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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug - A Homecoming

June 28, 1915

“... and as for all those arm-chair warriors, let me tell you, there are NO - and I mean zero! - emotionless soldiers or sailors in battle.  If someone tells you his pulse didn’t race, his breath didn’t ache in his throat, and he remained entirely calm - well, then, what you’ve got is a calm liar, nothing more.  I’ve been there, been there with men as brave as any who ever saw battle.  Some of them died, struck down right beside me, torn apart by shellfire.  Their life blood literally hosed down the deck and made me slide about with each wave, with each slip reminding me that all that was left of men I’d come to know and respect was slowly drying on the soles of my shoes.  (NOTE 1)

“Was I afraid?  Damn right I was!  I’d’ve been a fool NOT to have been.

“A brave man is NOT one who feels no fear.  Not at all!  That’s as stupid and misguided a canard (NOTE 2) as you’ll ever meet.  It’s also damn dangerous since some young man might actually believe it and doubt himself because of it.  Brave men get afraid just as everyone else does, they just master those fears and go ahead and do what needs to be done anyway.

“And here’s another one: ‘Never take counsel of your fears.’  That’s Andy Jackson, by the way.  ‘Old Hickory’ said a lot of wise things (NOTE 3), but that’s not one of them.  ALWAYS take counsel of your fears.  Runnin’ away is sometimes the smartest, bestest thing to do.  They call it ‘strategic retreat’ sometimes, ‘gettin’ the hell out of Dodge’ other times.  No, if you’re afraid of doing something, it just may be that you’ve got one hell of a fine reason for it.  So, consider it; think about it.  Then, if you’ve got it to do anyway, then get on with it.

“Maybe the coolest customer I ever shared a battle with was the British admiral John Jellicoe - I’d’ve sworn ice water ran in every one of his blue-blood veins.  All his career, all his life really, nothing had been touted as more important than going toe-to-toe (NOTE 4) with an enemy fleet - just like Nelson had.  Then, just when he’d managed exactly that, suddenly, things came apart on him.  He ordered a retreat, been second-guessed ever since, of course, mostly by those same arm-chair warriors who’ve never caught a whiff of cordite.  It wasn’t fear that did it - fear of dying, that is - I’m sure of it, and I was there, I tell you.  No, as cool as he was and, like I said, he was the coolest one I ever saw, he had emotions a-plenty.  It was just that he’d mastered them, held them under control like an iron leash.  The only time I ever saw him slip was .... (NOTE 5)

“As for myself, I always tried to face my emotions, my fears, and to keep a calm face for my men.  Actually, fear does not have to be the strongest emotion - not at all.  In fact, the biggest emotional experience I ever had on the bridge of a dreadnought was not even in a battle!  I can remember it as clearly as if it happened this morning.  It was like this ....”

----------- _With the Dreadnoughts: The Life and Career of Admiral Bradford Smith, USN_, by Ronald Spectator (Louisiana State University Press, 1954), pages 217 - 219.

---- Dawn, HMS Benbow, course 235, speed 20 knots

The horizon to the east glowed bright red around a spot of yellow, but the sky purpled to black well before reaching the waves to the west.  The crests ahead were foamy flecks in a tossing obsidian expanse.  All the ships were at Action Stations, with guns loaded and torpedoes ready for launch.  On every ship, eyes strained to catch sight of the foe, before the Germans could spot them.  The tension was palpable, as low visibility encounters generally separated combatants into two categories: the quick and the dead.

Captain Bradford Bonhomme Smith, USN, had his own binoculars clamped hard to his face.  He doubted this gambit would suffice to catch the German battlecruisers, since surely they would have moved further away from their last reported position.  One of the German light cruisers, though, just possibly could be lurking or patrolling off Boston, looking for Entente merchants.  Even discounting the mix of metaphors, dry gulching at sea was tough to achieve, since even a completely unsuspecting intended victim’s position could never be known exactly, given ocean currents, and was probably underway.  Nor was ambushing a light cruiser without its own risks, as torpedoes allowed a most effective re-enactment of the “Parthian Shot.”

The RN light cruisers were not in their more usual position in the van, but were deployed on the flanks.  Smith had surmised that the British were willing to risk a short range meeting engagement if they had the element of surprise.  The risk the admiral was presumably seeking to minimize was that the RN force would be detected as it passed by, allowing the Germans to turn the tables.  Whatever the rationale, the two dreadnoughts had no ships off their bows that might block their line of sight and, hence, line of fire.  Even the armoured cruisers were tucked away on the after quarters, a pair each to the north and south.  At very short ranges, even their lighter main guns would hurt the German battlecruisers badly and suppress counterfire.

Minutes crept by with exquisite sloth.  Overhead, clouds slowly and greyly emerged from the Stygian gloom of night.

The western horizon began to define, first to the south but steadily moving north like a zipper.  The horizon was smooth, unmarked by the bumps that would show ships and there were no sighting reports.  The postures of those on the bridge subtly changed, Smith noted, marking a change in the tensions there.  Many had mentally geared themselves for imminent battle, and now there turned out to be no foe.  A different tension now began to replace the first - if the Germans were not here, where were they?  Some had forgotten that this had been just the first place to look, having emotionally readied themselves to fight.

As the minutes passed, visibility distances grew.  Battle remained a possibility, as blur still obscured two small western arcs, from rain squalls or perhaps just very low-lying clouds.  Nonetheless, surprise had been lost, as contacts to the west would enjoy better visibility looking in their direction than the British would have gazing west for another hour.

More minutes went by.  When would the British give it up and reduce speed?  The likelihood of meeting the Germans had to be dropping, Smith thought.  He conceded, however, that should contact indeed be made, the chances to pin them against the American coastline had to be increasing, as their sea room lessened.  He glanced at Admiral Burney, but the man gazed stolidly to the southwest, in the direction of the largest blur.  Captain Herrick’s face was mostly concealed behind his binoculars.  Still, unless some ...

“Sir, contact report ....”  It was from the light cruiser out on the southern flank.

All heads swivelled, but there was nothing visible from Benbow’s bridge.

“... unidentified patrol craft ....”

Not a battlecruiser, then.  Not even a light cruiser and, thus, not the Germans.  The unidentified vessel was far from the American coast and was apparently keeping its distance.

Admiral Burney looked then at Smith, as though offering a chance for comment.  Smith decided that he had none to make, and Burney resumed his study of the horizon.  Inwardly, the American captain wondered just what patrol the presumably-USN ship was on.  He’d been gone for so long, he realized, that he had no idea what ships were doing what and on what schedule.  Too long, he thought, too damn long.

“Sir!  Contact, bearing 250, range 23,000 yards.”

This was from Benbow’s own lookouts and caused a tiny, instant rustle of fabric as everyone - including Captain Smith - pivoted to look down that bearing.  There was more than ample reason for such excitement.  Whatever this was, it had to be big to get spotted at that range; Smith could not see anything yet.  Furthermore, the bearing put the unknown in a perfect position for interception.

“Sir, lookouts report there are more than one ship.  Contacts’ course appears to be 070.”

That was practically a reciprocal course.  Whoever they were, they were coming directly at the British.  If they were Germans, had they realized that there was not just one dreadnought, but two?  If not, Smith thought, then Hercules just astern would be a most unpleasant surprise.

“Come to 250.”

Yes, thought Smith, staring into the still-dim west.  That made it bow-to-bow.  The maximum force that the Germans could have here was no secret, however, the Germans might still not have spotted Hercules, thinking instead that the RN squadron was one dreadnought and some cruisers.  Still, something seemed wrong.  It was too easy.  Why would the Germans do anything other than head away at more than 20 knots?  That would force the British to either face them with non-dreadnoughts or content themselves with just trying to maintain contact.  Could the Germans be up to something else?  What?  Meanwhile, the range should be dropping like an anchor.

“Range 20,000 yards.”

Or maybe, thought Smith, just maybe, could it be ....

“Sir.  Lead contact is American!”

“American?”  Even as Smith sucked in a great draught of air, having just discerned that he’d been holding his breath, he could hear the quizzical frown in Burney’s voice.  After all, they were still some 45 miles off Boston.

“Yes, sir.  Confirmed.  Lead contact is American dreadnought.”

“Cagemasts,” said Captain Herrick in a low voice.  Burney gave a nod at that, but said nothing.

“Sir, second contact is also an American dreadnought.  Lead ship is Wyoming Class dreadnought.”

Twelve-inch guns to the RN 13.5's, thought Smith, though Wyoming had a sixth turret.  If the other one was of the same class or a Delaware or South Carolina, then the British force would likely be the stronger, especially with the four armoured cruisers.  But why would the USN have a pair of dreadnoughts out this far?  And on that course?

Oh, wait.  Of course, that sighting of a “patrol craft.”  And wireless.

Just then, one of Burney’s senior staff offered a similar conjecture to the admiral.

But what US admiral, wondered Smith, would be so bold as to do this all the way out here?

Captain Herrick ordered lookouts to search for contacts well beyond the oncoming Americans.

“You think they might be interposing?”  Burney asked.

“I thought it possible, sir.”

Why in the devil would the Americans do such a thing?  No one asked that, but many thought it.

“Indeed,” Burney said, after a long moment.  The admiral glanced at the plot, perhaps weighing which way to bypass the American squadron.


The reports came quickly then, but they were all quite unnecessary.

At 17,000 yards, the Americans had made an obvious course change across their bows.  They almost certainly changed formation, as well.  They probably changed speed, but that went unreported.  They may even have changed the watch, but no one reported that either.

What really changed was much more than any of that.  No cannons were fired, but the shock waves were huge, nonetheless.  Jaws dropped in formation all over Benbow’s bridge, with Smith’s no exception.

“New York class.  South Carolina class.  Delaware class ....”

What a magnificent ...!  Never in his life had Smith ever imagined ....

“Nine dreadnoughts, sir.”

Three weeks ago, Admiral J[ellic]oe had been forced to sortie with just seven.  Burney and Herrick had both been there.  Even now, the RN would find it hard to send out more dreadnoughts than what was now deploying right across their course.

“Sir, a second flotilla, also with an armoured cruiser leader ....”

“Four flags, sir.  Lead ship’s three stars ....”

“Vice-Admiral Stennis!”  Captain Smith exclaimed.  He couldn’t help it; it explained so much.  The looks he got did not appear particularly friendly.  He met them all, evenly.

Proudly.  “Admiral, that’s Vice-Admiral Stennis, Commander - Atlantic Fleet.”  His heart surged into his throat, somehow making him blink rapidly.  It’d been damnably tough to keep his voice steady.

Burney kept his eyes on Smith even as the reports came in of flags going up on Stennis’ flagship.  The Vice-Admiral, of course, would be inviting Burney over.  “Captain Herrick,” he ordered, without a glance, “slow the squadron, if you would, and bring us alongside ....”

What was Burney thinking, Smith started to wonder, returning the other’s uninterrupted stare?  Suddenly, he realized that he didn’t care.  Not in the least.  Not now.

“And Admiral Burney,” Captain Smith said, with life-lasting bliss, “on behalf of the United States Navy, welcome to American waters.”

Author’s NOTEs:

1) The scene:

2) Admiral Smith would likely have been using the 1913 Webster definition:

“An extravagant or absurd report or story; a fabricated sensational report or statement; esp. one set afloat in the newspapers to hoax the public.”

3) For a partial list of such quotations, see the bottom of:

4) See the last footnote, here:‑jun18‑D‑9.html

5) The scene was this one:‑june2.html

by Jim

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