What Prices Paid_Part 7
by Jim Rapkins
London, Great Britain
13 February 1909
“Goddamn it, John! What were you thinking?!”
Admiral John Jellicoe looked up sharply at his superior’s words. No sooner had the Skagerrak fleet arrived back in England, than he had been whisked off to London to face an inquiry at the Admiralty. That had been remarkably pro forma, with the questions aimed not so much at his handling of the so-called debacle, but Fisher’s role in the exercise. So having his mentor address him in such a way—especially in this place!—was a slight shock to the system.
“Ah, sir, I’m not certain I understand what you mean. You know what happened. The German fleet arrived in much more force than anticipated, and I made the decision to minimize any casualties.” Which was what you told me to do. He left the last unsaid, not sure how it would go down. The other man in the room took a deep puff from his pipe, the blue-grey smoke drifting listlessly towards the domed ceiling of the sitting room.
“I’m not sure what else you expected him to do, Jackie—that blasted battleship showed up, and from that point on, our ‘show of force’ was going to escalate into a proper shooting war.” Third Sky Lord Admiral Percy Scott took another puff. “No, John did the right thing withdrawing. We both know that.”
Fisher sighed languidly. “I know that, Percy…it’s just that blasted Harris raked me over the coals, and he’s not the only one. After the fight I had to put up to keep Lloyd George from slashing the budget, I’ve lost more friends than I’ve gained in Parliament lately. Now with this…I’m not sure why I ever agreed to stand for ruddy office.”
“Because I asked you to, dear Jackie.” All three men rapidly came to their feet to greet the new arrival. The King awkwardly waved for them to remain seated before sinking into the stuffed chair opposite Fisher. He took out his own pipe and Scott leaned across to light it. “This is a bit of bad business, Jack.”
Jellicoe huffed. “The thing is, it’s not—we took out more of the Krauts than they did of us, and we withdrew in good order.” In response, the King pulled out the folded newspaper stuffed in the side of the chair, one that had obviously been there for a while. Jellicoe cringed when he saw the photo on the front page: the wreckage of the HML Suffolk festooned with German sailors and airmen at the Caserne in Kiel. The Times had been proud of their photographic coup, but it had been the bane of his existence since his return from sea. The boffins at Whale Island had been concerned about Germans learning the secrets of the British leviathans, but it was largely immaterial. The Germans knew how to build the flyers, and the County-class was a fairly basic design, most not even mounting Dreyer’s new sighting mechanism.
No, the impact of the Suffolk was the fact that a British vessel had been captured, albeit only through salvage, by a foreign power. And whilst Jellicoe had the utmost respect for Fisher, he also knew that Fisher might have to cast him to the wolves in order to save his own nascent political career. Whether or not he went quietly was a completely different question. Out of respect for their friendship, he was hoping it would not come to that.
As always, the elephant in the room was the King. Fisher’s relationship with the King had seen him take on the civilian political role, and seen him advance to a cabinet post, albeit one closely related to his naval career, all in a matter of months. And while Fisher was a good man, he was also ambitious enough—if not for himself, then for his ideas—that he might see the need to throw a close friend and protégé on the sacrificial altar.
“Admiral, I know you did the right thing, we all do. But Jackie is more than a naval officer now. What has happened, and why, is much less important than what has been perceived to happen.” The King tapped the photo pointedly. “That is what the people see.”
“Regardless, Sire, I’m not going to sacrifice John to save a political career.”
Jellicoe nodded at Fisher’s words, glad for his mentor’s support. Thank goodness for small mercies.
The King shook his head disappointedly. “I’m not asking you to, Jackie. But, you’ll be in a position to help him more as Prime Minister than as Sea Lord.” The King softened his voice and faced Jellicoe directly. “John, take the blame for this now, and it will all blow over later on.” He tried a different approach. “If someone doesn’t take the blame, then the assumption will be that Lloyd George was right, and the leviathans are overpriced mistakes.”
Jellicoe felt a twinge of annoyance at the King using his belief in the Sky Fleet against him. Fisher interjected before he could respond. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not going to allow John to take the blame for what was a sound tactical decision. Photos be damned, I’ll stand by my man. Those bastards in the House may have forgotten, but a man is a man by his actions, not his words.” He turned to face the King. “Sorry, Sire, but I am Sea Lord, and as such the responsibility falls to me.”
The King took a deep puff from his pipe and breathed out lightly. “Then I can’t help you, John. Your party won’t back you if you decide to do this.
“I know, Sire. Politics—and especially politicians—be damned.”