The Baron Moves North

The Baron Moves North
An excerpt from, "Baron Letters - Germany's Nelson?" by Lady Christine Letters of Alsace (the Baron's first great-granddaughter), from Kaiser Imperial Press, Berlin, copyright 1968.

The baron's decision at 7:06 PM to slow the LOB was never really questioned by the heads of the German navy. Clearly, it was regarded even then as a necessary measure to get the Konigs back into the thick of the battle. That it more quickly exposed the trail divisions to battle damage seems always to have been accepted.

However, the decision to bring the baron's own 1SG onto course 045 would always have been second guessed, no matter what the outcome. Indeed, it remains just one of many interesting controversies that day.

The baron was always a believer, some called him a fanatic on the matter, of what he called "the force multiplier of superior intel."

He always attributed his unprecedented triumph at the Battle of Dogger Bank on his having better intel than either Vice Admiral's Hipper or Beatty, and seizing what apparently only he realized to be a unique opportunity. Certainly, Beatty failed to recognize the chance he had unwittingly provided, though his biographers have always wondered at such a lapse, and not kindly at that. Whatever Hipper might have done is conjectural, since shell splinters took his life and the lives of his Chief of Staff, the Seydlitz CO, and 13 others on the bridge shortly after 1100 that day.

In fact, there are some indications, always heatedly denied by surviving senior navy officials after the war, that even that decisive Dogger Bank decision by Letters had initially been viewed with extreme disfavor. There were even allegations that, without the personal intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm himself, the baron would have been quietly relegated to some obscure post in Berlin following rounds of loud but false praise. This biographer would yield half her estates and several years of her life to have been in Wilhelmshaven that day of January 24, 1915, when the city was resonant with bells and steam whistles, when all the burghers and workingfolk alike opened their doors and kegs and hearts to the baron's sailors, and especially in that office when Vice Admiral Scheer met with only Baron Letters and Kaiser Wilhelm for almost two solid hours.

But I digress. The baron made the decision to go to 045 almost upon the moment, per several who were on the bridge of Derfflinger at the time. He did not appear to discuss the matter with his Flagcaptain, as had been his wont earlier that day and at Dogger Bank.

Until that moment, just after 7:00 PM, the baron had had the benefit of almost continuously better intel than his foes, including Admiral J[ellic]oe. The only exception had been during his pursuit of the remnants of Admiral Sturdee's BC force. After 7:00 PM, the baron would soon no longer have had a clear picture of the enemy's forces or their disposition. At that moment, however, he knew their losses better probably than Admiral J[ellic]oe did himself, but that would change in moments.

The last two KGV class BBs had turned away and were mere seconds from disengaging and disappearing into the night. The baron long had vowed not to let crippled RN ships get back and force him to face them again. The lead ships in the Orion division were being hit hard, as well, and the baron must have known that the trail members of the Konig division would add their own fire to the weight of metal against them. Recall, also, that the Orion division was already down to three ships, with the sudden loss of HMS Conqueror (see Chapter 3 - "Golden Twinkees"). So, the second division of the RN LOB was already hurt and likely to suffer further.

Thus, the baron likely thought the risks to his BCs had been greatly reduced in any exchange he might have with the crippled ships he would likely face while, without action on his part, they might well escape in the low visibility. Also, the Orions, heavily engaged with HSF BBs might even be unable to reply, as had been the case with the KGV herself just a few minutes earlier. Like any commander, the baron was constantly balancing risk versus gain. Here, he must have decided that he had only the chance to finish off two or more crippled BBs, and perhaps swiftly return to the HSF LOB. If events went favorably, he might even have the opportunity to add his firepower to the action at the head of the Orion division. With a light ship screen in his own van, he likely expected sufficient warning of RN light ship attacks and time to return south. I am convinced that it was not the clumsy and impulsive axe blow that some have attributed to my great-grandfather but, rather, a rapier thrust that would quickly allow the return to the en garde position behind the massed batteries of the HSF LOB.

The greater number of RN light ships was always a concern to my great-grandfather, going all the way back to Dogger Bank when the forces of Commodore Goodenough had harried his damaged 1SG halfway up the Bight, desisting only upon the arrival of fresh German forces. He would have been reluctant to hazard the HSF LOB in any advance into light ship threats, but the faster and more nimble 1SG was at far lesser risk.

So, was the 1SG turn an impulsive act? Did Baron Letters ever expect his turn to be a master stroke or a decisive action? To both questions, this biographer answers, "No!"

---- 7:05 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 090, speed 18 knots

The bridge had seemed to grow quiet after the brief brisk fusillade from Seydlitz and Moltke had ended and the lull had an odd feeling of imminence. The heart of the LOB duel was clearly moving back along the lengths of the fleets. Back there were the ships with the lesser combat power. Back there also were the feisty but fairly fragile pre-dreadnought battleships of that fire-eating Rear Admiral Hanzik. Their heavy secondaries would be invaluable after dark. It was not yet, however, dark enough.

It was clear that the lead ships were having difficulty making out their targets. His critical appraisal of Konig convinced him that the big BB was still combat ready, especially after this brief respite.

The greater RN fleet speed was a matter of concern. If the HSF disengaged, the GF would get opportunities to renew the fighting. If the GF disengaged, however, it would be only 1SG that could catch them.

"Signals Officer!"

---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Blucher, course 090 speed 18 knots

"Sir, flags on Derfflinger!"

Commodore von Hoban had been staring into the darkening horizon ahead and to port, where he could "feel" a mass of RN light lurked in the van, just as his own did. He had two CL's and their half-flotillas 3000 yards ahead, with their torpedo boats in an arc.

Now, however, he turned to look back at what had essentially become the HSF flagship. The big battlecruiser was 2000 yards astern, and a few hundred yards south. Even in the degraded visibility, that meant that the flags were easily close enough to be read. And there were a lot of them!

"Sir, for us, form screen, close aboard."

Okay, tighten up a little, thought von Hoban, but what was the rest of all that?

"Sir, for 1SG, alter course to 045, speed 20 knots."

There were small noises in the bridge.

"Sir, for 1SG light ships, maintain station close aboard, starboard."

"Sir, main body slow to 15 knots."

"Signals!" Commodore von Hoban shouted, thinking fast, "Stettin, join Blucher!" She was the next CL (and half-flotilla) back. He wished he dared take still another, but he was leaving the rest thin as it was. He had six CLs and half-flotillas and decided that, if he really was going to go barging into the main body of the Grand Fleet as the baron seemed hell bent to do, then he wanted at least half of his force with him. After all, the wasps get thickest at the nest.

---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Seydlitz, course 090, speed 18 knots

The Derfflinger flag hoists were just 500 yards away from Captain Nik's binocular lenses. Despite that, he still had difficulty believing what he was seeing.

"Lt Lionel, check that the hatch is shut between turret #4 and turret #5."

If they were going BB hunting, it was worth checking again.

---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Von der Tann, course 090, speed 18 knots

Captain Dirk also was studying the flags on Derfflinger. He could hear the cables from his own yards as his ratings raised duplicates of those for his ship, acknowledging the orders.

Commander Bavaria, his XO, cleared his throat, obviously wishing for a dark lager that obviously could not be consumed on the bridge, let alone in battle.

"Well, captain, you did say you wanted something to shoot at."

"Jawohl, das ist richtig, but steaming into the main body of the Grand Fleet was NOT what I had in mind!"

--- 706 pm, bridge of Regensburg, course 090, speed 18 knots

Captain Wolferein had long ago concluded that he was too old for this.

He turned to the OOD and said, "Well, here we go again."

The other only nodded as they both listened to the shouts to get up the flags to acknowledge the orders, and also reports confirming Elbing and all the torpedo boats were getting the word.

As they waited, Wolferein realized he'd been running his right thumb absently over a shell splinter embedded in the bridge rail.

---- 7:06 pm, bridge of Derfflinger, course 090, speed 18 knots

The bridge, if possible, had gotten even quieter after the baron passed the orders to be put up on the hoists. The screeching of the cables in the hoist tackle had been heard plainly, sending shivers down the spines of many amidst the mists eddying in from the wingbridge.

"Signals," called Baron Letters: 'Wilhelmshaven, have engaged Grand Fleet main body. British losses - three BB's, at least one badly damaged. HSF losses - none, repeat, none. Konig and Markgraf moderately damaged. Am closing with the enemy. Letters.' "

"Aye, aye, sir."

"And Signals, confirm receipt."

"Captain Theodor, have ships acknowledged?"

"Yes, sir."


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