Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXVII

July 8, 1915



---- HMS Falmouth, course 090, speed 24 knots (increasing)


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,700 yards)


Whanng!  Whack-whack!


Hakonson had had his binoculars pointed almost directly at the searchlights that probed right into the bridge from about 1,500 yards away.  The cumulative effect of the candle power and the light-gathering characteristics of his lenses had been much like a massive and sustained photographer’s flash.  Hakonson and nearly everyone else, especially those gazing forward through lenses, were effectively blinded.  Meanwhile, his command was nearing Rheinland at about 300 yards per minute.


“Enemy dreadnought - starboard bow!”  Not everyone had been blinded.


Whack!  Whanng!


Hakonson’s unseeing eyes stared into the bridge overhead.  He was on his back, though it would be a few seconds before he realized that fact.  The impact of the lens-amplified glare had physically staggered him, making him fall back a step as he jerked the binoculars away from his face and thereby saving his life.  His current horizontal position was the result not of photons but an 88 mm shell that had hit on the bridge wing on the opposite side.  Shrapnel and propelled pieces of just about everything had swept through the bridge, including the space he had just vacated.  The deadly sleet slashed down several on the bridge with concussion felling most of the rest.  Only the helmsman remained standing, having been shielded by solid objects, including other members of the crew.  Hakonson blinked but huge dazzling flashes still dominated his visual field as he struggled back to his feet.


“Hard a’port!” Hakonson shouted, reacting not to what he saw - because he still could not see much of anything - nor to the sighting report shouted out moments before by some unknown lookout - because the ringing in his ears drowned out all else - but to the fact that he knew full well that succor in the form of the Grand Fleet lay in that direction.


Whack-whack!  Whanng!


Hakonson realized two things then.  First, the shells hitting Falmouth were making two different sounds and, second, the deck remained level.  The first insight didn’t seem of immediate relevance, but the second most certainly did, meaning as it did that the rudder remained amidships.


“Hard a’port,” he shouted again, waving in the desired direction.  He did not consider that he might have gotten turned around.  Fortunately, he had not.  Also fortunately, the dazed and mostly deafened quartermaster saw the gesture and relayed it to the helmsman, who yanked hard on the wheel.


For Rheinland’s aft 88mm gunners, brightly illuminated Falmouth at 1,500 yards and closing on an almost constant bearing was as easy a target as imaginable.  Indeed, it was easier than training shoots.  It was the wind and the rain that challenged them, especially those manning the guns high in the aft superstructure, disrupting as it did the vital choreography of service to the piece. (NOTE 1)  Several times already had shells been dropped or otherwise mishandled.  Twice rounds from mounts up in the aft superstructure had very nearly killed German sailors below when loaders had slipped in rain gusts resulting in the 15 kg “hailstones” cascading down and over the side. (NOTE 2)


The helmsman’s obedience had several immediate results.  Hard rudder at 25 knots meant hard lists and hard falls, with the already-staggering Hakonson among the first of the victims.  He went back onto the deck - this time on his belly - and tobogganed across the bridge deck until he fetched up smartly against a waiting bulkhead, adding stars to the dazzles he could already see.  This saved his life a second time as the bridge received another 88mm visitor as he lay there dazed, only half-conscious and gasping for air.  Rain and brine had puddled on the now-thoroughly-ventilated bridgehouse and had flowed with him, such that his gasping drew in water with the air, compounding his respiratory challenge even as it booted him back out of unconsciousness.


“... passing 030 ... 020 ... 010 ....”


“Course ... cough-cough.”


“... 350 ....”


“Cough-cough ... midships!”


Hakonson realized that the helmsman must have heard him when he tumbled back onto the deck as it canted back to level, overshot, then came back level again.  It was in that position that he vaguely heard the helmsman call out, “... midships, steering 330.”    A moment later the hand of Mars crushed him into the deck and he knew no more.  (NOTE 3)



---- HMS Yarmouth, course 090, speed 24 knots


(Range: Marlborough to Rheinland 4,600 yards)


Yarmouth’s CO readied himself for the rudder order to follow Falmouth.  Hakonson’s earlier unannounced turn towards S.35 had caught the bridge crew by surprise and they’d lost ground they’d yet to fully make up.  The CO had arrived on the bridge just in time for the deck officer’s report to be interrupted by Rheinland’s opening up on Falmouth now about 800 yards ahead.


The eruption of light and shell that had so paralyzed Falmouth had had little effect on her consort astern other than to alert her captain and her gunners.  So, when Hakonson’s helmsman had yanked Falmouth out of the way, Yarmouth’s gunners were ready.


Crack-crack!  Crack!


The bow gun and the forward starboard one fired into the beacons ahead, while the aft starboard piece tried vainly for S.35 as it disappeared from view.  The first shell flashed by its target and splashed along Helgoland’s starboard side.  Oddly enough, this miss would have consequences.  The second bloomed harmlessly on Rheinland’s stern turret.  The third struck the port casemates, killing one gunner and rattling the others at the same piece.  The fourth missed quite high and landed out of the sight of all.  The next two struck the aft superstructure, one inflicting casualties among the gunners there and the other spectacularly extinguishing one searchlight in its passage.


Several of the other searchlights found Yarmouth then.




The 88 mm gunners had followed the searchlights.  The less agile 150 mm pieces stayed on Falmouth, as did the wing turrets, the forward one having joined in moments after Falmouth’s turn had taken her far enough to port to allow it and the forward searchlights to see her.


The CO had decided to turn a bit early but realized that he’d not be able to warn his crew.  Torpedoes!  They were running right up the stern of whoever this was - normally a bad launch angle - but they were so close!  Yes, as soon as he confirmed the rudder over he’d ....


Damn!  He raised one hand as if to ward off the glare as one searchlight focused on the bridge itself.




The 88 mm shell hit the superstructure just under the deck the CO stood on, dashing him and most of the others off their feet.



---- HMS Marlborough, course 080, speed 15 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,600 yards)


Admiral Gaunt and others tried to make sense out of the flashes and lights to the southeast.  It certainly seemed that some of the screen units had stumbled across the enemy.  From the location, it seemed to be Hakonson’s cruisers.  But, what enemy?  Undaunted was chasing off some interlopers, likely torpedoboats, it seemed now.  The searchlights and muzzle flashes he was looking at indicated a large ship, at least an armoured cruiser, possibly a battleship.  But a dreadnought?  Could this really be the High Seas Fleet main body?  The last report hours ago had placed them all on a course for Wilhelmshaven.


Whoever it was, they felt close, terribly close.  To Gaunt’s seaman senses, the enemy seemed to loom near, even though visibility was hardly 1,000 yards.  When Rheinland’s forward wing turret fired a moment after the after one, Gaunt caught just enough of a glimpse to settle the question.


“Signals Officer, for Warspite, flags and wireless: ‘Enemy dreadnought in sight, bearing 145, range 6,000 yards’.”


Gaunt watched as Falmouth fled back towards the Grand Fleet, with searchlights tracking her as she came ... almost directly towards his squadron.


“Captain, prepare to open fire.  Flags!”


---- S.35, course 135, speed 26 knots (increasing)


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,500 yards)


They had survived, gotten clear!  The young commander swallowed as he tried to catch his breath.  Where in the HELL had the Brit cruiser come from?


He looked aft, the rain hiding the last of the splashes from Yarmouth.  Gott he loved the rain!  Then he glanced to port where friendly dreadnoughts sketched dim forms barely visible through the wet gusts.


“Sir, casualty report.”


The officer winced.  They’d been hit, twice or more.


“Twelve dead, 6 wounded.”  The man began to name names; nearly all had been at the aft launcher.


“Muzzle flashes to port!”




Unbeknownst to the young commander, Helgoland’s gunners had been quite startled by Falmouth’s errant splashes close aboard and had just spotted the torpedoboat.  They had then proceeded to put two and two together and had come up with 35.  S.35.


Ripping sounds overhead accompanied splashes off the bow.


“Right rudder!”  Their own ships were shooting at them!  Mein Gott, he hated the rain!



---- Rheinland, course 080, speed 15 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,500 yards)


The stern turret captain had not realized that Yarmouth had replaced Falmouth in his sights and just kept on firing at what he thought was the same target.  The 280 mm turret captains all used the same basic technique to protect their night vision, especially important with the rain reflecting a lot of the flash back towards the shooter.  When each fired, he briefly closed or averted his eyes to the muzzle flash and then re-aimed as he waited for the next barrel to report ready.


In “normal” engagements, he would get fall of shot information and fire upon the command of the gunnery officer himself.  In this kind of mess, the turrets were under local control and no one had reported a splash, making them all likely high.  The wing turret gunner’s timing had left him with his eyes open when Falmouth turned and so he had swung his turret to follow.  The stern turret captain had fired and, when he next looked back down range, there was the same shadowy shape caught in the searchlights on the same bearing.  So, he dropped the range a bit more and fired again, but at Yarmouth not Falmouth.




Yarmouth’s bow gun had just been replaced by a fireball, cratering the deck and killing the crew.  The blast cone carried directly into the bridge, slaughtering all there including the helmsman, and the cruiser immediately fell off course to starboard.


Within seconds, the cruiser crossed Rheinland’s wake and into the line of sight of Rheinland’s starboard gunners, who so far had been forced to stand by idly without targets.  The rain had quickly extinguished all the previous hits on the cruisers and Rheinland.  Yarmouth’s fires from the first 280 mm hit of the battle took almost a full minute for Nature to quench.  Added to the two searchlights that had managed to stay with Yarmouth in the turn, Posen’s gunners were able to add their fire.  Yarmouth even managed to draw a few shots from the trigger-happy Helgoland gunners though they managed to miss with every shot just as they had missed S.35 moments before.


Yarmouth continued to slew about due to the bodies jamming her wheel at about 8 degrees starboard rudder.  Her rate of bearing change made her a poor target for both Rheinland’s and Posens main guns, though 88 mm and 150 mm guns on both ships scored several more hits before the cruiser disappeared from sight astern.



---- Bremen, course 150, speed 20 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,500 yards)


Conda had reported the two cruiser-led flotillas sighted a few minutes earlier in a great lightning flash, but the heavens had remained mostly dark around Bremen ever since, and that was just fine with Conda.  In fact, he’d’ve been delighted with orders to remain disengaged, say, if the damn high admiral had been awake enough to turn the fleet away from what was obviously the Harwich Force doing a foul weather sweep like only Britishers were silly enough to do.


“Stay alert up there!” Conda called out.  “The plot puts them off the starboard bow, but they could be anywhere!”


“Sir, starboard beam!  Cruiser!”


Even as Conda pivoted to look to starboard, he was drawing breath.  There had been no lightning so he knew the enemy would be closer.


“Left rudder!”  Oh, Gott!  The Brit was just 1,000 yards away!  “Maximum speed!”


“Sir!  Starboard bow, cruiser, torpedoboats!”


Damn!  So close!


“Sir, engineering acknowledges, my rudder is coming left, course 180, 190 ....”


“Sir, third cruiser!   Far side of second contact.  Torpedoboats in company.”


“... passing 100 ...”


The Britishers hadn’t fired.  Maybe they hadn’t been spotted?


Actually, lookouts on all three cruisers - Phaeton, Inconstant, and Comus - had sighted Bremen.  The COs of both Phaeton on the Grand Fleet’s northern flank and Inconstant ahead of the northern column were unsure of Bremen’s nationality and, absent orders, would not open fire unless threatened anyway.


“Muzzle flashes!”


Comus, however, was Rear Admiral Napier’s flagship and Napier recognized the turning silhouette as belonging to an enemy and had both the authority and the initiative.  Fortunately for Conda, Comus was the most distant of the three cruisers and her shells went so wide that their splashes were not seen.  In seconds, however, the other two cruisers joined in.




So far, the Brits had not even gotten close enough for Bremen to even see their misses.


“Sir, rudder amidships, steering course 070.”


That changed soon after Bremen began steering a constant course.


Splash!  Splash-Whanng!  Splash!


Conda flinched at the hit, but his ship remained unslowed and the splashes stopped as they disappeared from enemy view.


“Signals, for the flag, three flotillas, and give the position.  Damage report?”


“Three wounded, two dead, sir.  We may have a couple missing, too.  Hit was on the gun shield, starboard aft.”


“The gun?”


“It’s seen better days - might still work, though, sir.  Guns is looking at it now.”


“Very well.”  There was no sign of pursuit.  Why not?


“Sir, flag has acknowledged.”


“Very well.  Twenty knots.”



---- Room 40


“Sir, that acknowledgment!”  The speaker was referring to the one received by Bremen to Conda’s FIRST sighting report.


“Which one?”


The briefer explained.

“Well, what about it?”


“Sir, it’s their Admiral Letters.”


“You mean ...?”


“Yes, sir.  That’s the main body of the High Seas Fleet on their beam!”



---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 080, speed 15 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,400 yards)


Kapitan Schnell and Vice-Admiral Letters stood side-by-side as they stared into the rain squalls on their port afterquarter.  The dreadnoughts had closed up some due to the weather, but that still put Rheinland, seven ships astern, nearly 3,000 yards distant.  Since visibility then along that bearing was about 1,400 yards, they could see virtually nothing save the muzzle flashes from Rheinland’s wing turrets.


“Sir, Rheinland has opened fire to starboard.  So has Posen.  Helgoland has also opened fire.”


Letters put aside thoughts of turns.  If the Brits were on both flanks, any turn could be into strength.  For the moment, his van was clear and his own screen seemed to be between him and the greater force reported by Bremen to port.


He still did not know what the Britishers had out there yet, and that was bad.  Worse, though, was that Rheinland - and now Posen and Helgoland - had just announced what force the Germans had and where.


“Helgoland has ceased fire, sir.”


All he could see was the rain and the waves.  He sure hoped Carl Johann could see more.



---- Ostfriesland, course 080, speed 15 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,400 yards)


Admiral Carl Johann von Rudburg could indeed see more, as the ships shooting were in his own Battle Squadron.  Rheinland was three ships astern, or a bit under 1,200 yards, and the beams from her searchlights were glittering pointers in the rain.  Rheinland and Posen were firing at two separate cruisers, or so the reports had been.  None of his lookouts had seen what Helgoland had been shooting at and Rudburg had begun to doubt anyone on Helgoland had either.  If they really had had a target of any sort, they would have turned on their searchlights, too, and they had not.


For the moment, Rheinland and Posen continued to shoot at whatever ship Rheinland had illuminated – presumably one of the Britisher scout cruisers - but neither he nor Helgoland could see it.  Nonetheless, all the turrets of both ships that could bear were trained hopefully on that bearing.


It was very frustrating!


“Posen has ceased fire to starboard, sir.”


Rudburg still had his glasses trained to port when the hit on Falmouth caused a brief fireball amidships.  What was that?  Were there more ships ahead of their target?


“Lookouts!  Port beam!  Report!”



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,200 yards)


The 6-inch gun muzzle flashes from Napier’s cruisers had been sighted, but they had ceased quickly.  The Germans had probed successfully again, perhaps for the third or fourth time.  If the Grand Fleet dreadnoughts had been sighted, the report would even now be wending its way to the commander of whatever German force was near, and DeRobeck now suspected it to be more than a few scouts.  After all, why would scouts return after being rebuffed by heavier forces?  Screen units, however, would do precisely that.


The multiple large caliber muzzle flashes had also now been spotted and reported to Admiral DeRobeck.  Generally, Posen’s flashes were almost impossible to distinguish from Rheinland’s due to the glare from the latter’s searchlights.


“Permission to fire, sir?”  Swafford prompted.  He hid his clenched fists behind him; fellow Brits were getting shot to pieces and they were just standing there in the rain and watching!  Also, in just a couple minutes Marlborough would foul the line of sight, as the Grand Fleet drew abeam of the enemy.


DeRobeck considered only for a few seconds.  They had probably already been sighted so he would lose the element of surprise very shortly if, in fact, he still possessed it at all.  In any case, fleeing, burning, illuminated Falmouth would reveal the Main Body to the Germans any moment.


“Granted.  Commence firing.”



Author’s NOTEs:


1) The teamwork involved in loading preparation, loading, aiming, and firing cannons has been likened to, among other things, a ballet in which mistakes cause not boos but booms.  For a fair discussion, see:





2) A story/gaming artifact deserves first mention here (more next NOTE).  The scene assumes that six of Rheinland’s sixteen 88mm guns and two of the 150mm guns can bear 1,500 yards dead astern and 400 yards to port.  A case could be made for a couple more 88s and another 150, but the weather argues against any close calls of that sort.  The 88mm guns on Rheinland are generally credited with a 15 rounds per minute rate of fire and the 150mm guns about 6 per minute (with internal hoist such as in the Rheinland’s casemates), making the current per minute exposure of Falmouth nominally 90 die rolls of 88mm , 12 of 150 mm, and 4 of 280 mm.  Rate of fire penalties were assigned due to the weather with the casemated guns (three 88mm and two 150mm) getting a minor reduction and the trio of 88mm ones up in the aft superstructure getting a major penalty.  So, how does one story-tell such penalties?



3) “Shell Magnet” Hakonson really challenged the “Avatar Exclusion Rule” in this scene.  No fewer than five 88 mm shells were rolled into Falmouth’s bridge.  Only one was not a CO Fatality, and the first CO Fatality was waved off via having the Germans drop the shell.  The last hit in the scene was not 88 mm.