Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part VIII
July 3, 1915
---- Southampton, course 080, speed 22 knots
“Commodore, lookouts report the Germans have altered course towards us.”
“As expected,” Nott replied haughtily, finally coming in off the wingbridge. Actually, he had stepped in once before, about 20 minutes earlier, but had remained within for only for a few moments. He’d thought to detect some widening eyes and flaring nostrils, and had elected to go back out to give the 20-odd knots of wind more time. A quick survey of the bridge revealed no reactions this time, so Nott began to relax, until he realized the full import of just what had been said. He turned his head sharply; those two damn battlecruisers were headed at HIM again. Ah, they were still a couple thousand yards out of even extreme range.
Dedmon only nodded his head, misinterpreting the commodore’s sudden intensity. Of course, the Germans had changed course. They had to. Otherwise the Germans would fetch up on the coast. (NOTE 1) Or perhaps turn into the Zuilder Zee to try to pay a visit to Amsterdam. (NOTE 2)
“Helm, bring us onto 060.” Nott was quite content to keep the battlecruisers in sight, just as long as they stayed at a quite comfortable distance.
---- Room 40
“... from Commodore Nott.”
Jan and Sartore broke off their low-voiced conversation at the announcement of the German course change. Both stood and sidled over to better view the great mapboard. They were far from alone in this regard, as numerous others had thought to do the same.
“Leaves poor Tyrwhitt a bloody doorstop.” Jan did not care for that comment, but could not identify who’d voiced it. Standing at his shoulder, Sartore stiffened, but added, “Hard to argue with it, though.”
Jan frowned at that. Were they already shaping to make Tyrwhitt a scapegoat? It had, after all, hardly been the notion of the Commander - Harwich Force to go haring off after apparently fantastical armoured cruisers lurking somewhere up along the coast. Still, there was no denying that the flotillas that had just begun to threaten the Huns’ southern flank were now dead astern with the rest of Harwich Force, and a stern chase of battlecruisers was an unpalatable prospect at best.
It had escaped no one that the last two to attempt it - Beatty and Sturdee - had not lived long enough to enjoy their regrets.
The undercurrent amongst those on the fringes was scathing.
“ ... of course, to the northeast.”
“ ... should have anticipated that! What else could the Germans do? Turn south?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” retorted one wag. “Invade France with a couple battlecruisers!”
Jan tried to ignore the back-benchy mutterings, as he considered the pieces still in play. Yes, the new German course did look to nullify the Harwich Force, at least, for now. DeRobeck’s prospects, however, seemed actually to have improved somewhat. In fact, his dreadnoughts and screen units were not at all badly placed, though it seemed to swing on the whereabouts of the rest of the Germans, the High Seas Fleet. So he was not at all surprised at the next incoming wireless.
“ ... Commander - Grand Fleet. Interrogative - High Seas Fleet position.”
Jan observed that all of the admirals and several of the senior captains had the grace to hunch their shoulders at the question. They had no new information to provide. The Germans had sent out minesweepers the previous day, but by dusk there still had been no sortie. They had laid them on again for first light, but there had been no sortie then either. The recent presumed loss of a submarine there had been a setback for harbor scouting from which they had yet to fully recover. (NOTE 3) The last report they had in hand dated back to about 90 minutes after dawn, when the only fortunately placed submarine had reported its imminent submergence.
They knew full well that the entire High Seas Fleet could have steamed out and now be loose in the North Sea and they’d be none the wiser. In fact, many of them suspected that just such a sortie had, in fact, happened. Hell, a couple had opined that the Germans had decamped during the hours of darkness!
But they had no evidence.
And that was not the sort of reply one would wish to send Commander - Grand Fleet.
---- Southampton, course 080, speed 22 knots
“Commodore, from the flagship.”
Dedmon had to stifle a frown when he saw that the young messenger’s hand seemed to tremble a bit as he extended the slip of paper. It suggested two things. First, that the youngster had read or been told the contents. And, second, that it contained unwelcome news or orders. The commodore read it without expression. Then read it again, and maybe even a third time, but Dedmon could not be sure.
“Hoist 26 knots,” ordered Nott. After another long moment, he offered the message to Dedmon. The commander was still staring at it when the “Execute” was ordered.
---- Derfflinger, course 060, speed 22 knots
Necki had gone back to playing lookout, Theodor observed. It had been nearly two hours since their course change, but the admiral had not showed any easing of tension.
“Sir! Lookout section reports developing bearing change on cruiser force. Contact appears to have increased speed.”
Theodor turned to the admiral to gauge his reaction and blinked, for Necki was not there. Turning his head further, he saw Necki already at the chart and reaching for the calipers. After another minute, Necki straightened, tapping the calipers idly on the edge of the table.
“Ah, da,” the senior officer replied absently. “Interpreting the foe’s actions, that is the challenge. What is the ‘why’ of this, Kapitan? Can you tell?”
“Uh, no, sir. They may have decided to scout ahead, to see what’s... there.”
“True, but if they have a major dreadnought force on intercept, would it matter?”
“No, sir.” Theodor did not need to deliberate. Such a RN force would have enough screen elements to make it unimportant just exactly what light forces the Germans might have in their van.
“Indeed. But, Kapitan, it changes the pattern. You see, by now the RN fleet commander has had enough time to construct a most careful plot. More than enough, actually. Such a sufficiency, in fact, as to devise what might be done, if something needed to be done.”
Did all admirals think like that? To Theodor, this had all the earmarks of self-inflicted torture. He’d been through two battles with Letters and had seen only the barest glimpses of this sort of thing. Still, they HAD been real battles with capital ships shooting at them, and hitting, providing him with ample other things to have on his mind. Well, there was that long chase at Dogger Bank, but he had not known Letters then. Did he really know Necki now? He cleared his throat.
“So, sir, the Britishers are trying to change things because the, um, status quo appears not to their liking?”
“Da, at least, that is how I see it at this moment.”
“Will they threaten the van flotilla, then? Try to drive it back upon us?”
“That’s not unreasonable,” Necki agreed, nodding approvingly, “and quite possibly it is what they would want me to postulate.”
Theodor blinked at that - “me” - then realized his commanding admiral might simply be thinking out loud. And blinked again. Was the imperturbable Necki actually treating him like a true flagcaptain?
“But I don’t believe that’s it,” Necki continued. “The core of the pattern must always be the battlecruisers. Driving in pickets changes nothing.” The grey-haired flag officer moved back to the bridge rail and raised his binoculars again.
“No, they will seek to drive me off my track. Pull up, lose way, or even double back.”
There was only one way four light cruisers could hope to achieve any result like that.
“I may not be able to prevent it. It depends on just what price he is willing to pay.”
Who is the “he” here? Theodor wondered.
---- Seydlitz and Frankfurt, course 060, speed 22 knots
Both Nik and Vogel had also detected the Britishers’ four knot advance up the port flank. Time passed and, on their bows, Derfflinger plowed on, seemingly oblivious to the enemy’s actions.
“Sir,” both lookout sections reported. “Flags going up on Derfflinger. Our number. Immediate execute.”
Nik waited impatiently, but both he and his lookouts continued to be unable to interpret the rest of the flags. The wind just then was making the reading from their dead astern position nearly impossible. Vogel, though a full three thousand yards and more distant than Seydlitz, had the better angle and responded sooner.
“Ahead Flank,” ordered Vogel. “Make turns for 26 knots.”
It was another three minutes before Nik was able to give his own orders.
“Ahead Flank,” the Seydlitz CO ordered. “Make turns for 25 knots.
“Lookout chief!” Nik called out. “New contacts? Have the Britishers altered course? Wireless?”
The reports were all negative. Nik realized then that the admiral must have simply been waiting for the enemy force to get far enough ahead to obscure his actions. When the messenger arrived with copies of the orders to Kapitan Niemczyk, it all became clearer.
---- Graudenz and Stralsund, course 060, speed 22 knots
Not surprisingly, the messengers arrived on both bridges within seconds of each other.
“Sir, wireless, from Derfflinger,” both announced.
Niemczyk came in off the tiny wing area while Schneider had already been within the bridgehouse, but both read the slips within a minute of each other. Niemczyk ordered the signal acknowledged and the hoisting of the flags.
“Sir, Stralsund has acknowledged.”
“Sir, all torpedo boats have acknowledged.”
Now all they could do was to wait for the “execute” signal.
---- Southampton, course 070, speed 25.5 knots (increasing slowly)
Nott had begun edging his force in on the German track once he’d judged that the range had sufficiently opened to the battlecruisers, confident that it could not be detected.
“Sir, all ships have acknowledged.”
“Very well. And Lieutenant!” Nott shouted over the whipping wind, not trusting his lookouts in this situation. “Keep their eyes sharp up there! There’s a squadron somewhere ahead on our bows.” The light cruiser and its torpedo boats he had almost bagged had disappeared in that direction a few hours ago.
Even as he himself scanned the waters ahead to the southeast, he found himself fighting the urge to look back over his shoulder to the southwest.
“Sir, lookouts report plume, bearing 075.”
Dedmon swallowed. Yes, it was probably the German half-flotilla they were looking for, well ahead in the van. However, the Huns just might have a force bearing down on them on a reciprocal course. If so, this could go bad very quickly. Not that it mightn’t anyway, he thought, and swallowed again.
“Sir, plume is steady. Range does not appear to be dropping.”
“Very well.” That might change any second, as surely the Germans would spot them at any second, if they had not already. Nott looked ahead, looked astern, glanced at the plot, and took a deep breath.
---- Derfflinger, course 060, speed 22 knots
The Britishers - their plumes, actually - had almost passed beyond visibility. There was just a trace of a smudge along the last bearing. The sighting report from Graudenz had come in just a few minutes earlier. A few moments at the chart suggested that the British had continued their previous course and speed.
“Sir, lookouts are reporting that the Britishers’ plume is changing.”
“Very well,” Necki replied. It could be simply a wind shift. There had been several this morning already, after all. He doubted that was the case this time, but elected to wait. This would not work a second time.
Theodor looked at the admiral. The only indication he could spot of inner tension was the other’s glance up into the halyards, presumably assuring himself once more that his signals were hoisted and awaiting his order.
“Sir! Bearing 025. The Britisher cruisers ....”
Necki did not let him finish. “Execute!”
“Ahead Flank, 25 knots,” ordered Theodor, as the ropes hummed in the flag hoist. “Helm, ....”
---- Southampton, course 210, speed 25 knots (increasing)
Flags snapped and crackled in the wind as they came out of the turn. Dedmon looked to port, at the bow waves in echelon there and smiled. For just a moment, it didn’t matter that they were attacking superior force. It was just good to be attacking, rather than fleeing. It WAS superior force, however, that they were now closing with at a combined speed of well over 40 knots.
Maybe that was why the air seemed sharper and why, glancing up at the flags, he thought to hear even the weave of their fabric.
There was a chance for a bit of payback here, though, especially if they caught the Germans napping. The Commodore had, of course, already ambled out onto the port wing, his legs casually crossed as he leaned ever so casually across the rail. Dedmon longed to be out there with him, to share the space, but he knew that his place was within, to make sure that the Commodore’s orders were instantly obeyed.
---- Room 40
“First Light Cruiser has commenced their attack.”
The announcement cut off the background noise like a sword, but it rose again, much the same as the mythological phoenix.
DeRobeck’s orders had been specific yet purposefully vague. What most men might take from “demonstrate” or “discretion” remained quite uncertain. But the recipient was not, all knew full well, “most men”. He was Commodore Nott, the doughty and decorated veteran of multiple engagements, ones that had transferred the worldly possessions of other, far flashier men to their next of kin.
---- Southampton, course 200, speed 25.2 knots (increasing)
The first indication that things might not be going as planned was the enemy’s position. The second was his aspect.
The Huns had spent the last three hours drawing a constant and immutable line on the chart. Dedmon had been expecting to see their port bows, as First Light Cruiser stooped, like falcons, their “prey” a spot 1000 yards ahead of their prows. He had expected to spot first their lead ship, a little under a point (NOTE 5) off Southampton’s starboard bow.
That was NOT what he was seeing.
Instead, the Huns were almost dead ahead and there were three of them, not just the leader. And the bows he had in his lenses were their STARBOARD bows!
The damn Germans had altered course and gone to line abreast. Actually, the light cruiser was several thousand yards in the lead and to the north. It was a trap! Muzzle flashes lit up the bow of one battlecruiser, then the other.
“Commodore?! Your orders? Sir? COMMODORE!”
Shell splashes just over a thousand yards ahead punctuated his inquiries.
“Execute!” Nott came out of it easier this time. Quicker.
---- Derfflinger, course 020, speed 23 knots (increasing)
“Damn,” Theodor muttered, as the Britishers pivoted all at once and turned away.
Shell splashes continued to work their way towards the light cruisers, but Theodor was not fooled. Their chances of scoring a hit were small at this range. If they had waited even another minute, however ....
“Flags! Frankfurt, hold position!” Vogel was an aggressive commander, and Necki had no intention of risking Frankfurt at this point.
“Hit!” A spark flashed on one of the cruisers.
Nik, 500 yards to port smiled, as that one was his, and a bit of smoke now trailed aft along his target’s hull. Dublin, who had previously taken two hits from Frankfurt had just been hit again. Nik’s smile was brief, however, because the Britisher was apparently unslowed. Within three more minutes, it had become clear that the range had become too much. Dublin’s smoke continued, but she was holding her place in the formation without any apparent difficulty.
Necki stared after the fleeing enemy force for another minute, then looked at the chart. Dublin’s smoke had all but ended.
---- Southampton, course 010, speed 26.3 knots (increasing)
Nott numbly noted that the shell splashes had ceased. He felt his faculties slowly returning and he looked over at Dublin. The enemy shell had smashed into the back of forward superstructure on the starboard side. Just a few meters further aft, it would have been landed alongside the lead stack. He decided not to think about that any further.
“Sir, new contact, multiple contacts, bearing 095.”
“Sir, two light cruisers! Torpedo boats, a full flotilla, sir!”
His brain refused to function. Two light cruisers? A “full flotilla”? He had just concluded that he would live, and now this!
Dedmon saw the commodore half-turn and stare at these newcomers. Nott did not even deign to raise his binoculars, let alone call out orders. It took Dedmon a few moments, but he soon realized that the Germans could hardly threaten them starting from nearly dead abeam at something like 15,000 yards. Still, Dedmon would have done SOMETHING. Given some order. Voiced some observation. But not the Commodore.
Nott just kept his implacable stare upon them as he leaned back on the bridge rail.
“Sir, they’re breaking off!”
---- Room 40
The many denizens hummed at the reports. Nott had pressed his attack hard, even in the face of an obviously prepared foe, and so close as to take at least one hit. Yet, not too hard, as all had escaped. Furthermore, he had cannily evaded still another enemy trap, scouting out the presence of still another enemy force as he did so.
“The man’s judgement’s uncanny!” Jan heard that and more.
“From First Light Cruiser, enemy course 060, speed 22 knots.”
Sartore turned to Jan. “So, what do you think Admiral DeRobeck will try next? That Letters is a demon!”
“I really couldn’t say,” Jan replied. “I just hope that it IS Letters.”
---- Derfflinger, course 065, speed 22.5 knots
Theodor had had time to consider the last hours’ events, and their current course and speed. He had figured out the latter. The British might not detect and report the small variation. One apsect of the former, though, still had him puzzled.
“Admiral,” he began, “might I ask a question?”
“Sir, earlier, you stated that the British had had a ‘sufficiency’ of time to ‘construct a most careful plot’.”
“You gave them that, gifted it to them. Yes?”
“You ask ‘why?’, I think?”
“Ah, Theodor! The best way to see new ripples is to let the waters smooth.”
1) Below is a site with a decent interactive map. Center on Norwich and expand, then Ipswich, then Lowestoft (which is just up the coast a few miles from Southwold). Use Lowestoft for a reference point, as it is also dead on Latitude 52 deg 30 min.
2) Until the 13 th Century, there was no Zuilder Zee connecting to the North Sea. Instead, there was a Lake Flevo. However, a great flood “joined” the water body to the North Sea. Quite an understatement, one might think. After the Great War, a massive drainage project reclaimed it as a fresh water lake called IJsselmeer. Since then, much of that has itself been reclaimed as farmland or urban expansion.
3) This was LT Carisbrook’s vessel:
(Still another hat tip to Richard Byrd!)
4) J. Paul Martin, Admiral, USN, would have understood. In fact, when he eventually read the report of this battle, he cited it in the paper he was even then preparing. See:
5) Under the nautical style of the day, the 360 degrees of a compass was composed of 32 “points”. Thus, a point was/is 11 degrees and 15 minutes. See: