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PART 10: June 10, 1915  

Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XVII


July 5, 1915



---- U-43, surfaced, speed steerage way


"Captain!  Smoke, bearing 210."


"Very well," replied the young CO as he turned to face down the announced bearing.  The others topside did the same, with the exception of those lookouts who were assigned other bearing arcs.  Even they, however, could not resist sneaking a brief glance or two.  The tendency was a known one and, after a moment, a glower from the lookout chief set them all back on their assigned arcs.


The location was about right, as was the time.  Still, they watched the approaching column of smoke with a healthy skepticism.


"Chief, we'll be going to periscope depth in about 15 minutes.  Engineering, are we at full charge?"


The plume grew as the minutes passed until the source could only be the one for which they'd been waiting.  Even at less than maximum speed, the plume became an impressive sight and that was the basic problem.


"Right on time, Skipper," observed the younger-still XO.


"Yes, it's been a long wait."


Actually, the wait had not been that long.  Not in the absolute sense, but it had seemed like ages since they sunk the Britisher that dawn, instead of just a few hours.


"Send the message," the CO ordered.  He took another look around, drew in a last lungful of fresh air.  "Take us down."


And there they waited.  The CO gave as many as he could the opportunity to catch a look as the spectacle steamed by some dozen thousand yards distant.



---- Imperator, course something east of north, speed not fast enough


And spectacle it was, though Hadi Pasha (NOT Sultan!) little appreciated it.  The fresh fruit had long ago been consumed and the compotes seemed to have lost their zest.  Indeed, he had almost declined a third portion of breakfast breads this morning until one shrewd and scandalized servant had reminded him that there was still ample maple syrup.  A frown still lingered near as his servants settled him in his well-padded deck lounger.  One massive and swarthy figure stood nervously near at hand bearing an impressive load of blankets, as the mornings had chilled considerably these last few days.


Part of the Mighty One's anger stemmed from the fact that another vessel sometimes dared to deposit its soot upon his person.  He had had to pretend to tolerate that sort of thing when he'd won the great battle for the Germans while aboard one of their dreadnoughts, but he had become quite accustomed to being on the lead ship during the previous transit.  The owner of this ship had apologized and attempted to explain it but Hadi, smiling broadly and politely, had let it pass by his ears without notice.


Admiral Hanzik had studied the fuel economies revealed in the west-bound transit data generated by Kommodore von Hoban and Kapitan Siegmund aboard Strassburg.  (NOTE 1)  He had been so impressed that he'd written a commendation into the record for Strassburg's CO.  And so it was that Kronprinz Wilhelm led the way east, with Imperator and Vaterland efficiently but uncomfortably close aboard each of her after quarters, both their bows actually ahead of the other's stern.  Together, the trio broke down the waves and greatly eased the passage of those directly astern.  One theory was that they were creating, however shallow and short-lived, a distinct current along their combined course for the benefit of those in their massive combined wake.  The other two liners - Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kronprinzessin Cecilie - steamed just outboard and astern of their larger cousins, widening the zone.  This novel formation had not been arrived at by chance, but was the result of calculation tuned by iteration.  Acting in concert together this way had proven to reduce fuel consumption considerably for those in choice spots in their combined wake.  Thus, just astern and inboard of Imperator and Vaterland steamed the two battlecruisers, with the four light cruisers tucked into various other slots to their best advantage.


The main disadvantage from the perspective of the KM officers was the change in their perspective.  That is, their location internal to the formation also placed their lookouts inside that shell of civilian vessels.  By way of mitigation, Ballin had a great many lookouts posted and their vantage points up in the lofty superstructures of the great liners placed them much higher than was possible on the warships and the lookouts aboard Kronprinz Wilhelm in the van were KM anyway, even if they were not in uniform.


The CO of U-43 waited until well after the seagoing circus parade had disappeared to return to the surface.  They spent the next hour or so scanning for other plumes.  Then, once the plume had all but dissipated on the horizon to the north-northeast, he turned his - relatively - tiny vessel to follow the showy ships that had trundled past.



---- Rosyth, Admiralty Offices


Their Lordships had left De Robeck to the business of commanding the Grand Fleet, or so it seemed to the admiral and his beleaguered staff.  The cynics privately held that other disasters had simply taken preeminence aided, no doubt, by the happy fact that the Royal Navy had lost no ships in the last engagement.  The decision to return to Rosyth - rather than Scapa Flow - had been an easy one.  De Robeck had grave concerns about retracing routes in a sea known to be home to German u-boats and minelayers.  Rosyth also had the advantage of placing the fleet nearer the recent German sortie route.


"Sir, Admiral Gaunt is here."


"Show him in," replied De Robeck, and he rose to greet his visitor in all courtesy.  The request for a private meeting had come as a bit of a surprise.  Gaunt's division had performed no better or worse than the others.  (NOTE 2)


"Good morning, sir," began the Australian flag officer.  The other's demeanor puzzled De Robeck, who grew evermore certain that the matter on the other's mind troubled him most strangely.  The Commander - Grand Fleet patiently worked through the ritual preliminaries, but his curiosity grew apace.  Much reposed on both their plates, and Gaunt certainly knew that as well as did De Robeck.


"Sir," the tone of Gaunt's voice revealed that the matter of the moment was upon them.  "I have this morning received a packet from my brother."


"I see," De Robeck temporized.  Of course, fast steamers of convenient flag oft carried such, things too bulky or perhaps too sensitive for the cable.  The reason for his subordinate's misgivings was also revealed.  Captain Guy Gaunt was a Naval Attaché, reporting to Admiral Sir Reginald "Blinker" Hall, the head of British Naval Intelligence.  (NOTE 3) That Gaunt the Younger had private correspondence with his brother should have come as no surprise - though somehow it did - but the fact that the Elder had obviously decided that something needed to be shared ....


"On June 28," Gaunt continued, "the Americans met Admiral Burney's force 45 miles out to sea off Boston with a fleet including nine dreadnoughts, Admiral Stennis commanding."


"Indeed."  De Robeck's own last sortie strength had been dreadnoughts nine.  The plight of His Majesty's Royal Navy - and thus the Empire itself - could hardly have been dramatized more clearly.  He cleared his throat as he considered the implications.  Among them was the realization that any single mistake on his part could topple the RN from being the world's strongest to being not the second, but the third.


"Stennis was most polite, Admiral Burney reported, but remarkably forward.  Blunt, even."


De Robeck recollected that Admiral Stennis - Commander-Atlantic Fleet -  was the closest thing to his opposite number that the Americans had.


"Nine dreadnoughts," De Robeck murmured.  "That's all they have, is it not?"


"Yes, sir.  Ten would be all of them.  Though they've launched four others that I know of."  (NOTE 4)


"Just so."  At peace, prosperous peace, and flush with revenues from Entente purchases, the Americans could build any and every ship they might desire.  None would be at risk from German mischief, whether it be from torpedoes like Aboukir and her sisters, mines like poor Audacious, or shellfire like Lion, Dreadnought, and all the so many others this year.


But, wait!


" '45 miles'?  'Blunt'?"  How had things come to such a pass?



---- U-41, surfaced, steerage way




The 105 mm deck gun lofted a shell across the merchant's bows.


"There go her colors!"


"Boarders away."  The XO and a band of grinning enlisted pushed off.


The CO waited anxiously, his glasses sweeping the horizon.  Meanwhile, the deck chief kept a steady stream of orders going.


"Stay alert, there!"  "Richter, I want it trained right on her bridge."


Before they left, there had been reports of merchantmen striking their colors and then attempting to ram.  The chief wanted the merchies to be aware that he was ready to register his disapproval instantly and quite personally.


"Sir, they're lowering their boats!"


"Very well.  Ah, chief, there's the XO's signal.  Put her down."


"Richter, waterline.  Start just ahead of the mast.  Two shells.  Then shift'er aft."


"Aye, aye, chief."


"XO, any problems?"


"No, sir.  A couple wanted to resist, I think, but their captain kept them under control."


The CO paid only little attention as his men reboarded and the deck gun crew did their work.  The horizon remained blessedly empty.


"There she goes!"


"Very well.  Well done, chief, XO.  All Ahead Full, steer 045."


As his vessel got back underway, the CO looked astern.  Was that a trace of a smudge?  Probably not, he decided, with a bit of relief.


"Sir, answering Ahead Full."


"Very well.  Make turns for 16 knots."



---- RN AMC Crystal Palace, course 315, speed 12 knots


They were early, so the silver-haired CO knew he had no basis for anxiety.  Not really.  Nonetheless, a feeling of disquiet grew within him as the minutes passed and the horizon remained clear.


"Who's up there?"  The captain's question was directed at the XO.  "Soammes?"


"Yes, sir."


He had his most trusted man up there.  The CO lowered his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  He had long ago formed a clear and definite opinion of Captain Hawkins of Rollonot.  Thus, he had confidently expected to find him here, at the southeastern edge of his assigned area, the spot, in fact, closest to port.


But he was not here and their instructions were to be chary of the wireless.


"Bring us to 17 knots.  XO, if we don't catch sight of her in an hour, alter course to 330."  That would shape them towards the neck of the strait.  "Watch end, we'll use the wireless."



---- U-44, surfaced, steerage way




The XO tried to calm himself.  The merchanters had shown little fear of him.  Well a couple had, but that was because he had just waved his Luger almost literally under their noses as his men smashed the wireless.  One crystalline piece rolled across the bridge at him, and he could not resist crushing it under his foot.  It did not make him feel any better.  Damn-damn-damn!


"Off!  Boats!  Alle!  Verstanden?  Schnell!  Fünf Minuten!"


The old man was not going to like this.  Why did it have to happen to him?


"Black flag.  Wave it!  Now!"



Author's NOTEs:


1) See:



2) Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt, KCB KBE CMG, historically served as aide-de-camp to King George V before commanding the GF division, flying his flag in HMS Colossus where he was at Jutland.  In Letterstime, I have perhaps shifted him a few months "early" and placed Colossus just astern of his LT flagship, HMS Marlborough.  Admiral Gaunt joined the RN in 1878 at the age of 13 and retired (and was knighted) in 1925.  His last post in World War I was Commander-in-Chief, East Indies.


3) The Brothers Gaunt (too bad not a "double t"!) constitute a remarkable example of the British tradition of the Royal Navy.  The older brother (Ernest, above, born 1865) was soon followed by the younger (Sir Guy Reginald Archer Gaunt, KCMG CB, born 1869, some sources say 1870) who was (and remains) still a captain in July 1915.  Note the wonderful snippet below from the April 17, 1891 Argus:


In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, he would historically command in convoy service the ACR HMS Leviathan in 1918.  Leviathan was also the name given by the US (after her historical seizure) to Vaterland, which is "LT now" enjoying a very different sort of convoy experience!  Captain Gaunt was instrumental in implementing a low key, counter-punch intelligence approach, reasoning that it would be the strategy that would work best in America.  That is, he concentrated on exposing German activities and blunders rather than embarking on any overt pro-Entente propaganda campaigns.  The Germans, of course, cooperated beautifully historically.  See:



4) South Carolina (BB-26) was absent.  The ones then under construction with launch dates:  Nevada (BB-36), July 11, 1914; Oklahoma (BB-37), March 23, 1914; Pennsylvania (BB-38), March 16, 1915; Arizona (BB-39), June 19, 1915.

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