Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXI


July 7, 1915



---- Room 40


“From Birmingham: ‘Enemy dreadnought force on course 225, speed 12 knots.’ “


There was a bit of murmur at that report, but not much.  Letters had pretty much kept to that same course and speed for some time now.  Reported variations of a few degrees or knots held little significance when based on only brief sightings at over 20,000 yards.  If anything, the conversations dwelled more on the constancy than the differences.  The track pointed roughly at Withernsea and no one had yet to divine how the Kaiserliche Marine had come to develop such a fixation on the place.


“Wait!”  The voice held a bit of a tremor.  “Anyone know, er, where all the members of the, um, ‘family’ are today?”


“The king?!”  The responder was aghast.  All eyes went to one well-tailored form.


“No, certainly not.  Not His Majesty.  No Royal was scheduled into there this day.  I am quite certain on this point.”  The royal family participated almost daily in commemorations and made a significant number of other formal appearances.  The man speaking had a sound knowledge basis, being himself a member of the “extended” royal family.  The room relaxed somewhat.


“Had they been?  I mean, well, milord, could the Huns have had an old schedule?”


“No.  And this is all quite preposterous!”  The two nations’ monarchs were, after all, both grandchildren of Queen Victoria. (NOTE 1)  He did not actually voice that last bit, but it was written plainly on his aristocratic features.



---- Imperator, speed 22.5 knots, course 150


Once the warships had drawn ahead, the liners had adjusted their formation and resumed the pace.  Imperator and Vaterland now steamed almost side-by-side, with Imperator on the western flank and the other liners close behind in their massive combined wake.


“He comes apace, master,” the cringing servant kept his eyes on the deck.


Hadi Pasha slitted his eyes at the man.  Two had he sent.  This one’s demeanor suggested that there was more to the matter.  The other had, of course, stayed to accompany.  A low growl issued from his throat, sending the servant to his knees and his head to the deck in a paroxysm of shivers.


“He comes.  He said.  I swear it!  By the Prophet’s Beard!”


Hadi put his hand to his own chin - the top one, that is - and considered, scuffing at the offending head as he did so.  He was a guest aboard this great vessel.  This was a delicate thing, calling for the presence of his host, the man who owned this vessel, including the rooms and beds in which he slept, and the tables at which he ate and ate well of salt and spice.  Had his honor been impugned?  If one or both of these had ....


A cough drew him to turn ....


“Captain Hadi,” Ballin’s smooth voice preceded the sound of his steps.  “I am delighted to again be in your company.”


The Great One turned to see the other striding easily along the deck towards him.  The cough had not been his.  Hadi espied the other servant he’d dispatched, wringing his hands uneasily a half-step behind, clueless as to his proper station.  The man was an infidel, but the Master was his guest.  Anything he’d do would be wrong and the other’s head already on the polished teak was hardly a soothing sight.


“The pleasure is mine, Herr Ballin,” Hadi began but signaled a shift to substance after only a few exchanges.  “A guest has duty to his host.”


“I apologize for the meanness of my table this day.  My stewards failed to adequately restock at Boston, but the fault, of course, remains mine and mine alone ....”


“Oh-oh!  I complain not!  Herr Ballin, your tables overflow with delights.  Verily, Hatim Tayy himself would be shamed by your generosity!  (NOTE 2)


“It is another matter of which I would speak.”


“Thank you, sir!  Please ....”  Ballin reflexively began to gesture but managed to turn it into a delicate wave of one hand, most carefully not in the direction of Hadi or anyone present.  He had no idea what might constitute an insult in this situation and was relieved when the vast Ottoman appeared not to take offense.  All he had to do was manage for just a couple dozen more hours not to be either sunk by the British or skewered by the Ottomans ....


“You said this was a mighty steed we rode.  One that very few vessels could hope to catch on the open sea.”  (NOTE 3)


“Yes, I said that.  And it is true.”


“But when you said those words, you said also ‘on this side of the Atlantic’ when off the Americas we were.”  Hadi rotated his bulk with surprising grace and threw his eyes astern and back meaningfully.  “Are things then different on this side?”


Ballin gasped when his eyes went to Imperator’s wake and traced it to the horizon, and a small but quite distinct smudge.  His sailor’s eye judged it to be 10 - 15 degrees to the west of the mighty wake of the liners.  Given the height of this deck and the absence of a hull, the ship or ships must still be over 20,000 yards away.


“Dearest Captain!  I entreat you!  How long has it been there?”  His lookouts must have allowed themselves to become careless, sweeping only the more forward arcs, lulled by their great speed and hampered by their even greater plume.


“An ... hour ago did first I see it ...”  Hadi turned his head towards the prostrate cutthroat and scowled.  The man had his forehead full to the teak but shuddered as though he could feel the gaze.


Ballin licked his lips nervously but waited.  The Ottoman’s silence was clearly only a pause.


“These worthless ones waited an hour - perhaps longer! - ...”


The one with his head on the deck groveled anew at a fresh scuff from The Master.


“... before they thought to tell me.”


Ballin’s eyes threatened to glaze at the sight of the tiny thread of smoke, a serpent rendered no less menacing by its distance.


“It grows, but slowly,” Hadi concluded.


“The British no longer have any great ships of war that can pace Imperator, let alone catch her,” Ballin stated carefully, resisting the urge to bolt for the bridge.  “Their fleetest ones are also their smallest.  Any such as they would have drawn close enough to better see us and be seen in their turn in these two hours.  No, this must be one or more of their vessels that are middle in size.  Yes, ‘cruiser’ vessels.  Did not Admiral Hanzik destroy four such at New York?”  (NOTE 4)


That was true, thought Hadi, with a shallow dip of his great head.  Still, one of them had fired upon his own person!  Indeed, one of his own men had become a casualty, though Hadi could not just then recall the man’s name.  (NOTE 5)


“I beg you excuse me so that I can go inform the Admiral!”


Hadi nodded graciously and grandly, willing just this time to overlook that it was to Ballin’s back, as the ship’s master had eased away but a pair of steps before turning for the bridge at a pace hardly in keeping with the bravado of formal decorum.



---- Room 40


“Sir, new sighting report.  From E-4: 'Sighted two German armoured cruisers and one light cruiser with flotilla.’ “


“E-4?”  The voice was that of one of the two most senior officers formally on watch, though the rooms had become crowded by men far higher in various hierarchies.


“Going up on the map now, sir.”


“E-4 has tentatively identified one of the armoured cruisers as the Prinz Heinrich.”


“Ah, there they are,” the same senior officer observed.  “What’s that?  Twenty-five miles off the Jutland cape?”  Actually, he could see it quite well; his remarks were more for the benefit of others who did not enjoy his vantage.  His fear was that they would otherwise press forward as had happened at the height of the “Withernsea” episode.


“Very well,” the other senior watch officer acknowledged.  “This appears to be some sort of sweep of the routes to Oslo and the Baltic outfall.”


“That’s a lot of force for a merchant traffic sweep,” Commander Jan remarked.


“Agreed,” Sartore replied.  “Could this be the same force that hit the picket line north of there?”


“It could be,” Jan opined.  “There were several encounters.  The ones further out were reported as battlecruisers, but weren’t the reports on the one closest to the Scandinavian coast more ... fragmentary?”


“Yes, that’s it!  It was as though they’d been surprised and it was the wireless operator, and not from her commanding officer.”


“I think that report just said heavy caliber shells.  Perhaps it WAS one or more armoured cruisers.  Still, the first reports out of Lowestoft had been armoured cruisers.”  (NOTE 5)


“That’s so,” Sartore acknowledged.  “Thank you, I’d quite forgotten that.”  It’d been just four days ago, but it somehow seemed like months.


“The Prinz Heinrich?  Is that confirmed?  What’s she doing out there?  Isn’t she part of the Huns’ Order of Battle back up in the Baltic?”


“Correct, m’lord.”


“Yes, well, I’d expect her to be more likely reported in the Gulf of Finland than all the way out at the gates to the North Sea.  Get that confirmed, if you can...


“Yes, m’lord.”


“... and pass it along to our Russian friends.  We’ve been getting quite a spot of pressure to provide them more assistance - as if we had warships brimming out of our bloody vest pockets!”



---- Graudenz, course 345, speed 22 knots


“Contact, bearing 320.  Smoke plume ... second contact!  Two plumes, sir.  Second plume bearing 315.”


Kapitan Niemczyk looked down those bearings warily.  His was the furthest west half-flotilla of Admiral Necki’s First Scouting, with the admiral and Derfflinger and Seydlitz just below the horizon to the southeast.  His lookouts could sometimes just catch sight of their plumes.  He had expected a Hanzik Force sighting a few hours ago and to the east.  Either they had misjudged the rendezvous - quite possible - or they were Britishers.  Perhaps a patrol of some sort.  If they turned out really to be Bitishers, matters would become considerably more complicated.


“Left rudder.  Come to course 320.  Signals Officer, for Derfflinger ....”


“Sir, answering 320.”


---- Strassburg and Rostock, course 150, speed 22.5 knots


“Sir, contact!  Plume bearing 120.”


Captains Siegmund and Westfeldt raised their binoculars towards the announced bearing, as did Kommodore von Hoban one pace outboard of Westfeldt aboard Rostock.


“Intercept,” said von Hoban to Westfeldt.  This was marginally less alarming a bearing for a contact to show on the horizon than one to the west.  He judged the chances of a Britisher to increase further west.  An enemy dreadnought force though, would be bad on any bearing, he added internally.


Siegmund also turned onto the bearing, noting as he did that Rostock was doing the same.


Von Hoban decided to wait a few moments before reporting, as the bearings suggested the mystery would be resolved quickly, one way or another.  He struggled against a surge of optimism, knowing that negligence and disaster loomed like reefs on that course.  If he had learned anything in battle and his trek across the Atlantic and now almost back, it was that the only luck one could rely on was bad.  In particular, the British Royal Navy was known to patrol these waters with sections or even squadrons of those damnably over-gunned cruisers of theirs.  At that thought, he looked over his shoulder to the north-northwest where the sight of von der Tann’s plume in the distance was a comforting sight.



---- Graudenz, course 320, speed 22 knots


“Sir, first contact appears to be ... Rostock!”


The wave of relief threatened to make Niemczyk unsteady on his feet.


“Confirmed!  She’s Rostock!  And flying a Kommodore’s pennant.”


“Second contact is Strassburg!”


Niemczyk closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  Then another, before opening them again, and then his mouth.


“Signals Officer!”



---- Strassburg and Rostock, course 120, speed 22.5 knots


At the sight of Graudenz and her half-flotilla, many aboard both cruisers felt the lifting of a mighty psychic weight off their shoulders.  The plume that soon showed astern of them was certain to be the rest of First Scouting.


It had been a month and a day since they left Wilhelmshaven - quite a long time by normal Kaiserliche Marine practice - but it seemed longer.  It felt like years.


There was a brief breakdown in discipline, as their crews exclaimed in joy and passed the word loudly through the ship.  Officers of both light cruisers chose not to hear the noise, and even the petty officers and leading seamen let matters go for several long moments.


“All right, back to your station,” and the like were soon heard from down on deck and back up in the superstructure.  ”Back to your station, I said.”  “You’re lookouts, not fair-goers!”  “You, Hans, I’ll see you after watch ....”


The bridge watch had to fight to maintain their stoic expressions.


“Moltke has acknowledged!”


However, even grizzled von Hoban found the need to rub his face, hard, when Graudenz’ crew cheered.



---- Moltke, course 150, speed 22.5 knots


The excitement that greeted the wireless from von Hoban was palpable and the word swept the length of the hull like a great wave marching up onto the shore.


“We must come east,” said Admiral Hanzik to Kapitan Stang after a few moments.


“Yes, sir.  Navigator?”


“Sir, based on the projected position of Admiral Necki, recommend course 125.”


Hanzik nodded to Stang, who gave the orders to hoist that signal.


“Signals Officer,” began Hanzik as the flags went up the lines, “to Herr Ballin: ‘Escort sighted, come to course 125.’ “


Did he dare to relax?  Ein bißchen?   Admiral Necki was just over the horizon to the south-southeast.  His plume would probably be sighted by his highest lookouts within minutes.  Four battlecruisers, his own four light cruisers, and whatever screen elements the Baron had freed up for Necki.  Graudenz even had a half-flotilla with her, suggesting that First Scouting had at least one full flotilla with them.


Hanzik looked towards the southwestern horizon where the sun remained maybe three hours above the horizon.  The rendezvous had been late, but not too late.  He had swept ahead of the liners to conceal their existence, and felt that he had probably managed to keep them out of sight during that one encounter at first light.  Could the patrol AMC have gotten off an identification that the shells that were killing them were coming from Moltke and not Seydlitz? Maybe, but they’d had very little time to make that distinction and even less to make that signal.


What could still go wrong?  Subs, of course, he nodded to himself unconsciously.  They could always blunder right across a sub, or even floating mines.  What else?  Since he had not been told otherwise, Letters presumably had the Grand Fleet in play.  Or thought he did. 


Hanzik looked down at the deckplates, trying to block out the sounds of restrained celebration.  A liner propulsion failure?  They were far enough into the North Sea now that several Neutral ports had come into reach.


Motion drew his eyes to the back of the bridge.  A messenger.  From the look on his face, Hanzik suddenly realized he was just about to get his answer.



Author’s NOTEs:


1) The Kaiser’s mother was Queen Victoria’s daughter Victoria and the father of Britain’s George V was Queen Victoria’s son Albert Edward (“Bertie”).  Interestingly enough, Princess Victoria was the heir to the British throne until the birth of her brother “Bertie”.



2) A famous Arab story that illustrates the standards and rituals of generosity demanded by good manners of the host:





3) The Mighty One never forgets!  June 12, at time 4:15:





4) Sydney, Melbourne, Berwick, and Niobe, though technically they represented two generations and three entirely classes of “cruisers”.



5) June 12, 1915, as Imperator and Strassburg tried for New York:





6) July 3, 1915: