Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part X
July 3, 1915
---- Room 40
Commander Sartore had dared not be too abrupt with Mister Reece Private-just-his-name, lest matters and the potentially all-important photographs go astray. Though Sartore had severely begrudged the time, and hardly wanted to tarry, dun Kingone’s miserable dunking anecdote had offered a bit of payback. By the time Commander Sartore had finally managed his escape from the tele, he found Room 40 abuzz with the recent flurry of scouting reports.
He had just begun to make sense of them when a fresh set came in that threatened to complicate the picture considerably. Nor would they be the last.
---- Bremen, course 270, speed 21 knots
The reports that Sartore and Room 40 were now struggling with had begun with Bremen. For Korvettenkapitän Nugal Conda, the events were the first harbingers that the day might turn into more than the pleasant summer sortie that he had anticipated.
“Sir, flags going up on the torpedoboats.”
His assigned trio of smaller craft were spread out in a picket line of sorts almost 10,000 yards on his bow.
“Sighting reports, sir. Smoke. To the northwest.”
A frown began to form on Conda’s tanned visage as he looked down the indicated bearing line. His initial thought had been that the contacts would turn out to be one of the scout groups with Admiral Necki, in the van, perhaps. The frown part reflected his growing realization that the bearing was wrong for that, very wrong. Nor did it seem that it could be Lübeck, as she was surely almost due north and, if anything, probably even somewhat to the east.
Next, he thought that perhaps they had found a neutral merchant - unlikely it’d be an Entente one and even more unlikely it could be a friendly one. Most of his experience had been with those ships now called “pre-dreadnoughts” and so he was slower than he would have preferred in working his way through implications and options. His frown deepened when he belatedly recognized the plurality within the sighting reports themselves.
---- HMS Falmouth, course 090, speed 24 knots
“Sir! Contact report. Smoke plume bearing 135.”
Captain Wes Welt Hakonson (NOTE 1) was surprised but pivoted smoothly onto the reported bearing. Based on Thatcher’s report, he had been expecting a sighting report any minute, but on an easterly or even northeasterly bearing. How in the world the Germans - and he fully expected the smoke to be Germans - had gotten so far south of their reported position he had no idea.
“Helm,” Hakonson ordered, “come to 135. Bring us to maximum speed. Signals, hoist maximum speed and the contact.”
Yarmouth, directly astern, would conform, of course, but he had every reason to keep them informed. Also, it would enable them to repeat Falmouth’s sighting and know if any they made was new or a simple repeat.
“Sir, lookouts report two torpedoboats, bearing 130 and 150. They’re on a westerly heading and the range to the one on 130 is 17,000 yards. The estimate for the one on 150 is 19,000.”
Two torpedoboats somewhat ahead of a smoke plume - Thatcher had reported a cruiser and a single torpedoboat. Might these NOT be the same ones? Well, whoever they were, they’d be in fair gun range in not much more than a brace of minutes. Unless ....
“Sir, new sighting. The smoke is from a small cruiser, bearing 135, range estimate is 18,000 yards.”
Certainly not unexpected. Hakonson stared at the distant cruiser through powerful binoculars. He quickly decided that she was Bremen class, having pre-war made quite a study of German naval architecture. “Signals ....”
“Sir, the enemy is altering course ....”
---- Room 40
“Falmouth is reporting a German cruiser and two torpedoboats. The Germans have already turned away, onto 135 ....”
“Are these the ones Thatcher’s chasing?”
“The positions don’t seem to match, MiLord.”
“More of them?”
“Falmouth reports sighting a third torpedoboat ....”
“... out of the skirtingboards today like bloody cockroaches.”
“... increased speed and in pursuit ...”
“What ships does Hakonson have again?” De Robeck’s altered dispositions were still new to most. With so many light ship formations in contact with the enemy, it was quite understandable that even lord admirals might seek a reminder here and there.
“Falmouth and Yarmouth, MiLord.”
“A score or so miles to the north, with Birkenhead and Chester.”
“Yes, yes, but what’s his last?”
“Oh! Sorry, sir, just a moment.”
“Three torpedoboats with this one? Thatcher’s had just one, wasn’t it?”
---- Bremen, course 135, speed 23 knots
Conda had indeed turned away, and had also recalled and reconcentrated his torpedoboat trio. The Britishers had been coming hard at something like 25 or 26 knots and he’d not been sure there were only two of them. Why had they been already at flank even before they’d even spotted him? It seemed unlikely that even the RN could have the coal to waste like that, let alone accept the accelerated wear such sustained high speed entailed. Also, per the after-action reports, they generally operating in foursomes so, even if he saw only two, that surely meant there was at least another pair lurking about somewhere nearby.
The German officer had every intention of remaining quite cautious until he had a better picture of what was going on. For the moment, his instructions had been to scout ahead for Britishers and, well, he’d found some.
---- Lübeck, course 080, speed 23 knots
“Sir, the enemy cruisers are on course 100 ...”
Korvettenkapitän Borys was studying the not-so-slowly growing forms of Thatcher’s two British cruisers charging towards him, though the German hardly knew the name of his pursuer. His chosen flight course had invited the Britisher commander - originally sighted on bearing 310 - to gain ground on his command by “cutting the corner” and he had promptly apparently ordered just that. In contrast to Conda’s career, Borys had practically grown up in light ships. This had facilitated his devising the impromptu gambit to give his other two torpedoboats, or maybe Conda further south, some chance of being able to slip past the RN scout force. So far, it seemed to have been a success.
“... speed 25 knots.”
“Very well. Range?”
The problem was that the enemy was turning out to also be faster than his own cruiser. In chess, most gambits cede a piece or pieces early.
“18,000 yards, sir.”
Borys decided that he did not want to become such a piece. (NOTE 2)
“Helm, come to course 110.”
This put the Britishers dead on his stern post where, even if they stayed resolutely in pursuit, it’d still be well over an hour before they would get into range. (NOTE 3) Borys knew of at least eight reasons to believe that there was little risk of that eventuality.
---- Southampton, course 060, speed 22 knots
“Commodore, lookouts report that the Germans may have altered away from us ... slightly.”
The bearing to the German battlecruisers had remained essentially constant ever since they had regained contact after the last exchange. Nott raised his binoculars.
“It could be, sir,” added Dedmon. “Their aspect looks unchanged but the range does seem to have opened some, a couple thousand yards, anyway.”
“Bring us to 070 and we’ll watch for a bit,” Nott ordered. Dedmon acknowledged and gave the necessary orders.
“Sir, from the flagship.”
Nott worked hard to repress a grimace as he regarded the message slip. The last such missive had launched them directly into 11 and 12-inch guns.
As Nott looked at the wireless, Dedmon could not help but notice the Commodore’s startlement, followed by a quick and suspicious look towards the horizon off their port bow.
“More Germans, to the northeast,” Nott said, as he handed the sheet to Dedmons.
Scouting groups? Were they looking to meet up with the battlecruisers? Screening their flank? But there were no orders. Nott, Dedmon realized, was being left to his own discretion. Again.
Meanwhile, they were creeping closer to the two battlecruisers.
“Commander, bring us back to, no, belay that. Bring us onto course 055.” As Dedmon gave the necessary orders, he nodded to himself; Letters had already essayed multiple ploys to mousetrap them, each more inventive than the last. With more flotilla elements now spotted to the northeast, this was surely just another still. Indeed, this entire engagement had begun to take on all the trappings of a match between two chess grandmasters with Letters’ two rooks matched against Nott’s four knights and bishops.
---- Warspite, course 150, speed 20.5 knots
Like so many others in distant Room 40, Admiral De Robeck was staring at the charts as the wireless messages came in. Now there were two new pennypacket German scout formations to the eastsoutheast. Captain Swafford watched from bridge front as the latest was marked onto the plot. They would draw abeam of the sightings in little more than a quarter-hour.
The Germans had been turned back, but it was almost as though they were being probed. The Germans, though, could hardly be aware that De Robeck had the dreadnoughts at sea, let alone possibly in a position to cut off Letters as he retired with his battlecruisers. By his silence on the matter, Admiral De Robeck had obviously declined to go on ahead with Warspite and Queen Elizabeth. Swafford was not sure that that was the optimum decision, but he recognized it as the more conservative one and, as such, quite in keeping with De Robeck’s thinking.
What Swafford did not know, nor could he have appreciated, was that the situation possessed eerie similarities with the Dardanelles. Catching Letters and his two battlecruiser force, bringing them to battle, and beating them - that would be a triumph. A very great triumph indeed. One that could turn matters around instantly, and restore much of what had been lost. And De Robeck had full confidence that Warspite and the Queen - with the light support at hand - were more than up to the task, no matter what the deeds of the German battlecruisers may have been in previous battles.
But the Narrows had been there, too, with the way to Constantinople seemingly open, with a great and mighty war-ending triumph just one more exertion, one more risk, one more leap into uncertainty away. He’d distrusted matters then, but he’d had little alternative but to carry on with Carden’s plan. (NOTE 4)
This time De Robeck was having none of it.
---- Großes Torpedoboot S.177, course 250, speed 29 knots
Oberleutnant Hackaufsohn had watched Lübeck peel off to the northeast, taking only one Großes Torpedoboot (TB) along with her. While Korvettenkapitän Borys’ flag signal had specifically ordered the northernmost TB to assume close station, the halyards been “silent” as to what Hackaufsohn should do.
Although Hackaufsohn had long ago learned better than to guess senior officers’ mind - or even if they had any - in this case the Korvettenkapitän’s intent seemed quite clear. There had been little time, and the more flags sent up, the more likely the RN would decide there had to be more recipients to read them.
Right or wrong, Hackaufsohn had gone to 29 knots and jogged south 45 degrees in an attempt to get around whatever the ships were which the Korvettenkapitän had let drive him off. The other TB had been just south of S.177 and had quickly conformed on his distant port beam. Now, 30 minutes later, he had begun to work his way back gradually back to the understrength half-flotilla’s original base course.
“Sir, smoke plume bearing 300, multiple plumes, sir.”
“Helm, come to course 300.”
Whatever this was, he wanted to present a bows-on silhouette.
“Sir, more plumes, bearing 280. Looks like a cruiser leading smaller ships - a flotilla, sir.”
These looked closer.
“Sir, we don’t have visuals on the first contacts. The flotilla estimate is 17,000 yards, dropping fast.”
Scheiße! They’d be spotted any moment! If he turned north to make the flotilla have to also reverse course, he’d be right in the return path of whatever had chased off the Korvettenkapitän.
“Sir, changing aspect on the flotilla leader! Confirmed, they’re turning to intercept.”
Hackaufsohn hesitated, looking to port. Could he hope to reprise the Korvettenkapitän’s ploy? No, that didn’t seem likely as he’d lost sight of the other TB a quarter-hour ago.
“Sir, dreadnoughts! Three, more ... maybe six. They’re in ....”
It was enough. He’d had to live to report.
“Right 10 degrees rudder!” More might slow them too much. He had to keep speed. Had to! With any luck, the Britishers had been keeping station with their dreadnoughts. That would put their start speed at 19 knots, 20 at most.
Even at 10 degrees, 29 knots instantly transformed the deck into a treacherous slope and, from the cries above, not all had been prepared. Turning forces were also trying to pitch them all into the sea. The North Sea. There’d never been cause to do this sort of thing in the Baltic! Gut Gott, but he wished he were back there again!
---- Room 40
The junior officer who stepped into the room displayed an unseemly excitement.
“Sirs! Sirs! MiLords! The Germans scout cruisers, they’ve sent back, well, they look to be sighting reports.”
Well, of course they had, thought Jan. What was so momentous .... But the speaker’s pause had not been to allow questions, but simply to draw breath.
“And, MiLords! The Commander - High Seas Fleet has acknowledged. Excuse me, Grosser Kurfurst has, with Letters’ callsign ...”
Letters wasn’t with the battlecruisers? But ....
“... and they’re at sea! They’re somewhere in his van!”
1) His birth records give his name as Wesley Welt Hakonson, but all contemporary naval records and correspondence identify him as “Wes Welt Hakonson.” Biographers have theorized that he simply disliked “Wesley” and somehow managed (or bribed) clericals to make the necessary modifications to the necessary official records.
2) International chess had been a major force for many years before the Great War, including gambit chess. For example, the “Immortal Game” had been played in 1851. That encounter had involved the King’s Gambit. See:
Perhaps the first American chess wunderkind - Paul Morphy - had already come and gone from the chess, having retired from competitive chess in 1859 and died in 1884.
When the Great War began, the reigning world champion of chess was, and had been for twenty years, the German Emanuel Lasker.
3) The gun mounts on Birkenhead and Chester (PI) could elevate just 15 degrees. As mounted on Hood (CPII), Borys would have already had reason to have second thoughts on gambits. See:
5) S.177 was historically sunk on December 23, 1915 after hitting a mine in the Baltic. Having been recalled from the Baltic to join the depleted HSF, she may avoid that demise, though she might well find another.