Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part IV
July 3, 1915
“At dawn, Admiral DeRobeck faced fogs, one from Gaia, Mother Nature, and another from Mars, God of War.” ----------------------------- Lady Christine Letters, ibid, page 831
---- Warspite, All Stop
Like Baron Letters, DeRobeck had had to make do with almost no sleep. Unlike the Baron who had WANTED to be underway, DeRobeck had never paused, rail to port, car to pier, and cruiser to dreadnought.
The dawn rendezvous had gone flawlessly, despite the poorish visibility.
“Good morning, sir,” offered Captain Swafford to Admiral De Robeck, as the latter came aboard. They continued to exchange civilities as they made their way up to the bridge.
“Sir,” began the OOD upon their arrival, and he proceeded to report that the small boat had returned and been recovered by the cruiser. Within minutes, the fleet was again underway.
Swafford had expected De Robeck to use Marlborough as his flagship, as the Iron Duke class had better space for flag folk than the Queen Elizabeths. Still, Warspite was not only the newest, but she also had flown the flag of Admiral J[ellic]oe on the most recent sortie. Swafford still had no specific knowledge as to why De Robeck had chosen Warspite, but worried that the GF CO might expect a steady diet of insights like the one a couple weeks earlier. (NOTE 1)
---- Queen Elizabeth
“There’s the ‘Execute’, sir.”
“Very well,” Admiral Keyes acknowledged and nodded to Captain Dave.
“Ahead Standard,” ordered Dave. The flags had specified 15 knots. De Robeck’s previous practice had been to form up at that speed and then to increase to 20; this time was apparently not to be an exception. The force’s nine dreadnoughts were steaming three abreast in columns of three. Warspite’s trio, which included St. Vincent and Agincourt, occupied the central position while Keyes’ threesome of Queen Elizabeth, Bellerophon, and Neptune comprised the port group. On the far side to starboard, steamed Admiral Gaunt with Marlborough, Colossus, and Vanguard.
In an overtly-social gathering of senior non-flag officers earlier that week, Commander Moyer - Dave’s XO - had once again offered the hope that Warspite and Queen Elizabeth might form one group, a fast wing, so to speak. Swafford had shaken his graying, scholarly locks at the notion, not giving it much chance but he had opined that, once Barham joined in October, or maybe even September, prospects might well improve. Dave’s Chief Engineer, Commander Gates, had nodded at that. Dave’s Gunner, the redoubtable Commander Boy, had observed that De Robeck could always trump everything with a few flag hoists, perhaps implying that De Robeck’s choice of Warspite as his flagship might overlay a clandestine preservation of flexibility. Boy hadn’t put it quite that way (actually, no one was quite sure HOW he’d put it), but that’s how Dave had translated it.
---- Frankfurt, speed 5 knots, course 190
The guns had settled in to a pace more measured than earlier, reflecting the reduction in suitable targets.
Vogel had made one long pass, then come about and almost completed another. The pier was in flames through over half its length, and most of the vessels tied up alongside had been sunk or had joined the conflagration.
He had begun to feel something between his shoulder blades. It was neither a tickle nor an itch, but yet it was something along those lines. He flexed his shoulders uneasily inside his uniform. It didn’t help. It was almost as though someone was drawing a serrated fern frond along his spine, sometimes tickling, sometimes rasping, but always annoying. Had he felt that before? A kind of immanence? He looked away from the pier, scanning the horizon, and checking on his scattered torpedo boats. Had it been back during Frankfurt’s approach to Kiel, just before the sentry ship was hit by that torpedo? When, unknown to him, another pair had already been launched at him? He licked his lips and started to scan for periscopes.
The hell with it! Enough was enough.
“Cease fire! Left full rudder. Come to course 090.”
“Sir, my rudder is left full ....”
“Ahead Full, make turns for 20 knots.”
“Sir, engineering acknowledges 20 knots.”
“Very well. Signals Officer, hoist recall.”
Thus, Regensburg’s signal barely a hand of minutes later was not much of a surprise. The “Recall” from Admiral Necki, 20 minutes after that, came as no surprise at all.
---- B.110, All Stop
Regensburg’s signal had not come as a surprise to Oberleutnant Kelly, either, but only because “surprise” was far too mild a word.
He started to order a blast from the whistle, had his mouth already open, in fact, but changed his mind. That signal would be hard for his boarding party to interpret and would carry further than he’d prefer just now.
