Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - TIOWF, Part XI
Securing St. Pierre & Miquelon
June 27, 1915 - evening
---- St. Pierre , near pier
Maxwell Browning and Benjamin “Blue” Fox had returned from their tour of “downtown” St. Pierre , eager to interview the gendarme who had reportedly been wounded in the taking of the Gendarmerie. (NOTE) They had become sidetracked by the spectacle of women and children lining up on the pier to get into a very considerable number of small boats. Most were looked either stoic, or just plain numb. A few, though were in tears, or their children were in tears, or both. The reporters’ first reaction was to take pictures, a roll each. Their second was to ask questions. Their translators proclaimed complete ignorance. The next few Germans just replied, “Nein!”, and pointed towards the end of the pier, as though demanding them to leave. It was only after several minutes that they realized that the men were not directing them away, but were pointing at the German admiral, who stood talking with a couple others in uniform. The other officers saluted and went off about whatever it was that Germans did.
“Admiral, uh, Hanzik,” began Blue, with some heat, emotion making him stumble over the other’s name, “could you please tell us what the, um, is going on here?”
“Yes! Where are you taking all those women and children?” Max put in, gesturing at the filled boats already heading down channel.
“And why?” Blue added, in tempo.
“Gentlemen,” replied Hanzik. “Please. Calm yourselves. It is quite simple. It is my responsibility to feed them - correct? - and I learned that I could no longer do so here.”
Whatever answer the reporters may have expected, that one was not it.
“Why not?” Max beat Blue by a fraction of a second.
“I suggest that you put those questions to the French ‘Burgermeister’.” Such was the intensity of the moment that none of the three reacted to the language discordance of the phrase, ‘French Burgermeister’, spoken in English, no less.
“I gravely misdoubt,” Hanzik went on, “that there is insufficient food for the population to feed themselves, but that is what he claimed. Even the bakers announced that they were almost out of flour.”
The reporters looked at each other. How could an island not have on hand enough food to feed themselves?
“I see you have doubts, as well. There is cod, after all. Well, I am confident that ample food is here. Somewhere. However, I have not the time, nor the men, to search. Ransack houses? Dig about in root cellars? Hmmph! Nor, you must understand, do I have the boat capacity to bring thousands of meals ashore two or three times a day.”
You could always just leave, thought Max, but he carefully kept those words behind closed lips.
“So, let me guess,” Blue asked in puzzlement, “you’re taking them to the food, instead?”
“I dunno. Where is this ... ‘Burgermeister’? I’d sure like to ask him some questions.” Blue nodded in agreement.
“Ah, I sent him out on the very first boat.” The four American eyebrows went up in skeptical formation.
“He, several other so-called officials, and several of the gendarmes went first to learn where and how all their people would be accommodated. Help with arrangements. Fortunate I am that Herr Ballin and his men have great experience in dealing with civilians, and in such numbers. Very able they are to feed them and find them places to sleep.”
“Where is that?” Blue asked. “I mean, where are you putting them all?”
“On Kronprinzessin Cecilie, of course. She had the fewest passengers. Still, they all had to be shifted, of course, but Herr Ballin said that he expected few complaints. He told me that he had upgraded all of their accommodations in compensation.”
“You’re housing your prisoners on a civilian passenger liner?” Max made no effort to hide his incredulity. “That doesn’t sound right.”
“Admiral,” Blue asked, “what does that Hague treaty have to say about using civilian ships as prisoner of war jails?”
“The matter is unclear,” admitted Hanzik. “I will be direct. You are quite correct; there may be consequences. The Entente governments, when they learn of this, may claim Kronpinzessin Cecilie to have forfeited her rights as a merchantman and be now only a naval auxiliary. In my defense, and hers, the civilian ruler of this place declared that the civilian population, including over two thousand women and children, would go hungry unless I found a way to feed them with outside food ... this very day. This was the only way that I saw and further delay to seek a different solution would have left them hungry as I sought for it.”
