Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part II
July 2, 1915
“Then came the Second of July and everything changed, and did so with bewildering suddenness. Matters which had only just begun to settle into a semblance of routine were all cast asunder.”
---- Sailing with the Germans, Fox and Browning, Times Publishing, 1916
“And then came cruelly that second day of July. As painful as the Sixth of June had been, this day was in so many ways so much worse. This one was a sudden and unexpected blow, and one which threatened to cast all his carefully crafted plans to the very winds.”
---- Baron Letters - Germany’s Nelson?, Lady Christine Letters of Alsace, Kaiser Imperial Press, Berlin, 1968
---- Sally IV
The three Americans stood there on the ketch’s pitching deck watching the Germans recede into the eastern horizon.
“I still don’t believe it,” said Dave Bender, and not for the first time. “All those days. And they just let us go.” He totally discounted the Germans’ story that one of von der Tann’s English-reading officers had just discovered their papers aboard the craft up in its jury-rigged cradle.
“Maybe not,” countered “Torp” Mixer. “I bet they still have us in range.”
“Well, not for long,” answered Bender, savoring the spray and motion of the small boat. “I’ve got her on a reciprocal course and we’re doing something like 8 knots.”
Already the Germans had become a tall smudge on the horizon, nothing more.
“I just don’t get it,” said Bender. “They can’t seem to find our papers for days on end and then suddenly they do. Why?
“Maybe you can shed some light on this?” Bender and Mixer both turned to the third person.
“Not really,” Maxwell Browning replied, his eyes still on the fading plume in the distance. “All I know is that they came barging in and told Blue and me that you were leaving and did we want to go with you.”
“Pretty much. We decided we just couldn’t pass it up. We just GOTTA’ get our stuff back, somehow, the Germans taking over St. Pierre, interviews, photographs, the works.” Their two heavy, canvas-wrapped leather valises had already been carefully stowed below. Blue’s eyes had never left his during the transhipping, like a parent sending off a child. Max had at least been close enough to maybe do something if his had .... But they hadn’t. Yet, no matter how full they’d stuffed the cases, many, many more stories remained unwritten in their heads - at least one of them HAD to get back to interpret, answer questions, do followup and the like. As much as Max would write, though, the sources of his stories were now over the horizon and lost to him. He wondered for a moment what Fox was doing. Had he finally managed to gain access to Hadi Pasha? Or Countess Marina?
“So?” Mixer’s voice held suspicion.
“So, we decided that one of us should take them up on it, and go on back. The other would stay with them. See it through.” Whatever “through” might end up being, he added to himself. Things had gotten so damn confused. He swallowed, stomach churning. The pitching deck wasn’t helping matters a bit.
“Yes,” Bender added. “Why not that other guy?”
“We flipped a coin.”
“And you won?”
Kapitan Zur See Joachim von Wolferein had known this day would come. His pipe had gone out almost an hour before, but the stem remained between his teeth. Originally, he had adopted the practice to help him pause before opening his mouth. Predictably, he had learned to talk around it.
“Cast off all lines,” ordered the OOD, trying not to betray his nervousness under the eyes of his captain. He was new aboard, having come aboard less than one month ago.
As so many others had. Hence, the pipe.
Actually, Regensburg had gotten off lucky; Wolferein would be the last to deny that. Seventeen dead and twenty-one wounded, most of whom would likely never sail again, had represented “only” 10% of his crew. “Moderate casualties” - the battle report had said, though the seventeen were no less dead for it. The problem lay more with the 58 who had been reassigned. In total, a full quarter of his crew had been lost to him, just as irretrievably as if they all had perished under the guns of the Britishers. Gott in Himmel! A full quarter! He’d’ve gladly given the admirals back all their damn medals if the admirals would just give him back that those three score transfers.
Wolferein’s concerns were shared by most of the other KM COs. A bare month ago, the High Seas Fleet had lost almost 5,000 men, dead, seriously wounded, or missing. The British losses may have been three times as bad, but that was no solace to Regensburg’s CO, or to any of his fellow captains. Britain had an entire Empire of sailors to draw from and doubtless could easily afford it - not so for Heer-centric Germany.
“Ahead slow on the port engine.”
As bad as the casualties had been amidst the dreadnoughts, those doughty lordships of the Fleet who had returned with topsides more like junkheaps than superstructures, the HSF light had fared far worse. At least the dreadnoughts had all returned; two cruisers and fifteen torpedo boats had not. Four other cruisers and nine TBs remained mired in the yards. Scheer had sailed with eleven cruisers and sixty-three TBs. Of those, only five cruisers and twenty-nine TBs were fit to fight, and Rostock had been sent off with Hanzik. Of the four half-flotilla leaders that had been with Letters’ battlecruisers a month ago, Regensburg was the only one with the battlecruisers today.
His own half-flotilla was the HSF light in a microcosm, with two of his five TBs sunk and a third still not ready for sea. To fill the holes, the Baltic Fleet had been tithed, cadres “harvested” or promoted off as was done with Regensburg, and new ships had been hastily declared ready. Indeed, three of those freshly-filled “holes” were just now forming up astern, and rather awkwardly at that.
The High Seas Fleet had not been renewed, Wolferein knew that full well, no matter how many shiny new faces and hastily painted hulls might have joined the ranks. Nor had he been loathe to say so, especially in taverns after few flagons of good ale. As a result, he had been banned. Only at The Oak Leaves did he remain welcome, and that because he had been careful not to give offense where his cousin Teresa worked. (NOTE 1)
“Ahead slow on both engines.” The timing was wrong, but Wolferein let it pass with no more than a minor clenching of teeth on the pipe stem. The Kaiserschlacht-taught lessons of self control were coming back with a deck under his feet.
With the pier a safe gap away, he walked over to the bridge rail partly to check again on his half-flotilla, but mainly so as not to remain too near the young OOD.
Self control was important. He had brought along only five pipe stems.
---- B. 110
“More rudder,” the CO barked at the helmsman. “Twenty degrees, not ten. We’re just over steerage, not Ahead Standard!”
Oberleutnant zur See Heinrich von Kelly glanced ahead, hoping they’d not been noticed. Ach, nein! Damn it all to hell! The “Grey Wolf” himself was staring back at them from out on Regensburg’s wingbridge.
Commissioned nearly two weeks ahead of schedule (NOTE 2), Kelly’s battle to get ready for sea had been almost as desperate as dusk at Die Kaiserschlacht, though Kelly had spent that day fitting out alongside a pier and so had been very careful not to utter that phrase. (NOTE 3) The late leavening of experienced sailors had helped, but the B.97 class was a new one and not all experience directly transferred. Two of her class had been at the battle with Pillau, but had suffered enough casualties so as to prevent any transfers of experienced men. The third had been recalled from the Baltic and so new herself as also not to offer any men. To Kelly, it seemed that the three newly commissioned ones had been more-or-less left to fend for themselves, as far as previous same-class experience was concerned. And his was the newest of them all.
Damn! The helmsman had waited too long!
“Rudder amidships! Smartly, now!”
He’d ordered the course but had not specified the rudder angle. He’d done so to test the helmsman’s “feel” for the ship. It wasn’t looking good ....
With his flaming red hair, Kelly was used to standing out in groups and being stared at. Doubtless all his ancestors had endured such looks, and had maybe even prospered from them. After all, his Irish forefather had obviously gotten noticed in battle, some generations ago when the Kellys had garnered the precious “von”. But not like this!
Kelly snuck another glance at Regensburg. To his horror, he saw the Old Man just shake his head and go back onto his own bridge. He closed his eyes then, mottled from embarrassment. He heard a distant clanking sound. It was probably #2 feedpump again, but he could not escape the feeling that it was an armored ancestor trying to turn over in his grave. How could he hope to do well in battle when he couldn’t even stay in formation in the outer harbor?!
The charity event was quite well attended, thought LT Michael “many-middle-names” Hereford. He had grown up among privilege and so felt well-placed to reach such a conclusion. Still, this one was particularly keen and perhaps the most lavish that he’d attended with Admiral DeRobeck in the capacity of flag lieutenant. The string ensemble soothed in the background as genteel ladies floated about beswathed in more silk than frigates set canvas. The men dressed more simply, seemingly in two species, uniformed and not, though that was hardly the all of it, as the uniforms varied and the civilians had arrived accessoried with all manner of walking sticks, and other embellishments.
Hereford scanned the ballroom much as a post captain would the waves. Gaudy fops, flush donors, minor officials, and liveried attendants circled the luminaries, much like minor planetary bodies revolving about the sun. DeRobeck, far from the least of those within, had a full set of orbiters and gave no indication of wanting further attention, though Hereford had unobtrusively stepped into his principal’s field of vision. Hereford then retreated back into a smallish side hall, where several other aides stood, drinks in hand. Flag lieutenants merited no place in such rarified ether.
“Mike,” called one of the other lieutenants. Hereford looked up from a well-filled tray. It was LT Robbins; he was Admiral Napier’s. The RN was well represented there tonight because the event was a benefit for the families of the far too many thousand lost at Dogger Bank and the disaster last month that no one had yet managed the nerve to properly affix a name to, no matter what the damn Huns proclaimed. Still, since tonight was purely social, senior aides had been spared. All that were present were the lieutenants and Hereford suddenly realized that all of them were staring quietly down the staircase, drinks forgotten in their hands.
It was that last point that convinced him that something quite out of the ordinary might be transpiring. Junior officers NEVER missed a chance to enjoy the libations at such affairs as this one. Never! It was just about the only perquisite they were provided.
“Something afoot, Ben?” Herford asked, as he sidled up alongside. Their vision extended hardly past the lower landing and the top of the great bronze-faced front doors, and did not afford a view of the foyer below.
“Could be,” Robbins replied. “The door was opened - and stayed so for a bit - but no one was announced.”
“Go on.” There had to be more.
“And guess who just flitted by, and on down the steps?”
“The Earl himself?
Hereford puzzled over that, as clearly the others were doing. The front door - not the side or a servants’ entrance, at this hour, but no announcement. And the Earl himself called away from his guests.
“It’s a none-such,” he declared.
“Yesss,” Robbins agreed, his eyes never leaving the landing. Mysteries offered entertainment when they could not affect one. Hereford moved to stand beside the other junior officers. He took a careful sip from his glass; harmless conundrums were delightful.
“Sir, from Derfflinger: ‘Assume van’.”
“Very well,” replied Käpitan zur See Jan Niemczyk. “Acknowledge.”
Niemczyk had been Fregattenkapitän Niemczyk when dawn broke on January 24, 1915. All day, his Graudenz had been in the thick of the confusing affair that became known as Dogger Bank, from the first encounter with the Britisher Arethusas, to the morning-long bid to escape, and then the prolonged furball in the afternoon. The British light had consistently gotten the better of their outnumbered German counterparts, and Niemczyk counted himself lucky when they had finally broken off. His promotion had come as a complete surprise. Perhaps there was some truth to the rumor that it had been due purely to saving a Kaiser kin’s ass. One of his relatives had suggested that, if only he’d been at Die Kaiserschlacht, he’d probably be a Kommodore by now.
This highlighted what appeared to be a growing problem. The Kaiserliche Marine seemed to be drifting into two parts: those who had and those who had NOT been at Die Kaiserschlact, with the “had”s fusing tightly together from the shared experience. Though Graudenz too had been “tithed”, he agreed with the Baron that it was wise to transfer liberal portions of crews about. Let them swagger a bit to encourage the new crews, and let their replacements strive to gain the acceptance of the old hands. A bit of friction now, perhaps, but Jan judged it best for the long haul.
“Sir, from Derfflinger: ‘Execute’.”
“Acknowledge. Ahead Standard. Make turns for 15 knots.”
As Jan waited for his order had to be repeated back, he checked Stralsund’s position and those of their torpedo boats. A bit ragged, he thought, but he was sure they’d settle in a bit.
“Signals, hoist 20 knots, Tango 10. To Engineering, expect 20 knots in ten minutes.”
As he listened to his orders being executed, Jan turned to looked out the harbor mouth. The waves of the North Sea awaited them, just as, doubtless did the British.
---- Frankfurt and Stralsund
Both Frankfurt and Stralsund had missed Die Kaiserschlacht, but they had had a bit of their own excitement - and casualties - a couple weeks ago. (NOTE 4) Now they were back together again, more or less. For now, just 200 yards of outer harbor water separated them, but that was about to change.
Korvettenkapitän Richard Vogel took advantage of the moment to trade nods across the water with his friend, Korvettenkapitän Otto Schneider, CO of Stralsund. Both had assumed command after Dogger Bank and both men had missed Die Kaiserschlacht, with Vogel’s new Frankfurt working up and the veteran Stralsund’s previous CO one of the many casualties at the January 24, 1915 battle. They were both interrupted by their lookout chiefs.
