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Part 151
PART 10: June 10, 1915  

June 12, 1915 - Questions of Identity - Part II

---- 3:10 PM, bridge of Val's Tract, course 090, speed 8 knots (increasing)

"Sir, steady on 090. Engine room has answered Ahead Full. Engineer reports they'll be ready for Flank in three minutes."

"Very well," replied Moore, absently, binoculars tight to his furrowed brow.

"There's something queer about this lot," he muttered.

His XO was at the rail a few feet away and, as had happened before, could not make out if he were expected to reply. This time, he elected to speak.

"Captain," he said evenly, "whoever she is, she's coming right on at high speed. Not coming off her line even a trifle. Could something be chasing her, sir?"

"Not bloody likely, or my name's not ...," he paused, spun on his heels, and went at a very brisk pace to the rear of the wing to look astern.

"That Frog," he barked, "do we have visual confirmation on her yet?"


"Something's queer about this, XO. If that's a Hun runner, she should've hauled up and gone about as soon as she sighted us. Yet she's done nothing of the sort. Why not?"

---- 3:15 PM, bridge of Strassburg, course 275, speed 22 knots

"Sir, flags from Imperator, contact confirmed as armed merchant cruiser. She has altered course to intercept."

Val's Tract, in coming about onto 090, had given Ballin's vastly augmented lookout section a long look at her silhouette. The "tiny" light cruiser was 250 yards astern of the great liner, and 150 yards to port. The Strassburg lookouts could not see the RN AMC. The range was still substantial, and the liner was in the way. Which, of course, meant the Britishers could not yet see THEM. This "formation" had been chosen initially not for stealth, but for fuel economy and comfort. They had found, by iteration over the last couple days, a spot where Imperator's bow "V" served to break the waves yet kept them out of the liner's vast, turbulent wake. The tactical possibilities had been immediately obvious.

"Very well," answered Captain Siegmund. He looked to the senior officer at his side for orders.

Commodore von Hoban scowled. He'd hoped to slip past the British picket line undetected. The chances for that had not been particularly good, but a bit of bad weather or even a decent rain squall would have improved their odds significantly. They had found themselves a bit further south than they'd expected, and had had to jog even more to the south shortly after dawn to stay clear of a smoke plume that had come into view. Nonetheless, they'd been within their mission times, that is, until now.

"One armed merchant cruiser," Siegmund said neutrally, hopefully. His ship had missed the great battle by barely a week, due to her refit and work-up. The refit, however, had made her the obvious candidate for her role on this mission. That, and her new 5.9" guns, that is.

Being at the Kaiser's parade, watching the battle veterans get their heroes' rewards, had inflamed the crew with battle lust. Nor had Siegmund been immune to it himself. The long crossing had done nothing to abate it. The men were tired but eager, really eager.

Von Hoban looked at Siegmund and wanted to smile. The captain was restraining himself only with some effort. He wanted that AMC. It was palpable. Furthermore, Siegmund was dearly hoping that Kommodore Salamander, as von Hoban had learned he was getting labeled, was about to give her to him. His "exploits" on Blucher and the tale of his dusk charge into three RN flotillas had apparently grown in the retelling, he'd suspected.

"One lucky hit, captain," observed von Hoban, "and we're slowed 3,000 miles from the nearest friendly shipyard. And," he added, "there may be more than one of them. One report to the Baron was that they seemed to be operating in pairs."

"So far, sir, only one has been reported."

"Yes, and beyond her the way to Philadelphia should be clear," von Hoban agreed. If this were Blucher, he began, he'd not even have hesitated. Though, he admitted to himself, he was unsure if the big triple expansion AC would have been up to such a sustained high speed transit as Strassburg had managed.

---- 3:15 PM, bridge of Val's Tract, course 095, speed 10 knots (increasing)

"Sir," from the lookout section, "we do not, repeat, do not, have a visual identification of the contact astern. Contact is bow on, range 17,000 yards, and the wind has her flags fore-and-aft."

"Hell and damnation," muttered Moore. "Right full rudder, come to course 180. XO, I need IDs on these bastards!"

"Sir, my rudder is ...."

"Sir!" The XO paled and was gone.

How could the Germans possibly have coordinated this? Or, was it simply a coincidence? The XO strained to make sense of it as he hurried off the bridge and up into the superstructure. The reality was that Val's Tract was between two unidentified ships, not terribly unlikely on the face of it, since identifying ships at distance was chancy until one got a good silhouette sighting and checked it against the books. Even then, however, there had been many instances of ships changing their looks. In fact, and he nearly stumbled as he remembered, Kronprincessen Cecilie had done precisely that back in 1914. Oh, damn!

---- 3:20 PM, bridge of Strassburg, course 275, speed 22 knots

"Sir, flags from Imperator, the armed merchant cruiser has changed course! New course appears to be due South."

"South? Very well," answered Siegmund.

South? Von Hoban could not figure that one out at all. Unless ...

"Signals! To Imperator, ‘Interrogative other sightings.' "

"Commodore, it might be that they suspect we're back here. Recommend we shift to her starboard side."

"Yes, that might be so. Do it."

"Sir!" Siegmund acknowledged. "Helm, right five degrees rudder."

"Sir, my rudder is ...."

--- 3:25 PM, bridge of Val's Tract, course 180, speed 12 knots (increasing)

"Sir," reported the XO as he came onto the bridge. "The ship to the east is the French ship ‘SS St. Jacques.' We have her in the registry."

"Very well," Moore answered. "This is still queer, XO. How sure are you on this?"

The XO overlooked what might, upon another occasion, be construed as insulting. He was just as puzzled as his odd duck of a captain was.

"As sure as I can be, sir, at present. I suppose I could be in error, but we've got a rather good look at her now."

"Yes, thank you," Moore said hastily, realizing a bit tardily just how his previous question must have sounded. "Helm, left full rudder, come to 090."

"Sir, my rudder is ...."

"All Ahead Flank. Sound General Quarters."

---- 3:30 PM, bridge of Strassburg, course 275, speed 22 knots

"Sir, from Imperator, new ship, bearing 270. Contact was originally directly astern of the Britisher."

"Very well, answered Siegmund.

"Ach, ja!," exclaimed von Hoban. "That explains much! They have split up to place Imperator between them, throwing their net wide in front of the faster ship."

"Sir, from Imperator, the Britisher has altered course. New course is due East."

Aber naturlich, Von Hoban thought as he studied at the plot. The two Britishers had their separation now. The first AMC was already south of their current track by a couple thousand yards or more. The second was directly on their bow, apparently something like 12,000 - 15,000 yards closer to the coast. Likely she'd stay on her course just north of east. So much for Philadelphia, he thought regretfully. If this were Blucher ....

"Signals!" Commodore von Hoban called out.

---- 3:40 PM, bridge of Val's Tract, course 090, speed 16 knots (increasing)

"Sir, estimated range is 20,000 yards."

"Very well."

"Sir! We have an ID on her. That ship is Imperator!"

"Excellent! Signals, to Bermuda and all ships: ‘Have sighted German liner Imperator. Engaging'. And give our location."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Sir, Imperator is altering course. She's turning away, to the north."

"Left 10 degrees rudder. Come to course 000."

Fat lot of good that'd do them, he smiled to himself. He'd chosen south as his parallax direction for a reason. One the Hun would learn, bye-and-bye.

"Stand by to fire a warning shot."

---- 3:45 PM, bridge of Strassburg, course 330, speed 22 knots

"Sir, steady on 330."

"Very well."

They had turned inside Imperator, keeping her bulk between the British and themselves.

"Well done, captain," acknowledged von Hoban.

"Thank you, commodore, but they will realize we're here shortly, in any event."

"Ja, das ist richtig. Aber, Kaufgelegenheiten werden durch Aufschub genährt."
[Literally – "Yes, that is true. But opportunities may, through delay, be nourished."]

A few minutes passed. Siegmund had never heard of anyone hiding behind a liner before. But then, two weeks ago, he also had never heard of anyone charging down the Line in the dark with a differential speed of 50 knots while under fire, either.

"Sir, from Imperator, the first contact has turned onto a northerly heading."

"And the other?"

"No word, sir."

The other was more distant, and their turn to intercept would be a smaller one. It was thus not surprising that the other's course change would take some time to get reported to Strassburg.

---- 4:00 PM, bridge of Val's Tract, course 000, speed 17.5 knots


"Left full rudder!"

"Sir, my rudder is ...."

"Come to course 315."

---- 4:00 PM, bridge of St. Jacques, course 085, speed 8.5 knots

The bridge and superstructure were filled with all those not on watch below. None of the observers had the faintest clue as to what was going on, but it sure was interesting. One ship going west, then south, then making a U-turn to go north, another coming out of the east, then turning sharply and heading off to the north. Then, a moment ago, the first had fired a cannon. To demand the other to stop?

If so, the other was showing no inclination to comply.

"Mon Dieu!"

A third ship had just appeared out of nowhere from behind the one in full flight! A warship!

"Sacre bleu!"

The first ship turned again!

It was like geese watching a magic show.

jim (Letterstime)

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