Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part I
July 2, 1915
---- Benbow, course 088, speed 20 knots
The cresting of land on the horizon had neatly coincided with the dawn, confirming that he had made another perfect landfall. Though hardly a trivial accomplishment, Captain Herrick had given little thought to it, so consumed was he over other, weightier matters. The wireless had remained silent all through the night and - more to the point - pre-dawn hours. Well to the east, the sun had already risen, and had done so hours ago.
That could mean only one thing ....
“Good morning, sir,” greeted Herrick, as Vice Admiral Burney’s entry onto the bridge interrupted his reverie.
Burney acknowledged, and they exchanged formal pleasantries in what had become somewhat of a ritual these last many days since their departure from Scapa Flow. The bridge watch edged away discreetly, to give their seniors what privacy a patch of empty deck afforded.
“Nothing on the overnights,” inserted Herrick, at the proper moment. “ Bermuda has come up, but nothing else, the last of it just ten minutes gone. So, they’re still out here, somewhere.”
“Yes,” said Burney, tonelessly. “No Holmes needed for that.” (NOTE 1)
Herrick nodded at the implied rebuke, but remained unchastened, nonetheless. Clearly, the Huns were still loose on the high seas. In the Western Hemisphere - the “here” Herrick had referenced. Where he was, in command of HMS Benbow, with HMS Hercules and more than sufficient support light. He used the silence to raise his binoculars and scan the seaward horizon first to the north, and then to the south, checking as he did that the others remained in their proper stations.
For Herrick, this meant that opportunity remained real, very real. Finding the Germans - and he had no doubts whatsoever as to the outcome of THAT engagement - would mean a triumphant return. They’d had to leave in stealth, but would return in pomp. It would erase the stain on His Majesty’s Royal Navy from Dogger Bank, one so grievously smeared anew on May 31. Those were grounds enough to seek battle, more than enough, but a new one had just recently pushed to the head of the queue in Herrick’s mind. The encounter with that dreadnought squadron of the former colonials just four days ago had galled him terribly. The Yanks would never have dared to play such games a month ago. The British lord’s lips tightened at the memory of Admiral Burney going over to see the American admiral aboard the foreign flagship. Yes, dispatching the German interlopers in a massive reprise of the Falklands battle would be just the ticket to begin putting things right.
Admiral Burney’s thoughts ran somewhat a parallel course to that of his flagship’s CO. Had the Germans gone to ground? If so, where? If not, then they were six days enroute to ... somewhere. If their destination were Wilhelmshaven, well, it was about 2100 miles to the Strait from Boston. Burney did not need to consult a map to refresh himself on that fact. Six days at fifteen knots would have put them in the Strait a couple hours ago, in the pre-dawn gloom. A tad slower, and the Germans might be approaching there right that instant.
And he was about to dock in Bermuda, about 2500 miles to the SSW.
---- HMS Rollonot, southern mouth of Denmark Strait
Captain Hawkins tried not to make his relief obvious. Dawn had come and the thickest of the morning fog was easing. Visibility had grown to over 15,000 yards ... with no Germans in sight.
Hawkins held few illusions as to his fate should any of the warships of the German force make an appearance. No, doubtless he would go down quickly, just as his life-long friend, Captain Moore had done, so heroically two weeks ago. Still, he thought he’d give them a better fight than Val’s Tract had. He had drilled his gun crews hard ever since they’d gotten wind that Germans were out, and they’d not complained once, instead leaping about in the drills with real enthusiasm.
He was proud of them, and tried not to think about the fact that his command had only the two cannons, whilst even the smallest of the German cruisers probably had six or eight, four-inchers, though. It would take only a couple of 6" equalizers, he was confident, to send one of them off. There were, however, four light cruisers abroad, not just one.
“Send off the message,” Hawkins ordered to his elderly Reservist Signals Officer.
Battlecruisers would be quite another matter but, as he’d declared to his Second Officer, another Reservist, some things were simply not worth worrying about.
His Second Officer had nodded in apparent agreement, but he always kept track of wherever vestiges of fog might be found. The Huns had too many ships to hide in such spots, but the reservist welcomed anything resembling a hidey hole for his elderly AMC.
The acting station chief felt a vast weight ease off his tired shoulders with the first sighting report of Burney’s force. Admiral Seavey was still days to the East, but Burney’s dreadnoughts meant that, for the first time, Bermuda was home to more combat power than the Germans had in the Hemisphere. And when, he thought with horror, had one in his post had reason to feel such a relief? To realize that, now, finally, His Majesty’s Royal Navy of the British Empire once again had enough force on station to meet the foe with confidence?
It was a horrible feeling. An evil and guilty relief. Like slaking a terrible hunger by an act of cannibalism. Since Burney’s two dreadnoughts had been carved off the Grand Fleet - responsible for defending Britain herself from the Huns - the metaphor felt appalling apt.
The admiral ran his fingers through his thinning white hair, wishing again that it had been he who’d gone north aboard Sydney, and not Admiral Patey.
---- Moltke, 8 knots
For Rear Admiral Hanzik, the empty seas had been most mightily welcomed. The absence of Entente shipping made it less than a miracle than it would have been just a few weeks ago, but Hanzik had already had two things go wrong on this voyage such that a third would not come as too much of a surprise.
The straight line path from St. Pierre to Iceland was just over 1500 nautical miles. Unfortunately, that track was partly over Newfoundland. Even a serious attempt to reduce the transit distance by closely skirting the coast was out of the question, as the areas there were heavily fished. So, the hours of the first too-brief night had been used mostly to gain sea room, as well as distance from “ Western France.”
There were a great many courses that his force could take, should they make an attempt to return to Germany now. Until they were spotted and reported - and Hanzik knew it to be inevitable - the British could not well focus their efforts. Once the British had a sighting - even one brief and quickly lost - the odds would shift, his choices would shrink. For now, though, they remained unfound. As the time grew, so did their possible range of positions, British calculations would surely suggest.
Hanzik suppressed a sigh and put down his binoculars. He had recognized earlier that he was stalling. He decided that he could put it off no longer. It was time to make the first move.
Looking down from the wingbridge, Stang could see that his decks were almost clear again. Overnight, the work parties had finished striking below all the coal that had yesterday been so eagerly but hastily dumped on Moltke’s decks. His bunkers were full, and Stang suspected those of the others also had overloaded. He, however, had been pressed for time while they had been able to be less obvious about it. So, why weren’t they making a high speed run?
“Signals Officer,” Hanzik called. Stang stiffened; had he asked aloud?
“All ships. All stop.”
Gott in Himmel! Stang thought. Now what?!
---- London, Offices of the Admiralty
They had waited as the line of dawn had swept westward across the Atlantic, just as they had each of the last six days, and with the same results. Wry references to Lord Salisbury and the rising of the sun had gone off the board two days earlier. (NOTE 2)
If the Germans had essayed some sort of flying passage, 100 hours would have seen them at the southern mouth of the Denmark Strait. Four days. But June 30 th had come and gone without a sighting, any sort of sighting. As that day had drawn on, everyone had found an opportunity to observe that a 21 knot passage had been only a theoretical possibility, since the coal bunkers of the warships would support nothing of the sort. As for the liners, they could manage that and more, but they also could then be intercepted at leisure by any of dozens of patrolling cruisers, all eager for the opportunity.
With the coming of July, a growing sense of unreality and alarm had begun to take root, and a new calculus emerge. If all the missing warships had rejoined the German prize fleet, to escort them back as a body, then their speed of advance would be limited to that of their captures. A group of briefers put forward by Read Admiral Ballard, Admiral of Patrols, had just completed their initial presentation elaborating the concept to Admiral Callaghan and Lord Carson.
The staff officers came to a close, looked at the pair of senior officials, and waited. After a moment, the duo nodded to Ballard that his men should continue. One officer brought forward a leather portfolio from which he extracted a map, which he then carefully spread out, displaying an annotated chart of much of the North Atlantic.
“My Lord, Admiral, the first of the prizes left American waters sometime during the early hours of June 21 st, sir. Outside of New York.” A pointer jabbed unnecessarily at the American port.
Carson and Callaghan considered the map. Unbeknownst to any present, it bore an eerie resemblance to another map that had been displayed to a very similar but very different audience a bit over two weeks earlier and 400 miles away. (NOTE 3) One marked line noted that it was 2200 miles from New York to the Strait. The briefer paused, but both men remained silent.
“We’ve drawn a number of plots. The first presumes 8 knots, beginning promptly at midnight, the start of the 21 st.”
A second officer leaned over and placed a wedge-shaped piece of mapboard on the chart to represent with its arc a range of likely NE courses. The projected pie slice extended well into the Denmark Strait, and lapped around the south of Iceland by more than a bit.
“We know now - of course - that they did not do this, though it could not be dismissed from the onset. Nonetheless, such a course of action was never considered a likely one, as one would normally send ahead the slowest ships, letting the faster join up during the passage, and the escorts last of all.”
Carson raised his eyebrows, as that statement was in substantial dissonance with previous theories - some quite recent. The presenter moved hastily then to amplify his remarks.
“Milord, that’s standard convoy doctrine. I’m told that generals generally send on ahead their ammunition wagons and artillery - ahead of their armies - for much the same reason: to let all arrive together.”
Carson nodded. Callaghan did not.
“So, this next plot assumes that the Germans sent their slowest ships - 6 knots - on ahead first with the others to follow. That produces what you see here.”
A different piece of mapboard was placed. The new projection came almost to the entrance of the Strait, but not quite broaching the picket line there.
“But there has been no report?”
“No, milord. And all ships have reported in by wireless, within the hour.”
“Your conclusions then?” Callaghan asked, frowning, turning to Ballard.
“Sir,” began the Admiral of Patrols, taking over, keying off Callaghan’s gaze, “that assumption also fails, I’m afraid.”
Callaghan nodded, almost relieved, but Carson blinked.
“Would you explain that, sir?” asked the First Lord of the Admiralty.
“Our patrols, milord,” Ballard stated. “They extend well into that ... area. Wherever the Germans are, milord, they are not there.”
“Even if you shave off a knot? Or a few hours? Or both?”
“Maybe, milord, but - personally - well, no.”
“Then the Germans,” mused Carson, “they’ve done something else entirely. Something unexpected.”
“Yes, milord.” The admission was bitter on the lips of the Admiral of Patrols. The Germans had indeed done “something unexpected” - still again.
And the Atlantic still remained closed to British merchants.
The Commander of the High Seas Fleet regarded Rear-Admiral Josef von Necki with a steely gaze, but one that was returned with unflinching steadiness. No stranger to such gazes was Necki, and from personages far more daunting than Letters, whose personal friendship dated all the way back to even before the U-1 affair. Two paces distant, Vice-Admiral Rudberg - a silent witness to the little tableau - could not help be amused, though he dared not let his feelings reach his face.
“A quick sweep, Admiral,” said Letters, summarizing what had gone before at some length. “I regard this more as a shakedown than anything else.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Necki, meekly enough. “I understand.” Indeed I do, he thought, reading easily many if not all of the undercurrents beneath the waters in the office.
Both of the junior admirals recognized well enough the torment afflicting the HSF CO. Rudberg felt far less sympathy than Necki did, however. In Ruberg’s opinion, Letters had only himself to blame for the pretty fix in which he now found himself.
“Josef,” Letters added, after a strained moment. “I need them back, both of them ... Hanzik ....”
“I understand, sir.” Necki did, actually. Mostly. As he went to leave, Necki pretended not to notice how heavily the Baron sat down as he passed across the threshold and clicked the door firmly shut behind him. Rudberg alone was left to see him put his head in his hands.
Just a pace outside the door, Kapitän zur See Theodor and Kapitän zur See Nik jolted at the sound. Nik almost dropped the cat he’d picked up and had been speaking to. Theodor eyed the exuberant look breaking out on Necki’s face and shivered, as though a sudden draft of icy air had whistled down his back fresh off a 10,000 meter peak. Both battlecruiser COs rose to their feet and, after a moment, so did Korvettenkapitäns Wolferein and Vogel, several meters distant. The five of them stood there in silence for several seconds. Necki read them easily, seeing the mixtures of eagerness and apprehension on the faces of the three who had seen battle a month ago. Vogel’s, in complete contrast, showed nothing but exultation. Aides and yeoman were there, but might as well not have been, as far as the five were concerned.
The four junior officers waited as one for the admiral to speak.
On the other side of the door, Vice-Admiral Baron A. S. Letters tried hard not to let the sounds that passed through the wood pierce his soul.
“Allard,” said Rudburg gently, as the echoes of the departing officers’ strides seeped under the door. “What did you expect? ‘Montrose’s Toast’ - the British will forget it long before Wilhelm ever will.”
“It didn’t have to ...”
“Yes, it did. You know it better than I.” With them alone, Rudburg could speak more boldly into such a pause. “The order to form Line, the run across the Van - that course led right here. To that desk.” Atop which lay the exquisite stationery spelling out the orders that Letters had been unable to reverse.
“Verdammt.” But the Baron argued no more.
Three robed cutthroats huddled at the junction of a passageway. Dark eyes above hooked noses looked this way and that, and expressive hands fluttered with their speech.
[It is said that the fresh fruit is gone!]
[It is so. But the chieftain of the cooks has professed the preserved fruits to be worthy.]
[Is he to be believed?! He is German, is he not? I do not trust these Germans.]
Truth be told - though rarely was it - the speaker trusted no one at all.
[Well said! At least the hated Greeks are not ....]
[That is so, but Tawfiq speaks well of ....]
[Tawfig? That dog-robber!? Who is he to ....]
[By the beard of the Prophet! I say only what ....]
[Tawfig himself has tasted it ... a sauce to be spread atop those flattened breads that the Master ...]
[May Allah’s smile remain upon him!] [Yea, truly!]
[... has lately taken at first meal. The picture-takers called it ‘compote’ ...]
[Silence! They come!]
Blue and Max nodded to the trio as they passed through. The three bobbed their heads and made effusive gestures. The Americans had always been a bit uneasy at the gap-toothed smiles of Hadi’s men. It was probably just as well that they remained ignorant of the fact that most of the hand motions were prophylactic wardings against the “evil eye.”
“I agree,” Max picked up again, once they were past the Arabs. “We’ve got a problem, alright. What’s your take on it?”
“The invasion stuff is first,” said Blue. “We’ve got a ton of it, and it’s huge, but it’s not gonna’ age well. Not at all.”
In two or three days - certainly under a week - the story would be all over the place.
“Nor will the stuff from off Boston,” agreed Max. “It may already be worthless.”
“Yes. I don’t know where the British are - the Germans sure don’t seem to! - but they have to be off Boston or New York by now, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t even bet against Fast Freddie on that!”
“So, any ideas?”
“Not yet,” Max sighed.
1) Burney was making reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, “The Silver Blaze,” published in 1894. Specifically, he was equating the wireless to the stable dog that did not bark during the night. On the web:
Doyle’s “The Valley of Fear” story of the great detective was published in serial form commencing in the September 1914 edition of “The Strand” - a monthly magazine.
2) Lord Salisbury is often credited with coining the exact phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” He did so in 1861 when he, ironically, complained over expenditures in colonial defence.
Other sources point to earlier, but inexact derivations, such as:
(My thanx once again to Richard Byrd, whose above story cured me of one of my worst cases of writer’s block these last 7 years. ;-) BTW, Richard is also to blame for the appearance of the Jersey Devil in Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug. At one “summit” in Florida, he brought a cartoon strip containing two remarkably preposterous lines, and I took it as a personal challenge to incorporate them in LT-EG. And I had sooo much fun doing it!)