Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XL

July 8, 1915



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


Most of the gunfire ceased.  The lull would last for nearly a half-minute, as though all had paused in prayer for Colossus’ eight hundred dead.  In secular reality, the bursting and blazing pyre that marked Colossus’ demise had blinded most of the gunners of both fleets.


One of the exceptions was Rheinland’s stern turret commander, whose eyes had been closed at the time of the explosion.  After a glance through squinted eyes, he had shifted to the ship astern of Colossus: Vanguard.  His first shell landed short and skipped into the leading edge of her bow twelve feet above the waterline, snipping out a chunk of metal the size of a steamer trunk.  Observers aboard Agincourt directly on her beam wrote after the battle that her bow had suddenly come to resemble a nicked blade.  His next shot splashed just short of Vanguard’s hull in line with her forward turret.


The fleet cannonade gradually resumed then, though with odd irregularity as gunners struggled to reacquire their targets with still-degraded night vision or, in some cases, re-target entirely.  Gunners were forced to make individual decisions such that many ships split their fire.  The other two operable turrets aboard Rheinland, for example, resumed shooting at Marlborough, even after the stern turret had properly shifted to Vanguard.  Posen also stayed on Marlborough, even though Ostfriesland (ahead of her) had shifted to Colossus (astern of Marlborough) and now further back to Vanguard.


Those crewing the 88 mm guns followed their training and went with their ships’ searchlights.  In contrast, all the 150 mm gunners simply opened fire on the first enemy ship they saw.  For most of them, that was Marlborough.



---- Marlborough, course 090 (varying), speed 17.5 knots (slowing)


Another gunnery exception was Marlborough’s bow turret captain.  The glare originated completely behind him so, if anything, it served to improve his visibility.  His main problem was that his ship had just jogged a few hundred yards off line as after-steering fought to regain control of the ship and return her to the previously ordered course.  The ship had also slowed then regained most of what had been lost as the engineers pushed the on-line boilers to make up for lost ones.  With the range under 5,000 yards, the gunner could cope with small changes in speed and position.  What he couldn’t compensate for were sudden lists, and that was what was happening as the steering engines left Marlborough’s wake a bit on the snaky side.  The first shells he fired after the great flash astern splashed short of Helgoland as Marlborough’s wounded hull canted one way, then over her masts as it tilted the other.  He cursed whoever had his hand on the wheel, not knowing that those hands - and the wheel itself - were no longer aboard, having been blasted over the side by enemy shells. 


Meanwhile, back in after-steering, the junior officer in charge there was quite justifiably, at least in his opinion (NOTE 1) in a prince of a black mood.  He was steaming along with two other dreadnoughts and two other columns in some sort of great battle and he was doing so despite being totally blind!  Where was the Admiral?  His Captain?  The Commander?  Where in the hell was everyone?!


“Sir!  The secondary station!  It’s Mr. Balzer!”


While hardly one of the lofty officers he had just been hoping for, LT Balzer was senior to him, which made him senior enough!


“Yes, sir!”


Balzer’s post had been at the three-pounders in the aft superstructure.  A few minutes ago, a 280 mm shell from Rheinland had effectively converted it into a blackened inferno and, whatever that 300 kilo angel of death might have overlooked, the many smaller demons that had followed had not.  Malevolent re-visitations continued there long after no living soul remained.


Balzer was a Christian, and so he believed in hell.  If he had begun this night an atheist, the scene that met his eyes when again he had opened them might well have converted him.  One moment, he was exhorting his men - a full two score - to vigilance as Hun torpedo boats had already been reported, and the next he knew he was amidst flaming ruins and scattered body parts.  Not two yards away, a viscous fluid was sizzling at the edge of what appeared to be a Roman candle jetting out from beneath a gun breech.  From the smell, it had to be blood.  Hellfire, shellfire, there’s only a single letter’s difference, he thought as he stared around him in detached horror.  There was little else he could do, as that same gun mount had him pinned against the bulkhead.  Its mass had warded off all the Beelzebub bits and saved his life, but he didn’t know that.  Two of his men had appeared then and, after cutting him out of his cork life vest, had dragged him out into a baptism of rain on the lee side of battle.  Eventually, soaked and shivering, he returned from wherever it is that men go in such situations and was able to get back on his feet.


Somehow, he made his way to the secondary conning station, or what was left of it, which wasn’t all that much.  (NOTE 2)  Jagged struts and dangling cables were about all that remained even remotely recognizable.  Of the previous inhabitants, there was no sign at all.  He and one of his men flattened themselves on the deck there behind a stub of armor as the rain from the heavens landed cold on their backs and the rain from the Huns landed all around them.  Blinding lights, muzzle flashes, thundering guns, and ear-splitting explosions pounded at him from all sides, but of the battle itself he could make no sense.  Major caliber hits shook the deck like a stick in a terrier’s jaws.  Shrapnel rang off the little armor cowling or made little ominous whirring sounds to mark their passage, metallic wasps with lethal stingers.


“Tell him the bridge isn’t answering,” the LT Bohemia instructed his communicator below, then added enthusiastically, “And that we await his orders!”


When his man relayed that, Balzer did not even lift his head to gaze forward.  He had already done that and the sight had only added to the water running down his face.


“Tell him,” was all that Balzer replied, shouting.


“Aye, s’or.”  The sailor hardly flinched when another pair of 88 mm shells struck nearby.  It helped that much to be told what to do.  The flinching came below-decks at his shouted reply, the horror bearing every bit the shock of shells.


Balzer just wished someone would tell HIM!  All he knew was that the enemy remained somewhere to starboard; Marlborough’s midships turret was pointing that way and even occasionally shooting.  To rise up from his exposed position to look that way himself would be suicide.  Nor could he see ahead or astern.  The only direction he could see was to port, where mighty and concussive muzzle flashes served to remind him that his was not the only ship of His Majesty’s Royal Navy at sea.  For the moment, it would have to do.



---- Necki-Hanzik-Ballin Force, course 150, speed 20 knots


“What?”  Kapitain Dirk could not help himself.  He had just come onto the bridge of von der Tann, about to spell his XO, the doughty “Commander of the Horse” Bavaria.  Now, he stood silently beside his XO at the bridge rail.


They had apparently succeeded in breaking contact with the British cruiser pair and  per the plot spread out on von der Tann’s chart table - were going to arrive at the designated point precisely on schedule.  In fact, they had slowed a while ago lest they get there prematurely.  All that remained was to remake the formation in the pre-dawn glow perhaps 90 minutes off.


“I have a bad feeling about this,” Bavaria muttered mostly under his breath.


Ich auch,” Dirk replied.


Derfflinger had just sounded a blast from her great steam whistle - most definitely not something one would expect an admiral to do while trying to avoid detection.  Another blast followed.


“I’d wager a duchy that the Admiral just got a wireless – and one he was NOT expecting,” said the titled equestrian.


“One I’d not take,” Dirk replied, “even if my end were only a clipped groat.”


“Flags going up on the flagship!”


“Messenger!  Here!  Off to the - oh!”


The sight of another messenger practically jumping into the bridge stopped his command.  The newcomer was obviously relieved to see both senior officers and came forward, extending a message slip that both Bavaria and Dirk regarded much as they would a deadly serpent.


Much the same scene was being reenacted all over the force.  Admiral Hanzik read his aboard Moltke with one side of his face still lathered, though he had put down the blade before reading.  One did not barge in on an admiral’s toilet with trifles.  So many kilometers, he thought.  So very many.  Stang cursed and called for Lucterhand, who had done the last coal report.


The message didn’t take long to read.


---- Room 40


The oncoming shift had yet to arrive.  Turnover was still an hour distant.


“ ‘Schneller?  That’s it?”


“Maybe their admiral’s flagship just lost their wireless.”


“Better if his whole bloody ship had just blown up!”  It had been a very long night and the Grand Fleet was fighting its way out of a devilish German ambush.  So far, the honors seemed even, or possibly to their advantage.  But they knew that anything could happen in battle - - and already had, as Colossus’ fate had yet to be reported.


“Sorry, sirs.  But the end strokes are there.”


“Meaning?”  The questioner was clearly baffled.  As was Commander Jan, bleary-eyed despite the hole the coffee was busily gnawing through his stomach wall.


“That’s the message, sir.  All of it.”


“ ‘Faster’?  ‘More speed’?  Isn’t that it?”


“Yes, sir.  Pretty much.  Unless.”


“Go on.”


“Unless it’s a code word or something.”


“Damn!”  Huns and their little games!  “Has their Admiral Necki replied?”


“Just did, sir!”  This from a new voice.


“What was it?”  “Did you get a fix on him?”


“Yes, sir, but.”  The young officer was clearly unhappy at what he was about to say.


“Go on, man!”


“Not a good one.  Begging your pardon, sir.  It was just too short.  Acknowledgment only – no message text at all.”




“Put it up, Andy,” the officer said, gesturing to the wall chart.  As the yeoman complied, the officer reached over the other’s shoulder with a red marker and drew a circle around the position even before the man stepped away.  “Somewhere in there, sirs.  Twenty to fifty miles, northerly,” of the battle even then going on, “and we were lucky to get that much.”


Twenty miles!  Likely coming south at 28 knots with Admiral DeRobeck possibly about to turn north at 20!


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


Aurich’s secondary guns were the first to return fire though, predictably, half of them fired at Marlborough.  The others fired variously at Vanguard, Warspite, and even broken Colossus.  (NOTE 3)  Wherever those shells went, they did nothing to stop Warspite’s next salvo.



The eight shells had again been marvelously clustered on the center of mass and again high, but not high enough this time for Aurich’s command to escape them.  All eight had passed between the centerlines of the two stacks, and actually puncturing both while remaining high enough not to cause serious damage.  Four of the other six had flown harmlessly through the gap, as though scoring American rules football field goals.  The last two both struck the tops of separate midships turrets.  The port turret hit grooved and dented the roof with enough force to dash those within to the deck.  The shell shattered, leaving a narrow fan of deep, finger-wide channels leading off the back of the turret.


The starboard turret did not fare as well.  The turret captain was attempting to cross-deck and the shell clipped the forward upper edge outboard of the port gunport.  The shell gouged out a trough nearly two feet long and detonated there, punching a hole through into the turret itself and killing instantly fourteen of those directly below who were serving that gun.  Hot splinters ignited four of the ready charges and the white hot flares killed another six before the flames subsided.


Up on the bridgewing, Aurich looked down through the rain in dismay at the smoke streaming out of the great armored top.




Again the ship shook, partly because the forward and both aft turrets fired their first rounds, but mostly because Commander Boy had just shortened Konig Albert’s aft superstructure with a mighty claymore of 15” shells.  What caught Aurich’s attention was the collapse of the aft mast, severed by a direct shell hit and resulting explosion.  The mast fell onto the fourth turret and on into the sea to starboard.  Looking back, Aurich could see that the aft stack must have been hit again, perhaps multiple times.  The top six feet were gone, a jagged ring marking the point of severance.


Aurich’s XO was been back in that superstructure, but Aurich somehow knew that the other remained unharmed, and had probably watched the events from within the armored secondary con just below the impacts with nary a frown creasing his classic visage.




This time four shells had gone out, as the port midships turret had returned to service.  Aurich looked towards the enemy, but could not see any evidence that they had inflicted any damage.



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


“Sir, lookouts report Cordelia 500 yards off the starboard bow, on course south with her flotilla.”

“Very well.”


Splash!  Konig Albert’s closest shell arrived.  The other two shells of Aurich’s initial and quite ragged half-salvo had splashed nearer to Queen Elizabeth than their intended target.


“Sir, lookouts report another cruiser on the far side of Cordelia, also with destroyers in company.


“Likely Admiral Napier aboard Comus,” Captain Swafford commented.


“Yes,” DeRobeck acknowledged, and he had every confidence that Napier had Inconstant and Phaeton on his other flank or following close in his wake.  It was time.


“Execute,” Admiral DeRobeck ordered.


Splash-splash!  Konig Albert’s next half-salvo had straddled them, Swafford realized as he called out the orders.  He had expected DeRobeck to wait for a sighting of LeMesurier moving up the northern flank, but the splashes were convincing evidence that the admiral had timed it well.  Any lingering doubts that he might have had on that score vanished when more than a dozen new muzzle flashes began to bloom further ahead, like some monstrous German trellis.


Whanng!  The fifteen turrets of the lead three German dreadnoughts had all fired within the same ten seconds, not by ordered intent, but simply because the three chief gunnery officers had all responded the same stimulus: the now-ebbing inferno that had been Colossus.  Frederich der Grosse and Kronprinz had fired at Marlborough, Grosser Kurfurst at Warspite.  Schnell’s hit had hit low on the side of the first turret near the back.  The angle had almost defeated the shell, despite the somewhat thinner armor there away from the glacis.  The detonation chewed off the lower corner - spalling armor shards into the interior - and buckling the deck at the ring.


Swafford felt Warspite heel under the rudder as the flagship turned north and he looked down onto the bow area where the shell seemed to have hit.  He saw no smoke and had begun to relax when he realized the bow turret was not rotating in response to the course change as the second turret was.  Thus, the report five minutes later that the turret was frozen in place came as no surprise, nor was word that three had been killed and six others wounded within it.



---- Marlborough, course 090 (varying), speed 17 knots (slowing)




Kronprinz had struck with the first salvo, as well.  Four shells had gone long, but one had not.  Normally, it would have been a devastating hit, detonating as it did deep in the middle of the forward superstructure.  However, heavy shells from Rheinland, Posen, and Helgoland had already crushed the formerly-proud structure into random wreckage steaming in the heavy rain from smoldering fires.  Any who had survived those blows had died from the dozens of lighter shells that had continued to peck away at the ruins ever since.


Balzer sobbed as the concussion beat on him with sledgehammer blows.  OhGodohGodohGod, he may or may not have screamed; certainly the words rattled around like that in his head.  Wham!  Wham-wham-wham!  The lighter guns of the lead German ships began to find the range.  He stared towards the flagship as though seeking an answer only to realize that he was seeing one.


“They’re turning away!


“Tell them they’re turning away!  Left full rudder!”


There was no answer.


“Tell them below, I say!”


Balzer looked back along the length of his prone form.  His man was gone!  OH!  The deck heaved hard into his chest as one 150 mm shell landed just 25 feet away.  He felt a rush of betrayal, then of shame.  Reyes wouldn’t have left him.  Would never have run!  Never!  The man had come back and rescued him from that hell below.  No, the cursed Huns had done him in, as they had so many of his men and mates this day. (NOTE 4)


“Turn north,” shouted the voice out of the tube down in after steering.  “Make your rudder full,” the voice added, in a slightly more level voice.  Balzer had slithered back to the tube mouth.


“Do it!”  Bohemia ordered his petty officers, quite unprofessionally, so relieved was he to be doing SOMEthing under orders again.  “Ask him if the fleet has turned,” he added after a moment.


“No answer, sir.”


“That’s odd,” Bohemia blinked.  “Very well then.”


Balzer was no longer there, having lowered his head back to the deck and crept further to port in an attempt to see if Colossus would follow in their wake.  He almost gasped in relief to find her right where she belonged.  Of course, what he saw was Vanguard, her forward superstructure unsurprisingly torn up by 88 and 150 mm shells, but Balzer mercifully did not know that.  Between Marlborough’s slewing and slowing, Vanguard had almost closed up astern behind her column leader.  She turned short, though Balzer did not recognize that, either.  As soon as she swung to follow, Balzer began to slither back.



---- Bremen, course 225, speed 21 knots


Conda had essayed a wide circle as he tried to get into a flanking position to the north of the British fleet.  He had some hopes of catching the Brits napping, as they concentrated their attention to the south.  If nothing else, he might manage to meet only the one flanking flotilla.  Any torpedoes his little force managed to get off would have decent chances of finding a target, as the British dreadnoughts could hardly turn away from his fish without turning directly into Ehrhart and the Baron on the other side.


Colossus’ demise cast a broad glow but it wasn’t enough to let Conda get a clear picture of the course of battle.  Muzzle flashes strobed and strobed, but all well to the south. 


This was far enough, he decided.  “Left three degrees rudder.”  He didn’t want to end up on their after-quarter, as his cruiser had little speed advantage on the Brit dreadnoughts and maybe none at all on those new 380 mm-toting monsters of theirs.  “Come to course 150.”


Now, where was that flanking flotilla?  They should be almost dead ahead.  Or, possibly a bit more to the east.  Had the rain picked up?  Shouldn’t they have spotted them by now?


“Stay sharp up there!”



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


“Sir, they’re turning away!”


The dreadnought-dreadnought duel had apparently been inconclusive.  And so the critical moments were arriving, Letters realized.  Or would be.  Any second, in the form of British flotillas.


Kapitain Schnell!  Bring us onto 045.  Small rudder.”


“Left three degrees rudder ….”


“And Kaptain,” Letters paused.  Too soon would almost certainly be fatal for the fleet.  He was waiting for the first glimmer of advancing bow crests.  But the rain!  He realized then that that would be too late.  Wait!   “Searchlights on!  Now!”



---- Stuttgart, course (changing), speed 17 knots (increasing)


What the Baron had spotted was Stuttgart.


“… flank, Odalb had shouted.  “Left full rudder!”


The little cruiser spun turned hard, casting the wide white sheet that had caught Letters’ eye.  Odalb had had no such intention and actually hated the necessity as it marked him for the British, but felt he had no choice.  The enemy charge was directly into his flank and they were already under 2,000 yards away, with gobs of froth at their bows.  He HAD to get his own bows around to them!


“Torpedoes first, THEN guns!”


He looked astern, noting that his half-flotilla was already forming up tightly echeloned to port.  Further back, the trail half-flotilla was just starting to turn.


He looked back towards the enemy.  Gott in Himmel!  There were a thousand of them!


“Ready!”  He gulped as another mass of Brit berserkers loomed out of the rain.  TEN thousand!


It was then that the lights came on.


Author’s NOTEs:


1) Many others would come to share his view decades later.  The officer, then-Lieutenant John Bohemia, penned a detailed first-person account of the battle, but it did not see the light of day until well after the war, being first published in 1946 as, “I Served”, Crecy Press, London.  It was translated into Deutsch and republished by Kaiser Imperial Press, Berlin, in 1947 as “Ich Dien”.


2) Per his letters to family, it appears that Mr. Balzer never was able to recall.  Of those who helped him, they either never wrote on the subject or simply failed to survive the engagement.


3) Neptune was hit by two 150 mm shells during this period - with four killed and eight wounded - often attributed by historians to Konig Albert overshoots of the wreckage of Colossus.


4) Neither LT Balzer nor the Admiralty nor historians after the war would ever conclusively prove the fate of LT Balzer’s leading seaman, carried on the ship’s list only as “Gary Reyes”.  His body was never found.