July 28, 1942
The uniform of the day was tropical khakis.
It was over eighty degrees in John Alden’s office. He looked at his team in front of him. They seemed hot. Chief McGuire’s shoulder was sprained and bruised, not broken, bur her arm was in a sling. Lieutenant Jewell looked hot, fat, and uncomfortable in her khaki shorts. The rest of the team looked awkward, at best, in a uniform none of them had ever worn before.
“Ladies, Gentlemen, thank you for joining me. Commander Adams, what should I know today?”
“Admiral Alden, it has been a busy two days. But I am happy to report that the proposed Atlantic Fleet Operations Order for an invasion of Nicaragua has been completed and forwarded to Atlantic Fleet. Awaiting action.”
“Action may be delayed given the current situation, but well done. Given issues local to our command, that was rapid support.”
“We did it by not stopping our work, Sir. And our tropical khakis were cut on the size of our last uniforms. I’ve gained weight on Petty Officer Chiang’s cooking. I need new uniforms, Admiral,” said Lieutenant Jewell. She looked irate.
“I’m sorry. New uniforms will be provided, with full credit to your uniform allowance,” promised Vice Admiral Alden.
“Thank you!” snapped Channah Jewell. She was not herself.
George O’Brien looked, but said nothing.
“But I need to speak to all of you regarding a decision I made, a decision that can be changed in a heartbeat if I choose. As we speak, the Navy War College resides here, in a wrecked building. The morning message traffic and our foodstuffs come with loads of lumber before sunrise. Our later deliveries of message traffic and essentials in daylight are concealed with withdrawals of the morning lumber, sawed and broken apart. Our windows are boarded. We live as if we were on a submarine. I have to know if you agree with me. Should we remain here in Newport?”
July 28, 1942
Unnamed experimental submarine XSS-1942 was twenty miles east-southeast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“Enough of this. Let’s see what this boat is made of. Order Dive. Set depth at 150 feet. Acknowledge,” said Rear Admiral Shaw.
July 28, 1942
“Admiral, why would we stay here,” asked Captain O’Brien. “This building is literally condemned due to damage. It’s also situated too close to American forces. We should get away, as far away as possible, given the work we’re doing. Proximity to the Prince makes sense. I recommend a move to Halifax.”
“Boof!” said August.
“Thank you, August. Concurrence noted, but unless and until you are a member of the Royal New England Armed Forces, just one vote for the two of you. Thomas?”
Thomas B. Adams sighed. He was visibly disturbed since the encounter, and everybody knew that it was because he had personally taken two lives. He always looked eyes-sunk and ill, but today he looked worse.
“Admiral, move. We cannot fight again. It is not necessary nor appropriate for a staff command such as this to be carrying infantry weapons and preparing to fight. Get us away from here. I concur with Captain O’Brien—move us to Halifax. There we can do our job.”
“Very well. Lieutenant Wilkinson?”
“We stay, Admiral. There is more to this building than broken wood and glass. I can’t say how I feel, exactly, but I believe that if we leave here we lose something vital. Furthermore, I know how hard it would be to move the Simulation Room. It would take a week or two to reconstruct elsewhere, and we’d still lose something. We need to remain here.”
“Good words. Lieutenant Jewell?”
“We leave for Halifax. Admiral, I’m miserable here. There’s no sunlight. It’s a prison, even more than it already was before the attack. I’ll come up with a plan for transfer of the Simulation Room. I think that we can be ready in five days, Admiral. Let’s go. We’ll all work better in a real office with real quarters.”
“Very well. Chief McGuire?”
“We stay, Admiral,” said Roberta McGuire. For the only time since she had joined the Royal Navy, her hair was tangled undone and she wore no makeup. It was clear, for the first time, that she was a woman in her thirties, aging despite the care she had taken for her health. She was in pain, and she was terribly tired.
“Why?” asked Vice Admiral Alden.
