Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XVI
---- Wilhelmshaven and Rosyth
the fleets had returned and, promptly and predictably, the recriminations had
begun. The first of the briefings had likely started before the boilers had
cooled. And so, in two different countries, admirals and commodores had faced
their superiors with brows deferentially clear and countenances humbly
tranquil, while all the while their demeanors shouted, "We executed your
mission and got all our ships back, did we not?"
superiors, however, had been less than impressed, reflecting as they did the
reactions of those higher still. The admirals had taken damage, seemed to have
meted out less than they'd received, lost men, and squandered what appeared to
have been a priceless opportunity. For the British, the uproar over Southwold
only grew as the hours passed and the papers with photographs made the rounds.
The loss of SS Terrione, though a quite odiferous and insignificant vessel, had
helped matters not at all. For the Germans, Vice-Admiral Letters had acted
almost unilaterally in sortieing the High Seas Fleet and had returned with no
visible results save for a few shell holes, a dozen dead, and more than twice
Those most senior
in the Admiralties had little choice but to approve the actions of their
commanders, however, and all had known it from the start. No matter how stern
the First Sea Lord might scowl, without De Robeck's remote sortie preparations,
only Harwich Force would have been in play, letting the battlecruiser force
scamper back to Germany completely untouched and what a pretty mess THAT would
have been! Tirpitz' position was hardly better, as without Letters dashing out
at the first tenuous taste of contact, the Kaiser's own plan could have lost
them the Kaiser's own favorite battlecruisers, and the repercussions of THAT
outcome simply did not bear thinking about.
certain performance issues seemed troubling. De Robeck's dreadnoughts had
fired off not insubstantial portions of their magazines with precious little to
show for it. And shell stocks were nothing to trifle with just now. Why had
his ships' shooting been so poor? Had he opened fire while out of range and
kept it up anyway? In ironic contrast, German frowns accompanied the question
had not Letters held his fire longer than perhaps he should have? In any case,
his superiors questioned that decision no less sharply.
Nor did the
spotlight fall only on the fleet commanders. Commodore Tyrwhitt had been left
astern, almost casually so. However, since much of that could be laid at the
doorsteps of others, little could be made of it. Commodore Nott came the
closest to glory of any of them, having bear-baited superior force nearly all
of the day. Even Nott, though, had suffered casualties with virtually nothing
to show for it. On the German side, Admiral Necki had indeed shelled Britain as ordered, but he had not done so
with the great guns of the battlecruisers, which had been his unstated-but-assumed-to-be-obvious
instructions. He had gotten back, but had proven completely unable to snap up
warship targets of opportunity that seemed to have been dangled before him.
on both sides of the Channel, muted praise overtook criticism. The latter
benefitted no one but the enemy, and the former was politically expedient and
was discovered even to have some slender bases in fact. British capital ships
had met the enemy in battle for the third time this year. The previous two
battles had been such catastrophes that this lossless outcome looked quite
respectable alongside them. Might this engagement signal that the turning
point had at last been reached? More ships would soon return to the fleet and
others were nearing completion. For the Germans, they had once again sortied
into the Lion's den, inflicted damage, battled His Britannic Majesty's Royal
Navy, made them break off, and returned to port intact. More ships would soon
be repaired and others would soon be finished.
case, it was not as though either Admiralty felt in a position to replace their
fleet commander. The British defeats had removed all others from serious
consideration, just as surely as the victories had done for the Germans. Both
sides were also preoccupied with other, more strategic aspects of the naval
situation. The British knew of no more merchant losses, but also knew not how
or where the Germans had managed to hide two battlecruisers, four light
cruisers, and somewhere between 20 and 40 prizes. The earlier answer that the Atlantic was big had long ago worn thin.
Still, Halifax's minefields had been greatly
expanded, Burney had Bermuda well and safe, and Admiral Seavey
would arrive there with the convoy he was warding in less than a week. For the
Germans, well, the Hanzik Force provided challenges for them, also.
It was a
new day, a new morning, with dawn hardly two hours gone.
The men looked up from the charts and lists. The Kapitänleutnant who stood at
the door was one of the aides to the HSF CO. The aide really had not want to
interrupt, especially as the meeting had no one in it below Kapitän zur See and
both of THEM were flagcaptains.
glanced at the wall clock and grimaced. Another meeting with the Admiralty and
he dared not be late. He bit back a curse. Self-control seemed harder today.
Stress? Well, he thought as he stood up, it was scarcely without cause! He
breathed deep and exhaled gently, stretching it out. Triage was more than how
to deal with casualties.
Unterseebooten," he put to his deputy. "Did they all get out last night?"
Rudberg replied simply, having seen the Baron shift into this state before and
recognized it. Of course, some had not been available, for one reason or
another, but Letters would know that. The HSF CO's question had been directed
at the ones that he, Letters, had managed to "acquire."
have been yesterday, but ...." He shook his head, truncating however he might
have continued. "Josef, are you comfortable with yours, now? Truly?"
Baron held the other's gaze. "They're steady enough," Necki added into the
pause. "Our Ausflug [excursion] did us good, there."
just grunted at that and stepped to the door. Then, once the aide had gotten
clear, "Ready them thoroughly, Joseph. Use any pretext you must. Carl, ... do
what you can. Tomorrow, it begins."
Rollonot, southern mouth of Denmark Strait
it would begin sooner.
Hawkins yawned cavernously at where the sun would soon show its face, his
breath foul enough to cause an eclipse.
declare the last hour of night and the first hour of light to be particularly
beautiful at sea, as low lying mists oft blanket the waves and turn silvery at
the first touch of light. Then, once the sun peeks above the horizon, the fog
slowly dissipates into packets, like pillows strewn about like cottony litter
on the heaving sea.
didn't give a rat's rectum about any of that, of course. Never had. In fact,
when it came to art, he was strictly a "nekkid lady" painting lover. "I like
'em loose and leering," he oft declaimed in the pubs. This was the seventh
dawn he'd seen here on this station and, he wished most fervently for it to be
the last. Any artsy-fartsy affection for Arctic Atlantic dawns he might ever
have had had been shivered out of Hawkins' hide a week ago. Crystal Palace was due to relieve him in the early afternoon; that was the
important thing. He had his reservist Second Officer - the one who'd avowed a
love for the dawn - off calculating from their coal their best speed back to
was on the bridge because the Admiralty held it to be the most dangerous time
of day. Actually, he did not dispute the point and the proper place for the
Commanding Officer was, of course, on the bridge at such times. Until
visibility rose to something like 5,000 yards, they could be taken unawares by
a cruiser or, worse, a battlecruiser and his sailing instructions specified
paying particular attention to having both lookouts and the wireless ready and
alert at dawn.
had gotten to almost 4,000 now, and was rising. But it was already as clear as
a fence post that there were no cruiser masts poking out of the mists, and
certainly no battlecruisers! Hawkins began to relax. He yawned again.
surfaced, speed 3 knots, turning
it had been a very long time in coming.
CO exulted as the massive pillar grew up along the side of his target, the AMC
he'd been stalking most carefully for the last few hours. From 800 yards, the
dark-cored white mass looked like a dirty mountain. The German reckoned it at
100 yards or more in height. Maybe 200! It was magnificent!
heard or felt the hit before he did and, when it came, the sound seemed more
like a "thud" than an explosion. It was deep and resonated in the officer's
gut but still seemed almost anti-climactic compared to the tonnage of water
thrust into the sky. And the month he'd been waiting to see it.
water column rose out of the sea just as the first collapsed alongside. This
one was further aft. The first one would have likely been enough, but his
orders had been to take no chances and they had come directly from the lips of
the Alpha Wolf himself. Indeed, the reason that his command was pivoting was
to present the stern tubes, just in case.
back was broken, and had been by the first hit. That was good, as they had
only six torpedoes and now he could reload and still have full tubes.
he watched carefully as Hawkins' wish was granted.
it had already started.
know. He doesn't look too good. He's too old ...."
Zakrzewski was 68 and might or might not have agreed with whatever the speaker
was about to say, but his forceful ejection of about a pint of brine into the
other's lap cut short the pronouncement. He followed that with a fluid patois
of French and Polish fouler and no less acrid that what had preceded it. After
a bit, he realized that his head hurt and that there were rocks gouging his
was not that unusual to a hard-drinking fisherman, but the second certainly
was. He was on a fishing boat, after all.
Or, was he?
...?" He interrupted his question to wretch again. Forewarned this time, the
others nimbly avoided it, and he splashed only the rocky beach.
stared dumbly at the surface. Beach.
It began to
come back to him then.
YOU think, Zak?" The schooner owner had asked him, some time before, perhaps
on the theory that the old Pole was likely to have seen more in his wanderings
than the others.
be the plague," Zak had answered, warily. The place looked deserted, totally
empty. The only noises were the slight splashing of the waves on the shore and
the truly eerie cries of the gulls, echoing derisively all about them. "But I
haven't seen any bodies. Has anyone?"
hadn't, and they spent the next few minutes looking some more.
not taking her in any further," declared the master. "'Least not 'till we know
no dissent. If it were the plague, it could doom them all to fevered,
stinking, pustuled deaths.
see much of St. Pierre from here ... no! I'm not saying
get closer! Just, there could be hundreds rotting in the streets and we'd not
see them. Not from here."
none on the beaches or the piers, that's clear enough from here."
I'ile aux Chiens? Where's the wind?"
that is a possibility. Yes! The wind is good."
behind them on that course. That is, they would be safe from any air-borne
contagion. Further into the strait between the islands, it was not clear just
what the wind might do from moment to moment. It would take only a brief gust
or eddy to infect them all.
And so they
had edged a little inshore towards I'ile aux Chiens -but not TOO close. The
beaches were clear, and they could see the paths and maisons clearly. No
They are all shut! As are the windows!"
important? Would they not have shut all the doors and windows anyway in their
efforts to avoid becoming infected from their neighbors?
"The boats! Look! The boats at St. Pierre. They're all coffled!"
This was a
winterizing measure, but it was already well into the season and there were
piles of cod drying on the stones.
be the plague," Zak declared. "They would have fled, all that could."
sure? Would this not risk others?"
seen it before. Always some have fled. Many, in fact. Always."
"If it is
not the plague, then we should be able to go ashore safely enough."
volunteered to row in, but not at St. Pierre. I'ile aux Chiens seemed still the safer choice. The thought of
stumbling upon mounds of rotting bodies in streets they could not see from the
ship daunted them. The others would remain on the schooner, just in case, or
something like that. Zak, for all that he was the first to swear it could not
be the plague, was one of those staying. He had not gotten to his age by
volunteering for foolhardy things while sober. This clearly called for younger
men, he had declared.
begun to edge in closer to the shore as they prepared to lower the rowboat.
... Zak had found himself throwing up on rocks and laps.
know. Not exactly. There was a great explosion. The boat - my boat! - it is
gone. Only flotsam remains."
have caused such a thing?
maisons are empty," said another. "All of them. There are no bodies. No
notes, no signs. Nothing."
were all alive. (NOTE) There was food and water. And ... no one to share
York Times newsroom
surprises are welcome.
the phone?! Browning? You mean Maxwell Browning?! Is this some kind of a
Okay! I'm sorry, okay? CHIEF! Look, lady, I said I'm sorry, already.
Yes, yes, we'll accept the charges! Wait! Wait! From where? I'm sorry,
Operator, but I gotta' ask. You see, the last I time we saw Max Browning was
something like two weeks ago and he was boarding an ocean liner for Germany. My boss'll kill me if I get
"Portland? Oregon? Maine! You mean Portland, Maine?! Omigod!
of even small vessels oft killed no one. Here are two examples:
27, 1915: Vincent,
schooner, gross 1,904 tons; sunk by mine in the North Sea, near Cape Orloff, Russia; 4 wounded.
18, 1915: Helen Martin, schooner, gross 2,265 tons; sunk by mine In North Set,
3 miles west-northwest of Cape Orloff, Russia; salvaged; 4 wounded.
(A grateful hat tip to Roller007!! ;-)) )