Single Status Update
Aboard Vanguard, frustration gripped Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser. Despite spending nearly three days at sea, the ability of the new Lion-class to engage fast-moving targets in bad weather was still as bad as it had been. Fraser knew that the North Sea spent the majority of its winter months racked by heavy seas and storms, and the inability of his new crews to land accurate shots was discouraging. They had at their disposal the most advanced and newest battleships in the entire Royal Navy, yet Fraser felt that the crew of his former command, Anson, would have done better with an older ship and older equipment.
Sinking into his chair on Vanguard’s flag bridge, Fraser’s mood matched the storm outside. While going out to conduct gunnery drills in bad weather had been his idea, Gunnery Officers on Thunderer and Conqueror had reported electrical gremlins from intrusion of seawater preventing them from locking onto targets moving in excess of 25 knots. Vanguard herself was suffering from ‘new ship blues’, as the electrical ammunition hoists for her ‘X’ turret were malfunctioning, prohibiting the movement of shells to the guns. Destroyers Somme and Jutland had been struck by errant 16” shells fired by one of the battleships. While both ships were still seaworthy, their speed was limited to no more than 23 knots.
As Fraser stewed on the bridge, Vanguard’s captain, Jaxson Murphy, stuck his head in and asked the admiral if he wanted a cup on hot tea for his nerves. “Murph, at this point anything hot would be a godsend.” Fraser shook his head in an attempt to wake himself up, and leaned forward. Murphy handed the Admiral a cup of tea, before taking his seat on the opposite side of the bridge.
Murphy, himself fighting exhaustion, attempted to make conversation. “If anything, this storm should keep Jerry’s U-boats away. But it's almost morning, and that could mean air patrols.”
“How are Somme and Jutland holding out?”
“Better now that the storm’s dying down.” The relief in Murphy’s voice was apparent. “I don't want to think about trying to conduct any rescues in this weather.” As if to underscore the captain’s point, the ship lurched as another heavy breaker crashed over her bows. Fraser glanced out the windows at Lion riding off Vanguard’s port beam. The new ship, despite all her faults, was certainly a smart vessel.
“We’re two days out from Scapa.” Murphy stood and walked over to the window. If he strained his eyes, he imagined he could see the outline of Scapa on the horizon. “I’ve had a bad feeling since Jutland was hit. Something just felt off about this whole mission.” He smiled briefly. “Maybe I should just get some rest until later.”
Fraser nodded. I think I can manage this ship for a few hours. He glanced at his watch. “It’s 0635. It’ll be light in a few minutes. If I were you, I’d get some rest now before it gets light.” He rose, and showed Murphy out of his flag bridge. A brief clasp on the shoulder, and Murphy headed below. The admiral drained the last of his tea and turned to look over some reports from the exercise.
No sooner had he grabbed the first stack of papers, movement outside caught his eye. Glancing outside, Fraser’s blood ran cold. Three large geysers of coloured water rose high into the still-churning ocean, spilling down on Vanguard’s deck. Fraser suspected there were more splashes he couldn’t see. He broke into a run for the CIC, hoping there wouldn’t be any serious damage to smaller ships. The moment Fraser reached the CIC, a flash and massive rumble resonated throughout Vanguard, and the accompanying shaking threw Fraser against the bulkhead and rocked the whole ship.
Standing on Grosser Kurfirst’s bridge 16 kilometers away, Lindemann observed the fall of shot, and a faint smile crossed his face as the gunnery officer reported a first-salvo hit by Bayden. No sooner had the first shots fallen then the turrets reported ready to fire again.
“Fire at will. Focus leading vessel, assumed to be HMS Vanguard.” Turning to Kapitan Schrader and the rest of the bridge crew, Lindemann put forth his next idea. “Say we get closer. Within secondary range. I want your opinions.”
Schrader nodded thoughtfully. “I can see the value in getting closer. Prevents a potential escape.” He looked around the bridge, eyeing each crew member in turn. “That’s the last thing we want now.”
No one objected. After a moment longer paused. Lindemann, satisfied, turned to Schrader. “The only thing I would be concerned of is being led into a destroyer ambush. I will instruct the destroyers and cruisers to remain on guard.”
A flash of light outside caught everyone’s attention, as a pillar of orange shot up from one of the cruisers, illuminating the surrounding water. As all eyes trained on the mortally wounded British cruiser, the smaller ship heaved, rolled heavily, and lost headway. Looking through his binoculars, Schrader could make out the small forms of British sailors preparing to abandon their ship. This was, however, the North Sea in January and Lindemann knew how cold the ocean could get. The running sea was slowly driving the burning ship-and survivors-back towards the oncoming German battle line. Detailing Z-53 and Z-54 to stand by and rescue survivors if possible, Lindemann cautioned the two destroyers to immediately break off if they came under any sort of fire or encountered any resistance.
