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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug - Meeting Engagements, Part XIII

(NOTE 1)

---- 9:25 AM, Bermuda


The Acting-Commander of the Station turned from the window, where he'd staring out at .... What? What HAD he been staring at? No matter.

"Yes, Commander? Come in. You, too, Yeoman. Do you have news?"

"Yes, sir. We do, and I'm afraid it's not glad tidings we bring. The Germans have taken the SS Justine off Philadelphia."

"Go on." The admiral moved toward them and stood at his desk. One hand went to the surface, its solidity welcome.

"As you will recall, sir, she had reported that she was being pursued by a large German warship. Well, we got a few more particulars - the description matches Strassburg - then they were stopped and boarded. She went silent a few minutes later."

"What was Justine carrying?"

"I'm afraid, sir, that that's the worst part by far. She was carrying ...."

---- 9:25 AM, bridge of SS Justine, stopped (near Strassburg)

"... cannon shells, sir."

LT Bornholdt turned to face the petty officer.

"All holds, sir. Must be over 1,000 tons of shells, all sizes. From 105 mm to 200 mm, and there's some areas we've not gotten into yet." Not surprisingly, the sailors' exploratory pace had instantly slowed, even as - two decks above their heads - the lieutenant had been firing blindly through bulkheads.

The petty officer rigorously concealed a smirk as the all-too-well armed officer sat down somewhat abruptly and devoted his attention studiously to the book that was open before him, his fingers tracing the lines of numbers in the manifest entries. The meaning of the headings, which were in numbers of either inches or pounds, was now quite clear.

---- 9:30 AM, Bermuda

The admiral's seat had hit his chair just as Bornholdt's had, about 650 nautical miles to the northwest. He had just begun to think he was immune from additional reactions to disaster. After all, it had been fewer than 24 hours since his commanding officer had apparently led virtually the entire combat power of the Station briskly into the seabed off New York harbour.

"Things can always get worse," he realized.


The admiral thought for a moment that he had spoken aloud, but decided that the Commander must simply be reacting to his body language. He drew in a measured breath, exhaled, and then drew in another before he spoke.

"Lords George and Kitchener will be most upset, I expect," the admiral began. "Yes, I fear so. This one will be felt on the fields of France, Commander. How many Tommies' lives have we cost this day, I wonder?" He realized suddenly that he really did not want to know the answer to his question.

"Could they have known, sir? I mean," the Commander continued as the senior officer looked a question, "could this whole affair, battlecruisers and all, have been just for that? To cut off shells to the BEF? After all, the 'Shell Crisis' would hardly've been any secret to the Huns. It was in all the papers, and they've got spies everywhere."

"I suppose it's possible," the admiral conceded, guiltily glad for the shift, "but they could hardly hope to interdict them for any length of time, now, could they?"

"Sir, suppose the merchants demand the Admiralty escort them? Until every one of these Huns is accounted for, one way or another ...."

"Yes, I see your point now, I believe. With bloody battlecruisers on the loose, we've no suitable escort force in the entire Hemisphere."

The Commander nodded. Even if a properly escorted convoy left Plymouth next dawn, it'd be weeks, perhaps a month, before those same warships could accompany an outbound convoy. But, the admiral wondered, would even a full month's break in the flow of shell cargos make any real difference? The specter of silent guns and dead Tommies seemed to edge near again. The Western Front broken here, further west than anyone could ever have imagined. Or could they? He swallowed.

"Have you any reply from Philadelphia?"

"No, sir."

"Draft a cable for the Admiralty. Include the names of all ships known to have been taken and their cargos - those we know, at any rate. Within the hour."

"Aye, aye, sir."

Alone again in his office, the admiral fought a desperate battle with his growing despair. He was responsible now for a vast area teeming with British and allies' merchant ships and he had no way to protect them, to be a good shepherd to such a wide-flung flock. This was supposed to be a quiet station - nearly a sinecure! - whose wartime duties were mostly limited to dealing with unarmed blockade runners, and the occasional ill-armed raider. It had been so, just so, until last week. He rubbed his face tiredly. All those last months of 1914 had been busy but business-like. They had also been fruitful, as all the Germans had pretty much been hunted down or driven into Neutral ports, to languish there forever. Even this year, the month of April had been beautiful and May had been simply glorious - but that was all meaningless now. Yes, all those days before last week had been of a simpler age, part of a distant, irrelevant past - happy golden days of yore.

