Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXIX
(“Serendipity, Thy Name Is ‘Nott’.”) (NOTE 1)
July 7, 1915
---- Room 40
“From Birmingham, Captain Dalrymple: ‘Dreadnought force new course 235, 10 knots’.”
A perplexed buzz greeted that announcement.
Commander Jan and he traded equal glances of puzzlement.
“Pausing for his screen to redeploy, perhaps,” Sartore suggested. “And get a fuller report from the half-flotilla Dalrymple whipped in.”
“Makes sense,” Jan agreed. “Wait! Does 235 line up with Withernsea?”
That was such an alarming notion that both wrenched their necks to half-squint at the updated wall chart on the wall behind the yeomen. The latest reports from that town had spoken of Guard patrols in the streets and conducting house-by-house searches. Nothing in the way of wayward invaders had yet turned up and things seemed to be calming down a bit there at last. This would all come apart should Members and Ministers learn that Hun dreadnoughts were en route.
“Hmmph,” Sartore replied, not sure if his concerns had been allayed or not. The German course didn’t precisely line up, but there was no denying that it was indeed in that general direction. Between the inaccuracies of dead-reckoning position estimating, course guesses from over 20,000 yards, and general German cussedness, the matter was inconclusive but maddeningly suggestive. Like so many things in this damn war. Exhaustion and lack of sleep dragged at him. Even his thoughts seemed to crawl as though they towed barges.
“What are we missing?” Sartore’s voice sounded plaintive even to his own ears.
“The battlecruisers?” Jan’s tone was one of surprise. He’d forgotten all about them, too.
“Yes! That’s it! We’ve not heard a peep out of them for ... since early this morning.”
They looked again at the map.
“Sir, on the line I have ....”
The senior officer frowned as he went over to take up the proffered receiver. Whatever he was hearing did not appear to be cheery telling.
“Bad news, I’m afraid,” he began when he returned to the center.
“Damn,” muttered Jan, as the other went on. A patrol boat had spotted a coaster in a sinking condition and had run in to give assistance, only to have her bow blown off for her trouble. The patroller had sunk quickly and the loss of both might have gone unreported save for the fact that she had been one of three steaming in company. The loss of life had been appalling. At first it had been reported as a torpedoing, instead of the minefield it turned out to really be. Fortunately, those on the scene had realized their mistake before running afoul of any other of the nefarious devices. The field would have to be mapped and swept, and the patrollers were being queried to confirm the location. The reply provoked another buzz.
The group had been proceeding at high speed together and the disaster had occurred hardly more than a handful of miles short of their destination.
Kapitan Jeff Lantz ignored the pangs of hunger. Actually, he was not consciously aware of them, though the noon meal hour had come and gone some time past. He stared at the intercepts, the piles of intercepts, and wondered in which the most recent would best fit. None of them, actually, he reluctantly decided. What he now held was still another new group, well, if it WERE a group. He got up, grimacing at the cramps in his calves, and walked through the door into the wireless room.
“Chief, are there more from that source?”
“Yes, sir. Two, in fact.”
“Got a third coming in right now, chief,” a senior signalist interjected. “The ‘hand’ is the same; I’m sure of it.” (NOTE 2 )
“Kapitan, he’s replying to a different station this time!”
Was that significant? Lantz finally asked that of the shift operators, who turned out not to be sure themselves. Jeff then laid all the related slips out face up in time sequence.
“So, this is first, ja? A ship station signal to some station; probably shore, but we can’t be sure. This next is the acknowledgment and - I’m guessing here - a demand for more information.”
“That’d be my guess, too, sir.”
“Gut. Now, the ship replies, then sends a third. Perhaps reporting something in progress, or a course change by a contact.”
“Uh, sir, not a course change.”
“The signal’s not right for that, and too long, as well.” The chief omitted the “sir” but no one besides the junior signalists seemed to notice it, not even the heavily bemedalled kapitan with the arm cast. The juniors traded raised eyebrows.
“These ones here.” The chief pointed at a small stack. “These are sighting reports, with updates. Sure as snow in the Alps.”
“So,” mused Lantz, ignorant of the byplay, “not sightings. Something changed, or needed additional explanation.” The chief nodded gravely, his eyes on the next slips.
“The station replies and then we have this period of silence.” Lantz put that slip down and went on to the next.
“Now a new station signals, and gets a reply from the ship, but this is not just ANY station but one we know well.”
“Yes, sir. Must be some senior Admiralty station. Maybe the most senior one of them all!”
“And this is because it has been signaling the others all along.”
“Yes, sir. Like a spider, centered in the web.”
“So, how did they get involved? The signals weren’t to it originally, yes? Did we miss some?”
“It could be, sir ....” The chief hesitated.
“But I’m thinking they spoke by land lines. A junior command reporting to a senior.”
“Yes, that would fit. And now we have the senior station sending new signals that two others have acknowledged. So, something of significance was reported though one chain of command and now the senior then signaled to the original source directly. And now whatever that was all about is being reported to ....”
“The Harwich Force and the Grand Fleet commanders? Sir?” The last added tardily but without disrespect.
Lantz looked up and met the chief’s eyes, and nodded. If the Gross-Admiral returned, at least he would have something more to tell him.
---- HMS Warspite, course 165, speed 20 knots
Admiral DeRobeck pored over his incoming messages as he stood at the chart table, his legs flexing easily with the ship’s motions. Battlecruisers, reported all over the northern waters of the North Sea. Withernsea at the other end, with shelling, shore raiders and now minefields. Withernsea? He shrugged to himself. The HSF dreadnought force somewhere in the middle. There was also the reliability of the report sources to consider. The battlecruiser reports were hours old now, and had been presumably been from reservist officers under fire.
Something assuredly had happened at Withernsea - shellings and mines could hardly be discounted! - but it might not be clear for a full day or two just what that something was. All he truly knew for sure just now was what it was NOT, and that included an invasion or even a serious raid.
He put his finger on the reported dreadnought force position. That one had a senior RN captain as its source and had been updated several times. Dalrymple had not only sighted the HSF but had been able to remain in contact. This seemed a clear mistake by the German commander, as it was only the absence of their battlecruisers that was making that possible. He knew where the German dreadnoughts were, and they did not know where the RN ones were. If the Germans would just stay on their current course, DeRobeck might just be able to show them.
---- HMS Southampton, course 035, speed 21 knots
Commodore Nott was in his sea cabin. And had been for the last several hours. Dedmon had sent the wireless report into him on Birmingham’s sighting of the HSF and had gently quizzed the messenger upon his return. The young sailor had stated that the Commodore had been seated at his desk and had read the proffered slip carefully.
“No signals addressed to Southampton or me, though?” Nott had asked, or something to that effect. “Very well, then. Carry on,” Nott had replied, when told that there were no such messages.
Dedmon had no idea why the Commodore had held them to this course all morning and now into the afternoon. Whatever he was contemplating must be serious business indeed, as his steward had even confided that he had not rung for his noon meal. The last time the Commodore had developed a notion had resulted in his dispatching Birmingham unerringly to the location of the HSF itself. That the triumphant validation of his earlier deduction had gotten virtually no response from the man profoundly impressed Dedmon even more.
No, the only question in Dedmon’s mind was what the Commodore expected to discover up here for an encore.
“Deck Officer! I expect absolute vigilance up there!”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Dedmon nodded and raised his binoculars again.
The truth of the matter was that Nott had fallen asleep, head on his desk, and had not consulted the chronometer when the messenger’ knock had awakened him. Instead, he had quickly rubbed his face, swallowed, and called out the permission to enter. It had been too late then. He knew full well how rumors flew about and had carefully not turned to check the time while the young enlisted had stood there awaiting his response. When the messenger had left and when he’d looked he’d been shocked at the hour. He had even leaned over to check that the damned thing was really working.
Nott collected his thoughts - not an easy task as they kept skittering this way and that - and got to his feet. The ship was still at 20 knots; that was clear. The High Seas Fleet had been sighted and he’d gotten no orders? Skitter-skitter. He’d wait a few minutes then go to the bridge.
---- HMS Dublin, 250 yards astern of HMS Southampton
Lieutenant Commander Phonone stood out on the wingbridge, the starboard one, of course, but his posture was a relaxed one all the same. With the Commodore himself just a few yards ahead he could allow his mind to wander a bit, and had.
All the usual subjects had traipsed through but he found himself ever coming back to what potential developments might lay ahead. Nott had dashed the two of them out here pre-occupied with SOMEthing, of that he had no doubt. To his surprise, Phonone soon found himself content simply to await developments.
What would his chances be post-war? Would this temporary command give him a leg up …?
“Sir, signal flags going up on Southampton.”
---- HMS Southampton, course 035, speed 21 knots
Nott had finally hauled himself up onto the bridge. He had spent a few moments in idle small talk with Dedmon, even though every few rods further on this mistaken course flailed at his hide like their namesakes.
“Signals Officer,” Nott called, when he decided that appearances had at last been satisfied. “Course 150.”
This was another compromise he had devised, keenly aware that he would soon have some quite serious explaining to do. An exquisite one, in fact, even if he did say so himself. DeRobeck was roughly south-southwest. Nott had confirmed that, glancing over the charts as he’d chatted up the Commander. The High Seas Fleet, though, was a few degrees east of due south, though at this extreme distance it would appear to be a moot point.
One of the things Nott had learned in the course of his career, however, was that there was no such thing in His Majesty’s Navy as a moot point.
“Dublin’s acknowledged, sir.”
“Right two degrees rudder,” Dedmon ordered.
Still no inquiries from the flag, thought Nott with no little relief, as the cruiser pair swept a wide circle through the cold waves.
“Sir, steady on course 150.”
“Very well, two more knots, Commander, if you please.”
“Aye, sir.” The engine order telegraph clinked at Dedmon’s order for the additional RPM. “Engineering acknowledges, sir.”
Nott and Dedmon swept the horizons as, below, the propulsion plants strained to do their bidding.
“Sir, answering 23 knots.”
“Very well,” Nott acknowledged, deftly hiding a tone of relief. Very well, indeed. Now, if Admiral DeRobeck should inquire, he would have a better heading, and hence answer, to give.
As the minutes slipped by, relief gave way to satisfaction. Then hunger. Yes, he thought. He’d been up here long enough. A fine lunch would be just the ….
“Bridge, smoke! Bearing 095!”
1) Chapter title, Chapter 11, “Nott in Vain” - Aberdeen Press, op. cit.
2) The Allies in WWII found that individual German wireless operators could be tracked by their personal rhythm or style of transmission. This was captured in the seminal military intelligence work entitled, “The Fist of the Sender.” It is often called the first of the biopassword or biometric authentication methods and is often referenced or cited as such by modern works. See:
However, the “fist” or “hand” of individual operators had long been recognized by other operators from almost the origin of the telegraph. For a US Civil War example: