Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXII

July 6, 1915



---- New York Times


“French schoolboys warily watch sentries”


“German cavalry patrolling the streets of St. Pierre”


(Captions to front page photographs)


“German Cavalry Surprises French” - by Maxwell Browning


“German cavalry played key roles in the quick and essentially bloodless conquest of St. Pierre and Grande Miquelon, but military experts avowed that Germany had no cavalry units in all of the Western Hemisphere.  Nonetheless, according to eyewitnesses, multiple groups of German cavalry played crucial roles in the action and were seen by scores as they galloped through the streets spreading panic and confusion, and terrorizing the entire populace ....


“... enabled the capture of the Western Union offices before anyone even knew that there were Germans within 4,000 miles, effectively preventing the raising ....”


“Whatever the doubts as to their origin, there can be no doubt that there were indeed German cavalry in St. Pierre (see photographs on pages A-1, and A 17-through-23).  Based on observed numbers and photographic review, German cavalry strength in St. Pierre alone was at least one full troop.  (NOTE 1)  No information was available as to the other ....”



---- Room 40


The initial hours after the thunderbolt that Germany had captured St. Pierre and Miquelon had been eerie.  Sartore attributed it to the combination of tension from the HSF remaining loose and unsighted in the North Sea, and the dread of just what mischief the Huns would be revealed to have been up to since - let alone might still be perpetrating! - on the other side of Atlantic.  Commander Jan commented in a low voice that everyone seemed to keep glancing over their shoulder, or otherwise waiting for some second shoe to drop.  The conversations in Room 40 roughly duplicated those in several of the offices of the Admiralty that same afternoon.


“... Admiral Burney?  To Halifax, you think?”


“Huh!  And leave Bermuda undefended?  And, with it, the way to Jamaica and beyond?!”


“Yes, isn’t Admiral Seavey just a few days away now?”


“There’s no coal on those little French fishing islands, is there?”


“No, quite right, that!”  “Correct, certainly.”


“True, but there’s coal aplenty for the taking just a few miles off, in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  Cape Breton, Glace Bay, Port Morien and all that.”  (NOTE 2)


“Have there been any reports of losses!?”


The speaker meant ships gone missing, but his listeners had no trouble in this context.  Nothing about missing coal barges or freighters had come before them, but all knew that such was no assurance.


“Get a cable off, immediately!”


“If the Huns were out to shell another hamlet,” began another, shifting from ocean to sea, “shouldn’t they have been spotted by now?  Are those markers for Harwich Force current?”


“Yes, m’lord, I mean,” the speaker stumbled, realizing belatedly that there had been two questions of which only one could he answer, “the positions are within the hour.”


“Hmmph, yes, well, thank you.  Some sort of bloody exercise, then?”  This speaker meant German exercises but, again, what might have been cryptic to outsiders was quite clear to all present.  Indeed, there had been several German exercises in the last few weeks, and with increasing numbers of ships each time.  Some had been in “internal” waters, but some had been brief out-of-harbor sweeps.  Then, four days ago, the Huns had come out in force in a real sortie - hoping to catch them by surprise?  That had failed to achieve much of anything, but what was all this about today?



---- Philadelphia Inquirer


“German cruisers anchored at harbor mouth”


“Bullet Marked St. Pierre Police Station”


(Captions to front page photographs)


“Shootout at the St. Pierre Corral” - by Blue Fox


“... The police, or Gendarmes, provided the only armed resistance.  Under cover of a brief but intense fusillade, German sailors stormed the station known locally as the Gendarmie and captured it without loss.  One French Gendarme received a leg wound in the attack, which left the Gendarmie’s front windows shot out and its face scarred by bullets.  (See photographs Pages A-1 and A-23)


“Based on interviews with both the French Gendarmes and the German soldiers, the attack caught the French almost completely by surprise such that the policeman on watch barely had time to bar the front door and sound the alarm.  The Germans eschewed forcing the door and gained quick entry through the large front windows instead, overwhelming the defenders before they could organize any resistance.  The reporter retraced the routes and ....


“Interestingly, both the German soldiers and the French Gendarmes agreed that surprise would have been complete save for the actions of a group of incredibly brave young boys .... (See “The Paladins of Pierre”, Page 5)”



---- Wilhelmshaven


The senior enlisted man approached carrying a leather folder.


“Herr Kapitan, here are the latest ones.”


Kapitan Jeff Lantz looked up from where his sat in the otherwise empty office, blurry sheets of paper spread out fan-like on the table before him.  The click-clack of telegraph keys echoed oddly up and down the tiled corridor beyond the open door.


“Thank you, chief,” he replied, hoping there would be something of value he could identify.  He had not had to struggle to make sense of the earlier wireless intercepts from the British.  There had been a distinct flurry of messages during the period corresponding to between one and three hours following Admiral Necki’s emergence into the North Sea.  The messages seemed to have gone out to every force and command of note, as well as some others that had yet to be conclusively identified.  That data yielded two obvious conclusions with related questions.  First, Necki had been sighted, but by whom?  And, second, the British Royal navy had forces at sea, but what ships and where?


One or two staffers held the view that spies ashore had made the initial reports.  The time delay would correspond well, so they asserted, to observers making their way back to a safe house to transmit.  Another possibility was that a surface ship had evaded detection and had spotted the German force.  Here, the report delay would indicate a later sighting.


The most likely explanation, however, appeared to be that one or more RN submarines had been waiting off shore for just such an opportunity as Necki’s sortie must have presented.  Yet, none had been sighted, nor (fortunately!) had any German ship been struck by a torpedo.  Despite both negatives, submarine(s) clearly remained the majority opinion as the source.


Things got a hell of a lot murkier after that, leaving Jeff to rub in frustration at the skin itching just inside the lip of his cast.


There had been no equivalent spike in British wireless messages when the Baron had passed later through practically the same waters, no more than a few thousand yards off Necki’s earlier track.  If Necki’s sighters had been shore-based, that might have made sense, as perhaps they had not been able to return to resume their watch.  For submarine sentries, though, that did not seem to be reasonable.  There had indeed been a discrete spike, but it had come much later.


What Lantz did not know was the reaction of the RN submarine skipper - LCDR G. Layton - whose E-13 had nearly been run over by Kapitan Conda’s Bremen as he began to set up to shoot torpedoes at Seydlitz.  He had been confident that he’d never been sighted, and so had taken off in pursuit as soon as he had resurfaced.  In fact, he’d been exhorting his engineer to greater speed even as his wireless operator had been sending off the sighting report.  Unfortunately for Layton, Necki had immediately gone to 18 knots, leaving the 15-knot E Class submarine with an impossible stern chase of a faster quarry already nothing more than a plume right from the start.


Nor could Lantz know the rest of the comic opera in which the sub skipper found himself cast as the hapless lead.  It would take three hours for Layton to finally gave up on catching the battlecruisers and reverse course to return to his sentry position.  Then, two hours later and still at flank of course, HMS E-13 was again nearly run over, this time by the main body of the High Seas Fleet as the Baron drove his force hard to clear the area and get out into the North Sea.  The encounter was so sudden that Layton had been quite unable to get off a contact report; it had been a very near thing indeed.


Once he got back to periscope depth, swiveling the scope this way and that had yielded only distant glimpses of dreadnoughts, and the few ships that ventured anywhere near torpedo range had been frenetic flotillas whose small size and constant course changes made them virtually impossible targets.  When E-13 at last surfaced and got off her wireless reports, Layton was again presented with only a receding plume to chase.  Again he chased to no avail, as the Baron held the Main Body at 17 knots and soon broke contact, leaving  HMS E-13 with the notoriety of having seen in one day more warship target tonnage than any other submarine never to fire a torpedo, and bestowing upon her commander the title of “Luckless Layton.”  (NOTE 3)



---- Halifax


It had been a long day already, and sunset was still hours away.


“July 2?  Is that what they’re saying?!”  The senior officer was on the telephone with officials in Montreal.  The officials had others on a separate line reading the New York Times.  “What in hell ....  The Huns could be anywhere by now!”


Or nowhere else, advanced one official in Montreal, lurking instead in ambush for Admiral Burney.  Good Lord, anything was possible, they all realized, including so many things that had been flat impossible just weeks ago.


“Sir?”  A head poked around the slightly ajar door to his office.  The officer gestured to enter.


“It may be true.  The packet boat was due back on the 4th, but it hasn’t turned up yet.”


He closed his eyes.  It had happened before, but he had no confidence in coincidence.


“Gentlemen,” the officer interrupted into the phone, “I’ve confirmed the packet boat two days overdue.  I’ve already dispatched a pair of ....  What!?”


Three minutes earlier, the distant reader in new York had read to the one he had on the line in Montreal a certain distinctly relevant passage of one of the many stories.  It had taken that long for the listener to get the attention of the one speaking to Halifax.


“Minefields?!  Sir, if that’s true - God! - if it could even possibly be true - I, well, I simply must put the phone down for a minute.





“Get down to the wireless, this instant.  The bloody Huns laid mines at St. Pierre!”


He paused to wipe his face with his handkerchief before he again picked up the receiver, the sounds of uniform shoes staccatoing on tile receding in the distance.


“When did you say it would be landing here?”  They had promised that copies had been put on planes for Halifax and Montreal.  Who knows, he sighed, what else they may still have missed?



---- Derfflinger, course 345, speed 18 knots


Admiral Necki was delighted to have successfully evaded the British.  British spies and scouts had become so “reliable” that he had agreed with the Baron’s prediction that some sort of meeting engagement was inevitable before he could turn north.  Yet here they were, with dusk upon them and the British not.  Instead, His Majesty’s Royal Navy apparently remained totally ignorant of their position and visibility was dropping by the minute.


“Hoist the signal,” he ordered.  He swept the darkening horizon again, as he waited.


“Roon has acknowledged, sir.”


He lowered his binoculars and glanced questioningly at Kapitan Engels.  Theodor gave a half nod signifying readiness.


“Execute.  Signals Officer, transmit.”


“Aye, aye, sir.” 


“Ahead Flank,” ordered Theodor, “make turns for 22 knots.  Helm,” he continued, “come to course 000.


Necki raised his glasses again and watched Kapitan Ziethen’s command - already well out on his eastern flank - disappear into the gloom to the east.


He frowned as he surveyed the obsidian waves.  It seemed too good to be true.



---- Room 40


“Intercept!  From Admiral Necki and the battlecruiser force.  To Wilhelmshaven.  Position ... working.”


Commander Jan leaned back and exhaled sharply.  After a moment, he turned his head and looked around.  Sartore had stepped out.


“Wilhelmshaven’s acknowledged, sir.”



“Not yet, sir.”


“Is there a problem?”


“No, sir.  A minute, sir.  Please.”


“Very well.”


“What’s up, Jan?”  It was Sartore.  “I leave for a minute and ....”


“The battlecruisers.  They’ve sent off a wireless.”


“Got it, sir!  Going up on the board, now.”


“Good Lord!”  “That can’t be right, can it?!”


“They could be off Scapa Flow before dawn from there.”


“Yes, except DeRobeck put the fleet in at Rosyth and ....”  The speaker waved his hand at the marker indicating the current position of the Grand Fleet standing by off shore far to the south and athwart what had been deemed the most likely approaches.


“Still,” noted Sartore, “this should enable DeRobeck to place the entire fleet between them and their way back home.”  His tone was hopeful, while acknowledging that trying to trap battlecruisers with dreadnoughts when the other had all of the North Sea with which to work was a chancy thing.


“And where is Letters?”  Jan commented into Sartore’s pause.



---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 030, speed 6 knots


“Sir, Admiral Necki’s message.”


The Baron briefly held the slip under a hooded light and then handed it to Kapitan Schnell, who did the same.


“All is going well.”  Schnell turned the statement into a question.


“So it would appear,” Letters replied, in a tone signaling his distrust.  “Where are the British?”




“They sortied in force just three days ago.  Very nearly in time to trap First Scouting.  The timing was such that they must have known almost the very instant the first wave hit a German bow.  How likely can it be that they missed us this time?  Battlecruisers, dreadnoughts, and flotillas?”


Could it really end up this simple?  The Baron visualized the map in his head.  Have I risked Bremen and six torpedoboats to no purpose?  What am I missing?


---- Boston Globe


“Men, we’ve got nothing!”  The editor was pale now, but his earlier tirades had been monumental.


“We’ve been scooped so bad ....”  He clearly deemed whatever words came to mind grossly inadequate to the occasion.  “Hell, they’ll be telling this one for years, and us the butt of it all.  Us and the DC papers.”


He was dead on.  Even as he “spoke”, much the same scene was being enacted in the newsroom of The Washington Star.


