Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part VI
July 3, 1915
“At dawn, the Americans suffered a sending from Thor though, considering the Hemisphere, perhaps it came from Hurakan.”
----------------------------- Lady Christine Letters, ibid, page 832
---- Sally IV
Browning had thought he was beginning to get his sea legs before the stars disappeared behind the clouds. The two yachters had even let him attempt a star shot to estimate their position. He had been proud of his efforts but not for long.
“Ha!” Mixer hooted, after one glance at his Mark. “29 degrees 58 minutes North and 95 degrees 21 minutes West, maybe you ARE seasick!”
“It’s not right?”
“‘Fraid not,” confirmed Bender. “Best I can tell it would put us on the north side of Houston , Texas .”
“I’ve been there,” laughed Mixer, after another drag from an evil-looking bottle. “Nothing out there but bush. You might could get aeroplanes there, but not boats!”
Then the deck had lurched as Sally leaned away from a new wind and the two sailors had left him to do incomprehensible sailor things. A few minutes later, the rain had driven Browning below for shelter. After a bit, Mixer returned and plopped down on cushions out of sight. An acrid alcohol reek indicated that he had settled down to further address the bottle.
Browning tried to fight down nausea, but was eventually forced back out into the open. Within moments of coming out onto the deck, and despite the brim on his chin-strapped hat, horizontally-driven water was sheeting down Browning’s face, forming transient cascades over his eyebrows. Much of it was rain, but enough spray mixed with it to render it all brine. He quickly discovered that breathing under these conditions required concentration.
Technically, dawn had probably come some time ago, but Browning remained in no shape to notice. He was shivering now, and so thoroughly soaked that the only thing dry about him were his continued agonized retchings as he clutched the rail. He remained topside, only because below deck was far worse, having become redolent from the unflushed bilge, something presumably decaying under the polished floorboards, meters of mortally mildewed cloth, and (face it!) three men cooped together for ... had it been only a single day?
In any case, it had been the bilge which had finally dispatched Max up and out to heave on the heaving deck. The water level below was not dangerously high, but the fetid fluid - a noxious mixture of pitch, paint, and likely organics not discussed in polite company - therein was sloshing about with deplorable vigor. One rogue wave had tumbled him to the deck, causing the immersion of one foot in the mixture - a foul, tarry dunking, one from which his shoe would never recover.
Discomfort aside, the boat was sound and the storm had never truly threatened them. At least, that’s what Bender had declared. In fact, Max noted that he even had a disgustingly wide grin plastered across his face as he stood at the wheel.
“Isn’t this great?!” Dave declared, shouting against the wind. The storm was passing them to the north, and only one jagged spear of lightning had been spotted and that well to the northeast. The rain remained heavy, but seemed not to lash them as strongly as before.
“Hell no!” Browning had more to say, but not the energy.
“Aw, c’mon!” Bender had his boat back, and was doing what he loved. “A lively sea is a sailor’s treat! Nothing like it in the world - anything less, you might as well be in a pond.”
“[monumental curse]!” Mixer, coming out on deck, evidently had more energy than Browning did. And an even more monumental hangover. “I am sick and tired of your [expletive deleted].”
“Finished off the izzara, eh?”
“[barnyard excrement obscenity] exactly,” admitted Mixer. “But it’s still [another barnyard excrement obscenity, different animal].”
“Nah! Ah, here we go!”
The Sally IV suddenly took on a different set of motions. Browning felt his stomach knotting up again. Apparently, he must have just begun to become accustomed to the earlier movements and not even known it. “Omigod,” he muttered, and instinctively turned to face the waves, forgetting that he had long ago exhausted whatever he might’ve once had to bring up.
“Hey! Not bad,” yelled Mixer, hangover seemingly forgotten. “She’s taking it well.”
“Oh, yes! Whatta’ you think, 10?”
“Could be. Maybe even be a bit more. I’ll check in a minute, soon as we get a bit more light.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Max needed SOMEthing to get his mind off his ....
“Sometimes big storms are like circles,” shouted Bender. “We’re starting to get the backhand of this one. I’d like to show a bit more canvas ....”
“Not [procreation expletive] yet!” Mixer protested.
“Right. Not yet. Whatta’ you think, ten minutes?”
“Twenty, at least.”
“What the hell are you two talking about?!”
Bender visibly shrugged, not a trivial feat in oilskins. “Max, we’re still gonna’ be getting gusts ... AH! ... YES!” After the Sally lurched partly onto her side and came back. “... for a bit yet. Don’t want to risk a mast out here. Still, there’re tales of boats doing 18 knots or even ....”
“Not this hull!”
“Well, yeah. Torp’s right. Sally’s not skinny enough for that. Gotta’ have a real woman out here and real women got real hips. Not like some teeny pond boat. Torp, think she’ll do 14?”
Mixer hawked and spat neatly to lee.
“Don’t see why not. She’s not griping, not ‘nuff so’s I can tell.”
Max just shook his head, regretting it instantly, and thought again about yesterday’s coin toss.
---- Derfflinger, course 080, speed 20 knots
Kapitan Theodor had Britishers reported over the horizon to the WSW, but his attention and his binoculars were focused N and NE. Stralsund was out there, but the North Sea was a large enough to hide whole fleets. Certainly, it had done so barely a month gone.
For once, Admiral Necki had let his binoculars leave his hands, but only so that he could work the calipers himself at the charting table. The RN formations to the WSW had altered their courses from convergence to working closer more gradually along his starboard flank. Two of them, anyway. A third had suddenly begun to fall behind and finally even its plumes had been lost from view. Frankfurt ’s last report had them making their way up along the coast. Why had the British done that?
Necki had found no overall pattern in the Britishers’ actions, and that troubled him. Still, whatever the British reasoning, it seemed a certain mistake this time, given Necki’s mission and force elements.
“Admiral, sighting report from Graudenz, ‘British light cruiser squadron on intercept course, bearing 020, range 22,000 yards.’ ”
Necki blinked. Who in the hell is THAT?!
“Your thoughts, Kapitan?”
“I don’t know who they are, Admiral, but they’re not the Harwich Force.”
“Concur,” Necki replied, absently rubbing a hand through his prematurely grey hair. So, the pattern was still developing. For the moment, though, he retained interior lines. He plied the calipers again. Yes, the two groups to the south would not yet have the battlecruisers’ smoke on their horizon. Given present courses, that would change in perhaps fifteen minutes.
“Signals Officer ....”
---- Frankfurt , course 080, speed 20 knots
Kapitan Vogel could not see the plumes to the SSW, though his lookouts could, but not even they had the ones astern in sight anymore. He drew great comfort from the ones he COULD see on the distant horizon from the bridge, because they were from the two big battlecruisers on his bow.
“Sir, from Derfflinger, ‘return, expedite’.”
“Ahead Flank, maximum speed!”
He had expected to stay back in trail in support range. Whatever Admiral Necki was up to, he wanted Frankfurt close and he wanted him there fast.
---- Stralsund , course 080, speed 20 knots
“Sir, Graudenz has sighted a light cruiser group, on course south, 25 knots.”
Kapitan Otto Schneider had only the open sea in front of him, or so he fervently hoped. The only contact his lookouts had in sight was astern, and that was Necki purposely right at the edge of visibility. If all had continued to go quietly, in a few hours they could have reduced speed. That would’ve been good; he had a list of drills he wanted to run with the hand of torpedo boats currently steaming in his wake. Nor had he been alone in his aspirations, as both Wolferein and Niemczyk had rubbed their hands at the possible opportunity to exercise their full flotillas.
The chances for drill seemed to have just vanished. Thus, he was not surprised to see another signalist show up on the bridge, slip in hand.
“Sir, from Derfflinger!”
Schneider read the wireless. It ordered changes to course, speed, and even formation. A corner of his mouth twitched; he really would’ve preferred drills.
---- Graudenz, course 100, 25 knots
Kapitan Niemczyk was reading his own orders, all too aware that the Britishers had altered course only enough to make it precisely intercept his after his minor course change. The range continued dropping like a dreadnought anchor.
“Helm, come to course 170.”
The wake bent astern and his half-flotilla swung easily inside the arc. This put the British squadron less than a point to port off their sternpost.
“Make turns for 26 knots.”
Within moments, the Britishers had settled onto a parallel course in pursuit.
---- Room 40
The area had been expanded during the last month. De Robeck had declared that the advantage it offered was significant, potentially even decisive, but only if the proper people were amongst those promptly privy to the information generated there. This pronouncement, coming from the suddenly-senior admiral, already well known for commonly and publicly admonishing that “nothing is too small” (NOTE 1), had elevated its place, and also the ranks of those in attendance.
There had been muted conversations going from the start, but they had changed markedly upon the reported sighting of a third or, perhaps, fourth German force. The uncertainty was mainly due to the fact that the armored cruisers that had shelled Southwold seemed to have vanished, despite a steady stream of panicky calls to the contrary. Commodore Tyrwhitt had encountered what seemed to be two halves of a light cruiser-led torpedo boat half-flotilla, but the armored cruisers they were presumably escorting had yet to be sighted. The latest force was initially conjectured to be one of those previously sighted by Tyrwhitt, but simply from a different vantage. Once plotted, its reported position was revealed to be too northerly, however, and, since its origin was Commodore Nott himself, it was not subject to dispute.
Commander Jan, as a senior aide to Commander - Grand Fleet, had no assigned duties there and was thus free to move about and did so now, leaving the flag officers and their own staffers to their heady theorizing. He proceeded over to a small gathering around a modest chart table well away from the center of things. This group of younger officers had also all been involved in the ill fated Dardanelles affair, the unseemly collapse of which had left them without duties and, more importantly, without patrons. Their deeply tanned features attested to the fact that they had only very recently left that clime, summoned to the staff of Commander - Grand Fleet. Jan deemed it a passingly shrewd move indeed, as they all were most starkly aware of where their loyalties should reside.
“Let’s review, shall we?” The speaker was LCDR Richard Sartore, oft called “admiral” by the others and who was the moderator for the group’s discussions.
Jan had been there when De Robeck had given them their instructions. “Admiral Oliver and his staff advise the Ministers on the conduct of the war for the Empire, generally at the grand strategy level,” De Robeck had said. (NOTE 2) “Room 40 informs the Admiralty - and myself of course - of what they can glean from German transmissions. We have little experience, however, in interpreting that sort of thing, parsing it out, if you will. I have no doubt that the improvements we have lately begun in earnest will better matters and do so dramatically, but I am less confident that we have now arrived. And it is the ‘now’ that concerns me.
“Admiral Oliver has the luxury, the time, and thankfully the great good sense always to prise up several views and test them against each other. Though, truth be told, we’ve struggled with that from time to time. And time,” continued De Robeck with an emphatic gesture, “is the one thing I will not have out there. So. Leave the Empire and the Admiralty in the hands of Admiral Oliver - that’s where it belongs. Leave the interpreting of signals and battle reports to Room 40 and the others - your writ runs not there either.
“Commander Sartore, charter, your group’s the sea war. What you’re hearing, the signals, the sightings, the reports. Does it fit? What doesn’t? You will be right there, where all the information is spread out in plain view; I will not. I expect you to ask, check, review, listen. Then step aside and discuss. And, most of all, THINK! I will be amidst smoke and shell and the elements, you will not. If there’s something you decide I need to know, either right then or later, report it to Commander Jan.”
The others had worked together in the Med, but Jan was hearing them go at it for the first time in earnest.
“Per the reports,” Sartore began, “we had one, two - hell! - maybe three armoured cruisers shelling Southwold. Next a first rate flotilla shows up on their southern flank and now we’ve got what looks like another well to the north. Meanwhile the High Seas Fleet seems to be sitting the whole thing out in port. Andy?”
The group used first names to levelize matters, and the appellation was a signal to begin.
“Rich, it’s remarkably complex,” answered LT Andrew Hall, out of Tigone Hall. “And why risk armoured cruisers at all - getting them to safety is always going to be dicey - just to shell a pier at Southwold?”
“Anyone know if there’s something there we don’t know about?” “I asked; if there is, no one’s owning up to it.” “U-boats? A picket line?” The exchange was rapid and low-voiced. Jan could not tell who had spoken any of that.
“Mines?” LT Charles Duggie suggested. “Could they have laid a fresh minefield and be trying to draw Tyrwhitt across it?”
“You and mines,” said Hall, with a smile to remove any sting. Duggie had had not one but two ships sink out from under him due to mines off Gallipoli. The others half-expected him any day to officially change his name to “mine” or, if he reached flag rank, to become not “Admiral of the Red” but “The Mine Admiral”.
“U-boats and mines seem more suited to larger game,” said Sartore, “even if they could pull it off without a Strait to line us up.” Which he doubted, his tone made clear.
“Armored cruisers,” Duggie wasn’t done yet. “The Germans were there a month gone, even if we weren’t. De Robeck must be drooling right now if he believes that; I don’t.”
“I’m with Andy and Chuck,” replied LT Shade, idly thumbing his palmstone of volcanic glass. “I think they’ve sent Tyrwhitt off on a wild goose chase. I don’t think there’re any armoured cruisers out there for him to find.”
“Yes,” Shade reaffirmed. “I think the shooters were just sisterships of the one that first showed up in the Americas last month. Didn’t the dispatch place her with 5.9-inchers?”
“That’s a thought,” Sartore commented. The others nodded. The armoured cruiser candidates would top out at 21 knots; new light cruisers would have no such limitation.
“I think you’re onto something,” said Jan stepping nearer. The others looked up. “Let me add two more words, though: ‘Heligoland Bight’.”
Sartore got it first and looked down at the chart. “There’s still room,” he admitted.
“But Letters was confirmed in Wilhelmshaven last night,” protested Hall, getting it next.
“Doesn’t mean the battlecruisers are, though,” Duggie sighed.
---- Grosser Kurfurst, moored, Wilhelmshaven
“Sir, the Baron!”
The sortie signal had come moments after receipt of the sighting of the British light cruisers to the north of Necki. It was as though someone had been standing behind the signalists waiting for anything resembling a pretext. Tugs had appeared an hour ago and had been standing by ever since.
“Thank you, leutnant,” replied Kapitan Schnell.
Yes, there he was: striding down the long pier with only a few aides trying their best to keep up while retaining their dignity. Letters, not needing any, practically bounded up the gangway.
“Welcome aboard, sir! Permission to cast ....”
“Granted! Get us out of here.”
Schnell began to bark out the necessary orders, amidst choruses of ships’ whistles echoing about the harbor, as lines were cast off, tugs engaged, and non-warships fled the channel. He tried not to frown, though, as he did so, for the Baron had seemed to add under his breath something that had sounded a lot like, “I only hope we’re not too late.”
---- Southampton , course 170, speed 26 knots
“Range to target?” Commodore Nott was almost vibrating with eagerness.
Commander Dedmon had not been surprised when the Germans had turned away. In fact, he had expected them to do so sooner. Their tardiness, combined with losing way from the turn, had let them almost get into gun range.
“Sir, 16,000 yards.”
That was the same range as his last two inquiries.
“They must have increased speed, Commodore.”
“Yes. Officer of the Deck, for the Chief, another knot, if you please.”
I’d like another one myself, thought Dedmon, homonym in mind. “Lookout section, have you got a class confirmation on her yet?” The Germans had given them a view of their beam when they turned to run.
“Yes, sir. Graudenz class. She’s either Graudenz or Regensburg, sir.”
“Very well,” Dedmon replied.
Pre-war, the Admiralty had rated that class at 28 knots. So why wasn’t she opening the range from this one, which was so close to British gun extreme shot. Was her coal that bad? He glanced at Nott, but the commodore had not reacted to the information, though he plainly had heard it. Dedmon resisted any further comment; he could do no more.
---- Frankfurt , course 045, speed 27.5 knots
“Sir, Engineer reports the throttles are wide open.”
“Very well,” replied Kapitan Vogel. They had drawn even with Seydlitz twenty-five minutes ago. It had taken them another ten to overhaul Derfflinger. The battlecruisers’ stokers were shoveling their hearts out, but they could not match his command’s turn of speed. Even the flagship had steadily fallen behind to starboard.
A fast ship! Mein Gott, but it was good to have a fast ship!
A few hundred yards astern, with a handful of knots still tucked away in his engineer’s pockets, Oberleutnant Kelly could not have agreed more.
---- Southampton , course 170, speed 26.2 knots
“Commodore, Engineer reports “maximum speed”, sir
“Sir, 16,000 yards. Maybe a hundred or two less.”
It might be coming down, thought Dedmon. It really might!
“Sir, new contact! Bearing 265!”
All the heads and binoculars on the bridge spun like tops.
“Range: 21,000 yards. Sir, contact appears to be a cruiser, light cruiser.”
That was a few degrees abaft the beam, Dedmon realized. That would make sense only if she must be ....
“Sir, contact is on north-westerly course. Sir, new contacts! Torpedo boats, sir. Two, three spotted so far.”
“Speed?” Dedmon asked.
“No estimate, sir, but she’s showing a lot of smoke.”
Coming hard, then, thought Dedmon. Why? To cut behind them? One cruiser and a few torpedo boats? He glanced again at Nott. Saw him as he reached his decision.
“Helm, come right. Course 235.” Then, turning to Dedmon, “Commander, we’re between them and Germany !” He did not trouble to hide the satisfaction in his voice. Unlike the first group, who had turned away so adroitly. There was no place for these to turn. To their South and West both was the Harwich Force, while the North held De Robeck.
“Signals Officer!” They leaned as the deck tilted. “To Warspite ....”
“Sir, steady on ....”
“Sir! New contact! Bearing 245!”
His hands and binoculars hid the commodore’s face.
“Sir, new contact is a battlecruiser, Derfflinger class. Sir! New contact astern ... Seydlitz, or Moltke class!”
“Commodore?” There was no answer, so Dedmon lowered his own glasses to stare at his commanding officer. What was he waiting for?! Omigod! Nott’s lips were so tightly pursed that his entire lower countenance was riven by creases. What was he thinking? Attacking?! It was surreal! Dedmon parted his lips. This was deja vu! Was Nott really such a warrior after all? Thinking to give his life in a bid to lame the battlecruisers for De Robeck?! Give THEIR lives?!
---- Derfflinger, course 045, speed 25.5 knots
“Kapitan Theodore, you may open fire.”
“Sir!” Seconds later, von Hase sent the first shells onward. Booms from astern quickly followed, as Seydlitz opened fire even before Derfflinger’s shells had landed.
“Sir! Contact is changing course. Turning north, sir.”
Another half-salvo thundered out, with Seydlitz again just seconds behind.
---- Southampton , course (changing), speed 25 knots (increasing)
Water pillars rose prettily into the air.
“Come left!” Nott ordered.
“Sir, Nottingham ’s hit!”
Never would he doubt Nott’s courage again, thought Dedmon. His good sense, maybe ....
... but not his courage.
More splashes to starboard.
“Come right ... rudder amidships!”
“Sir, Nottingham ’s still in formation.”
Imagine! He’d actually considered ...
“Sir, the second German battlecruiser has lost the range!”
“Sir, Dublin has ....
---- Frankfurt , course 045, speed 27.5 knots
“Fire!” Vogel shouted.
Accuracy would suffer at this speed, but he needed only slow one Britisher two knots ....
Muzzle flashes dotted the decks of the last Britisher. Then the penultimate one joined in. Massive jets spouted out of the sea near the trail Brit, who suddenly jinked away. Splashes jumped up ahead of his own ship. Then others, nearer.
“Steady!” Vogel ordered.
“Sir! Flag signal, from Derfflinger!”
Damn - damn!
---- Southampton , course 030, speed 26.6 knots (NOTE 3)
“Sir, they’re turning away.”
“Yes,” replied Nott, expansively. “Letters called them off as soon as he saw his battlecruiser had lost the range.
“Any reply from Warspite?”
“No, sir,” answered Dedmon, who was standing out on the wingbridge with the commodore, wondering why Nott remained out there, lounging so casually across the rail. Who would have imagined ...? Even when shot and splinter had been near.
As for Nott, the rail was bearing his weight; his legs could not. He was quite unable to take even a single step, just as he had been ever since hearing the word “battlecruiser”. His good friend Stinson had “lost” his command almost precisely the same. (NOTE 4) He had frozen, like an actress with stage fright, until his XO’s voice had finally penetrated.
“Slow to 25 knots,” Nott ordered. “Come left a point. Maybe they’ll have another try.”
Dedmon looked at him admiringly.
Nott tried to shift his weight, but quickly gave it up.
It didn’t matter, actually. He didn’t dare come in from outside.
Nott, at least, until the legs of his pants dried. (NOTE 5)
(Thanks and a naval cover tip to coauthor TomB!) ;-)
3) The discrepancy did not seem ever to have come to light until one graduate student researcher had examined all the logs post war. As best historians have ever been able to tell, Southampton ’s chief engineer was never taken to task on the matter. That is, reporting that maximum power output had been obtained, then managing almost another half-knot shortly after learning that 12" shells were coming from astern.
5) That one is all Bill’s fault. The author disclaims every scintilla of responsibility.