A Victory's Nightmare
2nd of June 1915, about 3:00 AM, Wilhelmshaven, a small apartment at Rheinstraße 120
Awakening from a nightmare, Reínhard von Mueller stopped his struggling. It was only his sheets. Again. Nonetheless, he remained unaware of his surroundings. Streams of sweat poured down his face, while he tried to get rid of the memory of what had happened. But what had happened?
Taking a deep breath, he managed to clear his thoughts and all came back again. It was the worst thing possible to a commander, he had lost his ship and too many of the brave men he was responsible for. And he had lost a good chance to proof his worth to all these bastards.
In Kaiser's Germany, an officer was the topmost level of human existence, and being a noble made you truly super human in the public eye. But that was only a nice and glamorous facade, as he knew all too well. Just six years ago, he had lacked that precious "von" and was simply Reinhard Mueller, a merely third officer on board of SMS Gneisenau, when his father managed to acquire hereditary nobility. And by what means did he get that claim to aristocracy? A lame story backed by sufficient money, far from the accomplishments of a Werner von Siemens or a Max von Laue! Reinhard von Mueller, the new aristocrat of the Ostasiengeschwader, soon received his nickname King of Tsingtau, that stuck with him still.
Von Mueller got out of the damp bed. Experience had already shown him that he would be unable to get back to sleep for some time. He poured water from the pitcher into the basin and splashed his face.
Six years have passed since that day, von Mueller realized as he toweled his face. The mockery had never really ceased. Sometimes good willed, more often offensive, but ever enough to make von Mueller push the hardest he could to prove his worth. With the beginning of the Great War, von Mueller had been promoted to Kapitän zur See and received command of Seiner Majestät Linienschiff Hessen.
A fine ship she was, he recollected sadly, though obsolete by modern standards. But she had been in good condition, crewed with motivated and devoted men from all over Germany. In command of a powerful warship with a war at hand, it seemed just the opportunity he had so long awaited. Not that all was shiny and enjoyable, especially since his 2nd in command, Fregattenkapitän Wilhelm Krueger, seemed more than willing to cause problems. With the promotion and transfer of Hessen's former commander, Krueger had harbored dreams of getting the command himself. Being in his fifties, he felt he'd get no more chances for a command of his own. Von Mueller decided to ignore that potential problem, as long as the job was well done and Krueger played by the rules.
Von Mueller smiled a bit sadly, when he thought of his first months on board. There had been enough tension between these two men to be felt physically, it was more a kind of siege, waiting for the other one's mistake, that made working together rather unpleasant. A waste of time. But things changed, von Mueller thought with a broad grin when, after an officers' party in November, both men happened to meet in the same pub, the "Friesenstube." Being a commoner's son has its advantages, von Mueller chuckled by this thought, and remembered well, how each of them tried to best the other in an undeclared drinking contest. After some "Lütje Lagen," the nature of this contest had changed; it became a trial of two sailors to drain the innkeeper's resources.
The innkeeper won that trial, and the following headache was memorable, but this night was the beginning of an unexpected friendship.
Von Mueller's thoughts turned from such anecdotes back to more serious business. With the opening salvoes in August 1914, the long time of boredom began. While von Spee fought at Coronell and the Falklands, while British forces came to Heligoland, while the Baron won his first great victory at Doggerbank, the 2nd Battlesquadron, the "Fighting Frauen" waited for a chance that very well might never come. Ever and again the commanders urged Rear Admiral Hanzik to approach the high command to allow for some action, for some opportunity to contribute to the war. While brothers, friends, and many other Germans fought and died in the trenches or in the vast spaces of the east, the crews of Hanzik's squadron sat idle in Wilhelmshaven.
Then on 30th of May messengers came from the Admiral. A commanders meeting was scheduled for 3:00 PM, all ships of the 2nd Squad had to be put into 2 hour readiness. Rumours spread with unsurpassable speed and all ships bustled with activity.
Von Mueller went to the window. The night air was a cool relief as he drew it in. As he stood there, leaning halfway out on the sill trying to catch what breeze there was, his mind went back to that memorable meeting.
At 3:00 PM, six commanders had met at the large Admiral's cabin on board SMS Deutschland to receive further details. Stewards had prepared for a small snack, the scent of fresh coffee filled the air. "Welcome, meine Herren!" Hanzik greeted them, "make yourself comfortable, you may smoke, if you wish."
"As you all know well enough, our beloved 2nd Squadron is the ugly duck of the HSF.... I do not need to remember you, how much time we spent to guard the entrance to the River Elbe and how much more time we spent reading newspaper articles about other men's glorious deeds.
"But now our prayers are answered", he said with a sly grin. "Tomorrow morning at 4 o'clock the whole fleet will sortie and lure as many as possible of those Britishers into a trap. And we will be there to do our part." Hanzik went over to a table, where a large map of the North Sea Region was laid out and explained what he knew of Admiral Scheer's plan. The six captains felt their heartbeat and their adrenaline level rising and had some difficulty in following Hanzik's explanations.
Even now, von Mueller could feel his pulse pick up at just the memory of those words.
Bottom line was, the 2nd Squad should be the trail division of the Main Body to follow the leading squads into hell and back, if the opportunity should arise. Hopefully, an enemy squadron or two or the remaining battle cruisers could be caught at unawares and overwhelmed with superior numbers.
"Well, sirs, you know that our squadron is two ships short, with Preussen on detached duty in the Sund Region and Lothringen in the dockyards, but even with our three quarter squadron I'll expect that we will prove all our critics wrong. Any questions?"
No, there were no questions, only an unprecedented eagerness to get everything ready for the next day, THE day. Only Kapitän Meurer of SMS Deutschland seemed to be a bit disappointed that Hanzik obviously wanted to stay on Hannover instead of boarding the former fleet flagship with a much more appropriate name.
When at 3 o'clock the message came, that the start of the mission would be delayed for two hours, tensions began to rise. A strange illness kept Vizeadmiral Schmidt, Scheer's 2nd in command too occupied to resume his position. Scheer was rather disappointed to hear of his trusted fellow's sickness, as now Vice Admiral Baron Letters, Hero of Doggerbank and the Grand Fleet's bane was his no. 2. Rumors were that there was much envy and little love between these two men.
But such a minor shift in the chain of command wasn't enough to change Scheer's plans, at 4 o'clock the order came to lift anchor and proceed to form the line.
"Sleep well, Wilhelmshaven!" von Mueller had muttered, while he watched the lights of the city falling behind, being soaked by the foggy air.
"Pardon, sir?" Krueger asked.
"Nothing, Mister Krueger, just a kind of farewell to our homeport..."
"I see!", Krueger pointed to the northwest, "Do you see the lights there in Red 50? That is Horumersiel, after that, you may see Schillig, that's where my farewell greetings will go."
"My wife Hildegard and my son Dietrich live there. Before the war she served in the town government's tourist branch, now she volunteered for Red Cross duty. I haven't seen her for months, though they are only a couple of hours away from our anchoring place."
"And your son?"
"Fine and healthy, a ten year old whirlwind. He will miss the rigid hand of his father, I fear, as Hilde is ever a bit to soft towards him." Krueger grinned at this thought and both men watched the coast on port passing by.
To the west of the Amrum Bank a passage had been cleared through the enemy minefields which led the HSF safely to the open sea. The day seemed to become rather uneventful, only two radio messages from German subs were caught, telling from some battleships, some more cruisers and a handful of destroyers that had left Firth of Forth and Scapa Flow. With reported diverging courses, there seemed to be not much action to be expected this afternoon.
It was not until 3:30 that the chain of events began to gain speed, von Mueller remembered. That was when Baron Letters had reported five enemy battlecruisers on his tail, while 1st Scouting retired back towards the Main Body. The next hours passed with the last British BCs sinking somewhere in the north, "Letters is having the whole fun only for himself!" the men had muttered. But the ordinary men didn't know how close to the truth they would come, as long as Scheer was in overall command. The commanders and their admirals knew well enough, what fighting doctrine dictated the fleet's advance. And when around 6:00 PM. the enemy Main Body was reported as approaching to Admiral Scheer, many gold shouldered men expected a hasty retreat order. But then fate dealt its severest blow to Admiral Scheer, he collapsed, pale, sweat stained, alive but unconscious. Letters took over command at about 6:15 and made his ride into history.
And Hessen? Von Mueller went back to the basin and poured himself a glass of water. He had to work through this part if he were to have any chance to get more sleep this night. He walked back over to the window and looked blankly out into the gloom. The gloom. He remembered the gloom quite well.
Actually, it had started off uneventful enough. They steamed patiently after Deutschland as 2nd ship of 2nd Squadron. When the real party, the clash of the battle lines, began at 6:48, she was well beyond visibility for any enemy, and vice versa. The lookouts did their best, but whatever happened to the 3rd Squad, remained invisible, though the roaring thunder of distant guns was heard threateningly loud.
At 7:05 the lookouts made their first important sighting, Helgoland and Oldenburg opened fire. But what were they shooting at, von Mueller wondered. In this decreasing visibility, there was nothing hostile to be seen.
At 7:11 Deutschland opened fire onto some distant muzzle flashes that belonged to St. Vincent. Meurer is right, we do not get paid for carrying ammunition back home, von Mueller thought. "Train guns on those flashes, open fire when ready!"
As if someone had lifted a curtain, more and more dim silhouettes became visible now. The British LOB at last!
"Mister Krueger, what do you make of that ship?", von Mueller pointed onto a dark silhouette.
"Looks the size of some Iron Duke, but... four turrets?"
"That must be their new monster...!" That is a more important target, von Mueller thought, "AO, belay last order! Train guns on new contact in Red 80! Fire when ready!"
"Jawohl, Herr Kap'tän!"
Von Mueller turned back to his XO, "Now, Mr. Krueger, we will see, what our oldest guns are worth against their newest armor."
"At such a close distance, it must be enough, Herr Kap'tän!"
"It must...", von Mueller said, more to himself, when Hessen's guns opened fire on the unknown enemy.
Many eyes tried to pierce the decreasing visibility to see the first splashes, but in vain. After a day of great expectations and with the enemy fleet in range at last, more that one artillerist had way too much adrenaline in his blood, too many vibrating nerves and too much eagerness ruined Hessen's best - and only - chances to acquire more than a side note in the morning paper.
"Damned! Have they all forgotten, how to shoot?" Von Mueller cursed with a low voice. Four half salvoes went straight into the Great Void, before the gunners had calmed down enough to do serious business. Frustrated, von Mueller watched the British LOB with suspicion. Without doing any harm to the enemy, Hessen's shooting was nothing more than a loud way to shout "Here we are!"
Shot upon shot left Hessen's guns, with splashes avoiding the enemy ship at a great distance. Patience had never been von Mueller's strength, but he tried to remain as stoic as possible, the worst thing on board a ship, he reminded himself, was a choleric, shouting and unnerving commander.
"Damned, there, Mr. Krueger!", von Mueller pointed to the ship following their own target, "Seven turrets! That's one of their Ottoman ladies. What a pity that she is firing at her supposed allies."
"I don't want to be, where those 14 shells will..." WHANGGG...
The ship jumped and shook terribly under two severe impacts that opened her waterline to the rushing waters. Broken glass sprayed through the rooms and corridors, when a third hit smashed through the hull. Immediately the old lady began to slow, the distance to Deutschland increased obviously.
"Helmsman", von Mueller tried to remain calm, "Rudder hard starboard, take us out of the line!"
"Jawohl! Rudder hard starboard..."
"Krueger, see how much damage is done! Signals officer, report to Adm. Hanzik, Hessen is forced out of the line, details as soon as possible."
"Straddle!" came a Leutnant's voice from the port wingbridge.
"What? Repeat, what did you say?"
"Herr Kapitän, our last half salvo... We straddled her!"
What an irony, von Mueller thought with bitter resignation, fate doesn't like me much. It must have been the first salvo of this seven turret ship against his own lady. Painfully good - or lucky - shooting. And as a mocking god's final joke, they straddled their target - HMS Queen Elizabeth - with their last shots.
Hessen was not the only one that was forced out of the line at 7:15, Westfalen had been hit hard by a salvo from Queen Elizabeth, resulting in a bright explosion. But on Hessen only two midshipmen on lookout had enough leeway to take notice.
At this moment, fourteen tall columns of water raised, where Hessen should have been, if she had remained on course.
With Hessen limping to the south east, von Mueller looked back towards the German LOB, that quickly passed him by. At 7:25, the trail Deutschland was 1500 yards to the north east, and receding from his ship at about 10 knots. Westfalen, the other apparently lamed battleship was about 1200 yards east, but also seemed to be heading away. When Krueger came back to the bridge, he carried rather bad news: "Herr Kap'tän, the bulkhead is not going to hold much longer."
"Slowing further won't help? Or going reverse?"
"No, Herr Kap'tän! The shoring won't hold it. The struts and other reinforcing members must be broken in several spots and the water is getting past in places we can't get to. Schmidt also thinks the bulkheads may be sprung right at the hull joins."
"Very well. Do what you can."
Twelve half salvos, twenty four shells. His crew had practically carried the old girl on their backs all day to meet 18 knots. For two dozen misses. They had straddled that four-turret ship, but von Mueller did not think they'd hit her.
"Jawohl, Herr Kap'tän!""
"Signals, to Westfalen: 'Request assistance.' Officer of the Deck, get some men started going over our small boats. Looks like we may need them."
Von Mueller watched the HSF LOB steam away. To continue the battle of the ages, the one for the history books. The one that every naval officer for the next century would study and long to have been there, been here. He'd been in that battle, for two dozen shells rounds, two dozen lousy rounds at the Kaiserschlacht.
As it turned out, even full stop would do the bulkhead no good, Hessen's list increased slowly but steadily. At 7:35, Kapitän von Mueller grimly greeted Westfalen. From what he saw, Westfalen had only been a little more lucky, a cloud of smoke covered her wounds, but from her list it was plain visible, that she had taken a large dose of sea water. Kapitän Redlich would be nearly as frustrated as himself, von Mueller thought and steeled himself to give that most hated of shipboard orders, 'All hands! Abandon Ship!'. As one of the last men, von Mueller helped his chief engineer, a Saxon named Walther Schmidt, to open the sea valves. For a brief moment he thought about simply staying on board, like all those men that died.
"Nu Gapdain! Me 'ave do go. De o'd Lady is dakin' a differend way than me do." The terrible saxon slang brought von Mueller back to reality. It would have been too easy to follow Hessen and forsake all responsibility. And although the loss of a hundred good men and a fine ship weighed heavily on him, some of his old fighting spirit had been rekindled, as he followed Schmidt to the last boat.
That was not the way to end a story, he had realised then. Now, looking out of his window onto the sleeping city, he was even more determined to carry on. He went back to his bed, straightened the sheets and fluffed the pillow with decisive blows. He could get back to sleep now, the ghosts that haunted him, were gone, at least for now. The story didn't end with Hessen and, in the morning, he would be ready to continue it.By Egima