had been told.
White flashes of water, and then an explosion that was surely on the Goeben herself. She steamed on, but another hit exploded along her starboard side, even as her guns belched flame. Then a curtain of water stood between him and the German ships, and Defence rocked on her side, screws shuddering.
"Very close, sir," Wray said. He looked pinched and angry. Cradock looked away.
"Yes, excellent shooting." But his own crews were doing well, maintaining a steady round per minute per gun. Where were the destroyers in all this? They were supposed to have raced around the tip of Malea, laying smoke that would blow into the battle area and confuse the Goeben—he hoped. He looked ahead, to find dark coils of smoke already rolling over the afternoon sea, and the flash of Duke of Edinburgh's guns . . . she was finally out from behind Malea, moving more slowly than his own ships. They had not wanted Souchon to see all that smoke until he was well into the trap.
Defence bucked a little as the sea erupted behind her, another near miss that dumped a fountain over Warrior's bows. The guns rocked the ship again. Cradock looked at the chart, and his stopwatch. Black Princeshould be near the point at which she was to start her turn, bringing her end on to the Goeben. He had worried over that point, on which so much depended. For three of his ships, it reduced by one the 9.2-inch guns that could bear on the Goeben . . . but it reduced the range more quickly, and that would, he hoped, be sufficient advantage.
Black Prince's stern yawed starboard as her bow swung into the turn. Cradock felt Defence heel to the same evolution. Then, just as he glanced aft to look at Warrior, he saw the aft 9.2 turret erupt in flame, like a column of fire. Defence bucked and slewed, like a horse losing its grip on slick ground. Black smoke poured from the turret. If they had not turned—he was sure that salvo would have hit Defence amidships.
Even as he watched, Warrior's forward turret exploded in a gout of flame—seconds later, the starboard turret blew, and then the next . . . as if some demon artificer had laid a fuze from one to the other. In his mind's eye, he saw what had happened, the flash along the passages. Another vast explosion that showered Defence and the sea around with debris, and the Warrior disappeared forever beneath the restless sea.
"I told you," Wray was saying, fists clenched, when he could hear again. They watched as shell after shell struck the Goeben without apparent effect. "We don't have the weight of guns to damage her even this close; she'll sink one after another . . . the whole squadron lost to no purpose."
"He's slowing," Cradock said, peering through the curls and streamers of smoke. The only possible reply to what Wray had said would disrupt his command. He concentrated instead on the battle. If he had been Souchon, in that ship, and if she could still make twenty-seven knots, he would have tried to run the gauntlet. Was Souchon, instead, turning to run away westward? Or had he suffered damage? No ship, however armored, could withstand a steady barrage of 380-pound shells forever. One of them would have to hit something vital. Enough of them, and she must, eventually, go under.
Minute by minute, the ships converged through a hell of smoke and fire and spouting water, battered and battering with every gun that might possibly bear. Despite the blown turret, Defence's boilers and engines drove her forward at twenty knots, a nautical mile every three minutes, and the interception became a matter of interlocking curves, the Goeben weaving to bring her undamaged guns to bear, the British responding as they could. From fourteen thousand yards to twelve, to ten, to eight. Destroyers darted in and out, zigging wildly from Goeben's secondary batteries. Three were gone already, blown from the water by shells too small to hole the cruisers.
Cradock, eyes burning with smoke and sweat, struggled to keep his gaze on the Goeben, to distinguish her smoke from the rest. A stronger gust of wind lifted the smoke, and there she was. One funnel blown askew, and the smoke from its opening unhealthily pallid with escaping steam, most of her secondary guns on this side dismounted . . . but the big guns still swung on their mounts to aim directly at Defence. His mouth dried. Below him, Defence fired, and he saw the flare from Goeben's guns just as someone jerked him off his feet and flung him down. The bridge exploded around him; he felt as if he had been thrown from a horse at high speed into timber, and then nothing.
He could not catch his breath; his sight had gone dark.
Voices overhead . . . a weight lifted off him, and someone said, "Here's the admiral!" How much time had gone by? What had happened? He struggled to open his eyes, and someone said, "Easy, sir . . ." More weight came off; he could breathe but the first breath stabbed him. Ribs, no doubt. Wetness on his face, stinging fiercely, then he got his eyes open to see a confusion of bundles he knew for bodies, blood, steel twisted like paper.
"Goeben," he managed to say.
They didn't answer, struggling with something that still pinned his legs. He couldn't feel it, really, but he could see a mass of metal. Shouts in the distance, something about boats away. His mind put that together. Was the ship sinking?
"Is—?" he started to ask, but a sudden explosive roar drowned out his words. He felt the tilt of the deck beneath him. No need to ask. "You'd better go," he said instead, to the faces that hovered around him.
"No sir," said one, in the filthy rags of what had been a Royal Marine uniform. "We're not leaving you, Admiral."
He didn't have the strength to argue. He couldn't focus on what they were saying, what they were doing; his vision darkened again. Then he felt himself lifted, carried, and eased into a boat that rocked in the choppy water. He could see Defence's stern lifting into the sky.
"Goeben?" he asked again. The men in his boat looked at each other.
"She's still making for the Aegean, sir. Slow, but so far she's not sunk."
"Captain Wray?" he asked.
"Got off in another boat, sir."
For the first time in years, the motion of the sea made him feel sick. He asked one of the men to hold his head up, and over the gunwale saw the Goeben in the distance, battered, listing a little, but still whole, limping eastward almost to the tip of Cape Malea. Behind her, hanging on like bulldogs, were two destroyers. Somewhere, big guns still roared; he saw one shell explode on the cliff face, spouts of water.
He could not see the torpedo that, after so many misses, exploded under the Goeben's stern and jammed one of her rudders. But he saw the sag of her bow toward the Cape, and he knew what that meant.
"Dear God," he said softly. "She's going to hit the rocks."
"Admiral?" The face bent over his looked worried; Cradock tried to point and managed only a weak flap of his hand. But they looked . . . as the Goeben yawed in the current, her bow swinging more and more to port, into the rocks that had claimed, over thousands of years, that many ships and more.
Another half mile and she would have been well beyond Cape Malea, with sea room to recover from steering problems. Instead, her remaining steam and the current dragged her abraded hull along the rocks, and the destroyers fired their last torpedoes into her. With a vast exhalation of steam, like the last breath of a dying whale, the Goeben settled uneasily, rolling onto her side.
August 8, aboard H.M.S. Black Prince
Cradock lay sweating in his bandages in the captain's cabin, more than a little amazed that he was alive. Too many were not. Warrior gone with all hands. Defence sunk, and only 117 of her crew recovered. Six of eight destroyers . . . Scorpion and Racoon were still afloat, but of the others only a very few hands had survived. Only 83 of the Germans, Admiral Souchon not among them. Black Prince and Duke of Edinburgh were both in need of major repairs, unable to do more than limp back to Malta. Admiral Milne had already expressed his displeasure with the loss of so many ships and men, and, as he had put it, "reckless disregard of his duty to his superior." He foresaw that Milne would take credit for the success, and condemn the method by which it had been achieved. Like Codrington at Navarino, he would be censured for having exceeded his orders, while the Admiralty shed no tears over the vanquished enemy. Well, they would have retired a one-legged admiral anyway.
A tap at his door introduced yet another problem.
"Sir." Wray stood before him like a small boy before a headmaster.
"Captain Wray," Cradock said mildly.
"I was . . . wrong, sir."
"It happens to all of us," Cradock said. "I've been wrong many times."
But he wanted to know what Cradock would say about him, in his official reports.
"Captain Wray, I never finished telling you the story of that hunter," he said. A long pause; Wray looked haggard, a What now? expression. "I sold him," Cradock said. "To a man who wanted a good hack." Wray seemed to shrink within his uniform. "Have some tea," Cradock offered, seeing that the message had been received.
"Nothing can change the nature born in its blood," he said, quoting a Greek poet, most apt for this ocean. "Neither cunning fox, nor loud lion." Nor coward, though he would not say that. He could take no pleasure in Wray's humiliation, but in the Navy there were no excuses. That was the great tradition.