Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XX
---- St. Pierre, pier, just below Place de la Roncière
The French Canadians on the schooner wrinkled their brows in complete mystification as they eased their way towards the pier.
“Where is everyone?” “My question, exactly!”
“A feast day?” (NOTE 2)
“It could be. Whose feast day is it?”
“I don’t know.” The silent ones just shook their heads in negation. (NOTE 3)
There was no talk of plague, either because no one thought of it or because the schooners rested in plain sight in their coffle.
“Bastille Day, but that is nine days from now.” (NOTE 4)
They shrugged at each other, blissfully unaware that they had just threaded a path through a minefield, one that had taken them within a few meters of four different mines as they came up the channel from the opposite direction that Borys’ Uncle Zak had, several hours earlier. Zak and the others had wandered about the abandoned Ile-aux-Chiens until one had discovered a sizable store of green izarra. At this point, the arrival of the combined navies of Britain, France, and Germany would have escaped their notice.
The man in the bow threw a loop around a stanchion, followed moment later by another man in the stern. Every other time they would have already been exchanging pleasantries and genial insults with others on the pier and adjacent boats. Generally, a gendarme would even now be sauntering into sight as they prepared to disembark. Today, no one.
The ship’s master hesitated, then cupped his hands and emitted a piercing whistle, followed by a “hallo” and then another.
“Ah!” One espied motion at the corner of the building closest to the pier. So, it really must have been an affair of some sort like ....
“What the devil?!” The figure that had come into view was not human. The men blinked as the being took a step closer, then another, eyeing them warily but without any outward sign of fear. Then two more edged into view and stopped, staring with open curiosity at the men in the boat. The man in the bow froze in the middle of stepping off to snug up his line, leaving him momentarily off balance, one foot on the boat and the other on the pier.
The master shook his head nervously and whistled again. His mate shouted out with lungs that oft sufficed to penetrate storm noise.
Several more non-humans wandered into view. The first had stopped to peer into a window fronted by a mounted flower box. After a moment, it became clear that it was not the view into the building that so held its interest.
“The Etcheverrys’?!” “I don’t understand! Were there others?”
“Jacque had one, n’est pas.” “Oui, didn’t Pierre ....” “Oh!” “Five?!”
“Could it be that ....”
The speaker stopped with a strangled noise as another several wandered around the building, effectively disproving whatever theory he had been about to be offer. The land contingent made some noises of their own, likely viewing the seaborne newcomers with no less suspicion than did those on the boat regard them.
The only men on Sainte-Pierre that could have supplied answers were just then struggling onto the rocky shore on the northwest edge of the island. They lay full out on the beach, panting in exhaustion. Choppy seas and a contrary current had opposed their will, and ten days of full meals and nautical inactivity had made unexpected inroads on their endurance.
There had been many small boats of various sizes pulled up all along the shoreline around the double island of Miquelon and Langlade (NOTE 5), some exposed on beaches, others under brush, still others up inlets. During the first two days following the Germans departure, the French had learned to no great surprise that the Boche had destroyed them all. It was then recalled that a few rowboats were known to have been back in the Grand Barachois. (NOTE 6) The Germans, so it turned out, had apparently missed them. It had then been only - though “only” belied the magnitude of the task - a matter of getting the most suitable one out to the ocean shore, rowing down along the coast of Langlade, and then across the channel to Sainte-Pierre. The storm that had sped the Sally IV and dogged Hanzik’s heels had lashed and lingered overhead, far from unusual, but had delayed their searches only slightly. The post-storm waves in the channel between the island, however, had a greater effect as they had to be allowed to subside somewhat before the attempt could be made. The same storm-caused waves - and the still threatening sky - had discouraged the notion by some to simply try for the near Canadian shore. Their schooners were in the harbor of Sainte-Pierre, and they were confident that in them they could evade the mines with ease now that they knew they were there.
All this would be explained in a few hours but, until then, the outnumbered Frenchmen at the pier were left to scratch their heads as they regarded the growing contingent from the island’s current dominant species. (NOTE 7)
---- Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times
In New York City, Ol’ Sol neared the horizon in a glorious sunset that dappled the sky in crimson ripples. The reporters within the Times’ offices simply could not have cared less as they pounded away on their typewriters like smiths on anvils, and with as little mercy. The copy writers didn’t have a moment to spare to look even if they had wanted to and the typesetters had no windows anyway. The offices of the editors had windows aplenty, but they were not there to enjoy it even if they might have been so inclined. No, the editors stalked about their newsrooms for the same reason that galleys always went fastest when the whip could reach all the rowers. The only thing more relentless was the approach of deadline.
The Times would have seemed to have had a huge advantage over the Inquirer because Maxwell Browning’s material had arrived accompanied by Max himself. Browning, however, worked for the Sacramento Times-Union and this had necessitated significant and delicate long distance negotiations with Max’s editors out on the West Coast. The New York Times publisher ended up having to become involved because the clock was ticking and the Inquirer a few score miles to the south would be laboring under no such impediments. To make matters worse, news was slow – “the town is dead” one editor had said – rendering their negotiating position weaker than wet newsprint. The courier charges alone that he ended up agreeing to would bring tears to his eyes when he later received them. The bills he got soon after that from the phone company and Western Union would have been enough to drive him to drink if he’d needed an excuse.
The Inquirer had its own handicaps, of course, beginning with the extra hours it would take to get Blue Fox’s material from New York City to the newsroom in Philadelphia. The Inquirer’s Editor-in-Chief himself had directed that no fewer than five reporters, three copy writers, and an editor travel to New York to be on hand to meet Browning when he arrived. All but one reporter returned on the very next train with the goods, spreading the material out on lounge car tables to begin the task of organizing and strategizing for the evening’s enormous efforts to come. Fast Freddie, to his prolific disgust, had been the one left behind in New York. That would have been bad enough, all those huge stories racing down the rails to Philly and away from him. What made it worse, though, was the story he himself had been left to complete and that was to interview Browning. Another damn reporter! Freddie knew damn well that there were probably fifty – hell, maybe a hundred! – real classy stories in Blue’s heavy leather satchel and the story they had dumped on him was nothing more than to interview another damn reporter! Him! Freddie Burke!
It would have been enough to drive him straight to the track, if he hadn’t needed to keep his job to cover his gambling debts.
“Omigod!” Broderick expostulated, and not for the first time. The rocking train car separated a slug of ash from his umpteenth forgotten cigarette to fall down onto the shiny but scarred wooden floor. The others had said similar. Indeed, astonished profanity had become as thick as the layer of tobacco ash accumulating unminded around the table as they waded through Blue’s ocean of material.
“Especially if the pix really match his caption entries,” Broderick continued, his tone was one of awe, “this is gonna’ blow everything wide open.”
An invasion had come - and gone! - and nobody knew it. Yet.
“I never thought I’d ever say such a thing, but ….”
“Go on,” said the editor, the paleness of his face was one clue but, to those that knew him, the long-neglected stoogie in the ash tray was the decisive signal of inner turmoil.
“… but could this be TOO big?”
“Nonsense!” The editor’s voice sounded false to their ears, forced, brittle. “You know the Chief. No such thing as ‘too big’ a story.” He looked out the fast-darkening windows. They were south of Trenton. He swallowed, eager to rid himself of this thing, this albatross of a story.
“Should we at least call their embassy?”
The editor considered that. The pretense could be to get their reaction.
“Not a chance,” he said after a minute. “The Chief’s already lost three or four stories to the DC papers from embassy leaks in just the last couple weeks. They’d be on the phone screaming to the Star even before they finished hanging up on us. There’s just no way in hell he’ll take any chances with THIS one. Hell, you know what he’ll say.”
“Yeah, yeah,” answered Broderick with a sad sigh, having heard it numerous times over the years. “ ‘If they really wanta’ know, let’em buy a paper.’ “
The express rolled on in the deepening dusk, its plangent whistle an eerie counterpoint.
In a few hours, the same sun that crimsoned the skies of New York would brighten the harbor here. Korvettenkapitan Borys sat in an office not far from the pier where his trio of TBs - S31, S33, S35 - the 17 Halbflotille der 9 Flotille - bobbed on the ends of their lines. Other than the topside watches above and propulsion watchstanders below, their crews lay about where they could find space. Like sailors of all navies and all eras, their determination to sleep when they could decisively conquered their adverse conditions. Each crew had toiled well into the dark to unload a pair of torpedoes, remove their launch tubes, and then to bring on board and secure the dozen mines they had been charged to lay.
Borys’ short Black-White-Red pennant fluttered but not from gusts up on Lübeck’s hoist. Borys’ light cruiser, together with her hoists and her disassembled port low pressure turbine, were all on the other side of the harbor. No, the prized swatch of command silk stirred uneasily on a desktop next to the bulky korvettenkapitan where slight breezes from an open window lifted one corner and the remarkably stentorian snores of its owner teased at another. Borys would bring it with him when he boarded S31 at dawn, but he would not get to hoist it until his trio had separated from Korvettenkapitan Nugal Conda’s command: Bremen (where Conda smiled in his own bunk amidst dreams of slaying dragons and rescuing princesses) and his three TBs. Borys could have boarded S31 and asserted his prerogatives, but he had commanded a TB himself and knew such an act could easily alienate the S31 “family”. And so he snoozed in an office chair, a well-padded leather one that comfortably cradled his bulk, and snored. Loudly.
Aboard Roon, Fregattenkapitän Uwe Ziethen could not sleep. He had tried, but had given it up an hour past midnight. He lay back in a chair, much as did Borys a few score meters distant. His cabin remained dark and quiet, even as his mind churned with what the day would bring, and even more with the days and weeks thereafter. Ziethen stood up and walked over to a porthole. He had to lean well over to see out. His eyes sought out Berlin and Undine in the pre-dawn gloom, the light cruisers that would accompany him. The berths of his converted mine layers - Arcona and Albatross - lay out of sight from his current vantage.
Beneath his feet, the deck trembled slightly with the vibration of machinery - a sure sign that preparations were in progress to get underway. He smiled; he was so eager that maybe Roon shared his feelings. Not all than many weeks ago he had worked his crew hard with the artillery off Libau. Now, their skill with the big guns might be all the only thing that would get them back home again.
Sorties, sweeps, mines, independent command, prizes, his mind turned and churned and burned. Colliers, unterseeboote, discretion.
Wasn’t it dawn yet?
“Tripod’s set, we laid out some ring bolts for adjustments. Counterweights?”
“That was Emmerich’s job.”
“Got’em, more than we could ever need, actually.”
“Yeah? What did you come up with?”
“Ingots. Tin. The ones my guy let me borrow gotta’ be close to 100 pounds each.”
“Where the hell did they get tin ingots?”
“Do I look like I care?” He was an engineer, not an accountant!
“Okay-okay, but you haven’t weighed them yet?”
“No, the room where the scales are won’t open ‘till after breakfast. Still, they’re identical to within a pound or two and they’re between 90 and 110 pounds, closer to 95 and 105, actually.”
“How’d you get that?”
I’m 175. I rigged a balance beam and two of them were enough, but not by much.”
“Ah!” The others nodded. “Fulcrum friction.”
“Yeah. Like I said, right after breakfast.”
“Good enough. Joe?”
“The throw arm’s a beauty! Coblentz came up with it, but we’re not to mention his name, okay? Ten feet. As long as we stay under 10 pounds it should be fine. Anything more than that and I’d want to rope wrap it.”
“Ten’s more than enough, I’d say.”
“Good God, yes. Five might be too much. It’s not like we want to sink anything!”
“Yeah, the Germans are likely gonna’ throw a fit as it is. Other than Coblentz, they’re a most unfunny bunch. They’d probably not be amused at us bashing holes through ....”
Several Yanks emitted mock evil chuckles and most theatrically rubbed their hands.
“Stop it! You’re killing me!” “Man-o-man! I can’t wait for morning! It’s like Christmas when I was six, remember that?”
Kapitan zur See Theodor’s eyes snapped open at the knock on the hatch to his quarters.
“Sir? Kapitan? Admiral Necki - on the pier.”
He had left orders to be informed when the Konteradmiral arrived.
“Very well, thank you.” He got up and stretched hugely while he still had privacy; he would be on stage soon enough.
“Admiral? Any instructions?”
Necki showed no surprise at Theodor's presence on the quarterdeck.
“Nein, dawn will suffice. The sweepers are just casting off now.”
The two senior officers stood there in easy, companionable silence as first light approached. Slowly, the harbor began to show signs of life. Neither remarked as a large, shiny staff car appeared and made its way to the end of the pier. Both had expected it.
