To all seafarers, including members of the Royal Navy,
Merchant Marine and civilians transiting upon the water!
Though the Great War ended some time ago, the threat from the sea to our nation and to all civilized countries remains a serious problem. In recent months, rogue elements have attacked merchant vessels throughout the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, plundering cargoes, kidnapping and murdering. Under the leadership of a shadowy individual known only as the GREY FOX, these pirates have utilized surface craft and submarines to prey on shipping vital to maintaining the flow of food, fuel and other goods between Great Britain, Europe and the Americas.
Let it be hereby known that His Majesty’s Government will not tolerate these acts of high seas piracy and that the full force of the navies of the world will be brought to bear upon these brigands. Anyone caught engaging in piracy or acts related to piracy will be liable to face execution for their crimes. In the meantime, the Admiralty advises great vigilance by those traveling by sea.
God Save The King!
In the name of Admiral Sir Davis Humes,
First Lord of the Admiralty
June 6, 1920
July 13, 1920
Somewhere northwest of the Canary Islands
The lookout in the crow’s nest was the first to see the evil apparitions. He’d been standing his watch for three hours now, high above the gentle seas of the mid-Atlantic off the coast of Africa and had seen little more than dolphins and sharks out there. But then he caught sight of something else, something far more sinister.
It was off to the port side – the left – of the ship’s bow, maybe two nautical miles away. The sea began to hiss and bubble there, the surface churning and turning white. Then a long, dark shape materialized from the depths, settling low on the ocean top. It just sat there as the bubbles dissipated, staring at the cargo ship from unseen eyes. The shape was topped with a strange-looking dorsal fin, covered in a checkerboard pattern.
“Blimey,” the sailor blurted out on seeing this before quickly grabbing the telephone to warn the bridge officers. Cranking the wheel of the phone furiously, he waited for someone to answer as he continued to watch the menacing form that lay silently in wait.
“Bridge,” a curt voice answered. It had to be Thompson, the Second Mate.
“This is McVeigh in the crow’s nest, sir. We’ve got company off our port bow. It looks to be a – wait. There’s another one, off the starboard bow. They’ve got us!”
On the bridge, Thompson dropped the phone and reached for his binoculars to scan the horizon ahead of the ship. Sure enough, he could see two dark shapes lying low in the water just waiting to pounce.
“Helmsman – evasive action! Hard a-port. Sparks, get an SOS off to the Admiralty.” The Mate leapt to the engine telegraph and ordered full steam ahead while simultaneously picking up another phone and ringing the Captain in his quarters one deck below.
The Isle of Jersey, in the English Channel
A knock on the door caused the man to look up from a large chart of the Atlantic Ocean that was spread across his desk. Glancing at the ornate clock on the fireplace mantle, the man rolled the chart up and cleared away several folders that were marked “Top Secret”, carefully placing them in a drawer that he then locked.
Slipping on his jacket, he carefully buttoned it and stepped in front of a mirror to check that everything was in order. The face reflected back was that of an older man, in his mid-60’s, with grey hair and dark, serious eyes. The tunic he wore was naval blue and there were five golden rings around each cuff and a grouping of coloured ribbons on his left chest. The man noted some lint on his lapel and brushed it off. One didn’t want to look out of uniform when meeting with the head of government.
“Enter,” he bellowed, after which an aide-de-camp opened the oak door. Coming to attention, the aide announced, “The Prime Minister is here,” at which a bulldog of a man strode into the room with his hand extended in greeting.
“Admiral Humes, so good to see you again,” the Prime Minister said as he doffed his black bowler hat. “I’m glad you could accommodate me on such short notice, but things have been a trifle hectic since I took over. I do wish we’d been able to meet in London, but I fear that won’t happen for a while more.”
As the two men shook hands, the Admiral led the Prime Minister to a sitting area in front of a large fireplace and gestured towards a wingback chair. “I trust you had a pleasant flight to the island?”
“Flying! I’m still not quite used to it,” the Prime Minister said as he sat down. “It just doesn’t seem normal. I’d have much preferred to come by ship, but my schedule is tight. Tomorrow afternoon I’m to meet with my French counterpart at Mont Saint-Michel before returning to the Isle of Wight to brief the Privy Council.”
“And what of the king? Any more news?”
“None that is good, I’m afraid. The finest physicians in the nation are attending to him but, at this stage all we can do is wait. Anyway, how are you settling in?”
Admiral Sir Davis Humes considered this for a moment. As First Lord of the British Admiralty, the man in charge of the Royal Navy, Humes had been ‘settled in’ to his job for a couple of years. But this, of course, was not what the Prime Minister was referring to. Instead, the question was really about how the Royal Navy was settling in to its new headquarters here on the Isle of Jersey, just off the coast of France. Part of the Channel Islands owned by Britain, Jersey had been chosen as the new home port just last year, after Portsmouth became unusable.
“Well, Mr. Prime Minister, things are fine. The remaining parts of the Fleet have been able to effect repairs here and we are organizing our stores of supplies. We are having some problems with accommodations for the men on shore, but things are improving slowly. And, as you can see here, we’ve managed to get our command structures back in order here in the castle.”
Mont Orgueil Castle was built on a promontory overlooking the sea, with steep cliffs providing protection from attack. Originally built some 700 years ago, it was now taken over completely by the Admiralty and thronged with officers, clerks and civilian workers helping to manage the affairs of the Royal Navy. From Admiral Humes’ office windows, he could stare down on the harbour of Gorey, where a number of warships rode at anchor in the afternoon sun.
“Hmm, well good,” muttered the Prime Minister. “Now, about this briefing. When can we get started and what can you tell me about our supply lines? What is going on out there, because no one in the Home Office seems to know and things are getting quite desperate, as you probably know.”
Humes realized that the Prime Minister was even more in the dark about the situation than had been expected. This might make things a little tense. The Admiral stood up and straightened his uniform. “Prime Minister, if you’ll just follow me, I think everything will be clear.”
Admiral Humes led his guest through a side door that opened into a narrow hallway. It had probably once been used by servants to enter and exit discreetly, but was now the fastest way from the Admiral’s office to the Command Centre. As the two men made their way down a set of stairs, Humes began to brief him.
“Since you were appointed to office three months ago, Mr. Prime Minister, the situation on the high seas has become more perilous. Our merchant ships continue to struggle to maintain just the barest minimums of foodstuffs, fuel, raw materials and everything else out nation needs at this moment. Both the Merchant Marine and the Royal Navy are undermanned and under-equipped. I believe that the Home Office may be…hiding some of the details from you and your staff, sir.”
The bulldog stopped and grabbed at the Admiral’s sleeve with its gold piping.
“What on earth are talking about?” the Prime Minister asked coldly. “What do you mean ‘hiding some of the details’?”
Humes stared into the other man’s dark eyes. “Mr. Prime Minister, if we do not do something drastic – and soon – Britain will starve this winter. Things are worse now than during The War.”
The leader of the British government stood there dumbfounded by what the Admiral had said. Humes continued walking, the Prime Minister slowly following, until they came to a heavy steel door. Pressing a buzzer, a small window was slid back to reveal a pair of serious eyes.
“Admiral Humes with a guest.”
“Guest’s name, sir,” the eyes queried.
The Prime Minister stepped towards the window and said in a loud voice, “My name is Winston Churchill”
“Say again, sir,” the eyes asked.
“He’s the new prime minister, Sergeant-Major. Please open the door.”
The eyes looked Churchill over and then the window was slid shut and a heavy lock could be heard turning. The door opened to reveal a Royal Marine in battle dress and sidearm who saluted Humes and nodded at Churchill. “My apologies, sir. Just doing my duty.”
The Command Centre was a former storage room, a large space now crammed with desks and dozens of Navy personnel. Several large maps of oceans and continents were on the walls and a large chart table of the Atlantic took up the middle of the room.
As the two men entered the room, the Marine bellowed, “Admiral’s on the deck,” and people began coming to attention. “Carry on, as you were,” Humes said while striding to the chart table. A Sub-Lieutenant stood beside the table scanning a series of typed messages as the Admiral and Prime Minister arrived.
“This is our Atlantic Operations Centre,” Humes began. “We have two other centres, one for the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean and another for the Far East, but this is the where most of the action occurs. We keep track of all merchant convoys and other shipping as well as the locations of our fleet vessels, and those of other….navies.”
Admiral Humes frowned while looking at the chart table. There were small wooden models of ships placed here and there on the map in a variety of colours: white, black, blue, yellow and red. It was a red symbol that had caught his attention. He turned to the Sub-Lieutenant.
“What’s going on there?”
