Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXVIII


Five admirals stood on dreadnought bridges during the dark and rain-swept battle and only one of them had been there before.  The Baron had not, for all the fact that the engagement would sometimes be called “Die Baronschlacht” (“The Baron’s Battle”), a calculated diminutive of Die Kaiserschlacht in which the full might of both nations’ fleets met in Line of Battle.  (NOTE 1)  No, my great grandfather had been aboard Derfflinger and had not even been in sight when the Main Bodies had clashed at dusk, let alone the confused conflict that shortly followed.  Admiral DeRobeck aboard Warspite had been in the Mediterranean, as had Admiral Keyes aboard Queen Elizabeth.  Admiral Gaunt aboard Marlborough had still been aide-de-camp to King George V at the time of Die Kaiserschalcht.  Admiral Rudburg, however, had commanded the Main Body of the High Seas Fleet at Die Kaiserschlacht, including the costly poor visibility engagements that concluded the battle (see pages 417-8).  He had had weeks to consider and second guess and generally go back over and over the battle and the decisions that he and others had made that historic day and night.  And think of what he’d do next time.


------- Lady Christine Letters, ibid, page 882



July 8, 1915



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,300 yards)


At about the same time that Admiral DeRobeck was urbanely acceding to Captain Swafford’s request to commence firing, Admiral Carl Johann von Rudburg was shouting out firing orders of his own.  The last time he’d seen reflections like that they’d been from British warships, so he decided not to wait for any reply to his inquiry to his lookouts.


“Kaptain, star shells, bitte.  Port beam.  Schnell!”


Warspite’s great guns started trained fore-and-aft and their ponderous pivot took about as much time as it did for the Ostfriesland’s 88 mm gunners to get the word up in the superstructure, load star shells, and pivot their pieces.  The flashes of their guns dissipated within a few hundred yards.  Not so, for the eight 15-inch cannons of Warspite.



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,200 yards)


Lookouts all up and down the HSF Line spotted the visual footprint of 3,500 pounds of Warspite’s propellant discharged in their direction.


“Muzzle flashes!  Large caliber!  Bearing ....”


Those aboard Rheinland called out the same, not even knowing that nearly 16,000 pounds of inimical metal and explosives were even then passing through the air well over their head.  A couple lookouts noted what appeared to be brief visual artifacts well to starboard but saw nothing there when they focused on the area.  Warspite’s opening salvo, like those of Rheinland and Posen earlier, had been well long, here about 2,000 yards long and the British gunners did not have the benefit of searchlights on their target.


“Switch targets!  Switch targets!  New target, British dreadnought, bearing ...!”


Rheinland’s and Posen’s stern turrets obediently began to traverse away from Yarmouth, now just about invisible despite searchlights and flames.  The starboard turrets and casemates of both ships continued to snipe away ineffectually at the erratic and fast-disappearing target.  Rheinland’s stern chaser 88 mms struck a few more times but then the cruiser was completely lost from sight.


The bow and port wing turrets of both Nassau Class dreadnoughts also began to shift targets, though they had far less to traverse.


The casemate 150 mm guns were slower to shift, as it simply took longer for them to get the order.  Instead, they hammered out more rounds at fleeing Falmouth, just as did the 88 mm guns up in the superstructures.  The lighter guns continued to land occasional hits, though their impacts were mostly not detectable by anyone not aboard Falmouth, as the afflicted side faced the Germans who themselves were almost beyond visible range even with Rheinland’s searchlights.  For the tertiary gunners, their orders were to follow the searchlights.  In this weather, they could really do nothing else and thus, when the beams moved in response to the muzzle flashes, the 88 mm barrels followed.



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,200 yards)


Admiral Gaunt’s recent report had been, in effect, a request to open fire.  He had not been looking at Warspite as he waited for the reply of his commanding admiral, but at the very momentary glimpses of the enemy provided by their own muzzle flashes.  The number and spacing of the flashes had convinced him that they were hex-type dreadnoughts, but he could not tell if they were Nassaus or Helgolands or one of each.  Despite his extensive sea experience, he still felt like he had tried to jump out his skin when Warspite’s first broadside bellowed out almost just behind him.  After he recovered from his startlement, he decided that the flagship had, in effect, answered his question.


“Commence firing!”


Within moments, another ton and a half of propellant cast another seven tons of metal and explosives well above Rheinland’s mast tops and into the waves far beyond.  At about the same time, the first of Ostfriesland’s star shells began to burst dimly in the air over the British force.



---- Helgoland, course 080, speed 15 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,100 yards)

“Stay on your arcs!  On your arcs, I say!”


The rain and strain had already begun to tell on those aloft and exposed to the wind and the rain up in the superstructures.  All the action remained astern.  Rheinland’s lights and her guns and those of Posen just astern were busy while Helgoland’s men had had to remain idle and wet and miserable.  Keeping the eyes of lookouts on empty waves was especially tough in bad weather with gunplay going on in other vectors.


As the stern ship of the section with Ostfriesland, Helgoland’s responsibilities included illuminating attackers with her searchlights just as Rheinland was even then doing for the Nassau section.  Helgoland’s searchlights remained dark because Falmouth and Yarmouth had remained outside of Helgoland’s assigned arcs.  Blinding friendly dreadnoughts just ahead or astern was absolutely verboten.  Helgoland’s searchlight and secondary gun crews had - with the exception of a few shots at what might have been a torpedoboat to starboard - been left to do nothing more than anxiously peer into the rain.  Warspite’s guns had just changed everything.


“Muzzle flashes!  Multiple!  There!  Just abaft the port beam!”


The operators cursed in excitement and sudden fear as they swung their searchlights.  They turned their lights on and began to probe into the rain-rich night, to stalk their prey.  When Marlborough fired, the beams from both Rheinland and Helgoland were drawn like moths to the propellant flames.



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,100 yards)


Admiral Gaunt lowered his glasses as two then three then many distant searchlights thrust their somewhat-attenuated beams into his lenses.


As the lights moved, so did the German 88's.  Rheinland’s were first as her six port gun crews went with her lights.  Posen’s six crews joined in within seconds, and Helgoland’s six were so glad to finally have a target, any target, that they opened fire even before Helgoland’s own beams had settled onto the vague form amidst the rain.   Two of the 88 mm guns up in Ostriesland’s aft superstructure joined in after that, bringing the total up to 20, making the combined nominal fire volume about 300 rounds per minute!  The very inclement conditions that had allowed the opportunity to occur acted to limit the rates of fire to just over one-third of nominal with far more misses than under better conditions.  Nonetheless, the first hit landed before Marlborough’s gunners got off their second broadside, but it went virtually unnoticed on the armoured belt aft.  It was, however, merely the first drop of a different and fast-approaching storm.


Boom!  Warspite’s second salvo was shorter, but still well long, just as the Rheinland’s and Posen’s first salvos had been.  Unfortunately for Marlborough, the bearing for the German’s to DeRobeck’s flagship had become close enough to the one to Gaunt that the searchlights did not immediately shift.


Boom-oom!  Marlborough’s own second salvo sent more shells over Rheinland and the bright discharge of another 3,000 pounds of propellant steadied both the searchlights and the aim of the 88 mm gunners.  It also drew the 150 mm gunners.


Whack!  Whack-whack-whack!


The next few minutes would see Marlborough take an 88 mm hit almost every other second.  Several would strike her bridge.




The first 150 mm hit had no effect, bursting on the front plate of Marlborough’s second turret.  This hit, too, was a taste of things very soon to come.


Marlborough’s turrets, belt, and other vitals were immune to 88 and 150 mm shells, but not her stacks, funnels, cranes, small boats, lookouts, bridge, superstructure, and almost all other exposed surfaces.  Even the armoured top took 88 mm hits, with razor-like bits entering through the openings and cutting down those within.



---- Bellerophon (just astern of Queen Elizabeth), course 090, speed 18 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,100 yards)


The captain had just gotten to the bridge, having been summoned by Warspite’s opening salvo even as the Deck Officer was passing the word for him upon Admiral Gaunt’s sighting report immediately previous.


“Sir, muzzle flashes to the south.  Two dreadnoughts, perhaps more.”


That had been Rheinland and Posen firing at Falmouth fleeing back towards the Grand Fleet.


“That must be Warspite’s target.”


Just then Marlborough opened fire.  Even though her barrels pointed south, the flash degraded the vision of anyone trying to look through or around her.  In reflex, they all drew back from their binoculars and tried to blink the water out of their eyes.  Then water of quite different origin was thrown into their face: sea water.


Splash!  “Bloody hell!!”  Splash!


Posen’s first 280 mm shells had been high, but German “longs” were mortal threats to other RN dreadnoughts in line with intended targets.  A third splash ahead and to the north actually raised fears that more German dreadnoughts lay in that direction.  Bellerophon had, literally, been straddled, though the shooter did not know it, nor had she been the intended target.



---- St. Vincent (just astern of Warspite), course 090, speed 18 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,100 yards)


Whack!  Whack-whang!


St. Vincent, one column over from Marlborough was quickly hit by several “overs” from Rheinland and Posen.  The forward superstructure vibrated to three 88 mm hits right after one another, as one mount up in Posen’s after superstructure mistook a small fireball on Marlborough as their handiwork and stayed on the same setting.  Fire billowed out of the casemates aft as one 150 mm shell got though and detonated within.


“Heavy casualties, sir ....”


“Damnation!  Guns!  Do you have a target?”


He did not.



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,000 yards)


Helgoland’s searchlights had changed the equation in more ways than one.  Shortly after her beams found Marlborough, the main guns of both Helgoland and Ostfriesland joined the fray.  Like all shooters before them, their initial salvos went very long, though several splashed frighteningly near Agincourt and Neptune.  Those and all other splashes were invisible from Warspite, as were nearly all of the secondary and tertiary hits presently punishing Marlborough.


“Sir, lookouts confirm four enemy dreadnoughts.”


“Very well,” DeRobeck replied, as another salvo roared out to no apparent effect.  What a bloody mess!  The main body of the High Seas Fleet was most obviously NOT on its way to Wilhelmshaven as had been reported hours ago by Room 40.  Fine, that was clear enough.  That Admiral Letters had obviously laid a trap for him and, despite the care he’d taken, he’d come near to falling into it.  He blinked as another salvo went out from Marlborough, whose gunners were shooting almost blindly at this point but that was not detectable from where DeRobeck stood. 


But what formation were the Germans in?  If they were in columns, then a second column would be on their far side, making this a potentially rich opportunity.  If the Germans were in Line, as he feared, where was the head?  The van?  Could he cross their T?  Or could the Germans cross his?  Well, if they tried, they would get a warm welcome from Napier; that much he had prepared for.


“Sir, from Room 40.  ‘High Seas Fleet commander and main body near your location’.”


“Very well,” DeRobeck acknowledged tightly.  Fifteen minutes too late to be of any use.  Bloody mess, was what it was.


Unbeknownst to the admiral, at that very instant Warspite received its first hit: an 88 mm “over” had just shattered on the glacis of the stern turret.  Meanwhile, Warspite’s gunnery officer was forced to shift targets as Marlborough began to drift across the line of sight as the RN force drew abreast of Rheinland.  Helgoland, with her searchlights now abloom in the rain was the obvious new target.



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 4,000 yards)


Kapitan Schnell and Vice-Admiral Letters still stood side-by-side staring into the rain squalls to port.  What caught their eyes was Colossus firing her first salvo - long as had all the others before her.  Her crew had been slow to react to Warspite and Marlborough’s opening fire but had finally managed to get into the battle.  Moments later, Queen Elizabeth also fired, as the indefatigable Commander Boy got a line on Helgoland thanks to her searchlights.  That salvo was also long, as Boy could not see Helgloland at all, merely her lights.