“Sir, flags going up on Graudenz. ‘Speed 20 Tango 10’.“
“Acknowledge,” ordered Schneider, turning as he did so to check his half-flotilla’s station-keeping. “Ahead Standard, 15 knots. Helm, stay with her. Watch Officer, go to standard spacing on the up bell ‘Execute’.”
“Sir, flags going up on Regensburg.” Wolferein was himself responding to Derfflinger’s ‘Execute’. Vogel knew what the signal was supposed to be, as the “Grey Wolf” had laid it all out over the last week, and so he used the moment just as Otto had, to check on his half-flotilla. He expected he’d be doing quite a bit of that today. “ ‘Starboard flank’.”
“Very well. Acknowledge,” ordered Vogel and turned to his XO. “Well, Hans, here we go. You have the con.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Hans replied formally. “Helm, twelve knots. Keep us on Regensburg’s starboard after-quarter.”
The lieutenants were not left too long to ruminate, and the sound of someone steadily striding up the stairs made them all retreat a bit. Several of them actually made some pretense of turning and looking elsewhere. In Hereford’s case, it was a tasty-topped biscuit that drew his attention.
Or started to.
Michael turned and nearly jumped out of his skin. Facing him full and barely two paces distant stoopd the imposing figure of his host: Alan, Earl of White, his craggily handsome visage creased in calculation.
“And, ah, Robbins, yes?”
“At your service, milord,” Ben replied, wondering insouciantly if “ah” was earl-eze for lieutenant.
“You’re with me,” the British nobleman said, already in motion down the hallway. The two fell in behind him in tight formation, trading puzzled glances and the tiniest of shrugs as they went.
Alert liveried men approached from several directions, drawn perhaps by the sight of their striding lord. Most bowed and remained in place, but others set off on unknown tasks by means invisible to the lieutenants.
The Earl was quite a fit man and the young officers found themselves having to stretch a bit to keep up. He halted abruptly before the doorway into the grand ballroom. To Robbin’s horror, he almost ran right up the Earl’s coattails. The Earl, however, had eyes only for those within the ballroom itself. He nodded then, and stepped away to the side, looking at something behind them. Both lieutenants followed his gaze and saw three servitors briskly approaching, freshly-filled trays in hand.
“This’ll do,” said the Earl, picking one of the three. “Yes, this’ll do nicely. Watch for me. Now, ah, Robbins. Herford here has already mingled a bit, so he won’t raise any eyebrows. You haven’t and two of you at once would. Anyway, your Napier is over by the windows with my Countess, so he’s no problem, just wait your chance.
“ Hereford, as I expected, yours has a Grand Fleet about him, so a bit of a cutting out is in order, I think.”
“MiLord Earl,” Hereford got out but managed no more.
“Ah, of course, sorry about that. Your Commander Jan is waiting below.”
Hereford blinked. Robbins looked at him, half in puzzlement.
“Room 40. He said that would suffice.”
“Indeed, MiLord. We’re at your service.” Robbins’ faced blanked then, and he nodded in complete accord.
“Very good then. Shall we? Hereford? You know the drill.”
“Aye, aye, MiLord.”
The Earl smiled at that and sortied into the ballroom. After a few moments, Hereford eased in along a somewhat different course. Even knowing what to look for, the lieutenant was unable to detect that the Earl had a definite destination in mind, as his Host stopped and exchanged pleasantries with many of his titled guests and several wealthy “ne-erdo wells.” In just a few minutes, however, he joined the group clustered about Admiral DeRobeck. The appearance of the chosen servitor heading towards the Earl cued Hereford to slip into his principal’s field of vision, though remaining several paces distant.
“Admiral. John,” greeted the Earl of White, extending his hand. “So good of you to make an appearance.”
“MiLord,” Hereford heard DeRobeck reply, raising one eyebrow as they shook hands, “thank you so much for your gracious invitation.” Herford suppressed a grin. The Earl was brilliant! What a masterful alert signal! The two of them were good friends and, for that matter, had previously exchanged greetings an hour ago. DeRobeck was playing along just as brilliantly; only that one eyebrow flicker betrayed him, and only to one such as Hereford.
“Ah, George, yes, bring that over here, would you? Have any of you tried these yet?” All of those in the group, which had already grown by several following the appearance of the Earl, looked down at the proffered tray filled with chocolate-topped biscuits of some sort. All, that is, save for Admiral - Grand Fleet, who had instead kept his eyes on those of their Host.
“They’re chocolate hazel nut, I understand,” the Earl continued, selecting one for himself. “I’d be much obliged for your opinions. The chef made himself quite clear on that point.”
As hands reached obediently for the morsels, DeRobeck’s eyes settled on Hereford’s, and the eyebrow flickered again. The flag-lieutenant glanced subtly towards the door and back, and then turned to make his exit.
“Yes?” DeRobeck asked, a few moments later out in the hall.
“Sir,” Hereford began, but paused a moment as Admiral Napier emerged with LT Robbins close behind. “Commander Jan is down below. ‘Room 40' is what he told the Earl.”
“Very well, then,” said DeRobeck and nodded at Napier. The four of them proceeded down the hall to the staircase. The other aides and minor minions remained where Hereford had left them, drinks still in hand.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” Commander Jan said, when they got there. “Room 40 has been monitoring the Germans all day. A great deal of traffic, but nothing definite. Looked like it might just be more trials or shakedown stuff.”
“They just picked up the callsign of the Commander - High Seas Fleet.”
“Yes, sir. He’s there now. They think it’s a sortie, sir.”
---- Grosser Kurfurst
Kapitan zur See Schnell had Vice-Admiral Baron Letters right where he wanted him: on his bridge. Sadly, it was not going to do either of them any good. Not today.
“Twelve hours, Herr Admiral,” Schnell repeated, trying to prompt Letters, who had made no sign that he had heard him the first time. The Baron stood out on one bridge wing, glasses raised. “To go to eight now I’d have to close up the condenser, and it needs it. Helgoland’s the same.”
Schnell retreated at a gesture from Vice-Admiral Rudburg.
“All,” said Rudburg. “Keep to the plan. We’ll have nine, just not now.”
“Ehrhart,” said the Baron, not lowering his binoculars. “What can he have ready?”
“Carl, we were left out there all on our own at Dogger Bank. We almost lost everything!”
“Beatty and their battlecruisers are all gone, Allard. You know that.”
“I don’t care,” said the Baron, who actually cared far too much. “Ehrhart?”
“Four half-flotillas, or six understrength. But ....”
“Half of them - you pick them - but I want half of them out there, just offshore, but out there. I don’t trust the weather and I don’t trust the British. The U-boats might help, but I don’t trust them either.”
“Is that it?”
“No. In eight hours, put the dreadnoughts on six hours notice.”
“Prinzregent Luitpold is a full day away, and then some.”
“The others, then. Dogger Bank. Not again, Carl Johann. Not while I’m here.”
“Allard, is this wise?”
“I don’t know.”
Kapitan zur See Theodor put down his binoculars to read the wireless message.
“Admiral, Graudenz and Stralsund report on station.” That put them 20,000 yards ahead, which was well beyond flag range.
“Very well.” The admiral had been studying Seydlitz, just astern, much to Kapitan zur See Nik’s well-concealed discomfort. He shifted his attention to the flanks, first port then starboard, where Regensburg and Frankfurt and their half-flotillas paced alongside, 10,000 yards on the beam.
“Time to twist a lion’s tail,” he said in a low voice.
“Signals, 330 and 21 knots,” said Necki, and finally he smiled.
2) The historical commissioning dates for the B.97 class:
- B.97 - February 13, 1915
- B.98 - March 24, 1915
- V.99 - April 20, 1915 (Lost after Russian artillery hits taken August 17, 1915)
- V.100 - June 17, 1915
- B.109 - June 8, 1915
- B.110 - June 26, 1915
- B.111 - August 10, 1915
- B.112 - September 3, 1915
(Note that, in Letterstime, V.99 is unlikely to be in the Baltic on August 17, 1915.)
3) “Abenddämmerung in der Kaiserschlacht” - though it has, of course, since passed into common usage, at the time the phrase was essentially restricted only to those who had been there. For English readers who might be unaware of the cultural context, the phrase was evocative of “Götterdämmerung in der Kaiserschlacht”.