“Because you need to stay here, Admiral. I know you. I know that you cannot leave, although I’m not sure why. But my job, a task I freely accepted without knowing who the Hell you were, Admiral, is to support you. John Alden, you cannot leave that desk and do the same thing you have done here elsewhere. This office is the only reason our nation is still in the war at all, and every one of us knows it. The Americans know it—they’ve attacked here twice, and they’ve gone after Channah and Wayne one other time. But condemning our building is enough to hide us, and I think that we can get through however many weeks may remain this way. I want to stay.”
The inner office went silent.
“Thank you, Roberta,” said Vice Admiral Alden, a fraction of a teardrop captured and restrained in the corner of his eye. “Petty Officer Chiang?”
“Admiral, no, this is not my place,” said the boy in a uniform.
“I completely disagree,” said Captain O’Brien. “You know more about strategy and history than I do, John. We’re all here by accident, except for Edna, but we’re all here for a reason. Commander Adams didn’t bring you here because you could cook, he brought you here because you’re a genius. Age and rank don’t matter in this room. You deserve to be here. So do all of us. And I damn well want to hear what you have to say.”
“I concur,” said Vice Admiral Alden.
“Then, permission to speak freely, Sir?”
“First, we stay. That is easy. The core of every military in the history of this earth is tradition and strength. We do not retreat. That suggests defeat, at least symbolically. Our remaining is a symbol of strength. We need to seize this opportunity—and it is an opportunity—to defy the United States.”
“Well said,” commented Vice Admiral Alden.
“I am not done,” replied Petty Officer Chiang. “Captain O’Brien, you are probably the greatest infantry warrior of your generation. I cannot say how lucky I am to have met you and to have known you. But your perspective is that of a warrior, of an infantryman. You saved my life. Alone among us, I never had to kill. That is because you killed over half of the Americans yourself, along with August. I cannot repay you the debt that I never had to face firearms with knives and hot oil. But Captain O’Brien, your answer is strictly based upon defensibility—there is more to the Navy War College than how defensible it is.”
George O’Brien grinned. Unusually for an infantry officer, he realized that, whatever his ideas were on this particular issue, what mattered more was that there was a Petty Officer so young who could challenge them so well.
“Very well, Petty Officer Chiang,” answered the Captain, smiling.
“Thank you, Sir. Commander Adams, you do not want us carrying weapons. Sir, you killed two men. I know—we all know—how you feel about killing. Were I you, I would want to leave. Actually, Sir, were I you, I would be dead. I cannot imagine how you continue, and I respect you more than I can say for staying here in the fight. There are many heroes in this war, Sir. To me, you are the greatest.”
Thomas B. Adams bowed his head, speechless.
“That said, Sir, Admiral Alden needs to be here, and you need to leave. So we stay. For you, this is a question of loyalty, not a question of desire. You know that—and if, for a moment, you choose to leave, nobody here would fault you. Only you, Commander, know what more you can endure.”
“I would hope that you would stay with us.”
Thomas B. Adams raised his head. “If it is our consensus to stay here, I shall remain,” he spoke quietly.
“And that I respect, Sir. Lieutenant Jewell?”
“Yes,” asked the very young officer.
“Nobody has said it, but it is clear that you want to leave because you are pregnant, and that you will be uncomfortable here in the summer heat.”
Captain O’Brien covered his lowered face with his right palm, scratching August’s ear with his left hand.
“What!” screamed Lieutenant Jewell. “How dare you!”
“I am only trying to discuss the relevant issues…” began Petty Officer Chiang.
“How dare you assume that I am pregnant!” screamed Lieutenant Jewell.
“I merely observed the biological changes that one would expect from pregnancy, and made a rational logical deduction. It is not so very hard to see.”
“John, some things aren’t said,” commented Edna Wilkinson.
“But if they affect the net assessment, they must be said,” replied Petty Officer Chiang.
The hot inner office was silent.
“Channah,” said Roberta McGuire, at length, “John was unimaginably rude, but from a military perspective, correct in raising the issue. If you are pregnant, Admiral Alden needs to know.”
Lieutenant Jewell closed her eyes. Her face was beet-red. “Yes. Yes, I am carrying Wayne’s child. I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? I’m happy,” said Edna Wilkinson.
“Congratulations,” said Roberta McGuire.
“This is great!” said George O’Brien.
“We understand,” said Thomas B. Adams.
