"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.
.... There is more of this story ...