Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug
- Meeting Engagements, Part VI
(June 18 has finally ended off New York - it is now June 19, 1915)
---- 1:20 AM US East Coast Time (7:20 AM local), Scapa Flow
"Yes, milord," repeated Admiral De Robeck. " 'Multiple
De Robeck had been on the phone with Carson and the others for the last
dozen minutes or so. He was far to their north, in Scapa Flow, and had
Admiral Burney and three of his dreadnought COs in attendance. Captains
Dave (Queen Elizabeth) and Hawke (Agincourt) were studying the messages
on the table. Captain Swafford (Warspite), who had gotten there first,
had already read them by the time the others arrived and was staring at
the wall with a furrowed brow. LT Sheldon, Burney's flaglieutenant, followed
the gaze of the Warspite CO in puzzlement. An attractive line drawing
of the Parthenon graced that wall, but Swafford's attention was focused
on a spot two feet below and to the right of the frame. Sheldon noted
that De Robeck's aide also appeared intrigued by Swafford's demeanor.
The two lieutenants traded looks and minute shrugs; the behavior of senior
post captains was often inscrutable.
"No, sir. I don't know how they got past us. Some of those might
be more properly put to Admiral Ballard, but no net can ever be perfectly
tight. (NOTE 1)
"Precisely. Milord, Ministers, we still don't know the Huns' full
intentions here, but we can no longer regard this as a simple blockade
running. Battlecruisers and zeppelins, milord. These are the earmarks
of an undertaking of great dimensions.
"Yes, Milord, zeppelins. Yesterday, for the first time, the Germans
risked not one but two of them on what appears now to have been a simple
reconnaissance of Scapa Flow. (NOTE 2) As you are aware, they've been
reserved for very public bombing missions until now, but somehow - somehow
- the German Navy got them to .... Yes, and another one showed up later.
Unprecedented - completely unprecedented. It cost them, so perhaps we've
seen the last of them, but we can't be sure.
"What we CAN be sure of is that the timing was no coincidence. Yesterday,
someone on the other side was willing and able to risk a great deal just
to get a good look at what we have here in the Flow.
"Yes, it's a good guess now that he was behind it, just as he must
be behind ...
"Milord, I don't know - not for sure. Only now are we getting our
first solid glimpses of what this is all about. For this force to appear
off the Americas yesterday, they must have left Germany something like
two weeks ago. That means ... What? Excuse me, gentlemen. A moment, please."
As the ministers traded puzzled glances many miles to the south, De Robeck
turned a frosty but questioning face to Swafford. The CO of the Warspite
had made an unconscious exclamation as a recalled image smote him, and
he was only now realizing that fact as the Commander, Grand Fleet turned
to squarely face him. The memory started to fade then, of the North Sea
map as it lay spread out on Warspite's chart table. Of how he had used
his dividers until ...
"Yes, Captain? Is there something the matter?"
... until Admiral J[ellic]oe's voice had chivvied him off. With a steely
question. With almost those same exact words. The image resharpened so
strongly that a gust of deja vu shook him, much as the winds through the
bridgehouse on Warspite had that day.
Unlike J[ellic]oe on that day at sea, however, De Robeck clearly expected
an answer. Was waiting for one. With the First Lord of the Admiralty and
other ministers on the line.
Well, if there's no going back, Swafford heard his long dead father saying,
you might as well go forward. And go boldly, at that.
"The sortie of June 6. That's the answer, sir! That's why they did
it, and that's why they were found so far north. It has to be."
De Robeck's eyes narrowed, but he took in the sudden nods from Burney,
then Dave. As though wincing from too-bright sun, Hawke began blinking
his eyes rapidly. De Robeck gave those signs weight, as he himself had
still been in the Mediterranean that day, possibly already aboard HMS
Chatham, unwittingly en route to this very office.
"A diversion, sir. Or the cover force. Or ..."
"Or both," De Robeck finished Swafford's sentence for him.
"Very good, Captain," he added, with a nod, and then explained
this insight to those in London. Still another balls-ups that he had inherited.
First Carden, then J[ellic]oe and now Ballard and Patey. How many more?
He increased his hand's pressure on the back of his neck.
"Yes, milord, it does change things, I'm afraid. Consider it this
way. The Huns must have sortied every modern capital ship on the 6th that
they had left. In effect, they placed their entire navy at risk to support
this operation. Whatever it is."
De Robeck listened. Steam whistles echoed about the Flow and in through
the open windows. Vibrations from passing lorries added small random sounds.
"A month ago, ... milord, ... ," De Robeck halted, then stopped
again. "Recall I said, 'multiple threats.' Will the Huns attempt
to break back through to Germany? Will they go south? Even Bermuda, Kingston,
and the Bahamas are at risk to a force that includes two battlecruisers.
Will they go north? Canada? Milord, they could do any one of those things,
and perhaps others I have not yet named. And, if these reports are to
be believed, they have enough to do more than one."
He drew a breath, the back of his neck throbbed, veins pulsing painfully.
"Milord, the Huns would never have dared even consider such a ...
this before Dogger Bank. If I had ten battlecruisers, I could put three
into Bermuda, another three into Halifax, and send in the others to put
matters right. Even last month. Even with just a handful of battlecruisers,
then we could still do something along very similar lines, sending dreadnoughts
into New York." (NOTE 3)
Dave saw De Robeck frown at a question, and reach back to massage his
neck as he began to answer.
"No, milord, at least not without incurring grave risk here, off
our own shores. Oh, we have the advantage still, but our margin is not
great. The force we would need to dispatch could tip the scales against
us, should ... Letters ....
"Yes, I quite agree. Something must be done, and done quickly. But,
milord, we must think this through. Should the Huns scatter, then it could
be Emden, all over again. If they stay together, then I cannot expect
success with just armoured cruisers. The time to prepare is now.
"Strassburg and the two liners? Yes, quite right.
"At 11:00 then, yes, milord."
De Robeck cradled the receiver and looked at the others there. Keyes
- whom he would have normally closeted with - was en route to Cromarty
"Carson is off to 10 Downing," he informed them. "Moltke
and von der Tann and three more light cruisers to boot are indeed off
New York, just as those messages have it. They are presumed by the Admiralty
to have done in Sydney, Melbourne, and Berwick - and Admiral Patey. Then
the Americans stood by and watched old Niobe and several merchant cruisers
get butchered right in front of them, right on their doorstep. One or
two may have gotten away into American waters, but that's about it."
De Robeck drew in a deep breath.
"Patrols only has older cruisers and converted merchantmen."
He paused. That had been his post just a year earlier. Many of the men
and ships were still there. Good men, mostly. Solid, though many were
long past their prime. Like their ships, actually.
"They're no match for a first line German cruiser, like the one
on the way back with the liners. For that matter, we got a good look at
her in New York and she's got seven 5.9" guns. If she really is Strassburg,
then she must have come out of a major refit just as this all started."
De Robeck stared out the window as he considered the inevitable results
of such encounters.
"Sir," Captain Dave began, "if the Germans've re-gunned
her, then perhaps they added more bunkerage, at the same time."
Well, THAT was an unhappy thought, but it would help explain the refit,
Swafford considered, with a spot of fresh dismay. That is, perhaps an
entire CL class had been modified as potential raiders with heavy enough
armament to deal easily with AMCs and most older cruisers.
"Sir," Dave continued, "there is nothing in the message
traffic on the guns of the other cruisers. Did their lordships make any
"No," answered De Robeck. He aborted a headshake with a tiny
wince. " None.
"A worthy question, though," he added, glancing at his aide,
who was already writing it down. Sheldon quickly penned himself a similar
---- 2:00 AM, Nottingham Star, stopped
"Captain, the yardbird wants a word with you."
"Done, Lieutenant," said Coblentz, as he slouched near. "A
boat back, bitte?"
LT Lionel frowned, but bit back his first words. He was tired, so mortally
tired, and he knew it. The last bunk he'd touched had been aboard Imperator,
about 21 very long, hard hours ago.
Two things about the pasty-faced civilian's words had bothered him. The
first was that they contained no specific information. The second, he
was honest enough to admit, was that he'd quite gotten attached to being
" 'Done,' you say?"
Coblentz eyed the young officer silently. His words had seemed clear
enough to him. These uniforms were all touchy today, so he just nodded
"It works?" Lionel asked, after a couple moments.
"Jah." Coblentz' few words had included "fertig,"
which means both "ready" and "complete." Of course,
it worked. Would he have said so otherwise?
Unlike many of his seniors, Lionel had not yet developed much in the
way of a Prussian attitude. He decided that if he wanted to know more,
he'd better come right out and ask for it.
"Please give me some details," he said, after he called away
the boat crew. "If it breaks again, it may help."
"Ach, ja," Coblentz replied, not believing for a moment that
this soft-handed officer would take up even a wrench. "The damage
to the aft one, it needs parts I do not have. The other's casing was cracked,
and holed in two places. Also, some piping had been severed, but the tubing
was not seriously damaged. Pipe sections I had and I brazed the condenser.
I had to let it cool before it could be checked."
"Danke schon, Herr Coblentz," Lionel said with a genuine smile.
"Did you try it yourself?"
"Ja, natürlich." How else could he be sure it was not
contaminated with brine? But Coblentz still smiled back at the strange
young man in the officer's suit. The ones on Moltke had all seemed mostly
to bark and make faces.
"I must get back, Lieutenant. Herr Glocke, we do not always agree.
He tends to cut when I think we should just weld. And the armored hatches
Lionel gestured ahead towards the access down to the boat alongside. He
was confident that the civilian would not think of it, so he told the
leading seaman to report the success. He was far less interested in weld
rods than the chance that he might now get a couple hours sleep.
---- 3:30 AM US East Coast Time (9:30 AM Local), London
The Prime Minister was not taking the news well. Among his concerns were
the questions in chambers he would be sure to receive. Should matters
continue south, he was not willing to rule out even a No Confidence vote.
And what Carson was suggesting in the way of immediate actions seemed
to guarantee absolutely that Antarctica would soon lie off their bow.
A lot was being said, but even more was remaining unspoken, lurking beneath
the words themselves. The other ministers were taking it no better.
"Halt all sailings?!" (Preposterous!)
"Those to and from the Americas, yes." (Can't you see? We really
have no choice.)
Such a public declaration, in of itself, would be a massive embarrassment,
and could even be fatal, politically. They were all well aware of just
how vital was the uninterrupted flow across the Atlantic of foodstuffs,
hardware, and raw materials. An interruption of even a few weeks would
be a serious blow, albeit a recoverable one. The damage from the admission
of the loss of control of the Atlantic might take far longer to recover.
Within hours, the word would be all over the docks of every port from
Argentina to St. John's, from Ayr to Lisbon. Insurance rates, schedules,
"The transit times are three and four weeks. If we dispatched sufficient
force before dusk this very day, it would be nearly 10 days before our
warships could arrive off New York. If the Germans dispersed, the losses
...." (They could be off chasing them for months.)
David Lloyd George, the new Minister of Munitions, cleared his throat
loudly. (That's not all, not by a long shot.)
"There's an additional problem, I'm afraid," he announced.
He looked at Lord Kitchener of the War Office, and got a nod. (Go ahead;
I'll pile on in a moment.)
Lord Balfour looked at the two of them. It was not hard to guess what
"The United States," George continued, with a sad sigh, "they
were our predecessors' solution to the 'Shell Scandal.' And a sound one,
at that. Several ships are already in transit, and we've contracts for
many more." (A very great many.)
"A very great many," echoed Kitchener, in a low-voiced comment.
When Balfour switched to him, he continued.
"But if the sea lanes to the United States are no longer under our
control," Kitchener did not miss Carson's flinch at those words,
"then I would advise against any offensive in France. Indeed,"
he continued, twisting the blade a bit, "if the Huns were to push
off a major offensive of their own in the interim, we could become hard-pressed.
By September, October at the latest, we would be far better placed."
(How could you have let this happen? Now, of all times?)
"Can not something be done?" Lord Derby, President of the Board
of Trade, asked, aghast. "Can not the Royal Navy deal swiftly with
these Germans?" (You're not REALLY going to close down trans-Atlantic
shipping, are you?)
"Lord Derby," essayed Carson, "whatever ships I dispatch
will have to come from the Grand Fleet. They will then be on the other
side of the Atlantic, and who knows for how long? Admiral De Robeck feels,
and I quite agree with him, that we have scant margin in Home Waters should
the Germans sortie their fleet again, and it will remain so until more
of our ships return from the yards." (Would you rather the Huns be
off our shores or the Americans'?)
"However," he continued, "the Germans off New York must
be low on fuel, except for one light cruiser. Perhaps we can exert pressure
on the Americans not to let them recoal? Or to keep them in port, if they
do recoal?" (Let's hobble them through diplomatic pressure.)
To Carson's surprise, the harsh cough behind him, preparatory to joining
the discussion, was Austen Chamberlain's. He caught sight of Balfour's
face as he turned to regard the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Balfour did
not appear surprised. Not a bit. (Oh, damn. Why do I have the feeling
that I'm not going to like this?!)
---- 5:10 AM (11:10 AM Local), London - Scapa Flow
"... and then Exchequer," Carson recounted to De Robeck, "said
we're already in a bit of a row with the Americans over stopping their
ships and taking them to Prize Court. And we mustn't do anything more
that might upset the Americans! Why? Because we're going bloody broke,
that's why! Not enough from taxes, he said, not by a long shot. The War
Bonds weren't nearly enough, gold reserves are low, and the pounds' dropping
like a stone. They're blaming Asquith, but the black fact is that we're
going to have to go hat in hand to the Yanks. Already have, in fact. Over
100 million pounds, we're going to be looking to borrow! And we'll need
more later, a lot more, unless this war ends before Christmas." (NOTE
"Now, Admiral, what have you to report?"
"Milord, it's not complete, I fear, but I do have recommendations."
"With the damage to the High Seas Fleet, I think we can spare some
ships from the Channel Fleet."
"The Channel Fleet?" Carson did not try to hide his surprise.
"Yes, Milord, our situation can best be broken down into several
"First, the battlecruisers. We'll have to dispatch a force that
includes at least two dreadnoughts, but how many and which ones - that
remains the question. But let me move on.
"Second, the German light cruisers. I recommend armored cruisers,
to operate with the dreadnoughts, whichever they are, until the battlecruisers
are neutralized. I can spare several. Last month's battle demonstrated
that armored cruisers have little place in a modern fleet engagement.
Nonetheless, they're just the thing for running down raiding cruisers,
especially ones mounting six-inch guns. We'll revisit their final disposition
later, but perhaps they can become the permanent nucleus for the North
America Station. Replacing Sydney, Melbourne, Berwick, and Niobe.
"Third, merchant shipping. I see no alternative to halting sailings
at the moment, but we can let it be known that it's only a brief pause.
In a matter of a few days, we collect all the waiting merchants, form
convoys, and employ battleship divisions as the core of escort forces.
I think four would more than suffice per convoy. They can recoal at Halifax
or Bermuda and escort return convoys. Or they could remain there, should
the situation call for it. If we need more, then the return of those in
the Mediterranean can be expedited.
"Fourth, the missing cruiser and liners. I think we can dismiss
the notion that they plan to invade Bermuda or raise an Irish rebellion.
However, if the Germans deem this venture a great success, they might
well be emboldened to try more on another occasion. For the moment, I
think the matter properly resides in Admiral Ballard's hands. I understand
he has already issued sailing orders to those he has in port, but he may
need additional warships, especially to patrol the Strait."
Carson nodded, invisibly as far as De Robeck was concerned, as he considered.
It was a start. A good start. It was something he could take to the PM.
With a barely inaudible sigh of relief, he said precisely that to the
Commander - Grand Fleet.
He hung up and looked at the chronometer. Balfour would not be available
for some time. He picked up the phone. "Get me Admiral Oliver,"
he instructed. Yes, he thought, another view might add further insights.
1) There is great and profound irony here. Then-Rear-Admiral JM De Robeck
was succeeded as Admiral of Patrols in 1914 by Commodore GA Ballard, who
still holds that post in Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug, as he did historically
(I believe he is a rear-admiral in June 1915). The Ballard Committee of
1906?7 would conclude that mine warfare could be an important factor in
future naval warfare. Mine sweeping was of great interest to Vice?Admiral
Lord Charles Beresford who went so far as to conduct extensive experiments
in the Mediterranean, between 1905 and 1906. The admiral would continue
his investigations and (in February 1908) would conduct generally successful
sweeping experiments with two civilian trawlers at Portland that became
quite well known. The notorious Fisher-Beresford feud seems to have contributed
to mine sweeping - so greatly favored by Beresford - not getting much
in the way of substantive resources pre-WWI. Years later, Fisher opposed
the Dardanelles Campaign, which ended up foundering on ... inadequate
mine sweeping! Some might call this an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy!
Furthermore, as Admiral of Patrols, Ballard has the responsibility for
mine sweeping in the area in which De Robeck's ships must now operate!
2) See Ein Himmelfahrt at the Letterstime
site. Thank you, Richard Byrd!
3) De Robeck was still Admiral of Patrols when Sturdee was sent to pursue
von Spee. De Robeck took forces under his command (including a sister
ship of Niobe's!) to the Azores and the Canary Islands, in case von Spee
(or one or more of his ships) came back along those routes. Thus, in another
Letterstime twist, De Robeck has had actual historical experience (just
six to eight months earlier) with casting wide a naval net to deal with
a deployed raider force!
4) See "Finances of
Empire in Letterstime" at the Letterstime Site, in the general
Ein Geleitzug area.