Into the Storm
The Baron Calls
-----Bridge of the cruiser "Frankfurt", course 085, speed 23 knots
"Artillery Officer, what is the range to the target?" The freshly promoted Korvettenkapitan Vogel waited calmly while the bridge talker queried the gunnery officer. Below the bridge, Vogel could see the rangefinder on top of the armored command post already tracking the target.
In a moment, the talker answered, "Six thousand four hundred meters, Herr Kapitan."
"Permission to fire." There was a short pause, and then the port side 15cm bow gun fired with a crash. The big 15cm shell flew out towards the target, the tracer in its tail like an angry orange bee. At 6,400 meters, Vogel had time to raise his Zeiss night glasses and watch the tracer zip just over the broad cloth panel atop the target sled and splash into the sea perhaps 200 meters further away. He nodded in satisfaction just as the second gun, the port gun aft of the bridge, fired. Again, the tracer arced toward the target, but this time dropped into the water about 200 meters short. A good ladder, and clearly the Artillery Officer thought so too, because all the port side 15 cm guns now begun to fire in measured succession, with just enough interval to permit observation of each round's fall. The 'midships gun, the superimposed aft gun and then the quarterdeck gun each crashed, sending their shells downrange. Splash after splash now began to churn the water around the sled, as the forward gun fired, starting the cycle again.
Each gun had fired several rounds when the voice of the watch officer interrupted his concentration, "Herr Kapitan, we are coming to the end of the range area."
A quick look with his binoculars did indeed show the marker buoy coming up. "Battery, halt fire! Watch Officer, signal the target tug that we will make another run to the West. Come to course 265," he ordered crisply.
The ship began to heel into the turn as Frankfurt's helmsman reversed her course. He was one of the handful Vogel had brought from his prior command, a grizzled old petty officer, and he handled the cruiser with a torpedo boat's flair and élan. Out to seaward, the old torpedo boat towing the target sled also began to drag its charge through a reversal of course. As both ships steadied on their new heading, Frankfurt's starboard guns took their turn to track the bobbing panel.
"Feuer!" The crash of the forward gun sounded almost immediately. It was time to make the conditions of the exercise a little tougher. "Artillery Officer, go to salvo fire as soon as you have the range! Helm, steer evasive zig-zag along the base course." Vogel remembered Dogger Bank all too well. He had commanded a torpedo boat there, and the British light had made it completely clear that anyone who stood still for it would be shot to pieces. Even as it was, dodging like a rabbit, his torpedo boat had limped into harbor on one shaft, with two gun mounts wrecked, and much of the hull and upper works riddled with jagged splinter holes. His first command would never sail again, but they had repaid the Britishers with interest. His conduct that day, covering the Baron's withdrawal, had earned him the Iron Cross First Class, and the attention of Baron Letters. Best of all, when his torpedo boat had been declared a total loss, he had been given command of this beautiful new cruiser.
Bridge of Frankfurt, Schweinemunde harbor
The familiar tower of the lighthouse pointed at a gray, drizzling sky as the tugs pushed Frankfurt against the dock. Vogel watched the tugs, the line handling parties, and the dock, while restraining himself from interfering with the watch officer's ship handling. Combat with the British would leave no room for anyone not fully capable of performing his duties, and this working up period was his best chance to bring his crew together as a combat capable fighting ship. Finally, a gentle bump heralded a completed docking. He caught the Watch Officer's eye and nodded his approval, then swept his glance along the dock one last time. As he did, he noticed for the first time a petty officer standing on the dock with a bicycle. As soon as the gangplank touched the dock, the petty officer left his bicycle on the dock and marched purposefully on board. Vogel watched from the bridge wing as the man consulted with the watch at the gangplank and then made his way toward the bridge.
"Korvettenkapitan Vogel?" he asked, snapping to attention and saluting.
Without breaking his ramrod attention, the man reached into the dispatch pouch hanging by his side, and extracted an envelope, which he offered to Vogel. Vogel accepted it, ripped it open, and scanned the contents, ending with a querulous grunt. He quickly scrawled his signature on the attached document receipt and handed it back to the messenger. "Dismissed."
The messenger saluted, about-faced, and left, to the accompaniment of Vogel's distracted wave salute, as he returned to absorbing the contents of the order and their implications.
"Herr Kapitan?" It was the voice of his XO, who joined him on the bridge, followed by the Artillery Officer.
"Orders, Hans. We have new orders."
"But our working up period, Herr Kapitan. They never interrupt a ship's working up. We have two more weeks."
"No longer. We are ordered to join the High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven." Briefly he wondered what could be happening to cause this sudden summons, but his immediate situation beckoned, and he addressed his gathered senior officers. "Cancel all shore leaves. Begin re-coaling and re-munitioning immediately. Take on board all war stocks. I want the ship ready to sail by the afternoon tide tomorrow. Prepare as if we will be in combat at any time after leaving Schweinemunde. We will not embarrass Frankfurt by having her arrive as a slack dog."
"Yes, Herr Kapitan!" chorused his officers. They departed in a rush, to attend to their departments. There was much to do. Vogel watched them go before turning to the outboard bridge wing. He leaned on the rail and looked out toward the open sea.
----On board Frankfurt, Schweinemunde harbor, about 1530, 14 June 1915
The front that had brought rain late yesterday afternoon cleared out by early afternoon. Now only a handful of stray clouds scudded across the sky in its wake. They reminded Vogel of a battle fleet's screen, but this cloudy fleet did not bring the clamor of battle. Instead, the breeze carried the smells of land and sea mixed in a refreshing perfume that urged idleness and contemplation.
The arrival of Frankfurt's XO interrupted his metrological reverie with a click of heels and a salute. "Herr Kapitan."
"Herr Kapitan, I report the ship ready for sea. All personnel are on board, our fuel bunkers are full, war load ammunition is stowed, boilers are lit with steam ready. We exchanged mail with the naval post office just an hour ago." He hesitated in his recital, as if suddenly remembering something, and reached into a jacket pocket. "There was a letter for you, Herr Kapitan."
Vogel took the proffered envelope, noting with pleasure that it was addressed in Viktoria's graceful feminine hand. He tucked it away, to be opened and savored in private, later.
The watch officer joined them from the bridge wing, "The tugs are coming up now, Herr Kapitan."
They all moved the bridge wing, to watch as the two black-painted tugs moved in, one each to bow and stern. "Watch officer, as soon as the tugs are in position, cast off."
The watch officer moved to the dockside bridge wing, and began giving commands to the line handlers. A few moments later the tugs were pushing them clear, engines chuffing dark coal smoke with the effort. Slowly, carefully, they swung Frankfurt's bow around and eased her toward the channel and the harbor exit. Within a quarter hour they were in the clear channel.
"Watch officer, release the tugs with my thanks. As soon as they are clear, make turns for four knots. Once we are out of the marked channel, go to 18 knots, course 330."
"Yes, Herr Kapitan."
Vogel stepped into the chartroom alcove at the back of the bridge, beckoning the watch officer to follow. "I have plotted the course to Kiel, and marked it on this chart. At 18 knots, this should enable us to pass any observer on Danish territory in the dark and arrive at Kiel's outer defenses just after dawn tomorrow." The watch officer nodded his understanding. Spies were everywhere, and it would not be good to stumble into an overeager patrol boat in the dark. Killed by friendly fire was just as dead.
The outpost boat at the terminus of the coastal shipping lane was an old torpedo boat, a relic of a couple of hundred tons. If Frankfurt had been an enemy cruiser, the outpost boat would not have lasted a minute. As it was, they exchanged recognition signals in the early morning light and Frankfurt slowed and headed toward the point where they would pick up their pilot before entering the harbor.
Within minutes the lookouts reported the pilot boat on the port bow, and Frankfurt slowed still further to pick him up. A petty officer brought him up to the bridge, where he introduced himself and shook hands with Vogel. Suddenly, a gasp and an oath drew everyone's attention. The watch officer pointed out to the starboard bow. Following his finger, the bridge crew fell silent in shock. Passing them on a reciprocal course was a powerful salvage tug, and in tow behind the tug was a cruiser that was the exact mirror of their own. Yet not exact, for where Frankfurt was new and shipshape, this nightmare was torn and charred, riddled with shell hits and splinter holes. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing a corpse.
"Wiesbaden." Vogel's voice was flat with the shock they all felt.
"Ja," answered the pilot. "They are taking her to Gotenhafen for repairs. The shipyards at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel are overloaded with repair work, so they are transferring many ships elsewhere for repair. A great victory, the Kaiserschlacht, but many ships damaged. Still, they brought our boys home. Not like those Britishers! BOOM!" He pantomimed an explosion.
Vogel had seen a battlecruiser blow up, and the reminder, coupled with the ghastly vision of their sister ship, unsettled him for a moment. With a conscious effort, he shook it off and returned to consulting with the pilot.
Despite their warship's priority, they were forced to wait several hours for a place in the queue to pass through the canal. It was 2 o'clock that afternoon before they were finally signaled to begin their passage. With a speed limit of just 8 knots and with two locks thrown in, it took over ten hours to clear the 61 mile long canal and arrive in the harbor at Brunsbuttel. Vogel stayed on the bridge the whole time, guiding Frankfurt carefully through the narrow canal. It was near 2 o'clock in the morning when they finally tied up to their assigned buoy. Shortly thereafter a cutter arrived with orders from the harbormaster. Vogel gathered his officers in Frankfurt's tiny wardroom. With the Leading Engineer and his deputy, the First and Second Artillery Officers, the two Navigating Officers, the Signal Officer, the Surgeon, the XO and himself all crowded in, there was not much room to spare.
"The harbormaster has sent orders for our movement onwards to Wilhelmshaven. Apparently the lane between here and there is checked and swept each morning to protect against mines and British submarines. We will depart at 10 in the morning, and the local guard flotilla will provide an escort. I want a minimum watch set for tonight, to let the crew get some rest."
"Herr Kapitan, is there really a danger of submarines in this close?" asked the Artillery Officer.
"Yes, apparently there is. Since the Kaiserschlacht, it seems the Royal Navy has given its submarines orders to take abnormal risks to get intelligence on our movements and try to get at our heavy units. Patrols have detected them trying to find lanes through the minefields, and at least one is thought to have been lost in the attempt." He hesitated, before going on, "As far as this ship is concerned, we are to be prepared for combat on leaving the harbor in the morning. Our own U-boats surface at Heligoland and are escorted in. Any submarine skulking about in these waters is enemy, and to be sunk on sight."
Their escort met them at the outer buoy. It was a minesweeper and another of the old torpedo boats that seemed to be maids of all work for the inshore forces. The minesweeper took the lead, with the torpedo boat zigzagging along about 500 meters to starboard. Once they had steadied on their course, Vogel gave the order, "Clear the ship for action!" (Klar Schiff zum Gefecht!)
Within seconds the alarm klaxon sounded throughout the ship. Because the crew had known it was coming, many were already at or near their stations. Within a few seconds the first crews had begun to close up to their guns, watertight doors banged shut, covers were removed from gun and torpedo directors, damage control parties assembled and extra lookouts were posted. Ready reports quickly flooded in to the XO. In just moments, he turned back to Vogel, "Ship is clear for action, Herr Kapitan."
Vogel nodded his acknowledgement, and turned back to scanning the sea for any threat to his precious ship.
After about an hour, they cleared the headland northwest of Cuxhaven and turned southwest towards Wilhelmshaven. Frankfurt began to roll with the gentle swell coming in from the open expanses of the North Sea and the crew found out quickly enough if there was anything not properly stowed and secured.
They had been on 225 for less than half an hour when a dull boom echoed across the water. Vogel jerked his binoculars around in time to see a tall column of water subsiding from above the torpedo boat. A heartbeat later came a lookout's cry, "Torpedoes to starboard!"
"Rudder hard to starboard! Both engines maximum power!" The helmsman spun the wheel as the watch officer jumped forward and rammed the engine room telegraph all the way to full. Frankfurt heeled hard and slowly began to accelerate, as Vogel aimed her to comb the torpedo tracks. As they came on to the torpedo's heading he ordered, "Rudder amidships!"
Seconds later the bubbling tracks of two torpedoes ran by to starboard, the closest less than ten meters from Frankfurt.
"Periscope!" shouted a lookout on the bridge wing, pointing dead ahead. Indeed, there it was, a feather of water, perhaps 1200 meters away.
"Order the forward guns to fire at the periscope!"
A few seconds later Frankfurt fired her first shot in anger. First one, then the other of the forward guns fired, causing splashes to fountain around the periscope. It hurriedly disappeared. Frankfurt raced onward for a moment as Vogel considered how to break off the contact without setting himself up for another shot from the British submarine. Suddenly, there was another huge fountain of water ahead. At first, he did not grasp what had happened, then realization set in. "Rudder hard to port!
"What happened?" The XO hadn't realized yet.
"It's the edge of the cleared channel. The Britisher hit a mine, Hans!" They went out onto the bridge wing, and trained their binoculars on the spot where the water was still turbulent. A stream of bubbles roiled the surface, then some loose debris and then, to Vogel's surprise, one, two, three heads. "Slow to five knots and come about. Signal the minesweeper to pick up survivors from our torpedo boat. Lower one of our boats and get those three from the British sub."
----Quarterdeck of Frankfurt, stationary, about 45 nm from Brunsbuttel
Vogel watched the boat pull alongside. The three British survivors huddled, sodden and miserable, in the stern. The Jacob's ladder had been lowered, and ready hands helped them climb on board. One of the men wore the rank of a lieutenant on his uniform, and when he saw Vogel he straightened to attention and saluted. "Left-tenant Carisbrook, commander of His Majesty's Submarine " he paused, clearly having been struck by the thought that perhaps he ought not to give out the name of his ship.
Vogel returned the salute and introduced himself formally, "Korvettenkapitan Richard Vogel, commander of His Imperial Majesty's Cruiser Frankfurt. My men will take you below to our Surgeon and get you some dry clothing. Please accept my assurance that you will be well treated. For you, the war is over."
Frankfurt proceeded up the Jade, to the anchorage where the other light cruisers swung at their buoys. Once they were at their own assigned buoy, Vogel gave his XO orders, "Get the coaling tender out and recoal as soon as possible. Replace our ammunition expenditures, and draw any charts we need of the North Sea area. Launch a boat to take me ashore, and have a landing party bring those prisoners along. I'm going to my cabin to change. I will want to be in a decent uniform when I report."
Once in the captain's cabin, Vogel stripped off his sea duty uniform and washed away the salt, gun smoke and coal soot that covered him after the voyage. With that done, he donned his dress uniform, complete with formal frock coat, brocade belt and naval officer's dagger. He felt a positive fool in this get-up, but he knew that custom and regulations dictated proper attire in reporting to a new commander. It wouldn't do to get off on the wrong foot. He tucked the ship's written orders into his jacket and headed up to the deck.
The boat was ready by the time he arrived at the quarterdeck. The three British prisoners were also there, escorted by guards in landing rig with Mauser rifles and helmets. They boarded, Vogel taking a place near the bow and the prisoners under guard aft. When they were all settled, the boat cast off.
As they moved through the port, Vogel was struck by the atmosphere of the place. He knew Wilhelmshaven well from his service there before. Normally, it was busy, but now every yard and dock swarmed with frenetic activity. There were empty spaces for which routine patrols could not account. Many ships showed battle damage, or the traces of fresh repair.
After a few moments, he looked back over his shoulder. The British lieutenant was alert and wide-eyed, head swiveling, obviously trying to take in all the intelligence he could. Curiosity struck him, so he beckoned the Britisher to come forward. The lieutenant looked dubiously at his guards, but they had been attentive to Vogel's gesture and permitted him to move carefully forward and take a seat next to Vogel.
"Have you been properly taken care of?"
The Britisher hesitated a moment, perhaps not quite sure how much of a testimonial to give. "Well enough, thank you." He took another look around, "Looks as if your ships took quite a pasting."
Vogel grunted good-humoredly, "True enough, but not near what your 'Grand Fleet' took."
The British lieutenant replied, "Well, I don't know about that. I have seen the list of what you claim to have lost, and I think you are not admitting all your losses."
"Really?" Vogel was a little amused still, "Why do you say that?"
"Well, look around. Just as an example, I don't see von der Tann or Moltke here, although the rest of the battlecruisers are."
Vogel just shrugged, "In another port," but inside he wondered. Moltke and von der Tann were missing. Seydlitz and Derfflinger were present, the repair activities around them perhaps the most frantic of all, and even the new Lutzow was visible in a distant fitting out basin. He had just come from Kiel and Brunsbuttel, and they were not there either. He worried for a moment. Not only were they important ships, but one of Viktoria's cousins was on von der Tann.
The Britisher took on a satisfied air, apparently believing that Vogel's silence was an admission that he was right. Before Vogel could debate the matter any further, the boat bumped against the landing stage. They had arrived.
The petty officer in charge of the prisoners took them away and Vogel headed for the naval Headquarters. A short walk brought him to the red brick façade of Naval Headquarters, Wilhelmshaven. He checked his uniform one last time, a little self-conscious, before climbing the stairs to the main entrance. The sentries slammed to rigid attention and presented arms as he passed. Inside, there was a foyer, with a desk occupied by a senior petty officer whose armband showed him to be the duty NCO. He came to attention as Vogel approached.
"May I help the Herr Korvettenkapitan?"
"I have orders to report to the commander of the 2nd Reconnaissance Group. Where is his office?"
The petty officer consulted an orders book on the desk, "Herr Korvettenkapitan, the commander of the 2nd Reconnaissance Group is not here. In his absence, Kapitan zur See Ehrhart is tasked with the leadership." He beckoned forward a sailor from a side alcove. "The orderly will show you to his office."
A flight of stairs and a corridor brought them to a polished wooden door. The orderly knocked and then held it open for Vogel. Entering brought Vogel face to face with an officer whose sleeve bore the four rings and crown of a Kapitan zur See.
He saluted, "Herr Kapitan, Korvettenkapitan Vogel, of the cruiser Frankfurt, reports!"
The other returned his salute, "Stand easy, Vogel. Welcome to 2nd Reconnaissance Group. I was informed you were coming. Pleased to see you made it safely and on time."
"We almost did not, Herr Kapitan." He recounted the tale of the British submarine's attack.
Ehrhart mulled this news over for a moment. "And you say there were survivors?"
"Three, Herr Kapitan, including the boat's commander. A very cocksure fellow for someone who has just lost his ship, if you ask me. On the way ashore he noticed that von der Tann and Moltke were not in harbor, so he was telling me that the British had sunk them in the Kaiserschlacht. 'Jutland', he called it."
This innocent remark produced an unexpectedly sharp look from Ehrhart, whose gray eyes focused intently on Vogel, "He noticed that von der Tann and Moltke were not in harbor?"
"Yes, Herr Kapitan. It's not true, is it? About them being sunk?"
"One certainly hopes not," Ehrhart said, his mind clearly elsewhere.
Vogel blinked in confusion at this somewhat cryptic reply. How could they not know? He was about to ask more, but Ehrhart seemed suddenly to come to a decision. "I am late for a meeting, and now, I think you are too. Come with me."
Another short walk through the corridors produced another polished wooden door, this one with its own sentry. Ehrhart led the way in, and Vogel followed, only to have to fight the sudden urge to duck back out. The room behind this door was no office, but a large conference room with a map table in the center. Around the table were a score of officers, near every one senior to him. He recognized several battleship and battlecruiser captains. There were also at least three admirals, one of them, the legendary Letters himself.
While Vogel tried to think what to do or say, Ehrhart addressed Letters, "Your Excellency, this is Korvettenkapitan Vogel of the cruiser Frankfurt. He has brought his ship to join 2nd Reconnaissance Group. His ship was attacked by a submarine in the Bight, and he has some interesting things to tell us."
For the second time in just a few minutes, Vogel found himself telling the story of his encounter with the British submarine, ending, as he had before, with the British captain's remarks about von der Tann and Moltke. As before, this produced sharp looks, at him and each other, by the various officers present. Letters seemed lost in thought for a moment, before turning to an aide. "See Kapitan Vogel's prisoners are held somewhere they do not have the chance to talk to anyone else for a few weeks."
Letters turned back to Vogel with another of his calculating pauses, and Vogel began to realize that this constant weighing of options and possibilities was very much a feature of Letters' character. "Well, Vogel, since you are here, join us. We are discussing the operation in hand." He gestured at the chart spread out on the table. For the first time Vogel tore his eyes off the other people in the room and looked down at the chart. At first he was disoriented, but then he realized with a start what was strange about this chart. It showed not just the North Sea area, the High Seas Fleet's normal zone of operations, but the whole North Atlantic as far as the coast of North America. He looked back up, to find Letters studying him with a faint and somewhat enigmatic smile. (Continued in Ein Geleitzug, see New York, New York Part V for the rest of this particular meeting.)
by Richard Byrd