Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXIV
July 6, 1915
---- Bremen, course 155 (changing - to starboard), speed 20 knots (increasing)
His guns had fallen silent when the decks of his cruiser had canted hard under a full ten degrees of rudder at 18 and more knots, and they remained silent as the bearing changes exceeded their traverse rate. Just which Britishers were shooting at them kept changing, too. There were four now?! Their own course changes must be throwing off their gunners. Muzzle flashes were all he could see. He suddenly realized that there were no shell splashes in sight.
“They’re firing blind!”
Conda leaned over the bridge rail, hardly a wise move under these condition, but he had to make sure of this. First, were his torpedo boats back astern of them now? All three of them? They had seemed very late to turn, distracted perhaps by the sudden appearance of Brit targets hardly a kilometer in front of their muzzles. Their belated rudder changes had then thrown off their gunners even more. He scanned the dark waves back there. The intermittent white tracery of crests was all he could see.
What he did notice, however, were his own men trying to finish slewing their pieces about, presumably to fire back after the distant muzzle flashes. That wouldn’t do! Wait, there was a bit of extra brightness back there but, no, the gloom and range made it inadequate to range on.
“Rudder amidships!” Conda barked at the helm, then in a louder voice.
“Cease fire! Repeat, cease fire!”
---- Southampton, course 325 (changing - to port), speed 21 knots (slowing in turn)
Nott struggled to regain his dignity, having been summarily thrown against one bridge rail, much as he had seen swarthy stevedores cast burlap bags of potatoes into a locker. The impact had knocked the wind out of him and left his right shoulder numb, though hot sparks seemed to come and go in his elbow as he tried to breathe. The little spots of pain pulsed in perfect synchrony with the spots blinking in his vision, he noted with curious and disembodied fascination.
“Rudder amidships!” Dedmon thundered from the other side of the bridge. Southampton’s CO had carefully braced himself as he ordered hard rudder, as opposed to Nott who had kept staring into the muzzle flashes much like a deer into headlights.
The helmsman responded instantly to the Commander’s order, and Nott’s pushing against the rail to draw breath had the instantaneous and unexpected result of fetching him briskly into the back rail. As he lay across the bar, gasping, he found that he was staring at the other three cruisers making up his command. Their wakes were bending to match the flagship and flashes flared irregularly from their guns. Of perhaps more immediate relevance, however, was the sight of a steadier glow back between the bases of the last pair of Southampton’s stacks. It was bright enough to cast shadows. Another flicker or two came and went further aft.
The deck at last came level and Nott struggled towards the hatch into the bridgehouse, intending to go through it and out onto the other wing.
---- Bremen, course 160, speed 21 knots (increasing)
Conda continued to stare aft and found that he could no longer make out the shapes of the British cruisers, however many they were. Muzzle flashes dotted the gloom behind them like malevolent fireflies. At least three, he judged, and possibly as many as five. Call it four, he decided. In any case, it was too many.
The only thing like a light back there was a bit of a glow, and that was almost dead astern. Conda glanced at the compass, judged the course satisfactory, and looked back again. Ah! He saw a white V in the waves coming up astern. At the head of the V was the first of his missing torpedo boats. He squinted into the smoke-tainted murk. One - two - three ... all his torpedo boats had finally rejoined astern. Good!
And the Brits were still shooting. But at what? He saw no shell splashes.
---- Southampton, course 275, speed 21.5 knots (increasing)
“Your orders, sir?” Dedmon asked, as his commodore joined him after his dutiful checking the status of the rest of the squadron.
Nott did not immediately reply, instead raising his glasses and staring off to the south which, on their current course was not quite abeam. He couldn’t see a damn thing out there, hardly surprising since he was looking in the wrong direction. His mouth tightened in a grimace under the binoculars, partly from the pain in his elbow as he tried to keep the lenses steady, but mostly because the impact with the bridge rail had revealed just how uncomfortably full his bladder was.
The guns fell silent as, one after another, gunnery officers faced the fact that there was nothing in sight to shoot at.
“Pursue, sir? Last bearing .... First Officer?”
“190, sir, near as I can make it.”
Conda’s little force actually bore 135 from Southampton and every moment the British stayed on their westerly course was adding another fraction of a degree of offset.
“No, Commander,” Nott replied. “I am not about to deviate from my orders just to go haring off in the dark after some random half-flotilla.” Nott took in a deep breath as Dedmon’s face betrayed him.
“Commander,” Nott continued, this time in a hard but lower voice. “I am not in the habit of explaining my actions.” He drew breath again but appeared to relent at Dedmon’s deferential nod. “This is a scouting force, Commander. My orders are to scout and screen the fleet from the Hun battlecruisers - and maybe their whole bloody navy - that way.” Nott punctuated this last with a gesture to the northeast. “That’s where my orders dispatched me, and not to chase south after the first of my opposite numbers I just happen to catch sight of in some sort of mutual blind man’s buff.” (NOTE 1)
As strategic-minded as all that may have sounded, the actuality was that Nott had absolutely no desire to chase a torpedo boat flotilla in the dark aboard a ship that was on fire.
“However, Commander, there is some chance -admittedly scant - that the enemy force was a screen element.”
Nott cleared his throat again as he recalled the quite near passage of German shells and realized he had to cut short his lecture. The abdominal burning was become exquisite, and driving him to an unaccustomed curtness. He couldn’t help himself. At least one of those shells had passed not ten feet over his head on Southampton’s bridge and it was all he could do not to twine his legs and shuffle his feet like a first former. “See to the ship. Here are your orders. Once they’re acknowledged, give the execute and return to our former course. After that, get off a wireless to the flag.”
“Aye, sir.” This time Dedmon’s voice implied a question, because as soon as the Commodore had finished speaking, he had begun to walk toward the hatch at the rear of the bridge.
“I’m off to my head, I mean bed. Carry on. Back before first light.”
Nerves of bloody steel, thought the chastened Dedmon, as Nott ducked out the hatch.
---- HMS Dublin, 250 yards astern of HMS Southampton
Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Cyrus Phonone, undisputedly and undeniably the current commanding officer of His Majesty’ Ship Dublin, stood on his ship’s port bridgewing and regarded the bloody steel at his feet.
“Sir, Southampton’s signaling ....”
“Very well,” Phonone responded automatically, but did not turn or even look up as he waited to learn what the Commodore’s bidding might be.
Until a few weeks ago he had been a lieutenant, a senior one, but a lieutenant nonetheless and one of several such on the staff of Admiral Napier, Rear-Admiral Trevelyan Dacres Willes Napier, that is. The toll among RN officers at that catastrophic battle at the end of May had been the cause of many promotions, and one of them had been his advancement to LCDR. Then, just three days ago, he had been summoned to Napier’s office. Perfectly routine save, in hindsight, for the oddly subdued demeanor of the messenger. Phonone had found himself swept up into a myriad of duties, ranging from revising flag signaling protocols to checking on the quarters for the Napier family. The Admiral’s wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Culme-Seymour, was no stranger to such matters, being herself the child of an Admiral, as was her husband. Their youngest (of three), Margaret, was not two weeks from her seventh birthday and her doting father had decreed that it was to be celebrated and celebrated well. (NOTE 2)
Phonone’s second clue was the presence of LT Hereford, seated a few paces from Napier’s door. He would have missed that one, also, save that De Robeck’s aide called to him.
“Cy!” Phonone halted, almost in shock, at the familiar and most unexpected voice.
“Mike, what are you doing here?”
“Dogrobbing, same as you. His Nibs is in there with yours.” Phonone and Hereford had been in almost daily contact since Cyrus had joined Napier’s staff in January, but they had known each other ever since childhood. “Oh, and congratulations, Commander.”
Phonone waved the rank away. “Why’s he over here?” Protocol dictated that subordinates to the Commander - Grand Fleet come to him. The freshly-minted LCDR had learned that early, practically before he’d dried off from the shockingly cold waves above HMS Lion.
“I cannot say,” Hereford replied urbanely, hiding that he watched the new LCDR most carefully to confirm that the other’s recent elevation had not created a rank-conscious situation. As youngsters, Cyrus Phonone had been his older brother’s friend more than his. Hereford had observed aides to senior flag officers get away with chancy casualness, but often caused unacknowledged ill will in doing so. The young lieutenant did not want to taint these waters, no matter how innocently.
“I’m hearing the Germans might be coming out again,” Phonone said, fishing a bit. This was both allowed and expected among aides.
“Yes, I’ve heard the same,” Hereford replied noncommitally, easing a bit as the other’s cast was solid evidence that the rank difference was not going to pose a problem. “A day, maybe two or three, likely no more.”
“Hmm.” Phonone nodded. Whatever had brought De Robeck here, it was not that.
The appearance of a senior yeoman halted the game.
“Yes? Ah.” He was to go in.
“Commander,” Admiral De Robeck began, before Phonone even got the door fully shut behind him. “As you know, German activity is up and we’re apt to sortie again at any time.”
De Robeck paused. Phonone blinked under his sudden scrutiny, but did not speak. He had not been asked a question and the current Commander - Grand Fleet did not solicit small talk.
“The surgeons say Captain Kelly will not return for at least a month.”
Phonone recognized that the admiral was speaking of the CO of HMS Dublin (NOTE 3), who had been seriously wounded during the recent engagement with the German battlecruiser force. (NOTE 4) But how did that ...?
“Commander Smith will take her out, but that leaves her without a First Officer, and that just won’t do. Admiral Napier has agreed to give you up. And I understand you can swim ...?”
“Aye aye, sir!”
It was well known that De Robeck favoured men who had served well in combat, regardless of the outcome. In fact, it sometimes had seemed to Phonone that De Robeck actually preferred men who had experienced failure, but who had survived it and learned to carry on anyway. The new LCDR had opined it to be a legacy of De Robeck’s own experience, but he had never ....
“Sir! We’re to stay with Southampton - course 035. Execute.”
“Very well,” acknowledged the suddenly CO, promotion by decapitation, all in all, a very strange sequence path to command. (NOTE 5) “Helm ....”
---- HMS Birmingham, course 275, speed 23.5 knots (increasing)
Captain Peter David Danton Dalrymple swallowed at the Commodore’s signal. (NOTE 6)
“First Officer, last bearing to the enemy?”
“I make it 185, sir.”
“Helm, bring us to 180, two degrees rudder.”
Dalrymple could not fault the orders. He was to take Nottingham and scout after what appeared to have been a half-flotilla with whom they had just traded shots. Meanwhile, Nott would apparently continue to the northeast in obedience with his original orders. Birmingham and Nottingham, with their extra 6-inch gun on the forecastle, were even marginally more suitable for bow-on engagements than Southampton and Dublin.
He checked astern to assure himself that Nottingham had not missed their turn in the dark. When he turned back, neither of the Commodore’s ships remained in sight. It was as though Birmingham and Nottingham were alone in the middle of a black and world-spanning ocean. He was struck by the notion, but remained silent. The last time he had voiced something along those lines it had been pre-war to a distant female American relation whose scornful reply had including rendering his name into initials.
“Steady on 180, sir.” The helmsman’s announcement snapped him out of his brief reverie. He had not realized how tired he was.
“Very well.” Extra 6-inch gun or not, Dalrymple did not want to bash headlong into torpedoboats. The due south course should assure at least some separation and angle on the bow. Meanwhile, there was much to consider.
“First Officer, what course were the Germans on when we lost contact?”
“Sir, the cruiser was going east-southeast, but their aspect was changing southerly. The torpedoboats looked to be almost due south, but they also had rudder on when we lost them.”
Dalrymple looked to the southeast. In 90 minutes, two hours at the most, there’d be enough light to begin to sort things out. In the meanwhile, if he guessed wrong, he’d lose them. If he guessed too right, he could lose Birmingham. A thought occurred to him.
“What class was that cruiser? Bremen, wasn’t she?”
“I checked with the lookouts, sir. The guns were wrong for Bremen class. Muzzle flashes. She was definitely firing two different calibers.” The Bremens were built with 105 mm guns only.
“According to the Admiralty, Number One, some of them have been partially upgunned.”
“Then it could be, sir. Indeed, it could. Three funnels, not four, and something like 4,000 tons.” Another three funnel design was the new Graudenz class, but it was almost half again that size.
“They’re triple-expansion, if I recall.”
“Yes, sir. All except one. We should have about three knots on them.”
“I’ll hold this course for now. Come first light, Number One, and we’ll see.”
(Next Chapter: Dawn)
1) Here, “buff” is correct, not “bluff”. See:
2) Data on Napier’s family is historical. See:
3) Historically, HMS Dublin remained in the Mediterranean until after being hit by a torpedo from the Austrian U-4 on June 9, 1915. Repairs took several months, and she then returned to Britain for refit. Captain Kelly was eventually succeeded by Captain (later Admiral of the Fleet) Scott, who would be Dublin’s CO at Jutland. In LT, Dublin was presumed to have been one of the many ships recalled as part of the prompt reaction to DK and the cancellation of the Gallipoli Campaign. Thus, Captain Kelly is still the Dublin CO as of this date in LT.
4) HMS Dublin took two hits from SMS Frankfurt during the July 3, 1915 engagement, and another from SMS Seydlitz. The eleven-inch shell struck the back of the forward superstructure, starboard side. Captain Kelly was among those wounded by shell splinters from the Seydlitz hit.
5) Post-war, historians would reconstruct the sequence to be even stranger than Phonone thought, as the 88 mm shell that took the life of Commander Smith had apparently been intended for HMS Southampton. The four cruisers were engaged on the port beam while initially in line abreast, with Dublin the next in line to starboard. The first source to document the theory was a German magazine, hence written in Deutsch, that made extensive use of interviews of the German torpedoboat crews. The later and much more widely published English translation summary described Phonone’s command elevation as being “Dahmed,” the exact meaning of which remains in dispute to this date, as all modern tertiary source documents content themselves with simply quoting the first English secondary source. The most common hypothesis is that it was not a translation mistake at all, but a transcription error for “damned.”
6) It is presumed that Captain Arthur AM Duff has been promoted to new construction or such. Historically, Duff sank U-15 by ramming on August 9, 1914, and commanded HMS Birmingham at both Dogger Bank and Jutland. Historically, AAM Duff was well enough regarded to be given command of HMS Tiger by the time of the Second Battle of Heligoland Bight. As HMS Tiger is not available in LT to men without gills, he has been promoted elsewhere, just a bit early.