Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXXIX

July 8, 1915



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


Helgoland had become a well-lighted target due partly to her searchlights, but mostly due to 15-inch shells from Warspite and Commander Boy aboard Queen Elizabeth.  With Marlborough directly abeam, Admiral Gaunt’s own ship now blocked the line of sight of the other two British column leaders, and Colossus and Vanguard had Rheinland as their target.  It seemed as though she would be granted a few minutes to deal with the damage.  Unfortunately for Helgoland, the British gunners within Marlborough’s four remaining turrets remained steadfastly in action despite the fact that their ship was literally being torn to pieces around them.


Whannng-whanng!  Marlborough’s midships turret scored with both shots, hurling 1,400 pound shells deep into Helgoland’s midsection.  One struck directly upon the middle 150mm barrel, which had itself just sent a shell into the British dreadnought’s casemates.  Indeed, the shells had passed within meters of each other in flight.  The British shell detonated within the casemate, completely destroying the three guns there and all their crews.  Great flames gushed out Helgoland’s already riven flank.  High above, the shock whipped both superstructures about, with several 88mm gunners in the forward one thrown off entirely.


The other British shell struck higher, deeply furrowing the casemate roof just above the forward gun and detonating against the armored uptakes at the base of the forward stack.  The resulting explosion perforated the armor, blasting white-hot gas and shrapnel across the top of the engineering compartment.  The damage from this one was mostly internal.


“Sir, rpm dropping on port shaft.  Compensating with rudder.”


“Ahead flank, starboard and center shafts.”


The “cling-clink” setting of the ordered speed at the engine order telegraph was matched within seconds.


“Sir, engineering has acknowledged.”  The speaker hunched over the voice tubes.  “Sir, heavy casualties, steam, reported in forward engineroom.  Damage teams have been dispatched.”


“Very well,” could they remain in Line?  Thank Gott the admiral had them at just 15 knots!  Could the engineer ….   The kaptain did not get to finish his question as the shock wave from the passage of another Marlborough shell through the air just ahead buffeted the bridge, knocking him and several others unconscious to the deck.  (NOTE 1)



---- S.31, course 190, speed 16.5 knots


For a few minutes, Borys had thought they had escaped.  He had seen the Britisher begin to pull out of formation and come after him, but the slashing rain had quickly cut them from view.  Instantly, he had altered to almost due south.

Anxiously, they had all stared down their wake much as a deer might gaze apprehensively down its back trail.


“Oh, Scheiß!”  Borys muttered, as a dim form showed and disappeared again to the north-northwest.  Other curses emerged from other throats aboard the battered craft.


“Silence!” Borys hissed, the sibilance hoarse in his throat.  “Helm, come left – gently! – course … 150.”


Borys and the others watched Undaunted casting around for them as they fled like a snail to the south-southeast.  The big Brit cruiser was far easier to see than a torpedoboat with its stern carefully kept pointing towards her.  At least, that was what Borys was hoping.  Where the enemy flotilla was he could not be sure, but he guessed that the Britisher commander would keep them all together lest they get hopelessly scattered in the weather.  If he could think of a way to make them disperse, he’d do it.  Hell, the Brits might do more damage to each other via friendly fire than he could ever hope to achieve!




The cruiser began to turn, putting its bow towards them.


“I see it,” Borys answered.  Ah, they had kept turning, aiming back towards where their fleet must lie.  The British must have grown tired of the game, he thought, sagging back against the smashed bulkhead in relief.


“Scheiß,” he muttered again, as splinters jabbed into his back.


Actually, Undaunted’s CO had just been told of DeRobeck’s wireless to Napier.  His admiral had just been ordered to attack the enemy Line.  Dreadnoughts!  Nothing like that had been there when he’d hared off after a torpedoboat singleton.  Exclaiming words under his breath that would have garnered sympathetic nods from the German commander he’d just been stalking, the RN captain swung about and piled on knots to get back to the battle.


After five minutes spent trying to come up with a reason not to, and failing, Borys turned to follow.



---- Konig Albert, course 080, speed 15 knots


Kapitan zur See Robert Clemens von Aurich was also less than excited.  He could remember having wanted a battle - the skirmish five days ago had hardly qualified.  As he’d watched this one advance inexorably towards him, however, he had felt his eagerness ebb.  This was not the glorious sun-is-shining, bands-a-playing duel of ordered fleets on the high seas, but an ugly and ad hoc melee involving blindfolded men swinging axes in a small wet room.


The dreadnoughts astern in the Line were shooting at something, and not with just their main guns, but with absolutely everything that would bear to port and they were getting hammered in return.  He had tried to stay within the bridge but could not, no matter how many shells were flying.   The visibility was rotten no matter what, but the irregular streams of water across the line of sight from within made it even worse.  Out on the bridgewing, the wind pushed and pulled at his wiry form as the rain pelted off his oilskins, coursed down his neck soaking his uniform, and ran off the brim of his cover.  He was miserable, even more so because he knew his XO was somewhere shedding water like some great and glistening battle beaver.  He could see better out here, but not by much, and he finally gave up on his binoculars, lowering them and trying just to gather an overall image.


The slight form of Stuttgart paced them, no more than a thousand yards abeam.  Her even smaller charges bobbed in her wake like so many metal ducklings.  Muzzle flashes sparkled occasionally and ominously off his port afterquarter.  They were from Warspite and Queen Elizabeth, but he didn’t know that.  What he could see were brief and vague glimpses of dim forms, the flickering light coming from what?  Starshells?


There!  His eyes went left.  Flames gouting out of Marlborough revealed her presence.  Gott!  So close!


“Target!  Bearing 320!”  The other forms were forgotten.


Motion drew Aurich’s eyes to Ostfriesland, a few hundred yards astern.  Her forward port wing turret had just swung its long barrels to port.  An eruption of fire from somewhere directly astern shocked him.  What ship was that?  Helgoland?  Ach, Gott!  Unwisely, he was staring down that bearing just as Rudburg’s flagship fired its first salvo.  The sound masked for him the barks of his own 88 mm gunners reacting to the sudden appearance of the burning enemy dreadnought to port; 150 mm shells followed within seconds.


He was still blinking when Konig Albert’s main guns fired, and so it came as no surprise to him that he could not see any splashes.  No one else did either, not even Warspite’s lookouts though the brief and scattered spouts were just 200 yards astern and 300 yards to port.



---- Warspite, course 090, speed 17.5 knots (increasing)


What DeRobeck’s lookouts did spot were Konig Albert’s muzzle flashes.  Marlborough’s ominously glowing bulk had concealed both Ostfriesland’s and Helgoland’s guns, but Aurich’s muzzle flashes were visible for a full pair of seconds.  While not long enough for targeting, the guns swung onto the approximate bearing to await the next salvo.  Meanwhile, two 88 mm shells from Ostfriesland glanced off Warspite’s aft turret and a 150 mm shell detonated harmlessly on the waterline thirty feet further aft.  The armor there was thinner there than the main belt, but easily thick enough to defeat the hundred pound shell.  Moments later, another 150 mm shell hit almost the same place, just fifteen feet forward and six feet higher, and with no more effect.


“Sir, Queen Elizabeth has acknowledged.”


“Very well.”  No mention of Marlborough.  Keyes had been quick, though.  Still, was Admiral Gaunt even still alive to acknowledge?


“Oh, God!”  The speaker was somewhere on the bridge, but no one took note.


Two shells from Posen had just smashed into Marlborough’s forward superstructure.  Whoever may have survived the charnel house her bridge had become and whoever may have remained in her armoured con had just been instantly rendered moot.  The explosion of the first shell destroyed the armoured bridge abaft the second turret, throwing pieces of its top into the air, trailing sparks along its path.  The second pounded through the upper belt just ahead of the forward stack.  At almost the same instant, a shell from Helgoland’s stern turret struck just below and ahead of the great forward strut supporting the armoured top.  The cumulative effect had been to gut the entire forward superstructure.


The great dreadnought began to slow and fall off to port, threatening to foul the middle column.  Hidden within her, desperate men fought fires in boiler rooms, casemates, and several other compartments.  Meanwhile, those in the after steering compartment stared in horror at the motionless bridge repeaters even as they felt their ship slow and turn to port.  They shouted requests for instructions into the voice tubes to the bridge, a bridge that no longer existed.  After a minute of denial, the officer ordered his men to take local control of the steering engines to put the ship back on the last ordered course. 


The worst had happened.  They were steaming blind right in the middle of battle.  Where was the secondary con?  The officer ordered a petty officer up to take a look, with three men to act as messengers.  For the moment, the only thing he could hope was that, if he rammed anything, it would be German.



---- Colossus, course 090, speed 18 knots


Whack!  Whang!  Rheinland’s secondary and tertiary gunners had quickly found the range.


“Hit!”  So had Colossus.


Two of her 12-inch shells crashed into Rheinland.  The first landed on the deck of the broad stern and cut a deepening trough across the deck that ended where its explosion gouged out a respectable crater.


The other shell found Herr Alfred Dierot.



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




LT Dierot had just fired at Malborough, but without any apparent effect.  The shell had landed 200 yards off Warspite’s bow, though her lookouts missed that splash just as they had missed the ones astern to port moments before.  Captain Gates had it reported to him aboard Queen Elizabeth but, of course, could do nothing with it.


As he had done with all other gun discharges, Dierot held his eyes closed for a couple seconds.  They were still shut when the Colossus shell struck his turret.  His first thought was that his head had been knocked off his shoulders.  He opened his eyes and all remained dark even when he looked around and down where there had been light before.  Was his head still on but his eyes missing?  No, he thought, as the flash from Rheinland’s stern turret cast momentary shadows.


It was so quiet.  It also stank, and with a burning reek that threatened to char his nasal passages.


“What?”  A hand clasped his right shoulder.


He turned in surprise to see one of his lead petty officers working his mouth at him.  Why wasn’t the man simply communicating out loud?  Instead, he was waving his free hand and pointing down into the lower part of the turret.


Wait, he thought.  They’d been hit!  Yes, it was coming back.


“Say again!”  Dierot shouted, or hoped he did.  He could hardly hear himself.  Actually, he had been quite loud, but Dierot’s hearing was presently limited to bone conduction.  No one within was any better off, but he did not know that either.


The man responded by touching his officer again – normally quite verboten! - and pointing down.


Dierot looked down into the blackness where the other indicated and realized it was not totally black after all.  A red glow flickered on one side of the lower section.  It seemed to be getting brighter.  Yes, it was definitely getting brighter!  He blinked at it for a couple seconds before his mind finally began to catch up.


“Raus!  Raus!”  Dierot yelled.  “Fire!  Fire!  Abandoning ....”


Most of them got out, but several had burns.  The others had died when the shell had punched out a long tangent of armor along the aft edge of the barbette and exploded, scouring much of the inside with red hot metal shards.


He and his men hardly had time to conduct a crude head count before they were swept up by a senior officer and sent off to fight another fire.  This one was from a hit by Vanguard that had gone through the upper belt and detonated as it hit the plate at the end of tunneling through a coal bunker.  They had just gotten the fire under control when Agincourt’s second salvo sent a second shell through the armor within six feet of the same place.  This one hit along a bunker divider causing the shell to go off within the bunker itself.  The explosion blew out the weakened inner bunker plate taking down most of Dierot’s DC team as it scattered coal shrapnel up and down the passageway.  Fortunately, it did not start any new significant fires allowing Dierot’s men to regroup and send off the injured.



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


“Gott in Himmel!”


Rudburg’s gunners had missed with their first half-salvo, but not the second.  One 305 mm shell smashed right through the hull at the base of the forward starboard wing turret and detonated in the top of the barbette.  All the charges within joined the explosion and even the improved flash guards to the magazine never stood a chance.  Colossus disappeared in a Great Tower of flame that lit the scene far more brightly than all of the storm’s lightning flashes together.


For several seconds, it turned night into day regardless of the rain, revealing everything to everyone.  It was actually too bright, practically blinding everyone – British and German alike - who had his eyes behind binoculars and dazzling all the rest such that after-images strobed in their heads.



---- Konig Albert, course 080, speed 15 knots


Aurich had been about to give the searchlights order.  He blinked at the sudden glare, as so many others did on so many ships.


Suddenly, searchlights seemed quite superfluous.  The British were in three ranks.


The battered and burning dreadnought on their beam was turning away!  Not so the one in the next rank.  This one also was almost dead abeam.  Big, there did not appear to be a midships turret.  Queen Elizabeth class, then. Großer Gott!  She wasn’t more than 5,000 yards away!


No sooner did he reach these conclusions when she loosed a salvo directly at him.  He knew he was their target because a mighty freight train rumbled by close overhead before he could get his mouth fully open.  Yes, no muzzle flash amidships, he thought numbly.


“Shift target!  All guns!  Schnell!  New target bearing … 355.”



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


The stern turret commander had had his eyes closed when Colossus blew up.  At first, he thought his shot had destroyed her and started to shout out to that effect.  He caught himself, though, because he realized that the timing had probably been wrong.


“Shifting target to next in line!”


Still, perhaps it had been a delayed explosion from his previous shot?


Elsewhere aboard Rheinland, Bellerophon had struck Rheinland in the bow with two shells.  One had gone right through the bow ten feet above the waterline and the other had gone into the chain locker and expended itself on the mass of links there.




The sound went on and on, shaking the deck as though some monster had risen from the deep and had taken the bow in its jaws and was tossing it from side to side. The DC team stationed out in the passageway had been thrown against the bulkheads by the impact.  Now they thought the ship was coming apart until one bosun shouted out.


“The anchor!  She’s let go!”


There was no standing on the deck, but the senior petty officer practically levitated to the hatch anyway and fought to undog it.  He had no idea what he was going to try to do.  The brake had almost certainly been destroyed by whatever had just happened in there.  No sane person would ever attempt entry into a chain locker in the middle of an anchor runaway.  Fathom after fathom of massive links were flying out the port spinning the even more massive drum faster and faster.  Men had simply disappeared during such events, sometimes leaving only shoes to mark their previous existence, with their feet still in them.


It was a sign of group madness that no one stopped him.  If it ran all the way out, it would be bad enough, as the links would tear everything apart in their path as the chain end whipped off the drum.  As bad as that would be, it was still a ship survivable event, even though any and all nearby would be pulped.   But - Oh, Gott! - if it jammed with a dozen fathoms of chain still on the drum?  What would THAT do to the ship? Hell, it might rip the drum right out through the bow! 


Others joined him at the hatch, which had been slightly warped in its seat by the impact.  It evinced no inclination of allowing them entry.  And what if the anchor bit into the seabed and tried to snub the ship as it plowed ahead in the middle of battle at 15 knots?


“Stand back,” shouted another crazy crewman.


They froze, the shouter with a sledge held high in the middle of taking aim at one of the recalcitrant lugs.  The shaking had stopped.  They waited, posed like statues, as though any movement by them might restart it.  After a few moments, they collapsed in relief.  Unbeknownst to them, Bellerophon’s AP shell had almost severed one link that had then parted when it came under load.  (NOTE 2)


Down below, the Rheinland anchor smacked silently and unspectacularly into the muddy seabed, followed by 30 fathoms of chain.



---- Comus, course 090, speed 20 knots (increasing)


Admiral Napier’s first reaction to the wireless from DeRobeck had been to order ahead flank.  His second had been to hoist flags for the attack, despite knowing that some of his flotilla leaders would probably not be able to read them.  He was fairly confident that his leaders would be learning of the wireless even as he did.


No matter what, he knew they would conform and follow wherever he led.


There was a great flash astern to starboard.  Lightning?  But it went on and on ….


“OH!”  “Bloody hell!”  “Oh, God ….”


It was from back in the fleet.  Napier grimaced, having seen the like of it before.  Beside him, Comus’ captain said a brief prayer aloud, perhaps not even knowing he did so.


“Bring us right, captain.  Course 180.”



Author’s NOTEs:


1)      For years, this was thought to have a secondary shell hit, with Marlborough the presumed shooter. Post-war interviews by the Russian émigré, Nikolaus Kondi, led to this entirely different construction now accepted by most historians.  Piecing together the accounts of other Kaiserlicht Marine observers convinced Kundi that Marlborough’s entire secondary battery had been silenced by the time of the bridge casualties, but Marlborough was confirmed to have fired an 8-gun salvo at precisely the correct moment.  This engagement is the source of not one but three entries in his famous work of “what-ifs”, The Kondi Chronicles.  Here, Helgoland’s partial loss of propulsion led to a gradual and temporary slowing which Kundi calculated had cost the dreadnought about 20 yards in the approximate minute between Marlborough salvos.  Advancing Helgoland’s profile that distance - Kundi noted - would appear to place the center of the forward superstructure squarely in front of the 1400-pound shell or shells.  Historically, of course, the helmsman remained at the wheel - not so in Kundi’s “what if”.



2) This, of course, is the second and (arguably) most famous Kundi “what-if”.