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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part VII

July 3, 1915

“Generally, ladies at the turn of the century were expected to keep diaries, even as children. Certainly all my great aunts did, and I am deeply indebted to my cousins .... They gloried in the many small boat picnics with their dad held under the pretext of fishing . (NOTE 1) .... recounted in one entry a childhood exchange with the visiting then-Kapitan zur See Josef von Necki after she’d thrown a pebble out into the pond. She’d squinted her eyes, as the Baron had showed her, and gravely instructed the already gray-haired officer to do the same, and to see how the blurred landscape merged seamlessly with the rippled reflection. Necki had replied that the blurring of the reflection depended upon the size of the stone and how far away it had been cast, and that one should be able to deduce both by the size and shape from the wavelets. ‘Why,’ her entry continues, ‘would I want to know that?’ Necki’s reply: ‘It’s always important to know who is throwing rocks and where, in case the next one might be thrown at you.’ ”

----------------------------- Lady Christine Letters, ibid, Appendix A

---- Derfflinger, course 080, speed 15 knots

Admiral Necki had turned back onto his base course once it was clear that the British light cruiser squadron had made good their escape. In addition, he had slowed the force and had done so for three reasons. He needed to let his stokers physically recover and to let them clean grates. If he were to need to sprint again, he’d need them both.

At the moment, though, Necki stood on the bridge, sweeping the horizon through his binoculars. If the admiral had been dismayed by the failure of his trap, Kapitan Theodor had been quite unable to detect it. Theodor did, though, think he had detected SOMEthing. Necki, so notoriously attentive to patterns seemed to have drifted into one himself. The admiral would sweep the horizons, playing senior lookout, then he would lower his glasses, step over to the chart and stare at it, playing quartermaster or something. Then, with a tiny shake of his head or a hand through his iron gray hair, the admiral would step away and raise his binoculars again. Kapitan Theodor had no idea why the admiral kept doing that, though Capitain Swafford would have. (NOTE 2)

The third reason to reduce speed was Stralsund, in particular, where she was not.

---- Stralsund, course 145, speed 26.5 knots

Kapitan Otto Schneider evinced no signs of the frustration that he had fair reason to feel.

Schneider was in a hurry because, for the second time in three hours, he’d been ordered to be in a hurry. And he was rushing to get back to where he’d been when he got the first orders: the van. Not only did his orders contain the word “expedite”, but he also was required to report when back in position.

Outwardly, he remained just as stoic at the trap’s failure as was his admiral. Inwardly, though, his feelings were mixed. Conflicted. For his previous orders had taken him off to the northeast to be the cork in Necki’s bottle. One light cruiser and a single hand of torpedo boats directly on the bows of four light cruisers closely and hotly pursued by two battlecruisers and Vogel’s force .... He’d’ve had tremendous positional advantage, especially for the torpedo boats. But there’d been four British cruisers!

Then the British had turned another way. Why, Schneider didn’t know and found that he didn’t much care. He was trying to remain focused on following his newest orders, and letting the adrenaline bleed off, knowing that it could have been blood instead.

---- Derfflinger, course 080, speed 15 knots

Unlike Schneider, some score thousand yards to the northeast, Necki DID care. The trap had been hastily set, completely ex tempore, but Necki had expected it to work. Why hadn’t it? He had expected the British commander to duplicate the battlecruisers’ course, as it represented the quickest path out of gun range. That the course would have draped Stralsund and five torpedo boats directly across their bows should have been unknown to the enemy.

“Sir, Stralsund reports in position.”

“Very well,” replied Necki, glancing at the bridge chronometer. He’d planned to give the stokers another thirty minutes. Why had the Britisher commander chosen an inferior course, one that accepted several extra and unanswerable salvos? By the very nature of the circumstances, the decision had to have been made in an instant. Had to! It’d been one of pure reflex. Necki ran his hand through his hair again. The British had soon re-established contact and settled in on a distant parallel course, predictably enough. They were fast enough to be safe from the battlecruisers’ guns and too much force for one or two half-flotillas to menace unsupported. That first instinctive rudder order, though, was a datum not to be ignored.

One could never realistically have perfect knowledge at the moment of decision; one could never see everything, know everything. Only rarely could a commander even be confident that he knew more than his foe. In Necki’s view, this had been Letters’ true achievement: attaining superior intelligence and then doing something with it. Not once, but thrice, the Baron had achieved critical positional knowledge, recognized the temporary ignorance of his foe, and promptly acted. (NOTE 3) All other times, one had to work with much less and strive to identify patterns and from them to deduce the rest, or even to hazard intelligent guesses. Here, the Britisher decision had to have made perfect sense to that commander at that moment. He could think of only a single answer why it would and he did not like that one. Not at all. He noticed then that Theodor’s eyes had remained on him.

“Kapitan Theodor.”


“Would you care to venture a guess as to why the Brits chose the course they did?”

“Jawohl, Herr Admiral.” Theodor had indeed been watching Necki tapping on the chart and thought he’d figured out what he was turning over in his head. Once he’d perceived the nature of the potential problem, the reasoning had not been difficult to work out. “I don’t think they were just running FROM. I think they were running TO.”

“Ja, my thought as well.” The stokers would simply have to make do. “Kapitan, bring us back to 20 knots. Signals Officer, 22 knots in 15 minutes.”

So, the British had a dreadnought force out here. Somewhere. Perhaps even their entire fleet. Necki looked at the chart again. Likely along the bearing just sketched by the Britisher’s turn onto 030.

The admiral stepped out onto the wingbridge, and raised his glasses to the northeast.

Northeast, he thought. The north part did not trouble him. But how far were they to the east?

---- Frankfurt, course 080, speed 15 knots

“Seaman Horst has died, sir.”

“Thank you,” Kapitan Vogel acknowledged, feeling not thankful at all. He felt sick. Yes, it could have been worse. It always could have been worse. That made four dead, though Horst had been the last of the badly wounded. The other six would survive, though one might lose his left leg. These were not his first losses, nor even the first from shell hits from a British light cruiser. (NOTE 4) Vogel had felt sick last time and was not sure if he’d ever get used to it. He hoped he’d not get any additional occasions to learn, but it sure looked like it’d be a long war.

“Sir, flags going up on Derfflinger.”

“Sir,” reported LT Berghaun, the Signals Officer, “20 knots, spacing 4,000, port afterquarter.”

Vogel gave the necessary orders, and Frankfurt soon reached her assigned position.

“Sir?” It was his XO. “22 knots?” Once they’d cleared the coastal environs, the planned egress had been at 15 - 18 knots.

Vogel nodded his head to the north where the plume from the Britishers showed on the horizon, obviously on a parallel course.

“They’re doubtless sending minute-by-minute wireless reports on our position. The question is, who’re they sending them to? And where are they? My guess is that the admiral doesn’t like some of those answers.”

---- Graudenz, course 080, speed 15 knots

Kapitan Niemczyk had also seen the flags.

“Ahead Flank, make turns for 25 knots,” he ordered. “Navigator, course to Stralsund’s slot?”

That officer was already plying his rulers and dividers. “Recommend 075, sir,” he answered with almost no hesitation.

“Helm, come to 075.”

Necki had directed Niemczyk to reform his full flotilla in the van, shifting from scouting to a combat formation. The implication was that he expected to need it.

---- Regensburg, course 045, speed 26.5 knots

Until an hour ago, Wolferein had contented himself with weaving back and forth across the general base course, trying to keep off balance the British flotillas who had been dogging his heels to the south and west all morning. An hour ago, he had used Necki’s lunge to pretend to be trying to break contact. It hadn’t worked, of course. The Britishers had reacted almost instantly to maintain contact. Now, one of the two forces seemed to be working up along his starboard flank. They hadn’t been doing that earlier; they’d gotten new orders. Something had changed.

“Ahead Full, make turns for 20 knots. Helm, come to course 090.”

He took another long look astern, especially the port afterquarter. There had been a third force, and maybe even a fourth. They had disappeared astern hours ago, but the departure of Frankfurt to support Necki had left a hole there. It should be no problem this soon; a stern chase was a long chase. If they kept at 18 knots or better, there should be little risk at all from that quarter. He tracked the vectors carefully anyway. There were old captains and bold captains .... Wolferein was already feeling ancient, but he wanted to grow older still.

He was studying the plot when the signalist ventured onto the bridge. The arrival of the signals rating came as no surprise. Whatever the outcome of Necki’s gambit, new orders would have followed. He read the slip, eyebrows lifting at the words. Given the signals lag, he was already well out of position.

“Ahead Flank, 25 knots,” Wolferein ordered.

---- Room 40

Jan was trying to make sense of the reports. Tyrewhitt had been looking for amoured cruisers and found none. Nott had been looking for light cruisers and had found battlecruisers. Meanwhile, Southwold was still screaming bloody murder and half the towns up and down the coast there were reporting dreadnoughts off shore and invaders on the beach. Reporters from the Times itself had been in Southwold and Ministers had been told that the photos were “damning as all hell”, whatever THAT meant.

“Commander?” Jan turned. It was LCDR Sartore.

“Yes, Richard?”

“I was looking for ... a classmate. I was going to put a question to him. He used to be assigned here, but no one seems to want to even admit they recognize the name.”

“Hmmm, that IS odd. What name?”

“Thelea, Commander Thelea. Bright red hair. He .... Oh, you know him, sir?”

“No, but I know OF him. He caused a flaming bit of a scene here, I understand, a bit back. During that, um, whole disaster.”

There was no need to specify which disaster, but neither was there a name for the battle. At least, not one the Royal Navy was prepared to recognize.

“A ‘scene’, sir?”

“Yes, I wasn’t here myself, you understand. I was told that he started calling it the eclipse, or even the ‘Eclipse of the Empire.’ “

“Oh, I understand.” And he did. One just did not carry on so, especially lowly commanders, let alone during the space of battles.

“Indeed. He was banned, escorted from the building. I heard he was sent off, posted to a signaling station somewhere. New Hebrides, was mentioned, if I recall correctly.”

“Report from Commodore Nott.”

Instantly, conversation stilled. Nott had found and even exchanged shots with the enemy today, something no one else had done, and even scored a few hits. The Germans had tried to drive him off, but he’d remained in contact nonetheless.

“Battlecruiser force is on course 080, speed 22 knots.” Plotters moved to update the huge mapboard. The pieces representing the High Seas Fleet remained stacked together in Wilhelmshaven, the stacking indicative of the absence of knowledge as to their whereabouts.

---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 280, speed 19 knots

Kapitan Schnell surreptitiously watched the Baron study his ships. Both Nassaus - Posen and Rheinland - were continuing to drop back. The initial ordered speed had been 20 knots - a speed both had attained on trials - but Letters had had to relent before even a single hour had passed. Now, it was becoming apparent that even 19 was going to be beyond their reach.

“Signals Officer, hoist 18 knots, immediate execute.”

Letters had been tempted to order both Nassaus to turn back. Schnell had seen it in his eyes. Their departure would have let them go to 19 knots, maybe even 20, though it was far from certain that Ostfreisland and Helgoland could have stayed at 20 for as long as might be necessary. This way he had eight dreadnoughts, not six. Sending back the Helgolands would leave him but four. There were lots of choices, just no good ones.

Author’s NOTEs:

1) Their entries never mention their father catching anything, but the soaring loops and whorls of their otherwise quite fastidious penmanship have always suggested to this biographer that the Baron was snaring just what he sought. (Ibid)

2) See here, at time 3:30 PM:

3) Necki was thinking of the Letterstime POD at Dogger Bank, and at Die Kaiserschlacht at times 5:40 PM and 7:06 PM. In the latter battle, the first allowed Letters to deploy the HSF in tactical equality at essentially optimum range, while the second allowed Letters to initiate pursuit without allowing the GF to fully disengage.

4) See:

by Jim

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