Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXIII

July 6, 1915



---- Washington, DC


They had already knocked.  Now they were fidgeting.


“Well,” the lanky reporter began, “I guess that answers THAT question.”  They were staring up at the upper floor railings where black cloth could be seen to be wound through the ornate railings.  “They’ve read the papers, alright.”


They were from the Washington Evening Star; the Frenchies hadn’t taken any phone calls from them and they were desperate.  So their editor threw them out onto the street to go down there personally.  And now no one seemed to be coming to the door.


“Pro’ly right, Mack,” another said.  “Still, maybe it’s some dead Frenchy day.  Hey!  When did that Napoleon guy die?”


“Hellifiknow.  (NOTE 1)  But, whatthehell, get some shots of it.”  They were REALLY desperate.


“Like that’ll do any good.  And the captions?  Battleships, or cavalry?”  And they knew it.


“Wiseguy.”  And they hated it.


And still the French had not answered the door.  No doubt, they had looked out the windows and no one inside had anything he or she wanted to get quoted saying.  Or NOT saying.  They were all experienced reporters, so it was not like they had never faced a shut door before.  But an embassy?  Hell, these guys’ JOBS were to open doors, smile, and talk.  (NOTE 2)


“Up yours.”  And they STILL had nothing.


“Damn-damn-damn.”  The boss was gonna’ kill them.



---- London


“Why, they’ve ... given ... us the Americans, haven’t they?”  The speaker’s eyes were blinking rapidly, his voice hopeful.  For a long couple moments, no one replied.


The scene was playing out in what was not quite officially known as “The Teak Room,” dominated as it was by lustrous golden brown paneling of that Asian wood.  Similar scenes were playing out in several of the ministries.  Here, as the pause lengthened, most of the aides tried their bureaucratic best to burrow into exquisite upholstery.


“How so, m’lord?”  The responder was deferent, but neutral.  By his tone, it was clear that he hoped the other to be correct, but could just not yet see the “how” of it.  A couple juniors perked up; had their panjandrum really seen something they’d missed?

“Atrocities right in sight of their coast and they’re not going to care?  Nursing infants, abuse of women, and all that?”


The minister scowled at the others’ apparent skepticism.  What was the matter with them?


“Let the Germans deny it, I say,” he continued after the pause.  “After all, who’ll listen to them?  After Belgium and all the rest?”


The junior aides settled back, squirming as unobtrusively as they could as they did so.  The full grain leather had already trapped the heat of their rumps, legs, and backs such that all of touching body surfaces had begun to adhere to the chairs themselves.  A couple exchanged quick glances at the last of the minister’s words, but those in plain view of the principals dared no such thing.


“That may not work this time, I fear ....”


“And why not?  We, or the Canadians, hell maybe the French, it’s their islands after all, dispatch representatives - known men with solid titles, dammit - to document just what mischief the Huns were up to while ....”


He broke off as another minister cleared his throat.


“The Huns saw ahead to this, I fear.  They must have realized just how badly Belgium’s hurt them with the Neutrals.  (NOTE 3)  It’s the only reason I can imagine for them taking Yank reporters along with them.  And not just any reporters, m’lord, but ones from the two largest newspapers in the entire US.”


“But surely ...?”


“The latest cables are quite clear, m’lord.  Both their papers, ten-penny nail headlines and photographs on every page.  No mention of atrocities, I’m told.  And both reporters swearing they had free rein to come and go as they pleased.”  The speaker sighed.  “The papers even printed their interviews with prisoners.  Nothing.”


“That’s impossible!  The reporters ... surely ....  But ....”  The speaker fell silent at a senior aide’s lifted finger, a younger son of titled family.


“Millions of copies, m’lord.  New York, Philadelphia.  Millions.  I’m told they’ll be putting out Extras.  By now all the rest of that lot will be struggling to catch up.”


The aides looked at each other.  It wasn’t going to matter what the truth really was.  By now the story would have set like concrete over there.  They might be able to delay the news breaking here or even to recharacterize it, but any such respite they engineered on this side of the Atlantic could never last long.  The Entente governments might control the Trans-Atlantic cables, but not the American printing presses.  Even the most draconian measures would be unable to stop a very great many copies of those Yank papers from casting up on their shores before the month was out.


The door opened and another aide edged into the room.  The minister pinned him with a glance.  He and two others had been dispatched to learn the French reaction.

“Nothing, m’lord.  Nothing of substance.”  The minister’s stare sharpened.  “NO one seems to know.  The PM might, m’lord, but his aides don’t, least the ones I found don’t.  Not yet, anyway.  The others stayed behind, still there, trying.”


The minister, who had opened his mouth, closed it and nodded instead.


The aide hid his relief with a skill born from long practice.  He had thrown in the PM bit as a distractor and it seemed to have worked.  What he had not wanted to report was that two junior French aides had learned of the events, including the massive publication of them, in his presence.  One had staggered and put his hand to his heart as though he might expire right on the spot.  The few words he uttered were French and not in the British aide’s limited vocabulary.  The other Frenchman had gasped for air and fled into the loo.  Though the anecdotes might be tempting fare for his peers later, neither was something he wanted to recount here and now,.


The minister swept his eyes around the room, perhaps seeking inspiration but, if such were his hope, the scowl that bloomed on his face made clear the results.  He stepped to the window and looked out.



---- London, House of Commons


“Who’s speaking?”


The arriving Member addressed his query to an aide of his who awaited him near the doors to the chambers.


“Badbor, sir, of ....”


“Yes, yes.  Has he said anything new?”


“Well, I can’t be perfectly certain, but ....”


“But you don’t think so.  Oh, very well.”


He paused again as he entered.  The historic space soothed his eyes, less with its rich and storied appointments than with its sameness.  The Empire endured.  Even the pulses of rhetoric and hum of reaction evoked feelings of normalcy in his ears.  He began to follow the words as he took his seat.


“... tried to dismiss the risk.  Well, my honorable colleague can’t wave away the fact that the Huns have hundreds of thousands, many hundreds of thousands, of men under arms ....”


“And how they’re gonna’ get here?  Fly?!”  The voice was low, but not very.


“.... can scoff, he can jeer, but he can’t deny that they’ve got boats by the thousand score over on their shores, or shores they’ve taken, just waiting to make the trip over to our sacred soil ....”


“In open boats?  Just send the Bobbies down to arrest the lot of them.”  Louder this time.


“... like many other things,” Badbor ignored the swirls of merriment and continued with no discernable break for breath, “we need to look at this backwards ....”


“W’ot in God’s name does THAT mean?”  The sotto voce was quite audible.  The reply was almost as loud.  “Pay’m no mind.  He’s always sayin’ such.”


“... an invasion is the only way they can ever hope to win this war.  Is it not folly to assume they’re ignorant of that fact?  Just three days ago they attacked scenic Southwold.  The Huns sailed right up to point blank range.  Remember the great pier there?  Well, that’s all that’s left to us.  It is ONLY a memory now.  They could have waded ashore that morn at Southwold.  What’s to stop them from doing just that the next time?”


Another stood to reply.


“My right honorable friend seems to want us to believe that mounting a full scale invasion of our islands is no more difficult than running a few cruisers across the North Sea in the dead of night to make a surprise dawn attack on a pier with long range guns.  My friends, the Huns did indeed shell Southwold - a pearl of a harbor - and our hearts go out to the families there.  But what my right honorable colleague did not tell you is that as soon as the Huns had finished firing their shells, they turned right around and ran all the way back to Germany!”




“Now that doesn’t sound too much to me like a navy ready and eager to invade us, though perhaps it does to my right honorable friend.”  The resulting hum had some titters in it.


“But I think the honorable gentleman is quite correct in one sense.  The Huns know right well that they would win this war by successfully invading us.  Yes, I quite agree with that.  But that begs the question - does it not? - of just why haven’t they done so?  Or even made an attempt?  My honorable colleagues, they haven’t tried because they know full well they CANNOT!  The inescapable conclusion is that, while the right honorable gentleman might not know it, the Huns most certainly DO!”




It had seemed to have concluded well enough, but the senior members of HMG were nonetheless quite relieved when the House turned to other matters.  This was a very delicate moment.  The events of St. Pierre and Miquelon and the American headlines had yet to become public, the cable traffic having been intercepted and kept very closely held by HMG.  The missing battlecruisers were still just that: missing.  And the German fleet was again at sea.



---- Warspite, course 030, speed 15 knots


“Steady on 030, answering 15 knots, sir.”


De Robeck calmly regarded the plotted positions.  The force had been at 12 knots on a south-westerly heading when the wireless report had been received from Room 40.  Though, if the admiral had been greatly surprised, Captain Swafford had been unable to detect it.


“Comments, Captain?”

“If I may, sir.”  De Robeck inclined his head and Swafford bent over and marched a protractor up from the Wilhelmshaven outfall to the plotted point from the message slip.  The Warspite CO paused, then repeated the exercise using the position report from the submarine earlier in the day.  Meanwhile, acknowledgments were reported from the other flag officers on the new course and speed.


“Not impossible, sir.”  Swafford hesitated.  “They’d’ve had to keep 16 knots, though, once they were spotted.”


“Yes,” De Robeck replied.  “Hoist 20 knots.”  This announced the Grand Fleet Commander’s intentions, with the execution delayed to allow the various screen units to reach their proper new positions.


While sixteen knots was somewhat faster than the “normal” German cruising speed, it was hardly impossible for a scout force cored with battlecruisers.


“That’s about as far from Southwold as a German could get, sir.”  The voice was that of LT Hereford, one of De Robeck young aides, and one Swafford knew from before.  In Swafford’s experience, lieutenant aides were rarely heard in the company of admirals but what exceptions there were, were ones like Hereford, of a well-titled family.


“Deliberately so, perhaps,” the admiral agreed.  To Swafford’s surprise, De Robeck’s tone encouraged the young officer to continue.


“Edinburgh?“ Hereford suggested.  “Glasgow?  Aberdeen, perhaps?”


At this point, Swafford realized he’d best reconsider the situation here on his bridge.  He’d been overlooking the fact that De Robeck had brought the lieutenant with him up from the Med.   Hereford thus went back no little distance with the current Grand Fleet Commander.  Furthermore, looking at the map, the young officer just might have something here.  Had Southwold been a setup then?  Swafford bit at his lower lip in thought.  A feint to the body of Britain to get them to lower their guard and expose the north?  A lot of coastal traffic plied the waters just off those great cities, traffic far more vital than the odd fisher off Southwold.


“The Germans would first have to know the fleet was at Rosyth,” Swafford noted, his point being that any GF sortie out of Scapa Flow would inevitably have placed them in a near-perfect position to ambush the German sortie force on such a mission.  “And their main body?”  There had been no Room 40 update on that.


“Likely time enough,” De Robeck said.  Notoriously efficient, German spies, it went without saying.  “It’s a threat I feel must be honoured.  In any case, I think we can count on Letters remaining in support range of their battlecruisers.”  The High Seas Fleet had a reported maximum formation speed of no greater than 18 knots.  “Signals Officer, hoist 010.”


The admiral continued to reflect on the matter, clearly searching for a way to hedge his bets.  After a long minute, he nodded to himself.


“Signals Officer, for First Light Cruiser ....”


Of course, thought Swafford.  If one had a tough job to be done, one sent a tough man to do it.

“ ... for Commodore Nott.”



---- Room 40


A senior captain was explaining the current situation to the latest delegation; this one included a minister.  Commanders Jan and Sartore had independently edged covertly into hearing.


“The admiral suspects another raid like at Southwold may be in the offing and is moving to cover the coast directly across from the reported position of the battlecruisers.”


The civilian blinked at that, staring up at the great map.  His lips moved slightly, as though silently reciting the names of the great cities potentially at risk.


“Surely the defenses ...?”


“Even if the cities are not at great risk, the docks could be and the ships tied up at them, if the Germans press in and avoid mines.  It’s not just the cities, though.  The coastal traffic ... and no way to get them the word.”  (NOTE 4) One of those with the minister licked his lips nervously.  Necki’s previous raid had resulted in the loss of one coaster underway and another (plus several fishing vessels) tied up at the Southwold pier.


“The Germans, can’t the Navy put a stop to this?”


“Every sortie of theirs puts them at risk.  One of these times they’ll guess wrong or us right, and that’ll be the end of it.  It almost happened after Southwold.  It might happen this very dawn.”



---- Southampton, course 000, speed 22 knots


Commodore Nott felt his mouth go dry.  De Robeck’s very recent turn from south-westerly to north-westerly had come with Nott’s four light cruisers well in his van, his former van, that is.  He had briskly pivoted his command and gone to the current bell to get back into position. 


And now this.


Commander Dedmon pored over the plot, nodding sagely.  It made perfect sense to him, just as it did to Sartore and Jan back at Room 40.  De Robeck did not want any risk of a night fleet action, but did want to comb the waters out on his flank during the night where the Huns would be advancing should they indeed have mischief on their minds.


