Letterstime - Ein
Geleitzug - Homeward Bound? Part IX
July 3, 1915
---- Warspite, course 150, speed 20.5 knots
Captain Swafford had reached the conclusion first, or thought he had. Actually, he was not entirely sure. His first instinct had been to report his conclusion, no matter what Shakespeare’s Cleopatra’s reaction had been. (NOTE 1) But he really was not sure: either that he was right, or that he was first.
A few moments earlier, Hereford, the admiral’s keen-eyed flaglieutenant, had looked up from the same plot and traded frowns with a more senior member of DeRobeck’s staff. The second officer licked his lips nervously. At least, Swafford thought it was nervousness, deeming it unlikely to be anticipation or hunger. After all, the man was hardly the lean and hungry type, being instead a stocky, heavyset commander whose every move was a threat to his buttons.
Nor was Swafford sure he was right. The accuracy of dead reckoning plots degraded with time and turn as to relative positioning from the moment the ships lost sight of each other, and Nott had been sent on ahead well before dawn, nearly twelve hours gone. It also depended on how much the Germans deviated from their flight track, what point-of-advance speed they’d been able to maintain, and how much Nott had forced them to deviate.
But it looked like the Germans just might get clean away.
“Four knots, sir,” the heavyset commander reported to DeRobeck. “Four more knots and it’s a certainty. Anything less ... just might not be enough.”
DeRobeck blinked at that and, to Swafford’s surprise, turned an inquiring visage towards him.
Swafford found himself nodding in confirmation to Commander - Grand Fleet. It matched his own calculations to a few tenths. It was news most unwelcome, thus DeRobeck was unwilling to leave it at that.
“My calculations show much the same, sir, though perhaps a few tenths better. I’m thinking the Germans did not come off their line much despite Commodore Nott’s efforts.”
“Sir,” the commander ventured, “splitting the fleet is, of course, a possible solution.”
Now it was DeRobeck’s turn to frown.
“Your advice, then, is to detach Warspite and the Queen, leaving Admiral Gaunt?”
“Sir, I only mentioned it as a possibility.”
“Yes, so you did. Captain?”
“Sir, I’m confident I could keep 24.” That would be three of the “missing” four knots. “The Queen should be able to stay with us, but might only be able to manage a hair slower.” Queen Elizabeth had already seen the Mediterranean, hard steaming, and battle, while his own command was fresh from trials
“Sir,” it was the commander, “four hours should see the end of this, one way or another. So, Admiral Gaunt would still be in sight astern.” That was simple math, as three knots opening speed for four hours would be just 24,000 yards. With signal repeater cruisers, this was close support range, even if not flagship-to-flagship visibility.
“I would judge the risk to be small, sir. That is, we’d be more than a match for them, and Admiral Gaunt would block them to the north.” Swafford could have ended there, and almost did. Part of him, though felt he should add more, and so he stood there, hesitating. DeRobeck’s eyes never left his, drawing it out of him.
“I only wish, sir, that we had a better idea just where the High Seas Fleet was.”
DeRobeck nodded at that.
---- Lübeck, course 270, speed 21 knots
Korvettenkapitän Borys put down one hand onto the rail, lurching to one side as North Sea greeted his little cruiser with still another rogue wave. Had there been a storm somewhere to birth these waves? A tempest? He wasn’t used to this, nor was his crew, as they and SMS Lübeck had spent most of the war plying the waters of the Baltic, until ten days ago. Hell! The Baltic didn’t even really have tides! Steadied again, he returned his binoculars to his face and could just make out his trio of torpedo boats that were fanned out well ahead of him. He’d have to learn to be careful using his binoculars at speed. He’d already bitten his tongue once. And the impacts of the erratic waves, Borys thought, fill all my bones with aches
Borys knew well the Baltic, having grown up along the its coast. He’d fished it, boated in it, and had even learned to swim in it. In fact, he thought, finally able to smile at it now, he’d been given no choice on that last one. His Uncle Zak had professed his total and absolute mortification at the young lad’s admission that he couldn’t swim and had seen to the matter instantly.
Unfortunately for Borys, they’d been in a rowboat at the time.
I learned to swim, alright, he reflected. I learned also that I would fain die a dry death. Yet here I am, captain of a little ship of war in the greatest war ever waged.
Sadly, he’d lost track of his Uncle Zak back around the turn of the century. Young Borys had never been able to pry the full story out of his parents. One version seemed to be that he’d become increasingly isolated from the family. Another had been that he’d never gotten over something, with one version being that it was the dismissal of Bismarck (NOTE 2), whom he had idolized all his life, with the death of the old Iron Chancellor in 1898 being the final straw. Another version was unrequited love, but Borys had never believed that one, as the Uncle Zak he knew would never have left any such thing unrequited. Strangely, the one Borys tended to believe was the one that most of his cousins derided: deteriorating fishing. (NOTE 3) In that version, Uncle Zak had emigrated to Canada to follow the cod.
How old would Uncle Zak be now? Almost 70, Borys thought, but couldn’t be sure.
In any case, he and Lübeck had also left the Baltic now, being summoned to join the High Seas Fleet. There’d certainly been no problem for the commodores and admirals to find them berths. Victorious or not, there’d been an awfully large number of empty spaces in harbor .... So, here he was, out of the Baltic - along with Bremen who had just been rebuilt. His own command’s selection had been due largely to the fact that she had been built with turbines - the only cruiser of her class to get them. Bremen and her own three torpedo boats were somewhere to the south.
Borys turned - carefully! - and glanced astern, but only for a moment. The fleet was back there, over the horizon somewhere. But the British? He looked back over his bows. Where in the hell were they? In the final briefing, Acting-Kommodore Ehrhart had stated that Baron Letters himself had declared that they would encounter British fleet this day. No one - and most certainly not Borys! - was going to bet against the Great Man. Rumor had it that the Vice-Admiral could smell a Britisher 20,000 yards away with the wind at his back!
---- Room 40
Commander Sartore was not actually in Room 40, but in another room nearby. He had finally managed to get someone on the tele who had actually been there just after dawn when the Huns had started their shelling. Well, at least he thought he had.
“You’re a private, you say? Marines?”
“Ah, army, then. Well, which ... ”
“Nossir, I ....”
“Eh, what? Is it Home Service, then?” Sartore frowned. The voice sounded much too young for a Home Service battalion.
“Nossir. It’s m’name, s’or. Just m’name. Reece Private, at your service.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said Sartore. “I quite misunderstood.”
“It’s quite alright, s’or. You’re not being the first, after all. Fact is, you’re number 134, les’n I got my count wrong.”
“Yes, well, let’s get on with it then, shall we? You live in Southwold? Is that why you were there this morning?” His residual embarrassment led the commander to that unnecessary question. He would quite soon regret it.
“Nossir. My flat’s off Cathays Park. That’s in Cardiff. Wales.”
“Yes, so it is,” Sartore agreed quickly, just not quickly enough.
“We were down there to paint the dawn.”
Sartore felt his mouth sag open. No sound came out.
“Well, not all of us,” Reece Private-just-his-name self-corrected. “That’s just we call it. Most’n of us are painters. It’s the best light, dawn is. ‘Les’n there’s too much fog, of course. Not that a little fog isn’t a good thing, but .... Do you paint?”
“Neither do I, actually. Some of us are poets - not me, mind. And now I’m being generous with the term, I am, I really am. One of our group’s Kingwon; he’s a poet. Least he says he is. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He dresses all in dun, usually buckskin, but not always. No, eh? Ah, well, he was there with us. He was rhyming to the rising sun, that’s what he calls it, he does, out on the pier when the shells started coming, hitting right where he was. Say what you want against the Huns, but I don’t blame them for that nary a bit - I’ve wanted to do much the same myself over the years. Foul stuff he spouts, if’n ye be askin’ me. He was thrown into the water on the very first hit. Served him right, I thought. Whoever wrote that deserves to drown but, no, he came ashore barking like a mad seal, but otherwise fine.”
“Mr. Private!” Sartore got in, sensing the other finally pausing for breath. “Beg you pardon, but do you have any idea just why they rang me up and put you on the phone?” God in Heaven, what did I ever do to deserve this?
“It’s my pictures, I think.”
“Yessir. I’m a bit of a photographer, you see. Nothing fancy. Still lifes, or is that still lives? Never was much sure ....”
“Pictures? Photographs?!” A rising inflection betrayed his excitement.
“Of that Hun cruiser everyone’s so upset about. Five, maybe six. Pictures, that is. Not cruisers. There was just the one cruiser. The sixth one didn’t come out as well as the others. She’d turned away, you see.”
“ ‘Come out’, you say. You mean you’re already developed them?”
“Yessir. Got’em right here in m’bag. Wantin’ copies?”
Oh, yes. Sartore most certainly did, he was quick to assure him.
---- Bremen, course 270, speed 21 knots
Korvettenkapitän Conda had always denied that he was the introspective type, pointing instead to his sporting activities, especially skiing. He had come almost to believe it himself, ignoring that he had always used his cross-country training hours as his winter refuge. He had publicly disdained poetry, but oft declaimed aloud on the backslopes. Just now, as he stared into the west, he was recalling his interview with Acting-Kommodore Ehrhart, one of the acclaimed heros of Die Kaiserschlacht.
“Your performance reviews are excellent, Herr Conda.”
“Danke, Herr ... Kommodore.” That had been his first difficulty, and it had come right at the start! How does one address an officer with an “acting” promotion? Conda knew that he should have researched the matter, but had not. Perhaps he should he call Ehrhart by his permanent rank? The hesitation betrayed his inner analyses, but he had decided to go with the more senior title. That way, even if it were an error, it would be for the better.
“An unusual first name you have: ‘Nugal’. Is the spelling I have here accurate?”
“Jawohl, Herr Kommodore.”
“Very unusual.” Ehrhart’s voice commanded clarification, or so it seemed to Conda.