The reporters grimaced, but remained silent.
“More than one of my officers suggested placing them out on the battlecruiser decks. I could have put them under canvas, as you recall, I did just that with the prisoners from the battle, and fed them easily enough. It would certainly have avoided any possible attaintment of Herr Ballin’s liners but, in good conscience, I could not do that. Those others were men taken in battle. These are innocent civilians and cold it is here at night. That might have been good reason enough but there is a far greater one.”
Hanzik paused for effect.
“The Britishers are hunting us, I doubt it not. I cannot rule out that Royal Navy dreadnoughts could crest the horizon at any time.”
“OH!” Blue’s exclamation was loud and involuntary. Browning was more restrained, though his gulp was audible.
“Yes,” Max agreed, after completing his swallow. “I see the problem.”
“If you wish to go aboard her, I will give the necessary orders. I would prefer it, actually, but you are free to do as you wish.”
“You want us to go aboard? Oh, I see, just like you wanted us here?”
“Yes, I ask only that you wait. All the civilians must I get aboard, and dusk is not far distant.”
“The level continues to hold?” Kapitan Stang was understandably concerned.
“Yes, sir, there’s a lot of seepage and weepage, but the pumps are doing the job. All the compartments have been dewatered and the Vulcanites are down in there now.”
The chief walked with a bit of an effort, due to the list. The bridge clinometer indicated nearly nine degrees, but the Vulcanites had shrugged and declared it closer to eight. Stang was not about to argue with them any more and now just looked at the bubble reproachfully.
“Sir, the Vulcanites.”
Stang had ordered that he be notified when they came back out onto the deck. “Very well,” he acknowledged and headed down onto the main deck. Coblentz and Glock had been gesturing with some energy as Stang came out of the hatch, but that had ceased long before he drew near. Instead, they simply stared at drawings before them. No, they were staring at some tables or charts.
“Kapitan,” said Glock. “Gut. It is time for a decision and information we need.”
The implication seemed to be that the Vulcanites were about to make a decision regarding Stang’s command and were simply consulting with him. Stang fought down an angry retort. When they got back to Wilhelmshaven , perhaps he could have them thrown in the brig, in irons. Or shot. But he needed them to get there.
“Two questions, we have,” began Glock. “First, will this ship stay here for three days?”
“Five would be better,” muttered Coblentz. “Much better. Even seven.”
“Gut Gott!” Stang exclaimed. “How can I know that? It depends on many things, not the least of which is the British Royal Navy!”
“Well, then,” continued Glock, “will there be another battle? That is, will you drive this ship into another torpedo?”
“Gut Gott!” I must stop repeating myself, thought Stang. “That is a preposterous question! I did not intentionally ‘drive’ her into this one!”
“Any shell over 280 mm might also be a problem,” commented Coblentz, helpfully. “At least if it hit nearby.”
“Herren,” Stang managed after a few heroic breaths, “best you explain. I cannot know the answers to those questions. No one could.”
The Vulcanites looked at each other. Glock started.
“Kapitan, the damage to the outer hull surface is extensive. Worse than we’d hoped.”
“That we can deal with,” Coblentz interjected.
“The belt has been displaced, about as we thought,” Glock continued. “That we came prepared to deal with, also. Pretty much we will simply work to improve its stability in place.”
“We do not have the machinery to deal with armor,” Coblentz explained.
“At least, not in that mass,” added Glock, and Coblentz nodded, both understanding the oblique reference to armored hatches.
“What is the problem, then?” Stang asked into the lengthening pause.
“Structural steel,” Glock answered. “Kapitan, what we really need is a shipyard. And a steel mill. No amount of field cleverness by us will restore your vessel to what she was before. If at Vulcan we were, I would cut all this away, debride this entire hull section, and replace all the structural steel.”
“I don’t understand,” Stang admitted, his stomach burning. The steel was still there, wasn’t it?
“The members below us have all been work-hardened,” Glock said. “Seriously so. There has been deformation. Extensive. Many members clearly went beyond their elastic limits. There was even some tearing.”
“The strength of the major load-bearing members cannot be trusted,” Coblentz declared.
“And we could not replace them here,” Glock continued, “even if replacements we had, and we do not.”
“We could fashion something with what we had Jager bring out on Kronprinzessin Cecilie,” Coblentz said. “But it would not be adequate if your vessel were struck in battle.”
“Kapitan,” began Glock, apparently changing the subject. “What do you know of concrete?”
“Not a lot,” Stang admitted, his insides churning.
“Concrete can be used in some situations where steel cannot. We would set up pours to encase the steel, adding internal struts for greater strength. The hull surface would be metal facing, welded plates, with the concrete behind it. But, there is a problem.”
“Concrete needs at least three days to solidify enough to be of any service at all, but five to seven is the normal curing time.”
“Complete hydration takes years,” Coblentz observed, helpfully. “Also, do you intend to sail much further north?”
“Do you know another way to Wilhelmshaven ?” Another crazy question!
“What Laban means is that, well, concrete works best in, say, the Mediterranean . If the water in curing concrete freezes, the concrete is destroyed. Best to keep it warm, above 10 Celsius, at least.”
“The colder it is, the slower it cures,” Coblentz said.
“What is the temperature here now?”
Glock smiled. “13. Likely just 200 meters away it is 8 or less three meters down. Here, the shallows let the sun in while keeping the currents out. It may rise above 10 only 60 days of the year, but that is now."
“Hmmm, perhaps it is warmer elsewhere. I could have the channel mapped for temperature, everywhere it is deep enough.”
“That, Kapitan, is a most excellent idea!”
---- St. Pierre , Place de la Roncière
“I don’t like it,” muttered Max, as the two American reporters walked off the pier and back into the Place. He glanced over his shoulder at the women and children in the boats. “This whole thing is starting to stink, and I’m not talking cod, here.”
“Yeah,” Blue said. “We’re getting used, all right. I’m not too clear just how we got here but, still, he and Ballin have played it straight, each step along the way.”
“And exactly where is ‘here’? That’s what I want to know.”
“Maybe that’s what editors are for? Lord knows, I’ve had precious little use for them before this.”
“Ha! I hear that! Ah, Petty Officer Sumpfhühn,” greeted Max.
“The gendarme you asked about, Felsarzt found him, he is over there.”
The reporters looked where the German was pointing. There, a middle-aged man in what appeared to be some sort of uniform sat with a foot propped up on a stool. They did not see that the foot was heavily bandaged at first, because several young kids were clustered about him, partly blocking the line of sight. Even though the Germans kept their distance, the children scattered as the Americans approached. One lad, perhaps eight, stayed, but even he moved to keep the chair between him and the reporters.
“Do you speak English?” Blue inquired.
“Anglais? No. British, you?”
“No, Les Estats Unis d'Amerique,” replied Max. He had learned the name of the US in several languages.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” Max tried.
He either couldn’t or wouldn’t, which amounted to much the same thing, as far as they were concerned. The reporters’ frustration was cut short by the arrival of Petty Officer Felsarzt, who had with him the Western Union American, whose skepticism was quick and loud.
“You’re both reporters? American reporters?! What in the hell are you doing with THEM?”
Max and Blue tried not to flinch, as it so nearly echoed their own doubts they’d voiced just minutes earlier.
“Our job’s to tell the truth, to inform, that’s all.” Blue replied. “You got a story? We’ll write it up, send it in.”
“The Germans - ha! - you really think they’ll let you do that?”
“They have so far,” answered Max, evenly. “The Head Hun said you spoke French. If we’ve been told the truth, this guy was right in the middle of the shootout at the Frenchie OK Corral up the street there. We already got it from the German side. We want HIS side now.”
“They threatened to burn down Western Union !”
“Did they do it?”
“Well, no, but ....”
“Look,” Max interrupted, “we’re really running out of time here. I don’t know what they’re gonna’ do with you, but they’re gonna’ put this guy on a boat any minute.”
“A fire that didn’t happen ain’t news,” Blue added. “It just ain’t. A gunfight that did, is.”
“Oh, okay. It’s not fair, though.”
It was, of course, hardly the first time the reporters had heard that lament, but they made noises in false sympathy anyway, just to get him started.
“He says, you know how the Gendarmerie is marked, the bullets came in all the windows and, as you saw, the Germans entered on both sides of the front.”
It was the first time the reporters had had to work through a translator like this. Max frowned.
The gendarme seemed to know where the reporters had been in St. Pierre . Still, it could be errors in translation.
“Did he say it just like that?”
“Oui, I mean, yes.”
“Okay, okay. What happened next? After he slammed the door?”
The reporters took copious notes and were comparing them when the Germans finally approached. Their translator had continued in conversation with the gendarme and suddenly burst out in what appeared to be a fit.
“What happened? What did he say?”
“He, he said the Germans looted my offices! Western Union . Took out all my equipment! All of it!”
Max yawned. It had been a long day.
“How does he know that?” Blue asked.
“All of it! Those damned Boche!” The Western Union manager began to cuss in a French-English mixture that the Americans might have found entertaining some another time.
“Herren? Your boat is next.”
The reporters stood up. The Place and the pier had both been emptied as they struggled through the interview. They looked around and stretched and watched as the Western Union official and the gendarme were led down the pier.
“Herren, the Admiral asked if you would like to look about for a few minutes. To see that all have gone, that nothing has been destroyed. Your boat will be waiting for you at the pier in zwanzig minuten. The petty officer will take you to either Imperator or Kronprinzessin Cecilie. Your decision.”
---- Bridge of von der Tann
“Kapitan! There is the signal.”
“Very well,” replied Dirk. All the civilians were safely sequestered out of line of sight of the outer channel. The seemingly transparent shuffling about - the working to get windscreens, the queuing for coal - had been going on all day long. Now, as dusk neared, the desired geometry had been achieved, hopefully without giving a single clue to any observers.
Yes, dusk was nearing, but there was still enough light. They had cut this a bit close, but it had always been part of the calculus that these were the longest days of the year.
Speck, on the bridge of Augsburg , could not help but stare anxiously at the low gleaming forms, almost invisible unless one knew where to look in the slowly fading light, edging single file up the channel. A few of the small boats who had just previously acted as ferries, now acted as shepherd dogs for the wolves of the sea, their cloaked lanterns guidons. Speck knew he had done his job well, but he could not escape his worries. And there could always be mechanical failures.
The civilian captain of the anchored Eyewhon dozed in his sea cabin, as his skeleton topside watch did much the same, rousing themselves only enough to pass along the orders to start and stop this pump or that, or shift the manifolds that controlled which fluids went down which hoses and when. Most of the rest of the crew were over on Imperator, where the food and the sight of the fire-haired Countess Marina kept all eyes far from any portholes. The engineering watch below decks, like those above, cared not a whit which ship got fresh water, fuel oil, or diesel, or in what order.
The hoses of the moment carried diesel and water and went over onto von der Tann, where carefully shielded lanterns showed men shoveling coal just as they had been all day. The fluids flowed onto the battlecruiser, as they had several times before, as tanks were flushed and refilled. This time, though, the flows continued across to the far side, the down-channel side, and from there down to the thirsty wolves freshly snugged up below.
Dirk walked across to the up-channel side of the wingbridge and looked down. He nodded at the “thumbs up” signals of the three COs . Damn, he thought, this might all just work.
Per the previous chapter, the reporters interviewed German Petty Officer Felder (via their translators, Petty Officers Sumpfhühn and Felsarzt). Felder had led one of the assault teams during the taking of the Gendarmerie.