Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXIII


July 7, 1915

---- Derfflinger, course 310, speed 22 knots

Admiral Necki looked up from reading the same message as Admiral Hanzik a score or so miles distant.

“Signals Officer, to Admiral Hanzik: ‘remain on course’.”

Ballin’s message had indicated no immediate peril and the British - if British they were - were well astern of liners deliberately selected on the basis of their high speed.  Necki did not want Hanzik wasting any coal when he could have Derfflinger and Seydlitz there nearly as quickly as Hanzik could reverse course and go back himself. Still ...

“Kapitan Theodor, hoist 25 knots.  Signals Officer, for Kapitan Nik, ‘Form on flag’.  All Screen, ‘Standard interval’.”

This would reduce somewhat the van spacing for Niemczyk aboard Graudenz and Vogel on Frankfurt.  It would have more of an effect on Seydlitz which, with the other flotilla and cruiser pair well in her own van, was some 15,000 yards to the east-northeast.  Necki intended to hold the ‘Execute’ on the increased speed until he confirmed convergence.

“Sir, contact. Plume, bearing 305.  Two plumes.  Rostock, sir.  And Strassburg, sir.”

“Sir, Seydlitz has acknowledged; lookouts report she’s turned towards us.  Regensburg and Stralsund have acknowledged.”  Kapitans Wolferein and Schneider were not in sight of Derfflinger, but Necki judged it time.


---- Imperator, course 130, speed 23 knots

Blue Fox saw that the great wake no longer pointed in a straight line to the northwestern horizon.  A small but distinct kink revealed that the liner had very recently altered course slightly to the east.  Had the wake also broadened slightly?  He looked at the other ships and noted that the lines their wakes sketched perfectly paralleled that of Imperator.  To the east, Vaterland looked larger, as though she had edged a dozen or two yards closer.  The others, also, seemed to have drawn nearer.  The ships also sported more or different flags up on their lines.  Blue turned away from the rail and looked forward and up at Imperator’s flags.  Yes, some of the ones up there also looked different.  What was going on?  There may have been some sort of announcement but, if so, he realized that he must have missed it.

Still, previous course and speed changes had consistently flushed many of the engineer passengers out onto the decks to look about, so Blue headed aft for a better vantage to look down on the fantail sections of the superstructure.  Thus, the large group already gathered on the afterdeck directly below him came as no surprise, but the sight of Ballin addressing them all did.  So, maybe there HAD been an announcement of some sort.

“As you can see,” Ballin was saying, “British warships are trying to catch us.”

Warships were chasing them?  Blue ran his eyes down the broad wake to the horizon astern and spotted the dark thread.  “Omigod!” Blue exclaimed involuntarily.  He blinked, but the distant plume remained, inspiring him to add something much ruder.  He realized then that Ballin was still speaking.

“... short-handed.  So is Vaterland.”

At the mention of the other great liner, Blue saw several heads turn to look across the divide.  The nearness and precise station-keeping of the two great ships created the remarkable illusion that they were not at sea at all.  Instead, the ships seemed motionless with a whitewater river raging down the metal canyon between them.

“Nearly half our stokers had to be transferred to the ones that joined us in New York and Boston.”  Ballin pointed aft.  “Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kronprinzessin Cecilie.  Their captains have estimated their best speed to be 23 knots.”  Blue decided that must be some of the new flags.  “We must do better than that.  If they stick tight to Imperator and Vaterland, I think they can.  I have ordered them close aboard and for the two of us to make more steam.”

Ballin paused and ran his gaze across the crowd before him.

“My engineer tells me that he has not enough stokers.  That the current shift cannot sustain the pace.  I dare not call the other shift early; they, too, will not be able to sustain us for the entirety of their shift.  They have been standing six hour shifts port and starboard since we increased speed yesterday.  The evening meal will be late.  Many of the servers and staff - those who were fit - have gone below ... to report for duty to the engineer.

“They will not be enough.  Our escort is far ahead but will return, but perhaps not soon enough to avoid some ... unpleasantness.  I need a few score ... volunteers.  Are there any here willing to lend a hand, and use one of these,” Ballin raised a coal shovel, “for an hour?  My waiters and cooks are already down there.  How about you men?  A single hour, maybe two, is all I ask.  With a hundred volunteers, I guarantee you ....”


Blue turned at the noise and did a doubletake.  The burly form of Hadi Pasha was at the rail no more than a yard away.  How could a man of that size move so stealthily?  It was as though he had materialized in a puff of smoke, like some overfed jinni.  Indeed, two of his trailing coterie of cutthroats bore covered salvers.

