Letterstime - Ein Geleitzug: Homeward Bound? Part XXX
(“A German Sandwich”)
July 7, 1915
---- Room 40
Commanders Jan and Sartore had edged closer when “The Commodore” ’s sighting report had burst into the mutters and musings into which Room 40 had descended. Earlier, Jan would have been amused at the omission of Nott’s name and even remarked upon it, but the many hours he had already spent there this day had drained him. Sartore’s condition was even worse, despite his having succumbed to a couple brief inadvertent naps. The most he could manage was to wonder briefly as to the reaction of the Harwich Force commanding officer at the lack of apparent ambiguity in Room 40 of Nott being referred to by only his rank.
The first thought had been that “The Commodore” had encountered a merchantman, or perhaps a pair or more steaming in company. After the better part of an hour, the absence of a follow on sighting had essentially ruled that out. The next thought had been that the contact was another RN ship, specifically, an AMC patroller. After not too many more minutes, that also had dismissed. With very few exceptions, the Northern Patrol AMCs were far enough distant so as to be impossible and, of the remainder, the only two decent candidates had been sunk that morning. The remaining trio had been contacted and their replies had taken them off the board as well. The inevitable speculations were far from having run their course, however.
“Battlecruisers, I’m with that,” Sartore muttered to Jan as one proponent waxed louder than perhaps was strictly necessary, but they were all tired by now. “You?”
“Too much plume for light,” Jan nodded, tiredly. “Bending on the knots to try to rejoin before dark? Possible, I suppose, but the numbers just don’t add up. They’re a precious long way from their main body.”
If the wall chart were even remotely accurate, even full speed reciprocal courses would not produce a rendezvous this day.
“You’re asking the ‘why’ of it all, you mean?”
Jan nodded again.
“You heard them,” Sartore flicked a glance towards the others. “A sweep to push back the patrol line some more.”
“Risk priceless battlecruisers for a chance at a couple converted merchants?”
“They’re Germans. Doesn’t have to make sense.”
Commander Jan just snorted in either agreement or derision. Non-verbals were so damn useful that way.
---- HMS Southampton, course 110, speed 25.3 knots
Commodore Nott’s stomach growled loudly. Again. Fortunately, his position out on the wingbridge continued to conceal this phenomenon from all but himself.
“Sir, bearing to contact is 115.”
Within moments of the first sighting report, Nott had turned to point Southampton’s fine bow directly at the smudge on the horizon. “March to the sounds of guns,” and all that. (NOTE 1) Bearing drift to starboard had soon revealed their prey to be on some southerly course. After another quarter-hour had failed to bring anything up on the horizon, Nott had come right to cut the angle. More minutes had gone by and then, once his hunger pangs had begun in earnest, he had ordered maximum speed.
“Very well,” The Commodore replied, but gave no further order. Yes, perhaps he really should come right another point. Such a change would, after all, be the book move to speed sighting. Nott had realized, however, just what it was that he must be chasing. It was simple enough, actually: more than one coal plume, commingling due to formation, very big, very fast, and heading for Germany.
Yes, he knew full well what he had out there on his bows. He’d found the battlecruiser force; that was what. He’d done much the same just a few days ago and nearly failed to survive the experience. Hungry or not, it was the other end of his digestive tract that pulsed at the recollection of his frantic turnaways, stalked all the while by large caliber splashes. This time, he was going to make sure that he was enough abaft their beam that THEY’d be the ones who’d need to reverse course.
“Sir, bearing to contact is 120.”
The additional offset was enough to fetch a reproachful Commander Dedmon out onto the wing.
“Commander,” Nott ordered, bowing to the inevitable. “Bring the force onto 120.”
---- S.31, course 070, speed 18 knots
Borys grinned - he’d been doing that a lot these last hours - as he swept the horizon again, checking as he did each time that S.33 and S.35 remained where he’d placed them, 2000 yards to port or starboard. Matters had been tense hours before and he’d pushed the engines hard to gain separation from the British coast ... and Withernsea.
His smile stretched wider.
After a couple hours hard sprint, he’d slowed to 25 knots and gone back to line abeam. Then around noon, he’d dropped down to 21 knots and then, an hour ago, he’d reduced speed again. Per the plot, he had - technically, at least - reached the extreme west-south-west rim of the north-south elliptically shaped zone somewhere in which the High Seas Fleet was supposed to be now, unless matters had changed. It was a big area, though. Still, if the Baron were in the center, he should be something like 60,000 yards or so roughly due east, which meant it was time for his course change. His stomach rumbled in confirmation of his conclusion.
“Signals, hoist course 090.”
He’d vowed to himself not to snack again until he’d gotten them to the rendezvous area.
“Both acknowledge, sir.”
“Yes, execute.” It had remained quite warm, and Borys had continued to perspire despite the wind of their passage, rubbed his moist hands absently on the seams of his trousers as the minor course change was made.
“Steady on 090, sir.”
Borys acknowledged while turning to instruct the messenger. Unlike a certain British Commodore at almost literally the other end of the North Sea, he had no intention of letting image interfere with appetite. Several thick slices off that joint of smoked ham, Borys began to the young sailor, tapping fingertips to palm in emphasis. Yes, tucked into a half-loaf, smeared with plenty of mustard, oh, and a goodly chunk off that Swiss round. The enlisted man licked his lips, his commander’s “enthusiasm” contagious, nor was he the only one on the bridge so affected, if Schinkenbrot’s sudden swallows were any indication. “And pickles,” Borys called after the retreating back. He knew damn well there should still be some of those left down there. That would have to tide him over, he instructed himself, at least until ¼.
“Sir, flags going up on S.33.”
That was the one on what was now his northern flank.
“They’re reporting a contact, sir, plume bearing 040.”
This would be one of Ehrhart’s groups scattered somewhere in the van of the dreadnought force. The Baron seemed to have strayed far to the north and west of center. Why couldn’t vice-admirals stay where they were “supposed” to be? Still, best play this one cautious, especially if it turned out to be that picky Commodore himself who was up there.
“Signals, formation change, line ahead, form on me.”
Where was that messenger?
“Execute. Ah!” That last exclamation signaled the appearance of his food.
“Twenty-five knots.” Good man! He had found the pickles. Excellent, he thought as he reached to seize one. He looked back up as a bit of sea foam splashed near. The others had already put their rudders over, their wakes tracing white arcs in the waves. Good. The stocky-and-then-some officer gravely surveyed the scene, though any solemnity was marred by the pickle clasped firmly in his right hand.
“Helm, come to course 030.”
“Hoist 30 knots.”
“Sir, steady on course 030 ... answering 25 knots.”
The first pickle was history. Borys reached for the other. The ham-stuffed loaf would have to wait its turn.
“Both acknowledge 30 knots, sir.”
“Mmmfph.” This time there was no inquiry as Borys chewed noisily while he watched the other boats swing in astern. There! He took another bite as he turned to face Ehrhart or another of his minions.
---- HMS Southampton, course 120, speed 25.3 knots
The Commodore stared resentfully at the distant smudge. The plume kept growing, but their prey had still not crested the horizon. It was as if they were chasing a pillar of smoke or clouds.
“Sir, bearing to contact 125.”
It had taken considerably longer this time to get five degrees drift. They must be approaching the base course of whatever was leading them this stern chase. Thus, they must now be well abaft their beam.
He waited a long minute, but no longer, and then moved to the bridge entrance to forestall another Dedmon sortie out onto the wing.
“Commander, keep our bow on the contact, if you please.”
After that, Nott went out onto the wing to stare at the distant plume. Damn, but he was beginning to feel like an Egyptian. (NOTE 2)
---- HMS Birmingham, course 210, speed 18 knots
Captain Peter David Danton Dalrymple kept his attention on that damned German cruiser who, together with another screen element, had dogged Birmingham and Nottingham so determinedly these last few hours. The other German light cruiser had only 4.1-inch guns and so could safely be ignored, generally speaking. The eight torpedoboats they had between them were also not much of a threat. Yes, the TBs might manage 30 or so knots to his 25, but they would be in a stern chase. Dalrymple was confident that his two cruisers - Birmingham and Nottingham - could pound them into splinters long before they could achieve any sort of attack position from which to launch their torpedoes.
No, the one to watch was that regunned bastard that he’d chased all morning only to have the High Seas Fleet show up at very nearly the last proverbial moment to save him. The Hun had then tried to turn the tables on him, but thankfully had succeeded only in trading inconclusive hits and casualties. The count of dead and wounded gnawed at him, but the smaller Hun cruiser must have suffered about the same.
