Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXVII

(Confusion At Sea)


July 7, 1915



---- HMS Southampton, course 035, speed 25 knots


With his feet set wide and his uniform whipping in the wind, Commodore Nott struck a heroic pose out on the port wingbridge, or at least he supposed he did.  In any case, no one was going to dispute him on the point.  If the Huns had any thoughts of striking near Aberdeen this day, they should soon be cresting the horizon.  In fact, a delicate frown had begun to form behind his upraised binoculars, since he’d been anticipating that precise development since before dawn.  Nothing was in sight, not even a smoke plume.  The sea stubbornly remained most utterly empty.


Within the bridgehouse, Dedmon was mundanely conferring with the Signals Officer at the chart table.  The scraps of paper on his clipboard persisted in making bids to escape as the 25-knot slipstream kept air currents brisk and ever-changing even in there.  The Navigator stood on his other side, and all three watched the bosun update the map to reflect recent wireless reports.


Nott lowered his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his remarkably prominent proboscis.  His legs were tired and his right elbow still ached.  The Germans had all gone home, it seemed.



---- HMS Dublin, 5000 yards east of HMS Southampton


LCDR Phonone scanned the horizon, just as his lookouts did.  He was out on the starboard bridgewing, partly because Southampton was quartering to port.  Mostly, though, it was because he remained quite uncomfortable out on the port side even though the men had scrubbed off the stain there.  At least he thought they had; he hadn’t looked.  Well, not closely.


“Sir,” the voice belonged to the man who was now the First Officer, his low tone carefully neutral and inaudible to anyone more than a pace away.  “Do you know what we’re supposed to be looking for?”  The question was worded just as carefully, though Phonone understood the unstated parts just the same.


The other’s concern was hardly without bases, Phonone reflected.  He, the man’s new commanding officer, was virtually an unknown and the officer himself had not even been on the bridge during their mutual “promotion” a few hours ago.  Their force had been four, but had become two and then their two had charged off almost directly away from an enemy who had been shooting at them and all to get here … where there was nothing.


“Not precisely, Number One,” Phonone replied, using the other’s acting title as a reminder of its own.  “The signal to the Commodore came directly from Warspite, along with our destination.”  Dublin’s new CO gestured at the waves, the empty waves.  “And according to the plot, we’re at the ordered spot.  As for the rest, we just keep station on Southampton.  I know for a fact that he has their lordships’ full confidence.”


“Yes,” the other nodded, brow clearing somewhat.  “He’s earned that, right enough.”

“And ours, too,” Phonone added stoutly.       


“Aye, sir.”  But the horizon remained unmarked by hull or plume.



---- HMS Birmingham, course 100, speed 25.2 knots


Captain Peter David Danton Dalrymple stood with easy confidence on his bridge, his glasses tracking his prey despite the waves.  His demeanor was more positive than Nott’s because, unlike his Commodore to the north, he had a plume in sight.  In fact, he’d been trying to close with it since dawn.  The ship, whoever she was, had apparently turned tail and run the moment he’d pointed his bows at her.  They were overhauling her, but a stern chase is a long chase with only a three knot advantage.


“Sir, lookouts report contact is in company.”


What?  Dalyrimple had not expected this.  The only vessels that would not have been spotted earlier would be ....


“Torpedoboats.  Current count is three.”


“Very well.”  Matters had just become complicated.  The other’s consorts could break contact whenever they should so choose.  Or they could abandon her to her fate.  But what if they turned and fought?


Dalrymple frowned in concentration.  Last October, Undaunted had had four L Class with her when she’d sunk four German TBs.  Here, Dalrymple had another cruiser instead of four destroyers of his own but one of the four enemy was herself a cruiser, albeit an apparently older and slower one.  Undaunted’s consorts had been faster than the enemy, preventing their escape, and so they had forced to fight despite superior RN firepower and been sunk without loss.


Damn!  If the enemy reversed course all together, the TBs would be able to close because he’d lose way turning himself to evade.  He’d have two shooters but four targets, with one providing supporting fire while the others ....


“Chief!  Range to target.  And count update on torpedo craft!”


“Sir, 18,000 yards, and the current count is still three, plus the cruiser.”


“Identification on cruiser?”


“No, sir.”  Their tracks were offset by no more than a couple hundred yards, making the other’s aspect almost directly stern-on.  It was a smaller older cruiser, though; that was much was apparent.  Was she their adversary from last night?  In the near-dark, his lookouts’ guess had been Bremen class, but had expressed some reservations.  Still, she had been in sight for a time now, and he was moderately surprised that his men had not been able to positively her yet.  He mentally shrugged and went back to his deliberations.


The Falklands battle had included several extended stern chase engagements with German light cruisers.  In each case, the Huns had outranged their pursuers by one or two thousand yards and had shot well.  However, their 4.1-inch guns had made little impression, while the RN 6-inchers had been quite effective once they’d gotten into range.



---- Warspite, course 180, speed 15 knots


Admiral DeRobeck had ordered the turn to the south a quarter-hour ago, once it had become amply clear that there was no immediate threat to the northern coast.  The flags for 20 knots had gone up just minutes ago.  He had Commodore Nott out on the distant wing, so there was no possibility that the Germans were lurking a few score miles beyond the visibility of his screen.  He’d keep him out there for a bit, just in case.


“All ships have acknowledged, sir,” Captain Swafford relayed.


“Very well.  Execute.”


DeRobeck looked again at the map, together with the latest wireless from Commander - Harwich Force.  Commodore Tyrwhitt had been unable to sight whatever ships may have been involved in the raid of Withernsea - assuming there really HAD been a raid, and DeRobeck admitted to some lingering doubt on that point no matter what.  Tyrwhitt had cast his net fairly wide, so whatever ship had been involved had to have been fast or ... what?  The Room 40 staff had not been particularly helpful this day.


“Captain Swafford?”




“If we assume this raid was real.”  And not some bizarre outbreak of collective insanity, he did not add.  “You thoughts on how the landing force have escaped detection?”


“It could simply be that they came ashore normally – say off smaller craft like torpedoboats – and that no one has reported it yet in all the excitement.  But, sir, there is another possibility.  But it’s just that.”


“Understood.  Continue.”


“U-boats, sir.  It would explain the surprise, easily enough.  The problem I see with it is that the reported raider count’s too high.  Best I think could be managed, sending in detachments on small boats, might be ten or a dozen per sub.”


The excited townsfolk had claimed a hundred or more.


DeRobeck nodded, nonetheless.  Civilians awakened at dawn by cannon and fire might well see a full score of Huns for each real one.


Was that what all this was about, then?  Were the Germans trying for some sort of death of a thousand cuts?  A patrol AMC here, a shore raid by a couple dozen there?  DeRobeck’s instinctive thought was to reject this.  The Kaiserliche Marine had sortied their fleet.  Still, where WERE they?


The battlecruisers could be anywhere, but he had a feeling that the HSF Main Body remained well to his south.


“Answering 20 knots, sir.”


“Very well.”



---- HMS Birmingham, course 100, speed 25.2 knots


Captain P. D. D. Dalrymple reached a decision just as the range to the trail TB dropped to 17,000 yards.


“Signals, hoist: ‘Maneuver independently’.”  He would execute when the Germans turned to fight.  That would allow them to split their fire and evade any torpedoes more readily.


“Sir, Nottingham has acknowledged.”


“Sir, the enemy torpedo boats ….”


Just in time, it would appear!  Dalrymple had his mouth open to give the order when he saw that the enemy craft were not coming about at all.  Instead, the three faster light ships had increased speed and were moving up along one beam of their leader, then slightly ahead.  This would delay matters hardly more than a couple handful of minutes.  Smoke?  They were on the cruiser’s lee side.  An odd choice if they were going to try to something of that sort.


“Range to the cruiser?”


“17,500 yards, sir.  Perhaps a bit less.”


Had the German commander ordered his TBs to save themselves?  What would he, Dalrymple, do with two larger, faster, far better gunned cruisers running down Birmingham?  This was hardly an idle question, given that there were two German battlecruisers loose somewhere.  Was that it?!  He opened his mouth even as he turned to anxiously scan the horizon, having recognized that he’d let himself get mesmerized by the target fleeing ahead.


“Lookout Chief!  Other contacts?”


Was it that a few minutes could make a difference?  This wasn’t the Pacific, but a great many miles of open water remained ....


“No other contacts ....  Sir, the enemy has opened fire!”




“Range to target?”


“16,000 yards, sir.”  “Possibly a bit more, sir,” added the grizzled bosun at his side.


Dalymple could only wait as his thoughts raced.  The enemy outranged him, yes, but not by that much.  His could reach 13,500 yards, maybe a bit more if he could catch the uproll.  The Falklands post-battle review had stated that the fleeing cruisers had shot perhaps 1,000 yards further.  The German cruiser must be desperate.  Or was it another distraction?


“Damn!”  The splash just two hundred yards ahead came as a distinct and palpable shock.  The range estimate must be wrong!  Damn!  The next one was even closer.  This was no fluke!


“Guns, give it a try!”


The next splash was in their wake.  Straddled, he realized.


Crack!  Crack!  The pair on his foc’sle fired.


Splash!  It’d been alongside.  Ranged in.


Whanng!  His mind registered that his ship had been hit - somewhere aft - even as he saw his own shells fall well short of the enemy.  Well short!  The estimate was correct!  How in the bloody HELL had the Huns gained another 2,000 yards range?  Some sort of overcharge?  Smaller shells?


The next splashed just ahead.  That was not smaller than 4-inch shell.  Could it be larger?  Or, maybe a new propellant?


Whanng!  Evil be-damned spirits?!


“Damage reports!”  He’d felt that one in the soles of his feet.  Three knots and two thousand yards – they’d have to take this for another 15 or 20 minutes!


The next missed alongside.


“Not yet, sir.”


Another near miss.


“Captain, they’re only firing their stern chaser.”


That seemed odd.  Three or four of their guns must bear.




“Sir, ten dead …”  Dalrymple was shocked again.  The pursuers at Falklands had suffered almost no casualties from perhaps a dozen hits.  “… another three dead ….”  He’d lost thirteen already and one gun was damaged.




Crack!  Crack!  Guns had elected to try again.  He looked ahead hopefully.  Damn!  Still short!  By 1,000 yards, or more, but they were gaining.  Even as he watched, another German shell splashed directly alongside their port bow.


CRASH-whanng!  Dalrymple staggered from an impact on the face of the outside of the bridge near his feet and glass sleeted about the bridge.

“Sir, hit on ....”  This time Dalrymple did not need to listen, as he could see the effects quite well enough himself.  The shell had struck the deck along the port side of Birmingham’s foc’sle, taking down several of the gun crew there.  Presumably it’d been shrapnel from there that had hit up where he was.  His Gunnery Officer was already there, taking charge.  They’d need that gun shortly - he hoped - but its barrel angled off to one side just now.


Splash!  This one was 30 yards to port, but exactly even with where he stood.  He realized there was an order he needed to give.


“Execute!”  Dalrymple had to release Nottingham in case something happened here.


Splash!  This one was no closer, but further back along the hull.


“Sir, Nottingham has acknowledged.”


“Very ....”  Dalrymple paused and turned, as he realized the voice was different.  The bosun was gone.  And the helmsman was different.




Crack!  Just one gun?  Dalrymple looked at the foc’sle.  Yes, one gun only, though several men clustered about the other.  Crack!  The one under the port wing joined in.


The first splashed short, but only by a few hundred yards.  They were getting the range!  The wing piece was further short and somewhat off line to port.  Another five minutes, surely fewer than ten.


Splash!  Another near miss.


Crack-crack!  Dalyrymple’s head jerked to starboard.  Nottingham had opened fire from back there on their after quarter.  Their initial shots were almost on line but perhaps 500 yards short.  Their prey was slightly to port, but so was Birmingham’s plume.


Meanwhile, the splashes from the Birmingham’s own guns were churning the German’s wake, but still short.  Two new muzzle flashes dotted their foe, followed by smaller splashes off Birmingham’s bow.  Different calibers?  Was that it?  Their stern piece spoke again, as Birmingham’s splashes fetched closer.


Whanng!  “Fire!  Fire!  Starboard side ....!”  Damn these Huns to hell!


“Sir, flags going up on Nottingham!”




Whack!  One of the enemy’s smaller guns had scored.  Dalrymple could tell the difference now.


“ ‘Enemy in sight’, sir.”


Of course the enemy was in ....  Oh!


“Sir, confirmed!  Plumes, bearing 135.  Cruiser, sir.  Range 18,000 yards.  Two cruisers.  They’re both bows-on, sir.”


Damn!  It’d become a silent litany of his.


“Hit!”  Yes!


Splash!  Splash-splash!


“Battlecruisers?”  He had his teeth in this Hun bastard and he was not about to let go so easily.


“No, sir.  Sir, torpedoboats.”  Splash!  “They’re leading torpedoboats, sir.  Eight, make that ten torpedoboats, sir.”




“Very well.”


“Sir, target is altering to port.”


Dalrymple turned back just in time to see their foe - who he was gratified to see now to be trailing a bit of smoke herself! - open fire with several more guns.  They’d come left about three points.  The piece on their bow seemed larger, too.  Of course, to port.  Clever bastards.  It’d take Nottingham right out of the battle for a few minutes.


“Sir, more flags ....”


Splash-splash.  Yes, those must have been the guns at Falklands ....


“Sir, new ... contact, multiple contacts, bearing ... 120.”


“Hit!”  Whanng!  This one knocked him onto his back.


“Report!”  Dalrymple ordered, as he struggled to his feet.


But he realized he didn’t need it after all.  The entire damn horizon was smudged around that bearing.  He’d found the whole high Seas Fleet; that’s what he’d done.  And they were coming right down his throat.


“Left full rudder!”  Nottingham was to starboard.  (NOTE)  “Signals Officer!”



Author’s NOTE:


It is the author’s understanding that the rudder commands used by the RN were actually the reverse of those of the USN.  In actuality, Birmingham’s CO would have ordered starboard rudder to come left.