The Baron Moves North
An excerpt from, "Baron Letters - Germany's Nelson?" by Lady
Christine Letters of Alsace (the Baron's first great-granddaughter), from Kaiser
Imperial Press, Berlin, copyright 1968.
The baron's decision at 7:06 PM to slow the LOB was never really questioned
by the heads of the German navy. Clearly, it was regarded even then as a necessary
measure to get the Konigs back into the thick of the battle. That it more quickly
exposed the trail divisions to battle damage seems always to have been accepted.
However, the decision to bring the baron's own 1SG onto course 045 would always
have been second guessed, no matter what the outcome. Indeed, it remains just
one of many interesting controversies that day.
The baron was always a believer, some called him a fanatic on the matter, of
what he called "the force multiplier of superior intel."
He always attributed his unprecedented triumph at the Battle of Dogger Bank
on his having better intel than either Vice Admiral's Hipper or Beatty, and
seizing what apparently only he realized to be a unique opportunity. Certainly,
Beatty failed to recognize the chance he had unwittingly provided, though his
biographers have always wondered at such a lapse, and not kindly at that. Whatever
Hipper might have done is conjectural, since shell splinters took his life and
the lives of his Chief of Staff, the Seydlitz CO, and 13 others on the
bridge shortly after 1100 that day.
In fact, there are some indications, always heatedly denied by surviving senior
navy officials after the war, that even that decisive Dogger Bank decision by
Letters had initially been viewed with extreme disfavor. There were even allegations
that, without the personal intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm himself, the baron
would have been quietly relegated to some obscure post in Berlin following rounds
of loud but false praise. This biographer would yield half her estates and several
years of her life to have been in Wilhelmshaven that day of January 24, 1915,
when the city was resonant with bells and steam whistles, when all the burghers
and workingfolk alike opened their doors and kegs and hearts to the baron's
sailors, and especially in that office when Vice Admiral Scheer met with only
Baron Letters and Kaiser Wilhelm for almost two solid hours.
But I digress. The baron made the decision to go to 045 almost upon the moment,
per several who were on the bridge of Derfflinger at the time. He did
not appear to discuss the matter with his Flagcaptain, as had been his wont
earlier that day and at Dogger Bank.
Until that moment, just after 7:00 PM, the baron had had the benefit of almost
continuously better intel than his foes, including Admiral J[ellic]oe. The only
exception had been during his pursuit of the remnants of Admiral Sturdee's BC
force. After 7:00 PM, the baron would soon no longer have had a clear picture
of the enemy's forces or their disposition. At that moment, however, he knew
their losses better probably than Admiral J[ellic]oe did himself, but that would
change in moments.
The last two KGV class BBs had turned away and were mere seconds from disengaging
and disappearing into the night. The baron long had vowed not to let crippled
RN ships get back and force him to face them again. The lead ships in the Orion
division were being hit hard, as well, and the baron must have known that the
trail members of the Konig division would add their own fire to the weight of
metal against them. Recall, also, that the Orion division was already down to
three ships, with the sudden loss of HMS Conqueror (see Chapter 3 - "Golden
Twinkees"). So, the second division of the RN LOB was already hurt and
likely to suffer further.
Thus, the baron likely thought the risks to his BCs had been greatly reduced
in any exchange he might have with the crippled ships he would likely face while,
without action on his part, they might well escape in the low visibility. Also,
the Orions, heavily engaged with HSF BBs might even be unable to reply, as had
been the case with the KGV herself just a few minutes earlier. Like any commander,
the baron was constantly balancing risk versus gain. Here, he must have decided
that he had only the chance to finish off two or more crippled BBs, and perhaps
swiftly return to the HSF LOB. If events went favorably, he might even have
the opportunity to add his firepower to the action at the head of the Orion
division. With a light ship screen in his own van, he likely expected sufficient
warning of RN light ship attacks and time to return south. I am convinced that
it was not the clumsy and impulsive axe blow that some have attributed to my
great-grandfather but, rather, a rapier thrust that would quickly allow the
return to the en garde position behind the massed batteries of the HSF LOB.
The greater number of RN light ships was always a concern to my great-grandfather,
going all the way back to Dogger Bank when the forces of Commodore Goodenough
had harried his damaged 1SG halfway up the Bight, desisting only upon the arrival
of fresh German forces. He would have been reluctant to hazard the HSF LOB in
any advance into light ship threats, but the faster and more nimble 1SG was
at far lesser risk.
So, was the 1SG turn an impulsive act? Did Baron Letters ever expect his turn
to be a master stroke or a decisive action? To both questions, this biographer
---- 7:05 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 090, speed 18 knots
The bridge had seemed to grow quiet after the brief brisk fusillade from Seydlitz
and Moltke had ended and the lull had an odd feeling of imminence. The
heart of the LOB duel was clearly moving back along the lengths of the fleets.
Back there were the ships with the lesser combat power. Back there also were
the feisty but fairly fragile pre-dreadnought battleships of that fire-eating
Rear Admiral Hanzik. Their heavy secondaries would be invaluable after dark.
It was not yet, however, dark enough.
It was clear that the lead ships were having difficulty making out their targets.
His critical appraisal of Konig convinced him that the big BB was still
combat ready, especially after this brief respite.
The greater RN fleet speed was a matter of concern. If the HSF disengaged,
the GF would get opportunities to renew the fighting. If the GF disengaged,
however, it would be only 1SG that could catch them.
---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Blucher, course 090 speed 18 knots
"Sir, flags on Derfflinger!"
Commodore von Hoban had been staring into the darkening horizon ahead and to
port, where he could "feel" a mass of RN light lurked in the van,
just as his own did. He had two CL's and their half-flotillas 3000 yards ahead,
with their torpedo boats in an arc.
Now, however, he turned to look back at what had essentially become the HSF
flagship. The big battlecruiser was 2000 yards astern, and a few hundred yards
south. Even in the degraded visibility, that meant that the flags were easily
close enough to be read. And there were a lot of them!
"Sir, for us, form screen, close aboard."
Okay, tighten up a little, thought von Hoban, but what was the rest of all
"Sir, for 1SG, alter course to 045, speed 20 knots."
There were small noises in the bridge.
"Sir, for 1SG light ships, maintain station close aboard, starboard."
"Sir, main body slow to 15 knots."
"Signals!" Commodore von Hoban shouted, thinking fast, "Stettin,
join Blucher!" She was the next CL (and half-flotilla) back. He
wished he dared take still another, but he was leaving the rest thin as it was.
He had six CLs and half-flotillas and decided that, if he really was going to
go barging into the main body of the Grand Fleet as the baron seemed hell bent
to do, then he wanted at least half of his force with him. After all, the wasps
get thickest at the nest.
---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Seydlitz, course 090, speed 18 knots
The Derfflinger flag hoists were just 500 yards away from Captain Nik's
binocular lenses. Despite that, he still had difficulty believing what he was
"Lt Lionel, check that the hatch is shut between turret #4 and turret
If they were going BB hunting, it was worth checking again.
---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Von der Tann, course 090, speed 18 knots
Captain Dirk also was studying the flags on Derfflinger. He could hear
the cables from his own yards as his ratings raised duplicates of those for
his ship, acknowledging the orders.
Commander Bavaria, his XO, cleared his throat, obviously wishing for a dark
lager that obviously could not be consumed on the bridge, let alone in battle.
"Well, captain, you did say you wanted something to shoot at."
"Jawohl, das ist richtig, but steaming into the main body of the
Grand Fleet was NOT what I had in mind!"
--- 706 pm, bridge of Regensburg, course 090, speed 18 knots
Captain Wolferein had long ago concluded that he was too old for this.
He turned to the OOD and said, "Well, here we go again."
The other only nodded as they both listened to the shouts to get up the flags
to acknowledge the orders, and also reports confirming Elbing and all
the torpedo boats were getting the word.
As they waited, Wolferein realized he'd been running his right thumb absently
over a shell splinter embedded in the bridge rail.
---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 090, speed 18 knots
The bridge, if possible, had gotten even quieter after the baron passed the
orders to be put up on the hoists. The screeching of the cables in the hoist
tackle had been heard plainly, sending shivers down the spines of many amidst
the mists eddying in from the wingbridge.
"Signals," called Baron Letters: 'Wilhelmshaven, have engaged Grand
Fleet main body. British losses - three BB's, at least one badly damaged. HSF
losses - none, repeat, none. Konig and Markgraf moderately damaged.
Am closing with the enemy. Letters.' "
"Aye, aye, sir."
"And Signals, confirm receipt."
"Captain Theodor, have ships acknowledged?"