The Admiralty was concerned that the Germans might split their force, leaving him to watch one portion while sending the others off on some mischief elsewhere. And so Dalrymple had spent the afternoon sprinting in every hour or so to check on the Germans, only to retreat in the face of countermoves once he’d managed a rough count. Nor was he the only one playing such games. That pugnacious German captain back there had twice himself tried to edge close enough to use his range advantage to get off a few unanswered shots. Though he’d been tempted to pull up and initiate an engagement, Dalrymple had contented himself with simply matching the other’s move to hold open the range. The German had a dreadnought backup force behind him and he, Dalrymple, did not. At least not yet. For now, to get lamed here was to get sunk here.
He had fifteen dead and Nottingham had lost a couple as well, though the smaller German had suffered much the same, not that such mattered. Dalrymple knew The Commodore would have done better. He was no Nott, however, though he would continue to do his best.
“Sir, new contact! Bearing 225.”
---- S.31, course 030, speed 25 knots
“Sir! They’re Britishers! Cruisers!”
Borys’ hand clenched, squirting Pickle #2 theatrically up into the air and over the side.
“Scheiße!” The helmsman wondered for an unreal instant if Borys’ exclamation was due to the Britishers’ appearance or the pickle’s DISappearance.
“Two cruisers. Town Class. Bearing 045, range 14,000 yards.”
“Scheiße!” Borys repeated when he realized that all he could see was their bows. They were coming right down his throat at over 40 net knots! “Scheiße - Scheiße -Scheiße!”
They could do 25 knots and he was already in range of their guns! “Execute!”
Wait! Why hadn’t they opened fire? Could all his lookouts be mistaken? No, not a chance! Borys could see both of them plainly now and the Kaiserliche Marine had nothing like them.
“Helm, come to 035! Gently! Very gently!”
The Britishers, though. They must be unsure. MUST be! Why else wouldn’t they have opened fire, or turned away? Or SOMEthing?! Now, if he could just ease his bow at them just a little to narrow his silhouettes some. A quick turn in any direction would be a giveaway.
“Sir, on 035.”
“Hold fire! Hold fire! Signals, hoist flags. Three flags!”
“I don’t give a Scheiße! Any three! Schnell! Schnell!”
---- HMS Birmingham, course 210, speed 18 knots
Initially, Captain Dalrymple had been delighted at the arrival of reinforcements from the Harwich Force. With a flotilla, he could whip the Hun screen force right back to edge of the dreadnought gun range. But the absence of any wireless seemed at first odd and then suspicious. Once the count was confirmed at only three, he had begun to take steps.
“Sir, Nottingham acknowledges 25 knots!”
“Sir! They may be German!” “Can’t confirm …” “Flags going up on the leader. Can’t read them.”
Dalrymple hesitated just a moment, but decided the he’d waited long enough. Too long maybe. He still wasn’t sure whether these newcomers were friend or foe, but ….
“Helm, come right! Ahead Full, maximum RPM. Course 300!”
If this was some sort of a trap, he wanted out of it.
“Number One! Deck Officer! Identification!”
---- Frauenlob, course 210, speed 18 knots
“Sir, the Britishers are turning away.”
Commodore Ehrhart raised his binoculars. The two enemy cruisers were about 18,000 yards to the southwest.
“They’re increasing speed.”
Ehrhart had noted the increase in smoke himself, but forbore comment.
“Bremen has turned to follow.”
Yes, Ehrhart thought, pivoting to starboard. Conda had been playing cat and mouse with the Britishers all afternoon. But each time before, the Brits had lunged to the east, towards the dreadnoughts Ehrhart was tasked with screening. Why …?
“Sir! The lead Britisher has opened fire! To the south!”
---- S.31, course 030, speed 30 knots
Borys had declined to change course when the Britishers had. Such a move would be a clearly hostile act, revealing them as the enemy almost as surely as opening fire would. Meanwhile, their closing speed was still 40+ knots as the others put their helm over, or over 1000 yards a minute.
“Hold fire!” Bory shouted again. This might just work! Their 88s would do little anyway. “Hold ….”
Muzzle flashes on the lead enemy cruiser halted him. Damn!
The second enemy ship opening fire decided him.
The bow gun barked back at the Brits. Hitting anything at 30 knots at this range was quite unlikely, but Borys knew he was truly committed now and had every intention of getting a LOT closer. He saw no splashes, but hoped his gunners had some better idea where their shells were going than he did. Meanwhile, the Brits were beginning to go right to left on him. They weren’t shooting any better than S.31 was, probably because they still had rudder on.
“Helm! Come left to 000, gently now! Gently!”
Borys looked astern to starboard and was rewarded by the sight S.33 opening fire. S.35 remained silent for another moment, still masked, and then joined in as well.
---- Frauenlob, course 210, speed 18 knots
What the devil? Who were they shooting at?
Ehrhart got his glasses back on the enemy cruisers just in time to see the second cruiser also open fire! Again to the south! No, make that south-southwest. What trick was this? Were they trying to lure them to chase?!
Well, if he didn’t turn to follow, the Brits might simply disengage.
“Right rudder! Maximum speed! Come to course 250.”
It was little more than a gesture. He could never hope to catch the Britishers, capable as they were of 3 - 4 knots more than Frauenlob.
“Sir, flags on Bremen! ‘Enemy under fire’!”
What the hell?
“Confirmed, sir! Shell splashes near the leader!”
Who?! Wait! Of course! Korvettenkapitan Borys and his 17th Half-flotilla!
”Hoist torpedo attack! Immediate execute!” Gott! Why hadn’t he thought … “Signals Officer, wireless, for the flag ….”
---- Bremen, course 260, speed 20 knots (increasing)
For Conda, it was Christmas come early. The Britishers’ efforts to avoid what could only be a torpedo attack by Borys out of the southwest had brought them right back into range.
“Sir, flags on Frauenlob. Torpedo attack, immediate execute!”
Conda looked back to port in surprise. He’d presumed that Ehrhart’s orders from Vice-Admiral Letters had been not to launch such an attack. But there it was. The Kommodore’s half-flotilla was already passing the senior officer’s light cruiser.
“Acknowledge,” he ordered, and turned to see where his own trio were. To his chagrin, so intent had he been on getting back into gun range that he’d failed to check them for several minutes. There! They had not waited either and were even then drawing abeam on his unengaged side.
He waved in salute as they churned past.
The trail Brit was returning fire with the pieces on her starboard side, but they were well short.
---- Grosser Kurfurst, course 220, speed 12 knots
“Admiral! From Kommodore Ehrhart: ‘Enemy under attack from southwest - attacking in support.’ ”
“Korvettenkapitan Borys?” Kapitan Schnell commented.
“Ja,” nodded Letters. “It must be.” His was the only force unaccounted for. A simple process, was deduction by elimination. This was certainly not according to plan - not at all! – but none of the others had been either.
“Signals Officer, to the other half-flotillas: torpedoboats form on Frauenlob. All of them. Inform Kommodore Ehrhart.”
“Bring us to 250, Kapitan. Can you get this vessel to 20 knots?”
“If I have to get out and push, Herr Admiral!”
---- S.31, course 000 (varying frantically, actually), speed 30 knots
“Scheiße!” At some level Borys knew he was repeating himself but that one had been close!
“Sir, they’re under fire, sir!”
“Starboard! Of course they are, dammit! Midships!”
”Sir, from the east!”
“I don’t give a rotten beetroot! Starboard again! Midships!”
“Scheiße! Port …”
“Scheiße - Scheiße - Scheiße!”
---- HMS Birmingham, course 300, speed 24 knots (increasing)
“Sir, Nottingham’s been hit again.”
“Very well,” Dalyrmple acknowledged, as levelly as he could, even as what was reverberating inside his head was, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Let this be just a nightmare! Yes, a nightmare! Let me wake up drenched in sweat-tangled sheets!”
The three torpedoboats had gulled him into letting them get too close. He realized that now. Too late. The Commodore would never have fallen into such a trap! Then, as soon as he turned away, that damned regunned spawn of hell of a captain had lunged to cut the angle and had managed to get back in range. Dalyrmple almost ordered a turn due north to cross the bastard’s bow, but stopped when he saw that there were eight more damned torpedoboats boring in on that same track at 30 knots or more.
“Sir, plume and aspect changes on the enemy dreadnoughts. They’re bows-on, sir. Estimated course 250.”
Of course, even the Main Body of the bloody High Seas Fleet wanted to get in on the action. If things hadn’t been so damn desperate, he might’ve even felt flattered at all the attention. After all, damn near every operable combat ship in the whole damn German navy was trying to get at him.
Whack! Cling-clingcling. Pieces of something rattled down onto the wing outside the bridge.
“Signals Officer, get a wireless off.”
“Hit!” Fire blossomed on the lead torpedoboat, but it kept on nonetheless and they were almost in torpedo range.
“Hit! The second Hun’s crippled!”
“Nottingham’s been hit again, sir. She’s trailing smoke.”
Dalrymple looked back at her as he tried frantically to divine a way out, but it gotten so hard to think straight. So far, Nottingham remained unslowed, despite the shell hits. But he wasn’t going to be able to get her out of that cruiser’s range on this course. Not for some time, anyway. Meanwhile, the eight TBs inbound on that bearing had the benefit of cover fire and would become a mortal threat in just a few more minutes unless he put them directly astern.
If he could just swat the original trio out of the way….
---- S.31, course 000 (still varying frantically), speed 26 knots (slowing)
The range taker had been silenced but Borys could see that they were now in range! His boat and S.35, anyway. What was left of his.
“Ready! Starboard! On the leader!” Borys shouted back through the smoke. He thought he had an operable launcher back there, but wasn’t quite sure. Too much smoke. Damn that Letters for taking off his forward launchers!
The Brit shells splashes stopped. Huh?
“Sir, they’re turning towards us!”
“Wait,” he shouted. He had dead crewmen, a dead bow gun, and what felt like a dying port engine. Actually, it was just a debris-fouled intake that was starting to starve it, extinguishing the fires and robbing it of steam and shaft horsepower, but Borys did not know that.
He’d wait until the splashes came back. Or began to.
“Now! Torpedo Loooos!”
---- HMS Birmingham, course 250, speed 23 knots (increasing)
“Sir! Torpedoes in the water!”
“Hard left rudder!” Dalrymple had already lined up the bearing. “210, course 210,” he repeated even as he was thrust hard into a bulkhead.
Borys’ S.31 had no gun left and Birmingham’s gunners were lucky if they had even kept their feet and so to a spectator it would have appeared as though both sides just watched and waited. There was only one fish, and it passed down Birmingham’s starboard side like a cast dagger with fewer than a dozen yards to spare.
Dalrymple gave a great sigh of relief and looked aft while Borys ordered hard right rudder even as he cursed and pounded on what was left of his bridge rail.
---- Frauenlob, course 250, speed 22 knots
Nottingham had not been as lucky and the column of water reared up along the trail Brit cruiser to a chorus of comments on all the ships in sight. Nottingham had taken multiple hits from Bremen and S.35 – shielded from most of the British fire by Borys and S.33 - had gotten off not one, but three torpedoes. The Brit captain had still made two miss, but it hadn’t been enough.
“Silence!” Ehrhart ordered.
The Brit cruiser slowed and instantly began to list. Flashes on her hull showed that Conda was not taking any chances with her as he closed the range. The senior Brit cruiser paused to exchange fire with Bremen, but soon broke off when the torpedoboats began to close and the stricken cruiser turned turtle.
---- S.31, stopped
Korvettenkapitan Borys was exhausted. And battle fatigued, feeling the weight of his casualties. Half his crew was dead, wounded, or missing. His S.31’s port engine was offline, though his engineers thought they might get it relit and working again. S.33, was 30 yards to port, but only its bow poked up out of the water.
And he was starving! That wonderful ham loaf had disappeared sometime during the battle and the galley had been completely gutted.
“Sir, flags going up on Frauenlob. Our number.”
Borys just scratched at the bandage on his left shoulder. It was just a small scratch, but it had been enough to hole his jacket and bleed him enough to ruin his blouse.
“Interrogative, sir. On OUR flags.”
Borys looked up and had to laugh. And, to his great surprise, it helped. Helped a lot. He had apparently gone into battle and fought the British while flying the warning that he was dragging anchor.
1) This simple quotation is hardly that to source. It has a nautical and Nelsonian feel (“No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”).
Sometimes credited to US Civil War generals (Sheridan and Jackson, to name two), it seems actually to be Napoleonic in origin. However, it is not clear that Napoleon Bonaparte ever said it! While it is reminiscent of some quotations attributed to him (“I made all my generals out of mud.”), his military axioms tended to be more complex (“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”).
The closest to a source I’ve been able to discover is in the “Precis Politique el Militaire de la Campagne de 1815", page 140, and made by Baron Antoine H. Jomini, who was a member of the staff of Marshal Ney.
2) Exodus, Chapter 13.