Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XIV
July 3, 1915
---- Warspite, course 120, speed 20 knots
The flags had gone up the hoists just minutes ago. The orders were to form Line of Battle on course 180, parallel to the Germans. This would place the starboard column, headed by Admiral Gaunt’s Marlborough , at the head. (NOTE 1)
“Sir, estimated range 21,000 yards.”
“Very well,” De Robeck replied.
“All have acknowledged, sir.”
“Very well,” De Robeck repeated. His intent was to begin the engagement at 20,000 yards and the formations were presently closing at something over 700 yards per minute. “Execute.” Once on a parallel course, the range would continue to drop, but much more slowly, as the faster British force drew more directly abeam. At the moment, the bearing to the lead German dreadnought was 110. Given the RN speed advantage, this fine control could be put to use, and De Robeck planned to do just that.
---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 180, speed 15 knots
“Sir, the British are altering course ... AND formation.”
“They’re forming Line,” Kapitan Schnell commented. “Parallel course, it seems.”
“Yes,” said Letters. “They appear to still be out of range.” He looked the question over to the bridge officers.
“Sir, range estimate is 21,000 yards.”
“Beyond our gun range, that is,” Schnell confirmed.
“Jah, but maybe not the Britishers’, Kapitan? I expect we’ll soon....”
“Ah!” There was a chorus of exclamations - instantly stilled by supervisors - as smoke puffs appeared on most of the distant forms.
“Well, Gentlemen, we’ll learn in a few moments. Signals Officer, inform Admiral Necki of our current course, and that we’re now engaged.”
Strange things go through the minds of men when shells are in flight, especially when the wait was long and one was unable to fire back. (NOTE 2) Grosser Kurfurst’s CO turned out to be no exception. WERE they engaged? Schnell wondered. The Baron had not even flickered at the use of the term. But, surely, if both forces were still out of range, they could hardly be considered “engaged”, now, could they? And, what if it turned out the Britishers could reach them, but that they could not reply? Would that make the Brits be “engaged” but the Germans not? Schnell put 30 seconds into the notions; there was little else he could do, after all.
Whatever Letters was thinking was well hidden behind the large pair of binoculars seemingly grafted onto his face, leaving only his mouth exposed to view.
“Signals Officer,” those lips pronounced, “hoist 16 knots.”
---- Konig Albert, course 180, speed 15 knots
Those same thirty seconds passed particularly slowly for Kapitan Aurich, for whom this was his first dreadnought engagement. So many tons of enemy metal, so high, all about to fall ... somewhere! He looked up and caught a couple little glints as the shells turned over.
Oddly enough, his main feeling was one of sudden relief.
No matter what happened now, the invisible taint of their absence from Die Kaiserschlacht was about to end. Now, he had to hope the shells currently plunging towards him would end no more than that.
---- Warspite, course 180, speed 20 knots
“Short, sir,” came the report from the spotters. “All ships, all we could see, sir.”
De Robeck merely nodded. Any longs would have been - absent some quite fortunate exception - effectively invisible. The Germans had not yet opened fire in return. Had they the range of them, then? Was that why they were remaining silent? There was little enough silence here, he thought, as the second salvo went out. As for quietude, or more properly its lack, it was probably just as well that the admiral could not hear the forcefully audible expressions of mixed glee and dismay even then being most colorfully mingled and mangled aloud by the Queen Elizabeth’s Gunnery Officer astern three ships astern.
Warspite’s guns fired another salvo, as did the others, shortly after. After another few seconds, Agincourt , then Bellerophon fired their first shots in anger this day.
Again, they all seemed to be short. But they seemed to be gaining the range. And still the turrets of the Germans remained silent.
---- Ostfiesland, course 180, speed 15 knots
Rudberg had watched the splashes begin their slow march towards the German Line of Battle. The British were clearly refining their solutions, getting the angle progression tight, working their ladder. (NOTE 3) After the first few salvos, the splashes generally grouped well and had settled on line with their respective targets. For reasons known only to the British, despite shooting nine at eight, two of the German ships appeared not to targeted at all. Whatever the reason, Rudberg was almost embarrassed about it, because one of the skipped ships was his own. (NOTE 4)
“The execute, sir!”
“Ahead Flank, make turns for 16 knots.”
This would disturb the British gunners only very briefly, thought Rudberg. New sets of splashes appeared and this time none of the Germans was excepted. Frederick der Grosse, two ships ahead, was nearly straddled. Next closest were the ones near Helgoland , one ship astern. The Baron had best do something ....
“Sir, new flags. ‘All ships together, course 160.’ “
Ah! Rudberg actually smiled. That might work. At least for a few minutes, he amended, the turn of his mouth flattening out so quickly that his aide wondered if he’d simply imagined it.
---- Kronprinz, course 180, speed 16 knots
Kapitan Wilhelm noted the blank looks of his bridge officers. Their wits, he decided, had already begun to elude them at the threatening spectacle of the steadily approaching architecture of the shell splash pillars of the sea. They were brave men all, Wilhelm doubted it not a bit, having been through Die Kaiserschlacht with most of them, after all. It was just that it was a far different matter when one could not shoot back and could only watch as, every 30 seconds, the enemy’s shells crept so visibly nearer, like some murderous watery metronome.
“Sir, there’s the execute.”
“Very well. Helm, bring us onto 160. Match the flagship.”
“Aye, aye, sir. Coming left .... Steady on 160. Answering 16 knots.”
Wilhelm acknowledged and turned to his junior officers. “Well, gentlemen,” he began. “Attempting to read a flag officer’s mind is generally considered an unwise exercise.” He paused, partly for effect but mostly to cough at a gust of sooty smoke brought into the bridge on an eddy of wind from Grosser Kurfurst, dead ahead. The others’ brief grins showed he had succeeded in easing the tension some. For the moment.
“Consider the 20-70 right triangle,” he said, then paused again as it was time for .... They all turned to face starboard; they could not help it.
“Ah.” The splashes remained on line, but this time not closer than the previous ones, perhaps 300 yards off. The previous two had closed something like 100 yards a salvo.
“Let our speed and ... TRUE course represent the hypotenuse,” Wilhelm resumed, as the shell splashes subsided abeam. The added emphasis had been clue enough at least for his navigator, Wilhelm was relieved to see, by the other’s sudden nod in understanding. “Our previous course, 180, would then be the height. In effect, gentlemen, we should appear, at this range, to still be doing 15 knots on 180. Even as we are also making 5 knots due east.” (NOTE 5)
He turned to look out to starboard then. Right on cue, another set of fountains rose from the waves and these might have been slightly shorter than the last salvo.
---- Warspite, course 180, speed 20 knots
The bearing was nearing 90 degrees, but they had yet to hit the enemy with 15 salvos gone. They may have straddled once or twice, but even that was hard to tell at this range despite the Germans’ taunting refusal to fire back. With those few possible exceptions, all their shells were still all falling short, though just how short was difficult to tell at this range. There must have been “overs” - must have been! But, if so, they’d not been detected.
“Admiral, confirmed. The range is NOT dropping. It had been, but no longer. In fact, sir, Gunner thinks it’s begun to open. He, he said to report that they must have altered course slightly away sometime after we opened fire.”
“Very well. Hoist 150.”
De Robeck cast a look to the southwest. The orb was nearer the horizon, but the light was still good.
“Sir, Marlborough has acknowledged.”
---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 160, speed 16 knots
This couldn’t last, Letters realized, but he needed to buy still more time. The sun he could estimate, but both Necki’s location and status were far less certain.
“Signals Officer, hoist 17 knots.”
He waited, keeping his eye more on the shell splashes than the enemy ships creating them. Buying time by the minute remained feasible only if the seller kept accepting small enough coins.
“Sir, all acknowledge.”
Very well. Leave it up on the yards. Hoist 150.” (NOTE 6)
There! That salvo seemed nearer. Should he wait? He looked back along his formation. The others seemed no closer. There also seemed fewer groupings in that set. Had some shooters lost the range? Oh! The latest salvo was considerably closer than the other recent ones. So, the lead ships were shooting closer, but the others .... The British must have turned while staying in Line! The trail ships were still on the old course, and each was briefly holding fire until steady on their new course.
“Execute 17 knots. Report status of acknowledgment of course 150.”
“Sir, ... all have acknowledged 150.”
“Execute 150.” He paused as another set of shells pounded into the sea, closer still. They were 200 yards short, he decided. Maybe.
“Admiral, request permission to open fire.”
“Kapitan, has your Gunnery Officer concluded that we’re truly within range?” The groupings of the British splashes looked no closer than before. So far, only seemingly-random shells had been closer or over. That is, each time the British shells had splashed in groups, they’d been short. If the range had drifted under 20,000 yards, it was not by much.
“He’d like to try, sir.” Indeed, he’d asked to open fire several times, but Schnell had resisted asking until now.
“No, Kapitan. The British are educating us on the limits of their gunnery. I have no desire to teach them ours. (NOTE 8)
“Hoist 18 knots,” ordered Letters. “Signals Officer, for Admiral Necki: ‘Report Estimated Position ... “ He paused as the next set of splashes jetted out of the waves, again about 200 yards short. “... and Status’,” Letters finally finished. The water columns had not fully fallen when another set of splashes arose, with these about 300 yards short and with a much looser grouping. He had not been quite sure before, but it was clear enough now that there were two dreadnoughts shooting at his ship, the lead German ship, and both seemed to be getting the range.
Letters glanced at the sun, which seemed to have stood still these last minutes, and then at the distant enemy.
“Sir, the British have turned to match our course.”
“Very well,” he replied, at the belated confirmation of his earlier deduction. If the British would “lean in” a bit more, might he be able to cut across their van? No, he decided, this De Robeck was playing too cautious a game for that. Had done so all day. His thoughts were interrupted by the next splashes, this time a dozen degrees offline from his turn, but likely closer still.
“Hoist 135.” Would that be coins enough for another quarter-hour? He doubted it. And so he scanned the waves to port, the unengaged side, to check Ehrhart’s position, and those of the other coins he might have to shortly spend.
1) Per a previous chapter, the three trios are in columns:
To starboard of Warspite:
Marlborough (Gaunt) - Colossus - Vanguard
Warspite (DeRobeck) - St. Vincent - Agincourt ,
To port of Warspite :
QE (Keyes) - Bellerophon - Neptune
2) Time of flight for the shells in this story at 20,000 yards was typically just over 30 seconds. From the NavWeaps site, it was 35 seconds for 15/42, while the lighter 12/50 shells with their higher muzzle velocity would have had flight times closer to 30 seconds. The 13.5" shells flight times would have been between 30 and 35 seconds, depending on where in the barrel life cycle the guns were (new muzzle velocity was ~2,500 fps and they were replaced at 2,100 fps).
3) Actually, the Germans used a ladder ranging system, but the British did not, at least not the way the Germans did. Here, Rudberg is considering it in terms he knows more than he is claiming any particular targeting system logic for the British.
4) This is not a British targeting mistake, such as occurred at historical Dogger Bank and Jutland (and Letterstime Die Kaiserschlacht). Agincourt and Bellerophon’s 12/45 turrets were limited to 13.5 degrees elevation, or a maximum of 18,850 yards (see url below) before gun wear reductions. Historically, both would later undergo expensive post-Jutland modifications to increase elevation to 16 degrees that would extend their range to about 20,500 yards. Note also, Bellerophon would “currently” have 4 crh shells, while Agincourt would have 2 crh shells.
The ship assigned to Ostfriesland is Agincourt . De Robeck’s fire allocation flags for his 9-on-8 are identical to Beatty’s 6-on-5 at historical Jutland , but jj allows no “truth is stranger than fiction” screw-up as actually happened there.
5) Sin 20 = 0.341 or, to express it another way, by the Pythagorean Theorem, 5-squared plus 15-squared = approximately 16-squared.
6) Sin 30 = 0.5 or, similar to NOTE 5, 8-squared plus 15-squared = 17-squared, with 8 approximately equal to 0.5 times 15. Thus, the German formation would still be moving south at 15 knots but would have increased the speed due east from 5 knots to about 7.5 knots.
7) Historically, at Jutland , the British had had 16 months to implement one key lesson from Dogger Bank that they did not gain in Letterstime. ( Campbell is one source of this limit and the timing of the fix.) Specifically, at Dogger Bank the British found themselves unable to use the full elevation of their guns, but were limited by their prisms to 15° 21'. Later, new prisms were placed in the director sights and the center position sights of turrets such that the next limitations became the range-finders. At 15° 21', the RN is limited to about 20,000 yards, with the superior range finders aboard the QEs giving them better accuracy than other RN shooters at long ranges such as that. The jj reflects the above for most of the pre-Jutland period.
8) Historically, it would only be after Jutland that the Germans would implement their own design modifications that would allow them to effectively aim their guns out past 19,500 yards. Campbell , whose work I rarely dispute, starts off his Chapter 4 (“Action Between Capital Ships. First Phase 1548-1654") with some commentary that has always appeared to me to be inconsistent with Georg von Hase’s own first person account as First Gunnery Officer of Derfflinger. Campbell offers that Hipper knew his maximum ranges to be 19,000 - 21,000 yards with Von der Tann able to reach 22,400 yards. In his personal recounting, von Hase lamented being repeatedly outranged that day, and described his workaround of training the guns on the “upper edge of funnels or mastheads” to extend the range an extra few yards. The RN BC fire was not accurate at that range, either, he reported (even with their new prisms), but they could still shoot and score occasional hits. He, on the other hand, fired “isolated shots from one turret” and “only fired to make quite sure that the enemy were still out of range.” The range von Hase cited as the limit was just under 18,000 meters and is the basis in jj for the upper range for German fire being 19,500 yards in pre-modification scenarios, such as this Letterstime engagement. Von Hase later stated that this deficiency was remedied post-Jutland such that he could shoot out to the limit of his sight (whatever that was; the jj assumes it to be about 22,000 yards).
In summary, this engagement has the potential to teach both sides the lessons that were historically learned elsewhen. The RN did not learn from Letterstime Dogger Bank, because those ships where folk would have learned did not survive that battle. Those who survived the loss of their ships either did not live to pass it along, or have not yet done so in the 5 months since that battle (versus the 16 historical). The Germans did not learn the lessons at Die Kaiserschlacht, because von Hase and the others did not experience the problems (sustained very long range exchanges) that they did at historical Jutland that led to those changes.