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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XI


July 3, 1915

---- Room 40

Commander Jan was attempting to follow several conversations at once.  One doughty admiral was brusquely holding forth to one elegant minister on the political ramifications of the German raid.  That seemed entirely reasonable to Jan, in that the same minister had just finished propounding to the admiral the military implications of the same German operation.  Jan bemusedly kept half an ear on that one, minding if things looked to become heated, since De Robeck swam in that odd confluence of waters.  Just a rod distant, two naval captains were trading guesses as to what the redoubtable Commodore Nott would do, now that he knew that the Germans had multiple cruisers and torpedoboats to his northeast, potentially able to pin him against Letters and the battlecruisers to his south.  When one bold junior reminded them that Letters was not with the battlecruisers, the two stilled, perhaps in confusion.

"... it's the bloody 'why?' of it that I don't understand."  Only the sudden lull of the captains had allowed Jan to catch that fragment, and he tried to ascertain the speaker.  The words looked to have emanated from a trio tucked into a different corner of the room, staring at the great map from some distance.  Did the separation indicate an absence of standing?  Or had they no need to draw closer?  Were they hill toppers?  Or masters?  (NOTE 1)

"No," the man responded, to a question that Jan must have missed.  "Sure, a crystal ball would be nice, but an omniorb shouldn't be necessary to predict what's at sea, si?  Plus we know most of all that anyway.  Oh, not the entire order of battle, mind you, but that's not so terribly important just now.  But I ask again, 'why?'   Do you really suppose a game of piers is worth the candle when the wick's their best battlecruisers?"

"That's Dawes," Sartore said at his elbow.  "One of Carson's lads.  Bright.  Out of Somerset, I think."

"Good question there.  Know him?"

"No, not really, saw a bit of him at Wolverhampton, that's it."

" ... stanglehold like one of those big bloody snakes.  This is serious, Mum!"  This from one of Dawes' fellow corner-ites.

"And the jester with him?"  Jan asked.  He could understand the giddiness.  It had already been a long day.  For De Robeck, spirited out to sea during the night, it must seem an eternity.

"The tall one that just spoke up?  Boon's his name, first name David.  Know him from Springvale.  One of Kitchener's."

"Python's not right," they heard Dawes reply, clearly warming to the simile and oblivious to his other audience.  "Their navy's just not big enough.  Tirpitz' yards've weren't up to generating a python skeleton.  Even now we're a match.  Nor were they viper enough to kill us when they did manage a bite.  No, it's a very different sort of snake we're facing.  A corba, perhaps."

"A 'corba'!"  This a new voice.  "That's good!"

"The third?"  Jan asked.

"Don't know him; one of Curzon's, I think."

Jan restrained a grimace.  Half of HMG had minions here!  Was this De Robeck's doing?  Or had De Robeck seen ahead to this?  In any case, the Commander - Grand Fleet would always be in a stern chase here, and that was no small matter.

---- Derfflinger, course 065, speed 22.5 knots

"Admiral," Theodor began, "the lookouts are reporting that the range to the Britishers is opening more quickly.  It began within the last few minutes."

Necki acknowledged, turning towards the tiny, sky-pointing threads on the horizon, which were all that could be seen from the bridge.  The slight but confirmed increases of the last hours had been welcome.  This, however, could mean any of several things up to and including that others had just cast new stones into the pond, shells into the North Sea.

"Kapitan, bring us onto 045."

Once Theodor had given the orders and had time to think, he gave the admiral a long look.  It was not so much one of reproach as it was a reminder that he was ostensibly the other's flag captain.  His reward was a slight quirk at the corner of the admiral's mouth.

"Just testing a hypothesis, kapitan."

---- HMS Birkenhead, course 080, speed 25 knots

Commander Thatcher felt increasingly troubled as he quartered the horizon ahead through his glasses.  One cruiser and one torpedoboat, and he was continuing to slowly but steadily gain on them.  The Commander - Grand Fleet had gone to considerable lengths to engender into his scouting commanders serious misgivings of stern chases so blatantly offered.  (NOTE 2)  Indeed, this warm July afternoon was shaping into one very much like that one.  Thatcher was most earnest in his desire to limit matters to similarity of weather and not congruency of results.

The closing speed had been higher until the Germans had turned to put him dead astern, but the range was still dropping at a rate of about two knots.  Another quarter hour and he'd be able to try ranging shots.

He didn't think that would happen.  The German commander's initial course had not been best for flight.  More importantly, he'd held it for too long for it to have been a simple mistake, say, by a junior officer standing bridge watch in the absence of the captain.

No, the Germans were too calculating for that.  And so, he was unsurprised not five minutes later at the report from the lookouts.

"Sir, new contacts, multiple smoke plumes, bearing 090."

Thatcher actually felt relieved, much like a would-be sleeper after the boarder in the room above finally let his second boot fall to the floor.  (NOTE 3)  In just minutes, his suspicions were most thoroughly confirmed.

"Signals Officer!"

---- Lübeck, course 110, speed 23 knots

Korvettenkapitän Borys had, in truth, been even more relieved than Thatcher, some eight miles astern, to spot the German plumes.  He wiped his face with a soft cloth.  He had cut it a lot closer than he had intended.  If the British had been Arethusas, it might have been too close.

First to come into view had been Ehrhart, at the head of several half-flotillas, but the lead dreadnoughts had been close behind.  Borys stayed on his course, which turned out to aim him to pass by the HSF a few thousand yards to the north.  This was so as not to block the line of sight of his seniors to what pursued him.  He'd considered but rejected trying to obscure the British line of sight; the wind had spread the German plumes across too great an arc for anything like that to work today.

---- Großes Torpedoboot S.177, course 090, speed 29 knots

Oberleutnant Hackaufsohn also felt relief.  The Britisher flotilla had been preternaturally quick to respond, but the vectors and his superior initial speed had been enough to win him clear.

"Sir!  Our signal has been acknowledged. ..."

An anchor off his shoulders!

"Uh, sir, that's ... not all." 

Hackaufsohn took in the rating's expression and then eyed the proffered message slip as though it were an adder.  As well he ought, it turned out.

Remain in contact!


The anchor was back!  And three more with it!

"Gott in Himmel!"

"Helm ...."

Well, he'd chafed at anonymity while his craft and crew plied the Baltic, wanting to play a real role in this naval war.  He really should learn to be more careful as to what he wished for, he decided, not bothering to hide his rueful grin.  (NOTE 4)

---- HMS Falmouth, course 135, speed 25 knots

"Sir, Commmander Thatcher is reporting sighting the High Seas Fleet!  Well, several dreadnoughts of it so far."

Captain Hakonson frowned at that.  Thatcher, who commanded the junior half of the squadron, was somewhere to the north.  He took another look about and stepped back to the plot.

"Show me," he said to the Navigator.

It was as he'd begun to suspect.  His pursuit of the Germans still on his bow had taken him too far to the south to spot their fleet.  His frown deepened.  Likely that had been their intention all along.

"Range?"  This had been to his lookout chief.

"Put it at 17,000, sir.  Maybe 500 more, but maybe not."

They'd be the better part of another hour trying to get them in range.

They were doing no good here, chasing this will-o'-the-wisp.  And the German fleet was elsewhere.

"Helm, bring us left us.  Course 000."

"Signals Officer, for the flagship ...."

---- Bremen, course 135, speed 23 knots

Thatcher was not the only one questioning the range.  Korvettenkapitän Conda had just asked the same question, and not for the first time these last many minutes.

"17,000, sir.  Dropping at two knots, maybe 2-and-a-half."

"Sir!  The British are turning away."

Conda resisted the urge to turn immediately to follow.  At the least, he needed to confirm one important point.  Yes, he could make out the Britisher's starboard beam.

"Both cruisers?" 

"Yes, sir."

Ah, there she was.  Both seemed to have steadied up on some northerly heading.  And there'd been only the two of them, no matter what the briefing notes had had printed in them.

"Helm, left 5 degrees rudder.  Come to course 000."

---- Warspite, course 150, speed 20.5 knots

Thatcher's report had been followed somewhat tardily by one from Room 40 saying much the same thing.  The plot put the German fleet slightly south of east, range 40,000 yards, give or take a mile or three.  The battlecruisers had to be closer.  Tantalizingly so.  Indeed, his van screen might sight Nott at any moment.  Once that sighting occurred, he'd be able to plot the relative positions precisely and, with that determination, assess the chance of interception before the rest of the German fleet could intervene.  He just needed them to appear on his starboard bow, and not to port, because in the latter case they would've already won past him.

Did the Germans even know that he had the dreadnoughts at sea?  That was the salient question.

"... a second torpedoboat, now. ... Turned away."

One torpedoboat encounter might be simply chance.  A second, however, boded ill for any element of surprise.  Somewhat reluctantly, De Robeck decided that he must discard the charming notion of taking the Germans to the south unawares.  Yes, he could doubtlessly continue proceeding on the rosy assumption that neither TB had managed to both sight and report the presence of the fleet, but that was patently the path to perdition; De Robeck doubted that not a whit.  No sooner had he reached that conclusion when report of a third torpedoboat sighting was received.  This one's approach, like the two before, was quickly rebuffed, and it recoiled to the east at high speed.


It was another wireless from Room 40.  He might have to rethink this entire Room 40 business, he thought as he took the slip.  So far they had only succeeded in distracting him with late repetitions of ....  No!  This one was very different!  Indeed, it was spot on point, confirming as it did that at least one of those TBs had both gotten off a sighting and received confirmation.  De Robeck nodded to himself.  This report alone justified the lot of them. 

The last part, that Letters was with the dreadnoughts to the east and not the battlecruisers to the south, came as a bit of a surprise but perhaps it should not have, De Robeck conceded after a bit of reflection.  It might be of use, but he could not see how, at least not just now.

The pragmatic conclusion to be drawn from all this was that he was not going to be able to bring the battlecruisers to battle, no matter what bearing they showed up on now.  With the HSF in support distance and his own force's presence and position reported, the battlecruiser force could just use their superior speed and play him like some great game fish.  Room 40 had averted any chance that he might have fallen into that sort of trap.  Pity.  Bringing the battlecruisers to book would have been a most satisfying outcome.

De Robeck looked up into the mostly sunny sky.  Several hours of good light remained.  Perhaps there was an opportunity here, after all.  Just not the one he'd expected.

---- Großes Torpedoboot S.177, course 030, speed 29.5 knots

It looked like they'd gotten clear.  Again.

Oberleutnant Hackaufsohn mopped his face, more from the spray than the heat.  The Engineer had found a few more turns when he was told that the entire British navy was chasing them.  This time, though, he thought it'd been a different screen unit that'd seen him off.  The dreadnoughts had continued as before, seemingly disdaining him entirely, but their 20 knot speed had steadily pushed Hackaufsohn down the port side of their formation.

"Helm, bring us onto 270."

This time he'd try coming at them from well abaft the beam.  Maybe they'd not catch sight of him quite so quickly if he were in their plume and wake.

Absently, he looked at the cloth.  It was already gray from the soot on his face.  In the Britishers' plume, it would blacken quickly.

---- Southampton, course 055, speed 22 knots

"Commodore, the range is dropping.  The Germans appeared to have altered towards us."

Dedmon was unsurprised.  Nott had clearly expected such a move when he declined to make up the ground lost earlier or even to match the German's revised course.  Once again, the Commodore had read Letters' mind.

"The flotilla squadrons?"

"No report yet, sir."

The smaller craft were not really visible at this range, beyond their smoke.

"Commmander, bring us onto 045, and we'll see."

"Aye, aye, sir."

---- Derfflinger, course 045, speed 22.5 knots

"Admiral, the Britishers look to have matched our course."

"Yes," Necki replied, almost absently, having seemingly lost interest in the antics of the British cruiser squadron.  He was studying the wireless messages that had just been tendered.

So, he'd been right.  The British Grand Fleet was indeed at sea - why he did not know and just now did not care - and were attempting an intercept.  Even now, they were somewhere not too distant to the north.  Any satisfaction that he might have drawn from this confirmation of his Holmesian deductions was mooted, however, by the other messages.  The Baron had also apparently seen ahead to this - and far earlier at that! - and had somehow fought his way out of Wilhelmshaven in time to be just a few dozen miles somewhere to the northeast, in a position to potentially threaten the British flank and egress.

How had he managed it?  Necki rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.  The admiralty, all the way up to Tirpitz, had vigorously opposed the HSF sortie, calling any such "a premature adventure" (NOTE 5) until repairs had been completed.  There were even hints that other personages, reportedly quite highly placed and well offstage, had been busily intriguing to halter Letters.  But here he was.

---- Großes Torpedoboot S.177, course 180, speed 29.5 knots

Hackaufsohn hoped he'd not waited too long, but he'd had to break contact before trying to run in on the Britishers again.  Last time, he'd barely sighted the massed plume of the six or more dreadnoughts when a flotilla had chased him off.  They'd seemed very touchy about anyone directly in their wake.  This time he was coming up from astern but well out along their port side.  Per the plot, the Britisher dreadnoughts ought to be easing into view, albeit at considerable distance, in about ten minutes on a southwesterly bearing.  His highest risk, he reckoned, was that he might be running right up the back of the first flotilla he'd encountered.  In any event, he had several minutes grace.

His first indication of miscalculation came from his lookouts.

"Sir, contact ... multiple contacts, bearing 260!  Dreadnoughts!"

"What!"  Hackaufsohn fumbled with his binoculars.

"They're bows on, sir!  Range 18,000 yards."

Scheiße!  Coming right at him?!  What was that?  Three columns?

But that was only the first indication.

---- HMS Falmouth, course 000, speed 25 knots

" 'e's German, sir.  Confirmed."

"Open fire," ordered Captain Hakonson, a grim but eager smile on his face.

The range was long - near the very edge of their effective range - but the splashes began tracking in quickly, nonetheless.  The German turned away almost instantly, but Hakonson was not about to let them get away so easily.

"Helm!  Come to 030."

"Crack-crack!"  He briefly started at the noise from astern as Yarmouth joined in.

His rudder threw off gunners' aim, but the splashes resumed their relentlessly pace to their foe and they were straddling in minutes.  Yarmouth's shells seemed more scattered, as their gunners had to make do as best they could through Falmouth's smoke.


The German jinked wildly, and again they lost their aim, but the splashes soon tracked back again.


A trace of smoke threaded back this time, then stopped.  The number of splashes dropped off and Hakonson realized that Yarmouth's guns had gone silent.


Hakonson wasn't sure of that one, having not spotted a detonation.  The splashes drifted into the enemy's wake.  Damn!  They'd lost the range.  He kept on, hoping they'd slow, heartened by an occasional closer splash, but it was soon clear the German had gotten away.  Not unscathed, but away nonetheless.

---- Room 40

Admiral De Robeck's turn had caught more than Oberleutnant Hackaufsohn by surprise.  Most in the distant British center had agreed that the battlecruisers were no longer on the board, having been succored by the appearance of the HSF.  A few, however, did not welcome the change, Jan was finding.

"So, the Hun battlecuisers escape.  Again.  He'll not like that, 'e won't."

"How will you present it to him?"

"Don't matter.  'Already know how 'e'll react."

"You do?"

"Indeed.  Oh, he might start off with a show of civility, but in minutes he'll turn silly shrill.  'Preposterous,' he'll start off and only get worse as he goes."

Jan resisted the urge to scratch his head.  Whom were they talking about?

"How can you be so ...?"

"Always does.  A wager, then?  My guinea to your shilling?  Be warned, my dear Watson, it's elemen-  ...  "

The other joined in at the end of the word; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories were still very much in center front.  (NOTE 6)


"Done!  Can one be so odiously predictable?"

"Once I have your coin, you're welcome to try me again."

Author's NOTEs:

1) Code words of the time and place.  See:

2) June 20, 1915.  See:‑jun18‑decisions‑23.html

3) Though I've always liked CS Forester's version, see:‑wai1.htm

The Hornblower scene I'm referring to is in Chapter 3 of _The Commodore_ which was published in the US as_Commodore Hornblower_, in HH's private sitting room in the Golden Cross inn.  The HH series can be found on-line, though one may have to haunt Google cache to find certain titles.  For example, google:

"commodore Hornblower night dismiss servant" And select "cache".

4) Admiral Hanzik would have understood.  See, Dawn + 2 hours on bridge of Moltke, at:‑jun6‑north‑sea.html

5) The phrase was, of course: "Ein verfrühtes Abenteuer" and, allegedly, the source of the title of the bestseller by the same name.

6) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was educated at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, receiving a medical degree in 1881.  Initially, he served as a ship's doctor but then set up in private practice and began to write his stories while waiting for patients to show up (hence Doctor Watson, one presumes).  Fortunately for readers, his practice failed, thus he had considerable time to write.  Among the many intriguing factoids from his life, the ones that have always most interested the author or Letterstime are that he was the first goalie for the Portsmouth Football Club and that Doyle may have been the perpetrator of the Piltdown Man hoax.  One typical site:‑arthur‑conan‑doyle

In 1975, an old steamer trunk was found in the loft of the British Museum whose contents persuaded (per article in Nature Magazine in 1996) many that the person responsible had not been Doyle, but a fellow scientist (Hinton).

Others remain unconvinced noting, for example, that the chemicals and items in that trunk are inconsistent with the hoax materials:

See the "Perpetrator List."

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