“I was just about to notify you, sir. We received an unconfirmed report of a merchant vessel under attack about thirty minutes ago. I just got a message from the commander of Convoy QX247 identifying her as the SS Magellan, a straggler that had been trying to catch up to the rest of the convoy.”
“Excuse me,” Winston Churchill butted in, “But did you say ‘attack’? A merchant ship under attack? One of ours?”
“One moment, Mr. Prime Minister,” Humes replied curtly. “Lieutenant, what do we have out there?”
“Nothing that can make it in time. Commander Bernard has dispatched one of his destroyers from the convoy, HMS Amazon, but it will take her at least twenty hours to reach the last reported position we have of the Magellan.”
A woman in the uniform of a Petty Officer with the WRENS – the Women’s Royal Naval Service – approached the chart table and handed a message to the Sub-Lieutenant, who quickly checked its contents before making a note on the map in black grease pencil, beside the position of the Magellan.
“They sent another message, sir, stating that three U-boats have converged on their location and they expect to be boarded at any time. The Magellan confirms them as part of the Grey Fox’s pirate fleet.”
Churchill could barely contain himself any longer and stepped close to Davis Humes. Though the Prime Minister was a good foot shorter than the naval officer, it was clear he intended to re-assert his authority.
“Look, Admiral, what in the blazes is going on here? What’s all this talk of ‘attacks’ and ‘U-boats, ‘pirates’? Is this some sort of naval exercise or training mission? Because if it is, you’re wasting my valuable time here. My God, man, you’re all acting as though we’re still at war!”
Humes stared down at Churchill, whose face was flushed with anger. He knew this was coming, so decided he may as well get it over with now.
“Mr. Prime Minister, we are still at war.” Turning to the Sub-Lieutenant, Humes told the man, “Keep me posted on any developments and tell Bernard to continue on his planned course. We’ll be in the conference."
Two small inflatable rubber boats filled with black-clad figures began to row away from the U-boats, towards the SS Magellan. From his position on the outdoor bridge wing, Captain Nathan Hall could see that the men in the boats were heavily armed. Standing beside the Skipper was his First Mate, a large Scottish man named Kieran Foster.
“Do ye think we kin fight ‘em off, Cap’n?” Foster asked while stroking his red beard.
“I don’t know, I just don’t know. What’s our armament?”
“We’ve a couple of Webley revolvers an’ a couple Lee Enfields, plus the flare pistols. S’pose we could get Cookie to give us his knives, but that’s about it.”
The Captain thought about how ineffective these few weapons would be in an all-out battle against the intruders, but he wasn’t about to give up without a fight. Though he was American, Captain Nathan Hall had been serving aboard British ships – both merchant ships and naval vessels – for almost fifteen years now. He’d seen a lot during the war, when he’d commanded an auxiliary cruiser in the English Channel, but never anything like this. As he continued to ponder his options, the Mate piped up in his Scottish burr, “Skipper, the U-boat’s signaling us.”
A light began flashing from the conning tower of the U-boat with the skull and crossbones painted on it. It was in Morse code and both Hall and Foster used their binoculars to decipher it.
“Well, no surprise there: they intend to board us,” the Captain said to himself. He was trying to think of anything he could do to stall the pirates, anything that might buy enough time for help to come, even though he knew the chances were remote. But there was something else worrying him. He turned to his First Mate.
“Foster, we need to slow those pirates down. And we need to hide the one thing we can’t let them discover. I’ll take care of that. Here’s what I want you to do.” At which the Captain laid out a plan he’d feared would never have to be used.
Just forward of the bridge, on the main deck, a group of deckhands was clustered around a heavy rope ladder that was rolled up and ready to be thrown over the ship’s port side. The two inflatable boats were now bobbing in the water alongside the Magellan, and one of the pirates began to gesture for the ladder to be dropped down. As soon as it was unrolled, a couple of the black clad men leapt onto the bottom rung and began scaling the side of the cargo vessel.
Jumping onto the main deck, the two men pointed 9mm Luger Artillery pistols at the Magellan’s deckhands, who immediately raised their hands above their heads. The long barreled pistols were modified versions of the Imperial German Navy’s standard issue Luger, containing a wooden shoulder stock and 32 round magazine that gave them the appearance of a sub-machine gun.
The rest of the boarding party soon followed these two until there were sixteen armed men fanning out on the Magellan’s main deck with their weapons at the ready. All were dressed in the same manner: dark black oilskins, heavy boots and, most disturbingly, leather masks which covered their faces. To some of the Magellan’s crew, the pirates looked like grim reapers or attendants of the devil himself.
Some of the pirates had Lugers, others had Mauser pistols and a few had hand grenades stuck into their belts. They had surrounded the deckhands assembled here and stood menacing and silent. One of the brigands stepped forward; he had an old German Navy officer’s cap, though the Imperial crest had been removed from it.
“Where is your Kapitan?” he commanded in a thick German-accent. When there was no movement, he took out his pistol and fired a shot in the air. “I said, where is your Kapitan! Schnell!”
The crowd of deckhands slowly parted as the commanding officer stepped forward.
“Ay’m the Skipper ye outlaws. What kin I do ye for?”
The pirate leader stood in front of the giant Scotsman, his pistol aimed squarely at the Kieran’s stomach.
“You will order the crew to assemble here immediately and prepare to abandon the ship. And you will take me to your bridge so I can examine the vessel’s manifest. Then we will decide what to do with your rust bucket of vessel. Understood, Herr Kapitan?”
Foster glared at the pirate’s pale blue eyes, visible through two small slits in his dark leather mask. The Mate looked ready to throw a punch and everyone stood watching the showdown tensely, until his shoulders slumped and he turned to Second Mate Thompson (who was wearing First Mate’s stripes on his shirt).
“Do as the scum says and make sure no one gets left behind.”
The pirate commander spoke quickly in German to several of his men and two teams split off to secure the engine room and search the Magellan while the rest stayed behind to guard the prisoners. He then prodded Foster with his pistol and nodded towards the bridge, indicating it was time to head inside the ship.
As Foster led the German and three of the thugs up to the bridge, he tried peppering him with questions about what they wanted, but the pirate remained mute. Climbing the narrow stairs towards D Deck, the Mate stumbled and fell, yelping in pain. The German hovered over him, the pistol at the ready.
“Give me a second, ye scoundrel, kinna you see I’ve ‘urt me ankle?”
Just around the corner, behind the pirates, Captain Hall and four of his best men were crouched in wait. They had every weapon they could find and were ready to spring their trap. All they needed was the code word the Captain had given Foster when he’d devised this plan.
“Kin one of ye lads give me a ‘and here,” The fake Captain pleaded.
“That’s it,” whispered Hall to his men, “Let’s make this one quick.”
Standing up, the Captain checked his Webley revolver and was about to leap around the corner when a bulkhead door behind the sailors suddenly opened and three black clad figures appeared with their Lugers locked and loaded. One of them stepped inside the door.
“I say, chaps, we can’t be having you carry on like this, now can we? What say you put down your weapons and give up these infantile heroics, eh?”
Hall was awestruck. Dropping his pistol, he raised his hands in the air while gawking at the trap that had been set on them.
“You…you’re English. What…what are doing with this lot?” stammered Captain Nathan Hall.
The English pirate approached with what can only have been a smile beneath his mask.
“Ah, we welcome all sorts of people, Captain. Besides, I see you’re a Yank. But, I fear that’s too much information for you.” At which the pirate swung the butt of his Luger across Hall’s skull, knocking him unconscious.
“Lieutenant,” which he pronounced ‘left-enant’ in a loud voice, “The way is clear. Take whomever that officer is and check the manifest.”
“Aye-aye, Captain B,” the pirate lieutenant answered before heading off to the bridge with the Scottish Mate. ‘Captain B’ then turned to the remaining pirates.
“Number Six, take these men to the wardroom with the others. And get someone else up here to carry the Captain down, too. Number Four, you tell Ten that everything is secure and I will get the engines up and running and make a course for the base. Have U-2 shadow us and tell the others to continue their patrols. Meanwhile, I think I’ll find myself a cup of tea.”
Late afternoon, July 13, 1920
Mont Orgueil Castle, Isle of Jersey
If looks could kill, there was no doubt in Admiral Sir Davis Humes’ mind that Winston Churchill would have already done him in. The two men were seated in a boardroom of the Royal Navy’s High Command, facing one another across a large, burnished table, the ticking of a grandfather clock the only noise to be heard. To his credit, the 45 year-old Prime Minister had not exploded at Humes once the door to the room was closed, choosing to fume silently while the Admiral ordered some tea for them. Once the waiter had retired, though, Churchill could no longer contain himself and exploded in fury at the First Lord of the Admiralty.
“What in the blazes is going on here, Hume? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were waging a private war against…someone. As confused as things may be at home, I am the Prime Minister of His Majesty’s government and, as such, should be kept informed of any – and all – military and naval matters. We simply cannot have career officers, in the most senior of positions, going off and…fighting God knows what sorts of battles. Pirates? Pirates!? This is the twentieth century, man! Explain yourself before I have you removed from your position and sent to command a colony of seagulls in the Falklands.”
Davis Humes steeled himself against the diatribe his Prime Minister had leveled at him. Oddly, he had only the utmost respect for Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, as the Prime Minister had himself been First Lord of the Admiralty almost a decade earlier. But so much had changed since then and there seemed no easy way to explain things to the leader of Great Britain. Calmly taking a sip of his tea, Admiral Humes collected his thoughts before beginning.
“Mr. Prime Minister, this is neither easy nor pleasant, but it is of vital importance to our nation, to Europe and possibly to the world as a whole. What I am about to tell you has been kept under the tightest secrecy for the last two years, known only to a select few within the Imperial High Command, the government and at Buckingham Palace. Since you were appointed prime minister in April, we have been waiting for the right time to brief you. That time has now come for you to understand just what an enemy we’re facing.”
Churchill glared at the admiral for a long moment before settling back in his chair and, with a wave of his hand, commanded the officer in charge of Britain’s naval forces to continue. It was clear to Humes that his boss was giving him only once chance to clarify the situation – and quickly – or there would be heck to pay.
“Perhaps the Prime Minister would like something stronger than his tea?”
“Humes, dispense with the pleasantries, please. I have no time for games.”
“Very well,” the Admiral responded before taking a deep breath and beginning by reviewing recent events.
In the summer of 1916, the Allied forces of France, Italy, Russia, Great Britain and her colonies were caught in a deadly stalemate with the military forces of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottomans. Across northern France, thousands of miles of trenches and barbed wire teemed with millions of soldiers intent on killing one another in any way that could be devised. Artillery barrages, flamethrowers, chemical weapons and aircraft were used in a futile attempt by both sides to break the impasse. But out of the trenches came something else that would forever change the world.
Sometime around the third week of August in 1916, French soldiers in the Verdun sector began to fall ill from a flu-like illness never seen before. Within a week, tens of thousands of men were dead or dying as the pandemic spread throughout the lines, an incurable disease that the doctors were mystified by. Seizing on the weakened defenders, German troops overran the French positions, only to become themselves infected with the disease.
With breathtaking speed, the virus – now known as “The War Plague” – spread across the entire Western Front and then across Europe as a whole, affecting soldiers and civilians alike. Fighting ceased – there simply were not enough healthy troops to continue the war – and the continent became a charnel house of dead and dying that harkened back to the Dark Ages and the Black Plague. By October it had spread throughout Germany and into Central Europe. By November it was Russia’s turn. And by Christmas of 1916, it struck Britain.
It seemed as though no one was immune from the Plague. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was the first European royal to succumb to it, followed soon after by Emperor Franz Josef in Vienna. Any joy the British may have felt was tempered by the deaths of King George V and his wife, Queen Mary in early 1917. Tsar Nicholas II was the only major ruler to survive the pandemic, though most of his family perished alongside millions of ordinary Russians.
The Plague killed millions of innocent people, regardless of nationality. In March of 1917, the disease gained a foothold in the New World when returning Canadian soldiers brought it home; from there it swept down into the United States. The same situation occurred in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
As the plague spread, it soon began affecting entire economies: factories barely functioned, crops could not be harvested, schools closed and governments struggled to operate. Cities soon became ghost towns; Paris, Berlin and Vienna were the first major centres to see their populations wiped out, but by 1918 there was hardly a city or village that had not seen its citizens die off. And though it seemed no one could escape the disease, there were a few lucky souls who managed to elude death.
The great navies of Europe and their merchant sailors were fortunate to be at sea as the War Plague spread across land. Forbidden to return to port, battleships, cruisers, submarines, cargo ships and anything else out on the open seas wandered aimlessly while the deadly disease struck down their countrymen. In January of 1918, a ceasefire was officially announced to end the fighting. The British then ordered their naval forces to sail for their colony of The Bahamas, which was disease-free. A few weeks later the Germans ordered their High Seas Fleet to steam for Cuba, where refuge had been offered. By May of that year, virtually the entire battle fleets of the major European nations were laying at anchor in ports scattered about the Caribbean, sweltering in the summer heat, far from home. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy’s headquarters left English soil for the first time in its history, moving here to the Isle of Jersey where there was no disease.
Winston Churchill tapped his fingers on the table in agitation. “Admiral,” he said in a cold manner, “I know what has transpired these last few years. I am not an idiot. Next you will tell me about the mutinies that occurred on the navy ships when the sailors wanted to return home and could not. How they worried about their families, who were dead or dying, but with whom they could not communicate. And the problems we had in paying them, owing to depletions in the national treasuries here, to say nothing of the shortages of food. But what other option was there? Where is this all leading?”
Davis Humes opened a leather briefcase and pulled out a large file folder, with a red strip across it denoting a Top Secret document. He slid it across the table towards Churchill.
“You may have heard about the smaller mutinies and other troubles with the various fleets in the Caribbean, Prime Minister, but you have not heard about the biggest mutiny and its aftermath. This file explains what we know to date. It is something to which you have not been privy. Until now.”
Churchill skeptically opened the folder, scanned the first few pages and then asked Humes for a summary of the contents.
“In October of 1918, there were widespread mutinies in the Caribbean among the naval forces of Germany, Italy, France, Austro-Hungary and, sadly, even in our ships. This resulted in much bloodshed as the rebellions were put down, though news of the mutinies was kept from the public for reasons of security. Following various courts martial, a number of the ringleaders were executed while many more were sentenced to be imprisoned. That was, perhaps, our first mistake. For reasons of expediency, the high commands of all the nations involved decided to create one central prison on the island of Tortuga, just off the north coast of Haiti.”
Churchill looked up from a page he was scanning. “Do you mean to tell me we were cooperating with our enemies? With the Germans?”
“Well…yes,” the Admiral answered uncomfortably. “Actually, we had been working together for several months prior to the October mutinies, keeping one another informed about events back here in Europe and whatnot. You must understand, Prime Minister, the war was over.”
“Still, most unusual. Now, you said that imprisoning the mutineers was ‘our first mistake’. What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that they escaped.”
As Winston Churchill sat in stunned silence, Admiral Humes went on to explain that less than two months after being incarcerated in a makeshift detention camp on Tortuga, a massive jail break occurred on New Year’s Eve. Over 350 prisoners overwhelmed the guards and took control of the camp before making their way to the nearby harbour and fighting their way aboard a number of naval vessels docked there. By dawn, the prisoners had sailed away from Tortuga.
“What…they…how many ships did they steal?” Churchill stammered.
“Four surface vessels – an Italian destroyer, two German cruisers and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Spencer. But…they also made off with four submarines, three German U-boats and one of our P-class boats.”
The Prime Minister was speechless. Actually, he looked as though someone had punched him in the stomach, so dramatic was the news that a group of mutinous sailors had escaped from prison and stolen seven naval vessels.
“By Jove, man, how could this sort of thing happen? Didn’t you give chase? Hunt them down like the pack of dogs they are? Where are they now? And WHY haven’t I heard a whisper of any of this? I AM THE PRIME MINISTER OF GREAT BRITAIN!” Churchill bellowed, rising from his chair with renewed anger.
Humes remained calm, or as calm as one could when the leader of your government is shouting at you. Churchill stomped over to a window that overlooked the harbour of Gorey below the castle, turning his back on the Admiral. Taking a deep breath, Humes carried on.
“To the first of your queries, we don’t really know how they managed to overwhelm the guards and the crews of the vessels. The prisoners were highly organized, very disciplined and well armed. They likely knew they had little to lose, that many of their families were already dead from the disease and they would themselves rot away in the camp. As to what we did to catch them, well, we did everything we could. There were two other destroyers in the harbour at Tortuga that managed to fend off the attackers. But shellfire from the captured German cruiser put both out of action. We dispatched a flotilla from Nassau within twenty-four hours, and the Germans sent another one from Havana, but by the time the ships reached Tortuga, the mutineers were long gone. We know they headed east – they were spotted transiting the Mona Passage that separates the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico – and the two flotillas made haste to catch up with them. But after that, the mutineers disappeared.”
The Admiral explained that British and German ships, aided by the other navies in the area, scoured the Caribbean for months. Once or twice they caught a glimpse of what appeared to be one of the rogue vessels, but never managed to get close enough to confirm anything. It was as though the entire group of mutineers had vanished off the face of the Earth. Some officers wondered if perhaps the escapees had contracted the plague and died. Others speculated that the stolen vessels were heading for Europe, but none showed up there.
Then, in March of 1919, the Admiralty received the first report of a missing cargo ship, a freighter bound from Argentina to Britain with a load of food. A few weeks later, another ship went missing, this one carrying coal from Venezuela. April saw a total of six cargo ships disappear while carrying food, fuel and raw materials from the New World to the Old. In every case, the Admiralty was able to rule out bad weather as a likely cause but with no survivors found from any of the ships, they were still confused as to what was going on.
May of 1919 saw the disappearance of even more ships – ten in all – but also the first survivor. A young deckhand from the SS Amery named Harry Golding was rescued in the waters off the mouth of the Amazon River. Severely dehydrated, Golding had spent 28 days adrift on a small log. Once rescued, he managed to tell his rescuers that the Amery had been boarded by pirates, pirates who arrived in submarines. The attackers gave the crew two options: join them or die. Anyone who refused to go along with the pirates was thrown overboard, Golding among them. Before he was sentenced to death, though, Golding managed to hear the pirates describe their leader. They referred to him as “The Grey Fox”.
Churchill turned away from the window to face Humes. “Well, now I see where this is all leading. The mutineers from Tortuga turned to piracy, correct?” The Admiral nodded. “And I suppose it’s these pirates who have been playing havoc with our ships, eh?” Another nod. “Then I must ask you again: why wasn’t I informed of this when I took office three months ago? It seems to me that it’s one of the most important dangers our nation is facing.”
“Mr. Prime Minister,” Admiral Davis Humes began cautiously, “We, that is, certain members of the Imperial Governing Office, didn’t know if you’d live long enough.”
Churchill stared at the naval officer for a long moment, before giving a little laugh and shaking his head.
“Of course. Since my two predecessors fell victim to the Plague within a month of becoming Prime Minister, you wondered if I would do so as well. Am I right on this? Hmmm, I thought so. And given the nature of the disease, the delusions and crazy outbursts it can cause, the last thing you wanted was the Prime Minister rambling on to the public about pirates. Did my late precursors know anything about all this?”
“No, sir. The King, of course, knows and so does the High Command and Governing Office. But it was decided to wait ninety days before briefing you.”
Churchill walked over to Humes and laid his hand on the Admiral’s. “Davis, I’m sorry for my tantrum there. I realize you were only doing what you had to do. I apologize.”
“Thank-you, Mr. Prime Minister.”
“Right,” Churchill said as he returned to his chair and the secret dossier. “What say you get me a stiff drink and then tell me more about this ‘Grey Fox’ and his pirates.”
Four thousand miles away, on another small island, a man wearing a strange-looking naval uniform knocked on a heavy mahogany door and waited for permission to enter. When it came, he opened the door, walked six paces inside and came to attention with his chin held high and his heels together.
“Herr Admiral, a message from our contact,” the sailor said in German. “U-2 and her sisters successfully raided another British cargo vessel. Position 33 degrees 12 minutes North, 22 degrees 6 minutes West. U-3 and U-4 are continuing their patrol while Seahawk brings the ship to us with U-2. Sir, do you wish any message to be sent to the contact?”
From a chair that was turned toward a large window, hiding the occupant from view, a gruff voice answered in German, “Nein. Leave the message on my desk. Any word on the crew of the cargo ship?”
“Nein, Herr Admiral.”
“Well,” the mysterious speaker continued, “Keep someone posted on the wireless. As soon as Seahawk is in range, I am sure he will transmit more information. Ah, what was the vessel carrying in her holds?”
The messenger glanced quickly at the note in his hand. “Corned beef, Herr Admiral. And diesel fuel. Five thousand litres. Of fuel, that is.”
“Ah, good. We can use the food. And the fuel will come very handy. This is all good. Very well, dismissed.”
The messenger dropped the note on the desk, clicked his heels and marched out of the office as the Admiral rose from his chair, grabbed the wireless message and walked to a large wall map of the Atlantic. Checking the coordinates, he found the position where SS Magellan had been captured and, using a red marker pen, made a large X on the chart. Stepping back, The Grey Fox smiled to himself as he noted the dozens of other Xs that filled the map.