“I’ll go,” said Necki. “No,” he continued at a look from Theodor, “stay with your ship.” It would be cruel to let Letters come aboard, but Necki was not going to mention that.
So, Theodor was left with all the others to watch as Necki went down the gangway and onto the pier to meet the figure that emerged from the limousine. The stocky figure of the Commander - High Seas Fleet was an unmistakable one.
“Good morning, sir.”
“And good morning to you, admiral.”
The Baron, hands joined behind his back, most carefully did not look up at Derfflinger’s bridge, but swept the piers with his gaze instead. Necki waited. A distant hoot from an approaching tug could be heard. The silence had the feel of a vast, coiled spring. The contrast with the one he’d just shared with Derfflinger’s captain was stark.
Command. Responsibility. A little brings joy. More yields purpose.
How much was too much? Necki looked at his commander. Some of the lines in Letters’ face hadn’t been there six months ago. Six thousand casualties ago.
“I’ll leave at noon,” began the Baron. Necki nodded. There was no reason to speak. So far, Letters was as much talking to himself as anything.
“De Robeck I still don’t know, at least not well, but it’s plain enough he’s learned caution. Methodical, even. Tyrewhitt, though, is a lion when slips the leash, so don’t stray too far south when you fall back on me. Take anything offered once you’ve placed them, though. Just preserve your core, Josef. But the more you sting them the better the rest will go.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be your bees this day.”
The Baron could not help but smile, then laughed, with a deep resonating tone that drew clandestine looks from all over. Necki smiled back, pleased at the years that dropped off the other’s face, even if only briefly. (NOTE 8)
“Sehr gut,” Letters said, still smiling. “Yes, and, if all goes well, once they’re on their way back to Lintz, your real work can begin.
“And, Josef,” said the Baron, dropping his voice and turning to face him squarely. “Get them back.” The intensity was sudden and searing. “Lose what you must, but get them back!”
1) As this may be the last time (well, at least for a while!) that Letterstime “visits” St. Pierre et Miquelon, the islands of “Western France”, the author wants to take this opportunity to credit the best source used in developing the story. I am deeply indebted to the fine archaeological work and scholarship of Dr. Gary Stanton of the University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is on-line at:
The investigations that he and his two co-participants meticulously documented in the urls I list below came out of a 2001 grant from the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF). The other two principal investigators were Dr. Bernard Herman (University of Delaware) and Dr. Gerald Pocius (Memorial University of Newfoundland). For a description, see here:
My telecon with Dr. Stanton revealed him to be a very gracious source when I offered my admiration for his work and gratitude that he had placed the documents on line that I was using to ensure accuracy of so many details in my story. Among the details that I drew from their fine reports are Savoyard Cove and the French frigate crews’ road; the layout of St. Pierre and the Places; the Fete Dieu procession in Place de la Ronciere; the courtyard in front of the church and the original yellow color of the cement church itself; the location, construction, internal layout, and wooden yard wall of Western Union; the location, construction, internal layout, windows, and even staircases of the Gendarmie; the location, direction, and even failure to provide signage of the streets; and even the images of drying cod on the graves and the masses of sticks on the ox carts.
The major root url (beware that the internal links go to massive, multi-meg files):
2) Per a 1905 picture in NOTE 1 (page 9 of 38 of the first St. Pierre file) above, I judged that the participation in the Fete Dieu procession from Place de la Ronciere up to the church was almost the total St. Pierre population.
3) July 5 is the feast day of Saint Anthony Mary of Zaccaria, of Italy not France:
4) July 14:
5) The joined double island is sometimes called Grande Miquelon (N) and Petite Miquelon (S) and other times Miquelon (N) and Langlade (S).
6) The Grand Barachois is a magnificent brackish lagoon at the southern end of Miquelon just above the narrow rocky isthmus that connects it with Langlade. It teems with a great variety of birds and aquatic life (some of it large). See map, and two jpgs below:
By “narrow”, one need only look at the pix below:
7) In 1931, after a petition by the island priest, Rev. Lavole, the name of Ile-aux-Chiens - “Isle of Dogs” - was changed to its present name: Ile-aux-Marins - “Isle of Sailors”. At the [Letters]time, certain wags suggested that Miquelon should also be renamed, to “Ile-aux-Chevaux”.
8) Necki’s reference was to a famous and quirkily-funny German Folktale. See: