Part Three "Charge
of the Light Cruiser Brigade"
7:17 PM, Prinzregent Luitpold.
The course was ninety degrees. The speed, fifteen knots. The Prinzregent
Luitpold steamed on, maintaining formation in the Hochseeflotte. The
greatest concentration of German warships since the Hanseatic League, the
young upstarts who dared challenge the Royal Navy in the same sea to whose
waters had, long distant, held the battle by the name of 'Gravelines'.
And they were winning! But a minute, nearly two before, Prinzregent
Luitpold had taken a serious hit, lost the number four turret, but
otherwise she fought on; Virtually untouched, compared to the pyres of
four of the British 'Super Dreadnoughts' left behind them... One, the once
proud Conqueror, that they had dispatched themselves with a single
Euphoria. It was coming again. It was rather hard to avoid it. The very
idea.. The very enormity of what they were doing, in very clear violation
of doctrine.. But then, they were winning, and victory forgave everything.
That, he knew, was what Baron Admiral A. S. Letters was thinking right
now, or had at least been thinking when he made this decision... This...
Toss of the dice. And they were winning it. For centuries, the Royal Navy
had ruled the waves.. Not since Tromp had this happened, this sort of victory,
by a continental power. No wonder it made him feel invincible. It was the
Royal Navy out there..... And they were winning!
The guns, though, were now thundering out in only half-salvoes of three,
not four. A grim reminder of the cost of victory. It was now seven eighteen.
Time passed. Matthias von Heinz waited; He had damage reports to still
receive, a ship to command, though, in the Line of Battle, Captains were
rarely stressed with much except worrying... Until day, he thought, dryly.
Another three gun half-salvo bellowed towards their target, towards
Binoculars trained on the target, he caught the flash of flame as one of
their shells struck home once again; Fires, he hoped for, but none.. At
least, immediately. Still. Another hit. The lookouts called it out at nearly
the same time, and he was silent, this time, almost reflective. Lowering
the glasses, he looked to one of the talkers. "Go to turret four and ask
Commander Kragen for a report." The man saluted. "Jawohl, herr Kapitan," and started off immediately. Sehr sehr gut.. By the time the man actually
reached Commander Kragen, there'd be something of substance to report.
Another half-salvo was loosed towards distant Superb.
Down in Turret Four, Stefan Kragen, executive officer of the Prinzregent
Luitpold, was making a survey of the grim charnel house that the turret
had been reduced to. There was no complete penetration of the turret; That
would have ruined it. However, splinters of armour had slain over forty
men and essentially destroyed the upper sections of the ammunition hoists.
They would have to essentially jury-rig new ones to get the turret running
again. There were no other survivors.. That had been confirmed by the DC
parties moments before. Still.... Lucky. They were very lucky. He could
see the bulge that on the outside would be a massive, crater-like dent
in the turret armour. It could have been much worse. He thought of the
British dreadnoughts. It could have been fatal.
But for some reason.... No. He looked down, towards a powder charge..
Inside its zinc casing. He recalled the silken powder bags the British
used. He wondered if there was a connection there. Oh well, enough time
worry about that.... There had to be some way to jury-rig hoists. As the
other men worked, he thought about that.... As soon as he'd decided on
the best way to go about it, he'd have a solid report on when the turret
could be repaired, if it could, and how to go about it.. And that was of
greatest importance to Captain von Heinz at the moment.. And hence to his
first officer. The man probably would have preferred to lose a leg over
a turret in a battle like this, all things considered.
The minute of 7:19 PM started like an eternity on that cold, North Sea
day. Each minute was an eternity. Fifteen knots through the mists and smoke
and hell of the North Sea. Funny, how such a little patch of ocean was
the scene for so many battles that shaped the very course of history. Hundreds
of thousands of men could lay down their lives in massive land engagements
lasting days, even a series of clashes of weeks, that could be utterly
inconclusive. Out here, though, on the North Sea, with a tenth as many
men, a few ships could decide the fate of Empires.. In mere minutes.
The Empire was the closest thing humanity had to an eternal constant.
From the banks of the Nile to, now, the banks of the Thames, the capitol
of the greatest Empire had been the beating heart of the world. Empire,
the eternal constant. Who would hold that title.. That was what decision
was made on the North Sea. And so, in that bitter hell where men fought
and died, minutes, the determining factor of Empires, became eternities.
And as the Grand Fleet began to flee into the night, it seemed as though
the arrow pointing to that beating heart of human civilization was slowly,
miraculously, shifting to the bank of the Spree.
As the last salvo of the minute thundered out from the Prinzregent
Luitpold's guns, it ended, changing to 7:20. The realization was striking
home. More than a simple fact.. A sensation. The Grand Fleet was breaking
off. Deutschland held the North Sea. Superb was fading out of view,
damaged but still afloat, still moving. Verdamnt.. It wasn't enough, now,
simply to have forced them to break off. He wanted the Grand Fleet on the
bottom. They all did. It was a desperate war; It seemed like all the world
was against them, except for weak allies to the south. They could win it
now. Another target, then, while there was still time..
"Shift targets!" The order was given.
There was a spark of light from the Superb from the last half-salvo.
A lookout caught it, von Heinz did not.
"Sir, lookouts report we hit her a second time. Just before she finished
her turn, we had a clear hit on her hull aft."
"Good," It was just muttered, as he waited for the guns to finish shifting...
They fired. The target.. He searched for it with his binoculars... Five
turrets. He couldn't tell anything else definite. And even that was only
a fleeting glimpse.
The man had returned from the number four turret; He'd ran all the way
there, and all the way back, and was virtually out of breath. Von Heinz
looked to him. "Any progress on getting number four turret back?"
"No, sir," he panted.. Before he could continue, interruption... The
thunder of the guns from another half-salvo... Then, moments later..
"Sir, we've lost the target." Matthias hid the desire to curse out loud
at that. He brought up his binoculars to search personally.. "Very..."
There was a flash. He grinned. "Hit!" He called it out himself. That was
an incredible stroke of luck.. Good to get in another pounding on the enemy.
For a brief moment, he'd seen the target again, and then all was invisible..
But that image, the damaged ship limping off into the dark, burned into
his memory deeply. This night would never be forgotten as long as he lived..
Not a single detail of it.
"Are there any more Britishers in sight.. Anything? I don't even care
if it's a torpedo boat.. Do we have a target?" Matthias asked, slightly
irritably.. He wished the British had stayed and fought. Four of their
super-dreadnoughts destroyed did not make a victory, at least, against
the Grand Fleet.
"Nien, sir, nien.. Nothing. I'm sorry, sir." Captain von Heinz lowered
his binoculars and nodded once. It wasn't the man's fault the British were
fleeing. What would come next... Well, he had delayed the full report from
the runner to long. He turned to the man.
"What is the Commander's full report on turret four?" The runner had
recovered his breath, straightening to attention. "Commander Kragen reports
the ammunition hoists have been destroyed by armour fragments; No penetration.
At least fourty dead. He's organizing the jury-rigging of hoists, sir,
but he says not to expect them before daybreak... At the best, sir."
"Very well, man.. Get back to turret four and give them any assistance
you can. Tell Commander Kragen to return to the bridge as soon as possible."
The man saluted. "Jawohl, herr Captain."
And so Kapitan zur See Matthias von Heinz turned back, to look out to
the leading ships of the High Seas Fleet.. And waited.
Two minutes passed... Perhaps three, when a messenger came up from the
wireless room, rather excited and confused. Strange combination.
"Report," ordered von Heinz crisply. "Sir.. We've intercepted a rather
unusual message from Admiral Letters to Admiral Rudburg, sir..." Matthias
turned to face the messenger directly, suddenly interested. "What was the
text of the message?" The messenger straightened himself, and gave
it, letter for letter. "Admiral Rudburg, from Vice Admiral Letters. 'General
pursuit. Good hunting. Montrose's Toast.' "
Matthias was absolutely silent for a long, long moment. And then he
clenched a gloved fist, and laughed, and then slapped his hands together,
forgetting it all in that moment... The Baron. He'd be inclined to call
him a brilliant madman at the moment. "Gentlemen!" he announced to the
bridge, forgetting, uncaring, that they were not all gentlemen there. "We
are going hunting... For dreadnoughts. Prepare for a possible order for
flank speed and a turn to the north! Lookouts! Sharp eyes there; I expect
a signal any minute!" Matthias rubbed gloved hands together slowly, now,
clenching them, bringing them up, looking out into the gathering darkness,
and waiting, eyes alight. Pursuit course. No escape for the Grand Fleet.
It was the only thing it could mean. And he.. He was quite prepared to
win or lose it all. He didn't have to wait long.
EIGHTEEN Knots. Course, due North. It was what he had expected.. Sort
of. He'd wished for twenty-two knots himself, though it would have left
the Pre-Dreadnoughts far in their wakes and the Nassaus struggling to keep
up if they could at all. Prinzregent Luitpold's two shafts churned
water as she headed North, after the Grand Fleet. They were in pursuit,
one line of battle, flying the German flag. United Germany, fighting together,
winning together. This was the baptism of fire of the young German Empire,
Der Tag. Prinzregent Luitpold was in the center of what was now
a three ship division, sixth back in the line. The former flagship was
behind them; The honour of that title now went to the Battlecruiser Derfflinger.
"Britishers.. Light ships!" The man rattled off the estimated position
as Captain von Heinz brought up his binoculars, searching. He could barely
make out the dim forms.. To far for the secondaries, thankfully.. Main
guns, however, even six... "Main Guns... Commence fire at the light ships;
Targets of your choosing!"
They'd swat the British cruisers and destroyers like gnats. Matthias
von Heinz had other prey on his mind, as the main guns spoke in half salvos,
and he watched the flashes of shells striking some of the light targets.
He had no way to know if they were from the Konigs, or other Kaisers, or
his own ship, but they were all firing, and they were all hitting, of that
he was sure.. And that was all that mattered. If the light ships couldn't
organize for a torpedo attack, they'd be useless against Dreadnoughts,
and pickings for the big guns to slaughter.
It looked like they were pulling back, retreating through smoke. He
could not tell if cripples were left behind, very well, at least. Excellent,
though. No torpedo attack this time. Northward.. Northward! It was much,
much more exciting than any other hunt.
Commander Kragen was back on the bridge, repair efforts on turret number
four under way.. Painfully slow, as far as Captain von Heinz was concerned.
It was nearly thirty minutes after the hour. They'd chase down the cripples
first.... Matthias hoped for an accounting with Superb. He did not
think that copy of the first Dreadnought would be making eighteen knots..
Or nearly it. He wondered about the mystery ship, as well. The light ships
were gone, driven off. He wondered, also, if the Grand Fleet would flee
at best possible speed, leaving the cripples for them. So many variables
in a battle like this... He was lucky he was 'only' the captain of a dreadnought.
He envied the Baron, but not by much. Due North, Eighteen Knots. It had
an exciting air.
NOW. It was the time of waiting. 7:35 PM.. The minutes ticked
by with horrific slowness. The Smokescreen to the starboard bow occupied
all his attention. Not very far off, at all.. Less than ten thousand yards.
Well, almost all his attention. "Any improvement on the time estimate for
turret four," he asked the junior officer out of the corner of his mouth,
binoculars focused on the smokescreen. "No sir," the man answered, edging
away. Von Heinz accidentally bit his tongue. Verdamnt. But the pain made
him concentrate a bit more, focusing... Commander Kragen, behind him, smiled
faintly. It was the smile of a nervous man.
Von Heinz would have been infinitely happier if light ships and torpedoes
did not exist. Ach vell. There was the smoke screen, and there was the
threat. All four operational turrets were trained on it, though the order
for cross-deck firing had not been given. He just wanted the fourth turret
trained that way, anyway.. If light ships attacked, well, they might need
every gun. And if some crippled dreadnought was revealed through the smoke,
and the angle was right.. He'd risk it. Hell, the Baron had broken every
rule in the book. They weren't going to crucify him for trying to fire
cross-deck. And it wasn't like there was anything there to ignite anymore.
The minute past. 7:36 PM.. Der Tag. The Hochseeflotte bore down upon
the Grand Fleet. And the Smokescreen was ever closer.
The foe that led 'The Charge of the Light Cruiser Brigade' was the H.M.S.
Castor, a near brand-new Cambrian class light cruiser armed with four
6in, eight 4in, and multiple light guns, along with two 21in torpedo launchers
in a single twin mount. It had a rather ridiculously tall foremast, like
most light cruisers intended for operations with fleets. And it burst out
of the smokescreen, leading a gaggle of other light cruisers and all the
destroyers that could be scraped together. It was a proper cavalry charge
at sea, each Dreadnought, a square of infantry... With big guns. Then again,
there were a lot of torpedoes out there, too.
"Multiple incoming light ships, bearing, three hundred and thirty degrees!"
came the shout, relayed from the lookouts. But Kapitan zur See Matthias
von Heinz had already seen them. "Fire!" he shouted.. Then, a moment later,
as things became clearer.
"Target the light cruiser! Go for the leader, main guns! I repeat, target
the lead light cruiser! Hold fire on turret three." Moments later, the
main guns spoke the first half salvo.
The next order was given. "Fifteen centimeter and eighty-eight millimeter
batteries stand by to commence firing!" And, finally.. Just in case...
"Stand by for maneuvering; Starboard shaft to standby for all astern flank." If things got too thick for them, if the order to break the line of battle
was given and they maneuvered to evade torpedoes, Matthias wanted to be
ready. If they did, he was betting on the order being given to turn into
the attackers. He did not think it would come, though. They'd ride through
it, win or lose, on the strength of their own guns. The British had just
tossed their own dice.
Back to Part 2 -- Ahead
to Part 4