Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XLI

July 8, 1915



---- Stuttgart, course (changing), speed 15 knots (slowing in turn)


Großer Kurfürst’s searchlights were quickly joined by those from Kronprinz and then Friedrich der Große.  Aurich’s Konig Albert gunnery officers lost sight of their target, Warspite, moments later, following the British flagship’s turn away, and the men aloft then added their searchlights to those of the flag’s and the ships ahead.  On all the ships, as the searchlights pivoted, the 88 mm gunners obediently swivelled their pieces to follow.


“Midships!”  Odalb ordered, his problems little lessened by greater clarity.  He had picked out the closest Britisher cruiser and pointed Stuttgart’s bows ahead of his “target”, not so much to lead it as to provide good angles for torpedo launch.  The range, 1500 yards, he thought staring through the rain.  Maybe a mite more.


Muzzle flashes sparkled on the lead British cruiser, followed by flashes on the other Britishers.


Who were they shooting at?  Odalb spotted few splashes nearby.  “Hold fire,” he repeated.


“Steady, steady ... hold fire!”  A glance to port showed his half-flotilla echeloned tight on his beam, but they began to diverge as their officers picked their targets.  He couldn’t see his other half-flotilla further back.  They’d turned with him, though; that much he’d seen.  He looked to starboard.  He couldn’t see Ehrhart’s second half-flotilla, but he got glimpses of white water, indicating that they must be turning hard as well.



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


Whack!  Whack-whack!  Admiral Rudburg grimaced.


The Britishers were shooting at Ostfriesland and the rest of Rudburg’s Battle Squadron, dead on their bows.  Rudburg had seen Helgoland’s searchlights add their candle power to those First Battle Squadron and knew this would happen.  His flagcaptain had then looked at Rudburg and ordered theirs on, as well.


“Stay on target,” Rudburg ordered, when it appeared that Ostfriesland’s CO might order the main guns to shift aim prematurely.  There were dreadnoughts still in view, even if the visibility was poor.



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


“Rudder amidships.”


Previously, Vanguard’s captain had altered to port to go around the shattered pyre of Colossus.  This had had the effect of breaking the line of sight for both his and the German gunners but, more importantly, it had preserved his line of sight to the fleet flagship, though its form could only be dimly seen through the smoke and rain.  He had gotten back in line astern of Marlborough quickly enough, more quickly actually than he had expected due to the fact that Marlborough had herself jogged several hundred yards to the north during her brief loss of steering control.  He had not seen that but gave it no thought, having more pressing matters before him in the form of German dreadnoughts.


Whack!  Whack!  Several German 88 mm gunners continued to poke at Vanguard with their 10-kilo shells.  All the 150 mm gunners had lost Vanguard when she passed behind the wreck of Colossus.  Two had already resumed fire but had yet to score a hit.


Boo-oom!  Vanguard’s salvo at Rheinland went long, as so many others had this battle.


Whang!  The first 150 mm hit left pit marks on the armoured con, but did not penetrate.  The shock knocked several off their feet and two stayed down, the victims of shrapnel through the view slits.


Vanguard was beginning to close up on Marlborough as the latter slowed, but none aboard were yet aware of the extent of damage to their division leader.  Wretched visibility was compounded by smoke from coal and damage left them with no view at all of the forward part of Marlborough, but the intermittent muzzle flashes of her stern 13.5-inch turrets seemed cue enough.


Whack-whang!  The number of 88 mm hits began to drop as more and more German gunners swung their pieces around to follow the fleet searchlights.  In another minute, the 150 mm gunners also began to shift fire, leaving only the few secondary guns still operational on Rheinland shooting at Vanguard.


“Sir, Marlborough’s turning to port.”




Vanguard’s captain looked over his bows at this report, but had to wait for five large waterspouts to subside for confirmation.  Four had been from Ostfriesland.



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


The other shell splash just ahead of Vanguard’s bows had been from Rheinland, whose stern turret commander continued his odd duel.  A previous shot of his had notched Vanguard’s bow and another had splashed short in line with her bow turret, but he did not know where either shell had gone.  Another had also been short, but had skipped invisibly past his intended target so he had no knowledge on that one, either.  This latest one had grouped with those of Ostfriesland, so no one had reported it.  This time as he again opened his eyes and prepared to shoot, so did Vanguard.  This would be his last shot, but he didn’t know that either.




Shell flight time was about four seconds, and the flash of his gun had not fully dissipated when Vanguard’s salvo arrived.  Most of her shells splashed astern, but three did not.  One “grazed” his turret near the deck - if that is the correct word for taking out a chunk of armored steel the size of a cantaloupe - and exploded on contact twenty feet further away, punching a two foot divot out of the deck.  Another struck on the deck midway between turret and stern, but the angle of impact was too shallow for the shell, shattering it even as it ripped up a thirty foot trough just ahead of the still-smoking crater from Colossus’ earlier hit.  He had just begun to open his eyes when the last shell struck the stern turret directly on the thickest portion of the glacis and, nonetheless, punched through into the turret itself.  It had begun to structurally fail during penetration and so did not fully detonate, but that made no difference to the turret captain, as he and twenty-five others within were killed instantly.


This left Rheinland with two turrets able to bear to port: the bow and the forward wing-turret.  Both of those turret captains had been staring at Colossus and had practically been blinded when she blew up.  The bow turret next fired at the first visible muzzle flashes the turret commander saw, which were St. Vincent’s, while the wing-turret fired at Vanguard.  Both missed, and missed badly, though the bow turret’s shell splashed close aboard Bellerophon in the furthest column.



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


“Come left,” began the captain, making the decision to turn short, ahead of Marlborough’s pivot point.  He didn’t think Admiral Gaunt would object.  (NOTE 1)  His command might well become the focus of the collective firepower of the German Line no matter what he did, but this would at least reduce their exposure somewhat.  He had waited a few extra seconds so as to give the order immediately after their next salvo had gone out.




Rheinland’s stern turret commander had been the recipient of that last salvo, but he had just  extracted some small posthumous measure of revenge.  His last shell impaled itself directly on the muzzle of one of the gun barrels of Vanguard’s starboard wing turret, perhaps the same turret or even gun barrel that had just effected his demise.  If the German shell had struck as few as twelve inches in any direction, the hit would likely have destroyed the turret and might even have been a mortal blow to Vanguard herself.  As it was, the shell blew off about four feet of the barrel and made a serious attempt to lever it sideways right out of the turret.  The shock transmitted by and along the barrel partially unseated it, killing two and wounding three others inside the turret itself.  (NOTE 2)  The turret crew had just begun to open the breech when the shell hit; the toll could have much higher if they had been quicker.


The brief but showy fireball dwarfed the occasional 88 and 150 mm impacts from Rheinland and Posen, and also the next four 305 mm shell splashes from Ostfriesland.  Shrapnel from the blast shotgunned across the faces of two nearby casemates, striking down several more within.  Vanguard’s secondary gunners had scored several hits on Rheinland, but to no effect as the only parts vulnerable to their fire were the searchlight platforms and 88 mm gunners aloft.  The reverse was not true, as German 150 mm shells could defeat Vanguard’s casemate armor and, in fact, already had done so once further aft.



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


Kommodore Ehrhart had instructed the helm to maintain station on the flagship, once it had begun to change course.


“Sir, Großer Kurfürst’s lights!”


“Ahead flank,” ordered Kommodore Ehrhart, as he pivoted to stare back at the flagship on his starboard afterquarter.  Only the aft ships of each pair were to activate their searchlights.  It was accepted that the lights might attract more than a fair share of shellfire to their ships, but the gains were expected to outweigh the risks, especially for the darkened shooters.  The flagship was certainly not the aft ship of any pair.


Only the Baron could have ordered Großer Kurfürst’s searchlights on.  To Ehrhart, it smacked of extremis.  Damn this rain!


“Where are they pointed?” Ehrhart shouted up at the lookouts.


“Port after-quarter, sir.  Approximate bearing 315.”


“Hard left rudder!”  How else, Ehrhart had realized, could the Baron instantly have ordered his screen into action in this weather?!


“Hoist ‘Attack’!”  His half-flotillas might not be able to read it, but it still seemed the right thing to do.  If he were mistaken, he’d end up looking foolish, but so what.



---- Marlborough, course 055 (changing), speed 15.5 knots (slowing)


Whang - Boom - Whannng!


Balzer kept his head flat on the backs of his hands on the deck, coughing intermittently as briny water splashed into his nose or mouth.  Putting his face directly in contact with the metal deck risked being battered unconscious.  Raising his head any higher, however, risked decapitation.  His feet trailed into a deeper puddle formed behind a dam created by some trapped wreckage the young officer did not even attempt to identify.  He would have been numb from exposure but the metal beneath him was still warm from what he hoped were since-extinguished flames.  After a couple minutes, Balzer realized that the midships turret had remained silent after that last salvo, nor was it attempting to track a target as Marlborough wallowed into the turn.


Whumpff!  The partially muffled sound was another major caliber detonation deep within the ruins forward, casting a shower of momentary sparks into the air.  The shooting by the midships turret had been the only sign to Balzer that his ship was fighting back, and now it appeared quite lifeless.  Had the Huns killed them all?


Actually, no gunners had been killed or injured in the midships turret.  Instead, they had evacuated it after their magazine had been flooded in the face of advancing fires.  They had gamely fired off their remaining rounds before making good their escape.  Moments later, they were helping fight the very fires they had fled; already they had suffered casualties.


Whanng!  A shell from Kronprinz still somewhat ahead of Marlborough had just passed through the space normally occupied by her second turret.  As that heavily armoured structure had just settled onto the seabed, the shell continued on into the face of the lower superstructure, piercing it easily and detonating on the inside of the exterior face of the port side casemates.  The rest of the shells from Kronprinz and Friedrich der Große missed ahead, splashing roughly about where the mutilated dreadnought would have been without the turn north.  Balzer was not in a position to appreciate that bit of good fortune, though his position made the flame and debris blasting out of the ragged gash forward all too visible.


OhGod-OhGod, he half-sobbed, as he waited for his vision to return.  Where was Warspite?  Wait!  The unmistakable silhouette of Agincourt was just abaft the beam.  He blinked at her through the rain.  She looked closer than she should be, he thought, totally unaware of LT Bohemia’s earlier adventures.  He was trying to look ahead of her when she fired a broadside back at the Germans.  That was heartening, though it blinded him afresh.  Line of sight blockages had forced Agincourt’s gunnery officer to shift targets with almost every salvo.  Marlborough’s non-regulation proximity had aggravated matters significantly for her gunner, but Captain Hawke had run out of expletives shortly after Marlborough lost her forward superstructure.  The fourteen shells in this salvo splashed just short and ahead of Konig Albert, drenching Kapitain Aurich to the skin even as it nearly scared him out of it, especially since he had no idea where the shells had come from.  He had seen both 15-inch monsters turn, ceasing fire as they did so, and then ... the sea had erupted alongside and onto the bridge.


Whannng!  Kronprinz and Friedrich der Große had shifted their aim to the oncoming British light, but Posen and Helgoland continued to shoot at Marlborough, though Helgoland had few secondaries and no turrets on her port side.  The aft wing turret had been gutted by a Warspite shell earlier.  The forward one had been evacuated and its magazine flooded when it was discovered that the barbette had become hot to the touch.  Helgoland still had her forward and stern turret, but she wasn’t hitting anything with either.  This hit was from Posen, and had holed the bow five feet above the waterline and 30 feet from the stem.  The shell did not detonate, but passed entirely though the hull, gyration making its exit thrice the size of its entrance.


Balzer’s vision returned enough to let him spot St. Vincent, which he knew was supposed to be ahead of Agincourt and astern of Warspite.  He looked ahead of St. Vincent, but Warspite wasn’t there.  Or, at least he couldn’t see her if she were.  What was happening?  His thoughts seemed clearer, mostly because the bruising barrage of 88 and 150 mm shells had lightened.  It now eased some more as Helgoland’s gunnery officer – her kaptain remained unconscious - finally lost sight of Marlborough and ordered what guns he had left to shift to the advancing British light.


Balzer looked again at St. Vincent and realized that she had put her rudder over hard.  She must be at her column’s turning point, he realized.  But, but, Balzer thought, she was AHEAD of them.  Marlborough must be hopelessly out of formation, making the very senior captains commanding Colossus and Vanguard just astern even more so.


“Omigawd!”  The many orders dictating proper station-keeping were Holy Writ in His Majesty’s Royal Navy!  “Ha!  They’ll break me down to recruit, throw me in the brig, and deep-six the keys!”  He started to laugh then when he thought about just how many senior officers must be cursing him right now.  “OhGod, that’s so … Gulp, cough-cough!”  A mouthful of cordite-flavored brine brought on a coughing fit.


Down below, LT Bohemia and his men had discovered that the hydraulics must have been damaged and were struggling with Marlborough’s rudders.  Balzer had ordered full rudder and they had not gotten half that.  Meanwhile, Marlborough had slowed to 14 knots.  Bohemia had been trying to confess to LT Balzer for several minutes, but his senior officer would not answer!  What was he doing up there?  It was just as well that the earnest junior officer did not know the answer to his unvoiced question, namely that Balzer was somewhere between giggling like a first former schoolgirl and coughing his lungs out.

When Balzer finally came out of it and looked again to port, he saw that Agincourt had already begun her own turn.  But where was St. Vincent?  Hell, she wasn’t even in sight anymore!  That made TWO disappearing dread … oh, of course!  Agincourt must be in the way.  And Warspite ahead of HER!  Either the Admiral had sped up or Marlborough must have slowed.  Or both.  In any case, the fleet seemed to have turned north and, despite their turning, they were rapidly becoming in danger of being left behind.  With the bloody Huns!


“Rudder amidships!”  The voice came out of the tube sounding oddly hoarse, thought Bohemia.


“Aye, aye, sir,” Bohemia answered this personally, once he gave the order.  “We’re having a spot of trouble down here,” Bohemia drew a breath, then paused at the odd sounds coming down the tube.  Laughter?  It couldn’t be!  “The rudders aren’t responding properly.”  He listened carefully, but Balzer did not reply for a full minute.


“Mark this heading,” Balzer shouted once that strange noise abated.  “What was it?  That bearing?”  Balzer had no compass nearby, or at least none down at deck level.  He was not about to stand up and start a search for one.  He fought down another round of laughter at the notion.


“357, sir.”


“That doesn’t, oh, very well.  Bring the rudder back – Oh, Bloody Hell! - steer due north, man!”


“Due north, um, after-steering, aye.”


It was just as well that he had taken over at the tube, thought Bohemia.  He had thought Balzer a sober sort, but the senior lieutenant was acting anything but that just now.



---- Vanguard, course (changing), speed 16 knots (slowing in turn)


Vanguard’s captain had his eyes on his division flagship, his mouth half-open in shock.  Moments before, he had gotten his first look at her silhouette as she turned and he’d not been able to take his eyes of her since.  Dear Lord, how had she survived?  Could the Admiral have survived that?  There didn’t look to be much of anything left forward!  One of Marlborough’s stern turrets fired then, her shells missed Helgoland quite long, but it was a brave show nonetheless.




Rudburg’s determination paid off on the form of two hits.  The first pounded through the upper belt just aft of the ruined wingturret and detonated twenty-five feet later.  The other splashed forty feet further aft and two feet short of the hull.  Unfortunately for Vanguard, this was not short enough, especially given the shallow angle of fall. The shell transited the water, pierced the armor at the lower edge of the belt, and detonated about a meter into the hull.


Both were savage hits and threatened to transform Vanguard from an effective fighting ship to one simply fighting for her life.  The first had inflicted over 50 casualties and left a very large fire raging amidships below the upper deck.  The second had killed nearly as many in more than one boilerroom, filled now with smoke and steam, and threatening to become filled with water.


As the captain waited for the damage reports, another set of splashes appeared ahead and to starboard.  Another set splashed no closer 30 seconds later, as Ostfriesland tried vainly to correct for Vanguard’s ongoing turn.  The next set splashed slightly further away.  The one after that splashed even more distant.  The next was more distant still, Ostfriesland’s gunnery officer having essentially lost sight of his target two half-salvos earlier.


Vanguard’s captain did not know that, of course, and did not begin to relax until two full minutes passed without any more splashes appearing.  Right about then, the damage reports began to come in, and he realized that his worries might have only just begun.


Ostfriesland’s CO looked at his Admiral and ordered retargeting.  Again, Rudburg grimaced, but he did not countermand the order.  The enemy dreadnoughts had disappeared into the storm and he didn’t have to look to port to know what would be appearing next.



Author’s NOTEs:


1)      He was, of course, correct.



2)  This hit left the barrel looking somewhat like one of the Russian battleship Orel’s cannons after the May 1905 battle with the IJN.  There was a website in Russian that had many pictures of the ships after that battle, but I no longer have a working url to it, if it remains in existence at all.  That picture and several others from the same source have helped me in describing battle scenes in this and other situations, as the damage was presented essentially in situ to the lens, including scenes internal to the ships.