Battlecruisers! He looked over at the sideboard, at the decanter, shook his head, and sighed.

---- 9:30 AM, marina, New Jersey coast near channel entrance towards New York

Several sat at the tables with fragrant plates before them. Others were in a knot or two on the little deck patio just beyond the side door. There was a distinct buzz of conversation. The few regulars, those who basically lived aboard, normally began to become augmented by the seasonal sailors starting in mid-June. The clubhouse always became crowded the weekend before July 4th every year, and pretty much stayed that way through early September. Lannon's fear had been that he'd be too late for griddle cakes. Miz Beulah would leave muffins and such for the late-comers, but she closed down once the morning group had been fed, whenever that happened. He grinned when he entered and saw her, and knew that his luck had continued to hold.

"Good morning to you, Miz Beulah."

"G'morning, Mister Lannon. What you be having this mornin'?"

Breakfast and lunch were very informal at the clubhouse. Members and their guests would come to the counter and place their order, then take their food to the tables of their choice, inside or out.

"Whatever's on the griddle," Lannon replied. Mindful of his lunch plans, he didn't want eggs or sausage. Miz Beulah's breakfast breads were not, however, to be missed.

"This morning, I'se got bacon-pancakes. Turkey-bacon, that is, fresh up from Carolina. Swab on de butter, add a bit of maple syrup, and there's nothing better."

"Turkey bacon? Well, serve 'em up. Anything coming off your griddle has to be good."

"You go on now!" The was a broad smile in those words, and Lannon soon had his heaped-high plate in hand as he sought a seat.

---- 9:35 AM, Moltke, stopped (Roughly 40 miles SE Coney Island)

The two Australian officers looked up from where they sat on the deck on Moltke's broad fantail. A small group of German naval personnel had entered their canvas covered area, headed by the boss Hun himself.

"Good morning, Captain," began Rear-Admiral Hanzik, nodding to Theargus then turning to repeat his nod to Dedmundee, "Captain."

"Morning it is," acknowledged Theargus, "but I don't know as I'd agree on the 'good' part. Now, if it was you sitting prisoner on MY deck ...."

Dedmundee noted that only one of the Germans bristled at his mate's sally. Presumably, the others did not understand English. Had that been Theargus' intent? To learn which could and which could not? Hard to tell. He shook his head, inadvertently rejuvenating the headache he had been trying to get rid of.

"A politeness," Hanzik responded evenly, "nothing more, but I quite understand."

"Well then, sir," Dedmundee inserted, before Theargus could improvise a fresh rejoinder, "to what do we owe the honor of your visit?"

"I have a request to make."

Both Aussies were nonplused at that. They hardly saw themselves in any position to ....

"Of the prisoners, you are most senior. Difficulty we have had making a list. Checked it twice, I have. But it is not satisfactory."

"Another bloody Red Cross List," Theargus muttered.

"Admiral," said Dedmundee, with a sharp look at his friend, "what is the nature of this, er, 'difficulty'?"

"Your men, many do not cooperate. They give false names and ranks. Many claim to be admirals or barons or dukes. Five said they were Kaiser Wilhelm himself! Others pretend to have been on ships that were not there yesterday."

"Naughty, naughty lads," Theargus commented dryly. Inwardly, he was boundlessly heartened and strove not to show it. This was the first sign of recovery from the shock and despair he'd seen so pervasive amongst the men yesterday. They were fighting back! Albeit the only way they could.

"Ja," Hanzik agreed, adding a pointed glance of his own at the Aussie captain. "Their families, do they not wish it known to them that alive they are? You are their commanding officers. Is it not your own duty to make this so? Yes?"

"Aye," Dedmundee admitted. After a moment, Theargus nodded in reluctant agreement.