“Your child will be amazing in intellect,” commented John Chiang.
“Or just amazing in love,” added John Alden. “Congratulations. Channah, I think that we had all guessed it by now. And all of us are happy…and we do understand.”
“Thank you,” said Channah.
“But Petty Officer Chiang raises an excellent point—can you stay here with us? How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine.”
“She’s sick most mornings, Sir,” said Chief McGuire. “But she’s hidden it from everybody except Edna and me. That should get better soon. I think that she can do this for three or four months.”
“Agreed, Admiral,” said Edna.
“But what are the standards under regulation? I haven’t looked them up, but I don’t think that they allow for this,” commented Commander Adams.
“I’ve checked. When Lieutenant Jewell’s condition is ‘readily visible’ to those outside the command, you, Admiral, have five weeks to discharge her from the Royal Navy,” said Chief McGuire.
“I see. An interesting standard,” replied John Alden.
“My thoughts exactly, Admiral,” answered Chief McGuire.
“So, if you hide me in this wrecked building, you can keep me here despite my baby?” asked Channah Jewell.
“He didn’t write the rules,” commented Commander Adams.
“Thomas, I need your help,” said John Alden.
“I need an appropriate doctor, trusted by the Crown at this level of secrecy, to give us all physical examinations to determine our ability to endure these conditions. Once that doctor gets here, we let him know that he’s checking just one of us, Channah.”
Thomas B. Adams paused. “Sir?” he asked, at length.
“Can you trust me just to get Channah the care she needs? If I follow your orders, any doctor in New England will throw me out of here before he even sees Channah.”
“Of course, Thomas. Thank you. Pardon me. It is a compliment that I forget.”
“Understood, and thank you. I’ll get Channah medical care for her condition.”
“Excellent. But team, I told Admiral Vaughn we’re staying here, and I wanted all of you in agreement. Thomas?”
“John just taught me a lot. You’re right, Admiral.”
Lieutenant Jewell sighed. “Admiral, life isn’t fair,” she said, looking up.
“But we have each other,” added Lieutenant Wilkinson.
The seven looked at each other. Those were powerful and significant words. The condemned and torn-up War College housed the survivors of countless Royal Navy political attacks and two American military attacks. There was a long moment of silence—of recognition of how close the bonds had become.
“You’re right,” said Lieutenant Jewell. “I want to be here. By now, I don’t know how to be anywhere else. But I’m scared.”
“Channah, we’re all here for you,” said Vice Admiral Alden. “But know this—I’m scared too, more than I can say, almost every day. We’re in this together.”
“I’m scared, too,” said Chief McGuire.
“I’m scared, too,” said Lieutenant Wilkinson.
“I’m scared, too,” said Petty Officer Chiang.
“I’m too far gone to be scared for myself, Channah, but I love you as if you were family,” said Commander Adams.
“And I want you to live,” said George O’Brien. From behind his haunted eyes, there was little more that could be said.
“I want both of us to live,” said Channah, placing her hand upon her belly. “But, Admiral, I understand. We need to win. And if there wasn’t a really good reason for staying here in this wrecked building, this is one—I’m starting to show. If you can get me a doctor to make sure my baby’s all right, I’ll stay with you as long as I can.”
“Very well,” said Vice Admiral Alden. “Then first, we stay—is there any objection?”
The inner office was silent.
“Excellent. Second, we need to reassign roles in a manner reflecting recent issues. Petty Officer Chiang, you are reassigned to the simulation team. You, alone of us, have learned enough calculus to understand what Lieutenant Jewell is doing with her algorithms. Captain O’Brien, you are our command comissaryman…our chef. I need you to cook three meals a day for our team. When New England needs you for a task requiring your special skills, I’ll ask you to do that. Right now, we need to be fed, and we need John to learn what Channah knows. Keep your weapons nearby, and protect us again if need be. John?”
“I…Admiral, I had not expected…”
“I don’t care what you expected, John. I understand that you are only a boy, too young for combat by convention, and that you are here only by accident and coincidence of circumstance. But here’s what I know: you know our team. With that, you can learn what Channah has developed, even if you can’t yet redevelop it yourself. In the time we have available, you are the only soul who can do that. I know what I need. Can you do it?”
