Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXV
--- Moltke, 16 knots, course 080
Kapitänleutnant Lucterhand eased his weight from one foot to the other as he stood in the fore of the bridge. It was a nervous habit of his known to all but Lucterhand himself and he was indeed nervous. He also had one foot a bit ahead of the other which put him in a stance that ofered a fair line of sight to the chart table near the aft bridge bulkhead. This allowed him to keep Konteradmiral Hanzik and Kapitan zur See Martel Uno Stang in view out of the corner of one eye. His tactics were partly because Stang had put so much emphasis on his watchkeepers remaining relentless in their outward vigilance that Lucterhand dared not watch the senior officers openly. Mostly, though, his caution was based on his earlier conclusion that both were preternaturally sensitive to the psychic “touch” of another’s attention, especially his....
The force had been steaming at 16 knots “in Sieg” since before they entered the Strait just after dawn on July 5. So monotonous had it been that the only thing that had varied had been their course. Now, a couple hours before dusk some 40-odd hours later, he knew that things were about to change. The relevant flag signal had been up on the halyards for some time and all ships had acknowledged. He unobtrusively clenched his hands where they rested in the small of his back and shifted his weight again.
Lucterhand started slightly when Hanzik and Stang leaned over as a cloudbank further dimmed the light in the back of the bridge. In truth, they did not really need to look at the map again, as they knew full well both where they were and also that the time had come. The force had described a grand northerly loop around Iceland and had managed - as best they knew - to remain undetected. The greatest risk had been at the mouth of the Strait, the body of water marked “Dänemark Strasse” on their map. Once that hurdle had been surmounted, only very bad luck indeed would have revealed them before now. Not only was this a low traffic area to begin with, but they also had the two u-boats sweeping most overtly before them (and one covertly astern). The principle was simple and time-tested: put something out in plain sight and then hide something else behind it. Performers had managed more than this each performance at the Bräurosl before the war. (NOTE 1)
Hanzik looked up at the chronometer on the rear bulkhead. Due to the high speed crossing, the u-boats’ range limits would soon become limiting and they were likely to be sighted just after dawn almost no matter where they were as they rounded the Shetlands and Orkneys. He nodded to Stang, who stood up.
Up at his commanding vantage point in his warmly padded deck chair on Imperator’s promenade deck, Hadi Pasha’s eyes narrowed in suspicion above his steaming coffee mug as so many brightly colored flags dipped and fluttered. A few meters away, several large and swarthy men noted nervously that the Great Man moved his head from side to side as the ships edged a few meters further apart and their wakes began to broaden.
On both great liners, the increase in vibrations soon flushed many pale-faced Yankee engineers out onto the decks.
"Whatta’ ya think?”
Over on Vaterland, that question was put to Michael Walker at the side rail by one of the men who had just stepped out on deck. “I can’t tell for sure,” Walker replied, “but it’s not just us. It looks like everyone’s sped up.” He was hedging a mite because two of the CLs were hidden from his view by closer and larger hulls. “Maybe someone sighted us or something, but my guess is the Head Hun just decided it was close enough to dark so that no one would see us. Maybe we’ll just slow back down at dawn.” The other nodded.
"Sir, answering 22.5 knots.”
"Very well,” Stang replied, glancing at Hanzik. Ten hours, that had been the Admiral’s decision. They would close up on the 16-knot u-boats, consuming the buffer zone as the all-too-short night began.
"Sir, all ships report on station.” Wakes broadened at the higher speed, necessitating minor formation loosening.
"Admiral,” began Stang, “request permission to calibrate lights.”
Steaming this many tons of ships this close at night posed risks, even at 16 knots. Steaming with running lights would have averted most of those risks, but only by creating worse ones. The work-around had been to rig directional cowls, generally targeting adjacent ships’ bridges. They were not much more than flashlights in tubes, but they had worked well enough. They needed to be set and aimed before dark, however, so that each ship could Sieg Heil or flag for adjustments. It took only a decent sliver of moon for the lights not to be needed. However, without any ship lights at all, they were moments from disaster anytime the moon slipped behind clouds.
"You may proceed, Kapitan.”
Ten hours before light, 225 nautical miles. Hanzik could not help looking at the map again.
July 7, 1915 - Dawn Breaks, and so does other stuff
--- Room 40
Commander Jan had fully expected the dawn to be eventful. After all, the KM had a battlecruiser force loose somewhere up in the North Sea, possibly on another bombardment mission. This time the Huns had apparently targeted not a small town in north Suffolk, but one of the great port cities of Scotland or the shipping lanes there. This time, also, the RN had advance knowledge, including the most likely objective.
