Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXV

July 7, 1915



---- Room 40


“From Commodore Nott ...”


Jan fought to maintain a semblance of alertness as the report was announced.  Exhaustion sapped the mind no less than the body.  Sartore had finally taken himself off to get “a bite to eat and a bit of rest”.  The two of them had planned twelve hour shifts with a little overlap, but they had ended up doing eighteen hours each with breaks as brief as physically possible.


“... battlecruisers confirmed to be Derfflinger and Seydlitz ....”


No surprise there.  Triangulation of enemy wireless messages, along with interpretation and call signs, had placed the German Admiral Necki - known to be the present commander of the battlecruiser force - in the area.


“... three light cruisers and fifteen torpedoboats ....”


That would explain the other call signs.


“That’s three half-flotillas,” Jan heard someone remark.  “Didn’t Necki have four of them with him on the last sortie?”


“Yes, and so did Letters, for that matter.  Back when he had the battlecruisers.”


“Quite,” another acknowledged, “but I’m not sure that explains what the Commodore’s been chasing all day.”


“Yes, it is a bit odd, that, but ... do you think Nott knows there’s probably another half-flotilla out there he’s not sighted yet?”



---- Southampton, course 305, speed 25 knots


Commodore Nott knew alright.  About his eyes were the beginnings of pressure bruises from his binoculars jolting into his face.  He was forced to hold them that hard to his eyes due to his constant shivering in his more-than-damp uniform, wetted obviously by the spray cast up from the bows and thankfully less obviously else-wise.


“Lookouts, report!”  He had asked a dozen times in the last ten minutes.


“No ships in sight, sir.”


And had gotten the same answer each time.


No one minded, Commander Dedmon was absolutely certain on that score.  How in the hell had the Commodore divined the Hun trap?  And one laid so cunningly, after hours of such sameness that anyone would have been lulled into ....


“Navigator!  Visibility estimate, if you please.  Current and forecast.”




“Sir, 10,000 yards, maximum.  Tending down, sir.  Overcast’ll drop it to 6,000 ‘fore midnight.”


“Very well.  Lookouts!  Report!”


Anyone, but Commodore Nott.  (NOTE 1)



---- HMS Warspite, course 165, speed 15 knots


Admiral DeRobeck had slowed the fleet once visibility had dropped and contact lost.  He leaned over the chart, one marked with all the last reported positions of both friend and foe.  Birmingham had just reported losing sight of the last of the screen units with which Dalrymple had been sparring in his unsuccessful attempts to regain sight of the German dreadnought force.  Still, they couldn’t have gotten far.  Yet.


His own dreadnought force was here and Harwich Force was ... there.  And Letters, his German counterpart, could not be in possession of either fact.  DeRobeck also had absolute confirmation that the German dreadnought force was without its battlecruiser element, as he knew precisely where both of the in-theatre German battlecruisers were, along with their substantial screen units.


At this moment, he knew that he had the advantage of superior intelligence, though this advantage would, like the tide, ebb by the hour.


What were the Germans up to?  Letters had made bold and aggressive choices in January and May and had made them, if Hereford’s research was accurate, completely ad hoc.  The decision to send his only two undamaged battlecruisers all the way across the Atlantic had been bold to the point of rash, and obviously NOT ad hoc at all.  Yet DeRobeck had personally observed Letters just days ago making conservative decisions, almost to the point of timidity.


The Commander - Grand Fleet drummed his fingertips in the chart edge as he contemplated the current situation.  If Letters today had chosen the conservative course, then he would be continuing on his way back to port, clutching his tiny but credible victory: a Town, a couple AMCs, and a shore raid at the cost of only a torpedoboat or two.  If the Hun admiral had chosen rash aggression, he might well have reversed course again at dusk, seeking a night engagement with the British dreadnought force at some guessed intersect point.  The latter seemed quite unlikely, given that Letters could not be certain that DeRobeck was at sea, let alone his location, course, and speed.  Still, DeRobeck was not prepared to rule it out completely; the North Sea was infested with u-boats who could have sighted the fleet at a distance and remained undetected.


In any case the stakes were just too great, and there were practical measures he could take to avert any such risks, the first of which he had already taken by reducing speed. 

“Captain Swafford, your views?”


Swafford had half-expected a question of some sort like this.  Admiral Jellicoe had maintained a full staff aboard Iron Duke, including senior officers.  Warspite had lesser flag accommodations and DeRobeck so far seemed to prefer a small staff at sea anyway.  Still, it was intimidating to be called upon to field such open-ended questions from the Grand Fleet commander like this.  Perhaps worst of all, Swafford knew that an answer was expected, and so he had one of sorts ready.


“Sir, the battlecruisers.  Their mission just doesn’t seem to fit with all the rest.”


It was not much of an answer, Swafford realized, as he heard it trundle off his tongue.  Still, it seemed to have been considered to hold some promise, because DeRobeck rewarded him with a serious half-nod.


“Yes, go on.”


“Sir, the raid, if there was one.  Light ships only.  Nothing larger than a light cruiser, if that.  Why sortie their entire High Seas Fleet over that?  If Letters truly wanted to provoke a fleet engagement via a light ship raid, why dispatch his battlecruisers - the only asset we cannot match - off to the other end of the North Sea?  Well outside of any support range?”


Swafford concealed a wince, as he realized that he had just answered the question of the Commander - Grand Fleet with at least three of his own.


“So, Captain, the raid and dreadnought sortie may have been a diversion for the battlecruiser sweep of the patrol line?  Is that your meaning?”


“Yes, sir.  Perhaps ... trying to improve the prospects for ¼  future blockade runners.”


“Sir,” Swafford hadn’t noticed the approach of LT Hereford, “could the battlecruisers be escorting another clutch of fast liners?”


Swafford felt his jaw drop.  THAT was a troubling notion!  Four battlecruisers loose in the shipping lanes?  How could they counter that?  Could Admiral Burney with Benbow and Hercules fight four battlecruisers at one time, if they could even be caught?


“Not impossible, Lieutenant,” DeRobeck replied, “but I think that fails as it leaves unexplained what the good Commodore has been chasing south for most of the day.  No, but if we turn that on its head, I think you may be on to something.  Dispatching Admiral Necki up there to help see the others back home, well, that sounds a lot more like it.”


“Admiral!”  Swafford could not keep his voice entirely level.  “That, well, I don’t know how they could have slipped back through the Strait, but it fits the facts otherwise! ... All of them, I think.  The raid, the fleet sortie ... misdirection, all of it.”


“Perhaps,” said DeRobeck.  “And it would explain why he turned away on the 3rd.  Instead of pressing the engagement right from the start.”


Swafford blinked, as did Hereford.  DeRobeck was haring off after game they’d not even spotted.

“But what it does not explain, gentlemen, is why they sortied to shell Southwald in the first place.  This does not strike me as the sort of thing one would want to tip off with some sort of full dress rehearsal.  I can hardly credit that their Admiral Letters would see it any differently.


“Well, no matter.  I cannot refuse a chance to intercept them.  Signals Officer ....”



---- HMS Dublin, 250 yards astern of HMS Southampton


“Sir, Southampton ... there’s the ‘Execute’, sir.  She’s put her rudder over.”


“Very well,” LCDR Cyrus Phonone acknowledged.  “Deck Officer, stay in position.”


“Aye, aye, sir.  Helm ....”


Phonone remained a bit numb now, a full hour after the all-too-familiar spectacle of a pair of Hun battlecruisers coming at them, right down their throat.  Or what would have been down their throat if the Commodore hadn’t somehow divined their presence.  Again.  How had Nott done it?  Did the man have some sort of fey battlecruiser dowsing rods?


“Sir, from Southampton, formation change, immediate execute, ‘echelon starboard’.”




Phonone swept the horizon again, as he had so many times these last two days.  Admiral Napier’s staff offices seemed impossibly distant and alien now.


“Sir, in position, steady on course 100, speed 15 knots.”


“Very well.”  Nott had slowed before turning back and had presumably selected this new course to achieve some substantial offset from their previous track before turning back more southerly.  Clearly, the battlecruiser admiral was trying to trap them but Nott was wise to it.  Goodgod, but it was a privilege to have such officers to follow!


“Sir, from Southampton, immediate execute, ‘25 knots’.”


“Very well.  Acknowledge.”



---- Room 40


The uncountable cups of tea he had taken in to retain some semblance of awake alertness had sent Jan off to the loo again when the messages from Admiral DeRobeck had been received.  The big map was already being updated by the time he had returned.


Why had the Grand Fleet gone to 090?  Jan blinked blearily at the vector notations as they were appended.  And at 18 knots despite visibility under 6,000 yards?  And Harwich Force?  Tyrwhitt’s orders were to spread out well to the southwest of the dreadnought force.  That made some sort of sense, Jan decided, as that would have Tyrwhitt blocking any new lunge toward British waters while safeguarding DeRobeck’s southern flank.  He drifted over to eavesdrop on what looked to be several conversations related to the new dispositions.

“... just the five, you suppose?”


“At most, I’d say.  Only the liners could have stayed out of Nott’s reach.”


“Liners?”  Jan wanted to ask, but chose to remain silent.


“Yes, true enough.”


“But, that still leaves two battlecruisers missing and, what, four light cruisers?”


“Four’s right, and don’t forget Nottingham Star.  She’s out there somewhere.”


“Down off South America, mark my words, with half-a dozen prizes we’ve not heard of yet.”


“As good a guess as any; I agree.  But the rest?  Surely we should’ve heard something by now.”


“Laying low, if they’re still there.  They got wind of Admiral Burney.”


“Battlecruisers?  They’d just outrun him.”


“Not true, mate.  Burney can coal anywhere; they can’t.  Battlecruisers are coal hogs.  If’n they try to run, they’ll end up running themselves right out of coal and drop right into his lap.”


Jan had meant to stay out of it but his caffeine-overdosed head throbbed from the appalling energy of the overlapping conversations.  They were talking as though the Germans had managed to get their ships back from the Americas and into the North Sea.


“How could the Germans have spirited so many ships through the Strait?  Undetected?”  Jan asked, his tone a bit plaintive despite himself.  “The storm just hit there yesterday.”


“Ah, excuse me, Commander.  Didn’t see you come up.”  Jan nodded at the courtesy.  “It’s Rollonot, sir.  Er, was.”


“ ‘Was’?” 


“Must’ve been, sir,” agreed another to that nonsense reply, then still others added anonymous nods.


“She wasn’t on station when her relief showed up at the Strait,” the first continued.  “Missing, presumed sunk.”  “Had to be quick,” the other chimed in again.  “Probably battlecruiser shells, the thinking is now.  But there’d been u-boat sightings up there, sir, so her loss was attributed back then to one of them.”


“The time fits?”  More nods.


But, but, protested Jan to himself as he gazed at the map, didn’t this risk a night engagement?



---- HMS Warspite, course 090, speed 18 knots


“My concern is the risk of a possible night encounter.  Gentlemen, attend me, if you would.”  The speaker was Admiral DeRobeck, so the request was rhetorical in nature and politely directed their attention to the plot.


“I’ll remain in columns,” he began (NOTE 2), “but with Admiral Napier 3,000 yards in the van ahead and outboard of the column leaders.”  Napier commanded the screen force, including the five flotillas at the end of DeRobeck’s pointing finger.  “The ‘Greek Twins’ (NOTE 3),” he continued, “I’ll put out on the port flank, with Falmouth and Yarmouth out to starboard.”


Swafford looked at the plot.  The attrition suffered by the light ships at the May battle had led to wholesale reorganizations.  The fleet footprint was smaller as well, such that attached light cruisers formerly employed as signal repeaters were now operating with the dreadnought force in pairs as scouts.  Some of the faster and more modern cruisers now led flotillas, of which DeRobeck currently had five, generally ten ships each.


The plot had a flotilla 3,000 yards ahead of each column leader with each flank essentially being refused by another flotilla.  Commodore Le Mesurier was in trail with the 3-ship 2nd Light Cruiser; his HMS Comus had missed the May battle and, upon her return, had gone to Napier instead of back to Le Mesurier.


“Come dawn, the fleet will be in position for a possible intercept of the liners – if that’s what they are - and whatever else may be escorting them.  I fully expect the German fleet, diversions complete, to be on their way back to Wilhelmshaven right now so I don’t anticipate a night action - certainly I am not seeking one - but, gentlemen, I must make provision.  Comments?”



---- S.31, course 080, speed 15 knots


Korvettenkapitan Borys’ stomach growled its displeasure.  Loudly.  Given the size of its origin, this should have come as no surprise, but it made the helmsman flinch anyway.  And not for the first time.  For the young sailor, though, there’d already been too many loud noises this day.  Borys noted the kid’s reaction but had ignored it, having far more serious concerns than a jumpy helmsman.  First and foremost, he was hungry.  Very hungry.  After all, that was why his stomach was making such noise.  He’d handed over the prisoners and the worse of his wounded to Ehrhart, as the Kommodore was the screen flag and his ship had the best medicals, but he hadn’t thought to get any food in return.


The S.31 showed starkly the effects of battle.  Perhaps most obvious was the missing bow gun.  It had not been damaged or destroyed; rather, it had been ripped right out of the deck and presumably carried overboard.  A trail of torn and stained plating indicated its likely path.  One conjecture was that it had taken a direct hit from a six-inch shell that had failed to explode.  The AWOL gun was, however, far from the only damage.  Everywhere, the superstructure exhibited a distinct chewed upon appearance, as well it should, Borys reflected, as two British Bulldogs had done just that.  Chewed on it, that is.  Guter Gott!  But he wished he had something to chew on himself.  His stomach snarled in agreement, causing the helmsman to jump once more.


The worst of the damage could not be seen by the naked eye.  Despite the original promises from below decks, the port engine remained dead, limiting them to under 17 knots.  S.31 had gotten off only one of her four torpedoes.  Damage and death had left the other three in their launchers.  Schinkenbrot had declared the aft twin launcher again operable, but the one was clearly a total loss, having been smashed – unfired torpedo and all -  by one or more British shells.  The same shell or shells had flensed and gutted all nearby.  Blood had literally been splashed on every surface there.


Nor was that the only such death zone.  They were still finding unidentifiable bits wedged here and there.  Borys might not have had enough men crew the S.31, save for the addition of those off the sunk S.33.


Indeed, the S.31 looked like a village barn after a major blutwurst party (NOTE 4), and even Borys’ stomach recoiled from THAT comparison!  And he was starving!



---- Bremen, course 090 (changing), speed 19 knots (decreasing in turn)


Korvettenkapitän Nugal Conda’s face was planted firmly into the eyepieces of his binoculars as he scanned the near-dark horizon.  He, along with his trio of torpedoboats, was patrolling the port forequarter of the HSF main body.  If he had been looking southeast, he would have just been able to make out Frauenlob, silhouetted against the whites of the wavecrests.  Conda knew that, since he was checking every minute or so.  The more distant dreadnoughts were invisible to his eye, but not to Ehrhart’s, who held the close screen groups trailing along less than 2,000 yards off the HSF port flank.


Conda had fully expected to be entering the approaches to Wilhelmshaven by this hour.  Instead, his orders had him scouting in the dark as the Admiral – despite his agnostic sullenness, he capitalized Letters’ rank – had the fleet off on some mysterious mission.  Was it getting even darker?  He looked up.  The overcast had completely obscured the stars.  He took a suspicious sniff.  Yes, it smelled like rain.  Gott, he wished he were in Wilhelmshaven!


“Sir, steady on course 110.”


“Very well,” Conda replied, and turned to find Frauenlob.  Had visibility ….  Ah, there she was.


“Left three degrees rudder.  Come to course 045.”

Conda didn’t know what the Admiral was looking for, but he hoped they wouldn’t find it tonight.



---- S.31, course 080, speed 15 knots


Another rumble startled the helmsman.  Borys’ almost smiled, as he was blameless on that one.  He looked up and around.  Rain would be good, he decided.  It would wash off the blood and whatever else was stuck in divers openings and crevices.  Rain would be very good.  Otherwise, S.31 would smell like an abattoir by morning, and it would only get worse in the coming sunlight and rising temperatures.  Worst of all, though, was that the crew would know that it was not butchered animals that the smell was coming from.


Borys checked that he could still make out the dim blob that he knew to be Rheinland, the last dreadnought, off his starboard bow.  Just astern was S.35.  Though also hit, the other was unslowed and showed less damage, but had only one torpedo supposedly ready to launch.  Why they had not fired it at their Town target, Borys had not bothered to ask, as it almost certainly had been the same reasons as aboard S.31.


This was all that was left of the 17 Halbflotille der 9 Flotille, scowled Borys.  One lamed torpedoboat leading another with just three torpedoes and five guns between them.  No wonder Ehrhart or Baron Letters had consigned them to trail.


Still, together they had sunk a big Brit cruiser.  And invaded Great Britain!  And the look on that pig’s face!


He brightened at the memory and so did the sky to the west; the sound of thunder came moments later.  He was still staring almost fondly back at S.35 when another shaft of lightning flared the sky.


“Oh, Scheiß!”



---- HMS Falmouth, course 090, speed 18 knots


“Sir!  Contact!  That last flash!  Lookouts spotted one, maybe two, small ships off the starboard forequarter.”


Captain Wes Welt Hakonson was on the bridge, having not retired to his sea cabin as night fell.  Instead, he had managed to rest his eyes – and perhaps briefly nap – in the last hour before dusk.




“Right rudder!  Come to course 135.  Ahead full!”  Hakonson shouted out those orders even as he dashed out onto the tiny starboard wing to look in the indicated direction.  He saw nothing in the gloom, though the boom of thunder almost overhead sounded ominously like dreadnought cannons.  Had the sub got off torpedoes!


“Bearing?”  Hakonson called up to those aloft.  “Range?”


Thank the Almighty!  Without that flash they’d ….  Wait!  Hakonson was suddenly mindful of the presence of the Grand Fleet just a few thousand yards to port.  Could this be a sub trap?!


“Signals Officer!  Commander – Grand Fleet, u-boat sighting ….”


As the other hurried off, he belatedly checked to see that Yarmouth had followed.  She had, but her captain had been in the head when the Deck Officer gave the helmsman his orders.  He had deduced instantly that an unannounced turn of that magnitude was probably from a sighting, but his buttoning was slower than his brain.


“Sir, bearing was 120.  Range, sir, the man only caught a glimpse.  If it was a u-boat, he thinks it may have been 3,000 yards.  If it was something bigger, well, it could be further.”


“How certain is he, chief?”  The question was more than that, and the senior petty officer understood.


“He’s a good man, sir, one of my best.  If he says he saw something, it was there to be seen.”


Hakonson nodded and looked again to the southeast.

Again, lightning rent the night.




Author’s NOTEs:


1)                  This event was, of course, the inspiration for the extraordinarily popular, “The Phantom Flotilla” (by Yasmine Mohamed, in the Medasset), the serialized story whose conclusion episode vaulted that monthly magazine’s 1915 Christmas edition into the ranks of the greatest sellers of the season.  There had indeed been a fourth half-flotilla present - just as Commodore Nott had surmised.   Most disappointingly, however, for British readers and historians alike, it was not sighted due to the winds conflating the many German plumes, or from some other equally prosaic reason, and not due to Mohamed’s brilliantly-foiled, 32-knot grand encircling maneuver.


2)      DeRobeck has the RN dreadnought force in the same formation as the previous sortie:


To starboard of Warspite:

Marlborough (Gaunt) - Colossus - Vanguard


Center column:

Warspite (DeRobeck) - St. Vincent - Agincourt


To port of Warspite:

QE (Keyes) - Bellerophon - Neptune



3)   As explained in “Homeward Bound? IX” (see also NOTE 6 there), the “Greek Twins” are HMS Birkenhead and HMS Chester, respectively ex-Antinavarhos Kontourioti and ex-Lambros Katsonis.  For the reasons presented there, Chester is presumed to have been completed early as a twin of Birkenhead.



4)   A traditional communal village affair that involved the making of pig blood and groats sausage.