The King's idea
Narrator: it is late 1908 and President Roosevelt's "Great white fleet" has just left Sydney in Australia on its worldwide "goodwill" tour. President Roosevelt has sent battleships on goodwill visits before but this was a much bigger deal.
On one of his frequent visits to the admiralty, King Edward VII raised the matter with the First Sea Lord "Jackie" Fisher. Because of the king's great love of the navy, the two men have worked together as allies in the past and now regard one-another as good friends, who can discuss anything together.
King: Jackie, Mr Roosevelt's Great White Fleet has given me a lot to think about lately.
Jackie: You're not alone in that.
King: It's been a brilliant success for Mr Roosevelt. In its peacetime livery of white with a bit of gilding, his 16 battleships do look rather spectacular, I gather. I believe our people in Australia gave it a big welcome. And Britain seems to be the only country they are not visiting. Since they are supposed to be doing "goodwill" visits, that omission seems rather ominous. They are scheduled to stop at Gibraltar so a visit to England would be only the most minor detour for them. They could sail all the way around Cape Horn but still not have time to visit Portsmouth? Very strange
Jackie: Yes. that idea of a peacetime livery for warships is rather good. It conveys the idea that the ships are not being threatening when they visit foreign ports. With all our ships, however, painting and repainting them would be a huge task and a big expense so I would be against it.
King: Yes, Jackie, you are as practical as ever. But I do think we need to reply to the American grand tour in some way. And Mr Roosevelt in particular bothers me. He is even more of a war-monger than the Kaiser. Not only does he speak of war as a purifying force for a nation but he puts his money where his mouth is. During the American takeover of Cuba he even got on his horse and led charges against the pathetic Spaniards.
Jackie: That was before he became President, of course.
King: Yes. But he was already a very senior figure in American politics so he is definitely an unusual chappie.
King: Discussions in cabinet are of course highly confidential but I get cabinet papers in my red boxes so I saw all the discussions that went on when we were negotiating to get "Dreadnought" built. The First Lord gave a rather alarming speech about a possible American threat to our colonies in the Far East. Did you get wind of that?
Jackie: Yes the First Lord thought that his First Sea-Lord should be apprised of that so he lent me a copy of the speech. He was rather proud of it I gather.
King: He was right to be. It got the Dreadnought built.
Jacki: The power of a speech!
King: Indeed. So I think that we ought to give Mr Roosevelt a quiet warning that we are not to be trifled with. And the tour of his fleet has given me an idea of one way to do that.
Jackie: Run it past me.
King: I think we should send a "Great Grey Fleet" of our latest battleships to New York on some pretext or other.
Jackie: The crews would enjoy that.
King: As I do. But our fleet would be led by Dreadnought and they've got nothing like that yet, though they are building one or two. So it should make a powerful impression on the American public and let them know that the old Lion is not toothless yet.
Jackie: Yes. Hard to disagree with that.
King: But here's the second part of my idea. I think the fleet should take a far-Northern route during winter!
Jackie: Wow! you are thinking outside the box. As every sailor knows, the North Atlantic during winter is a very dangerous place. The Dreadnought is a mighty ship but it would not come off well in a fight with an iceberg!
King: Precisely! The news of it would give everyone the horrors and it would certainly capture the attention of the American press, which is the main point of the idea. The reason I think we can do it is that unlike the old wooden ships, steam power allows us to go in any direction we want whenever we want so in theory we can simply steer out of the way of any icebergs we encounter.
King: Yes. That is the whole of the problem. But I think we might be able to get around it. Even during the day, the fog can be terrible there but I am told that our searchlights can be equipped to penetrate fog to some extent. And, again thanks to steam power, we mount some very powerful searchlights on our ships these days. Additionally, once we got into the ice danger zone, we could run the fleet at half speed during the day and even slower at night. Nobody would object to that precaution and if we do bump into anything, the bump should not be too destructive. With nearly a foot-thick belt of Krupp-type cemented steel armour around the midriff of Dreadnought, any collision should just bounce the ship, not hole it. And with Dreadnought leading a file in close formation, whatever happens to Dreadnought should be a good warning to the following ships
Jackie: You are beginning to make a case. But what if we do lose one of our ships to the ice? Won't that be a publicity disaster?
King: Maybe not. We could compare the crossing of our fleet as equivalent to the dangers of wartime. So, if most of our fleet survive, it shows how well we can survive a war.
Jackie: You think of everything.
King: Yes. I have been making propaganda for Britain for the whole of my adult life and I think I have had some success at it.
Jackie: Yes. Your first visit to America when you were still Prince of Wales is a legend.
King: Yes. Even the Foreign office have had to admit that. So they use me for diplomatic missions a lot these days. Not that I mind. I have always enjoyed travel.
Jackie: I hear that your visit to Ceylon was a great success.
King: Yes. I managed to persuade all sides that Britain was secretly on their side so everybody is reasonably happy now.
Jackie: Well, sir. The New York trip is your idea. So you will have to lead off on it. I count myself as having considerable powers of persuasion but I bow to you in that regard every time.
King: The important thing at this point is what you think of the idea. Am I out of my mind?
Jackie: Getting close to it I think sir but I will support you. I think it is feasible.
King: Ah! That eases my mind. I am seeing the PM soon so I will put it to him
Narrator: Fortunately for all concerned, the PM vetoed the idea. But to placate the King, he did send the fleet requested, but in summer and by a safer route. To the king's considerable annoyance, however, that winter had an unusually small number of iceberg sightings -- so the contemplated crossing would probably have gone off without incident.
The above ending to the events concerned is the most probable one but it would of course have been much more exciting if the decision had gone the other way. So there is given below an alternative ending in the form of a short short story
Narrator: Mr Asquith was rather puzzled by the King's unusual advice. It was well outside the range of advice that the King usually gave. So Mr Asquith simply said that he would discuss the matter with the first Lord of the Admiralty.
By the time that happened however, the First Sea Lord had briefed the First Lord, Mr McKenna, on the matter -- as a good bureaucrat should. In response, McKenna was probably right in thinking that the American threat was a bit too nebulous for any risks with the fleet to be taken -- so he was not persuaded by the King's idea. But, in his usual way, Jackie Fisher had a fallback position.
He had just received reliable intelligence about the size of the bunkers on the ships in the new German fleet. The German ships carried a lot less coal that the British warships did. That probably meant that they were slightly faster than the British ships but it also meant that the German fleet was not a true "blue water" navy. Despite its name as the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) it could not operate long on the high seas before it risked running out of coal. So it could operate effectively only in waters close to Germany.
So Jackie pointed that out and showed why it mattered. What use would such a fleet be? Jackie thought that the implications were obvious. It was designed as an invasion fleet. It could not win in a head-to-head fight with the numerically superior Royal Navy but the sailing distance between Germany and Britain was quite short so if the Hochseeflotte set out in the midst of a foggy and stormy winter, it could be on British shores before the Royal Navy even knew of the invasion. It could put a Prussian army ashore in Britain and then take its chances with the Royal navy.
Jackie thought this scenario would send Mr Asquith to the bottle. Mr Asquith was known to like a drink or three and this scenario was a truly terrifying one. Just a few years earlier, Britain had fielded an army of 400,000 men to defeat the Dutch farmers of South Africa but most of that army had melted way as funding was transferred from the army to the navy. And if a small number of Dutch farmers could be a difficult foe, how much more difficult would be an army comprised of the best soldiers in Europe? It was unthinkable.
So the first Lord took this scenario to PM Asquith, who indeed needed a dram to strengthen his nerves when he had heard it out. He was willing to do anything to prevent such a thing happening.
So the First Lord gave him Jackie's solution. The key was to have the navy ready to sail at any time of the year in any weather. It would take time for the Germans to land an army and its equipment and if the Royal Navy could get to the scene promptly, they could probably shoot up the German fleet before the Germans had landed most of their men and supplies. So a demonstration was needed to show that the Royal navy could sail and operate in the most dangerous of weather. If the Germans knew that the Royal Navy could be effective even during the foulest weather that nature could throw at them, that would show that they could be effective on a midwinter battlefield too.
Mr Asquith was ready to grasp any straw so the Dreadnought and her accompanying battleships were soon setting sail for New York. Other countries might have had difficulties finding men to sail on such a dangerous voyage but Britain did not. Military men like to do what they have trained for and there had been few occasions for Britain's warships to do much recently. So there was actually competition to get aboard Dreadnought.
As a modern ship, Dreadnought had a radio room equipped with the latest in wireless telegraphy and there were a couple of journalists with navy connections aboard to radio all the news of the voyage back home. The point of the journey was publicity so the admiralty had made sure that everyone knew that Dreadnought was about to undertake one of the most dangerous voyages ever attempted. So public interest was high and prayers were said in churches for the safety of the ships and the brave sailors sailing in them.
The British bureaucracy could still do some things promptly in those days so they even managed to get big new radio masts erected in Western Ireland to make sure all transmissions from Dreadnought would be received.
At first the dispatches from the ship were routine but when the ship got into the icefields they became more frequent, with ice and even clouds being reported on. And then it happened. It was night so Dreadnought was pushing along at only 5 knots. Suddenly, her great searchlight picked out a huge iceberg almost dead ahead. And dead ahead was the most dangerous bearing. A head on collision could well buckle the plates and sink the ship. So the helmsmen were all at a pitch of attention for just such an eventuallty. So as soon as the lookout cried out, the helmsmen turned the steering hard so that the ship turned to port. They just made it. The distance was very close so a collision was inevitable but the collision hit the ship side-on, where her great armoured plates were a protection. Even so however, the shock was great. The armour prevented the berg from holing the ship but everything about the ship was heavily jarred and at various junctions, seams came slightly apart, letting water in.
The Dreadnought was however a military ship so it had high capacity marine water pumps fitted. There were four big pumps running off each of the ship's four steam turbines. So the pumps were able to pump the water out as soon as it came in.
The ship was however now clearly at risk so the Commodore immediately headed her due South, to get his ships out of the icefield as soon as possible.
With a bit of luck on his side, the Commodore safely reached the point of intersection with the best winter route across the Atlantic. Most captains even at that time would have turned back to Portsmouth at that point, to get Dreadnought out of the water and repaired as soon as possible. But this was a British ship manned by British sailors with a proud tradition of indomitability so the captain resumed his voyage to New York. And his men quietly appauded. They would have been ashamed to have to limp back to port like whipped curs.
And all this had of course been reported via wireless to the anxious people back home. Instead of their normal four daily editions, some of the newspapers put out eight editions -- a new edition for every new scrap of information. There were few people who did not buy newspapers at that time. And when New Yorkers heard that the ship was still coming to them, the interest was frantic. Every single new Yorker wanted to be there when the heroic great ship sailed in.
So when Dreadnought sailed slowly into NY harbour with her powerful pumps pouring our great gouts of bilge water there were people at every vantage point to welcome her in. And despite the damage, she came in with perfect dignity, fully upright with all flags flying and her sailors lining her decks dressed impeccably in their best uniforms. It made a sight to behold. There were many British flags waved that day.
Even the President came to town to show his appreciation. "This voyage is something after my own heart", President Roosevelt said. And it was. Mr Roosevelt had had a very adventurous life before becoming President and heroism was a great virtue to him. So this trip greatly endeared Britain to him.
Most of all, New Yorkers wanted to congratulate the heroic sailors who had made it all happen. The captain of the Dreadnought had more dinner invitations than he could shake a stick at, but he accepted only two: Dinner with the President and dinner with the Mayor. He wanted to get his ship back to England as soon as he could so she could be repaired.
As soon as the ship had arrived in port, the U.S. navy had offered the use of all its damage control specialists -- and the Dreadnought's own damage control specialists could also work more effectively now the ship was at rest in calm water. So much was done to make the ship safe before she sailed away again. So she left the harbour at harbour speed with only a dribble of water coming from her pumps.
So the King's idea was an enormous success. He had only wanted to warn Mr Roosevelt but he had instead won Mr Roosevelt's heart. Mr Roosevelt was an emotional man so having his goodwill was worth as much as a whole navy of battleships.
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