Commander Sartore had not disagreed, but had elected to stay through the night. Sartore was preparing to go get some sleep but was first explaining his notes on the brief night meeting engagement between Commodore Nott’s squadron and a German half-flotilla.
"Nott split his forces?” Jan’s voice was just short of incredulous.
"The Commodore remained faithful to his orders while pursuing the contact.” Sartore was exhausted but sly enough to wave his hand at the clutch of senior officers in the main area.
"I see,” Jan replied, nodding in understanding. Whatever Sartore really felt, he had just heard what the current official position was on Nott’s decision.
"Quite. If nothing shows up in ten minutes, then I’m going to go and ....”
Jan never did learn what Sartore had hoped to do.
"Birmingham sighting report! Single plume, probably warship.”
Nott had done it again.
---- HMS Birmingham, course 100, speed 25 knots
Captain Peter David Danton Dalrymple had altered course towards the plume even before the wireless had gone out. As the sun rose, his concerns about being caught between German forces evaporated with the mists. Dalrymple had had a ring-side seat three days ago throughout Nott’s sea battle ballet with the Hun battlecruiser admiral and wanted no part of any such thing. The presence of the battle-hardened commodore two ships ahead had been more than simply a great comfort during that engagement.
Nott’s absence was enough to keep Dalrymple’s head on a swivel. Now, though, he began to relax a wee bit as the only plume to be seen was the one he had sharp on his port bow.
---- Bremen, course 135, speed 22 knots
Conda had been a bit dismayed at the plume almost due west of him.
The smoke trail was too large to be a merchant, which would have been very appealing, and too small to be a significant fleet force, which would also have been nice. In the former, he might take a prize, while in the case of the latter, he would have a valuable sighting to report.
This plume was neither. It was, instead, precisely the plume that a British CL squadron would produce, and any such a force would be too strong for his to beat aside. It would also be too fast to scout around in a bid to spot, perchance, any enemy fleet element the other might be screening. The Britishers might even ....
"Sir, the contact has altered toward us.”
Yes, exactly that. Damn.
“Very well. Identification? Range estimate?”
“Sir, lookouts watching the plume when they turned say it appears to be from two ships.”
“Hmm, very well.” That was odd. The bunch he’d scrapped with ever so briefly in the dark had been at least four. That is, he’d counted four or five shooters. Of course, smoke contributions by small oil-fired ships might not be visible at this range, whatever it was.
“More than 22,000, sir. Could be 25,000, but not much more.”
Conda acknowledged. His men would be guessing based mostly on the distance to the horizon from their vantage and how close to the still-invisible stacks the bottom of the smoke they COULD see might be. Should he stay on course, or even turn west to ensure he could identify this contact? If it were 25,000 yards, that meant they were about 10,000 beyond the effective gun range of British light cruisers and they had just turned to close the range. At 26 knots, they could be in range in as little as 20 minutes. An hour or an hour-and-a-half in a stern chase.
“Helm, come to 120.” Better to make it a stern chase and report as he went. “Signals ....”
---- Moltke, 22.5 knots, course 150
The false dawn cast a glow to the southeast bright enough now to create a horizon. Hanzik had hoped for clouds and would have embraced even a thunderstorm. Instead, the day would start clear, based on how well the few clouds reflected the sun’s rays from below the horizon. The high hulls of the liners emerged first from the gloom, massive spectres taking substance, followed soon by von der Tann on their flank, and lastly the four light cruisers. Hanzik looked at the bridge chronometer. The ten hours had passed, and there was light enough for flag signals.
“Signals Officer,” Hanzik nodded his command and watched stolidly as the flags made their colorful ascent.
“Sir, all ships have acknowledged.”
“Very well. Kapitan Stang? Gut. Our turn begins now. Execute.”
---- Imperator, speed 22.5 knots (decreasing), course 150
Hadi Pasha’s servants tried to make their reports, but the Great One waved them off. From his imperial emplacement he could see that the other liners had also begun to slow. What was more obvious, however, was that the war vessels were all up to something. But what? The dour Germans were almost completely unreadable, quite unlike the Americans who cavorted constantly like puppies. It had been Hadi’s skill in managing these infidels who styled themselves as allies to the Sultan himself - Allah’s smile upon him! - that had gained him favor.
His servants were scandalized. The Master’s dish of honey-soaked figs lay unacknowledged on the side table! Yes, it was his third, but ....
Hadi’s head turned to look forward, as though commanding something to occur. From the direction of his gaze, he appeared to be ordering the hatch there to open. And of course, his servants noted with heads bobbing, it did! In fact, multiple hatches on both Imperator and the lesser great vessel (for that is how they saw Vaterland) flew open to disgorge Americans with their sickening skinned-rabbit pink faces out onto the decks. Many appeared bleary-eyed and lethargic. Others’ heads jerked one way then another in some sort of manic display. The servants eased hands to hilts at the sight.
“Joe? Have you heard anything?” “No, not me.” Where’s Blue?” “Who?” The reporter.”
“I’m here,” Blue Fox replied. “All I know is that Ballin said last night that we’d probably be changing formation at dawn.”
“But why slow down?” “Yeah, I’m getting sick and tired of this. Weren’t we supposed to get there a week ago?” “Hey, they said our pay started when we came aboard; they better not back out on that part.” “Damn straight!”
“I think you gotta’ slow down,” Blue continued. “How else could the ones in back get in front?”
“Hey, we’ve steadied up.” “You think?” “Yeah. Maybe 18 knots?” “Sounds right.”
Hadi waited imperturbably, like a stocky statue.
“Hey, there they go.” “Two groups?”
One battlecruiser was going by to port, the other to starboard. With each as a pair of the smaller cruisers, spreading out in the van of the larger ships as they drew ahead.
“I bet they’re splitting up to sweep ahead of us.” “Yeah, I think it means we’re getting into British waters.” “Well, they’re a mean looking bunch, lemme’ tell you. I’d not want to be the British they run into.” “Hell, no.”
Hadi hid his internal nod and smile. It was so useful having one bunch of infidels on hand to interpret another.
---- Portland, Maine
It’s no easy thing to track down a stranger in a fair-sized town when one is himself a stranger. The easy methods of address search and name recognition were obviously out. They didn’t even know what David Bender or Timothy Mixer looked like. The Inquirer and Times guys had run photographs of them, but they weren’t anywhere near good enough to pick either man out of a group. If that were all they had, they’d’ve been in trouble. But it wasn’t.
“There! That’s her!” “Let me see. Yep, you’re right!”
The reporters, though, were used to such and this time they had something solid to start with: the boat. They knew its name - Sally IV - and the photographs of it were much more useful, showing as they did both its type and lines.
“Hello, the boat!” After a bit, louder.
A few minutes more of that without answer and the reporters began to peek into the craft from the pier alongside. Heads began to pop up on other craft up and down the pier. A couple more leaned out open windows of pier-side shacks, mostly bait and tackle shops. One reporter began to step aboard when the others pulled him back.
“Not yet, you fool!” “Yeah, you wanna’ queer us with the locals?!”
“Hi,” began the oldest reporter to the nearest local yokel. The man, a gnarled specimen with a face like tree bark, frowned, spat expressively into the bay, and went back to whatever he’d been doing with some netting.
“Friendly cuss.” “Shuttup.”
It took a few tries and minutes, but eventually they got results.
“The Copper Pot Inn? That way?”
They left one staked out on the pier at the boat, not the one who almost boarded without permission, and headed where indicated.
“Yeah, I’m Bender.” Mixer remained mute behind a frothy mug.
“We’re from the Globe, The Boston Globe. That’s your ketch ....”
“Sally IV? Yeah, but ....” Bender’s voice grew wary.
“Out of Boston. You were held prisoner by the Germans, out at St. Pierre and Miquelon? And you’re Timothy Mixer, right?”
“What’s it to you?” Mixer was trying to get up a decent buzz before they had to cast off and these guys were already beginning to bother him.
“Man!” The youngest reporter could contain himself no longer. “You guys are front page news! Your names and photographs are splashed all over the papers in Philly and New York.”
“Browning,” said Mixer, turning to Bender, who nodded back and said, “then he was telling the truth? About him being a reporter for the New York Times, and all that?”
“Oh, yeah. Look, can we get some pix here? Of the two of you?” “Yeah, and maybe some more down at the ... ‘Sally’?”
“I dunno’. Not sure I want to talk about it too much.” Mixer, across the table, opened his mouth
to pile on in surly agreement, but he suddenly closed it with an audible click. Bender’s nostrils had flared slightly, an unmistakable signal to those that knew him well that he had scented that there was money to be made here, somehow. Torp had seen it and didn’t know how or why, but had long ago learned to trust Bender’s instincts on such matters.
