(Another Excerpt from "Baron Letters --- Germany's Nelson?")
Historians love to parse cultures, events, and movements into smaller elements; Die Kaiserschlacht certainly has been no exception. Generally, the battle has been split into "phases" with the first being the actions between the batlecruisers. In this approach, the next phases most often cited are: screen vs. screen, LOB vs. LOB, RN disengagement, and initial pursuit. Actually, this author would argue that the true first phase of Die Kaiserschlacht probably took place four months earlier. The baron never seemed to consider that day of battle to be one of phases but, rather, as an experience that flowed like a torrent of events, cascading violently as each minute impacted on the one below it in the time stream.
If one is determined to break up Die Kaiserschlacht into phases, then what
does one do with the events of 7:36 - 7:41 PM? Though some might extend the
interval another dozen minutes (some of the ships lost took that long to sink),
those six minutes have never been afforded the status of a separate "phase,"
despite being potentially critical to the battle. The difference is not what
did happen, but what did NOT. It is beyond the scope of this work to deal in
depth with the events of those few minutes at the van of the HSF. The serious
reader would do well to study "Lanzenspitze" (Kaiser Imperial Press) and "The
Thrice 600" (Faraday, Ltd.). Those works have stood the test of time and remain
the definitive treatments of that action.
7:36 pm, bridge of Stettin, course 345, speed 18 knots
"All ahead flank!" Captain Lantz ordered.
The closest RN light ships were just 4,000 yards away and ~30+ knots almost coming down his throat. The crescendo of guns from his somehow augmented command, he was unsure where the two extra torpedo boats had come from, and that of nearby Frauenlob were encouraging to his ears. In fact, the skirmish line of two CLs and a dozen DDs almost 3,000 yards ahead of the main body was doubtless a rude surprise to the charging RN light, the thrice 600. For a mad minute, it seemed a fierce firefight between near-equals.
Actually, the RN formation had been a bit ragged, as they emerged from the smoke, with first five then eight then the rest of the dozen-plus destroyers coming clear of the smokescreen. Two of the first destroyers showed a bit of flame in their topsides from their previous attack, but Lantz' attention and Stettin's guns were focused on her opposite number, the RN CL.
Lantz thought he glimpsed the sparkle of gold braid on that other bridge, perhaps
as an energetic gesture caught a freak thread of late light. Whoever that stalwart
officer was, he'd pulled off a marvel to get so many to follow so tightly, so
promptly, so boldly. Imagine! The flotilla had mounted one attack, taken losses,
disengaged, pulled some sort of wild 180 on the other side of their own smoke,
and slashed right back through it!
Nelson'd be proud, Lantz thought, and the maneuver deserved better results than it seemed likely to achieve. His own commodore had gotten an equal force almost completely deployed to greet it point blank, with his AC's firepower in enfilade, and with tons of steel under a minute flight time away.
Light-on-light, perhaps the HSF could not match RN elan, Lantz realized. Certainly, he doubted his force could pull off the naval caracoles that the RN light commander had just obviously managed on the other side of the smokescreen! We're more stolid, locked into our formations, but the result here is that, from even the first moments, we have the advantages of formation and firepower.
"Right 10 degrees rudder!" Captain Lantz shouted over the din. He wanted more guns to bear, and he'd cleared Frauenlob, who was coming up on his starboard beam with her torpedo boats on an easterly arc. Frauenlob was the closest ship, and was a bit over 700 yards to starboard on 000. Lantz did not want to get west enough to be in the LOS of what was about to open fire starting some 4,000 yards behind him. Not quite side-by-side, the German CLs went to meet the dashing British.
"Steady on 000."
"Sir, lookouts report new contact bearing 345, range 4,500 yards. Contact is heavily on fire and appears dead in the water."
Lantz could not spare this new report any attention, though he recognized that this placed the newest mystery ship just around the east edge of the smokescreen.
Whang! The hit was somewhere aft of the superstructure.
The light formations rushed towards each other, though not on reciprocal courses, at over 40 knots.
When would the British break off? Lantz wondered.
WOULD they break off? He wondered, a moment later.
7:36 pm, bridge of Blucher, course 285, speed 17 knots
Commodore von Hoban waited for the fall of shot of his 8.2" shells, already in flight. The lighter bark of 5.9" guns joined in. He found himself breathing heavily, as though he'd been bailing out some of the forward compartments himself. The closest Brits had been about 5,500 yards away as they appeared out of their smokescreen. The range was dropping fast.
He heard the drawn out rumbling roar of massed rifles astern through his panting breaths. The first 8 or so main body BBs all opened fire within a 30 second period.
Blucher's 8.2" shells landed well before the first of the 12" shells arrived.
All of Blucher's first salvo missed, but von Hoban heard the shouted corrections
and the second salvo went out almost immediately.
7:36 pm, bridge of Seydlitz, course 000, speed 25 knots
Captain Nik watched fire burst out amidships aft on his target. The dreadnought was already listing heavily, and he could not make out what class it was. Whatever her class, though, she was not firing back. He kept his glasses trained on the target, about 7,000 yards away. The range was dropping as 1SG began to pull up even on a parallel course.
Actually, two shells had hit in that half-salvo. The second had pounded into the superstructure, but had failed to explode.
The few 5.9" guns that could fire were sending shells at the burning ACs, but
with no visible effect.
7:36 pm, bridge of Moltke, course 000, speed 25 knots
"Shift fire!" Captain Mustang shouted. "Guns, target enemy dreadnought bearing 310!"
The unfortunate RN AC they'd been pounding was clearly wrecked. Her guns were silent, and she had lost propulsion. Her burning hull had begun to drift, her sharp list growing.
He wondered, momentarily, just what class their new target was.
7:36 pm, bridge of von der Tann, course 000, speed 25 knots
Captain Dirk watched as another half-salvo landed around the shambles of what had been Shannon. A secondary explosion jetted flames, but whether from a hit or fire-caused was unclear.
"She's done for, captain," opined Commander Bavaria, around the cigar clenched tightly in his teeth.
"Concur," said Captain Dirk evenly, though startled by the voice at his elbow. He looked at his XO as though wondering where the patrician officer had been for the last several minutes. Had he gone for a lager in mid-battle? Dirk felt a sudden thirst, but not for a beer. Had Bavaria really been there all along?
"Concur," Dirk repeated, and tugged down snug his uniform jacket. He looked away from the savaged RN AC, licked his lips, and glanced skyward. Night was nearing and not visible was even one star as they trekked up the GF flank. He'd pick hard cider, he realized suddenly, over beer just then.
"Shift fire!" Captain Dirk ordered, with no noticeable pause. "New target, dreadnought, bearing 315!"
"XO," Dirk asked, as the turrets began to swivel, "can you make out what ship that is?"
"No, sir," replied Bavaria, glasses tight to his face, frustration clear in his voice. "I cannot even make out what class she is."
"It's not ours, though," the XO added, his grim grin threatening to bisect his fine Havana.
"Just so (ach, ja)."
Splashes around the ship marked her as already targeted by Seydlitz. The fire flower amidships showed her more clearly, but her class and identity were still mysteries. Dead ahead Moltke got off her first shots, likely at the same ship.
"Sir! New contact! Dreadnought, bearing 285, range 6,000!"
The RN BB had just come into view as von der Tann cleared the smoke from the screen and the incandescent ACs.
"Guns," shouted Captain Dirk, "belay my last! New target, dreadnought, bearing 285!"
Their new target was already on fire. Flames in two places were visible at the bases of two tall plumes of smoke, like towers.
Their awe at the damage was interrupted as the shattered BB gamely opened fire.
7:36 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 000, speed 25 knots
"Admiral, another dreadnought, bearing 315, range 9,000 yards!"
The latest RN BB had been spotted partly because the lookouts had been looking ahead of the ship that Derfflinger was engaging, fully expecting a BB on the same course and dead on the bow of their target. Mostly, though, they had spotted her because she had opened fire. On Derfflinger.
Even as the report echoed on the bridge, four waterspouts loomed out of the sea 1000 yards short and well off line south.
Vice-Admiral Letters seemed to ignore the main caliber affairs being conducted to port, studying instead the destroyers almost on Derfflinger's bow, about 6,500 yards away. He watched as their silhouettes began to shorten.
A new set of three splashes, well long but almost on line, appeared to starboard.
"Baron," Flagcaptain Theodor reported, "new destroyer flotilla, bearing 325, range 8,000 yards, approaching at high speed."
With a closing speed somewhat above 50 knots, this was a fair assessment, thought Letters as he looked over this new Grand Fleet Hydra head. He gritted his teeth. This was going to be close, again.
Von Hase sent another four 12/50s towards the enemies of his Kaiser.
7:37 pm, bridge of Stettin, course 000, speed 19 knots (increasing)
"Mein Gott!" There were several such utterances on the bridge, as the sea virtually ceased to be a plane around the northern-most RN light.
The math was easy, Lantz realized. If 8 BBs each fired 5 shots per 30 seconds, that was something like 40 major caliber shells. It was not a simple forest of splashes out there, but a jungle. And the jungle began just a couple thousand yards ahead, and reached higher than mastheads. He could almost feel the shouts back in the main body to depress their guns.
"Torpedoes, fire at will!"
The RN light had few torpedoes left, and intended to save them for the HSF main body. Lantz had no such reservations. He might've missed the "whoosh"-splash if he'd not been listening for it.
Part of him wanted to duck.
"We may not match their elan," muttered Lantz, "but we know our duty!"
"Flags, hoist ram!" Lantz bellowed across the bridge.
"Aye, aye, sir!"
"They shall not pass!"
7:37 pm, bridge of Blucher, course 285, speed 17 knots
It'd taken three or four salvos to score an 8.2" hit, despite the low (5,000-minus yard) range and the absence of counter-battery. As soon as the first tall major caliber shell splashes began to thrust out of the waves around them, the RN light had started zig-zagging wildly. The waterline of the stricken destroyer's fore quarter was badly holed just ahead of the first gun mount. The detonation had punched a smaller hole out the other side and rent the thin bulkheads fore and aft of the hit. At over 30 knots, the water thrust into the hull like a sword, no, a battering ram that crushed all in its path.
Even as von Hoban watched the RN destroyer seem to lurch to a halt, 5.9" shells
straddled the target.
7:37 pm, bridge of Queen Elizabeth, course 000, speed 15 knots (slowing)
"Sir, lookouts report Superb and Dreadnought have opened fire."
"What the devil?" Captain Dave responded.
"Looks like they're firing on targets to the east," Commander Boy stated, glasses raised.
Commander Gates was also on the bridge, in response to the relayed sightings of damaged RN BBs. That is, Dave had called Gates to the bridge to get his opinions on the status and expected battle-worthiness of the visibly damaged ships in the other divisions.
"Sir," reported a young lieutenant, "we've copied some signals to the flagship. Um, sir, you probably want to know this ...."
"Well," prompted Dave, "go on, man."
The litany of destruction was almost numbing, but the last report from Hawksley was the biggest shock.
"Guns," said Captain Dave after a moment, "your may get more work yet this day."
"Yes, sir!" Commander Boy replied. "Fine by me and m'lads! Been starting to
feel a bit blue, I have, thinking the battle bein' done and all."
7:37 pm, bridge of Agincourt, course 000, speed 16 knots (slowing)
"The German main body is pursuing?!" Captain Hawke almost sputtered in astonishment.
"Yes, sir, on course 000, east of Iron Duke's division."
"Show me on the plot."
Hawke took a step after the other, then paused and scanned the sea nearby.
"You're running up on her," he rebuked the officer of the deck. "Maintain station."
"Aye, aye, sir," replied the OOD.
The Agincourt CO continued over to the chart table. Pursuing? The Grand Fleet?!
Well, he had 14 answers to THAT notion, and he hoped to deliver them soon, and
7:38 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 000, speed 25 knots
"Execute!" Baron Letters ordered, just as four more 12/50s went out.
"Right full rudder," shouted Captain Theodor.
The deck canted hard as the helmsman went at it with vigor.
"Sir, my rudder is right full."
"Very well, come to course 090."
The baron swiveled his head this way and that, as he checked that 1SG and the
light were making the turn. Pilau and her group had their rudders over before
the pulleys in the flagship's flag hoist had stopped squealing. After perhaps
a small hesitation, Regensburg pivoted, as well. Last to turn was von der Tann.
7:38 pm, bridge of von der Tann, course 000, speed 25 knots
Captain Dirk saw two columns short and one long of their battered target. Three half salvos to get a straddle. At this range, not very good shooting, but the RN BB was going slower than expected. Any salvo, now. The return fire seemed poorly aimed.
"Sir," 'execute.' The others are turning!"
"Right full rudder!"
The big Brit had been lucky. Captain Dirk and Commander Bavaria shook their heads almost in formation. Another salvo or two and they could've finished her off. Dirk watched the burning BB begin to dwindle astern. Von der Tann's aft turret was pivoting, in hopes of getting off a few more rounds, but the odds would be poor indeed.
7:38 pm, bridge of Stettin, course 000, speed 21 (increasing)
"Helm," shouted Lantz, as he pointed at one RN destroyer churning ahead of the others, just off their port bow.
Steel sleet whimpered by, felling crewmen on the port side of the bridge.
"That one, bearing 330. That's yours!"
"Jawohl, Herr Kapitan!"
He spared a glance for the RN CL, already left behind by the charge of her flotilla. Her bridge was smashed in. There was no trace of the gold braid, though several of her guns were still blazing. Behind him, the heavy-set helmsman said nothing more, but looped rope around himself and the wheelpost.
7:39 pm, bridge of Blucher, course 285, speed 17 knots
"Shift target, shift target!"
The stern of the destroyer they'd hit earlier was already lifting out of the water. A secondary explosion, possibly a steam explosion from the North Sea reaching a boiler had torn open the ship below the bridge. Their second target had just disappeared in a mass of water thrown skyward by an anonymous salvo(s) from the main body. Only broken halves remained after the waters had finished crashing down. The host of water columns rearing out of the tortured sea made target acquisition tough.
The 5.9" guns opened fire first, then the 8.2" cannons resumed their work.
The light forces were just 1000 yards apart and neither showed any indication of breaking off. It looked much like a 1915 naval joust, only each steel horse had 100 knights aboard.
"Mein Gott! Mein Gott!" Those on the bridge made no attempt to muffle their voices.
A different tall water column lurched up alongside of one RN light, then another, as two of 30+ German fish found targets.
The lines met.
"Mein Gott!" Commodore von Hoban muttered.
7:40 pm, bridge of Stettin, course (changing), speed 22 knots (increasing)
Captain Lantz was pitched hard onto the deck and across the starboard side of the bridge.
The muscular helmsman had the wheel spokes blurring as the CL strove to meet the faster, nimbler RN destroyer, herself putting her rudder hard over in a bid to get past to launch at the HSF main body. Both ships showed gaping, smoking wounds as they appeared to proudly pirouette together, their smoke and funnel plumes swirling like gossamer veils and feathery trains.
The torpedo boat destroyer leapt past, almost.
Lantz, already on the deck was cast violently up onto the forward bridge bulkhead. The helmsman was crushed against the ship's wheel he had obediently wielded as well as any would their own weapons this day. Blood trickled from his open mouth.
Stettin carried on, slowing, her bow crumpled like foil, her engineering spaces a nightmare of broken lines, tanks, and men, her guns gone silent as their crewmen remained where they'd been thrown. The German helmsman had aimed the CL's bow for the other's mainmast, but hard right rudder had almost won the smaller ship past. Only the last violent port spin of the wheel by Lantz' own helmsman, now sagging lifeless in his hastily looped ropes, had defeated the other.
The destroyer had taken Stettin's bow just 30 feet ahead of the sternpost.
Her stern - rudders, propellers, and all - was gone. Her men, too, were scattered,
many landing amidst the waves. She had been pounded partly over onto her starboard
side, her hull twisted, her stern opened to the sea.
7:41 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 090, speed 25 knots
The sudden turn appeared to have caught the two RN flotillas by surprise. From an almost classic port bow position, the range about to drop like an anchor, in an instant they found themselves in a stern chase of a foe barely a handful of knots slower.
"Range to the flotillas is 5,000 - 6,000 yards."
They were welcome to try their luck from there, the baron thought. He studied the enemy light, ready to turn 1SG evasively, if indicated.
Derffinger, Seydlitz, and Moltke began to send some discouraging steel notes to their pursuers.
Von der Tann, joined the fusillade, after a few parting rounds at her former
superdreadnought target dropping out of sight astern. Her target fired back.
Neither scored any hits.
7:41 pm, bridge of Blucher, course 285, speed 17 knots
"Mein Gott," Commodore von Hoban said again.
The British light were gone. Sunk to the last ship.
It only remained to tally the cost. To continue to do what duty required.
The HSF screen CO sighed.
"Ahead 1/3, come to course 000."
"Flags, Frauenlob, take van."
"Aye, aye, sir."
7:41 pm, bridge of Konig, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Sir, lookouts report new contact, bearing 325, range 6,000 yards."
The captain looked away from the remains of the bitter battle and tried to see the reported ship. Yes, he thought, something was showing around the eastern edge of what was left of the smokescreen.
"Sir, contact is a capital ship, superdreadnought class, on fire, but underway."
7:41 pm, bridge of Grosser Kurfurst, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Sir, new contact, bearing 330."
Captain Schnell raised his glasses.