“I…I think so. Yes, Sir.”
“Good. Report immediately to Lieutenant Wilkinson for duty.”
“Good. Thomas, you and I will have to handle messages for now.”
“Take Channah’s machine pistol. Have George teach you how to use it, including firing in bursts and reloading. We need a second automatic weapon in our defense scheme.”
“Admiral, the Geneva and Hague agreements…” began Thomas B. Adams.
“This is total war,” said John Alden. “Petty Officer Chiang, telling you to carry a weapon is an illegal order. I make it and stand by it. You may, under your oath, still decline.”
“No, Sir,” said Petty Officer Chiang. “I would prefer to live.”
“Very well. Channah, think about it. Let me know if you still want a weapon.”
“What’s for supper?”
July 28, 1942
The convoy had turned around, and it was heading south, away from the Bismarck. The destroyers in close escort were following, guarding the threat axis along with two corvettes. The other five light escorts were screening for subs as best they could.
The Narragansett Bay, the only other escort useful in day action, was square on the threat axis between the convoy and the Bismarck’s last position. Charging out at almost 30 knots, she had put herself into position to make a difference. The dying smoke screen was all that separated her from seeing the Bismarck, if the Bismarck had not fled.
The Merrimack, satisfied that the Gotland had, indeed, fled the scene, had doubled back behind its own smoke screen. Most guns had about eight armor-piercing shells left in queue before high-explosive were ready.
“Right standard rudder, coming to course zero-four-five!” announced the Helmsman.
“Very well,” said Captain Jackson-Sims.
The Merrimack, ten miles away from the Narragansett Bay, headed for the smoke screen. They would both pass it at about the same moment, as planned by Rear Admiral Clark. The ready Tern reconnaissance seaplane had gone down on the catapult, its engine unable to turn over. An Arado circled high overhead. The Bismarck, if communications were good, knew what was about to happen. Admiral Clark did not. But the turrets of the Merrimack were trained to port, high elevation, as a guess.
Both ships passed the smoke. Bismarck was headed southwest, for the convoy, on an almost reciprocal course, five miles north-northwest of the Narragansett Bay, fifteen miles northwest of the Merrimack.
“Fire for effect, maximum range!” ordered Rear Admiral Clark.
A lesser Commanding Officer would have protested that the range was still unknown. The intent was clear to a good officer—fire for effect at the only range with a chance of penetration, clear the armor-piercing shells fast, find the correct range, and then barrage the Bismarck with high explosive to ruin her superstructure and secondary turrets.
“Fire for effect, maximum range!” relayed Captain Jackson-Sims.
Seconds later a ten-shell broadside thundered away, aimed more or less at the sea just ahead of the Bismarck, if maximum range was, in fact, correct.
The Bismarck fired her main battery. Brief seconds later, a ranging salvo straddled the Narragansett Bay on first attempt. The light cruiser replied with nine six-inch guns and six 4.7-inch guns. The Bismarck’s secondaries replied in equal volume of fire.
“Order independent action for Narragansett Bay!” screamed Rear Admiral Clark. The phone talkers reflected his urgency.
All of the guns of the Merrimack fired again. Fire for effect was fire for effect, target acquired or not. The first salvo had yet to land.
Bismarck fired again. The Narragansett Bay was already burning from a light hit topside. Two fifteen-inch shells grazed the cruiser, one clipping her bow, and one passing through the top of a stack.
Whether it was luck or it was Admiral Clark’s decision of what needed to be true to have a chance for victory, Bismarck lit up with an explosion. A shell from the Merrimack had hit her somewhere.
The bridge crew cheered. “Focus,” said Rear Admiral Clark, almost too softly to hear.
Narragansett Bay started to turn to port, towards the Bismarck. Captain Don Tarble had had two choices. He could have turned away under smoke to leave the engagement, or he could have turned toward Bismarck to attempt a torpedo run. In the finest traditions of the world’s greatest navies, he had chosen, despite odds, to engage. Six-inch broadsides peppered the German battleship. Bismarck’s secondaries answered accurately, blow for blow. Both ships were afire.
A fifteen-inch shell ripped open Narragansett Bay’s aft six-inch barbette. It exploded within the ammunition train at a moment when the flash path to the after magazine was open. Less than two seconds later, in a towering, searing, white-hot fireball, the light cruiser rent itself in two. Because light cruiser magazines were smaller than battleship magazines, for a moment both halves of the ship survived. Then the torpedo warheads aft detonated, wrecking and sinking the stern. The forward half of the ship, its topside tipped apart, tilted back rapidly and capsized, the underside of the bow remaining above water.
The cheering stopped. The guns of the Merrimack fired again. Fifteen miles away, another shell hit. This time, the explosion was followed by black smoke.
“Five degrees left rudder. Come to course two seven-zero. We need to get back on the threat axis. Maintain fire for effect,” ordered Rear Admiral Clark.
The orders were relayed. Two more broadside salvoes rang out. The after and midships turrets were masked due to heading.
Two ranging shells straddled the Merrimack.
“Damn, they’re good!” said the Junior Officer of the Deck, some ensign still standing there in a bloody uniform.
“So are we,” answered Rear Admiral Clark. “What are they doing?”
“Working on plot!” said Petty Officer McInnis.
Two more ranging shells straddled the Merrimack.
“Faster is better,” replied Rear Admiral Clark.
Actually, Petty Officer McInnis’s plotting speed was far from slow. His Chief had been the mature, experienced veteran. He was the young wunderkind of his Division, thrust into a situation for which he was deemed too young, and he was succeeding. The port lookout shouted him readings twice a minute. He plotted with remarkable speed on a blood-soaked watch station.
“Bismarck coming steady on course three-one-five, speed twenty-two knots.”
“Right standard rudder! Come to course three-one-five! All ahead flank! Engineering release safeties! Acknowledge!”
The Bismarck was separating at a speed less than what Merrimack could do. One of the hits had damaged Bismarck’s engineering plant.
message, personal for you, Sir!” announced the runner from Radio Central.
“Now?” asked Rear Admiral Clark, exasperated.
“Yes, Sir, the message is critical,” replied the seaman.
“Very well,” said Rear Admiral Clark, taking the folder. He opened it and looked at the message.
UNCLASSIFIED UNCLASSIFIED UNCLASSIFIED
PERSONAL FOR REAR ADMIRAL CLARK
1217 GREENWICH TIME 028JUL42
FROM: COMMANDER ATLANTIC FLEET
TO: HNEMS MERRIMACK
INFO: COMMANDER FLEET
NAVY WAR COLLEGE
HNEMS NARRAGANSETT BAY
SUBJECT: ENGAGING BISMARCK
1. ABOUT TO OPEN FIRE ON CONTACT BELIEVED TO BE BISMARCK, BEARING 210 DEGREES FROM CURRENT POSITION, THIRTY THOUSAND YARDS. TARGET TRAILING BLACK SMOKE. ESTIMATED COURSE AND SPEED THREE-TWO-FIVE DEGREES, TWENTY-THREE KNOTS.
2. WILL CLOSE TARGET AT FLANK SPEED, CBDR.
3. MESSAGE SENT UNCLASSIFIED TO ELIMINATE DECODING TIME.
4. YOU CAN THANK ME LATER FOR SAVING YOUR LIFE. LET’S SINK THIS BASTARD, DOC.
5. ADMIRAL VAN AUKEN SENDS.
“Two shell splashes one mile from Bismarck! Not ours!” announced the starboard lookout.
“It’s Connecticut!” announced Rear Admiral Clark.
The bridge team cheered. Captain Jackson-Sims, with a finer idea of the net assessment, turned to Rear Admiral Clark with a look of surprise and completely unanticipated salvation.
July 28, 1942
The third ranging salvo fired from the Connecticut. Two shells from the Bismarck answered it. The two battleships were on a near head-on, collision course, 27,000 yards apart.
Admiral Van Auken stood upon the Flag Bridge with one other man, a messenger he had requested. The messenger stood aft on the Flag Bridge wing, away from the side of the Bismarck. The admiral stood front and center on his peg leg, wearing his eyepatch, looking out at the horizon. His orders had been simple and exact. He did not need to be on the bridge.
Splinters be damned, he would not have missed this for the world.
The Connecticut had, famously, sunk three of the four modern German battleships in one action. That action had cost him a foot, an eye, and a wife. Now he gazed out at the horizon with his half-blind eye, not seeing a damn thing beyond the bow of his battleship. The fourth and last German battleship, by reputation the best, was out there.
He had disobeyed direct orders. He had been right. He would still, he knew, probably be relieved for cause for his gambit, if he lived.
But if he died in action, he would die a hero, and all of the pain would be gone.
“A” turret fired for effect. Thirty seconds later, “B” turret would follow. Both turrets were under local control, and staggering the fire simplified spotting and correction.
The smell of burnt cordite seared Admiral Van Auken’s nose. He knew that it was probably the last time in his life he would live these senses. He smiled, bitterly.
“B” turret fired for effect.
July 28, 1942
“Engage safeties!” ordered Rear Admiral Clark. “All ahead full!”
Captain Jackson-Sims repeated the order.
“Bismarck’s going head-on for Connecticut. Let’s get between her and our convoy, and let’s bring our after guns to bear,” suggested Rear Admiral Clark.
July 28, 1942
The third pair of shells in barely more than a minute screamed down upon the Connecticut. This time one shell hit starboard amidships, detonating somewhere in the 4.7-inch batteries. Men screamed. The flames were hot. Loose shells topside fired like popcorn in the blaze.
“A” turret fired for effect.
July 28, 1942
The Bismarck was straddling the Merrimack with four-shell salvoes of fifteen-inch armor-piercing shells. The Merrimack was replying with ten-shell salvoes of high explosive.
Something hit Bismarck amidships. “Report!” ordered Rear Admiral Clark. “Can anybody tell where she was hit?”
Nobody answered the order. A half-second apart, “Q” turret and “Y” turret exploded from direct, piercing hits. The concussions shook the deck plates and gratings of the bridge so hard that no man, save Captain Jackson-Sims, was left standing.
The flash protection prevented the explosions from reaching the magazines. The Merrimack vibrated horribly, but it held together. With seconds, the shock subsided.
July 28, 1942
Admiral Van Auken had seen battleships explode. Even with his diminished vision, he knew the Bismarck’s magazines had not exploded. But the huge explosion where he had known Bismarck to have been was not good, in any way, for the Germans.
A fifteen-inch shell hit the façade armor of “A” turret. The steel held. Splinters sprayed above, left, and right of the Flag Bridge.
Rik Van Auken stood tall, alone on the Flag
Bridge. The splinters had passed. He was still alive. Implicitly, unconsciously, he knew that this
was not how he had planned it.
July 28, 1942
Another 13.5-inch shell hit the Bismarck. What had not been wrecked topside by the first hit was undoubtedly ruined by the second.
Rear Admiral Clark gazed out over the waters of the central North Atlantic Ocean at the Bismarck. He wondered what it was like to stand upon that bridge. Intelligence suggested that it was Vice Admiral Ciliax opposite himself. He had met Admiral Ciliax in Kiel in 1934, when both of them had been much junior in rank. He had found the German officer to have been an intellectual peer, even speaking in English, nor German.
The Bismarck had sunk an older battleship, ruined another, blown up a light cruiser, and seriously damaged—judging by smoke—a far superior battleship. The end was not yet certain, but the end was probably near—Bismarck, probably, could no longer accurately direct its shells. But it had taken the combination of three battleships and a light cruiser to defeat the German battleship, and, even then, it had been close.
July 28, 1942
The death of the Bismarck came from a seventeen-inch shell tearing its way through barbette armor never intended to resist such force. The battleship’s forward magazines ignited. A second later the bridge was gone. Moments after the keel broke, forward, dropping the bow into the ocean. Cold water hit the boilers. The middle of the battleship ruptured. It did not blow clear of the stern, and it dragged the after third of the Bismarck rapidly down to the bottom.
Admiral Van Auken looked back at the one seaman who had seen it all with him. Neither the seaman nor that section of the Flag Bridge were still there.