There! His backup boarders were lined up midships a few meters aft, at the starboard davit amidships. Probably, he shouldn’t leave the bridge, but he was five steps on his way before he considered that point.
The young and very junior officer jumped, his mouth gaping open at the sudden appearance of his commanding officer.
“Your Luger! Now!”
The kid fumbled at his holster and got it out.
Kelley grabbed it, readied it, and pointed it into the sky.
“Crack-crack-crack- ....” Kelly fired off the entire clip as fast as he could pull the trigger.
“Danke,” he muttered, and headed back to the bridge on a run. Only later would he consider that he might’ve left them wondering as to his sanity.
“Boats are clear, sir,” came the report as he was stepping back onto the bridge.
The 88 mm shells began to slam into the waterline of the small British merchant, which quickly started to list. Kelly took a breath as he watched, the loud and reverberating “whanng-whanng” sounds were sweet martial music to his ears. The name on her bow was Terrione, though why a Britisher would be named after a mountain in Sicily, Kelly had no idea and doubted he’d ever learn why. It would just have to remain another mystery of conflict.
“Sir, boarders back aboard. No casualties.”
“Sir, smoke plumes, bearing 145. Looks to be Regensburg.”
“Very well,” Kelly acknowledged, but gave no new orders.
He had full confidence in his command and had absolutely no intention of allowing himself to be forced off his prize before he was certain she was gone, and he was not about to waste a torpedo on her. Fire was now starting to show on the doomed merchantman, and smoke began to blow out of various openings. The wind shifted slightly, bringing the fumes their way and he wrinkled his noise at the stink of whatever was in Terrione. Fish? Fertilizer? He’d have to ask the boarding party leader for the manifest later.
“Sir, more plumes! Bearing 170.”
“Very well,” he acknowledged. Time to go.
“Ahead full, 20 knots. Helm, as you get way, put us onto 090.”
Kelly looked back at the burning merchant once his torpedo boat steadied up on the ordered course. Already, the ship had slipped below the waves, leaving only a spreading stain of smoldering scum on the water to mark where it had been.
“Sir, answering Ahead Full - 20 knots. Steady on course 090.”
“Very well. Ahead Flank, 28 knots.”
---- Warspite, course 180, speed 15 knots
The fog was showing some signs of lifting, Swafford thought, hopefully.
“Sir, from Commodore Tyrewhitt: ‘German flotilla sighted.’ The position looks to be somewhere below Lowestoft.” Try as he might, the senior staff officer had been unable to keep a thread of disbelief out of his voice.
De Robeck, Swafford, and a couple others moved over to the chart. A few deft movements of calipers yielded a small “x” about 25 miles ESE of Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
Swafford noted the deepening furrows in De Robeck’s brow. The questions troubling the GF CO were obvious. Room 40 had projected a dawn sortie for the High Seas Fleet. The flagship had been reported to be moored at dusk, and at least one overnight wireless from it had placed it in or around Wilhelmshaven. So, what was a flotilla doing so far from port, let alone so near the English coast? Even if the HSF had exited port at midnight, they would hardly be in support range of the flotilla that Tyrewhitt seemed perfectly poised to snap up.
But what if the HSF had left right at dusk? Ever the hands-on instructor, Swafford itched to pick up the calipers and measure. Then, just before he could do so, one of De Robeck’s senior staff officers did just that. Swafford watched him set them at about 20 nautical miles, then flip them over and over for each hour since nightfall. How distant could a scout force be and still be considered to be within support range of the Main Body? It didn’t seem to matter; it looked to be too far by any definition.
So, was it simply a small scouting force? Probing the readiness of the Harwich Force? If the latter, Swafford thought, the Germans might again discover that intelligence came at some cost. De Robeck had cannily positioned well to the south in his van perhaps the only warrior to emerge from the May 31 debacle with reputation untarnished, indeed, even burnished. That intrepid force commander had eluded Letters’ battlecruisers into whom Sturdee had blundered to extinction, had next brilliantly tracked down the HSF Main Body and warned J[ellic]oe in time for him to join battle on his own chosen terms, and who - still not done - had led the great dusk torpedo attack into the very heart of the High Seas Fleet, thereby inflicting such great damage that the Huns were forced to break off their pursuit and retire to Wilhelmshaven to lick their wounds.
Swafford glanced over at the Commander - Grand Fleet. Yes, the admiral was staring down at the map, nodding his head, one finger tip on that same force.
“Signals Officer ....”
---- Southampton, course 180, speed 15 knots
Commander Dedmon, the cruiser XO, could not see a thing. The lookout section chief had reported the fog to be thinning, and that those aloft were now above the bank and could scan some distance. That did not help Dedmon’s vision, though, and he hated being dependent on the lookouts above and those in the bows. This did not, however, appear to faze his CO four steps away.
Commodore Nott stood staring into the fog in what, Commander Dedmon had to admit, might very well be a heroic pose. Nott strove to be the epitome of a commodore, especially after his command had been redesignated “First Light Cruiser” but otherwise left untouched, even whilst massive reorganizations fell all about in the aftermath of the May 31 battle. The untimely demise of Commodores Hawksley and Alexander-Sinclair had also lent Nott new stature. In any case, Nott’s star shone quite bright these days and his inevitable pretensions had forced Dedmon into striving to be a model ship XO and chief of staff. (NOTE 3)
“Commodore, from Warspite ....”
Nott read the proffered slip. Fog or no, Dedmon could see the commodore’s nostrils flair wide open like the intakes of some bodily engine.
“Signals Officer, hoist 25 knots!”
Dedmon flinched. Perhaps commodores COULD see through fog better than mere mortals? Some quality afforded by epaulettes? Further cynicism was averted by Nott handing over the message.
“Come to course 150.”
Nott strode over to the starboard side of the bridge and gazed into Southampton’s wake, presumably to personally ensure that Birmingham was altering to follow. Dedmon doubted that even epaulette-enhanced eyes could see Nottingham or Dublin further back.
---- Room 40
The reports had begun to come in 30 minutes ago, but they were incoherent at first.
Commander Jan watched as flag officers stared at the maps and traded gestures. Truth be known, there was little chaos despite appearances to the contrary. The first signals to come in had Lowestoft under attack, but that had been cleared up in short order, with the confusion stemming from where the call had been relayed. Nonetheless, calls to Lowestoft had been in order, and the all clear from there had been swift. It took only a few more minutes to determine that it was Southwold that was being shelled.
The problem was that it was not at all clear just what was doing the shelling.
Fortunately, they were soon able to rule out any chance that the offenders were dreadnought battleships or dreadnought battlecruisers. Beyond that, though, confusion remained with camps seemingly evenly divided between armored cruisers and light cruisers. As reported, the ships seemed too small to be the former, but the guns seemed to be too large for the latter.
“Armored cruisers,” said one admiral. “Of course! Damn their eyes! We shift our armored cruisers away and the Hun shifts his into the void!”
“Indeed, and can we conclude now that Letters knows our convoy plans?”
“I wouldn’t doubt it for an instant!”
“Sir,” inserted Jan into the verbal fray, “any new information on Letters? Is he still coming up as in Wilhelmshaven?”
“Nothing new, sir,” replied another officer. “Wilhelmshaven sent an acknowledgment, probably to a bombardment report, but it didn’t come from any repeater of his, and it didn’t contain any designator or call sign of his.”
So, was the High Seas Fleet at sea, or not? What was that Letters up to now?
In any case, they now knew enough to compose some sort of sensible signal for the Commander - Grand Fleet.
---- Warspite, course 180, speed 15 knots
“Sir, from the Admiralty!”
De Robeck took it calmly enough, but Swafford could tell he was startled.
“Bombarding Southwold?! Is that who Tyrewhitt’s chasing?”
It didn’t take a look at the map to see that such was possible. Or were there two forces? If so, why only one bombardment? Or had they just not gotten word of another yet?
It made some sense, as Yorck and Roon had been involved in much the same thing at Yarmouth and Hartlepool early in the war. (NOTE 4) Still, those vessels were probably not much faster than 21 knots and, being older ships with poorer coal, might not make that. They mounted 8.2" guns, though, and plentiful 5.9" secondaries. They could prove a tough nut for the Harwich Force to crack, especially if they had a flotilla or two along. If they got clean away, it would be another slap in the face of the RN and HMG.
But Letters was still sitting tied up in Wilhelmshaven? Or was he? Had the Germans finally figured out Room 40?
De Robeck reached a decision, fog or no fog. Letters in port or at sea, one force or two, or even three - any force cored with armored cruisers offered just too much for Harwich Force to profitably tackle, but his friend Admiral Heath just might get avenged this day.
“Hoist 20 knots.”
1) On June 19, see here:
2) For a look at a similar map:
3) Professor Blue (University of Aberdeen Press) would not publish Nott In Vain until after the Great War.
4) Historical - November 3, 1914 for Yarmouth, and December 16, 1914 for Hartlepool.