Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part III
July 3, 1915
“Dawn came first to Wilhelmshaven, where few had gotten much sleep, including my great-grandfather. Aboard the dreadnoughts, yard teams and crews struggled with almost maniacal fervor within those of the leviathans that might be made ready that day. The pace was only slightly less frantic aboard the others, as all knew their time would come and what their commanders feared most was not being ready to answer the call of the Baron.”
-------------- Lady Christine Letters, ibid, page 831
---- Grosser Kurfurst, moored
Kapitan Schnell did not raise his voice but it penetrated nonetheless. Men were swift to comply. The Baron had stated that, if the HSF sortied this day, that it would again (NOTE 1) be his ship that flew his flag. So Schnell was sparing nothing and no one this morning in his efforts to assure that all was in readiness. He glanced down the long pier, but there was no sign that anything had changed in the two minutes since last he looked.
What might he have overlooked? Why a sortie anyway? There simply was no predicting the Baron, Schnell had long ago decided. He’d been unable to fathom Letters’ mind when their shoulders had been nearly touching on this very bridge, and he knew it even less today. Nothing that could catch Necki could fight him. Surely, there was little to worry about in that regard. Yes, the British light had turned into beserkers when the visibility had dropped and their desperation had risen. And then, with the full onset of dark, they had appeared in force out of nowhere, as though conjured into a vast pentagram sketched in the waves.
“Abenddämmerung in der Kaiserschlacht,” he muttered, seeing again the fountaining fireball astern and not knowing who it had been, but knowing they had been German. (NOTE 2)
But it was broad daylight now. And hot, though he had just shivered a moment before. Surely, that would not happen again. So, why go to 4-Hour notice?
Schell drummed his fingers on the bridge rail and then reluctantly smiled when he realized that only twice in the last five weeks had he been confident that he knew the Baron’s mind. The more recent instance had been after Letters himself instructed him before dispatching him to Geneva (NOTE 3). But that was not the smile’s genesis. The other had been when his astounded Signals Officer had read aloud Letters’ wireless to Rudburg, the “Montrose Toast” one.
---- Frauenlob, course 350, speed 7 knots
Kapitan Ehrhart trusted his XO, Kapitaleutnant Bauer, implicitly and so had him as OOD as they made their way out of the harbor. This allowed him to spare most of his attention to oversee his little force. And think, as for the moment, there was little enough to do. Bremen, the other CL, was keeping position well and the two half-flotillas were bobbing along pretty much where they were supposed to be.
His eyes returned to Bremen. She’d been rebuilt and returned to the HSF on almost the eve of Die Kaiserschalcht and had, hence, missed it. Ehrhart knew he was subject to the same biases that so many other combat veterans had been heard to voice: a tendency to distrust those who had not “been there”. He had struggled against it, talking it out late at nights with Doktor Constans, his long-time confidante, but the bias remained. Bremen had gained the experience of nearly a decade of operations overseas (NOTE 4), had enjoyed a recent rebuild, and had been up-gunned (trading four 10.5 cm for two 15 cm). But she had not seen battle.
“Sir, coming up on the turn.”
“Very well. Signals, hoist 300, speed 10 knots. XO, execute when you’re ready.”
---- Bridges of Kronprinz and Markgraf
Kapitans Wilhelm and Siegfried both stared at Ehrhart’s light ship force as it made its deliberate way towards the outer harbor.
The two dreadnoughts were identical, in that they were both König class. They had fought side-by-side at Die Kaiserschalcht, and both had been damaged. The two were even commanded by brothers, albeit brothers by marriage (NOTE 5).
Divergence, however, was about to begin.
Kronprinz was readying to sortie; Markgraf was not.
The two captains turned and regarded each other across the width of the pier and shrugged. They turned away as one to ask for status updates: Wilhelm turned on boiler warmup, Siegfried on welding progress. Both were confident that the Baron would soon sortie, taking Wilhelm’s Kronprinz along and leaving Siegfried’s Markgraf behind. And they hated it.
---- Konig Albert, moored
Kapitan zur See Robert Clemens von Aurich paced the deck anxiously as he awaited the reports. He was far from the most senior to be taking such exercise. The sortie warning had even titled flag officers stampeding all over the place, with the rowel marks of the Baron glistening on their uniformed flanks.
Aurich’s anxiety had deeper roots, however. The war had already seen two great naval battles involving capital ships on both sides - both stunning German victories, but both gained by no more margin than a rapier’s edge, which is to say, none at all. SMS Konig Albert, one of His Majesty’s mightiest warships, had made it to neither one. It was as if she’d never even been built. As if he commanded a void, rather than a dreadnought.
He’d vowed that Konig Albert would not miss another battle if he had to order his men to grab planks and convert her into a dreadnought galley. Kapitan Dirk and his command, SMS Von der Tann, had missed Dogger Bank and for months whispers had had it that the battlecruiser’s absence had very nearly doomed Blucher and, with her, the future of the Kaiserliche Marine. Indeed, many thought her absence was what had forced Admiral Hipper to decline to engage Beatty in the first place, and to choose flight instead. Of course, Hipper, his chief of staff, and even his flagcaptain had perished that day, so there seemed no way to settle that particular question. Kapitan Nik, who just possibly could have shed light on the matter, had not chosen to do so. (NOTE 6) The battle result being what it was, no one had formally pressed him on the point.
Hardly had the victory parade’s trumpets faded when the damning whispers returned, this time aimed not at Dirk and Von der Tann, but at Aurich and Konig Albert. They had missed Die Kaiserschlacht, “The Glorious Last of May”, as some of the German newspapers had taken to calling it. And they’d added a truly horrifying twist: if Konig Albert had been there, perhaps Rudburg would have been able to continue the pursuit. Had his failure to have his command’s condenser fully operable forfeited a chance to end this war?
Still, for such a glorious triumph, precious little seemed to have come from it so far, Aurich thought, but he had most carefully never voiced that observation. He was having problems enough coping with battle casualties, even though Konig Albert had not even been in the battle. With a stroke of a vice-admiral’s pen, four officers, including his XO, and eighty experienced enlisted men had been transferred off Konig Albert and over to class sister Frederich der Grosse. (NOTE 7)
The loss of his trusted First Officer, Fregattenkapitän Erich Krueger, had been hard enough to accept, but his new XO was proving very taxing. And who’d ever heard of a captain getting assigned an executive officer that he’d never even met? Strange things were happening in this war, and this was not the least of them. Not only had Aurich not been afforded the chance to interview him, he had hardly even seen the man before. They might as well have been on separate planets, for all that they had in common.
“Sir, 961 present,” reported his new First Officer, Fregattenkapitän Rhodan, in his deep and charismatic voice.
“Very well.” Aurich acknowledged, keenly aware that his own voice, though it had ably carried across tilting bridges during North Sea storms, lacked the dramatic timbre of his new subordinate’s. “And the others?” The stated muster strength was 268 below their current complement.
Fregattenkapitän Rhodan shrugged, muscularly resplendent in his probably-tailored uniform.
“Gunner has six score with him over on Prinzregent Luitpold.” Aurich nodded; he knew he could get those back within an hour. Kapitan Heinz had asked for help in finishing the last of the repairs and running final checks on the cannons in the turret destroyed at Die Kaiserschlacht. Not having even fired his own in anger, he had been unable to refuse Matthias’ request.
“Yard requested five score to shift stores.” The shore facilities were desperately stretched for personnel, and they had been asking and tasking every day for the last four weeks. Konig Albert, by “virtue” of not being damaged (or even present) at Die Kaiserschlacht had become the Yard’s favorite manpower donor with 300 not an uncommon number by mid-day. These men were also easily within his “four hour reach” and, as a side benefit, Konig Albert had been quietly enjoying the pick of the perishables.
“Engineer sent ten off to look for more gaskets,” Rhodan continued, when his CO made no comment. Steam leaks were a fact of life each time steam systems were heated back up from cold conditions. Right now, they were maintaining two boilers hot and two “warm”, but the other dozen remained at ambient temperature.
“Is there a problem?” The XO had not relayed any major concern previously. Was the Engineer worried? Or just being cautious? Would he even tell this preening peacock?
“No, sir. Engineer’s just hedging a bit.” Rhodan shrugged again, a tiny half-smile decorating the handsome glacis above his classically-squared jaw.
Aurich managed not to frown. He was a slender, and wiry man, but it was not that he resented his XO’s physique. Rhodan’s family was pure Prussian so far back that they probably regarded Frederich Der Grosse himself as an interloper. In contrast, Aurich’s own middle name paid homage to a none-too-distant Irish forebear. But Aurich begrudged his XO none of it; he just wondered if the Korvettenkapitän was for real, or merely a work of fiction. (NOTE 8)
Rhodan consulted his notes as he went through the remaining two score absences. A few were sick, some had gotten brief liberty passes to visit wounded relatives, and the rest were accounted for in a variety of other ways. Aurich sighed; things were getting so complicated that he’d soon need an accounting firm to keep track of his men. Still, he was confident that he’d have his crew, when the call came. But would he have an XO he could trust?
“Next to see the dawn were those with Admiral Necki. They welcomed greatly the coming of Nature’s light. The light of Harwich, they welcomed not at all.”
----------------------------- Lady Christine Letters, ibid, page 831
---- Derflinger, 5 knots, course 280
Admiral Necki, his expression tense, swept the horizon with his binoculars as visibility extended with the rising of the sun.
Men were stationed up high in the superstructures of both battlecruisers, many with telescopes or tripod binoculars. The same was true aboard each of the twenty-four escorts nearby. Nonetheless, Admiral Necki still could not resist playing lookout. Kapitan Theodor hid his smile behind his own raised hands and glasses. Necki had reminded him not a bit of Letters, until now. Letters, too, had consistently betrayed his poker face by not being able to keep his eyes out from behind his binoculars.
No plumes. Necki had slowed his force a full hour earlier, slowed them to little more than steerage way to dissipate their smoke signature before darkness waned. The intent was twofold. Not only did it reduce their risk of early detection, but it also gave the stokers a break and even enough time for first meal. If the dawn revealed a horizon dotted with warships, it’d be the only break they’d get this day.
No plumes at all, he thought, relaxing a trifle. They might as well have been out in mid-ocean, rather than a mere dozen or two miles off the British coast. Exactly where he wasn’t sure, nor did he particularly care. At least, not yet.
He lowered the glasses and turned to his Signals Officer. “Execute.”
As the halyards hummed, he tensed again. And raised his binoculars again.
---- Frankfurt, 5 knots, course 280
Kapitan Vogel was another one of those staring about, playing lookout just as Necki was.
“Sir, the ‘Execute’!”
“Very well,” he replied, lowering his hands and taking a deep breath. “Acknowledge. Ahead full, make turns for 20 knots.”
He looked back at his torpedo boats. They fell in behind crisply enough, the hours in transit having smoothed things out a lot. He hoped to have the opportunity to put them to work. Certainly, such tasks would be better by far than that which lay before him in the hours ahead. He doubted not that a very great many KM officers would enjoy his assignment; he was just not one of them.
---- Stralsund, 5 knots, course 280
Kapitan Schneider got the report just as Vogel had.
“Ahead two-thirds, make turns for 10 knots.”
“Helm, come right ten degrees,” he ordered, wanting to angle some separation right from the start. He stared across the water at Vogel, much as he had the day before. Again they traded nods, this time across a widening gap.
There was another difference, too. They were not following the battlecruisers. Instead, they were both leaving them behind. But in opposite directions.
“Right five degrees rudder. Come to course 080.”
---- Graudenz, 5 knots, course 280
Kapitan Niemczyk also reacted to Necki’s ‘Execute.”
“Ahead Standard,” he ordered.
“Right ten degrees rudder,” he added once they began to pick up speed.
“Come to course 355.”
Niemczyk gritted his teeth. He had good reason, having done this once before. Yes, Beatty and the British battlecruisers were no more, but that comforted him not at all. He looked astern at his half-flotilla, then lifted his gaze to the two big ships he was leaving in his wake. Last time there’d been four.
“On course 355, sir. Speed 15 knots.”
---- Regensburg, 5 knots, course 280
“Ahead Standard, 15 knots,” ordered Wolferein.
“Left ten degrees rudder. Come to course 210.”
Two hundred yards behind him, OberLeutnant Kelly’s B.110 followed faultlessly in his wake, one of five. However, this time, much to Kelly’s disgust, Wolferein did not even bother to look back.
He was staring into the southeast, looking for haze, and fearing he’d find it.
---- Frankfurt, 20 knots, 280
“Sir, sighting report! Bearing 300. Appears to be a small freighter.”
If this was coastal traffic, they should spot land any moment, thought Vogel. No sooner had Vogel found what appeared to be a blocky dot on the horizon when more calls starting coming in machinengewehr fashion.
“Sir, sighting report, 275. Another, sir, 260. Sir, breakers ... land - bearing 270.”
“Very well. Come to course 270. Navigator! Report!”
“Sorry, sir. Plot has us off Lowestoft; that’s still all I’ve got.”
That was no help. Vogel knew that by that same plot they should’ve sighted land ten minutes ago. At least the man hadn’t offered a witless guess.
“Lookout section! Full report on contacts! Now!”
“Sir, three contacts, no warships. Contact bearing 305 confirmed as a small freighter, perhaps 2,000 tons, heading is northerly - no course or speed yet . Range, 15,000 yards. Contact almost dead on our bow may be a fishing schooner. She’s slow and on a southerly heading. Range 9,000 yards. Contact on 255 looks to be another freighter about the same size as the first, range 16,000, heading south by southwest.”
“Very well, good report.
“Signals Officer!” Vogel assigned a torpedo boat to each contact, but held the “Execute” signal. He wanted to have a better sense of just where the hell they were before he dispersed his force. He’d’ve given anything for a byrd’s-eye view.
“Sir!” It was the Navigator. “I’ve got it! We’re somewhere below Lowestoft. Off Southwold; I think. I’ll know better in another minute ... three at the most.”
“Very well,” Vogel thought he had three minutes, but not much more.
---- Regensburg, course 210, speed 15 knots
Unlike Vogel who wanted contacts, Wolferein was fervently praying for none at all.
“Sir, sighting report! Bearing 250, range 15,000 yards.”
“Right five degrees rudder. Come to course 250.”
This time he looked back, and was gratified to see his five ducklings staying in a tight line directly astern. Whatever this ship was, he wanted to look like just a single patroller for as long as he could get away with it. He looked up at the flags. They were nearly fore-and-aft, and his smoke was the same. This should work for a few minutes. That might be all he needed.
“Sir, contact is a small freighter, 1,000 tons or smaller. Heading is north by northwest, speed five knots, maybe six.”
Not a warship, then. Wolferein let his breath out. Too small to have a wireless. Probably.
---- Frankfurt, speed 20 knots, course 270
“Sir, multiple sighting reports! Dead ahead.”
Plumes, masts, and even sails were popping up into view.
“Sir, that’s Southwold. Confirmed. There’s East Green Lighthouse, and that’s the pier.” (NOTE 9)
“Very well. Signals Officer - Execute!” That left him with two torpedo boats.
“Sir,” it was the Navigator. “The briefing book says the pier is heavily used in coastal shipping. There’re several vessels tied up there now.”
“Ah, excellent!” Vogel was quite relieved at that news. He’d not need to bring Frankfurt as close in as he’d feared. The cannons on the hill were museum pieces, but that didn’t mean that there might not be others hidden from view. There might even be inshore minefields. Yes, this was close enough.
“Gunnery Officer, your target is the pier. And the boats there. Helm, ahead one-third, come to course 010.”
He really had not looked forward to shelling the lighthouse, let alone the town. Whatever town it was. A pier, especially one clotted with enemy merchants, well, that he could live with.
A pillar of water jetted up alongside the pier, perhaps 100 yards to one side. Vogel heard the muffled shouts of the angle and range corrections.
The splashes marched quickly into the long stretch of pilings and ships.
---- B. 110, course 250, speed 15 knots
Kelly’s craft was following in Regensburg’s wake.
“Sir! That’s our number.”
Finally! Contact bearing 250? So that’s why they’d altered course.
“Ahead flank! Make turns for 25 knots. Helm, come right thirty degrees.” He’d wait to get to get separation and lined back up before calling for any more speed. He also wanted to bring his quarry quickly into view.
Ahead, Regensburg’s aspect began to change, her wake bending back to port.
“Sir, target is turning away.”
She was slow. Several frantic puffs of smoke attested that she’d recognized them as Germans a few minutes ago. It hadn’t done them much good; Kelly doubted she was exceeding six knots. She was small and slow, but she was all his!
“Helm, bring us back onto 250, 28 knots.”
“Sir, she’s British, range 10,000 yards.”
“Yes.” No surprise there; the Grey Wolf would have gotten that before dispatching them, but confirmation was good. “Guns! I’ll want a shot across her bows, close aboard. Wait for it.”
Regensburg was continuing to diverge, the other four torpedo boats close in her wake. She was also picking up speed. The Old Man was definitely not going to wait around for them.
“And, Guns! Be ready. I’ll not warn her twice.”
---- Derfflinger, course 280, steerage way
“Admiral, from Frankfurt. ‘Commencing bombardment’.”
“Very well,” Necki acknowledged, and turned to glance at the bridge chronometer. After a moment, he strode out onto the starboard wingbridge and looked back at Stralsund, on station 15,000 yards astern, to the east.
“FlagCaptain, bring us about, if you would.”
“Aye, aye, sir. Reciprocal course?”
“Yes, and bring us up to 5 knots.”
---- Wilhelmshaven, Office of the Commander - High Seas Fleet
The young messenger tried to conceal the fact that he was short of breath from the run. He held the envelope gingerly between his fingers, trying neither to crumple it nor to stain it with his perspiration.
“Wireless report. For, for Admiral Letters. Frankfurt has commenced bombardment.”
“Wait ...,” began the senior yeoman, rising and reaching for the paper, but the door opened behind him.
“Send him in.”
The awe-struck young man advanced and handed over the envelope. He could see a wrinkle, and hoped desperately that the Admiral would not.
“Southwold,” Letters murmured, and handed the paper to another man. The youngster blinked. It was another admiral, and he’d not even noticed him!
“Ehrhart?” Letters asked the other flag officer, as he dismissed the messenger, who shamelessly tarried a bit, hoping to catch a bit more.
“Reported on station twenty minutes ago,” Rudburg replied.
“Carl Johann, start the clock running,” the messenger heard, as the door began to close. “I intend to shift down to Schnell as soon as they sight the Royal Navy - and they will, any minute - and be ready to cast off shortly thereafter.”
---- Konig Albert, moored
“Sir, sortie force has gone to 2-Hour notice. Expect to go to 1-Hour in no greater than sixty minutes.”
“Very well. XO, I want you to go get our men back from the Yard. Personally.”
“Sir?” It was a chore for a senior enlisted man, or perhaps a very junior officer.
“The Yard officer who signed the tasking request was a Korvettenkapitan.”
“Oh, of course, sir.”
Moments later, Fregattenkapitän Rhodan strode down the gangway and onto the pier. Aurich nodded approvingly, not at the departing officer’s lithe stride, but at the fact that he had thoughtfully taken along a leutnant and two senior enlisted men. Konig Albert’s men would almost certainly be on multiple work teams and not all in one place.
Other motion caught his eye. Ah, Kapitan Heinz had released Aurich’s men as soon as he got the same signal.
“Sir,” his Gunnery Officer reported, a few moments later, “I left Oberleutnant Ernsting, and Chiefs Scheer and Voltz with a dozen ratings. We were about done, but their teams were both right in the middle of their jobs. Thirty minutes, maybe, no more’n an hour. Their Gunner’ll send them back if things get tight.”
Aurich nodded. The man had his trust and the men absent were in his own department. In any case, Prinzregent Luitpold was just two slips away.
