Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XVII
July 5, 1915
---- Rosyth, Admiralty Offices
Admiral Gaunt continued his conversation with Admiral De Robeck.
“My brother,” Gaunt went on, “as senior Naval Attaché, was dispatched by the ambassador to visit the men that the Germans had captured off New York and then turned over to the Americans.” Gaunt’s voice hinted at some internal strain in remaining level as he tried bravely to keep out the emotions that his brother’s missive had aroused on the subject of Sir Cecil Spring-Rice. (NOTE 1)
“He reports that at first, the Americans had briefly delayed our access to them claiming medical grounds - they were in a naval hospital and, in truth many were indeed wounded - but, once the Germans were gone, there was no more of that, he said. The Americans ... “
“... have treated us very well, sir,” Captain Dedmundee had said, sitting up in his bed.
“Aye, no complaints here, either,” Captain Argus had agreed. He paused, swallowing as memories rose within him, concealing his unexpected reaction by adjusting his sling. “Captain, the Huns offered our 50 worst wounded to the Yanks some miles outside the Limit. They took ‘em, put them on the two dreadnoughts they had out there and, as their own doctors treated them, they steamed them both right up the channel and into the harbor here at 20 knots, not slowing until they threw the lines onto the bloody pier.” (NOTE 2)
“I hadn’t heard that,” De Robeck said to Admiral Gaunt, unwittingly duplicating the distant Captain Gaunt’s own reply at the time.
“Yes, sir. In fact, American yachtsmen had rescued a number of our men, took them out of the water right out from under the Germans’ noses even as shells were still flying.”
“Good show, that!”
“Yes, sir. The ambassador had instructed my brother to make inquiries, so that he could recognize them suitably, but my brother was pretty much at a loss as to where to begin. By a stroke of luck, though ....”
“Lannon?” Argus had laughed at Gaunt’s question. “We can help you there, Captain.”
“Yes, sir.” Dedmundee said, with a warning glance at Argus. “Our, er, ward mistress knows the man, may even be a relation. In fact, unless I’m mistaken ....”
“Oh, Good Lord!” Argus muttered.
Captain Gaunt would later aver that no descriptions of his could possibly do justice to the silk-swathed spectacle that passed through the doorway at that moment. He would try, though.
“My brother wrote that her dress had deprived the yachting world of quite a glorious spinnaker.”
“Captain Argus! Captain Dedmundee! The most aMAZing thing ... Oh! I didn’t see ... And just who are YOU, sir? Did you register at the desk? No one told me ...!”
Captain Gaunt never shared with his brother that he had eased back a full step, and then a half more, at her opening salvo.
“I’m sure it’s okay, M’um,” tried Dedmundee, embarking on an heroic screening maneuver. “This is Captain Gaunt from the embassy. In Washington.”
“Yes, M’um,” Argus chimed in. “Captain Gaunt’s the Senior Naval Attaché there to the Ambassador.”
“Well, I suppose. The ambassador? If YOU say so, but ....”
“But you were saying? Something was ‘amazing’?” Argus sprinted in to add a smokescreen to the RN effort.
“Oh! Yes! They’ve asked me to sponsor a ship!”
“That’s quite an honor,” Captain Gaunt said, seriously, as he saw where the winds were blowing.
“I said ‘yes’, of course, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”
“Oh, it’s simple enough,” Argus said. “It’s mostly a bloody big party down at the shipyard with great bands and long speeches. Newspaper reporters, all the high society ones will be there, taking pictures for the society pages. All you have to do is just look beautiful and smash a bottle of perfectly good champagne across her bow.”
The formidable grande dame blinked at that, visibly affected by currents such as those.
“What if it slips? Or I drop it?!”
“You’ll do just fine,” Argus soothed. “I just hope it’s a battleship.” (NOTE 3)
---- Crystal Palace, course 330, speed 17 knots
Noon was a time of reports and Rollonot had not responded to the wireless hail when the Crystal Palace’s CO had finally felt compelled to send it. Nor had they answered any of the hourly ones since. They had gone through the exercise of making sure their antenna was intact and all the rest. An uncomfortable feeling had begun to bother the silver-haired captain; it had started between the back of his eyes and had progressed to the pit of his stomach.
“Helm, Ahead Standard, make turns for 12 knots.”
As the order was repeated back, he turned to his XO.
“Number One, I’ll be coming to 000 in a minute. Start working up a zig-zag plan, including periodic speed changes, that’ll put us right in the throat of the Strait and keep us there.”
“A u-boat?! Uh, aye, aye, sir.”
“Sir, answering Ahead Standard.”
“Very well. Come to course 000.
“Yes, that’s my guess. Either that or Hawkins has had a catastrophic failure of some sort and is DIW (NOTE 4) out there somewhere. Otherwise, he’d either be here or on the wireless.”
“Sir, shouldn’t we be informing the Admiral?”
“All we have right now, Number One, is Hawkins’ absence and I have reported that. No contacts. No smoke. No debris field. I have nothing else to report.” (NOTE 5)
“A u-boat, sir. Up here? I mean, there’s not much scheduled traffic.”
“Not by us.”
---- U-43, course 040, speed 15 knots
The young CO scanned the horizon astern. There weren’t many ships that could overtake them, but the ones that could were worth worrying about. Crystal Palace was safely about 50 miles in his wake, but he didn’t know that. All he knew was that the small, squat line on the horizon on his bows was the friendly plume to follow. His day’s major task had been accomplished unless Hanzik reversed course and put his command back in the lead. He did not want to think about that possibility; there were better things to consider.
“How’re our ‘guests’?”
Initially, Rollonot’s bow had remained sticking partially out of the water. U-43's orders had been not only to find and sink any patroller at dawn, but to take whatever actions were necessary to reduce the chance of detection. Thus, U-43 had closed the wreck and sunk the bow section with five shells from the deck gun. While there, they had used small arms to smash several large boxes or crates.
They had also rescued three Brits.
“The officer seemed better a few minutes ago when I checked. Hoffman doesn’t think the others are gonna’ make it.”
One had been badly burned. All three had been suffering from exposure. Even in July, the water temperature was generally in the single digits (Celsius). Under those conditions, death by exposure-caused drowning took only a very few minutes. The men they had rescued had been on large pieces of wreckage which, since they were thoroughly soaked, would have served only to extend their misery for a few dozen more minutes.
“Have Hoffman put the officer in with his wounded.”
Prisoners were one thing, but he wasn’t ferrying back any enemy corpses. If the Brits were going to die, then die they would. He just wanted their officer to witness that he’d done what little he could before he threw the weighted bodies overboard. The British were reportedly pretty picky about that sort of thing.
---- Imperator, course something north of east, speed still not fast enough
The air had chilled remarkably in the last few hours. Hadi had stopped just outside the hatch, considering his well padded deck lounger as his cringing servants stood in anxious, servile silence. He was frowning! The Great One had become increasingly unpredictable as the outside air temperature and the viands’ freshness had both dwindled. He gave every indication that he was deciding whether to recline or to return inside when, to their shock, he did neither! Instead, he strode mightily up along the rail to where one of the Americans stood, staring through a large pair of binoculars.
“The blessings of Allah be upon you,” Hadi greeted, with a flourish surprisingly graceful for one of such bulk.
“And upon you, as well,” Blue replied, having taken care to learn an acceptable response. If one wanted successful interviews, one needed to acquire such details. The lurking blackguards would have suggested caution in any case.
“You gaze upon the sea?”
Of course, the reporter had been doing nothing of the sort. Instead, he had most clearly been studying the ship just on their outboard afterquarter, the Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Hadi knew that full well, but one did not ask direct questions unless one was in a position to demand direct answers. In a false show of mildness, he steepled his fingers on his more-than-ample girth.
“The sea,” Blue began, having learned his craft, “is wide and wondrous, and worthy of study. However, it was the ship there, the Kronprinzessin Cecilie, that I was looking at.”
“Indeed,” Hadi intoned. “A great vessel, surely, but not as worthy as this one, or the one there.” Hadi flicked a meaningful glance at Vaterland, looming just a very few yards on their inboard flank. “Nor does the other have the great guns of the ones that follow behind us.”
If Maxwell Browning had been there, Fox would not have considered discussing this for even an instant. Max was absent, though, and Blue was well on the way to going stir crazy.
“Your words are true ones,” Fox said. When dealing with someone as alien as the Ottoman panjandrum, he had learned that it was always advisable to declare agreement when one was about to disagree. “The ship has followed us precisely, matching our speed, all the way from Boston. Yet, in Boston, many times was it said that she had been ... lamed. A great many workers, machines .... Then suddenly it was time to leave, and we did, and she came with us and remains with us still.”
Hadi’s nostrils flared and he turned his head to glare at the other liner in delighted suspicion. This was more like it!
“The damage - repaired well or perhaps staged with equal skill?”
“Yes.” It was Blue’s turn to blink. The Ottoman’s voice had emerged absent its usual elliptical phrasing. Had it been that the talk was of a potential conspiracy or ruse? “When we left Boston, her topsides were strewn with tools and metal.” Fox waved at the liner. Though his gesture lacked the beauty of Hadi’s, the Ottoman followed it promptly nonetheless.
The topsides of Kronprinzessin Cecilie were clear, except for mounds of crates, meticulously tied down.
---- Rosyth, Admiralty Offices
“After that, sir,” Admiral Gaunt continued, “my brother judged he could broach the subject of the ... engagement itself.” Neither Gaunt would ever be able to bring himself to dignify the affair off New York with the term ”battle”.
“The Germans employed smokescreens in quite a novel way, and apparently made quite an impression on the Yanks with it, by the way.”
“More German innovation.” Historically, the Germans had merely been imitators.
“Yes, sir. But there’s a bit of a pattern here, and hits of possibly something more.”
“Ah, go on, then.”
“Sir. My brother wrote that he asked the two captains and ....”
“Shane and I have talked our way through it a score of times, Captain,” Dedmundee had replied. The red-bearded Theargus had nodded glumly. “The Huns surprised us, Admiral Patey, that is, sir. I was there on the bridge with him, of course. A lot of the later battle is ... gone. As is my time in the water, but I remember that much.
“The Admiral had gathered superior force to deal with the cruiser, Strassburg, that was leaving New York. And the two liners that were thought to be leaving with her.
“Then the Huns showed up coming out of the Atlantic. Two cruisers and another liner. It was a surprise, but one the Admiral knew he had the force to deal with. Then there were battlecruisers and it was too late to do anything but try our best.” Dedmundee took a deep breath. “Which wasn’t enough, of course. The thing is, sir, we don’t know we saw them all.”
“Captain,” Theargus began. “The Germans deployed decisive force, but that doesn’t mean they used all they had. The battlecruisers never entered a Yank port for coal. Never. Maybe that’s so they can come back, but maybe they didn’t need to and it was all misdirection.”
“Admiral,” De Robeck said, “truly, that seems a bit much.”
“I would agree, sir,” Admiral Gaunt replied. “But it is also correct that neither Moltke nor von der Tann coaled in an American port. Yes, they made quite a brave show of coaling from their prizes, but ....”
“A collier, then? Maybe two?”
“That seems possible, doesn’t it, sir? After all, the fourth German cruiser wasn’t in on the kill, but came in later escorting Salamis.”
“I see. She was held out of the battle, wasn’t she.”
“And, sir, there’s the matter of pickets. The Germans didn’t set any. None that anyone saw.”
De Robeck frowned. That certainly didn’t seem reasonable. Surely any German admiral that far from friendly port would have been constantly looking over his shoulder. And they would have left at least some warship out to sea escorting the colliers.
“Did the captains hazard a guess?”
“Yes, sir. The Germans were cocky, they said. So much so that they must have felt they had an answer for whatever Admiral Burney would have. In particular, sir, they asked about Lutzow.
---- Moltke, course 040, speed 16 knots
It was nerve-wracking, being literally encased in hulls that dwarfed one’s command. Admiral Hanzik hated it, but the benefits had been proven beyond a doubt. Many a ship and fleet commander would have sold their souls for more coal, more high speed range. Considered in this light, Hanzik continued to swallow his growing claustrophobia. He wanted to increase speed, but dared not order it until the coal status had been confirmed.
“Admiral?” It was Captain Stang.
“By our calculations, Moltke could now do 22 knots to Wilhelmshaven, but with no margin.”
Margin was their euphemism for track changes, which would almost certainly be necessary. It also assumed their being able to continue the “Sieg”, the nickname that someone had given this oddball formation. Any German warship that strayed outside the Sieg would consume coal at a significantly greater rate. (NOTE 6)
“I’ll have it checked, sir.” (NOTE 7)
1) Sir Cecil Spring-Rice greatly preferred working with Theodore Roosevelt over Woodrow Wilson, whom he would decry as a “mysterious personage.” He seemed to have been remarkably less effective than his predecessor (perhaps partly due to an intense longing for TR’s return) and he reportedly had an “immense dislike of any British visitors ... that were not under the control of his embassy.” What his reactions would have been to the sudden responsibility for thirteen hundred or so surprise “visitors” in the form of Patey’s officers and men can only be imagined.
5) There had indeed been a debris field but Crystal Palace must have passed by it several hours earlier. Post-war estimates put the closest approach of Crystal Palace to the debris field at between 10 and 20 miles. The path of the debris field was finally resolved 91 years later with the discovery on Vestmannaeyjar by Ander Jeansay of a life boat fragment bearing the ship’s name. A great many historians had searched for decades for something like the treasure found by Mr. Jeansay but all had come up empty. Ironically, Jeansay was not a grizzled researcher but an American high school exchange student, and he discovered it via the simple expedient of sitting on it during one (reportedly) quite memorable evening during jódhátid.
6) The KM would investigate the possibilities of the “Sieg” but would never be able to replicate the success achieved by the Hanzik Force under any non-duplicate conditions. The conclusion was that, yes, a ship of greater size could improve the fuel performance of a smaller consort following close behind, but that the gains were generally minuscule. It took multiple ships of far greater size to achieve the gains seen by Hanzik, and such conditions were deemed remote in other applications.
7) The Sieg resulted in a great many stories, however, not all of them were reproduced in contemporary tracts, mainly due to fears of retribution. To amuse themselves, some sailors threw objects across the gaps to each other as their ships raced along at such close quarters. Indeed, Admiral Hanzik himself caused some of the anecdotes. The Admiral was concerned - rightly so - that bursts of signal flags might alarm those at the helms of the liners. Thus, his information demands were generally met by shouting from one deck to another, relaying them around the tight formation as necessary. These hails were unprecedented - yet soon commonplace - and the method became known as the “Sieg Heil”.