"I believe we put up the spotter aircraft around midnight," the old man recounted, "that would have been about 20 minutes after she struck the iceberg."
"Ah," replied the younger man, "and you were about where?" he asked, indicating the map.
"Twelve miles North by Northeast... here," he pointed, "Valentina ordered we boost to 32 knots, which was close to full speed in those days. Oh, except the Uralsk, the salvage ship. She could only make 28 knots maximum. We left her to make the best speed she could."
"Valentina? D'you mean Admiral Golovna?" Dr Balardi asked.
"Yes, all the officers called her Valentina... except on the bridge, of course. Fine woman, she was, all the officers developed a great respect for her. The best sea-salvage expert in all of Russia."
Something about the gleam in the old man's eye suggested to Balardi there was a story there. Perhaps if he gently nudged the old Admiral he might be persuaded to tell it. For the present, though, he needed to find the location of the safe far below in the wreck of the great liner. This old retired Admiral might be the only one capable of pinpointing it's location.
"So anyway, you were saying about the spotter plane?"
"Ah yes," the old man replied, shaken back from his thoughts, "we needed to confirm the fix, you see, by radar. In those days it was easy to be off by two or three degrees."
"Yes of course. So where was it?"
"41'46"N, 50'14"W, Smack on the nail, six feet down by the head. Just like she said she was."
Kommador Alexie Yaroslavl Kuropatkin had commanded the Imperial Russian Cruiser 'Makarov' since it was launched. She had just worked up when the Northern fleet was thrown into battle against the Japanese in 1905.
The cruiser was consequently one of the most modern in the navy and she and the 'Marshal Kutuzov' formed the Northern Fleet's 1st Scouting Group. Now in April 1912, she was detailed to be command ship for the most tricky of rescue operations. The rescuing of 2,200 people from the sinking White Star liner, 'Titanic.'
In command of the operation that fateful night, was General-Admiral Valentina Golovna. At the time she was the foremost expert in sea-rescue technology, however she was a not a flotilla commander. For that role Kuropatkin was elevated to Kommador and given overall command of the ships of the squadron.
The Command ship was the Cruiser 'Makarov' supported by her sister, the 'Kutuzov.' The cruisers were accompanied by two escorting destroyers of the 'Breznipechny' class. Next came the specialist rescue vessel 'Uralsk' with it's high volume pumps. These were expected to keep the 'Titanic' afloat long enough to rescue all of the passengers and crew. Following this was the hospital ship 'Tri Sviatitoi' and the troop ship 'Alma Ata, ' which was to be used as an accomodation vessel.'
Between them the cruisers carried 6 aircraft, Sikorski PL2 floatplanes of the latest type. These single-engined two-seaters carried both weather and search radars. Their Anatra-built Klimov engines were carried above their high 'gull' wing, to avoid spray interference. Each cruiser launched their aircraft from steam-powered catapaults located on their hangar decks behind the mainmast.
That then was the fleet that was supposed to carry out the greatest rescue operation in marine history.
Valentina was in her late thirties, tall and beautiful. In accordance with the high standards of the Imperial Russian Navy in those days, she was in top physical condition. She had introduced many of the innovations still used today in sea-rescue and had personally designed the salvage vessel 'Uralsk'. Indeed it would be difficult to find such a brilliant expert anywhere in the world.
Kommador Kuropatkin had turned 40 while at sea. A sea-going Captain through and through, he had risen up through the ranks in the greatest Navy in the world. His hair was fashionably long and cascaded down past his shoulders. Like all the Officers and crew, he wore the long, quilted 'Northern' uniform coat in dark blue.
He stepped out onto the exposed bridge 'walk' to smoke his pipe. Smoking, of course, was forbidden inside. The metalic compounds in the tobacco smoke adversely affected the electronics.
"You should give up," came a voice.
Kuropatkin spun, startled, towards the voice to see the Admiral standing there. She adjusted the collar of her coat against the biting cold.
"You're not going to leap off the railing, are you Valentina?"
Over the weeks, they had developed an easy informality.
"So you can catch me, Alexie?" she asked, "I don't think so," she laughed.
At the other end of the walk an Ensign on ice watch hunched down against the elements, nightscope to his eyes. The two senior officers glanced in his direction, but his attitude was of studied disinterest.
"See anything?" the Kommador called.
The man shook his head. Both the bow sonar and navigation radar were constantly manned in the com-centre. The fear was of small floating fragments of ice called 'growlers' that might be missed. They could damage a propeller or one of the underwater antennae that dotted the hull underneath.
Standing together, the Admiral and the Kommador peered towards the bearing where the Titanic was expected to appear in a few minutes. It was strangely quiet. Above the low throbbing of the ship beneath their feet, they could hear the swish of the sea along the hull of the slim vessel. The water was glass-like in the lightness of the distant northern horizon.
Dead ahead they both saw a faint glow. It could only be the reflection of the saloon lights of the stricken liner. The Ensign shuffled, he'd spotted it too.
Kuropatkin turned to the Admiral, her face inches from his own. A faint whisp of condensation escaped their mouths to be carried away by the slipstream.
"I guess that's the cue," he told her, "time to get prepared."
"Yes," the Admiral told him softly, "make sure the ships stand off her, won't you. Until we're sure there's no-one in the water."
"I know," he replied, looking into her eyes, "the Destroyers will circle her with searchlights."
"Good," she said, fixing his gaze, "I guess I'll be going over to the Uralsk when it finally arrives," she told him, sadly, "a pity... I quite got used to having you around."
"I'll still be here," he told her smiling.
"I know, but it will not be the same. Now it's business."
"Yes," he conceded, "I guess it is."
Inside the control room, Kuropatkin picked up the intercom and called the com-centre.
"What's she sending?" he asked.
"It was CQD. Now it's SOS, Kommador," came the reply.
"Right... tell her... stand to, ETA 15 minutes. And sign it 'Makarov.'
Through the speaker he could hear the tap, tapping of the old Morse key.
"Kommador!" came the reply from the speaker a few minutes later, "they want to know who the hell we are."
"Tell them we're the Russian Navy and they ought to be more grateful," he chuckled, "on second thoughts, belay that last remark."
Kuropatkin ordered the squadron to reduce speed as they neared the liner. Detaching the escorts, he ordered them to circle around the Titanic and check for anyone in the sea. He then ordered the Cruisers to hove to some 500 yards off the liner's port side.
Illuminated by the cabin lights of the passenger ship, he could see the thousands of people lining the decks, waving and calling out. He knew he had to take control of the situation quickly.
He hurried down to the boat deck where the advance Communication party was assembling. They quickly stood to attention as he approached.
"Lieutenant Lineavich," he called to the senior officer, "right man, you know what to do. Go straight to Captain Smith and set up radio communication. Tell him what we're planning to do, clearly and concisely. The Marine Security party will follow and help to maintain order. Lets hope someone has the presence of mind to drop a line down to you."
"Now be careful going up her side... that's a hell of a long way down. You've got the rope ladder?"
"Yes sir, everything's there."
"Good, just be... careful, ok?"
No-one did have the presence of mind. The party had to fire a grapple over the fo'castle rails of the liner and climb up themselves. Once on board, however, the crew conveyed them through the milling crowd to the Captain of the Titanic, Smith.
"Oh crap," Kuropatkin muttered to himself as he watched the chaos developing on the water.
Despite the instructions, the Titanic continued to lower lifeboats on either side. The Russian launch crews were busy towing them over towards the waiting naval ships. The biggest problem was the starboard side where the Uralsk was supposed to moor. She couldn't go alongside while there were boats in the water.
The Uralsk was hoping to drop a synthetic rubber and alloy 'curtain, ' down the damaged side of the liner. Called by the salvage crew a 'Band Aid' the water pressure clamps it hard to the liner's fractured side and stems the onrush of water. The powerful pumps of the salvager were then supposed to gain on the flooding and prevent the liner from sinking any lower.
All this was to allow the 'Sviatitoi' and the 'Alma' to moor on the other side of the Titanic and allow the passengers to walk off. The most careful planning in the world can quickly come undone by panicky passengers and crew. If we couldn't get the Uralsk alongside quickly, then we couldn't stablise the great liner enough to secure the rescue ships to the other side. 80,000 tons of gradually sinking vessel will easily drag the would-be rescuers down with it.
At last it began to dawn on everyone on the White Star liner, what we crazy Russians were trying to do. Obviously we were trying to get a ship alongside and obviously any boats in the way were going to get crushed. Carefully the Uralsk moved down the starboard side of the Titanic amid much shouting and cajoling. Clearly language difficulties presented a problem also, but this was gradually overcome by the armed marines. The sailors found a rifle with a bayonet was a powerful language tool.
Immediately, the weighted curtain was dropped over the side from the cranes. It was now a frantic race against the sea for the survival of the huge vessel. The cranes swung it out hard against the side of the liner while the twin derricks paid out the pump hoses through the service doors in the hull of the settling ship.
Valentina had gone over to the salvage ship to personally supervise the operation. Kuropatkin decided he was running out of time and ordered the other vessels to go alongside to take the passengers off. He trusted Valentina would be able to control the flooding.
Specially built gangways were secured across the gap between the liner and the rescue ships. Immediately the throng of passengers began to disembark unbidden, illuminated by powerful floodlights. Watching, the Kommador thought it was a magnificent sight.
The liner had been predicted to sink at 2.20am. It was now 1.45am and the bow of the vessel still appeared to be sinking lower in the water. Kuropatkin was worried and called Valentina on the Uralsk.
"What's the situation, Admiral?" he asked.
"We have to pump out each compartment in turn, starting from the sternmost and working forward. The curtain is holding, but water is still coming in through the lower port holes. It is slow-going and very dangerous in there. I have to regard the safety of the pumping crews paramount. I think I can hold her, but it will be a close thing. Alexie?" she dropped her voice, "I don't think we can save the ship. Seven compartments are fully flooded. I estimate there must be about 7000 tons of water inside her. The strain on the hull is opening up gaps in her plating. She'll never survive a tow."
"A pity," the Kommador replied, "it would've been nice to bring her into New York."
"I'm sorry, Alexie, but I always thought it unlikely considering the size of her and the damage to the hull. How is the rescue going?"
"About 600 so far are on the Alma. It's quite treacherous because of the angle of the gangways. There are so many elderly, you can't rush them."
"Well, keep them moving. I'll try to keep the hull from breaking up as long as I can."
By 2.15am we had disembarked over half the passengers. A series of gangways allowed the people to be distributed between the 'Sviatitoi' and the 'Alma.' The distraught survivors were lodged among the 'Alma's' messes irrespective of class distinction. We had no master/servant notions in the Navy.
Naturally there developed a number of 'scenes' as some haughty aristocrats refused to be mixed in with their social 'inferiors.' Captain Koscuiko of the 'Alma' was under orders not to tolerate this. Indeed the son of Ukrainian postal worker, the good Captain was unlikely to stand much nonsense.
Valentina made some attempt at 'counter flooding' by pumping some of the water aft. She hoped to be able to lift the bow a fraction and settle the ship on a more even keel. The big worry was the big open spaces of the engine and boiler rooms. These caused a natural weakness in the structure of the ship and was the obvious place for her to break in two. By 2.30am it was becoming obvious the big liner's hull was beginning to distort, stressing the plating around it's mid-section.
The varying quality of the steel used in the ship made it difficult to predict it's ductility under such an immense load. It was becoming too dangerous for our ships and crews.
At 2.40am, Valentina recommended we get clear. Our efforts had brought the ship maybe half an hour. We had, though, some 1800 of the passengers tucked away in the rescue ships. Reluctantly, we struck the gangways and mooring hawsers and our ships gradually inched away. The remaining people on board were told to use the scrambling nets we fastened to Titanic's side and they would be picked up by boats. Thankfully the children, the weak and the elderly had all been taken off by this time and we were optimistic we could pull the remaining survivors from the sea before the cold overcame them.
At around 3am the great ship finally groaned and with a loud crack. the bow broke from the rest of the ship. By then the rest of the people were in the water or lying on the many rafts and floats we distributed for that purpose. Promptly the motor boats, their wakes foaming in the cold, dark water, rushed in to complete the final task.
Balardi's co-explorer, an American by the name of Cooper, shuffled in frustration. He hadn't come on this expedition to hear the same story of the Titanic rescue that every schoolchild learns in History class. They were bobbing out here in the Atlantic to find the 'Sovereign of the Seas, ' the unbelievably valuable John P Stoddard diamond pendant.
Alexie Kuropatkin had little time for diamond hunters. Oh, he knew where the Stoddard's safe was alright. Lying on the seabed some 500 metres from the wreck. In fact right underneath the position of the Cruiser 'Makarov' some 50 years ago. He also knew that, apart from some now soggy documents and bank notes, the safe was empty.
"So where the hell is the diamond?" growled the impatient American.
Kuropatkin's eyes moistened. Looking into the middle distance as if calling on some memory, he muttered, almost inaudibly.
"What?" Cooper pressed the question.
"With the Uralsk," Kuropatkin repeated evenly, while looking straight at the young man.
"With the... what? What the f..."
Balardi silenced his companion.
"Tell us the story, Admiral. What happened to the Uralsk?" he asked kindly.
"U Boat, 1915. During the Great War. It was sunk in the Baltic with all hands."
Kuropatkin put his hands to his face and began to weep. The two explorers looked at each other in exasperation. Cooper stumped out of the cabin cursing loudly. Balardi, though remained to comfort the old man.
This is despite having to tell his investors they will be empty-handed. That rather than his sanguine predictions of great wealth, they were going to be left with a massive debt. The expedition was likely to be a financial disaster.
"So," Balardi asked the old man, hesitantly, "Admiral Golovna... she was on board? The Uralsk, I mean."
The old Admiral nodded.
"We searched for days. All we found was a bit of floating wreckage. After the war, I thought she might have been picked up by the Germans and held somewhere. I made enquiries when our people were repatriated, but..."
"I'm so sorry," said Balardi, touching the old Russian's arm, "you must have loved her very much."
Kuropatkin began to sob, now with less restraint.
Kuropatkin remembered the Stoddards. Head of a vast American rairoad and industrial empire, John Perceval Stoddard was one of the most wealthy men of his age. Indeed the Stoddard Museum of the the Arts and Sciences is one of richest institutions in the world. Certainly the envy of many, including the famous St Petersburg Museum.
All this was accomplished by the exercise of monopoly capitalism, that peculiarly American phenomenon. Of course that was until the great crash of 1929 that sent the whole rotten ediface crashing like a house of cards.
John P was a blustering bullock of a man. His wife, his fifth, was an over-pearled ex-starlet who, the Admiral supposed, he hadn't married for her great wit and intelligence.
Stoddard was a man who expected everyone to do his bidding, no matter how trivial or unreasonable the request. The man had bullied his way onto one of the first of the lifeboats and, it was to Kuropatkin's misfortune, this had been towed to the Makarov.
He had arived at the grey side of the cruiser with a load of baggage, manservant and maid. Then, while boats of sodden distraught passengers were still being brought to the ladder, insisted the Makarov's crew unload their belongings first.
Incensed at the abuse of his crew's goodwill, Kuropatkin stormed down to the well-deck of the cruiser and confronted the man. Towering over the Kommador by a full 6 inches, Stoddard puffed himself up and bellowed at Kuropatkin.
"Do you know who I am!" he demanded.
"I don't care who you are sir," the Kommador replied, "there are people in the water and I need those boats turned around and back over there," he said, indicating the sinking liner.
"I'm John P Stoddard..." the man continued.
"Seamen," Alexie said, looking past the American, "dump that stuff over the side."
"NO!" screamed Stoddard's wife, staring at the grinning sailors, "my jewelry..."
She then leapt down the ladder in three bounds, dropping squarely into the middle of the lifeboat. Kuropatkin was amazed at her agility. As the baggage began to go over the side, she wrestled with the safe, eventually getting the door open before the sailors reached it. Grabbing handfuls of jewelry, she stuffed them down the front of her dress before a sailor wrenched it out of her hands and threw it into the water.
"This is an outrage!" Stoddard continued to rant, "Y'know I know Tsar Nicholas personally and I will..."
"Marine!" the Kommador yelled, "get this buffoon out of my face."
There followed an unseemly struggle, as the Stoddards refused to be moved. Eventually, it took three more Marines to finally shift the couple from the well-deck. Kuropatkin had them lodged in one of the cabins with a marine guard outside. Later, he had them transfered to the Alma with the proviso they be 'kept quiet.'
However, shortly after they had been forced from the deck, a sailor showed Kuropatkin a magnificent Diamond pendant he'd found lying on the deck.
"The lady must have dropped it sir," he said, "shall I take it to her?"
"No, fuck it, help those people from the boats. I'll give it to her when I've got time."
With that, Kuropatkin took it from the sailor and put it in his pocket.
"Some time later, when we were on the way to New York, I found it in my pocket," the old man told Balardi, "I don't really know why I didn't hand it back. I was still angry about the way they were behaving. They caused trouble in the Alma all the way back to port. I was glad to get rid of them. I guess I just kept forgetting. I thought it was just cheap costume jewelry, a paste fake. It didn't occur to me it was worth millions. Then, of course, the story went around that it went down with the safe and then the insurance company paid out. Well, to tell the truth, I wasn't going to give it up then, was I? It may have meant the end of my career. The truth is," he went on, "Stoddard DID know the Tsar after all."
"So how then did Admiral Golovna come to be in possession of it?" Balardi asked.
"Ah," Kuropatkin replied, grinning, "that is a long story."
The sun was well overhead when the fleet cruised past the statue of liberty to enter New York harbour. The ships were moored together at the White Star quay with throngs of well-wishers shouting and clapping as they tied up. It was chaos ashore and Kuropatkin worried about the security of the Naval vessels. In particular, his ultra-modern warships.
The Union was just coming to grips with the new age of oil-firing for boilers. Like most of Europe, it's warships still sported 'ram bows' and belched tons of black sulferous smoke into the atmosphere. Unlike the 'new-build' Russian fleet, their Navy was old-fashioned-looking and crude by comparison. Clearly, the Russian 1st Scouting Squadron was going to cause a great deal of interest.
This was an age of paranoia in international affairs fueled by great rivalries as empires decayed and new ones grew in their place. Spying was considered second nature to any Nation and these new-fangled Russkies clearly had a lot of secrets to hide. Therefore Kuropatkin chose to remain on the flagship with a considerable armed Marine Guard.
Not so General-Admiral Valentina Golovna, however. A grateful Nation wished to shower her with awards and congratulations for the rescue of so many of her prominent citizens. After being whisked to a reception at the Russian Embassy, where she received a phone call from none other than the Tsar himself, she was given a civic welcome at the Town Hall. The mayor of New York conferred the freedom of that great city on the Officers and crew of the Russian Squadron.
Politics, of course, were never far away and it was not missed on some of the sceptical Russian press that the enthusiasm of the welcome might have something to do with a cooling of the 40 year old relationship between the Russian Empire and the Confederate States. Indeed the recent discovery of oil in the Russian Province of Alaska might also have had a bearing. Might Union investors be preferred over those from Richmond, or Charleston? The USA wanted to be friends again after so many years of frosty relations.
So Admiral Golovna was wined and dined and fetched up in one of New York's finest Hotels, the 'Abraham Lincoln.'
Valentina wondered why the Americans should want to name such a fine Hotel after one of her most ignominious Presidents. One who presided over the break-up of the United States and been forced to sign one of the most humiliating documents in history, the formal order of the dissolution of the Union.
Nevertheless nothing was spared in the pursuit of her comfort and the suite of rooms at the hotel were far more sumptuous than her home in Kronstadt. The only thing she missed was someone to share it with and he couldn't be enticed out of his flagship.
The Russian Embassy and the US State Department had combined to provide minders that watched her every move. The Embassy was terrified she might be tempted to reveal secrets to her American minders and her American minders were there to ensure she wanted for nothing. And to tempt a few secrets from her. This close watching was quickly becoming claustrophobic for Valentina.
Finally, one night she decided she'd had enough. Donning civilian clothes, incuding a large cloak and hood, she slipped out of her bedroom window to the fire escape. Creeping down the landing, she found an unoccupied room and slipped in. Then it was merely a matter of walking out through the Hotel lobby and into the street. Finding a public payphone, she dialed the Makarov through the Embassy's own exchange.
"Alexie? It's Valentina. Meet me on 5th Avenue, by Saks... that is an order."
She then hailed a taxi and went downtown. Giving the man ten dollars she ordered him to keep the Oldsmobile waiting.
At long last Alexie pulled up in another taxi. He was resplendent in his Navy Whites and stood out like a sore thumb. Valentina quickly told him to jump in and ordered the driver to put his foot down.
"You idiot!" she remonstrated, "who is not going to remember a Russian senior Naval Officer in full dress in the middle of an American city?"
"This is New York," he replied, "no-one would remember if I was naked."
"That's a thought!" she chuckled.
"So why the disguise anyway? Have you stolen the mayor's chain?" he asked.
"No, I'm just sick of being followed around by a pair of sheepdogs."
"Whose? Theirs or ours?"
"Both! Then there are others who watch the watchers and so on. When I go out for a bagel I have this retinue following behind, half of whom are pretending they're not. It's too much!"
"So," Kuropatkin asked, "where do you want to go?"
"Anywhere," she replied. Then after a pause, she looked at him and said, "there's something else."
"I'm very, very horny."
"Oh," Kuropatkin replied looking out the window, abashed, "I suppose we could go back to the ship. Most of the crew are on shore leave, um, except for about 20 Marines and the maintenance teams. Most of those would've turned in. Your sheepdogs wouldn't dare step on board, Saari Laaktinaviki is in charge of the guard."
"Who? Should I be impressed?"
"You should be," Alexie chuckled, "he was in charge of the Marines we stationed on the Titanic."
"Oh him!" Valentina gasped, "but he's a monster!"
"Yes," the Kommador replied, "but he's our monster."
The Admiral Makarov was the nameship of class of heavy cruisers built for the Russian Navy from 1902 till 1906. All in all 6 were built and, typically with the Russian navy, two were built in the Arkangelisky yard, two at the St Petersburg Ironworks and two at the Black Sea Navy yard at Feodosiya.