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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug - Meeting Engagements, Part VIII

---- 6:35 AM, Strassburg, course 300, speed 22 knots

"Guns!" Siegmund shouted.

They were about 1000 yards astern of the French merchant ship and offset from her course by about 500 yards. The range was now just under 2000 yards. Any hope their prey might have entertained of escape would have ended some time ago.


The 88 mm round splashed about 100 yards ahead of the other's bow. Siegmund waited, but he was not going to wait long. He knew, however, that there were some cultural reasons, in addition to the legal and practical ones, for the merchant captain to carry the ritual all the way to completion.

"Guns! Prepare to open fire."

The main gunmounts rotated to line up on the stubborn merchant. Siegmund paused. There! That had been enough. He relaxed, as much as he could so far from Wilhelmshaven.

"Sir, she's slowing, there goes her flag!"

"Very well," Siegmund acknowledged, then waited another minute. "All stop. Helm, drift us in close aboard. Prepare to lower ...."

He wrinkled his nose after he finished giving orders. It had just become quite clear what this one's cargo was. Damn! This was going to complicate things; he just knew it.

"Sir, the other Frenchman has altered course. Going onto a southerly heading."

Siegmund acknowledged, nodding to himself as he did so. It was to be expected. Any doubts the other would have had would have settled by their warning shot. He raised his glasses towards his next target, who was now something like 18,000 yards off, maybe a bit less, bearing something like 170.

He looked aft from his position on the tiny wing off the bridge. Gommel had the boat already being lowered. Good. Nonetheless, it would be several minutes before he could get back underway. This one's delaying could have been to prepare some kind of sabotage, scuttling, or even armed resistance. Given her cargo, he doubted there was a scuttling risk, but damage to engines or the like was entirely possible.

"Sir, new contact, bearing 240."

Siegmund looked. Yes, a thread of smoke, perhaps 25,000 yards, maybe less. The visibility was still increasing.

"Sir, new contact, bearing 340."

So many targets, so little time, he thought, and he knew his time was already running short.

----6:40 AM, New York Naval Station, Office of the Commander - Atlantic Fleet

"How did they get this?" Rear-Admiral Martin exclaimed. "And who the hell is this 'Maxwell Browning'!?"

The questions were totally rhetorical. The only other person in the room was Vice-Admiral Stennis, his boss, and he had already put much the same questions loudly to the ether a few minutes earlier. The aide and the yeoman, who had been in the waiting area, and all other officers and enlisted that Stennis had had found within reach, had all been dispatched to gather staffers and purchase more copies of the Times. Even the doughty Marine colonel had been swept up, having been requested to search out CDR Trimm.

Actually, Stennis realized after another minute that he did recall Browning's name. It had been the byline on a couple pieces in the Times about Imperator - ones that he had read a couple days ago. That did not, however, answer the "how" part.

"Sacramento Union?" Martin said in surprise.

Stennis looked up.

"That's what it says here," Martin pointed. "He's a reporter from the Sacramento Union."

"Wonderful. Just wonderful," muttered Stennis. They'd be running it too. It'd be all up and down both coasts by noon.

The tall vice-admiral had been right a great many times before in his distinguished career. This internal prediction was not to be an exception. In fact, the Union's printing presses were already well into their run even as the two flag officers sat staring in horror at the photographs in the Times on the table before them.

The reason for their distress was that New York (BB-34) and Wyoming (BB-32) were clearly in several of the pictures, in all their cagemasted glory, framing the German battlecruiser von der Tann in the distance and the burning British ships in the foreground. In particular, one had captured New York's forward turrets apparently firing off a salvo!

---- 6:45 AM, Imperator

Max Browning, blissfully unaware of all the black thoughts being directed his way by the pair with golden epaulettes, still stood by the rail next to Fox. The sun had risen and the fog had almost completely dissipated, just as Max had predicted. There were a few cottony tendrils extending out from the mouths of inlets, but the channel and the surrounding countryside were now in plain display.

It was rich land. The greens were emerald and the browns the hues of rich Colombian coffees. The fog had left a heavy dew in the trees and brush and they sparkled in the early light. The fruiting fields offered a wondrous palette of shades and textures to the eye. Max just knew that the pastoral splendor was sure to provoke another artsy reference any second, so he hastily suggested adjourning for breakfast.

As they entered the Grand Salon, the great Turk nodded to them augustly from behind his third stack of flapjacks. They sat down and their eyes went to the Captain's Table. There the Countess Marina held court, with other men rapt from as many as two tables distant. The waiter soon came to put their coffee before them and take their order.

"Any more word on our arrival?" Fox asked, as he opened his menu.

"I believe it's still 8:30, sir. Now, are you gentleman ready?"

They were. Working through the night had left them with vast appetites. They would rival Hadi this meal - together, that is.

---- 6:50 AM, Sainte-Julie (French merchantman), stopped

LT Siegfried knew Siegmund's priorities and his need for haste. The olfactory evidence had given him an idea. He would try to use the cargo, and her master's almost-certain feelings of responsibility for his charges, to speed the process.

The florid-faced captain was upset and quite voluble about it. His world, his universe, had come apart in the last 30 minutes. Mon Dieux! What were the hated Boche doing here? His bearded jaw was knotted with emotion.

"M'sieur!" Siegfried half-shouted, to gain the other's full attention. "My orders are to scuttle this ship. Right. This. Instant. Unless - Hans ...." He paused then, trying not to make it too obvious, as he turned to look at one of the two petty officers he had been assigned. Another of his men stood in the hatchway, his rifle held in an awkward parody of port arms. It was an incongruous sight, and might have brought a smile to the young officer's face under most conditions. Not these, though, and he fought down the grin.

The Frenchman stopped, wide-eyed. "Lieutenant!"

"... are the scuttling charges placed, yet?" Now he had to resist urge to eye the Frenchman to gauge the effect of his approach.

"Not yet, sir. Once my men are not back from below aft, sir, I'll get them right on it."

Siegfried then turned back to his most senior prisoner. The man's face had visibly paled at the exchange. Either he had some Deutsch, or had guessed from context.

"... unless," Siegfried continued after acknowledging the report, "I am completely convinced that your crew will comply with your surrender and that the ship has not been sabotaged."

"But, but, I have ordered no such thing!"

"Convince me, sir. Convince me well and quickly. You have three minutes."

---- 6:55 AM, Strassburg, stopped

"There's the signal," Gommel reported. "Ah, and no wireless!"

"Very well," said Siegmund, with considerable satisfaction. "Ahead Flank. Make turns for 22 knots. Come to course 190."

The other Frenchman would not get far. Today he would burn coal as though he had a fleet of colliers nearby - in a way, he did. The ship beneath the smoke sighted to the northwest, however, would have to be left behind, as had those sighted earlier to the East. Those had not reappeared, but he had not given up on them just yet. The other smoke plume that had been sighted along 240; she might be the one he'd go for after his next appointment with the French. Siegmund's glasses still did not show anything there, so she was still hull down, whoever she was.

"Down to three," commented Gommel.

"Ja, but there was no choice."

Time was of the essence, and the cargo she carried had meant that she would have more crew than they had first expected. Thus, more Germans would be needed to watch them, so he'd ordered the boat crew to remain, augmenting LT Siegfried's prize crew.

---- 6:55 AM, New York Naval Station, Office of the Commander - Atlantic Fleet

The two admirals turned at the sound of the knock. It was Colonel Anton and CDR Trimm.

"Enter," Stennis said. "Commander, have you seen this?"

"No, sir. Just the headlines that Colonel Anton related."

"More copies should be here soon," Stennis replied.

Actually, the yeoman had found that there were none to be had at the first two places he tried. Not surprisingly, the newspaper boys' chant at the entrances to the naval station - "Sea Battle off New York - read all about it!" - had emptied their sacks within just a few minutes. The lads were long gone, and were off searching for more papers themselves.

"Sir," said Trimm, after he had studied the photographs for a minute, "these had to have been taken from one or both of the liners. From the height, they were probably on Imperator."

"Go on."

"Strassburg split off, leaving the liners behind, on the shore side of the 3-Mile Limit. Then she went on out, like she was going to take on the British all by herself, or something. You know, make a martyr of herself in front of an audience, or maybe fire off a few salvos and then try to make a run for it. We thought it was a British trap."

"It WAS a British trap, alright," commented Martin, "the Germans just sprung a bigger one on 'em."

"So, Commander," said Stennis, "fill me in here. Both liners and Imperator were long gone by the time I got out there and I didn't go over these details with Admiral Alton."

CDR Trimm gestured to the mostly clear conference table, "If I may sir?"

"By all means," replied Stennis, and the Marine Colonel and both admirals watched as Trimm began, naming objects and placing them into positions mimicking yesterday's events just outside the 3-Mile Limit.

---- 7:00 AM, Moltke, stopped

"Guten Morgen," began Captain Stang, "Herr Glocke, Herr Coblentz."

"Und Sie," Glocke responded. Both civilians nodded to Admiral Hanzik and the XO, as well. The men were in the same gray coveralls as yesterday, but there was more grime on them. Their eyes were still Siamese-cat-blue, but now dark circles showed beneath them. They sat down, unasked, but they radiated tiredness so strongly that even Stang did hold it too much against them.

"Patched the hull is, but not restored," began the shorter Glocke. "All compartments have been recovered, but the patch leaks copiously. Water continues to reach some outer spaces, but it is less than before."

"One pump only," added Coblentz, "must continue to run to de-water. If you get underway, more will be necessary."

"Several hatchways we repaired, generally by remachining the fitting surfaces, but two we did not," Glocke continued. "Those were well warped. Our press could not bend armored hatches such as they."

"The armor belt is displaced, in some places by as much as a foot," Coblentz took over at a glance from the other. "Without a shipyard, this cannot be remedied. Structural mitigation we did but, for now, little more can we do."

"Jah," Glocke agreed. "Here is a list of what is required. Two of the teams will continue some overhaul and fabrication, but I have sent the others to their bunks. Laban and I will join them."

Hanzik did not know where to begin. The two from Vulcan began to get to their feet. They clearly thought that the briefing was over. The thunderhead on Stang's brow hinted that he might feel differently.

"Herren," Stang began, after an almost beseeching glance towards his admiral. "Can Moltke get underway? Safely? How fast can she go without ...?"

Glocke exchanged puzzled looks with the other from Vulcan. Had these suits not listened to them?

"Herr Coblentz just told you that," Glocke said, brow furrowed in infuriating confusion.

"Told me what?" Stang answered, emotion growing in his voice. "He said that more pumps would be needed if I got underway."

"Yes, precisely," Coblentz agreed, greatly relieved. The pair nodded in satisfaction.

"Herren," Hanzik said, entering the fray gingerly, "are you saying that the patch will hold at maximum speed, but will just leak more?"

"Aber natürlich," both Vulcanites answered, in obvious surprise. How many times would they have to repeat themselves? Clearly the uniforms were tired. They probably should get some rest, too. Glocke had opened his mouth to suggest it, when Stang's XO chimed in.

"How can the patch hold when it leaks so much? And why do you feel your work is done when it leaks so badly?"

Stang nodded at the commander's questions.

"Was it a pretty patch you wanted?" Coblentz practically spat out. "One that ..."

"Did you look at that list?" Glocke interrupted.

Hanzik had been stunned at the tone and even more so when he saw that Glocke had put his hand on the chest of Coblentz, to restrain him. The taller worker's already pasty complexion had gone a deathly white.

"No? Then look at it now, bitte."

The XO looked at it, his own face darkening with fury.

"Welding rods, Herren. Our assignment was to keep Salamis' engines running, not to rebuild your ship. Herr Coblentz spent our first three hours aboard yesterday deciding just where what little we had would best be used.

"He decided a fast ship that leaked would be preferred over a dry one at anchor. Were we wrong? The patch will hold, meine Herren. Over 80% of our weld material went to anchor the reinforcing struts."

"She can answer Ahead Flank, then?" Stang still was unsure they had a direct answer.

"Jah! That we have just said many times! Jah, it leaks - at Flank it will be like firehoses along the edges - but it will hold. The pumps will be enough. Arbeitsgruppe Vier (NOTE 1) is overhauling one now."

The officers' visibly obvious relief and even joy washed away the anger of all.

---- 7:00 AM, New York Naval Station, Office of the Commander - Atlantic Fleet

Stennis' aide and yeoman were still absent, having no luck so far finding more copies of the Times. Nonetheless, there were now several extra copies in Stennis' office. In fact, there were 11 of them.

The first three had arrived in the sweaty grasp of a breathless, overweight Supply LCDR whose speed of passage had belied his bulk. Was the Admiral aware of this? He had been quite chagrined to find that the Admiral already knew all about it. The admiral had been bent over his conference table with his deputy and a couple others the LCDR did not recognize. Stennis had thanked him, but the LCDR recognized dismissal when he saw it and he retired from the scene, leaving his Times behind.

Two more copies had shown up simultaneously seconds later in the arms of two anxious senior captains. Junior officer friends of the Admirals' aides had materialized close on their heels with another three. The rest had been brought at minute intervals by a succession of earnest individuals. Several more were still en route, clutched in the hands of eager officers of various ranks.

In effect, the acned 13-year old paper boy outside the main gate had delivered most of his sack to the office of Vice-Admiral Stennis.

----- 7:05 AM, Moltke, stopped

Hanzik had one more question for Glocke as they were breaking up. Stang and the XO had already left, to check on the horizons and the prisoners, respectively.

" 'Reinforcing struts'? Where did you find those?"

"Some stock we had, some damaged bracings .... Wherever we could," Glocke replied, evasively.


"Well, recall I said that we could not bend armored hatches?"

"Yes. Uh, you mean ...?" Hanzik winced.

"Jah, bend them we could not, but cut them up we could."

---- 7:05 AM, New York Naval Station, Office of the Commander - Atlantic Fleet

"Okay," Stennis announced, straightening up, "this is all beginning to make more sense to me now.

"This was either a set-up from the get-go, or a clear contingency plan. They must think they know us awfully damn well for either of those. I don't like that, not one bit. Those liners hung back, and may even have maneuvered right to where they could get the best camera angles and not tip us off."

"Commander," Martin asked, "were there any reports of them taking photographs?"

"No, sir. But ..." Trimm hesitated.

"But you suspect that everyone may have been busy watching the battle going on just outboard," Martin finished for him.

"Yes, sir."

"Uh, sirs?" Anton's venture was greeted with only a small sign of surprise from the two admirals.

"What if they did NOT have all this planned out?" Anton continued, pointing to the positioning of the dreadnoughts and liners. "What if they just improvised?"

It seemed reasonable to the Marine officer. Flexibility, adaptability, initiative, and improvisation were the mantra of the Corps.

"They either read our minds," commented Stennis, as he considered the last few days events, "or they improvised beautifully."

The first one bothered him, bothered him quite a lot, but not nearly as much as the second.

---- 7:10 AM, Imperator

"Herr Ballin, Guten Morgen." The young reporters were both into their second steaming stack of griddlecakes, and the attrition among the forces of sausages and bacon was already notable.

"And good morning to the two of you," Ballin replied. "May I join you?"

"Aber natürlich!"

"As you know, we will be docking in just over an hour. Have you given thought as to what you will do? You are free to leave, of course, but I would hope you would remain my guests."

"How far ...?" Max began to Blue.

"The terminal, right?" Blue asked the HAPAG owner.

"Yes, I hope to tie up just astern of Vaterland."

"Max, that puts us south of Philly, about an hour from my place. Herr Ballin, will you be going back out?"

"Yes, of course. As soon as practicable, I would expect."

The young men looked at each other, uncertainly.

"Can we disembark and re-board later? In a day or two?"

"Certainly. My invitation remains. But when the time comes for us to leave, I will have to do so with perhaps no notice.

"Gut," added Ballin, getting up. "Let me know what you decide, if you would. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have many things to organize. For one, I must arrange for another auction."

"Auction!? Another one?"

"Jah, Kronprinz Wilhelm brought additional cargo for sale, of course. Some of it is under contract, but the rest is not."

The two reporters pressed him for details, the rest of their breakfast forgotten before them.

Three tables over, Hadi signaled peremptorily for the waiters to attend him.

----7:15 AM, Strassburg, course 190, speed 22 knots

"Guns - standby to ...."

"Sir, she's striking!"

"What? Guns, belay. Hold fire!"

Siegmund was stunned. They were still several thousand yards off. The Frenchman had turned off her flight course and was already clearly losing way.

"What do you make of that, Captain?" Gommel's own surprise laced his voice.

"I have no idea. Ahead Standard. Make turns for 15 knots."

They studied her for another long minute.

"Française Justinia," read Gommel. "She's French alright - we didn't read her flag wrong or anything."

His fear had been that they had mistakenly stopped a Neutral, through a flag interpretation error of some sort.

"Ja, get LT Wilhelm's prize crew off to her. He is to be cautious. Very cautious. I do not trust them. Not by so much as a toenail."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"XO," Siegmund called at Gommel's back, having come to another decision.


"I intend to stand off a full thousand yards from this one."

---- 7:20 AM, Sainte-Julie (French merchantman), stopped

Siegfried had decided that he simply had to "inspect" his (!) cargo.

"Ah, mein braver Junge!" (NOTE 2)

He had begun to run his hand down the deep brown, muscular flank, when a velvety snout quested against his side. He wished suddenly that he had a carrot in a back pocket, as he was wont to do back home. Home. A powerful pang of yearning startled him, pausing him in his gentling.

"This one certainly seems to understand Deutsch," he remarked to the Frenchman beside him. There was no reply. Yes, Siegfried reflected, a clearly kind tone was often good enough, even if the words were unfamiliar. Still, he reflected as the nostrils snorted in perhaps disappointment, treats and sweets transcended all language barriers. There was probably a metaphor in there somewhere, he realized, but humans were far less reasonable than horses.

He hadn't expected horses, but he knew now that he should have. Had the captain? The Admiral? The Baron? Doubtless, many thousands of them had already made their transit to the fields of France, with many more to follow. (NOTE 3)

He moved on, after a few moments. They all seemed to be geldings, which was no surprise. Many were quite upset, audibly so, and the smell of their fearful excrement permeated this hold. The sharp course changes the ship's master had made, first to try to escape and then to strike his colors, had alarmed them. Now, the pitching of the merchantman as they lay dead in the water was preventing them from calming. There would be no relief until his men finished securing their launch aboard. In the meanwhile, several of the crewman or handlers were doing their best, including getting up the odorous material.

"Your names, s'ils vous plait?" Siegfried put to two of them.

"Guillaume Garcon." "Marc Aussi." The men were curt, their heavily stained aprons hanging down almost to their knees. They gave him black looks, as though they wished they had swords instead of shovels.

"Merci," he replied, nodding politely, glad for his sidearm. He took a last look around, and headed back for the bridge.

---- 7:25 AM, Strassburg, stopped

"Boat's away."

"Very well. Ahead 1/3, make turns for 5 knots."

Siegmund eyed the plume of his next potential prize. Her current bearing was about 260, and she was still hull down.

"Answering Ahead 1/3."

"Very well. Helm, Left Full Rudder. Come to course 120."

Gommel came back onto the bridge and raised his binoculars. After a minute, he turned to his captain.

"Putting her between us and them?" Gommel asked.

"Ja, it's worth a try. Better to let them come to us as long as possible. Ah, good enough.

"All Stop."

"All Stop, aye."

----7:30 AM, New York Naval Station, Office of the Commander - Atlantic Fleet

The yeoman and the aides had returned a few minutes earlier, bearing triumphantly several copies of the Times. By now, quite an impressive mound had accumulated.

Stennis decided he could put it off no longer.

"I need to inform Washington," he said. "Yeoman, put a call through to Admiral Benson's office."

"Sir," the yeoman replied, "Secretary Daniels has just called here."

"He called me?"

"Yes, sir. He's not on yet, though. I think he's waiting for Admiral Benson."

Stennis closed his eyes. This was bad, very bad. "Colonel, Commander, if you'll excuse us?"

"Sir," the yeoman continued, once the two had filed out, "his yeoman says he's very upset."

The Commander - Atlantic Fleet just shook his head slightly. Could this get any worse?

"It's something about some stories in the Philadelphia Inquirer."


1 - "Arbeitsgruppe Vier" - "Working Party #4" or perhaps "Work Team #4"

2 - "Ah, mein braver Junge!" - in this context, something like: "Ah, my brave lad!"

3 - By one contemporary estimate, the US "sent to war" 250,000 horses during first year of the Great War!

by Jim

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