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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug - Meeting Engagements, Part VI

(June 18 has finally ended off New York - it is now June 19, 1915)

---- 1:20 AM US East Coast Time (7:20 AM local), Scapa Flow

"Yes, milord," repeated Admiral De Robeck. " 'Multiple threats.' "

De Robeck had been on the phone with Carson and the others for the last dozen minutes or so. He was far to their north, in Scapa Flow, and had Admiral Burney and three of his dreadnought COs in attendance. Captains Dave (Queen Elizabeth) and Hawke (Agincourt) were studying the messages on the table. Captain Swafford (Warspite), who had gotten there first, had already read them by the time the others arrived and was staring at the wall with a furrowed brow. LT Sheldon, Burney's flaglieutenant, followed the gaze of the Warspite CO in puzzlement. An attractive line drawing of the Parthenon graced that wall, but Swafford's attention was focused on a spot two feet below and to the right of the frame. Sheldon noted that De Robeck's aide also appeared intrigued by Swafford's demeanor. The two lieutenants traded looks and minute shrugs; the behavior of senior post captains was often inscrutable.

"No, sir. I don't know how they got past us. Some of those might be more properly put to Admiral Ballard, but no net can ever be perfectly tight. (NOTE 1)

"Precisely. Milord, Ministers, we still don't know the Huns' full intentions here, but we can no longer regard this as a simple blockade running. Battlecruisers and zeppelins, milord. These are the earmarks of an undertaking of great dimensions.

"Yes, Milord, zeppelins. Yesterday, for the first time, the Germans risked not one but two of them on what appears now to have been a simple reconnaissance of Scapa Flow. (NOTE 2) As you are aware, they've been reserved for very public bombing missions until now, but somehow - somehow - the German Navy got them to .... Yes, and another one showed up later. Unprecedented - completely unprecedented. It cost them, so perhaps we've seen the last of them, but we can't be sure.

"What we CAN be sure of is that the timing was no coincidence. Yesterday, someone on the other side was willing and able to risk a great deal just to get a good look at what we have here in the Flow.

"Yes, it's a good guess now that he was behind it, just as he must be behind ...

"Milord, I don't know - not for sure. Only now are we getting our first solid glimpses of what this is all about. For this force to appear off the Americas yesterday, they must have left Germany something like two weeks ago. That means ... What? Excuse me, gentlemen. A moment, please."

As the ministers traded puzzled glances many miles to the south, De Robeck turned a frosty but questioning face to Swafford. The CO of the Warspite had made an unconscious exclamation as a recalled image smote him, and he was only now realizing that fact as the Commander, Grand Fleet turned to squarely face him. The memory started to fade then, of the North Sea map as it lay spread out on Warspite's chart table. Of how he had used his dividers until ...

"Yes, Captain? Is there something the matter?"

... until Admiral J[ellic]oe's voice had chivvied him off. With a steely question. With almost those same exact words. The image resharpened so strongly that a gust of deja vu shook him, much as the winds through the bridgehouse on Warspite had that day.

Unlike J[ellic]oe on that day at sea, however, De Robeck clearly expected an answer. Was waiting for one. With the First Lord of the Admiralty and other ministers on the line.

Well, if there's no going back, Swafford heard his long dead father saying, you might as well go forward. And go boldly, at that.

"The sortie of June 6. That's the answer, sir! That's why they did it, and that's why they were found so far north. It has to be."

De Robeck's eyes narrowed, but he took in the sudden nods from Burney, then Dave. As though wincing from too-bright sun, Hawke began blinking his eyes rapidly. De Robeck gave those signs weight, as he himself had still been in the Mediterranean that day, possibly already aboard HMS Chatham, unwittingly en route to this very office.

"A diversion, sir. Or the cover force. Or ..."

"Or both," De Robeck finished Swafford's sentence for him. "Very good, Captain," he added, with a nod, and then explained this insight to those in London. Still another balls-ups that he had inherited. First Carden, then J[ellic]oe and now Ballard and Patey. How many more? He increased his hand's pressure on the back of his neck.

"Yes, milord, it does change things, I'm afraid. Consider it this way. The Huns must have sortied every modern capital ship on the 6th that they had left. In effect, they placed their entire navy at risk to support this operation. Whatever it is."

De Robeck listened. Steam whistles echoed about the Flow and in through the open windows. Vibrations from passing lorries added small random sounds.

"A month ago, ... milord, ... ," De Robeck halted, then stopped again. "Recall I said, 'multiple threats.' Will the Huns attempt to break back through to Germany? Will they go south? Even Bermuda, Kingston, and the Bahamas are at risk to a force that includes two battlecruisers. Will they go north? Canada? Milord, they could do any one of those things, and perhaps others I have not yet named. And, if these reports are to be believed, they have enough to do more than one."

He drew a breath, the back of his neck throbbed, veins pulsing painfully.

"Milord, the Huns would never have dared even consider such a ... this before Dogger Bank. If I had ten battlecruisers, I could put three into Bermuda, another three into Halifax, and send in the others to put matters right. Even last month. Even with just a handful of battlecruisers, then we could still do something along very similar lines, sending dreadnoughts into New York." (NOTE 3)

Dave saw De Robeck frown at a question, and reach back to massage his neck as he began to answer.

"No, milord, at least not without incurring grave risk here, off our own shores. Oh, we have the advantage still, but our margin is not great. The force we would need to dispatch could tip the scales against us, should ... Letters ....

"Yes, I quite agree. Something must be done, and done quickly. But, milord, we must think this through. Should the Huns scatter, then it could be Emden, all over again. If they stay together, then I cannot expect success with just armoured cruisers. The time to prepare is now.

"Strassburg and the two liners? Yes, quite right.

"At 11:00 then, yes, milord."

De Robeck cradled the receiver and looked at the others there. Keyes - whom he would have normally closeted with - was en route to Cromarty Firth.

"Carson is off to 10 Downing," he informed them. "Moltke and von der Tann and three more light cruisers to boot are indeed off New York, just as those messages have it. They are presumed by the Admiralty to have done in Sydney, Melbourne, and Berwick - and Admiral Patey. Then the Americans stood by and watched old Niobe and several merchant cruisers get butchered right in front of them, right on their doorstep. One or two may have gotten away into American waters, but that's about it."

De Robeck drew in a deep breath.

"Patrols only has older cruisers and converted merchantmen."

He paused. That had been his post just a year earlier. Many of the men and ships were still there. Good men, mostly. Solid, though many were long past their prime. Like their ships, actually.

"They're no match for a first line German cruiser, like the one on the way back with the liners. For that matter, we got a good look at her in New York and she's got seven 5.9" guns. If she really is Strassburg, then she must have come out of a major refit just as this all started."

De Robeck stared out the window as he considered the inevitable results of such encounters.

"Sir," Captain Dave began, "if the Germans've re-gunned her, then perhaps they added more bunkerage, at the same time."

Well, THAT was an unhappy thought, but it would help explain the refit, Swafford considered, with a spot of fresh dismay. That is, perhaps an entire CL class had been modified as potential raiders with heavy enough armament to deal easily with AMCs and most older cruisers.

"Sir," Dave continued, "there is nothing in the message traffic on the guns of the other cruisers. Did their lordships make any mention ...?"

"No," answered De Robeck. He aborted a headshake with a tiny wince. " None.

"A worthy question, though," he added, glancing at his aide, who was already writing it down. Sheldon quickly penned himself a similar note.

---- 2:00 AM, Nottingham Star, stopped

"Captain, the yardbird wants a word with you."

"Very well."

"Done, Lieutenant," said Coblentz, as he slouched near. "A boat back, bitte?"

LT Lionel frowned, but bit back his first words. He was tired, so mortally tired, and he knew it. The last bunk he'd touched had been aboard Imperator, about 21 very long, hard hours ago.

Two things about the pasty-faced civilian's words had bothered him. The first was that they contained no specific information. The second, he was honest enough to admit, was that he'd quite gotten attached to being called "Captain."

" 'Done,' you say?"

Coblentz eyed the young officer silently. His words had seemed clear enough to him. These uniforms were all touchy today, so he just nodded and waited.

"It works?" Lionel asked, after a couple moments.

"Jah." Coblentz' few words had included "fertig," which means both "ready" and "complete." Of course, it worked. Would he have said so otherwise?

Unlike many of his seniors, Lionel had not yet developed much in the way of a Prussian attitude. He decided that if he wanted to know more, he'd better come right out and ask for it.

"Please give me some details," he said, after he called away the boat crew. "If it breaks again, it may help."

"Ach, ja," Coblentz replied, not believing for a moment that this soft-handed officer would take up even a wrench. "The damage to the aft one, it needs parts I do not have. The other's casing was cracked, and holed in two places. Also, some piping had been severed, but the tubing was not seriously damaged. Pipe sections I had and I brazed the condenser. I had to let it cool before it could be checked."

"Danke schon, Herr Coblentz," Lionel said with a genuine smile. "Did you try it yourself?"

"Ja, natürlich." How else could he be sure it was not contaminated with brine? But Coblentz still smiled back at the strange young man in the officer's suit. The ones on Moltke had all seemed mostly to bark and make faces.

"I must get back, Lieutenant. Herr Glocke, we do not always agree. He tends to cut when I think we should just weld. And the armored hatches ...."

Lionel gestured ahead towards the access down to the boat alongside. He was confident that the civilian would not think of it, so he told the leading seaman to report the success. He was far less interested in weld rods than the chance that he might now get a couple hours sleep.

---- 3:30 AM US East Coast Time (9:30 AM Local), London

The Prime Minister was not taking the news well. Among his concerns were the questions in chambers he would be sure to receive. Should matters continue south, he was not willing to rule out even a No Confidence vote. And what Carson was suggesting in the way of immediate actions seemed to guarantee absolutely that Antarctica would soon lie off their bow. A lot was being said, but even more was remaining unspoken, lurking beneath the words themselves. The other ministers were taking it no better.

"Halt all sailings?!" (Preposterous!)

"Those to and from the Americas, yes." (Can't you see? We really have no choice.)

Such a public declaration, in of itself, would be a massive embarrassment, and could even be fatal, politically. They were all well aware of just how vital was the uninterrupted flow across the Atlantic of foodstuffs, hardware, and raw materials. An interruption of even a few weeks would be a serious blow, albeit a recoverable one. The damage from the admission of the loss of control of the Atlantic might take far longer to recover. Within hours, the word would be all over the docks of every port from Argentina to St. John's, from Ayr to Lisbon. Insurance rates, schedules, ....

"The transit times are three and four weeks. If we dispatched sufficient force before dusk this very day, it would be nearly 10 days before our warships could arrive off New York. If the Germans dispersed, the losses ...." (They could be off chasing them for months.)

David Lloyd George, the new Minister of Munitions, cleared his throat loudly. (That's not all, not by a long shot.)

"There's an additional problem, I'm afraid," he announced. He looked at Lord Kitchener of the War Office, and got a nod. (Go ahead; I'll pile on in a moment.)

Lord Balfour looked at the two of them. It was not hard to guess what was coming.

"The United States," George continued, with a sad sigh, "they were our predecessors' solution to the 'Shell Scandal.' And a sound one, at that. Several ships are already in transit, and we've contracts for many more." (A very great many.)

"A very great many," echoed Kitchener, in a low-voiced comment. When Balfour switched to him, he continued.

"But if the sea lanes to the United States are no longer under our control," Kitchener did not miss Carson's flinch at those words, "then I would advise against any offensive in France. Indeed," he continued, twisting the blade a bit, "if the Huns were to push off a major offensive of their own in the interim, we could become hard-pressed. By September, October at the latest, we would be far better placed." (How could you have let this happen? Now, of all times?)

"Can not something be done?" Lord Derby, President of the Board of Trade, asked, aghast. "Can not the Royal Navy deal swiftly with these Germans?" (You're not REALLY going to close down trans-Atlantic shipping, are you?)

"Lord Derby," essayed Carson, "whatever ships I dispatch will have to come from the Grand Fleet. They will then be on the other side of the Atlantic, and who knows for how long? Admiral De Robeck feels, and I quite agree with him, that we have scant margin in Home Waters should the Germans sortie their fleet again, and it will remain so until more of our ships return from the yards." (Would you rather the Huns be off our shores or the Americans'?)

"However," he continued, "the Germans off New York must be low on fuel, except for one light cruiser. Perhaps we can exert pressure on the Americans not to let them recoal? Or to keep them in port, if they do recoal?" (Let's hobble them through diplomatic pressure.)

To Carson's surprise, the harsh cough behind him, preparatory to joining the discussion, was Austen Chamberlain's. He caught sight of Balfour's face as he turned to regard the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Balfour did not appear surprised. Not a bit. (Oh, damn. Why do I have the feeling that I'm not going to like this?!)

---- 5:10 AM (11:10 AM Local), London - Scapa Flow

"... and then Exchequer," Carson recounted to De Robeck, "said we're already in a bit of a row with the Americans over stopping their ships and taking them to Prize Court. And we mustn't do anything more that might upset the Americans! Why? Because we're going bloody broke, that's why! Not enough from taxes, he said, not by a long shot. The War Bonds weren't nearly enough, gold reserves are low, and the pounds' dropping like a stone. They're blaming Asquith, but the black fact is that we're going to have to go hat in hand to the Yanks. Already have, in fact. Over 100 million pounds, we're going to be looking to borrow! And we'll need more later, a lot more, unless this war ends before Christmas." (NOTE 4)

"Now, Admiral, what have you to report?"

"Milord, it's not complete, I fear, but I do have recommendations."


"With the damage to the High Seas Fleet, I think we can spare some ships from the Channel Fleet."

"The Channel Fleet?" Carson did not try to hide his surprise.

"Yes, Milord, our situation can best be broken down into several parts.

"First, the battlecruisers. We'll have to dispatch a force that includes at least two dreadnoughts, but how many and which ones - that remains the question. But let me move on.

"Second, the German light cruisers. I recommend armored cruisers, to operate with the dreadnoughts, whichever they are, until the battlecruisers are neutralized. I can spare several. Last month's battle demonstrated that armored cruisers have little place in a modern fleet engagement. Nonetheless, they're just the thing for running down raiding cruisers, especially ones mounting six-inch guns. We'll revisit their final disposition later, but perhaps they can become the permanent nucleus for the North America Station. Replacing Sydney, Melbourne, Berwick, and Niobe.

"Third, merchant shipping. I see no alternative to halting sailings at the moment, but we can let it be known that it's only a brief pause. In a matter of a few days, we collect all the waiting merchants, form convoys, and employ battleship divisions as the core of escort forces. I think four would more than suffice per convoy. They can recoal at Halifax or Bermuda and escort return convoys. Or they could remain there, should the situation call for it. If we need more, then the return of those in the Mediterranean can be expedited.

"Fourth, the missing cruiser and liners. I think we can dismiss the notion that they plan to invade Bermuda or raise an Irish rebellion. However, if the Germans deem this venture a great success, they might well be emboldened to try more on another occasion. For the moment, I think the matter properly resides in Admiral Ballard's hands. I understand he has already issued sailing orders to those he has in port, but he may need additional warships, especially to patrol the Strait."

Carson nodded, invisibly as far as De Robeck was concerned, as he considered. It was a start. A good start. It was something he could take to the PM. With a barely inaudible sigh of relief, he said precisely that to the Commander - Grand Fleet.

He hung up and looked at the chronometer. Balfour would not be available for some time. He picked up the phone. "Get me Admiral Oliver," he instructed. Yes, he thought, another view might add further insights.


1) There is great and profound irony here. Then-Rear-Admiral JM De Robeck was succeeded as Admiral of Patrols in 1914 by Commodore GA Ballard, who still holds that post in Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug, as he did historically (I believe he is a rear-admiral in June 1915). The Ballard Committee of 1906?7 would conclude that mine warfare could be an important factor in future naval warfare. Mine sweeping was of great interest to Vice?Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who went so far as to conduct extensive experiments in the Mediterranean, between 1905 and 1906. The admiral would continue his investigations and (in February 1908) would conduct generally successful sweeping experiments with two civilian trawlers at Portland that became quite well known. The notorious Fisher-Beresford feud seems to have contributed to mine sweeping - so greatly favored by Beresford - not getting much in the way of substantive resources pre-WWI. Years later, Fisher opposed the Dardanelles Campaign, which ended up foundering on ... inadequate mine sweeping! Some might call this an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy! Furthermore, as Admiral of Patrols, Ballard has the responsibility for mine sweeping in the area in which De Robeck's ships must now operate! I recommend:

2) See Ein Himmelfahrt at the Letterstime site. Thank you, Richard Byrd!

3) De Robeck was still Admiral of Patrols when Sturdee was sent to pursue von Spee. De Robeck took forces under his command (including a sister ship of Niobe's!) to the Azores and the Canary Islands, in case von Spee (or one or more of his ships) came back along those routes. Thus, in another Letterstime twist, De Robeck has had actual historical experience (just six to eight months earlier) with casting wide a naval net to deal with a deployed raider force!

4) See "Finances of Empire in Letterstime" at the Letterstime Site, in the general Ein Geleitzug area.

by Jim

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