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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XVI

July 5, 1915

---- Wilhelmshaven and Rosyth

Yesterday, 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?"

Their 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 that wounded.

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.

Still, 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.

Eventually, 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.

In any 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.

---- Wilhelmshaven

It was a new day, a new morning, with dawn hardly two hours gone.

"Admiral?"  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.

Letters 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.

"The Unterseebooten," he put to his deputy.  "Did they all get out last night?"

"Yes," 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."

"Should have been yesterday, but ...."  He shook his head, truncating however he might have continued.  "Josef, are you comfortable with yours, now?  Truly?"

"Yes."  The Baron held the other's gaze.  "They're steady enough," Necki added into the pause. "Our Ausflug [excursion] did us good, there."

Letters 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."

---- HMS Rollonot, southern mouth of Denmark Strait

For some, it would begin sooner.

Captain Hawkins yawned cavernously at where the sun would soon show its face, his breath foul enough to cause an eclipse.

Some 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.

Hawkins 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 port. 

No, Hawkins 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.

Visibility 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.

---- U-43, surfaced, speed 3 knots, turning

For some, it had been a very long time in coming.

The young 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!


Those below 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.


The second 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.

Yes, her 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.

Nonetheless, he watched carefully as Hawkins' wish was granted.

---- I'ile aux Chiens

For some, it had already started.

"I don't know.  He doesn't look too good.  He's too old ...."

"Zak" 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 back.

The first 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?

"What ...?"  He interrupted his question to wretch again.  Forewarned this time, the others nimbly avoided it, and he splashed only the rocky beach.

Rocks.  Zak stared dumbly at the surface.  Beach.

It began to come back to him then.

"What do 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.

"It COULD 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?"

No, they hadn't, and they spent the next few minutes looking some more.

"Still, I'm not taking her in any further," declared the master.  "'Least not 'till we know more."

There was no dissent.  If it were the plague, it could doom them all to fevered, stinking, pustuled deaths.

"We can't 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."

"There're none on the beaches or the piers, that's clear enough from here."

"What about I'ile aux Chiens?  Where's the wind?"

"Ah, now that is a possibility.  Yes!  The wind is good."

It was 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 bodies.

"The doors!  They are all shut!  As are the windows!"

Was this 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.

"Sacre Bleu!"

"It cannot be the plague," Zak declared.  "They would have fled, all that could."

"Are you sure?  Would this not risk others?"

"I have 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."

Two had 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.

They had begun to edge in closer to the shore as they prepared to lower the rowboat.

And then ... Zak had found himself throwing up on rocks and laps.

"What ... happened?"

"We don't know.  Not exactly.  There was a great explosion.  The boat - my boat! - it is gone.  Only flotsam remains."

What could have caused such a thing?

"The maisons are empty," said another.  "All of them.  There are no bodies.  No notes, no signs.  Nothing."

Still, they were all alive.  (NOTE)  There was food and water.  And ... no one to share them with.

---- New York Times newsroom

For some, surprises are welcome.

"Who's on the phone?!  Browning?  You mean Maxwell Browning?!  Is this some kind of a joke?

"Okay!  Okay!  I'm sorry, okay?  CHIEF!  Look, lady, I said I'm sorry, already.

"CHIEF!  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 hoaxed here.

"Portland? Oregon? Maine! You mean Portland, Maine?! Omigod!


Author's NOTE:

Mine losses of even small vessels oft killed no one.  Here are two examples:

September 27, 1915: Vincent, schooner, gross 1,904 tons; sunk by mine in the North Sea, near Cape Orloff, Russia; 4 wounded. 

November 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!! ;-)) )

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