---- 8:39 PM, bridges of Pommern, Schlesien, Schleswig-Holstein, and Deutschland
"Sir, Hannover has opened fire!"
Within seconds all thirty-five 17 cm secondary guns mounted on the port sides of the Fighting Fraus had begun to send their five rounds per minute per barrel at the RN TBs broadside to, just 6,000 yards away. The gunners had been as frustrated as Admiral Hanzik and they went at it with enthusiasm. Their rate would drop to closer to 4 rounds per minute shortly but, for the first couple minutes, they met the theoretical rate of fire.
Amidst the deluge of secondaries, the ten 11" turrets tried their luck. Those gunners in the big turrets could not see very well, but there were a lot of targets out there. They, too, welcomed anything to fire at after the long day.
---- 8:39 PM, bridge of Ostfriesland, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Signals Officer," Admiral Rudburg began, "to Grosser Kurfurst: 'Course 270, Imme ...' "
"Admiral, 2nd Battle Squadron has opened fire!"
What? 2nd Battle Squadron? What was going on back there?!
Rudburg strode to the port wingbridge area and tried to make sense of the salvos that were spewing out of the 2nd Battle Squadron. A veritable forest of splashes were being thrown up about 6,000 or 7,000 yards to the west of Admiral Hanzik's force. The smaller ones were joined by several large spouts, presumably from the 11" guns of the pre-dreadnoughts. There! A flash of a hit on something. But on what? Another!
"Admiral, was that 'Immediate'?"
"Belay that message," he ordered.
"Hold that signal!"
"Hold the signal, aye, aye, sir."
---- 8:39 PM, bridge of Southampton, course 315, speed 25 knots
"O my God!" Commodore Nott said.
He had turned his head just after Hannover opened fire. Then, right before his eyes, an entire formation of big ships had suddenly appeared behind a line of muzzle flashes. All eyes had been to the NE. The German Line was up to the NE; he was sure of it. Who WERE those guys!
He watched in horror at the events unfolding to the east. The closest TB force to Nott (and furthest west, away from the German Line) was 1st Flotilla, and they held steady on their course NNE for the moment.
The amalgamation formation of 9th, 10th and 13th (Combined) Flotillas bore the brunt of the ambush fire. Flashes of hits began to appear amidst the many splashes, and the formation shattered like glass. Initially, ships swerved, probably in reflex, to avoid the towering shafts of water from the 11" shells or simply to make themselves more difficult targets. Then other ships had to swerve to avoid other swerving ships. Still others then had to swerve. In seconds, the formation essentially came apart and became just a lot of ships at high speed awfully near each other in the near-dark, with a lot of rudder motion, and under fire, a lot of fire.
---- 8:39 PM, bridge of Stuttgart, course 315, speed 22 knots (increasing)
"Mein Gott!" Captain Odalb exclaimed. The Britishers were attacking the Line from the west!
"Hoist 'Attack' and come to course 340."
Odalb already had the max flank bell ordered, such as it was.
"Aye, aye, sir!"
There were a lot of Britishers. Where had they come from? They were too far away. He'd never be able to catch them. Even his far faster TBs would likely be too late though, in any event, his five would be a puny force to meet the mass of RN light that were clearly attacking the Line.
The snapping of his signal flags as they were hoisted into the wind stream startled him, so rapt was he on the events ahead.
---- 8:40 PM, bridge of Frauenlob, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Sir, contacts are 4 CLs, bearing 050, range 5,000 yards."
Well, that settled THAT, thought Ehrhart. There was no such formation in the German OOB today.
"Signals Officer," said Ehrhart, "signal the flagship, you know what to say, just be sure to include that we're attacking. Confirm receipt. And make sure Blu ..., er, I mean Rostock gets it."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"Hoist 'Attack' and 090." Ehrhart tried to judge the angle on the bow of the dim shapes, but could not. Even the white water that had betrayed the Britishers had ebbed after they completed their turn. The CLs were on some sort of southerly heading, though, and that would have to suffice for the moment.
"All Ahead Flank."
"Helm, 2 degrees right rudder. Bring us around gently, course 090."
"Gunnery Officer, hold your fire, await my order. We must get closer than this.
If we're fired upon, you may return fire, of course."
He nodded with approval as the TBs turned short and began to shake out into an attack formation ahead of him. Stay on course, he willed at the Brits, just for 5 more minutes.
---- 8:40 PM, bridge of Kaiser, course 000, speed 17 knots
"Admiral, 2nd Battle Squadron's targets appear to be enemy light off their port beam."
They had closed up to just over 1,000 yards astern of Deutschland, which was now the trail pre-dreadnought in Hanzik's 2nd Battle Squadron.
As they watched, flashes of hits and the glows of small fires began to appear among the enemy ships as the volume of fire produced victims as much by chance as aim.
Good enough, thought Admiral Necki.
"Captain, you may open fire at any targets of opportunity."
Even if we don't hit anything, Necki thought, we can try to discourage them a bit.
---- 8:40 PM, bridge of Hannover, course 000, speed 16 knots
An RN TB essentially disappeared in a tall splash, to reappear broken in half.
Admiral Hanzik stared at the spectacle with no little satisfaction. He needed more hits, though. He had seen several RN TBs absorb 17 cm hits without any visible effect. Nor was this shooting gallery likely to continue. Meanwhile, there were a couple dozen-plus torpedo craft right on his port beam.
"Signals Officer, hoist '090 Immediate.' Leave it up."
It would be leaving the Line, but this was an in extremis situation.
"Aye, aye, sir."
---- 8:41 PM, bridge of Rostock, course 340, speed 20 knots
Commodore von Hoban had been looking just south of west when Hanzik's Hell broke loose to the SSW. If he hesitated, Captain Westfeldt didn't detect it.
"Captain, attack," von Hoban said simply, pointing at the enemy.
"Jawohl, Herr Kommodore! Left full rudder, Ahead Flank! Signals Officer, hoist 'Attack' and make our reports."
The deck heeled hard as the helmsman spun the wheel.
"Come to course 210."
He checked astern. Yes, his TBs were making the turn smartly. The first TB already showed a larger puff of smoke as they began to accelerate. He glanced at von Hoban. The senior officer was standing completely silent, without expression. Inside, though, von Hoban was bitterly regretting, once again, that the deck beneath his feet was not Blucher's.
---- 8:42 PM, bridge of Southampton, course 315, speed 25 knots
What would they do? 1st Flotilla had veered a bit to the north, but was mostly still on course. At the very least, 1st Flotilla had to get past the chaos of the other ships on their starboard side before mounting any attack.
There! Some hardy Tar had gotten a gun into play. There, another! Though Nott realized that 4" guns fired from frantically swerving TBs would not be much good against whatever ships were pounding them from perhaps 6,000 yards distant.
The flash of an explosion marked another British tragedy, either a lucky main gun hit or, more likely, a collision of two TBs. Then, mercifully, he could see no more, as Southampton passed into the smoke left behind by Admiral Napier's 3rd Light Cruiser, who had himself lost any line of sight to the east several minutes earlier. Their combined smokescreen, Nott hoped, would give the flotillas some withdrawal cover.
"Signals Officer!" He had to report to Iron Duke.
---- 8:42 PM, bridge of Ostfriesland, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Admiral, lookouts report that the targets are enemy light ships, bearing 230, range, I can't tell, sir. Maybe 8,000 yards."
"Admiral, two maybe three flotillas."
Admiral Rudburg put aside, for the moment, all thoughts of pursuing the GF main body. He had to ride out this RN light ship attack first. How had the British recognized their weakest squadron in this miserable visibility? How had they managed to end run the HSF main body from astern, remain organized as a multi-flotilla force, and strike in a cohesive body? It was positively uncanny! He marveled at the charisma or leadership that had just been demonstrated. Who WAS that commander?
How long had the RN light been stalking them? It was only just minutes ago that 2nd Battle Squadron had had to slow, allowing a bit of separation to occur between them and Rudburg's dreadnoughts. Had the RN been lurking all this time, waiting to pounce, out of German sight until this opportunity was provided? Were there other light forces out there? Certainly several flotillas still seemed unaccounted for.
The Signals Officer shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Rudburg fired a glance at him, freezing him on his left foot. The admiral raised his binoculars to his face to try to work out what was happening on his port beam.
---- 8:43 PM, bridge of Hannover, course 000, speed 16 knots
Several white beams poked into the RN formations like curious, insistent fingers.
"Admiral! Nassau has turned on her searchlights!"
"Ach, ja!" Hanzik welcomed the news with fervor. The lights would have been at optimum effect if the range were a couple thousand yards lower and visibility about 1,000 yards shorter. Nonetheless, they helped accuracy while blinding some of the enemy. The cost, of course, was that Nassau was now at heightened risk.
More large fountains began to appear in the midst of the enemy as Rheinland and Posen opened fire from ahead. Kaiser's contributions also showed up in the form of menacing towers of foaming water.
---- 8:44 PM, bridge of Calliope, course 150, speed 25 knots
"Sir, contacts off the starboard bow!"
Commodore Le Mesurier pivoted hastily to look over the reported ships. He had been trying to make sense of the new flashes in the far distance almost dead ahead.
Damn! They were close!
"Sir, they're German!"
"Left full rudder! Open fire!"
"'Establish screen south.' Like bloody hell!" Le Mesurier thought angrily. This answered his earlier self-question. No longer was there any doubt what the forces were to his south. He had blundered right into the HSF main body and THEIR screen! He tried to keep his balance as, at 25 knots, the CL heeled hard away from their foes. What ships were these that were challenging him? Obviously he'd been seen, but were they pursuing?
---- 8:44 PM, bridge of Frauenlob (~5,500 yards NNE of GrK), course 090, speed 20+ knots
Damn! They're turning away! The aspect of the lead RN CL about 3,500 yards to his NE abruptly changed as the Brit threw his rudder over hard.
The barks from their 4.1" guns were almost immediate. Splashes began to appear near the lead RN CL.
Captain Ehrhart watched his 9 TBs, the nearest already 700 yards ahead of him, begin their run in on the Britishers.
The trail Brit quickly returned fire. A few splashes appeared in front of his ship, then stopped as the others swung into a hard turn. The Brits would bleed off lot of speed with that turn, he realized. His patchwork TB flotilla was already up over 25 knots. They might yet make the Brits regret this encounter.
"Keep firing!" Ehrhart exhorted. He needed to keep the RN gunners off his TBs.
"Gunnery Officer! Unmasking starboard side batteries!"
"Helm! Left 10 degrees rudder. Come to course 030!"
---- 8:44 PM, bridge of Rostock (abeam Kaiserin), course 210, speed 23 knots (increasing)
Captain Westfeldt realized he had never done anything quite last this before. That is, he had never run down the Line on a reciprocal course, let alone like this! The big ships were flashing past at a combined speed of over 40 knots! The Line had become an impossibly massive freight train thundering down his port side.
His five TBs had started south of Rostock and had swung wide to echelon out away from the Line. With their tighter turn radius and faster acceleration, however, they'd be back tacked onto his starboard beam in just a couple minutes.
"Hold your fire!" Westfeldt shouted to his crew.
"Cold steel, hot fish," he remarked to von Hoban, almost casually. Is this bloodlust, Westfeldt wondered.
Von Hoban nodded approvingly, leaving Westfeldt to fight his battle. Blucher's shells would have been exactly twice the diameter of those of Rostock. The commodore wished yet again for his big cruiser, reciprocating engines and all.
---- 8:45 PM, bridge of Stuttgart, course 340, speed 22.5 knots
Captain Odalb glanced quickly at Kaiser, whose beam they were crossing. Unlike Rostock, far ahead, he was on a course essentially parallel to the Line. The difference in speed was low-single digits so the ships ahead in the Line approached with maddening sloth. Even with 2nd Battle Squadron slowed to 16 knots, the overtake speed for Stuttgart was little more than 6 knots.
Odalb looked at the many guns of the big dreadnought and sure hoped they would not make a mistake. Actually, it was not Admiral Necki's ship that worried him; his real concern was 2nd Battle Squadron, just ahead. Heavily engaged already, it would take very little for one of those gunners to see his ships as potential targets.
No sincere "Ach, das ist schade!" would undo a 17 cm shell in his lap!
He had ordered his TBs on ahead and they had passed him moments before. Odalb shrugged off, as best he could, his "friendly fire" worries, raised his binoculars, and tried to find possible targets.
---- 8:46 PM, bridge of Ostfriesland, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Admiral, Nassau has turned on her searchlights!"
That was per doctrine, more or less. For low range engagements at night or in other very low visibility conditions, the lead and trail ships of a division would illuminate targets for the middle pair of ships to engage without reply.
In moments, came the expected reports that the other ships in Nassau's division had opened fire. Oldenburg, trail ship in his own division, joined in the fusillade a few moments later. Rudburg drew the inference that Oldenburg's captain judged the RN light still too far for his own division to use the searchlights.
Given that Rudburg could hardly make out anything else, this was useful information.
"Admiral, Rostock, to port."
Rudburg looked over the speeding light force already past his beam. Her TBs were in echelon west of her as they flew past at a range of about 2,000 yards. He recalled that Commodore von Hoban was aboard Rostock even before he made out his flag whipping in the wind. Whatever was going on back there, von Hoban would be in the thick of it in a minute.
"Admiral! From Frauenlob, engaging four enemy CLs. Sir, their intercept position is still about 6,000 yards to the NNE of Grosser Kurfurst."
More of the damnable RN light force!
"Who has Frauenlob? What force does he have with him?"
"Sir, Captain Ehrhart commands Frauenlob. Last report was that he had 10 TBs in the van."
A full flotilla, then. Gut.
"Very well." This Captain Ehrhart appeared competent, Rudburg considered, not knowing the man. His intercept had been made well in the fore of the main body, though torpedo-capable craft anywhere in his van made him nervous, very nervous. Now, he had RN light attacking from the port and from ahead. His entire starboard flank was naked to the east.
My lord baron, where are you?
---- 8:46 PM, bridge of Hannover, course 000, speed 16 knots
"Admiral, all ships have acknowledged."
Nassau's lights had helped. Many RN light had taken hits. There seemed to be fewer, indicating that some might have broken off.
Admiral Hanzik knew it would not likely be enough.
"Sir, incoming torpedo boats!"
Yes, the RN commander had somehow organized multiple attack groups. How he had done it under these conditions, Hanzik could not begin to imagine. Formidable officer, whoever he was. It looked like half a dozen now had their bows pointed at Hannover. They must have turned a couple of minutes ago. They had already closed almost to 4,000 yards.
He now faced grim choices. The sooner he turned, the harder it would be to hit his ships, initially. However, his ships' fire would be ineffective as long as they were changing course. Few guns could bear astern, complicating the decision more.
"Standby to launch torpedoes to port!"
Hanzik drew an imaginary line in his head a bit more than 3,000 yards away and waited.
---- 8:47 PM, bridge of Frauenlob, course 030, speed 24 knots
The splashes had resumed near them within two minutes of the British completing their turn. Sound gunnery, thought Ehrhart.
His own gunners, however, had gotten their range corrections sooner. Privately, Ehrhart thought they should have managed to hit the British lead ship before she turned but, though there were several near misses, no hits had been observed. Now, just over a full minute after shifting to the closer trail CL, they had gotten their first hit. The range seemed to have steadied for his gunners, though his TBs were still closing.
The trail CL had seemed to hesitate in the turn. As a result, the TBs had a solid shot at her. Ehrhart saw at least two of his TBs launch their torpedoes.
The enemy gunners seemed to be dividing their attentions with half shooting at Frauenlob, with all her muzzle flashes serving to draw their attention, and the other half at the more-dangerous TBs. Ehrhart hoped to punish this error.
"Mein Gott!" The reason for the Brit trail CL's hesitation became clear as one of his TBs disappeared in a tower of water. They, too, had launched torpedoes!
---- 8:47 PM, bridge of Stuttgart, course 340, speed 22.5 knots
"Sir! Enemy torpedo boats! Bearing 290, range 3,000 yards!"
There were four or five of them and they were coming right at him. God in heaven (Gott in Himmel!), why, with a Line of dreadnoughts and battleships to choose from, why would they attack his old light cruiser?! The thunder behind him told him the truth of it. The RN partial flotilla had turned away from the fury of the massed guns of the Line for a fast reciprocal course attack on Kaiser, straggling alone in trail 1,000 yards aft of 2nd Battle Squadron.
"Open fire!" The barks of his guns began before his full command was out.
"Torpedo Officer, launch port side!"
"Standby for torpedo attack, starboard!"
"Gunnery Officer, unmasking starboard batteries!"
"Helm, left 5 degrees rudder. Come to course 260!"
With no little relief, he saw his own TBs turn hard to join the intercept. They opened fire with their own guns as they settled into their runs.
---- 8:47 PM, bridge of Kaiser, course 000, speed 17 knots
"Evade," said Admiral Necki, taking responsibility for breaking from the Line, though technically they might not be considered in the Line right now. Necki regretted the weakened port side secondary battery, but knew the missing 5.9" guns would not have stopped the RN attack.
Stuttgart's brave show also would not stop the attack, he was certain. They were too few and too close.
"Right full rudder!"
"Sir, my rudder is coming right ...."
---- 8:47 PM, bridge of Rostock, course 210, speed 25 knots
"Commodore! Frauenlob reports that they are engaging four CLs in the van."
Von Hoban's imperturbable demeanor cracked somewhat, as he exclaimed something quite vulgar, though undoubtedly appropriate in context.
"Very well," von Hoban forced out after a moment. Ehrhart was going to have to deal with it, as his commodore felt he had his own hands more than full at the moment.
A group of RN TBs, it was impossible to make out how many, had gone past the first group, further to the west and were beginning to run in on the Line. Shell splashes of all sizes were smashing into the sea in the RN formation. It was a hell into which they were mounting their attack. Westfeldt admired them for a moment, then remembered Stettin.
"Bearing 225, range 3,000 yards!"
They were grossly outnumbered, but they were about to take the Brits in the flank!
"Signal Launch!" Captain Westfeldt ordered. Their hell was about to get worse.
"Guns! Hold fire!"
Westfeldt knew that only enemy TBs lay ahead of him but, with a bit of luck, the Brits would hesitate if the German light did nothing obvious. This was going to get very nasty in just a few moments. Tall mountains of water geysered from the dark sea just ahead. The commodore was obviously determined to feed them to this massive meatgrinder. He wished he were in the van, after all.
---- 8:48 PM, bridge of Frauenlob, course 030, speed 24 knots
The trail Brit CL staggered under a tower of water of her own. The stricken CL slowed immediately and perhaps began to settle. Her guns went silent for a minute, then a couple fired back in continued defiance. Gun hits sparkled on the almost-stopped Brit.
"Ach!" One of his other TBs flashed from a hit from one of the other fleeing CLs. The enemy ships were weaving all over the ocean. How they had managed to hit the tiny TB, Ehrhart had no idea.
"Recall!" Ehrhart ordered. The odds of any more success were very slim, they were almost out of torpedoes, and their job was to screen van.
The rest of his TBs were already past the now obviously mortally wounded CL. Her guns had gone silent, possibly from hits, loss of power, or even deck angle. As Frauenlob approached, her stern was already below the surface. He saw men clustered on the somewhat frilly foc'sl. She was "Royalist," he noted; a pretentious name, he opined to himself. He looked back for his own TB that had been hit by a torpedo. There. He spotted her anonymous overturned hull; even in life she had gone only by a letter and a number. He ordered another one of his unpretentious TBs to pick up survivors and rejoin.
"Helm, come to 000, make turns for 15 knots."
"Navigator, plot me a course back to our position."
"Signals Officer, to Ostfriesland and Rostock: 'Enemy driven off to the NE, sunk one CL, lost one TB, returning to van screen.' "
---- 8:48 PM, bridge of Rostock, course 210, speed 25 knots
The nearest British ships had swerved towards him. As he watched, they opened fire. The game was up.
"Fire!" Westfeldt shouted.
They were less than 2,000 yards apart.
"Left full rudder!"
More tall plumes of water jutted from the waves around the Brits. One of the closest enemy TBs was smashed, by either torpedo of large shell, he couldn't tell as his helmsman put the wheel over.
---- 8:48 PM, bridge of Hannover, course 000, speed 16 knots
Time and past time, Admiral Hanzik thought.
"Launch portside torpedoes!" He waited only a few seconds more.
"Hard right rudder!"
His squadron's 17 cm guns had taken a heavy toll, he thought. He held no hopes of hitting anything with his torpedoes, but felt it worth the effort. Now it was time to see what price the RN light would extract in return.
"Sir, my rudder is coming right ...."
---- 8:49 PM, bridge of Stuttgart, course 260, speed 22.5 knots
"Sir! They're breaking off!"
With Kaiser turning away early and with a screen force on intercept, Captain Odalb was relieved, but not surprised.
Doubtless some of the Brits had launched torpedoes at Kaiser, though their chances were very low. Some, though, he realized after a moment reflection, may have been aimed his way, out of frustration or something.
"Come right to course 300."
He would break off his vector and comb the wakes of any torpedoes, however unlikely they might be. No observed hits on either side, he marveled. And after so many shots fired in those minutes. Later he would find shrapnel embedded in the bulkhead just outside his cabin.
---- 8:50 PM, bridge of Deutschland, course (changing) speed 16- knots
"Sir, torpedo hit on Schleswig-Holstein!"
The RN HAD gotten their torpedoes off! He could almost feel the menacing thrum of high speed screws all around him.
He watched the stricken ship, just north of his command. A rising plume of water marked the point of the torpedo hit in her aft port quarter.
Whummmp! The captain felt his own ship shudder.
He looked aft and saw the water just beginning to fall down upon his own aft port quarter.
The ship began to slow.
"Sir, another hit on ...."
The blast knocked him down. He got up and saw that Schleswig-Holstein had apparently exploded in a vast pillar of flame.
"Captain, we've lost the starboard shaft. Revolutions are dropping off. Yes. Sir, the propeller is just trailing free."
The flooding report, moments later, was more bad news but Deutschland would not sink from it. He was stuck at 11 knots, maybe 9. He accepted it. He was alive. He doubted that any who had been aboard Schleswig-Holstein were.
---- 8:50 PM, bridge of Ostfriesland, course 000, speed 18 knots
"Sir, the enemy is withdrawing!"
"Very well," Admiral Rudburg replied, torn between shock and relief.
Rudburg was staring at the dying fireball that had been Schleswig-Holstein. Damn damn damn, he thought.
"Admiral, Nassau has been hit!"
Brave Nassau, thought Rudburg. Her captain's decision to turn on her lights may have saved the HSF from more losses. His was another name that Rudburg did not know. This one, he resolved, he would not forget. At least there were no more vast explosions astern.
"Sir, Nassau is pulling out of the Line."
"Report what was seen of her hit."
"Admiral, the lookout section officer reports that Nassau's torpedo hit was forward of her first turret."
Nassau seemed to be slowing some, but her stacks still showed good coal smoke.
"Admiral, signal from Derfflinger."
Rudburg read the message carefully.
---- 8:55 PM, bridge of Rostock, course 260, speed 25 knots
"Host 'Recall,' ordered Commodore von Hoban. "Break off pursuit."
"Jawohl, Kommodore," replied a shaken Westfeldt.
Somehow, they had survived. How long had it been?
"Ahead Standard, make turns for 15 knots."
It had seemed like hours. Westfeldt looked at the ship's chronometer. It was smashed. When had that happened?
"Commodore! From Ostfriesland!"
He decided it had been two minutes, maybe four. He was not sure how many Brits had been sunk. He was not even sure how many of his own TBs remained. Despite their efforts, their formation had come apart seconds after the gunfight got to pistol distance, then spitting distance.
Westfeld breathed deep the gathering gloom. The air stank of cordite and coal smoke. He did not care, he decided, and took another great breath. He did not feel moody or blue at all.
---- 8:59 PM, bridge of Frauenlob, course 320, speed 18 knots
Captain Ehrhart read the message carefully. Battle turnaway. Speed 15 knots. Course SSE.
"Helm, left standard rudder, come to course 160. Ahead flank."
"Admiral Rudburg has apparently decided to call it a night," Ehrhart commented to his XO. "We have a van to catch."