“Here’s the list, sir. (NOTE 10) If you’ll excuse me, sir ....”
---- Regensburg, course 210, speed 20 knots
“Sir! Lookout Section reports smoke. Multiple plumes, bearing 225.”
Wolferein needed but an instant. He had seen their like before. On several memorable occasions.
“Left 10 degrees rudder! Come to course 040.”
He glanced back to check that his half-flotilla had .... Verflucht Pech!
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Damn, damn, damn, but first things first.
“Signals! For Derfflinger ....”
---- B.110, All Stop
Oberleutnant Kelly intently watched the potentially dangerous drama going on 100 yards away. He had their guns manned and trained, so the crew of the little British coastal merchantman really should be presenting no resistance. But one never knew what could go wrong, and Kelly fervently hoped not to start that learning process just now.
He’d lost sight of most of the boarding party five minutes ago, but the two men still in the launch did not appear to be exhibiting any distress.
Why hadn’t they .... Ah, gut! It looked like they were finally beginning to lower lifeboats.
“Sir! From Regensburg!”
1) The first time had been during the sortie of June 6, 1915.
2) It had been Schleswig-Holstein, at 8:50 PM, 832 missing, all later declared dead. See:
3) Schnell was thinking of his June 9 visit to the Red Cross headquarters in the Rath Museum. See:
Some of Letters’ biographers have suggested that the Baron chose Schnell for that most delicate mission based on a level of trust gained from his personal, first-hand observations of the kapitan during the June 6 sortie.
4) Including repairs and/or limited overhaul at Newport News, Virginia, in 1911. Historical.
5) The story of the captains, who married twin sisters, and the sons they sired, has been the subject of many works over the years. A good place to begin is, Die Glorreichen Schlachtbrüder, by Alexandria Speiseeis, Kaiser Imperial Press, Berlin, 1927.
6) It seems that Baron Demus never did, though every decade or so someone has emerged with purported diaries, letters, or autobiographies. To date, each has been proven to be a hoax, but it remains one of the most lucrative “Holy Grails” of treasure hunters and forgers, alike.
7) Frederich der Grosse’s casualties at Die Kaiserschlacht were 231 dead and 84 seriously wounded. The decision to tithe Konig Albert so heavily to help make up those losses has historically been attributed to Vice-Admiral Rudburg - the order bears his signature as HSF Deputy - but not all biographers agree on this point. Among the dreadnoughts, only Kaiser and Konig had more casualties but neither of them were candidates for a July sortie. Frederich der Grosse’s dead had come mostly from two hits at 7:09 PM; one that gutted Dora turret and another that caused great destruction and fires in the superstructure. To date, various historians have credited those hits to four different British warships. Whoever’s decision it was, historians generally have agreed that it was a brutal measure, but one which allowed Frederich der Grosse to be able to sortie little more than one month after Die Kaiserschlacht.
[Ed. Note: one of the historians in the minority is Lady Christine Letters who, in one televised panel declared with some heat, “I don’t care whose signature is on the paper; it has the mark of the Baron all over it.”]
8) Morale had soared in the Hochseeflotte after the victories of 1915. Heligoland Bight and the Falklands had all but disappeared from memory. The officers and men of the Kaiserliche Marine could and did stand tall both in formations and in beer gardens, before family and Bardamen both. This was not without repercussions, however, as those who had seen battle tended to look askance at those who had not, and especially at those who seemed to value shine and not shooting. Or, in Deutsch: “Die Kaiserschlacht? Oder die Regattaschlacht?”
9) The lighthouse was built in 1890 and, excerpted from below:
“Opened in 1900, Southwold Pier was built by the Coast Development Company as an embarkation point for its coastal steamers. The pier was partly destroyed on several occasions, both by the elements and also by a drifting sea mine ....”
See also the second photo here for a better look at the pier:
So, in Letterstime, simply one more cause has been added to the list: KM 15 cm shells!
10) The full list:
Walter Ernsting (Oberleutnant)
Karl-Herbert Scheer (Ober-maat)
Wilhelm Voltz (Ober-maat)