“You ... and you,” said the self-proclaimed potentate, pointing to two of his servants.  “Go.”

The two bowed deeply, almost in gratitude, thought Blue and took off at a near run.  They had good reason to give thanks and they knew it, having failed the Great One and being sentenced only to shovel.
“How about it men?  Are you going to let yourselves be outdone by a bunch of cooks?”

Blue heard the shouted response and looked back down into the suddenly-energized crowd below.  Michael Fermitou had apparently taken the shovel out of Ballin’s hands and was waving it high overhead.  After a moment, Blue realized Fermitou was shaking it at the others on Vaterland, on the other side of the “HAPAG Channel”.  The young reporter was not surprised to see another Yank over there waving a shovel back.  In fact, Blue recognized the man as one he had interviewed while off Miquellon, Michael Walker, who was a long, long way from his ranch in Nebraska.

---- Moltke, course 125, speed 22.5 knots

The flags had been hoisted and acknowledged.

“Sir, from Admiral Necki!  ‘Remain on course’.”

“Belay the execute.”  Hanzik managed to keep the relief out of his voice.  He was pretty sure he could have found the coal, but it would’ve used up whatever margin he had.

“Sir, plume bearing 125.  Two plumes.  First ship is Graudenz.  Second ship has not been identified.  She may be Frankfurt, sir, but that’s not confirmed yet.”  Newly-commissioned Frankfurt had not yet joined the fleet when the Hanzik had sortied. (NOTE)

“Sir, from Rostock, ‘Derfflinger sighted, reciprocal course, range 18,000, bearing 125.’ ”

“Signals Officer, haul down that signal.”

---- Room 40

“From Commodore Nott ...”

The room stilled.  They believed that they were about to learn what Nott had been chasing most of the day.

“... ‘Contact course now 130'.”

“What?”  A false alarm of sorts.  “Letters must have sent out a recall, to rejoin the fleet.”

Why else would the German battlecruisers be heading south at 25 knots?

“Or the sortie was a raid on the picket line and this is their egress plan.”  There were several variations possible and most were offered again.

“Was there a wireless I missed from Letters?”  The question from one senior officer drew Jan’s attention.  “No, sir.”  “From Wilhelmshaven?”  “No, sir.”

Jan realized what was bothering the questioner.  There seemed to be too many disparate German formations at sea this day.  What was the central theme?  Who was in control, giving the orders to move the pieces about the board?

“Are you sure all ...?”

“Birmingham reports they’re under attack!  Torpedoboats attacking out of the southwest.”

A trap! Birmingham and Nottingham had been shadowing the German fleet just north of east and the Huns had somehow managed to sneak a flotilla around the Horn on them!

Jan noted that the formerly lively room had gone quiet, deathly quiet.

“Kommodore Ehrhart – we have him as the present fleet screen commander – has signaled for a torpedo attack.  He appears to be with the fleet itself.”

The two Towns were now the targets of what was clearly a coordinated multi-flotilla attack.

“Multiple signals.  Some from the German fleet.  Admiral Necki’s call sign is on another, location is around here, southeast of Commodore Nott.  Other call signs in the same general vicinity, but none identified.  Sir, we have a translation now of an Admiral Letters intercept.  ‘All screen forces join Frauenlob.’  That’s the screen flag attacking in support.”

The confirmation that Nott was once again facing battlecruisers was given short shrift after the reports concerning Birmingham and Nottingham.

“How far away is Grand Fleet now?”

“80 miles, m’lord.”

Four hours, if the Germans hove to.  Two, if the Germans could be induced to chase Dalyrmple to the north-northwest.  Too many, if the Hums headed back to their lair.  Too many, in any case, for Dalrymple’s brace of cruisers.

“Harwich Force?”

“60 miles, m’lord.”  Tyrwhitt had one cruiser group and one flotilla with him – not enough even if he could get there in time.

No, whatever was going to happen, it would do so without British reinforcements, at least for the next couple hours or so.

---- Birmingham, course 260, speed 25.3 knots

The rank bitterness of bile bit at the back of Dalrymple’s throat as he stared astern at the smudges on the horizon.  They had escaped, but only because the Huns had concentrated on Nottingham, even after they’d crippled her.  Her gunners had kept up a brisk fire right up until she’d capsized, and lookouts swore she’d scored hits even as she rolled.  Meanwhile, Dalrymple had fled quite ingloriously to the west, firing as they went, but fleeing nonetheless

His XO approached, bearing a clipboard.
“Message off?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The butcher bill?”

“Nineteen, sir.  And I regret to report that Seaman Smythe will not last the watch.”

“Damn.”  The torpedoboats had scored half-a-dozen or so hits but only two had caused any casualties, all of them among the lookouts up in the superstructure.

Dalrymple looked aft again and sighed.

“Helm, two degrees left rudder.”  His duty lay back there.

---- Imperator, course 130, speed 23.5 knots

It was loud down there, and hot.  Light flickered as forms pirouetted and fire box shutters cycled.

“Fox!” Fermitou exclaimed.  “You gonna’ take a turn?”

“Yep,” Blue replied.  “Absolutely.”  He had long ago learned that the best way to assure good stories in such situations was to pitch in and help.  “Soons’ I get some shots.”  He raised his camera, the flash startled the others.

“Wot da’ hell?!”  Soot streaked faces and torsos gleaming with sweat, these were gold if only they came out.

“Say ‘cheese’.”

“Give me a break.”

“C’mon guys, two more and I’ll take a shovel.  Good.  Just a minute, okay.  There!”

Blue looked around for a place to set down his camera safely.  Very safely.

“Over there,” pointed Fermitou.

“Ah, I see.  Thanks,” Blue replied, spotting a barrel strapped to a stanchion.  “What the hell?!”

On the barrel head were many swaths of cloth and what appeared to be a knife hilt.  Actually, more than one.  Many more, even different sizes and shapes.

“What’s this?  Six knives?”

“Actually, there’s eight.  Good lord!  Don’t touch them!”

“I wasn’t going to,” Blue protested mildly.  “I was just looking at the hilts.  A couple look inscribed, but it’s in some weird script.”

“Oh, they belong to the two Turks.”

Blue recognized the two Ottoman servants, or thought he did.  Without their garb he realized he couldn’t be sure.

“They kept pulling them out of their robes.  We counted as they stacked them.  Better use that other barrel.  They’re quite touchy.”

Blue looked over at them again and saw the expressions on their faces.  They were staring back at him, hard.  He recognized them then.

“Okay,” he agreed, evenly, and stepped away from the piles of blade-rich cloth.  He set down his photography gear and began to doff his shirt.

“Gloves,” said one of the Germans.  “Here.”

“Danke,” Blue replied.

“Watch for a minute,” the German continued.  “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”


“Gut,” said the other, thankful to be able to explain in German.  “Watch these others.  Learn the pattern.  See how they keep their backs straight?  Use your legs, not your back.  Your wrists will not last long.  You must use your shoulders and upper arms.”

It was like some sort of ballet!


Blue stepped in as another was waved out.  This wasn’t so bad, he thought, once he had gotten into the rhythm.

It took fewer than five minutes to thoroughly change his mind.

“You want I should take YOUR picture?”

“Sure,” Blue gasped to a grinning Fermitou.  He’d had no idea he was so out of shape.  “It’s all … set up.”  In fact, he’d intended all along to get such a picture or two of him playing stoker, but the effort and strain and heat had made him forget everything except bend, lift, turn ….

---- Room 40

Despite the earlier warning, Birmingham’s report was a shock.  The optimists were crushed and the pessimists took no pleasure in their predictions.

“Nottingham sunk!”
This was horrific news!  The destruction of two torpedoboats took little sting out of it.


“Moderate casualties, superficial damage only.  Captain Dalrymple has turned back to regain


---- Southampton, course 125, speed 25.3 knots

Commodore Nott stared suspiciously at the large plume to the southeast, that damnably large plume. It seemed to keep getting larger but it refused to disclose what lay at its base.  Whoever they were, they had altered course to put him dead astern, so they had obviously spotted him.  A few days ago, the Huns had tried a pretty little assortment of tricks and stratagems to lure him within range of their guns.  Why hadn’t they done something of the sort today?

He remembered all too well the tall shell splashes, and feared they WERE up to some sort of mischief but he just hadn’t figured it out yet.

“Sir, lookouts report that the plume is changing again.”

“Very well,” he acknowledged, and raised his binoculars again.

Well, yes, it had changed. It looked even larger but … there was something else.  Nott liked his lips.  What the hell was going on over there?  The dark broad plume almost seemed to have gained some lighter streaks.

Author’s NOTE: