Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XLII


July 8, 1915



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


“Sir, report from Repair Party Dora, Leutnant Ick commanding.  The fire at the forward port turret is under control.”  Two spots were still smoldering.  Some sort of machine oil, probably, in contact with some still-hot metal.  No surprise there, as the turret crew had been evacuating their citadel when Ick’s team arrived because they had discovered the barbette sides to be hot to the touch from the fires raging outside it.  He had no idea if the turret was operable or could be re-occupied.  “Casualties evacuated.”  Those had come from the splinters and fire around the turret, and there had been few enough of them.


Leutnant Robert Ick’s uniform was a mess, a filthy, stinking mess.  Grease, oil, and soot were the least of the stains.  Blood, body shreds, and vomit comprised most of the rest, the last the result of being splashed in the face with the first two.  One moment he’d been crouched amidst his damage control team in an interior passageway awaiting orders, and the next he’d been blasted aft a full fifteen feet.  Several of those further forward had been butchered and deposited lavishly upon the survivors -- warm, wet mincemeat shoved into his nostrils and his apparently open mouth.  Ick did not know if he’d swallowed any but, if he had, he was sure he had brought it all back up again, along with whatever else he’d eaten since the war started.


He had been waiting to be dispatched to fight fires only to have the fires come to him.  No sooner had Ick collected his remaining men and begun to fight the fire, than - Whann-nng! - the damn Britishers had hit them again further aft and pounded him into the deckplates again.  Damn Britishers!  Uppity attitudes, bad food, and (unfortunately) big guns.  That had been somewhere between fifteen and five hundred and fifteen minutes previous.  Hopefully, the repair parties further aft had been able to deal with the damage, because he’d been sent forward to deal with the fires around the forward port turret that were still flickering stubbornly in two corners.  The fires would go out when hit with water but re-ignite soon after the stream ceased.


It was a known problem.  The only ways to deal with it were to flush out every last drop of oil or cool the metal below ignition temperature.  Both took a lot of time – not likely during battle.


“Herr Ick!  We’re ordered to ....”  The location was back amidships, maybe forty meters aft, and perhaps a deck up.  It sounded an awful lot like wherever that other hit had been.  (NOTE 1)  Ick looked at his uniform and blouse and frowned as he reflexively tried to rub off some of the, well, whatever it was.  Maybe whoever it was.  He shied away from that train of thought.  His talker had said the Third Officer was giving the orders on the bridge.  One person had said the Kaptain was dead, another that he’d been knocked unconscious - shipboard rumors flew faster than shells in battle.  Either case could explain it.  Ick nodded when his talker finished, and looked over his team.


“Very well.  Jaxheimer, you get that?”


“Yes, sir.”  The petty officer gave his own orders, which included stationing a two-man re-flash watch.  Then he turned towards the wiry officer as the repair team got to their feet with the senior seaman taking point.


“Sir,” the petty officer observed in a low voice as they trailed the rest of Repair Party Dora, “that’s Herr Schenken’s zone,” meaning why weren’t they handling that one.


Ick didn’t even bother to answer.  Instead, he just shrugged and pointed to one particularly vile damp spot on his uniform, one already caking dry.


“Oh, sorry, sir.”  Jaxheimer winced.  Ick’s good friend Schenken – who preferred a big club to a standard sword - and his men had probably been smeared across other uniforms or bulkheads.


Damnable race, Britons, thought Ick again as he coughed in the acrid smoke billowing up the passageway.  Any people whose men frisked about in public wearing little skirts ought to stay quarantined on their miserable little foggy island.



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


“Steady, steady ... hold fire!”  Odalb shouted again.


The Line had quickly sent their many searchlight beams through the smoke and rain and splayed them across the Brits.  Muzzle flashes marked all three British cruisers now, and many of their torpedoboats had joined in as they advanced in some sort of irregular, spreading wedge.  Was this some special attack formation?  Or, simply a result of the weather?  The Brit flotillas didn’t seem to be diverging.


The enemy bows bobbed up and down as their hulls struggled across the wave lines.  Spray and shell splashes threw water up into the air even as the storm sent more down.  The rain gusted, growing and ebbing, but the shell splashes only grew as the number and caliber of shells did.  The flashes appearing now on the British ships were not just from their guns, but from German ones, as well.


“Guter Gott,” Odalb muttered, greatly affected by the spectacle.  “Someone should paint this.”  (NOTE 2)  Dozens, maybe hundreds of water jets were pumping out of the waves, eruptions in a broad combat caldera.  Well, except near Stuttgart, though why the Britishers weren’t throwing shells at his command, he had no clue.  They had his tiny force right on their starboard forequarter.


“Guter Gott!”  Odalb repeated, as a monstrous pillar broke one of the small attackers in half.  His tone one of empathy and awe, despite the fact that these brave determined men were bravely determined to kill him.


1200 yards ...  The British came on, apparently unimpressed by the jungle of waterspouts.  Still no counter-fire at him.  A peace time drill!


1000 yards ...   The German dreadnoughts on his lee side were tearing the heaving sea apart, but still the British came on!  Behind the wedge, new muzzle flashes!  More Britishers were attacking behind these?  Guter Gott!  How the hell many were they?! 




“Torpedo ... LOS!”  Further aft, Leutnant Lichtenstein repeated the order and Stuttgart added her first ordnance to the battle.  (NOTE 3)  The torpedoboat alongside launched next, followed quickly by the others in his half-flotilla as each saw the torpedoes come out of their mate’s launchers.  Seconds after that, the adjacent half-flotillas slipped their own fish into the North Sea. 


A zipper launch right out of the drill book!  Odalb thought in an instant of martial pride.  He glanced back at the Line, just as he had in peace time to see if the monitors had noticed.  His ships had started about 1000 yards off their beam and appeared to have added another few hundred to the gap.  He took a deep breath; the torpedoes should be gone now.


“Open fire!”



---- Frauenlob, course 030 (changing, speed 15 knots (slowing in turn)


“Sir, my rudder is full left ... passing 030 ....”


“Ahead flank acknowledged.”


“ ‘Attack’ hoisted, sir.”


“Very well,” acknowledged Kommodore Ehrhart, as he checked his attached half-flotilla.  Yes! Wunderbar!  The far nimbler torpedoboats were already closing back up. They might have been caught by surprise, but the exercises and recent experience were paying off now.  Even as he watched, they began to echelon wide to starboard – precisely the correct formation for an attack beginning with a turn to port!  The closest had likely spotted his hoist and either relayed it or the others were simply conforming.  Either was enough tonight!


“Sir, cruiser ... cruisers ... torpedoboats attacking to port!”  The lookouts had spotted the forms caught in the searchlights, and the muzzle flashes of their response.  The overlapping voices shouting different sightings sounded like stuttering.  The things one notes in battle.


“... passing 000 ....”


“Very well,” Ehrhart repeated, not particularly gladdened to have been proven right.  Had the Baron been expecting this?  If so, why hadn’t this been briefed or gamed?


“Sir, multiple flotillas!  Three cruiser leaders.  Bearing ... 340.”  The speaker had hesitated when he’d realized that it was not a bearing at all, but a wide arc.  He had proceeded to report a number for somewhere in the middle and hoped that was correct.


“Sir, Stuttgart has turned into them.”  Ehrhart understood this; Odalb wanted his bows pointed into or ahead of the attackers.


“... passing 320 ...”


Which was what Ehrhart was also trying to do.  He tried to will the Brits to hold their fire for a few more seconds.  At least until he got his ship and half-flotilla around in something like the right counterattack position.  Just another ten seconds.


“Sir, the enemy has opened fire!”  Of course, Ehrhart grimaced.


Suddenly, the Frauenlob’s turn drafted the rain through the bridge openings and right into his face.  The rain was smoke-contaminated to sting.  Blindly, he tried to wipe his eyes clear enough to see.  He could still hear, though, as the massed batteries of the dreadnought force added to the thunder from above.


“... passing 310 ....”  Close enough.


“Rudder amidships.”


There, he could see again.  As much as anyone could in this mess.  He blinked, and blinked again.  Yes, lots of muzzle flashes.  The British were indeed shooting, just not at him.


“Sir, another cruiser ... flotilla.  Astern of the ... three ... leaders.”


Why would the British attack with one flotilla behind the others?  Were the leaders to absorb enemy fire while the trail ships picked their targets unimpeded?  Skirmishers ahead of the Schwerpunkt?  The British had made quite a study of light ship attacks, so it was certainly possible.  He lived through this, he resolved to write this down in his after-action report.  (NOTE 4)


“Steering course 295.”


The lull from incoming shellfire continued, so Ehrhart took the moment to survey the situation.  Something like 35 or 40 British torpedoboats?!  He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes.  His estimate came not from what he could count but from the number of flotilla leaders.  RN flotillas seemed rarely fewer than eight and were often more than ten.  How in the hell had the British managed to build such a massive and well-organized attack in such terrible weather?  And under fire!  He knew his command couldn’t have done it.


He was further out on the enemy flank than he wanted.  But here he was.  Odalb was going to bear the brunt of the Brit hammer strike.  At least Ehrhart had gotten between them and the flagship.  Or would be in a moment.  The flagship didn’t seem to be quite where he’d expected.


Range?  1200 yards?  His eyes still burned.  He couldn’t tell!  1000?  No time!


“Torpedo ... LOS!”



---- HMS Comus, course 135 (changing), speed 20 knots (turn effects)


Admiral Napier could just make out the muzzle flashes of what must certainly be the HSF Line that he had been ordered to attack.  The enemy was still off his starboard forequarter.  He wanted to get fully bows-on.  It would shorten their pre-launch exposure time and might even let them approach undetected.  He had little hope of the latter, but it was worth the attempt.


“Sir, Inconstant is conforming.”


“… passing 150 …”


“Very well.”  Inconstant headed the flotilla on his port beam, on the outside of his sudden turn south.  The wider arc would leave them on his after quarter until they could make good the lost ground.  Cordelia’s captain had done well to maintain proper spacing, as his command was directly abeam to starboard on the inside arc of the turn.


“Sir, Undaunted reports attempting to return to flag.”


“… passing 160 …”


“Very well.”  Damned inconvenient that the engagement would start with one flotilla absent, prosecuting a contact.  It seemed now, however, that Undaunted’s CO had probably nipped an enemy torpedo attack in the bud.  Nonetheless, that still left him with four flotillas where he might have had five.  Well, he’d have four if Phaeton conformed.


“Lookouts, can you see Phaeton?”


“No, sir.”


Napier hid a frown.  Phaeton had been along Admiral DeRobeck’s northern flank.  Her captain had surely gotten the same wireless.  In any case, the actions of Napier and the lead flotillas would have been quite visible even in this.  The question was how far behind were Phaeton and her flotilla.  If they had not gotten clear before DeRobeck turned north, they might be a full ten minutes sorting things out before they could try to rejoin him.


“Sir, Phaeton, bearing 340, range 2,500 yards and closing.”


“Outstanding!”  Napier could not help himself.  Superb seamanship!  Phaeton had been further west and must have turned inside Napier’s wide arc.  She’d’ve steadied up sooner and might already be at 25 knots.


“… passing 180 …”


Napier looked again at the intermittent muzzle flashes.  Ah, there was a steady light amidst the flashes to home in on.  He glanced down at the compass.


“Captain, steady up on 190.”


And just in time, as the muzzle flashes died off.  The distant fire glow remained a beacon in the stormy night.


“Aye, aye, sir.  Helm, steer 190.”


“Captain, hold fire until fired upon, but only until then.”  Admiral Napier was carefully giving very specific orders.


“Aye, aye, sir.”


How the Admiral thought they could sneak forty ships anywhere close to the Huns, Comus’ CO could not imagine.  Still, visibility was poor, he admitted to himself, and the enemy had been shooting at and been shot up by dreadnoughts, not smaller ships.  Maybe it was worth the attempt.


“Uh!”  One of Großer Kurfürst’s searchlights played across the bridge.  Kronprinz and then Friedrich der Große added theirs.  Konig Albert’s were next, with Ostfriesland’s just seconds later.  The ships astern of Rudburg’s flagship were not far behind, though Helgoland and Rheinland had no more than one or two functioning. 


Comus’ CO wasted no more than three dazzled seconds.  They had not, after all, been fired upon.  Not literally.  On all the German dreadnoughts, the 88 mm gunners followed the searchlights, eager to eliminate the technicality.  And the British, too.


“Open fire!”  The voices of Napier and Comus’ CO were virtually simultaneous.



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


Napier’s “beacon” was what Ick was trying to put out.  Marlborough’s twin hits had opened up Helgoland’s flank like a used Brobdingnagian sardine can.  The rain’s help was minimal for such a deep-rooted conflagration.  At first, they seemed to make little progress, as charges of 150 mm propellant kept sizzling out fresh tongues of blue flame.  He’d already lost two men to them. Thankfully, several crewmen had already been there trying to contain the fire and others had joined Team Dora in their efforts.  More men kept arriving as they recovered from the shock and concussion.  Organized effort accretes men in battle.  He studied each newcomer, but there was no sign of LT Schenken.  (NOTE 5)


Ick realized after a few minutes that the incoming shellfire had stopped, and that Helgoland’s remaining guns had gone silent.  Perhaps the battle was over.  That would be very good.


“Jaxheimer!  Hose team, here!”  Ick had spotted several 150 mm charges in the rubble.  He’d’ve spotted them sooner, but the deck and rubble upon it were steaming.


Crack-crack–craaack.  Ick froze.  The sounds were from ahead, 88 mm by the sound of them.  The ships further up the Line must think they’d spotted something.  He waited for the sound to die off.  It did not.  Instead, the deeper reports of 150 mm added their noise to the growing din.


Boom-oom!  Oh, oh, he thought.  Main guns.  It was sounding more and more serious.  The big turrets did not shoot at shadows.  At least it was the ships up there, and not here.  He looked over Dora’s ongoing damage control efforts.  They were making real progress now.  Fifteen minutes and he could probably report it under control.


Boom!  Helgoland’s two turrets opened fire, and above Ick heard a few 88 mm guns.


Would the damn Brits give him fifteen minutes?


Whack!  Whanng!  Screams followed that last, as one of Comus’ four-inch shells hit sixty feet aft, scything shell splinters through one hose team.


“Verflucht!”  Apparently not.


---- Bremen, course 150, speed 21 knots


Conda was a worried man.


A battle had been fought well to the south but, as far as he could tell in this storm, it may have ended.  The last couple flashes had been lightning to the east, not muzzle flashes to the south or south-southwest.  Not thirty minutes ago, the sea had been full of ships.  Where had they all gone?  Had he strayed too far?


The rain lashed exposed skin and rattled and whip-snapped exposed cloth and lines.  The drumming noise on the top of the bridge was really getting on his nerves.  For all that, visibility remained something like two or three thousand yards, dropping only briefly in the middle of the heaviest rain gusts, because it was not misty here.


Wherever “here” was.  Verflucht!  At this rate, he’d end up before a court martial for desertion in battle!  And having taken three torpdoboats with him.  How could he ever explain this?  Four warships – would they try to hang him four times?  What he needed was to sight a ship.  Any ship!  Though a British warship would be best.


He stepped into shelter and wiped the rain off his face again.


“Sir!  Contact!  Bearing 200, range 2,500 yards.”


Thank Gott!


“Come to course 200.”  He reflexively ordered his bows on to reduce the chance they’d be sighted, practically duplicating Napier’s commands well to the southeast and for the identical reason.  He began to second guess his decision within seconds.  If this were one of those damn flotilla leaders he’d been sparring with, this could be trouble.  The big Brit cruisers had more speed and their flotillas were ten or more each.


He tried to pick out the contact, but failed even though he knew the approximate bearing.  There it was.  What was it?  It seemed small.


“Sir!  Multiple contacts – dreadnoughts.  Sir, they’re bows-on!”


OmeinGott!  They were on near-reciprocal courses!  With a closing speed of something like 40 knots!  Had they been spotted?


“Muzzle flashes!”  Captain Dave had most definitely spotted them.  And the Indefatigable CDR Boy had just sent them four 15-inch announcements of that fact.


“More muzzle flashes.  To the southwest!”


Commodore LeMesurier, almost too late to the party, had just begun to dispatch his own metallic messages.



---- HMS Comus, course 190, speed 21 knots (increasing)


Comus’ guns had fired first, but they were followed within seconds by those of Cordelia then Inconstant.  After that, the torpedoboats joined in.  They were crossing the grain of the waves, so they pitched up and down, doubtless making a hash of accuracy, thought Napier, his dice cast.  Thankfully, the range was not very great and dreadnoughts were big targets.  Any hits they could score would reduce Hun accuracy, and they might even get lucky hits into bridges or casemates.


The British, in contrast, were small targets and would be hard to hit.  This was the enemy main battle fleet on his bows.  The opportunity to restore the proper balance of naval power was his, right now!


Whack!  The German hit was a sharp rebuttal to his internalizations.  Suddenly, he realized the effects of the glare.  It would drop their accuracy terribly even as it improved that of the Huns!


Searchlights, Napier added to himself.  Searchlight hits – please hit their searchlights.  They had almost 2000 yards to go before they could launch their torpedoes and have good chances of scoring hits.  Two, maybe three minutes.


Whack!  Whannng!  Several 150 mm gunners had managed to open fire.  The waves were riven with great splashes.  He hadn’t expected it to be easy, or even bloodless.


UGGH!  Napier and the others were tossed against a bulkhead as Comus’ bow smashed into a great waterspout, and tons of water pounded down on her bows.  His cruiser struggled gamely but uneasily out from under and continued towards the foe.


It didn’t matter if Comus or he didn’t make it, Napier thought, holding his arms against broken ribs.  He had forty cruisers and torpedoboats with him.  Or had, he corrected himself, listening to the reports still being shouted out of the toll the German shellfire was exacting.  History was never made easily and history was less than 1500 yards away!


“Sir, new muzzle flashes!”


Napier realized then what else the searchlights had done.




Author’s NOTEs:


1) Two hits, actually – these were the pair of hits from Marlborough’s midships turret.



2) Of course, as is well known, someone would, starting with Odalb himself.  His sketches and studies would be used by Claus Bergen for the great murals in the Regenschlacht Hall at the Memorial.  See:








3) This was going to be an EE, but I can’t resist.  See:





4) Ehrhart made good on his self-promise,  and reportedly authored at least two separate studies on the matter.  Despite the passage of time, they remain classified as of this writing.



5) There never would be.  LT H. Schenken was officially listed as MIA – Presumed Dead.