Ein Geleitzug---- June 10, 1915
It was still raining outside, though it looked to be slowing. The shutters rattled as the wind teased them in their fittings.
"Sir, the overnight cable traffic."
"Thank you," said the commander. He was hanging his oilskin on the tree, taking care not to let it drip on any papers. Usually, Yeoman Butler waited until he had sat down, but not always. The last time, it had been a burned bar, involving several of His Majesty's servicemen. Was it going to be one of those days?
"Sir, I put one item on top that I'd like to call to you attention."
"Indeed?" Butler's minor mystery had taken a different, possibly more welcome turn. "This one?"
It was from the office of the Admiral of Patrols, reporting a possible blockade runner. The vessel had been sighted south of the Denmark Strait, chased all yesterday, and lost overnight.
"Hmmm, quite. Is there anything more on this?"
Crystal Palace and Rollonot had both been directed to maintain pursuit, through the night, if necessary. If Rollonot were the only one they were counting on, the runner was as good as gone. The commander had met Captain Hawkins, Rollonot, several times, and had developed a clear opinion on the other's professional credentials. The CO of Crystal Palace, however, was of sterner stuff, but the old girl probably couldn't touch 18 knots anymore, even in a stiff following wind.
"No, sir. At least not that I was able to see."
"Good show, keep watch for anything, if you'd please. In particular, if Halifax or Jamaica come up."
"Aye, aye, sir," answered Yeoman Butler.
The commander read it through again, picked up the phone, frowned at it, and put it back down. He really should give the Old Man another couple minutes. Vice-Admiral Patey was not due back from his inspection visit of hurricane season preparations in Jamaica, Barbados, etc. until late next week. His boss was likely still sifting through his own overnights. Meanwhile, the commander could put some things in motion.
He tapped the fingers of his right hand on the dark brown desk for a minute, then stood up and went over to the map on the wall. There were many pins with ship names that showed the disposition of the ones on station. Ones underway were at their last noon position. A stranger would have seen other pins apparently indicating several ships as being well inland on the island. It was not due to a "Jules Verne British land-faring invention" (as one visiting Yank had ventured in a sorry attempt at humor) nor poor RN star sightings (another Yank jest). Rather, the explanation was quite mundane. The harbor areas on his unofficial map had become so chewed up with pinholes that ship markers could no longer be placed there with any confidence that they would remain. Thus, the apparent location of several AMCs inland of Hamilton, while startling to a newcomer, was of no great novelty to him.
What drew his attention, was CL Melbourne's pin. She was enroute back from a stint off Charleston and the coast of the southeastern US. Per the map, she was due in around noon. He knew what ships were in port, of course, but he refreshed his memory anyway. Two additional AMCs were due in during the next 72 hours. They could be expedited, and likely would be.
"Ask the Chief to step in, would you?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
The breeze pushing through the shutters was welcome. For a moment, the shutters tapped in time with his fingers. The sky seemed to be brightening, though.
"Good morning, chief. Did you see the overnight on the runner?"
"The one that got away from Crystal Palace and Rollonot? Yes, sir."
"Crystal Palace's report put her at better than 20 knots. Any chance one of the liners in New York or Philadelphia has gotten clear without our knowing?"
"Well, sir," the chief's expression was one of distaste. "I wouldn't be saying there's no chance at all, understand, but I can't see how. I just can't."
"Yes, yes. My thoughts, as well. But when did we last log sighting reports for them?"
Two, maybe three days ago, I believe, sir. I'll check."
"Yes, do that. Make an inquiry, in fact. Someone back in London seems to think one of them could have slipped past us, tried a crossing, and then turned back." The chief made an almost inaudible snort in derision. "And get us a fresh round of reports, especially on the ones that were said to be working up."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"That'll be all, then, chief. Please send in Butler, on your way out."
"Sir?" Yeoman Butler asked, a few moments later.
"Double check the status board. Get positive confirmation of all fuel status reports, especially re-coaling progress."
"Aye, aye, sir."
He looked at the clock. Time to see the boss. He gathered up his notes, took one last look at the map, and headed out the door.
Acting-Admiral De Robeck had hoped to be nearing the coast by now, but was trying not to reveal his impatience. Troop trains and other support for the front were obviously straining the French rail net. Sitting down at lunch with the French Admiral who apparently had attached himself to the new Commander - Grand Fleet was not going to make the meal any more pleasant. De Robeck's French was not up to the other's English, so the other would again have the advantage of him. He could, if this were to hold true with last night's supper, depend on at least two British diplomat hangers on at his table, as well. Their French might not be much better than his, De Robeck suspected, but they would never admit it. He did not want to say much anyway, and he was damned if he'd let French or Frenchmen keep him from eating.
"Admiral?" It was his aide, with a bit of good news, it seemed.
The aide handed him a slip of paper, avoiding risks of having anything overheard that his principal might want kept close.
Well! De Robeck thought, as he began to read. Their Lordships had already responded to his telegram from late last night. It was a good sign, even if they refused his ... but, no ... they had not refused him ... from the referenced dates, they apparently had even anticipated his request. Yes, excellent. But, how could they have ....
De Robeck looked his aide away, as the French admiral's aides appeared, and pocketed the paper.
"Bonjour," he essayed.
Their faces bloomed in false smiles, and they gobbled back at him. He stoically made his way through the rocking train car to the table under a withering barrage of French phrases he half understood and English ones their speakers likely understood only a little bit more.
Last night, De Robeck had made what he thought was a delicate inquiry as to the availability of Commodore Keyes. Today's reply had stated that Commodore Keyes was expected at the Admiralty later that very day. That was a vast surprise to De Robeck, who had Keyes in the Aegean, last he'd heard. Even more surprising, however, was the note that Keyes was about to be dispatched to Scapa Flow and given a command responsibility in the Grand Fleet. The clear implication was that, once De Robeck assumed command, Keyes was entirely at his disposal. If this was patronage, it was on a grand scale indeed!
Moving captains and commodores about was a lot easier than Vice-Admirals, he eventually realized, in the middle of the soup course. He nodded to the waiter to bring him what was next, hopefully something more substantial.
Fisher! It must have been Fisher. Callaghan was a good man, De Robeck knew, but this level of prescience and attention to detail could only have come from Admiral Fisher. The Admiral must have put it all in motion days ago, while he was still Sea Lord. That man was uncanny, thought De Robeck ruefully. The French admiral had raised an eyebrow at his expression, De Robeck realized with a start, so he employed a ruse. The Admiral - Grand Fleet ventured aloud that he had been trying to decide what ship the rocking of the train reminded him of most. Vengance, he claimed, was his first thought. That fetched a broad smile from the Frenchman, and puzzled looks from the British suited landlubbers.
De Robeck continued to reflect on Fisher as his ally held forth on the topic he had just invented. After an impressive display of Gallic volubility, the Charles Martel, in a gentle sea, was the other's eventual offering.
The British admiral nodded, again, pleasantly, surpassingly glad to be on a French train rather than that French battleship. Yes, he was thinking, Admiral Callaghan had some mighty big shoes to fill. But, then, so did he.
"Still no report of any sighting, sir," said the commander.
"And the in-port confirmations?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Sighted 10 minutes ago, sir. She should be moored shortly."
"Good. I want to see her captain at his earliest convenience."
"That'll be all, commander. I want Melbourne's coaling expedited, and the others also."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The commander left his boss still scowling at the great map in his office, one hand absently stroking his beard.
De Robeck had expected that his new rank would speed his passage. What he had learned, however, was that it was far easier for a rear-admiral or even a vice-admiral to avoid the suits and uniforms of his nation's ally than it was for the Admiral - Grand Fleet. At last, De Robeck had made good his escape. He had fallen back on professing extreme eagerness to report to his new command, which was certainly no falsehood, in any event. The suits had furrowed their brows in confusion, but the uniformed French understood instantly and had actually become quite helpful. An officer eager to get to his new post was something they could empathize with, and they accepted without question that he was hot to get at the Boche.
It would not do for him to display any urgency, though, let alone appear in the least frantic. The Royal Navy still controlled the sea and nothing had changed, was the official line. In De Robeck's opinion, however, last week's defeat at sea, let others call it "a bloody inconclusive draw," had been a severe setback for the entire Entente. He knew it well, having had to abandon the still-promising attempt to force the Dardanalles and, with it, the Ottomans out of the war. He also had seen first hand the sudden coolness of the Greeks and Italian officials. Nonetheless, the Germans had laid up to lick their wounds ever since, though their brief sortie had been a troubling sign. Very out of character for Tirpitz, best De Robeck could tell.
It was perhaps that sortie that bothered De Robeck the most. The Admiralty seemed oblivious to its potential implications, but he was not. No, a sea change in KM thinking had taken place and it did not augur well. He knew Ingenohl, Scheer, and even Tripitz. Not one of them would have sortied with most of the High Seas Fleet still in tatters in the yards. He did not know this Vice-Admiral Letters, and that troubled him. Troubled him greatly.
"Sir, we have the confirmations. All German liners and ships potentially capable of 15 knots are accounted for. They're all still there, sir."
"Well, that takes care of that nonsense. Make sure that is copied to the Admiralty."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Commander, have you given any thought as to WHY a blockade runner would be where she was spotted?"
"Commander, it stands to reason that an enterprising captain intent on fortune might try to get through to the Huns, even if he was not German himself. But why would anyone in his right mind try to run the blockade the other way?"
"I don't know, sir. I hadn't given that any thought, but you're right, of course."
"As long as it was still possible that Vaterland or another had slipped out, this next bit would have been premature. I think now, however, we must consider it likely that this is not a simple blockade runner."
"Commander, I think she's a raider."
"A raider! Yes, of course, sir. It all fits."
"Indeed. Somewhere out in the Atlantic, running free, is a large raider able to sustain over 20 knots. We had her, and she ran right away from us."
"Bloody hell! Excuse me, sir."
"Quite. But where is she going? Where can she operate with any decent chance of success?"
"The Caribbean, sir? All those islands to lay up and coal from her prizes? And off to South America?"
"That'd seem the likely guess, wouldn't it? In fact, I'd even hazard a guess we know what ship she must be. Kronprinz Wilhelm. Though we've not heard her story, we know she got by us and back to Germany shortly after the Dogger Bank fiasco. Reports had her at Vulcan, with a lot of work going on there.
"Sir, they've had over four months to work on her!"
"Yes, no jury-rigged pair of 88s now, I'd hazard. By now, she might well be a match for one of our own auxiliary cruisers. Thank God, Patey has Sydney with him."
The two men considered the situation as they stared at the great map.
"Commander, Niobe should be on station, the Baltimore-to-Boston picket, by late tomorrow. Kronprinzessen Cecilie and Vaterland may try their luck as a diversion. They're working up for some reason, and that might be it. Niobe and the aux cruisers already on station should be able to handle anything that comes their way. Melbourne will be ready to put back out by noon, I've so instructed her captain. You're to see she suffers no delay."
"I only hope by then, I know where to dispatch her."