“Recommend 035, sir, and 25 knots.”


“Make it so, Commander.”


“Signals Officer ....”


The Admiralty knew the Germans were out, Nott thought, swallowing.  All of them.  They knew it!  So what was their lordships’ plan?  To run him right into their battlecruisers, that’s what.  Or the whole High Seas Fleet.  Or both.

“All ships have acknowledged, sir.”


What could he do about it?  As the lead ship, his Southampton would be the one to be sighted, or impaled on a dreadnought in pitch darkness.  Well, there was one thing ....


“Commander, formation change.  Echelon to starboard, 500 yard separation.”


“Aye, aye, sir.”  Of course, Dedmon thought.  That would greatly increase the sweep width and maximize their instant firepower.  In the rapidly dropping visibility, 500 yards would soon be the widest practicable spacing for signaling.  He ordered up the additional flags.



---- “The Copper Pot Inn”, Portland, Maine


“So, Torp, are we settled on tomorrow?”


“Think so.  You still planning on getting up early?”


“Yeah,” said Bender.  “I’m gonna’ just grab a quick breakfast and head right on down to Percy’s.”  (NOTE 5)


Mixer was more sailor than fisher.  There was no chance in hell that he’d rise early from his bed to go look at fishing lures and tackle, no matter WHAT kind of reputation they had.


“After that,” Bender continued, “I think I’ll just mosey about.  Got a few things I might pick up.  Errands to run.  Meet here for lunch?”


“Sounds good.  I’ll be up by then.  Should be.”


“I figure one last steak and then down to the Sal.  Since it’s lunch, I just might try the baked sweet potato this time.”


“Weather supposed to be good.  I’m ready for a few quiet days at sea.”


“Me, too.  Back to Boston, then it’s back to the grindstone for me.”



---- Bremen, course 060, speed 18 knots


For Korvettenkapitän Nugal Conda, the end of a long and unexpectedly uneventful transit had just drawn to a close.  He had led six TBs - his own trio and those of Borys - boringly across most of the North Sea and then, after separating from Borys a few hours ago, he had begun to lead them back again.  It had not been nearly as uneventful as Conda thought, but the Germans would remain unaware until after the war that his light cruiser had nearly rammed LCDR “Luckless” Layton’s HMS E-13 just hours previously.


The horizon had disappeared hours before and visibility was now down to under a couple thousand yards.


Besides escorting Borys, his mission had been to operate as a sort of scout or screen or just plain tripwire, steaming as he did, somewhere well to the west of the gap between the two major KM forces.  The Baron had obviously been expecting the British Royal Navy to show up and challenge the Kaiserliche Marine, just as they had three days ago, but the sea had remained empty.  It just shows, Conda thought, that not even Letters ....


“Sir!  Contact!  Just off the starboard bow!”


“What?!  Where away?”


“Eighteen, no, make that fifteen degrees off the starboard bow.  Bearing ... 075.”


Conda had just laid onto that bearing when the next report came in.


“Sir, contact is a warship, cruiser.  She’s going right-to-left across our bows.”


Just one?  “Any other sightings?”  What in the hell would a single cruiser be doing out here?  Neither the KM nor the RN operated singletons like this.  Well, the KM certainly did not.  There was no telling what the RN might be doing these days.  None whatsoever.`        


“No other contacts, sir.”


“Bearing 070, sir.  Range 1800 yards.  Sir, contact speed is 25 knots or better.”


The cruiser was practically flying right across their bow.


“Chief!  Identification of contact!  Is she one of ours or not?”


Conda had a sudden vision of firing into Commodore Ehrhart’s Frauenlob and being strung up Grosser Kurfurst’s flaghoist with bands playing.  But Letters should be several scores of miles off to the ESE.  And Necki should be even further distant to the NNE.


Shouldn’t they?


“Four stacks!  Repeat, four stacks.”


Not Frauenlob, then.  Only a few KM cruisers had four.  Rostock was one, but she was with Hanzik.  So was Strassburg.  Stralsund was with Necki.  Wasn’t that it?  No, there was Breslau, but she was in the Med, for godsake!


“British, sir!  Confirmed.  Weymouth class!”


Conda discounted his TBs’ 88 mm guns as well as the chances of hitting any 25-knot Britisher with an after quarter torpedo shot in this visibility.  Meanwhile, the Weymouths were four knots faster than Bremen and mounted 6" 50 caliber guns to his two, along with his smaller 105s.  He knew all too well how little impression 105s had made so far this war on large British cruisers.  Still, this was very short range ....


Had they been spotted?  Maybe he could just ....


“Sir, lookouts report gun barrel motion!”

“Open fire!”  Maybe he should have waited, Conda thought perhaps a half-moment too late.



---- Southampton, course 035, speed 25 knots


They were still a couple or more hours away from the Germans, Nott decided inaccurately as he stared into the NNE.  As he glanced to starboard to check their spacing, he saw a sudden reflected brightness come and go on the next ship over.  In reflex, he took a single small step in that direction.  It was as though a photographer were taking pictures of her using a flash.  There, another!  Curious ....


“Sir!”  Urgent, intense.




Nott pivoted to see small blinks of light not 1500 yards distant on their port after quarter.  Good Lord, he thought with a curious detachment.  Those don’t look like signal lights.  They look more like ....


Splash!  Whack!  Splash!  Whanng!


“Return fire!”  Dedmon shouted out the order when he - belatedly - realized that the stoic Commodore was quite determined to let him fight his own ship.


Crack!  Crack!


One gun at least had not been caught completely unawares, Dedmon thought gratefully.




“Sir, request helm free!”  They were in formation, after all.





---- Bremen, course 060, speed 18 knots


CRACK!  Crack-crack-crack!  CRACK!  The different sounds of the different calibers added an odd discordancy, as did the pause as one 105 came to the end of its traverse.


“Hit!  Another!”


CRACK!  Crack-crack!  Then another 105 got a look.


“Sir, contact is turning this way.”


“Sir!  Multiple targets!  Three cruisers!  Four!  Sir, four ....”


Gott im Himmel!  Conda thought, a damn hydra of Britishers!  (NOTE 6)  Astern, his torpedo boats had joined in the shooting, though what damage their 88s could do would certainly be minimal.  Maybe he should have tried torpedoes?  No, there’d been no time.


Crack-crack!  CRACK!


“Ahead Flank, maximum speed!”


“Maximum speed, aye aye, sir.”  That would be 22 knots at best and not for a few minutes at that.  The Britishers ....




Conda’s heart hammered in his chest.  Still, they hadn’t been struck yet.  A jet of water erupted not 50 yards away, then another, hinting and more than hinting of things to come.  Muzzle flashes marked the joining of a second Britisher.  Then a third.  He decided not to wait for the fourth, or the fifth and sixth, for that matter.


“Right 10 degrees rudder!”  Time to disengage.  If he could



Author’s NOTEs:


1) May 5, 1821.



2)  It must be remembered that the US remained heavily engaged in Mexico and the Caribbean throughout this period.  In fact, the period from late June through August 1915 included some intense times on Haiti, where French aboard the cruiser Descartes and the Americans (Admiral Caperton) aboard Washington (ACR-11) had to cope with revolutionary violence.  On some occasions, the French landed armed sailors to protect their citizens, with Germany protesting the breech of neutrality each time.  The first week of July was particularly eventful, with heavy and eventful wireless and cable traffic to Washington.  Indeed, an angry mob would later storm the French legation, remove the President forcibly who was hiding there, murder him quite brutally, and parade his parts through the streets on July 28.  The news from St. Pierre and Miquelon would have been a terrible blow enfilade.  See:





3) These are references to the famous, or some might say “infamous”, Bryce Report.  In either case, it was a significant document with historical effects that was eventually translated into 30 languages.  The document has been mentioned in previous Letterstime chapters.  It can be found in its entirely at the excellent Yale University “The Avalon Project” site:




A thumbnail discussion can be found here:




For the counter view, see this:



For a hint of how the Bryce Report and the tales of the day may have relevance in the current day, consider (or google) the terms “Green Helmet Guy”, “Fauxtography”, and “Reutered”.



4) Merchants with wireless were a small minority in mid-1915.  The fraction of coasters and such with wireless would be an even smaller minority.



5) Percy’s Flies, or Percy Tackle Company has been in business since 1888.  Originally in Portland, Maine, it has had various owners since then and can currently be found in Errol, New Hampshire.  See:





6) The mythological Greek monster of the Labors of Hercules.  Strike one head and more would appear, one or even two more, per the Greek legend.  Here, Conda actually has it worse, having scored hits on one and seen THREE more appear!