---- Room 40
The place had gone stark raving mad.
Just minutes before, the all-consuming question had been if Dalrymple could run down the Hun light cruiser and her trio of consorts. That and whether or not the Germans would turn up off Scotland where DeRobeck had the Fleet ready and waiting, with Commodore Nott out on his distant flank.
“Troops ashore? The bloody Huns have launched a bloody invasion? At, where?”
“Are you out of your bloody mind?!”
“They’ve shelled the town, m’lord. That’s been confirmed. The tower there’s gone and the rail station is clearly in flames.”
“Damme. But they did all that at Southwold. No troops there. And why Withernsea? Why in God’s green earth Withernsea?”
“They’ve got witnesses on the phone saying they saw troops, m’lord. Hundreds of them. Course, not being there ... they could be mistaken.”
“Sir, from the Admiralty.”
As the senior officer stepped out, Jan turned to Sartore whose eyes looked out from above circles so dark as to appear to be bone bruises.
“He’s right. There were no reports of men ashore at Southwold. They must have seen something, those townsfolk.”
“I agree, Jan. And I can’t figure Withernsea any more than his lordship.” (NOTE 2)
The named personage came back into the room, visibly shaken.
“The Huns really ARE ashore in Withernsea. They captured the constabulary ... “
“Guns,” hissed Jan to Sartore, who nodded back. The Germans had apparently sent a detachment directly to the only place that could begin to mount an armed defense.
“... burned it all the way down to the foundation ... at least one hundred, likely more.”
“M’lord, please excuse me. This all sounds quite incredible. The source?”
“The constable himself. Hackentorn.” He looked at his aide. “Hawthorne, m’lord.”
“Yes, that’s it, Constable Hawthorne. Good man, it seems. Steady. He got free and called the Ministry. According to the Minister, the Germans asked about roads out of town.”
“Yes, quite. They even asked after some of the bridges by name ....”
“Oh hell, indeed,” Sartore muttered. “That means there may be follow-on forces that haven’t been reported yet.”
Stark raving mad.
---- Regensburg, course 345, speed 22 knots
“Sir, plume, bearing 300. Appears a singleton. Possibly merchant.”
“Helm, bring us onto 345,” Wolferein growled. “Maximum speed.”
He looked around as the sun began to fully show above the horizon. It was still low enough for the wave crests to cast long shadows, giving the North Sea, exaggerating the heaving sea. His voice felt raw and his clothes sticky. He’d been essentially locked up on the bridge all night, as though it were a jail cell.
“Steady on 345.”
“Very well.” Wolferein looked to the SSE. The plume there was different. THAT one was a comforting sight.
He turned back towards their contact. Yes, she was by herself. What he could see of her lines said she was not a low-slung warship. Boxy, but not like freighter. Damn, she just might a converted liner.
Converted to an AMC.
---- B.110, course 345, speed 25 knots
As usual, Oberleutnant zur See Heinrich Kelly’s command was following obediently in Regensburg’s wake. He’d swung easily with the other four TBs in the Old Man’s turn, and he’d ordered up the additional knots. While he could guess, he did not know for sure that there was a contact. His craft was in lower in the water than the cruiser and in her plume.
“Sir, flags going up on Regensburg!”
“All ahead flank!” Kelly’s voice carried over the noises of sea and engines. The other TB COs did the same, but they were astern of B.110. “Maximum speed!” And Kelly wanted to keep them there.
“Helm, take us around to port!”
“Ah, I see our target! Can’t you snipes get me more? Do I need to order out the oars?”
He would have gone on, but a rogue wave gave them air under the bow, which slammed back down onto the water hard enough to almost knock them all to the deck.
“That’s better!” Kelly could not hear #2 feedpump and wondered momentarily if the jolt had somehow knocked it back into alignment. He cast his eyes about and grinned. He’d caught the others napping. They had a lead of over 300 meters. He looked back ahead at his target and his grin got even wider as the target that he seemed not to have to share got already gotten quite a bit larger.
“Ready, Guns! I’ll be wanting a warning shot any second.”
The smoke burst on his target’s bow puzzled him for a second, almost two, actually.
“Gott im Himmel!”
The quite large splash not 100 yards off his port beam added eloquent punctuation to his prayerful exclamation.
“Guns! Open fire!”
The size of his target made his gun look suddenly smaller.
“Torpedo attack! Get ready! Schnell!”
Crack-crack! Splash! This one was astern. So was the next. Were the Brit gunners having trouble dropping the range fast enough? As he glanced back at the spouts, he realized that he had actually opened the range on his flotilla-mates by another 200 yards or more.
The fire spark was a tiny thing. A pinprick. Kelly doubted the Britishers even felt it, and his gunners were obviously having their own troubles at this speed in these waves, no matter how big their target was. Splashes dotted the sea around their foe, not all of them from his guns, Kelly realized. He would have to feed them fish.
“Ready back there?”
“Scheiss!” Water splashed across the bridge and knocked him to his knees, whether from shell or wave, Kelly didn’t know. By the time he got back up, the range was already under 2,000 meters. “Scheiss!” Kelly repeated.
One, then another red pinprick scored the enemy hull. He could see the fixed snarls on the Brit gunners’ faces as they spun their wheels to depress their cannon to kill him.
“Standby! Fire as you bear! Helm, left three degrees rudder!”
He hung on this time, but he still got swamped by the sea.
---- Room 40
There’d been several more reports of Germans wandering about the countryside, but nothing of great substance. Germans could always be depended upon to leave destruction in their path and, while there were sightings here and there, there were no more reports of flames and explosions. This absence was taken as an absence of Germans. So, unless there had been a spy insertion of some sort, the Germans seemed to have contented themselves with capturing Withernsea.
No one had yet to offer any reasoning for Withernsea, nor had anyone proved yet that the Huns had all decamped. The Home Guard was on the way in force; that was all.
Still, things did not seem to be getting any better.
“Under attack? Where?”
“Going up on the map now, m’lord.”
“Good Lord. What forces?”
“Torpedoboats, sir. A full flotilla, they also have two cruisers in sight.”
The only flotillas the Huns could possibly have up there had been with the battlecruiser force that had slipped the net yesterday.
“What is a flotilla doing all the way up there? Two cruisers?” Jan’s questions were put to Sartore who was nursing a raging headache, fueled by far too much hot tea. His answer was curt and cynical.
“His lordship is asking the same, and he’s not getting any answer either.”
---- Regensburg, course 345, speed 25 knots
“Sir, Oberleutnant zur See Kelly reports taking aboard five more prisoners.”
“How many is that now?”
“That’s his second kill,” Wolferein mused. Quick off the mark, Kelly had been.
“Still, they almost certainly got off a wireless,” Wolferein said to his XO.
“Yes, sir. Several, I’d wager.”
“Well, assuming they were accurate, the British will know Admiral Necki’s scout force is up here, but they can’t be sure where his battlecruisers are.”
---- Room 40
“Yes, m’lord. We look to have a bit more on this one.”
“Yes, sir. But only a bit, sir. She initially reported sighting a light cruiser. Three funnels. But then she came under heavy caliber fire and then went silent. Nothing since, m’lord.”
“Heavy caliber, you say.”
“Yes, sir. And then they went silent.”
Compared with the first attack report, this second map marker was far to the east and even somewhat to the south.
“Heavy caliber. Battlecruiser, perhaps?”
The German battlecruiser force was out there somewhere. Perhaps, they had just learned where. (NOTE 3) Sadly, at a terrible cost.
“We have two widely separated sea attacks in the northern reaches and an invasion of - God help us! - Withernsea?”
They were still struggling with that when the third attack was reported.
---- Moltke, course 180, speed 20 knots
It was hardly a glamorous kill, and Kapitan Stang certainly wished it had been quicker. Kolberg had hit the target many times, but the stubborn Britisher had refused to go down, and had even scored a hit of her own. It had taken Moltke’s 11-inch convincers to settle the matter.
“... picking up survivors, sir.”
“I regret that they had ample time to get off messages, sir.”
Stang’s gunners had taken half-a-dozen salvos to score a hit, and another pair to sink her. By then, the range had been under 14,000 yards.
“Yes, regrettable.” Hanzik looked back at the vast black blotch on the edge of the horizon astern. “I made your task more difficult, Kapitan.”
He had maneuvered to keep Moltke’s considerable plume between the wriggling AMC and the sight astern.
hope they had only us to report.”
1) The Bräurosl is a b-i-g tent .... See:
The reason for the present tense (“is”) can be made clear by noting that the Bräurosl has been managed by the Heide family for seven generations. The name comes from the daughter of the owner of the brewery. See:
can the author. Blame Borys. He has broad, er, shoulders. ;-)
I refer, of course, to his fine “Officer and a Gentleman” story which begins here: