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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XIII

July 3, 1915

---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 260, speed 18 knots

Admiral Letters and Kapitan Schnell were still out on the port wingbridge when the report was relayed in from Ehrhart.

“ ‘Course 090'?" Schnell repeated aloud, turning to Letters beside him.

The Baron did not immediately reply. He looked up at the sky, checking the height of the late afternoon sun, perhaps, inhaled deeply, then let it out in almost a sigh. It was a noise that Schnell found himself quite unable to interpret.

“Kapitan Schnell, bring us onto course 180. Now. Hoist 15 knots, Immediate Execute.”

“Sir!” As Schnell turned to give the orders, Letters strode briskly past him and into the bridgehouse.

“Signals Officer,” Letters called out as he crossed the threshold, “for Kommodore Ehrhart: ‘Recall. Screen close port.’ “ That would bring in the flotillas and place them close aboard on the unengaged side of the HSF. “Immediate Execute.“

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Even though the acknowledgment came promptly, the speaker had to address it to the Baron’s broad back, as Letters had not so much as slowed as he traversed the bridge on his way out onto the starboard wingbridge.

---- Ostfriesland, course 260, speed 18 knots.

Vize-Admiral Rudberg’s shoulders slumped slightly when he saw the flagship beginning the turn to the south even before the flags made their way up the halyards. He studied the flags as the Line pivoted one ship at a time until it was the turn of Ostfiesland to tilt her decks to follow the flagship. He had hoped the Baron would change his mind, perhaps spotting an unexpected opening or change of the odds, but Rudberg was honest enough to admit to ambivalence. This was opportunity, yes ....

“Admiral, ....”

“Very well,” Rudberg replied, not wholly listening, the flags had already told their story, his sigh a sibilant echo of the one four ships ahead.

The deck tilted as his flagship turned to docilely follow the one 500 yards on her bow. Reflexively, he turned his head to check that those astern did the same. After a few minutes, he walked through Ostfriesland’s bridge, much as Letters had Grosser Kurfurst’s, though at a much more measured pace.

So, he thought as he made his way, the Baron had indeed decided NOT to attempt a meeting engagement after all. He had not ruled it out back in Wilhelmshaven . It was their best chance, Rudberg had argued, at bringing the British to battle if the Grand Fleet truly made their appearance, especially if they could be met on a reciprocal course. It was surely the HSF’s best chance for a strategic victory.

“Steady on course 180. Answering 15 knots.”

“Very well,” replied Rudberg. He put his emotions behind him, as best he could. That it had not been his decision to make made it easier. As did the fact that it had also been their best chance for a strategic defeat.

---- Frauenlob, course 260, speed 18 knots

The signal hoists were busy. The discordant chorus of squealing blocks, flapping flags, and hoarse signalists was by now a familiar one. Tilting his head as he scanned his various formations, Ehrhart thought to detect some changes. The blocks seemed louder, the muttered curses more florid.

“Lübeck has acknowledged.”

“Very well.” Ehrhart did not know quite what to make of Lübeck’s CO. Bald, bearded, and bulging, Borys had not made a good first impression with the more erudite acting-kommodore. In fact, it had bothered him so much that he’d felt compelled to make further inquiry. Borys’ reported tendency of stamping his feet on the deck for emphasis had done little to ease Ehrhart’s mind.

Nonetheless, he could not ignore the fact that it had been Borys’ TB who had emerged with the Grand Fleet sighting, a sighting apparently made possible by some inspired initiative by Borys himself to scatter his command upon first contact.

And now Borys’ acknowledgment had come first.

“ Stuttgart ... Berlin ....”

The others sent up their flags. Bremen remained unaccounted for, but that was expected, as she’d been chased off to the southwest by some RN CL squadron in the distant van. Even as flags ran up the hoists of the other flotillas,

“Kommodore! The flagship has signaled ‘Execute’.”

“Very well. Execute!”

---- Graudenz and Stralsund , course 045, speed 22.5 knots

“Sir! New contact, bearing 030!”

This was NOT a good bearing to discover Britishers! ANY Britishers! And, if this was the dreadnought force of the Grand Fleet ....

Kapitans Niemczyk and Schneider brought their binoculars to their brows, even as their hearts went to their throats.

They could see nothing from their bridges along the indicated bearing.

“Contact is a patrol ... torpedoboat .... She’s one of ours, sir!”

Borys other lost sheep had found the other KM flock. A development that would later only further confound Ehrhart.

---- Bremen , course 000, speed 23 knots

Korvettenkapitän Conda had succeeded in losing the British CL pair. Well, it might be more correct to say that the Britishers had lost HIM. In any case, “lost” was the right word, as he was now learning and, sadly, in more than one way. The hasty twists and turns of their frantic flight, followed by their abrupt turn to follow the RN CLs, had degraded the dead reckoning plot beyond the measure of his somewhat inexperienced navigator and quartermaster.

Conda was mortified as he regarded the chart and his subordinates. They had expected to spot the fleet 15 minutes ago. They had not, and they’d been slow to reveal their plight. By now, he thought, they might as well have been in Nugal for all they knew.

Their bleatings disgusted him. He was tempted - most heatedly so! - to curse them all roundly, rip up their hopeless plot, and stomp on the pieces, precisely as he’d heard Borys had once done during a Baltic exercise. He’d curled his lip at such unprofessionalism at the time, but he doubted that Borys was facing this sort of disaster today.

“Enough!” The fleet had to be still north of them and, by now, almost certainly west as well. He gritted his teeth against the bile that wanted out. To become lost during a battle!

“Helm, come to course 315.”

Actually, luck turned out to be with him, as Letters’ turn to the form Line of Battle on course 180 brought him within sight of the south-bound HSF van within five minutes. His group even came in from the SSE, putting them already on the ordered side. In fact, all he had to do was pirouette to port and match course and speed. This would be another story that Ehrhart would get wind of only later. For now, the Acting-Kommodore simply nodded approvingly at Bremen ’s timely re-appearance; they were even the first to reach their ordered slot.

---- Warspite, course 090, speed 20 knots

De Robeck calmly awaited events to unfold. He could do little else anyway. The battlecruisers lay somewhere below the southern horizon, a will o’ the wisp, ready to recede as fast as he could approach. (NOTE) Perhaps that was what they had been all along, some German bait by perhaps a clever admiral, perhaps transmogrified by victory into one a bit too clever. They might or might not factor later into what was about to transpire here, in these furlongs of North Sea waves on his bows. For now, he had them marked well at arm’s length, with ample scouts in his van and his trio of trios a tightly packed nine-spot sliding west.

“Sir, from Birkenhead , Commander Thatcher reports the German fleet has turned south, in line. Eight dreadnoughts, four of the K classes, four Hex classes.”

“Indeed, very good.”

Had Letters gotten an accurate count of De Robeck’s force and thought better of it after all? Whatever “IT” had been? De Robeck looked back to the southwest, where the sun was still a several disk heights above the horizon. Did he have enough time? Was this an attempt to gain a dusk engagement?

“Sir, lookouts report smoke, bearing 110. Multiple plumes, sir.”

He looked at the sun again. If that was what this was all about, he was confident Letters had timed it wrong, perhaps not having anticipated De Robeck’s premature turn to the west.

“Captain Swafford, Signals Officer, bring the fleet to course 120.”

---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 180, speed 15 knots

“Sir, multiple plumes, bearing 290.”

“The British have arrived,” Schnell murmured.

“Yes,” Letters agreed, almost absently. He was looking astern, due north, where Rudberg and seven dreadnoughts steamed obediently in his wake.

I’m so sorry, Carl Johann, he said inside his head, addressing the distant figure visible out on Ostfriesland’s starboard wingbridge. Maybe an 18-knot lunge directly into a meeting engagement really would have been our best chance.

I just have too many too precious balls in the air just now to risk my hands.

Author’s NOTE:

Can be found in numerous British (particularly from Wales ) folk tales. The theme common to them all is that chasing one is realllly not a good idea. See:'_the_wisp

Thus, naming it so defines the proper course of action. Cause? Or effect?

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