“I was told that it was a favorite place of my parents. They honeymooned there, I believe.” (NOTE 4) And begat me there, if my father’s to be believed, but Conda certainly had no intention of ever confiding THAT little detail to the “Acting-Panjandrum”. Or anyone else, for that matter! He felt his face grow hot and hoped Ehrhart would ignore it.
Conda could smile at it now and did so beneath his binoculars as he scanned the western horizon, his three torpedo boats in a wide arc on his bow. In war anything could happen, of course, but he was no believer in Letters. No man had the semi-mystical claptrap he’d been awarded by others. The plain facts of the matter were that Admiral Necki had executed a surprise dawn attack with battlecruisers. The British had hardly been expecting it and they couldn’t’ve caught them even if they had.
Still, it was a nice day for his first cruise out of the Baltic with the Fleet. (NOTE 5)
---- HMS Birkenhead, course 135, speed 22 knots
Commander Thatcher, CO of the ex-Antinavarhos Kontourioti, had glanced at HMS Chester, the ex-Lambros Katsonis, 2000 yards off the starboard beam when the first report came in. (NOTE 6) The so-called “Greek Twins” were detached scouts well ahead and out on the port wing of the Grand Fleet.
“Sir, lookouts report contact, bearing 120.”
All over the bridge, eyes and glasses pivoted like turrets.
“Sir, contact appears to be a patrol craft of some sort, range 22,000 yards.”
One of ours? Thatcher wondered. He looked the question at his Navigator poring over the charts. The man looked up, perhaps feeling his captain’s gaze.
“Not one of ours, sir, unless they’re just plain lost. We’re nearly a hundred miles from the Harwich Force.”
“Signals, hoist the contact. Chief, have we got a course for that contact?”
“Sir, contact was on a westerly course, but she’s bows-on now.”
“Sir, Chester has acknowledged.”
“Very well, helm, come to 120.”
It was time to see just who this interloper was.
---- Lübeck, course 270, speed 21 knots
“Sir, sighting report!” It was from the northernmost of his torpedoboat trio.
“Two cruisers, bearing 310?” Borys looked along that line. Nothing. Hadn’t the British operated their cruisers in formations of four? If so, there was another pair of them about.
“Signal Officer, send that on to the flagship. Copy Bremen.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Now what? The British cruisers would out-gun him easily, even if the other pair remained elsewhere. The Britishers would also be certain to be faster than his own ship. He would have to honor their guns and speed, and allow them to drive him off his position. Well, he could choose his flight vector. And there was another thing he could do.
“Signals Officer.” He ordered his other two torpedoboats to increase speed and press on. They might spot the other Britisher cruisers, or maybe more. Lübeck would have to serve otherwise.
“Come to course 345. Increase speed to 23 knots.”
“Sir, the British cruisers have turned to intercept.”
“Very well, send him the recall, course 090.”
He expected to catch sight of the enemy very shortly. He was not to be disappointed.
---- Warspite, course 150, speed 20.5 knots
“Admiral, report from Birkenhead. They’ve sighted a torpedoboat and a light cruiser, bearing 120. They’ve turned to investigate.”
“Birkenhead,” DeRobeck repeated. “Commander Thatcher, correct?”
“Aye, sir.” Swafford had turned to the chart. “They’re about 30,000 yards on 120.”
“Another German formation,” DeRobeck noted. “Captain, how likely that they’re part of the raider force?”
“No, sir. I mean, it’s possible, but I’d give it long odds, I would.”
So, there were still more Germans out here today. But was this a scout force or a screen one?
“Sir, Birkenhead reports the Germans have declined action and are retiring on course 080.”
“Very well.” Bearing 080? Was that the direction of the High Seas Fleet? If so, the Germans might be about to get between them and Scapa Flow. Still, with the North Sea open to the West, DeRobeck was hardly concerned. The Germans, however, just might let DeRobeck’s faster dreadnought force slip between them and Wilhelmshaven. DeRobeck was not sure he wanted to do that, at least not this month, but the Germans could hardly know that. Nonetheless, there were more pressing matters to be attended to, especially if the Huns were being trying to be devious again.
“Signals Officer, for Commodore Nott.”
1) Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 5:
2) An interesting read on the web:
3) The Baltic Sea is an interesting and complex ecosystem. Its salinity depends on inflows from the North Sea through a narrow neck to offset the fresh water flow into it from rivers. It is thus very sensitive to pollutants from those rivers, including fertilizer runoff. From the url below WARNING! - (it is a half-meg pdf file):
“In the 1930s, Polish fishermen complained of low cod catches as compared with those in the 1880s and 1890s.”
4) This is no bare, er, faced lie! It is in Austria, in Makarska. See:
5) Bremen is the German cruiser that has been mentioned several times in Letterstime due to her pre-WWI visits to the US, including her repairs in Newport News Shipyard. A great site with relevant dates is here:
6) Historically, HMS Chester was not completed until May 1916 with much of the delay probably associated with her conversion in-situ to oil. However, per Letterstime, she was at Die Kaiserschlacht on May 31, 1915. For the nonce, the apparent presumption is that events within Letterstime such as Dogger Bank led her to be completed early as a true sister to Birkenhead and be ready in time for DK.