“Four dreadnoughts, sir.”


“Yes,” acknowledged Letters.


“Five!”  Vanguard had opened fire as the crippled Falmouth cleared the line of sight.  Her salvo also went long.


Letters scowled into the rain.  This was the Grand Fleet main body that had somehow materialized on his beam!  Had the new British Admiral read his mind?  This was not the battle he had been courting, even actively trying to bring about these last six weeks.  Damn it, once again the immortal Moltke had been proven right!  (NOTE 3)


“Signals Officer, for Admiral Necki ....”



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 3,900 yards)


Rheinland and Marlborough were nearly beam-to-beam when the first major caliber hit was scored on a dreadnought.  The shooter was Colossus - untroubled by enemy searchlight or shellfire - and the hit was high in Rheinland’s aft superstructure.  The shell did not even detonate, but silenced the 88 mms and extinguished the lights and killed most of the men as it turned half the equipment there into mangled metal in its passage.


The aft port turret had been the last to cease fire at Falmouth and the turret captain had not much altered the elevation when he had opened fire on the illuminated figure that was Marlborough.  (NOTE 4)


“Short!”  All other dreadnought rifles had fired long, even the one that was just then butchering the men in Rheinland’s own aft superstructure.  This was the first short and the needed correction was a tiny fraction of a degree.




The shell pounded through the top of the barbette of the raised second turret.  It might have been fatal despite the post-Kaiserschlacht measures but for the fact that the hit was not centered on the barbette.  The cordite within did not all go up at once and, as a result, the hit “merely” blew the turret off the barbette in a fountain of flame.  Deep within, flame jets around the door seals charred the decking two full feet into the magazine, but without further effect.



---- St. Vincent (just astern of Warspite), course 090, speed 18 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 3,900 yards)




“Damnation!  Who in the bloody hell is shooting at us?  Guns, do you have a target?!”


The two minute “lull” had been the result of geometry, as most of Rheinland’s and Posen’s “longs” were now churning the waves unnoticed off Bellerophon’s bow.  These new shells were from Helgoland and there would be others.  Osfriesland’s were splashing invisibly astern and drawing closer.


“Aye, sir!”  There was now a line of sight past Marlborough’s stern to Rheinland.


“Commence firing!”


Boom-oom!  St. Vincent discharged another ton of propellant and thrice that in shells towards Rheinland.  Like all the other gunners this night, the first salvo was well long.


“Marlborough!”  All those topside winced at the Roman candle fountaining out of what had been Marlborough’s second turret.  The splash from the ejected turret 500 yards off their starboard bow went unnoticed in the glare.


Whack-whack!  Cries aloft, these had drawn blood, wherever they’d come from.



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 3,800 yards, Marlborough has begun to pull ahead)




Not-very-distant Helgoland shook as a 15" shell from his flagship crushed into the aft port wing turret, gutting it totally in a flash of flame much like Marlborough’s a few seconds before.  Half of her searchlights wavered and some pointed into the rain clouds as though searching for aeroplanes.  The flames illuminated the German dreadnought better than any bank of searchlights or salvo of star shells, even as many of her superstructure 88 mm gunners lost their footing and, more importantly, their targets.




LT Dierot’s second hit was not even on his intended target, but had apparently passed between Marlborough’s stacks to strike Warspite over 800 yards north just below her aft stack.  The shell pierced the six inches of armor there and detonated amongst the trunks leading up to the stack.  The explosion knocked the aft boiler rooms offline, filling them with smoke and fumes and, directly below the stack itself, shrapnel.


DeRobeck felt the ship begin to slow, though the engineers would soon replace the lost shaft horsepower by pushing the forward boilers to full output.  Marlborough had been hurt, and apparently hurt badly, and now his own ship had been sorely wounded, as well.  The hit or hits he’d seen on the enemy did not appear to be sufficient compensation.  He paused, as another eruption occurred on ill-fated Helgoland as a 15-inch shell from Commander Boy detonated in the casemates just under the forward superstructure.  Those on the bridge were dashed to the deck and the jagged hole where two 150 mm guns had been moments before gushed flames into the night despite the rain.




DeRobeck did not know who had exclaimed; it could have been any, or all of them.  Dierot’s third shell had just struck low in the aft superstructure just ahead of Marlborough’s fourth turret.  The detonation included the charges there and ruptured the deck, stabbing flame down into the engineering spaces below.  (NOTE 5)  The fire added to the illumination of the one just beginning to die down in the gaping ruin that had been her second barbette.


“Signals Officer, wireless for Admiral Napier: ‘Attack enemy line’.”


“For Admiral Napier, ‘Attack enemy line’, aye, aye, sir.”


“Flags, turn due north.”  Absent a formation change, this would be in columns.  To do otherwise under these conditions - both weather and war - risked collision.


Whack-whack!  Whang!  DeRobeck’s lips thinned at the cries from aloft.  Posen’s secondaries were still pounding Marlborough and now Warspite was in line to receive Posen’s “longs”.  Splash!  Posen’s main guns were also mostly shooting long, as the waterspout would have shown if anyone had known where it had originated.


Whunk!  One of Posen’s 280 mm shells had just skipped and tumbled into Warspite’s belt amidships.  Other than some impressive dishing, there was no damage.


Whack!  Whang!  Damn!  That one had been somewhere in the superstructure below his feet.


“Signals Officer, wireless for Commodore LeMesurier, ‘Assume van, north’.”



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


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 3,800 yards)


Admiral Rudburg had still not quite figured out the enemy dreadnought formation.  The star shells had revealed the presence of more ships than appeared to be shooting.  Were they in some staggered Line?  He looked aft to study his squadron’s fire disposition.  Rheinland and Posen were continuing to fire where the remaining searchlights pointed.  Helgoland’s fire had dropped off, but she also appeared to be shooting at the same target.  He could not make out Warspite or Queen Elizabeth - an extra 1,000 and 2,000 yards away - beyond their occasional muzzle flashes.  It appeared that Ostfriesland was not under fire, nor was Posen.  The conclusion seemed clear enough; the enemy was shooting at the searchlights.




Dierot’s third hit on Marlborough shed light that revealed a new target.


“Gunnery Officer!  Shift targets!  Next dreadnought   in Line!  Star shells!”



---- Bremen, course 030, speed 21 knots


Conda had once again spotted the enemy and lived to run away and report.  This time, though, it was abundantly clear where the enemy was.  The great 15-inch muzzle flashes and what seemed to be star shells had made it much easier this last time.  His sight distance had increased while that of his foes had decreased along the bearing towards Conda.


He’d been unable to get a good sighting of the enemy dreadnoughts, but the enemy van appeared to be four flotillas with each headed by a big cruiser of some sort.  He might have considered trying to execute a sneak attack of some sort, but for the odds.  The element of surprise was a powerful aid, but four cruisers and forty torpedoboats versus Bremen and three were long odds indeed.


“Sir, flag has acknowledged.”


“Very well.”  Time to work his way back again.  “Left three degrees.”


The best approach vector was obviously from the northeast.



---- Vanguard, course 090, speed 18 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 3,700 yards)


Their opening salvo had gone out, but with no visible effect.  And for good reason, as they had just made another 8,500 pound sea bed deposit somewhere well beyond the German ships.


Vanguard’s gunnery officer had yet to learn what the other gunners had just begun to discover: the enemy was much nearer than they seemed.  His own “learning process” had been delayed for several additional minutes due to Falmouth’s fouling the line of sight.  Falmouth, listing and nearly dead in the water, was now being left astern.


“Spot the fall?”  Anyone?


“No, sir.”


The captain just shook his head and put his lenses back to his face as his second salvo roared out.  No one spotted those either, to his frustration, as Vanguard had managed only to invisibly pepper the distant waves with still another four tons of metal.


---- Colossus, course 080, speed 18 knots


(Range Marlborough - Rheinland: 3,800 yards)


Colossus had just signaled her presence again with the propellant in her fourth salvo.  After her initial hit high on Rheinland, she had failed to hit again.  That would soon change, as her gunnery officer had just dropped the elevation a second time.


“Oh!”  The flare ahead from the aft hit on Marlborough drew anguished and inadvertent exhalations.  It had also drawn Rudburg’s attention to them, but they did not know that yet.


With Marlborough pulling ahead of Rheinland, the natural aim point for the trail German’s aft searchlights had been Colossus for several minutes now.  However, her men had not yet managed to reactivate the remaining searchlight there.


Until now.  The light flickered back on and slowly, jerkily, rotated to point an accusing finger of light at Colossus.  The remaining 88 mm gun aloft there with it pivoted to follow the beam, as did one stern chaser.



---- Frauenlob and Stuttgart, course 080, speed 15 knots


Both Ehrhart and Odalb watched grimly as muzzle flashes flared on both after quarters, with concussions like triphammers.  Men rowing between the Lines at Trafalgar might have felt as they did.  If Ehrhart had the temptation to launch his command into what was apparently most of the Grand Fleet, he did not show it.  Nor had Odalb made any such request.


Both men had been here before.  It was like some sort of macabre repeat performance, a nightmare reprised.  Once again, Ehrhart was trapped between two fleets of dreadnoughts that seemed to be mercifully ignoring him, for the moment.  Though neither man knew it, the British had not spotted them yet, working as they mostly were from muzzle flashes and inflicted fires. Lookouts up in Marlborough superstructure would have seen them easily, but the torrent of 88 and 150 mm shells had essentially sterilized Marlborough’s upper works of all human life. The few left alive in the great armoured top were struggling desperately and vainly to see through the German searchlights for her main guns.


What both men did know was what Conda and Borys had put in their wireless reports: the Britisher light were out there in great force.


If last May were any indication, they would be massing to launch an attack of their own any minute.  And it would be their job to stop them!



Author’s NOTEs:


1) Its more normal appellation has become, for quite mundane reasons, “Die Regenschlacht”.


2) Though not exposed directly to the elements, the 150 mm gunners of the German hex ships also were hampered by the rain and waves.  If their ships had been at full speed, they would likely have had trouble getting off any well-aimed shots at all.  As it was, the two forward gun crews on each ship had to struggle mightily to fire two shots per minute - one-third the nominal rate - and the other crews did well to manage four rounds per minute.  Like the 88 mm guns, their accuracy also was degraded.  Nonetheless, this meant 20 rounds of 150 mm per minute from each of the two Nassaus, then 20 more when Helgoland opened fire, and another 10 when Ostfriesland’s two aft-most joined in, resulting in a 150 mm hit almost every eight seconds in addition to the hits from 88 mm shells about every two seconds. 


3) “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” - Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke


4) At the time, the hit was claimed by ten of the twelve turret captains then targeting Marlborough.  This account is based on the turret officer’s own first person account, “Regenschlacht” by Alfred Dierot, published post-war in “Der Krieg Vierteljährlich”, January 1919.  Historians have generally come to credit Dierot with this hit based on the events immediately subsequent.


5) LT Dierot reported that he had gone to rapid fire after the first hit, and the next two hits - on Warspite and then Marlborough - were almost precisely 25 and 50 seconds after the first, making them consistent with the Dierot Theory.  Dierot reported that he fired three more times at Marlborough before shifting targets as ordered.  Though his turret would score no more hits in this battle, his string of three confirmed hits in a row on two different ships reportedly remains a record in naval historian circles even though no ships were sunk as a direct result of them.