“Shoulda’ seen this coming.  Shoulda’.  Really shoulda’.  Soon as them Krauts took two reporters along.  That was the tipoff and I missed it.  All of you missed it ... and you call yourselves reporters.  Well, we’ve just been skunked so bad it’ll be years before the stink of this wears off.”  He lashed them all with his eyes.


No one raised a voice in objection.  Indeed, the newsroom stayed uncannily still.  Heads hung, not a single person dared even to shuffle his feet.


“What d’ya’ll want to bet that they’re not prepping an Extra right this minute?  The both of them?”


The silence stretched.  No one wanted any part of that sucker bet.


“Have any of you got anything, anything at all I can take to the Publisher?  Sure as @#*%, he’s gonna’ be looking for my head for this.  For all of our heads.  As well he should.  We deserve it.  Reporters!  C’mon, gents, ....  Mike, anything?”


“Chief, three of the articles have a David Bender in them.  He’s the guy with the boat.  In one, it says he’s from Boston.”


“Find him!”


“Been trying since noon, boss!  He’s not home, least his phone doesn’t answer.  Operator says the line’s okay, just no one’s picking up.”


“Chief, the story says the Times reporter guy, Browning, came in on his boat.  In Maine.  Bet he’s still there with his boat!  He and that other guy, too.”


“Well, what in the hell are you waiting for ...?  Joe, Steve, Slick - you go, too.”



---- “The Copper Pot Inn”, Portland, Maine


Dave Bender hungrily inhaled the fragrances wafting from the sizzling plate just laid before him, completely and blissfully unaware of the deputation even then forming up to the south, a deputation suffering from a different and desperate hunger.  Across from Bender, “Torp” Mixer tucked his lobster bib into his collar with one hand and, with the other, reached for the little glazed olla filled with drawn butter.

“I’d’ve thought you’d had enough of fish,” Dave remarked.


“Lobster ain’t fish,” Mixer retorted.


“You know what I mean.”


“Yeah, but I like lobster.  ‘N I had steak for lunch.  You did, too.”


“True,” Bender conceded.  “Maybe I’ll have roast beef next time but, lemme tell you, it’ll be quite some time before I think I’ll be ready to eat anything that used to live in water again.”


“Mmph,” Mixer seemed to mutter in agreement.  A drop of melted butter fell onto his napkin.  He did not care.  If it’d been a piece of his lobster, maybe then he would’ve cared.  He swallowed and reached for his cold ale.


They had most solemnly agreed never to mention the word “cod” ever again.



---- Wilhelmshaven


Jeff Lantz knew that exhaustion was sapping his concentration.  The doctors had warned him not to over extend himself.


“Chief, what do you make of it?”


The British wireless transmissions had dropped off to something that looked like a routine once the fleet had gotten a few hours out of Wilhelmshaven.  Then, right at sunset, the British had practically lit up the ether with transmissions.  Then, within another hour, they’d gone silent again.


“Maybe the Britishers report in at sundown, sir, or get new orders?”


“That could be it, I suppose,” Jeff agreed.  “It really did seem to be right at official sunset.  Any other ideas?”


“No, sir.”


“What if they’d had a sighting?  Admiral Letters?  Or Admiral Necki?”


“They’d signal at that, right enough, sir.  But ....”  The senior enlisted man’s voice trailed off.


“But it’s dark?  So how could they have done it?”




“Maybe they just got lucky?”


“That could be, sir.”


But unlikely.  Troubling so, Jeff thought.  Still, maybe the signals were routine when the Grand Fleet was out in the North Sea.  Wherever they were.


Damn, he was tired.



Author’s NOTEs


1) US Cavalry regiments of about this period seemed to have been generally eight to ten companies, or troops, with a total strength in the range of 30 - 40 officers and 500 - 800 enlisted.  Thus, a troop might be three to five officers and 50 - 80 men.  Here is one example:





2) About 40% of all Canada coal was mined in this area at this time.  See:





3) “Layton’s Luck” - The Germans would not learn of their close calls on July 6, 1915 with the British submarine until after the war.  Sadly, Commander Layton’s run of bad luck was far from over.  E-13 would run aground off Saltholm Island on August 18, 1915 while enroute to the Baltic, and be shelled and wrecked with 15 casualties.  The 16 survivors would be interned in Denmark.  See: