The crews aboard the battleships Warspite and Iron Duke and their attendant destroyers were tense and nervous. Deep in the bowels of both capital ships stokers were furiously shovelling coal into the boilers to get up steam. The harbour was a site of frantic activity. Beyond the harbour moles light cruisers Glasgow and Gloucester patrolled slowly and cautiously, keen not to provoke any action from the Prussian battlefleet idling barely a mile off shore. Alarms had been sounded in Gibraltar Harbour around half five when news of the fate of the Puente de Fransisco José de Goya reached the Admiralty Office in Secretary’s Lane. Messages were mixed and confused. Panic ensued. Not knowing what else to do a lieutenant was sent from the office with all haste to the Bristol Hotel to find the admiral. Woken with a most disagreeable hangover and uncertain as to the reason for the bridge’s destruction the commanding officer of the Mediterranean fleet, Rear Admiral David Beaton, gave order that all ships make steam and be ready for action forthwith.
Beaton was frantically making his way to the Admiralty Office at the trot, his valet brushing his jacket and carrying his hat as the admiral attempted to knot his tie in a cross-Victoria, when von Steinheim’s fleet appeared. It swept into the bay, performed a sharp about-turn and came to rest midway between Algeciras and Gibraltar, two parallel rows of three battlecruisers lurking, menacing. Smoke drifted from their funnels, boilers clearly kept ready for action. On the port column guns were trained fore and aft, for the moment, as though suggesting no threat was implied. Moltke, Lützow and Hindenburg however, on the starboard column had their monstrous weapons pointing directly at the small Spanish squadron in the port of Algeciras. Their destroyer escort fussed around the battlecruisers like drones, warding off the attentions of any vessel that may stray too close. In the still of the morning the grey fleet rode the gentle swells and, to those watching from ship and shore, it appeared that Death himself sat hunched upon the blue waters, sharpening his scythe.
After about an hour one of the destroyers detached itself from the fleet and headed towards Gibraltar. Glasgow immediately drew alongside and escorted the N242 into harbour. The destroyer moored up on a buoy and a launch was lowered. Evidently an electrically propelled craft it glided across the harbour making very little sound. A small naval contingent consisting of the same lieutenant that had dragged the admiral from his bed and several marines waited patiently for their Prussian guests. The lieutenant hastily scribbled some notes and made a sketch of the vessel. For such a mundane craft it was still far superior to anything equivalent in the Albionian fleet.
An imposing figure replete in Kapitän’s dress uniform, dripping with braid, stepped onto the gangplank and strode up to meet the greeting party, followed by a couple of officers acting as escort. A flurry of salutes were exchanged and the assembly made its way to the Admiralty Office. Beaton met them on the entrance steps. Another flurry of salutes. The admiral suggested that Barnaby, the lieutenant, might like to show the officers around Gibraltar whilst he and the Kapitän got down to business. The lieutenant, being a reasonably sharp sort, said he would be delighted and perhaps, when business was concluded, the admiral and his guest might wish to find them at the Officers Club. Beaton declared this an excellent idea, that the club made the finest pink gins in all of Christendom and, with a knowing nod to the lieutenant, that all expenses were to put on the admiral’s tab. A final exchange of salutes and the lieutenant and his charges disappeared into the tangled maze of Gibraltan streets. The marines stood sentry either side of the Admiralty Office entrance and Beaton took the Kapitän inside.
In the comfortable sanctuary of his office Beaton pointed to a well-worn Chesterfield couch and took a seat in an leather wingchair opposite, wishing to keep the meeting as informal as possible. “Well, this is a surprise visit, Kapitän Abdecker,” said Beaton. “Can I order you something to drink?”
“A coffee would be ample, sir. Cream and sugar I’m afraid,” Abdecker replied. Beaton rang a small handbell that rested on the low table between them. Almost immediately the admiral’s valet, a very smartly turned out Petty Officer, entered. “Two coffees please, Duncan. Make mine particularly strong” he said, pointing to his forehead and grimacing.
“Cream and sugar, sir?” Duncan enquired.
“Very good, sir,” the valet replied and hurried away.
“You seem to have the measure of me, sir,” said Abdecker when Duncan had left the room.
“True,” smiled Beaton, “but then one does not get to the position I am today without researching whom my opposite numbers may be. Plus our intelligence corps are rather good, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“Undoubtably, sir,” Abdecker nodded. “And I am, presumably, addressing Rear Admiral David Beaton, CO Mediterranean?”
“Indeed. Clearly von Steinheim has done his research as well,” answered Beaton, extending his hand. The Kapitän leaned across and shook it. The men sat back in their respective chairs and a brief silence descended.
“So,” muttered Beaton, resuming the conversation, “I am presuming you are here to explain von Steinheim’s actions? Hardly the sort of thing that will pass unnoticed now, is it?”
“I act as Admiral von Steinheim’s emissary. He sends his warmest greetings to you sir.”
“Yes, quite, very nice,” muttered Beaton, waving his hand dismissively. “Let’s get to the point shall we? Putting it in a nutshell, a Prussian battlefleet has, this morning, destroyed possibly the greatest wonder of the modern world. The very same battlefleet then arrives in Gibraltar Bay only an hour or so later and now rides at anchor in a somewhat provocative manner, against the interests of Albion Magna and clearly threatening the Spanish. Well, I say threatening; it seems a bit superfluous considering your guns are still hot from blasting away at República Española’s pride and joy. Now, I am not a gambling man Kapitän Abdecker, but even I would be prepared to wager that this morning’s actions are clearly designed to entice Spain to make war. The fact that the fleet appears not to be, at present, threatening my ships is, presumably, because Prussia wishes to discuss the possibility of an alliance against Spain? Am I getting warm?”
Abdecker leaned forward and appeared to be about to speak when the door to Beaton’s office opened. The valet entered balancing a tray on which sat two steaming glass cups with ornamental silver handles, a creamer and sugar bowl. He placed the tray on the table between the two officers. “Will there be anything else, sir?” he enquired.
“That will be all for now, Duncan,” said Beaton, “and ensure we remain undisturbed.” The valet acknowledged the request with a polite nod and retired from the room, closing the door silently behind him. “A good man; Duncan,” said Beaton picking up the creamer and offering to be ‘mum’.
“That I am sure,” replied Abdecker. “Just a splash and plenty of sugar. A horrible habit as it spoils good coffee, but I have a sweet tooth.” Beaton complied and the Prussian took his coffee and relaxed back in the Chesterfield.
“Now, I believe you were going to say something before Duncan arrived. Something about the reason for your visit perhaps, and this morning’s carnage?”
Abdecker sipped his coffee a couple of times, placed the cup on the table and then spoke. “Sir, Admiral von Steinheim has dutifully and diligently undertaken orders given to him by the Prussian High Command. The Kaiser…”
“Or rather, Bismarck,” muttered Beaton under his breath. Abdecker either did not hear or chose to ignore the comment.
“…could no longer tolerate Europe’s inaction against the Spanish. He felt the presumption that Spain saw fit to control the mouth the Mediterranean as an insult that could not stand. Therefore the Kaiser…”
“Bismarck”, said Beaton, clearly this time. Abdecker forged on.
“…has taken direct action to curtail the Spanish impudence. Undoubtably the rest of Europe will rally to support Prussia now that it has a banner to follow.” The Kapitän picked up his coffee and drained the cup. He placed the cup back on the tray and waited for Beaton to respond. The rear admiral took his time to finish his coffee. He too placed his cup on the tray and settled back in his chair. A small occasional table sat to one side on which lay a pipe, an ashtray and a leather tobacco pouch. Slowly, mainly for effect but also to bide himself some thinking space, Beaton filled his pipe, tamped down the tobacco and, with one strike of a match, lit the bowl. He puffed away for a few moments. Abdecker remained silent, watching the older man. When it became clear that the Kapitän seemed reluctant to speak further Beaton said, “The Prussians are not renowned for their tact, are they?” Abdecker started to reply but Beaton cut him off. “Don’t worry, it was a rhetorical question. However, the question remains; why are you here? And more to the point, why is the most modern battlefleet in the world currently anchored on my doorstep? If Bismarck wanted to give Torquemada a bloody nose he could have bellowed at him across the floor at the European League and asked for back-up from everybody else, instead of stamping on Tomas’s favourite toy and putting him in headlock. It also seems rather rude holding a gun to Cromwell’s head to force the issue.”
Abdecker smiled in acknowledgment. “I cannot possibly comment on political matters,” he said. “It is not my place or rank to do so. We are merely the servants carrying out the duties of their masters…”
“Well, you may be,” grumbled Beaton.
“…and political decisions are made by politicians.”
“Though Lord knows what qualifies them,” the rear admiral interjected.
“It is also not my place to comment on your cynicism, sir.”
“Oh, you’re more than welcome to,” said Beaton, inspecting the bowl of his pipe and finding it extinguished. “I am renowned for it. For some reason I have got where I am today despite pointing out the folly of others. A constant source of amazement to me,” he continued, tapping the charred contents into the ashtray.
“Quite so, sir. Anyway, to return to your question; Admiral von Steinheim requests that he be permitted to coal and take on provisions. All accounts will be settled immediately. That is why I am here, and why the fleet is out there.”
“Yes, quite. I see,” muttered Beaton slowly and deliberately. “You can, of course, appreciate the delicacy of the situation. I cannot give an immediate answer without discussing with Winchester first. As you say, political decisions are made by politicians.”
“Quite so,” agreed Abdecker. “However the Admiral has no wish to burden you any longer than necessary so a speedy response would, of course, be appreciated. And he also, of course, extends his warmest greetings to Queen Victoria, prays that her incarceration will be temporary, and that she may return to the throne to reign as long, if not longer than her mother.”
“Yes, yes, quite, quite,” snapped Beaton. “Charmed I’m sure. My comment about tact obviously failed to make its mark didn’t it? Now, if you will excuse me; as your friend and Admiral has quite put me on the spot, I had better crack on.” He rang the bell, stood and Abdecker followed suit. Beaton extended his hand and they shook cordially. The valet entered. “Could you accompany the good Kapitän to the Officers Club, Duncan? His colleagues will be found there,” Beaton requested.
“With pleasure, sir,” the valet responded. “If you would like to come with me, sir,” he said to Abdecker.
The Kapitän saluted Beaton smartly and the rear admiral reciprocated. “Please feel free to enjoy some time around the Harbour,” Beaton smiled.
“Thank you, sir, but it would be best if I collected my men and rejoined the fleet.”
“Please advise the Admiral I will send a reply to his request as soon as I have received an answer from Winchester.”
“Thank you for your hospitality and we hope to hear from you soon,” said Abdecker. And with that he followed Duncan, who had remained waiting patiently at the threshold, down the hallway.
When the Prussian officer disappeared from view, descending the spiral staircase to the foyer, Beaton retreated back into his office and closed the door. He went to the window and closed the shutters. The morning sun was strong enough that it still spilled through the slats and around the edges, providing sufficient light, if a little gloomy, for his purpose. He stepped over to the bookcase that lined one wall and tapped on a volume at random. “Coast is clear, Gregory,” he barked. There was a click, followed by another, and a section of the bookcase rolled forward revealing a small void behind, out of which emerged a spectacularly tall man sporting a rather splendid handlebar moustache, eye glass, heavily macassared hair, dressed in a linen shirt, polka-dot cravat, paisley waistcoat and white linen trousers. A pair of tan chukka boots completed the ensemble. For a man whose job it was to be as discrete as possible, Combined Intelligence Services section head Gregory Mundy stood out in a crowd as a beacon of eccentricity. Perhaps that was the point, Beaton pondered. A monocled dandy; being invisible by being so obvious. Mundy held a notebook and his fingertips were ink-stained. “Get it all?” enquired Beaton.
“All of it, word for word, verbatim, the whole bally lot,” replied Mundy in a voice which, although brusque and confident, seemed higher-pitched than one would expect and almost feminine. He may be the section head but was a department of one. The Gibraltar posting was not one to be envied.
“Yes, quite. Thank you Gregory. Now get this telecyphered to Winchester as soon as possible. What do you make of it all?”
“Messy,” came the reply.
Beaton resisted the urge to strangle the intelligence officer. “Yes, quite. I am well aware of that. Could you be a little more succinct?”
“The Prussians are forcing our hand. If we provision them then we will be seen to be siding with them and give the Spanish army an excuse to come trooping onto The Rock, something they have been itching to do for the last two hundred years. If we refuse then we will, in Prussian eyes, be seen to be siding with Spain, which isn’t a good call with the world’s most modern battlefleet anchored in the bay, armed and ready to blow us out of the water. Bismarck knows what he is doing and in this game he appears not only hold the best cards but also our balls as well. Is that a little more succinct for you?” Mundy never deferred to Beaton. He had no truck with rank, regardless of how much braid one wore. Beaton actually admired the man for it; he knew that Mundy would always tell him what he thought. There would be no kow-towing or sugar-coating; always got the point across clearly, if occasionally crudely. The admiral dug out his pipe and commenced the routine of bowl-filling and tamping.
“Yes, that was pretty much my take on it. We’re sitting ducks here, goddammit! Where’s Crabbe? I need him out there in the bay,” Beaton growled, striking a match and puffing the pipe into life.
“Crabbe is out in the bay,” Mundy retorted, “Barnaby took the initiative and instructed Crabbe as soon as the Prussians dropped anchor.”
“Bloody hell!” Beaton exclaimed. “That lad is good. Bloody wasted out here on this god-forsaken promontory. Where is he now?”
“Who? Barnaby or Crabbe?”
“Barnaby of course. You’ve just told me where Crabbe is,” snapped Beaton through a fug of pipe smoke.
“I would imagine he is still at the club, extracting as much information as he can from Prussian officers sozzled on free gin,” said Mundy haughtily. “If you don’t mind I have to get this off to Winchester,” he continued, waving the notebook.
“Yes, quite,” muttered Beaton as the intelligence officer folded himself back into his cubby-hole and closed the bookcase section behind him. The admiral moved over to the window, opened the shutters and let the morning sunlight stream in. His office had a view over the harbour and across the bay, though some of it was spoiled by the maze of terra cotta rooftops in between. It was a shame the Admiralty was unable to obtain decent premises closer to the harbour but it suited Beaton just fine. The Prussian battlecruisers remained at anchor, Gloucester still patrolled and across the other side of the bay, where the Spanish mainland rose above the horizon, he could make out a thin cigar-shaped object climbing slowly into the sky. “Well, well,” he said to himself, “the Spanish are not taking this lying down. Sending up an airship, eh? A spy in the sky. Very well; you watch from above whilst we watch from below.”