Ripples Across an Ocean
A Letterstime Interlude June ?, 1915
"So, Commander, I suppose it's time to stop beating around the bush," sallied Evan Tinker, a rotund South Carolinian who constituted a portion of Senator Tillman's staff.
Glancing pointedly at a potted plant where it sat on the yacht's forecastle--most incongruously to my mind--I replied, "Well it seems none the worse for it."
There was polite laughter, which was no less (and actually somewhat more) than I'd expected. It also kept Tinker or any of the other five gentlemen from controlling the conversation. These were men used to subtle games of power, and I was quite used to command...even if I had to be subtle about it. I continued before either Tinker or the outspoken Leroy Brasseaux could speak up, as was their wont. "Undoubtedly you're curious about the Battle of the North Sea."
The Cajun immediately piped up. "Aren't they calling it 'Der Kysuhlacked' or something like that?"
While I wasn't quite sure if the man intentionally mangled the term, or if it was just his accent, I suppressed any amusement. That stole some of his thunder. Only a couple of the power-brokers tittered boyishly. "According to the newspapers the Germans do, indeed call it 'Die Kaiserschlact' or The Kaiser's Battle in English. Besides 'disaster' I'm not sure what the British are calling it. Eventually the historians will decide things, but at Newport it's being refought as we speak under the name I used." I delivered the explanation nonchalantly as if it were a matter of as small of import and personal concern to me as it was. I hadn't come to be asked stupid questions. I was here for a real purpose.
John Worthington, who hailed from somewhere in upstate New York and looked to be--but wasn't necessarily--one of the more thoughtful members of the lot, asked, "Just what happened? How'd the Jerries manage to beat the British at sea?"
Right on schedule, I laughed inwardly. "It would seem there's something
wrong with the British ships; maybe several somethings." I let that
sink in for a moment, even as I stepped over to the bar and poured myself
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the horrified expression of the Bostonian, Edward O'Roarke when I failed to add any of the orange juice sitting on the bar. I found that inwardly amusing as well. Evan Tinker might be fat and greedy, but he did stock good spirits and I'd never consider contaminating them with fruit juice, particularly since Mr. Daniels became Secretary of the Navy. "At Newport, the principle speculation is that the British ships are not so well armored as Jane's puts about. That would easily explain the British losing so many battlecruisers both at Dogger Bank and North Sea."
"But the problem with that explanation is that it doesn't explain what happened to their battleships, which appear to have been almost as vulnerable. Moreover, it doesn't explain the survival of so many German ships, despite their reputation for being strongly built." I sipped a little of my native drink, and continued, "So the instructors and students at Newport have been trying to formulate some other explanations. We know the British aren't stupid, and that they originated the dreadnought type, so they arguably have the most experience with it. So what went so dreadfully wrong might be more subtle. Most of the speculation centers on the placement of the magazines in British ships. They store the powder higher in the ship than the shells, opposite our practice. The thought is that shells which penetrated--or at least perforated--the armor threw burning fragments into the magazines. Had those same fragments landed among shells, the result might not have been so catastrophic."
"Another line of thought is that the British suffered results that weren't unusual, that the remarkable thing is, instead, that the German ships stayed afloat. There are two possible ways of looking at this. One is that Admiral Tirpitz saw to it that they lived up to his principle that a 'warship must first of all remain afloat.' The second is that they were not sufficiently punished."
"Eh? I don't follow that last, lad," O'Roarke put in.
"He means the British shells are duds," said Olaf Hanson. I liked Hanson. He'd started out in the Great Lakes ore trade and made himself a man to influence politicians. He knew ships, he knew business, and he knew power, and by all accounts had never benefited from a day of formal schooling. "As I see it, the British have bigger guns, at least enough to offset the Germans' stronger hulls. All things should be even, but the Germans came away much better. There's something wrong with the British guns."
O'Roarke and Tinker were smart enough to listen when Hanson spoke and they quickly shot looks at me. "I'm inclined to agree. Having read the report of our observer, Captain Smith, the Germans were suffering a great many hits and, by rights, should have lost a number of ships. There are some rumors leaking out that a number of the German ships are so knocked about they won't be seen for some time...if ever again."
John Newsome finally spoke up. He was relatively local, a scion of a Richmond family and reputedly tracing his roots to Jamestown, although perhaps not the original founders. "So perhaps the balance of power hasn't really changed."
"No, I'm fairly sure it has changed. Whatever happened to the German ships, they didn't sink. That means the lion's share of their crews have returned. Some are dead, some wounded, but the majority are there to flesh out the ships' companies of the other ships and help restore them to operation. On the British side, they're dead and gone, and the surviving ships have casualties too. The Germans more distinctly hurt the British and changed the balance of power in that aspect. The question is what they can do with this victory."
"And what, Commander Bator," Brasseaux asked, "might their options be?"
I sat down in a deck chair near the rail, enjoying the June sun on my back. In the city it was already starting to become uncomfortably warm. Out here on the Potomac, away from the buildings, streets and people, and exposed to the wind, my Dress Whites were less than well insulated. "Some of the staff at Newport, and some working groups in Main Navy are looking at that. Lacking firm information on the condition of the High Seas Fleet about the best that can be managed is informed speculation."
"Thanks to Captain Smith, we know the British lost fifteen dreadnoughts and many others are seriously damaged. They'd probably be lucky to muster one truly battle-worthy squadron right now. The Germans claim to have lost no dreadnoughts, but the British thought initially that they sank a few. They may have been closer to right than they thought. We're getting hints that some of the German ships that made it back are little better than wrecks and may be paid off. So most of the speculation says the Germans are probably down about a squadron in ships that will never fight again, or not soon enough to be of importance. And there's probably another squadron's worth that'll be in the yard awhile."
"So that leaves them roughly a squadron to play with. The question is what they'll do with it. One advantage they enjoy is that they still have some fast dreadnoughts that they might be able to attack the British cruiser squadrons operating between the Faeroes and Norway with. That could force back the blockade to the Faeroes to Iceland line. That would inconvenience the British, but it still won't lift the blockade."
"Alternatively, they could countermarch and use their ships against the Russian fleet in the Baltic. They've been holding the line there with pre-dreadnought battleships. Being able to bring a squadron of dreadnought types to bear might completely overbear that naval front."
"They could also simply sit pat and try to rebuild their main fleet for another confrontation in the North Sea. Then it becomes a building race with Britain, although a closer one than before."
Hanson sat down facing me. "You say the Germans still have fast dreadnoughts. Be straight, Commander, you mean battlecruisers, like what the British lost."
"And what's to keep them from bursting out to the west of Britain and sinking ships bound for there?"
"Yet you've said nothing of this option."
"True," I granted, "I think that's an option that might work once or twice with some thoroughly difficult logistics, but I don't believe it could be sustained. The Germans have not designed their ships with oceanic war in mind, whatever they've named their fleet. They can't stay far from home or they'll run out of coal. Even if they find a way to rendezvous with colliers somewhere out of the way, they're vulnerable while they coal and the colliers are always vulnerable. Say they found on isolated anchorage somewhere. There's nothing to keep their collier from being surprised and destroyed there. If they leave a guard ship, that depletes their overall force. If they maintain a collier moving at sea it risks interception. The British have a lot of cruisers, even if those ships can't stand up to a battlecruiser."
Hanson scowled. "Yet, think of the impression..."
"I can't speak to that," I replied. "All I can speak to is the gun a man is carrying, how fast he can draw it, how many rounds it holds and how accurate he is. I can't speak to whether his opponent will be scared."
"What if we sold the British some battleships?" Newsome asked. His patron was heavily financed by the shipbuilding concerns of the Norfolk area, so the idea didn't surprise me.
"Who would man them?" I asked in reply. Newsome looked like he was going to say something more, then his face clouded and he thought better of the idea.
Evan Tinker settled on a bench up against the cabin's front bulkhead, sprawling a bit. "I guess that raises another question, now doesn't it?"
Still seeking to keep the session under control, I made a slightly blind grasp that was rewarded. "You're wondering who we should support," I suggested, and seeing a degree of confirmation in his eyes, I added, "or if we should support anyone at all...or care."
Tinker paled just a little bit, then rapidly colored. He did not like being read. "In a nutshell, yes."
"Those look like four questions but are only really three. Siding with Britain or Germany are clear choices, but the issues of whether to do so or not go far beyond the naval and far beyond my purview to comment. The other two are inextricably linked. If we support no one, we must indeed care."
"Not necessarily, Commander," Brasseaux objected. "What trouble could either country cause us here? At the first inkling of any British ambition we could crush Canada and raise an army so large the British could never hope to take even Rhode Island! And as for Germany, they haven't so much as a colony in the Western Hemisphere."
"That situation won't last long if we don't have a strong Navy," I countered. "Without a credible fleet, there's no reason to respect the Monroe Doctrine, or Roosevelt's extension of it. There would be nothing to keep anyone with a fleet from taking Cuba or any of the other greater or lesser Antilles. The last time we did fight Britain, Canada didn't prove so easy of a nut to crack, and it wasn't much more than fifty years ago that the French were mucking around in Mexico. What's to keep an Austrian princeling from a Mexican throne, if Germany wins? We may not need the Old World, but that doesn't mean the Old World doesn't want the New."
Worthington had been pacing the whole time at the back of the group, strolling up toward the bow but never out from under the awning. "How do we know the Germans couldn't do to us, what they did to the British?"
"Strategically? They're hampered by a lack of bases and the use of coal fuel. Tactically? Nothing."
"That sounds like something we need to change, but the General Board is looking at battlecruiser designs as we speak! We're just making the same mistake as the British. We should be building--" Worthington suddenly found himself at a loss "--something else!"
I'd been expecting the conversation to get around to ships eventually. That was another reason I'd been plucked from Newport for this task. Normally these men saw no one junior to a captain, but few captains had my peculiar background of assignments. One of my evaluators had remarked (bless him, in writing) that I would be a prototype of a new variety of officer for a changing, increasingly technical fleet. Interspersing tours at the Bureaus of Construction and Repair and Ordnance, as well as Newport and Monterey with sea duty hadn't hurt. "I sat in at the Board's deliberations this week gentlemen. I don't think you need fear an American battlecruiser would repeat British flaws. The sketches were categorically rejected."
That got their attention. "But that will leave us unable to chase down the German ships," Tinker observed.
"So what, the fast ones are battlecruisers. We know they can't stand up to battleships after what the British went through."
Hanson could always be counted on to see the obvious flaws. "The Germans didn't lose their battlecruisers," he interjected quietly and brought the assemblage to silence. Then he looked at me. "Why?"
"Tirpitz built them, not Fisher." Hanson nodded, but most of the others looked blank. "Fisher gave up armor for bigger guns and speed. Tirpitz gave back a little firepower for more armor. It seems to have made a difference. Some people are calling their new class of battlecruisers something else: fast battleships."
O'Roarke asked, "Isn't that what they're calling the new British ships? The Queen class ones?"
I nodded. "Yes, the Queen Elizabeth design is being billed as a fast battleship. She's slower, but more heavily armed than Derfflinger. My suspicion, and the consensus of the Board yesterday was that somewhere between the two, the types will eventually merge."
"And we're building slow ships," Newsome observed sourly.
"Granted. Through Battleship 1917, we're looking at 21 knot vessels and it's too late to change those designs. Battleship 1916 will be an improved Battleship 1915 with better protection against torpedoes, new fire controls and no hull casemates. Battleship 1917 will duplicate Battleship 1916, but with a new main battery, a 16"/45 gun. Both classes will get the new propulsion system going into the first hull of Battleship 1915."
"Why build them at all if they're not what we want?" Tinker nudged. I knew the question was really a favorite of his boss, Senator Tillman of the Senate Naval Affairs committee. "Why not cut to the chase?"
"Because the technology isn't there yet and we'll need numbers in the interim. Everything we built before the Nevada is obsolete and long-range gunnery won't stop there. We'd waste a tremendous amount of effort doing things with today's technology that tomorrow's might make more efficient. We could build 90,000 ton battleships that would only mount three more guns on the same scale of protection, but run as fast as a destroyer today. But in five years we might be able to pack those extra guns into 60,000 tons."
"Assuming we accept your point of view," Hanson began, "what is the Navy proposing?"
This was another question I'd been groomed for the day before in a private briefing with the General Board and representatives of the Bureaus. "The General Board has rejected the battlecruiser sketches submitted and sent the battleship sketches back for further consideration. The Board believes the two types will eventually merge and desires to start heading that way now, while other nations must still digest recent events. The Board also believes that aircraft can be developed into a significant asset particularly for the purposes of scouting and gunfire spotting. The presentations by Lieutenants Whiting and Mustin were most convincing. This could obviate the need for any sort of heavy scouting unit and make it possible to go with light scouting units and airplane carrying ships for scouting. An airplane can see much more of the ocean than any surface ship and much faster. The Board also feels that our naval construction program must be vastly expanded and our goal a fleet second to none."
Brasseaux shook his head, muttering "Too much," beneath his breath and Tinker was scowling. O'Roarke and Newsome, particularly the latter, were hearing what they wanted to hear. Hanson and Worthington were harder to read, but their silence was encouraging.
"Optimally, the Board would desire the funds to purchase another of Battleship 1915, four of Battleship 1916 and four of Battleship 1917. The additional vessel and the program I've thus far outlined would give us a solid core to our battle line of sixteen ships designed for long range gunnery."
Hanson stepped in at that point. "That will never happen. And I certainly won't speak for it. Not knowing these ships will be superceded so soon."
I smiled. "Alternatively, would request one unit of Battleship 1916 to be operated with the three ships of Battleship 1915, with four of Battleship 1917 to follow. That would provide three squadrons of four ships each using common-calibre guns. 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, on 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. 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. 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."
I finished my vodka. "After the 1919 ships, a building rate of four ships per year is envisioned if the threat level remains high. What characteristics these ships might embody can only be guessed at. There are rumors of the British working on an 18" gun. We might have to consider heavier weapons. Or propulsion technology may improve. Perhaps the trend will be toward faster vessels. Maybe calibre and speed will be static and we can work in more protection or more guns. It's too soon to tell. We'll have to see where it looks like the British, the Germans and the Japanese are going with their designs."
Tinker and Brasseaux still looked unhappy, and Hanson and Worthington
had guarded expressions. I caught sight of a quick glance between Newsome
I directed my next remarks to Hanson. "I was chosen to come here and brief you because of my background. I've been a student at both Monterey and Newport, and then an instructor at the latter. I was aboard Baltimore at Santiago as a midshipman, and did tours in other cruisers, and the battleship New Hampshire. I commanded a destroyer. And was an attache in Tokyo. I also worked in C&R's submarine office, and at BuOrd on the preliminary work for the 16" Mark I. I paid for Glenn Curtis to teach me to fly from my own funds and I've been up with Ken Whiting and Henry Mustin on several exercises. I once had my controller at BuNav say that I was being used to test new ideas. I'm not here to sell you on a 'Big Navy.' I'm here to help you envision what that Navy will look like if you choose to have it."
I sat back at that point, but my eyes never left Hanson. I liked the man and not least for his achievements. I liked him for his mind. And I liked him for his power. All these men were part of the elaborate web of influence behind the men who sat on Capitol Hill, but among those in a position to influence the shape of the Navy, Olaf "Commodore" Hanson counted the most. Very slightly, the weathered old Norwegian immigrant who had learned to read English from breakfast menus at pier side taverns, nodded. My job was done...here...for today.
"Captain Bator--" Hanson began.
"Commander," I corrected mildly.
Hanson smiled then and I knew I was caught. "My mistake. As I was saying, Commander Bator, I'm having a party next weekend at my home in Arlington. I was wondering if you and your wife would attend."
"I'm sure Tilly will be delighted, and I'm much obliged...Commodore."
Olaf Hanson smiled again as we both took the measure of each other's eyes. "I think you'll enjoy it, Stefan. All of us will be there...and some of our friends and your fellow officers."
Yes, my job was done...for today.