"Aye, sir," he repeated tiredly, "it is at that."

"You will help, then? Gut. I will send men to escort you. I expect the Americans to return in force before the sun again sets. Nice would it be to give them the list at that time."

---- 9:35 AM, marina, New Jersey coast near channel entrance towards New York

The flavors blended magnificently! And, somehow, the turkey bacon remained crisp inside each pancake. Lannon was most thoroughly enjoying gathering evidence on this mystery when another club member walked over.

"Hey, Lannon. You seen the paper?"

He had not and said so, between data points. His fork nabbed another entry.

"A regular sea battle! You've gotta' ..."

"Hey, Lannon's here!"

There was a bit of a rumble as several chairs got pushed back and their fellows got up and came over. He sat straighter and looked around, puzzled but continued his chewing.

"The paper says you were right in the MIDDLE of it ...."

The paper?

"... pulled seven Brits out of the water ..."

"Guys," Lannon protested after a swallow, "we were out there, but I haven't seen any paper."

That didn't even slow them. Instead, more came in and crowded about, chattering like chimps. He tried to hide his irritation. A bit of "fame" was fine, but not at the expense of Miz Beulah's griddle cakes!

---- 9:40 AM, Moltke, stopped (Roughly 40 miles SE Coney Island)

"Admiral," began Stang, "did you meet with success?"

"Yes, they agreed to help," answered Hanzik. "The appeal to their duty was sufficient."

The men stood there, pensively scanning the horizon all about.

"The American-flagged cargo-liner draws near," Stang observed, in a neutral tone.

Hanzik understood the other's unstated question.

"We will let her pass without challenge, Captain."

"Aye, aye, sir." Stang felt that the British were quite capable of trying to brazen it out under false colors. His skepticism crept slightly into his inflection.

Hanzik turned to face the other.

"Not this first one nor, perhaps, the second. Maybe even not the third. Others, though, later - especially if there is some basis for suspicion ...."

"I understand, sir."

Stang added a nod of acceptance this time. He recognized now that the Admiral had weighed heavily the fact that their American chaperon would witness this playing out so peacefully, and report it thus. Moltke's CO looked eastward towards Leverett's Aylwin as he considered the matter. His attention was drawn to the horizon, where towering clouds were shaping up.

"Very dark clouds," he noted aloud. "Possible storm later, admiral, or so it would seem."

The loss of visibility would hinder their blockade effects, and the storm swells would cause their own problems. The rain, though! The rain would very much be welcome.

"Indeed," Hanzik agreed, then turned to scan out to sea.

"But for now, at least," Hanzik added, after a moment as he resumed his scanning out to sea, "all is calm, all is bright."

---- 9:45 AM, passenger terminal, south of Philadelphia

The two reporters began to walk down the pier, to wait for the cars that they'd been told were enroute. All about was the seeming-chaos of cargo offload, stores onload, passenger movement, baggage transfer, and all the other activities associated with the fresh arrival of not one, but three, large liners. Even the band was marching past in step to the beat of one large drum. Their buses waited for them near the shore end of the pier.

"I wouldn't look back, if I were you," Browning counseled Blue.

"I was just going to wave a last good-bye to Holly," Fox protested.

"Uh-huh. If you don't watch it, that young ..."

They both nimbly moved out of the way of the first of another line of trucks.

"... Miss'll tow ..."

"Look out there!" Pallets were already high in the air coming and going from the ships alongside the pier.

"... you right back and wrap you up tight!"

"Aw," protested Fox, "it's not like that at all."

"Maybe, but I'll tell you this: I sure never heard of anyone getting asked to autograph a newspaper before."

Fox realized he was blushing.

---- 9:45 AM, marina, New Jersey coast near channel entrance towards New York

Lannon tried to tell as little of the story as he could. Otherwise, his pancakes would get cold. Unfortunately, too many had seen him come ashore last evening. For that, he had Claire's Auntie Terror to thank.

"Who was that guy who fell off the pier yesterday? Was that the reporter?"

That was a good question, because he needed only to nod.

"Well, here's the paper. The front page, anyway."

Some others also must not have read it yet, as several crowded around to read over his shoulder. The pictures produced instant reactions.

"Whoa!" "Look at that!"

Lannon read avidly, eating all the while. He got a really nice write-up, he thought. Yes, Freddie whatever-his-name-was ... Burke, that was it, had ....

"Those dudes in Washington'll go plumb loco when they see this!"

Lannon's jaw froze in mid-chew.

---- 9:45 AM, base hospital at the New York Naval Station

"Herr Schmidt?" Lionel asked. It had taken him over 30 minutes to convince those who answered the phone at the consulate that he really might be a serving German naval officer.

"Ja," the speaker then asked his identity.

"Leutnant Lionel. I am presently assigned Admiral Hanzik aboard the battlecruiser Moltke."

That got a reaction more along the lines that Lionel had expected. After the consulate officer finished, the young officer realized he would have to speak carefully. The American, Jones, was nearby and spoke more than a little Deutsch.

"Sir, I am at the naval hospital at the American base here, uh, in New York. The Americans agreed to take a dozen of our wounded. My instructions were to see that they got medical care and to turn them over to you, the consulate, that is."

Ensign Jones was indeed not distant. While he'd been given no instructions on the matter, he'd decided that his superiors would welcome any information he might glean. With that rationale to excuse his curiosity, he strained to eavesdrop as unobtrusively as he could. Some revelation of German plans or perhaps other ships concealed offshore would bring a smile even to old Stennis' face!

He was disappointed, however, because the German lieutenant said nothing new or surprising. All he did was briefly recount how the German and British wounded had gotten here to the American hospital and that, sadly, one of his men had died before they could get here.

--- 9:50 AM, Bermuda

The admiral was reviewing the draft cable to the Admiralty.

"Munitions in one, horses and cavalry supplies in another," read the Station Acting-Commander, with fresh dismay. "The French will raise bloody hell."

That their Continental European ally would be angry was his first thought. The French had been relying on the RN to safeguard their shipping over here. Frankly, the Admiralty had discouraged the deployment of French warships anywhere in the New World since long before the Entente Cordiale. There would be a great outcry from their civilians. The admiral was under no illusions that he knew all of the ships that had been or would be taken. Paris might feel they had to react, dispatching warships of their own. God help the Frogs if they actually did meet up with this pair of Hun battlecruisers!

His next thought concerned what the ships had been carrying. Was this just a coincidence? Two different ships with vital cargos of artillery ammunition? He still thought that it was. After all, Philadelphia was a major port for the export of munitions, but he felt less sure than he'd been when he'd responded to the other officer earlier. There was an increasingly-uneasy feeling that - as bad as things were - they still would get worse.

---- 9:50 AM, Strassburg, stopped (Roughly 40 miles East of Delaware Bay entrance)

It had been very quiet for the last hour or so. Captain Siegmund and LCDR Gommel were on the bridge, waiting for the last of what was now going to be their three launch complement to be winched aboard. A voice called out somewhere in the superstructure behind the bridge. Siegmund could not make out the words, but the tone was quite suggestive.

"Do you hear what I hear?" Siegmund asked. Gommel nodded.

"Sir, lookouts report smoke, bearing 210."

Siegmund and Gommel swung their glasses onto the bearing.

"XO, how long before that third one is secure?"

"Not sure, sir," Gommel replied. "Bosun said they'd have to rig a cradle. It's a bit larger than any of ours. Perhaps 10 minutes, no more. With your permission, I'll lay aft and see if matters can be expedited."

"Sir, lookouts report more smoke, bearing 035."

The glasses swung again.

"Yes, do that, XO. Things may be about to get a bit busy."

---- 9:55 AM, shore end of the passenger terminal, south of Philadelphia

The two reporters had found that walking on pavement took some getting used to again. The landscape seemed to keep shifting under their feet. They hadn't really noticed it on their way down the pier, since it itself had been shaking some from the many trucks, cranes, steam whistles, and all other sources of vibration.

The reporters were landsmen, not sailors. If they'd ever doubted that, they did so no longer. Their time aboard Imperator had been an adventure, but they were immensely glad to be back on city sidewalks.

Busy sidewalks, they realized, and the roads were busier still. The work day was in full swing, with countless freight trucks jockeying for entrance and egress all up and down the shoreline road. The whistle of numerous rail locomotives sounded in eerie echo to those of the liners at the pier: dialogues in steam among industry cousins.

"There! There they are."

A battered-looking automobile squealed into the curb, then a second one pulled in right behind it. Many men jumped out, more than seemed reasonable, much like a clown act in a circus.

"Blue! Man, have YOU kicked over an anthill!" The greeting, like those from the others, was in piquant counterpoint to a delighted grin. An Extra was great stuff! A marvelous lark of a break from the routine. The reporters jabbered shop happily, oblivious to the honks in protest from inconvenienced vehicles.

"You know about Imperator, right? And the one that left New York with her?"

He got all nods.

"Well, there's another! She was out there with the rest of the German warships."

"You're kidding! From Germany? But why didn't she come in with Imperator?"

"No clue," Blue answered, "and she's got cargo, too. Some really neat stuff! They're gonna' hold another auction - just like they did in New York! - right here on the pier. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after. Maybe she's not as fast, and had to stay with the others, but that's just a guess. But, Boys, that means we got four - count 'em, four! - liners right here in Philly that the Germans say they're gonna' sail back with, British or no British. American passengers and all!"

Four ocean liners full of stories! The passengers and crew of two - No! Three! - had been witnesses to the battle off New York. What was the cargo? Where were the passengers from? Where were they going? And why? How many had come across from Germany? What was going on here?! The answers to those and other questions they hadn't thought of yet were just a few dozen yards away!

Fox and Browning got into different cars - Browning to Broad Street Station (NOTE 2) and Fox to the Inquirer. As for the others, they headed down the pier without a single backwards glance.

---- 10:00 AM, Moltke, stopped (Roughly 40 miles SE Coney Island)

The two Aussie captains had different things on their minds.

Theargus was a great, red-bristled bear of a man, and one unaccustomed to inactivity. His collarbone throbbed and every movement sent burning twinges up and down his arm. He knew full well that moving about as he had promised to do would only increase his discomfort, especially as the temperature rose. It was a dilemma of sorts: immobility lessened the pain, but it greatly increased psychic distress. Similarly, getting a better names list smacked of assisting the enemy, but providing names was generally acceptable and - damn it! - families and loved ones DID deserve to know their men were alive. None of this did he mention, but the inner tension added to his scowl as a German officer with a clipboard, trailed by a brace of rifle toting sailors, advanced on them at a zealous pace. Little men, filled with the fervor only victory could bring. God, but he hated this. And them.

As for Dedmundee, he was exhausted after his night of little sleep, and his headache had continued to grow with the glare of the rising sun. To make matters worse, hammering had just begun somewhere above them in the superstructure. He looked up, but could not spot its origin. Nonetheless, the beat seemed to echo inside his skull, then a second, and a third hammer joined the first.

"Damn," Dedmundee began, putting his hands flat to the sides of his head, "if this keeps up, no matter how tired I am, I STILL ..."

"Tiny sots, their eyes all aglow," Theargus growled, elbowing his mate.

"... will find it hard to sleep tonight .... Ouch! Dammit, Shane," Dedmundee protested, "that hurt." But he broke off his complaint when he saw the delegation approaching.

The senior officers composed themselves, carefully blanking their faces, forcing their pain and weariness into locked cupboards proof against enemy eyes. They can sink some of our ships, thought Dedmundee, kill some of our men, but they can never defeat us. Never.

If the men can tell armed Huns they're bloody Kaiser Wilhelm, smoldered Theargus, then I can bloody well act like a captain in His Majesty's Navy should.

Let nothing you dismay. They turned to squarely face the foe.

---- 10:10 AM, New York Times

"Gentlemen! Your attention, please."

They all looked towards the speaker, though probably none among them considered himself a gentleman. The woman who had half-shouted the demand was the Iron Maiden, but it was not so much her or her sound as it was the timing. The timing was very "interesting." It suggested a great multi-faceted story. Had someone among the mighty died? A destructive nearby earthquake? A great fire? It was a famous curse to live in "interesting times," that is, unless you were a reporter.

"What's this 'gentlemen' noise?" That was from one of the women. The Iron Maiden just shrugged her shoulders, and then the Chief walked in.

"Max Browning called in a few minutes ago ..."

There was an immediate buzz at that. Browning was somewhere out in the Atlantic, enroute to Germany or something. Or so they'd thought.

"... and I've spoken with his editor out in Sacramento."

The editor cleared his throat, and looked around the room. The room stilled quickly under his gaze.

"He's got with him over fifty pages of notes and fourteen rolls of exposed film ..."

The noise restarted.

"... and he's due in at Grand Central at ...."

"C'mon, boss! Drop the other shoe!"

"The editor smiled and nodded.

"I've just spoken with the Publisher ..."


"... and he's authorized an Extra."

The near-bedlam made the earlier noise seem like whispers.

"Boss," said one of the reporters a moment later, coming up to the editor, "I just had a call from one of my tipsters. I think it fits with this. Guy says we got between fifty and a hunnert' wounded - mostly British - down at the base hospital right this minute."

"Browning didn't say anything about that," he mused. There'd certainly been a battle, and that meant wounded. But how'd they end up in New York this morning? "Who's your source?"

"Just a guy. I think his name's Befana, but he goes by 'Black Pete.' I've dealt with him a few times before. Doesn't take money, but asks for inside dope sometimes. Won't even tell me where he's from; once he said the 'Back Lands.' "

"Well, did he say how this 'hundred wounded' got here?"

"Uh-huh, said they hitched rides in on our own battleships."

"Okay, should be pretty easy to check it out. Go ahead. If it pans out ..."

"Got it. If I strike gold, yell like a forty-niner."

---- 10:25 AM, Philadelphia Inquirer

Blue had been welcomed much like a conquering hero. Within ten minutes, however, it was pretty much back to business as usual. Well, almost. Extra editions were far from routine and their production farther from quiet. Already there was a dull background roar as printing crews, typesetters, etc. began to filter into the building. The editor was already handing out pieces of Fox's drafts to various text editors, giving them only the briefest of looks. Nonetheless, one heading in particular caught his eye.

"Hey, Blue," he called across the room. "Christmas trees? Is this some kind of a joke?!"

"Not a bit, Chief," he replied cheerily and tried not to laugh right out loud. He'd told Browning that this one would get his editor's goat.

"You mean to tell me that in the middle of a war they really hauled tons - TONS! - of, of GOOSE feathers all the way across the Atlantic?!"

"I didn't believe it at first myself," Blue said. "But they were on the phone to Woolworth's before I got off the phone with you."

"Unbelievable! You're really sure about this?" The editor most definitely had no desire to make the Inquirer a laughingstock. News folk had been gulled before, and one of his jobs was debunking hoaxes of this and similar sorts.

"I saw the crates and manifest, boss, and some of the ornaments. And Woolworth's said they'd have the trucks down there and loaded before dark. The Germans said those guys were absolutely delighted. We should even be able to get pix, I'd think." (NOTE 3)


NOTE 1 - This chapter was written and posted during the Christmas holiday season.

NOTE 2 - See: (A tip of a vice-admiral's cover to Flag Captain Theodor!)

NOTE 3 - The Christmas tree tradition began long before WWI in Germany. It had been popularized in Great Britain and the US by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Germany made the only commercially available artificial trees before WWI. They were made of feathers and wire frames ("Goose Feather Trees") and were in some demand. Germany was also the only major manufacturer of glass ornaments (most were made in Lauscha, in the Thuringian Mountains). Both artificial trees and glass ornaments were popular in the US pre-WWI and were sold mostly by Woolworths, who had contracts with key German companies. As far as the author can determine, those contracts had been met in 1914, but would not be met in 1915 and thereafter. Thus, Letterstime has changed history once again by providing Americans with the artificial Christmas trees and hand-blown glass ornaments that they were deprived of historically by the British blockade. See:

by Jim

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