Symphony in Black


A Letterstime Interlude - Part I

Hamburg, Germany - June 1, 1915

"Herr Sorenson, Herr Direktor Ballin will see you now..."

The man whose passport bore the name Olaf Sorenson started, and smiled. He was a tall, blue-eyed blond, and spoke German with a hint of an accent.

"My apologies, Fraulein...?"

"Stern, Herr Sorenson," said the pretty young woman with raven-black hair, huge brown eyes looking straight at the Swede. "Eva Stern....was it a long trip from Stockholm?"

Sorenson rose to his feet, still grinning, and gave a half-inclination of his head.

"Too long, Fraulein Stern...with the war, the crossing from Denmark is a bit...exhausting, shall we say?" the tall young man in his 30s replied. "But again, I must apologize. The women of Hamburg are far too lovely that I should be wool-gathering."

"Herr Sorenson, really!," the brunette said, blushing madly. "Herr Ballin is waiting! Please..."

"Ach, so...business before pleasure," Sorenson said, brushing his lips to her hand as he stepped toward the half-open oaken door into Ballin's inner office.

As the door swung half-way shut behind him, Sorenson smiled inwardly.

Three months ago, on his last trip, Ballin's secretary had been a young man in his 20s, a college graduate with a service deferment because of his position.

Now he is replaced by a girl who blushes...not even some old battleaxe of a Frau, the Swede thought. Things must be getting worse at the front for the Kaiser.

Sorenson switched his attention to the massive man who had stood up as he entered.

Even behind the massive oaken desk, Franz Ballin was a Teutonic Falstaff, almost as tall as the Swede but twice as heavy. The German clapped his hands and shouted, voice booming into the outer office.

"Eva! Kaffee mit schlag for our Nordic guest. . .and some strudel," Ballin shouted, before switching to a slightly more conversational tone. "And how are things in Stockholm, Olaf? The shipping lines keeping you busy? Switching plenty of our cargoes over to Scandinavian flags?"

"Yes, my friend," Sorenson replied, settling into the offered chair as Ballin collapsed back into his own. "Even with the war, we are doing a good business for our merchant marine, and the Norwegians and Danes. . .but you know that as well as I do."

Sorenson's firm, Skold, Bjurner, Oxenstierna & Leasure, was one of the largest Admiralty practices in Sweden, and had a hefty retainer from the House of Ballin to handle its legal needs throughout neutral Scandinavia.

Even in wartime, with the great liners of HaPag, the Hamburg-America Line, idled or interned, the firm that Albert Ballin had built up into a world class shipping powerhouse still sent north for Norwegian lumber, Swedish iron, and the luxuries that could be legally shipped in Scandinavian bottoms from around the world - and then re-shipped to blockaded Germany.

Sorenson, who had worked in the firm's New York offices before returning to Sweden on the outbreak of war, handled the Ballin interests in North America, particularly the 56,000-ton luxury liner Vaterland, laid up in Brooklyn since August, 1914.

There was little chance she would put to sea in the face of the British blockade, but HaPag still had legal title to the ship, and Sorenson delivered a regular report.

"Anything new on my grand-uncle's favorite?" Franz Ballin asked.

"No, nothing, I'm afraid. . .I'm sure the Americans have her ear-marked as a transport for when they come in," Sorenson replied, taking the steaming mug of coffee topped with whipped cream that the lovely Miss Stern had brought in.

"Danke, Eva," he said, as she blushed wildly, and left smiling.

"Ah, she's a pretty one, Olaf. . .although you must know, she is a Jewess," Ballin said, smiling archly.

"And you are a Jew, Franz," Sorenson said flatly. "That is why I am here, is it not? What happened to your last secretary?"

"Olaf. . .you have such a way of deflating the mood," Franx replied, sighing.

"Gruner? Has been called up. . .it seems many replacements are needed in the East. As for the rest, you know of my family's history. And you know that despite everything we have done for Germany, we will always be nothing more than Jews to the Junkers...Rabbi Geiger or no, one can be a German and one can be a Jew, but one cannot be a German Jew..."

His guest remained silent, but raised his mug in a half-toast. Both men bared their teeth and drank.

"At any rate, to business," Ballin began briskly, passing a binder and several heavy folders to Sorenson. "You'll find the newest information in these packets, in the standard commercial code. Our regular business requirements are in folders 1 and 2, our needs regarding Sweden in number 3, and the warehouse manifests in number 4..."

Across the desk, Lt. Cdr. Chester W. Nimitz, USN, Office of Naval Intelligence, sat back and smiled.

Part II

Hyde Park, New York - June 3, 1915

The man who had called the meeting stood and began pacing.

He was a young man, only 33, but dynamic beyond his years. At times like these, his audience knew to leave him be.

"Gawd, Will, this report is amazing. . .with this level of losses, and the obvious questions it raises about their designs and training, it's uncertain if the British could even stop the Germans from a raid into the Channel, ...much less continue the blockade," he exclaimed, and then stopped short. "How reliable are these reports, Captain?"

Even though they were both in civilian summer suits, Captain William S. Sims glanced once at the senior Navy man in the room, received a nod, and then looked their patron in the eye.

"They are completely reliable, sir. Capt. Smith knows the British losses because he was there. As far as the German information goes, STAR is our top agent in the area, and his contacts - particularly GOLD - are unimpeachable," Sims said.

The tall young man stopped pacing, and faced him.

"And how do we know this isn't disinformation from the source, this GOLD - simple propaganda, dressed up to look like official documents?," the question came.

"We know, sir, because the source has their own reasons to fear a German victory. . .and we were led to GOLD by JERIMIAH, as you know," Sims said flatly.

"True enough. . .all right, then, what is our appropriate response?" the speaker asked.

"Before we get there, Frank, there's a legal question," another man, a powerfully-built young man of medium height with a pencil-thin black mustache.

"It's a question whether the blockade is even still in place. Legally, if the Germans can run a merchant ship in or out of any of their North Sea ports, the British have to re-establish it."

"I remember Columbia as well as you do, Bill," the leader shot back. "But I don't think the legalities matter one whit, here...the British have enough cruisers to keep the distant blockade in force. I'm more concerned about what kind of ships we should be ordering this year, and next..."

"As are we all. . .I only suggest the legal point because it will reinforce the Anglophobes in Congress," replied William Donovan, of the Buffalo prosecutor's office, Columbia University, and the laciest of lace-curtain Irish neighborhoods of Buffalo.

"There are more than a few Americans of my ancestry who wish Germany well in this conflict."

There was a pause, and a dead silence in the room.

"You're right, Bill. I'm sorry," the speaker said, flashing a grin. "There are plenty of people in the Administration we'll have to deal with, much less outside."

"And what can we get past Daniels, and the president, and Congress? And with Benson as CNO?" asked one of the older men in the room, a dark, hawk-faced man with salt-and-pepper hair.

"Leave Daniels and the president to me, Rob - once you're at State in place of Bryan, you'll have plenty to worry about," the leader replied, as Robert Lansing nodded.

"As far as Congress goes, we have Dick Hobson, Claude Swanson, and Ben Tillman on our side, and Uncle Ted and Gus Gardner on the other. . .if Gus can bring his father-in-law along, the GOP should fall into line."

"The Cabots talk only to the Lodges, and the Lodges talk only to God...." Donovan half-sang.

The host smiled.

"Henry will play ball, once we lay this information before him - suitably sanitized, of course," the speaker said, pacing again.

"Now the question is what to do with Battleship 1916. . .our national defense must extend all over the Western Hemisphere, gentlemen, and it must go a thousand miles out into the sea. We must create a Navy not only to protect our shores and possessions, but our merchant ships in time of war, no matter where they go..."

The oldest man in the room, who had remained quite during the conversation thus far, spoke up.

"To hell with Daniels and Benson, Sir," R. Adm. Bradley Fiske, USN (ret.) spat out. "You have the president's ear. You can get what we need done."

"I appreciate that confidence, Admiral. . .but what do we need? We have no fast ships, and our battlecruiser design is questionable. At the current rate of construction, we will only will have six of the most modern ships, with turbines and all-or-nothing protection, plus the Nevada and the eight older ships with 12 inch guns, by the end of 1918...which appears to be the time when we will begin to truly be in danger, no matter who prevails in the current war."

At that point, the only man in uniform present spoke up.

"We would request one unit of Battleship 1916 - essentially the improved Battleship 1915 - to be operated with the three ships of the New Mexico class, with four of Battleship 1917 - the similar design, but with 8 16 inch guns - to follow. That would provide three squadrons of four ships each using common-calibre guns," said R. Adm. Joseph Strauss, chief of BuOrd.

"This is the proposal that Cdr. Batory is laying out to some of the industrialists, to get their feel for its workability."

The man who had called the meeting frowned at that, but Strauss plunged on.

"You're already aware of the Board's intention to request twelve other capital ships. Initially the intention was to ask for six battleships and six battlecruisers. That has changed. The Board now proposes to request four units of a Battlecruiser 1918 design based on German principles mounting 8x14"/50 guns, one about 35,000 tons and capable of 28-29 knots. The rejected designs were very lightly armored, mounted more guns and were four knots faster," he said in a rush, as their host's face darkened.

"Simultaneously , the Board would request four units of a Battleship 1918 design tentatively slated to mount 8x16"/50 guns, with a speed of 24-25 knots on about 35,000-38,000 tons. This is envisioned as a stretched Battleship 1917 with another pair of boiler rooms, more generators and more powerful motors, as well as the new gun.

Strauss paused, as the impact of his words on their host sank in, but took a breath and raced on.

"To follow, the Board would request four units of a Battleship 1919 tentatively slated to mount 8x16"/50 guns on about 40,000 tons and capable of 26-27 knots. That would provide a fleet of twenty four first-rate ships that should be able to meet any enemy for the next five to ten years," he finished in a final rapid-fire burst of speech.

Their host paused, and took a breath.

"Pardon me, Admiral, but the last time I checked I was your boss," the young man said evenly.

"As well thought out as this proposal may be - and it looks that way on the surface - I would appreciate it if your staff refrains from talking to Joe Gibbs or Bill Cramp before you talk to me...understood?"

Strauss swallowed noiselessly.

"Yes, sir," he replied.

"Thank you," their host said. "As detailed as that proposal is, the British already have 15 inch guns at sea, and we know from STAR the Germans are building ships with the same caliber. And if GOLD's information is correct, we know they are planning ships with 16.5 inch guns...under the Board's proposal, we won't have anything bigger than a 14 inch gun in hand until 1920-21, or later, will we?"

Strauss swallowed again.

His opposition to the 16 inch gun had cost the Navy the chance of having it in service with the Battleship 1913 design, which ended up as the New Mexicos.

He knew many of the men in the room - including their host - viewed that as one of the greatest mistakes the Navy had made in the past decade.

"That is correct, sir," Strauss said, and fell silent.

"So is there an alternative, gentlemen?," the leader asked.

"It is very simple, sir," Fiske spoke up. "We need 16 inch guns at sea as soon as possible, and we already have a good design that can be easily updated... Design 1, from 1913. A 40,000-ton ship with 10 16 inch guns, a 16 inch belt, and turbo-electric drive for 21 knots - basically an update of the type the General Board asked for two years ago. Build four of them. That will give us a force of 10 powerful ships by 1919.

"Then, lay down eight 50,000 ton-ships with 9 16 inch guns in three triple turrets, the 'Standard' belt, and TE drive for 25 knots, all to complete in 1920-21...the next series of eight should be capable of 30 knots, with the same armament and protection," Fiske continued.

"That gives us 16 fast ships with 16 inch guns, 10 modern ships with turbines or TE propulsion and 14 or 16 inch guns, plus the nine older ships, all by the end of 1923... 35 capital ships in all.

"And if we start building the modern 7,000 ton scouts and the new flush deckers this year in series, we'll have two dozen or more cruisers and 250 destroyers by the same time," he concluded.

"The Huns - or the British - will have nothing comparable."

There was a muffled whistle from Donovan, but nothing more.

"I like THAT idea," said Franklin Roosevelt. "Let's kick it around."

by Brad Smith

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