Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - A Homecoming
“... and as for all those arm-chair warriors, let me
you, there are NO - and I mean zero! - emotionless soldiers or sailors
If someone tells you his pulse
didn’t race, his breath didn’t ache in his throat, and he remained
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
all that was left of men I’d come to know and respect was slowly drying
soles of my shoes.
“Was I afraid? Damn
right I was! I’d’ve been a fool NOT to
“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
they just master those fears and go ahead and do what needs to be done
“And here’s another one: ‘Never take counsel
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
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
his blue-blood veins. All his career,
all his life really, nothing had been touted as more important than
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
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
fears, and to keep a calm face for my men. Actually,
fear does not have to be the strongest emotion -
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
----------- _With the Dreadnoughts: The Life
and Career of
Admiral Bradford Smith, USN_, by Ronald Spectator (Louisiana State
Press, 1954), pages 217 - 219.
---- Dawn, HMS Benbow, course 235, speed 20
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
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
of the foe, before the Germans could spot them. The
tension was palpable, as low visibility encounters
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
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
since even a completely unsuspecting intended victim’s position could
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
The RN light cruisers were not in their more
in the van, but were deployed on the flanks. Smith
had surmised that the British were willing to risk a
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,
the Germans to turn the tables. Whatever
the rationale, the two dreadnoughts had no ships off their bows that
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
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
no sighting reports. The postures of those
on the bridge subtly changed, Smith noted, marking a change in the
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
remained a possibility, as blur still obscured two small western arcs,
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
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
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
“... 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.
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 -
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
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
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
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
themselves with just trying to maintain contact. Could
the Germans be up to something else? What? Meanwhile, the range should be dropping like
“Range 20,000 yards.”
Or maybe, thought Smith, just maybe, could
it be ....
Smith sucked in a great draught of air, having just discerned that he’d
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
“Cagemasts,” said Captain Herrick in a low
voice. Burney gave a nod at that, but said
“Sir, second contact is also an American
dreadnought. Lead ship is Wyoming Class
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
British force would likely be the stronger, especially with the four
cruisers. But why would the USN have a
pair of dreadnoughts out this far? And
on that course?
Oh, wait. Of
that sighting of a “patrol craft.” And
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
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
“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
At 17,000 yards, the Americans had made an
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
were huge, nonetheless. Jaws dropped in
formation all over Benbow’s bridge, with Smith’s no exception.
class. South Carolina
What a magnificent ...!
Never in his life had Smith ever imagined ....
“Nine dreadnoughts, sir.”
Three weeks ago, Admiral J[ellic]oe had been
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
deploying right across their course.
“Sir, a second flotilla, also with an
“Four flags, sir. Lead
ship’s three stars ....”
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.
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
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,
bliss, “on behalf of the United States Navy, welcome to American
1) The scene:
2) Admiral Smith would
likely have been using the 1913
“An extravagant or absurd report or story; a
sensational report or statement; esp. one set afloat in the newspapers
3) For a partial list of
such quotations, see the bottom of:
4) See the last
5) The scene was this