Aboard Vanguard, Admiral Fraser was frantically trying to get a grasp on the situation. Reports were conflicting as to the compilation of the pursuing German fleet. Based on the size of the shell splashes that were constantly straddling his flagship and Thunderer, Fraser and Captain Murphy concluded that these were 16-inch guns, but the number of ships that may be pursuing them was still unknown. Vanguard’s fighting capacity wasn’t impaired, but communication was severely hampered by the hit to the bridge.
“Well if we cannot reach the Admiralty, can we at least communicate with the rest of the fleet?” The British admiral’s frustration was growing, and nothing was being done. It was only a matter of time before more of those big shells found their mark. “Murphy, status of fuel and ammunition?”
“We’ll be hard pressed to fight here and still make it home. The destroyers, I fear, will not stand a chance of making it home of they’re forced to run at anything like combat speed.” The weariness in Schrader’s voice became more and more apparent the more he spoke. “Ammunition isn’t good either. We only have about twenty rounds per gun across the fleet that isn’t practice rounds. In other words, trying to fight our way out of here isn’t a good choice.”
Knowing all too well how this was slated to go, and with the German ships closing in, Fraser had to make a decision, and fast. “If we’re going to have any chance of getting anything achieved, our best option is to try to make a run at the enemy ships and do what damage we can and hope and pray they turn away and we can disengage.”
Murphy nodded and turned to his radio operator. “Clarke, detail Somme and Jutland to remain behind and try to slip home while we engage the German battleships.” He grabbed the voice telephone to the engine room. With the situation as dire as it was, the admiral opted for informalities. “Richardson, we’ve got a big fleet of Jerry heavyweights closing on us. If it’s not too much of an inconvenience, could you be so kind as to give me everything you’ve got?”
A moment later, Vanguard, in company with the four Lions, surged forward , and swung around to meet the onrushing German ships. As the British battleships swung around, Fraser ordered a small plane to be launched, in an attempt to inform Scapa Flow of the fate of the Navy’s best ships. “It’s upsetting that we’ve been essentially caught with our pants down, eh?” A nervous laugh came from Murphy’s mouth as the young skipper, helming his first major command, turned in to face the vastly superior German fleet.
Fraser said nothing to his skipper, only ordering the fleet into line formation and prepare to open fire. The admiral’s face was grim, his eyes dark. The lightning skies contrasted sharply with the mood in Vanguard’s flag bridge. No one spoke unless necessary. Fraser instructed Vanguard’s main battery to open fire. The remaining cruisers and battleships engaged targets of their own choices, simply trying to do as much damage as possible to whatever ships they could with what ammunition they had before the big guns of the onrushing German warships spelled their demise.
“British ships have turned in and are attempting to close,” The lookout had reported the British change of course roughly two minutes prior. Now he informed Lindemann of the most recent perceived intentions of the Royal Navy warships.
A thin smile crackled on Lindemann’s tired face. The British had played right into his hand. A new plan entered his mind, and he turned to his radio operator, Walther, to convey his wishes. “Have Baydn, Berlin, Konigsberg take five destroyers and turn slightly east. Divide the British firepower.”
As Lindemann explained his intentions, he glanced astern. A sense of pride and admiration filled him as he watched the smart ships turn out and swing away to the east. He watched the turrets on Baydn swing around, the long barrels gleaming in the sunlight that was peeking through the breaking clouds. A new day, the admiral thought. A new day indeed. A new era. A new sea power.
“British battleships have opened fire,” came the calm voice of the lookout. Lindemann caught sight of the flashes of the British ships’ guns amidst the intermittent shimmers of sunlight off the grey-blue waters. “Shell splashes around Roon and Hindenburg.”
“Those shells were close. Have the destroyers go in now. We need to split up their formation before those shells find their ma-” Admiral Lindemann’s orders were cut off by a bright flash from one of his vanguard cruisers. Before Lindemann could inquire as to the cripple’s identity, a report came through.
“Roon to flag. We’ve received hits from three 16-inch shells. Steering gone-” Static briefly cut out the transmission. “-wer to main battery. Must retire. Fire in one engine roo-” More static. “-ire assistance.”
Ice coursed through Lindemann’s veins at the mention of fire in an engine room. The engine rooms in Roon-class cruisers were only two decks below the magazines for the rear turrets. He remember vividly the hellish pillar of fire that had eviscerated Hood five years prior. From what he had seen, it looked like no one had been able to survive the inferno that became HMS Hood. He could only hope and pray that a similar fate wouldn’t befall Roon. His face hardened, despite the slight worry still in his eyes. “Detail Edmen, Z-47, Z-49, and Z-50 to stand by Roon. Prepare assist her crew in firefighting efforts. Be forewarned Roon’s magazines are at risk of detonating.”
Sighing, Lindemann faced a dilemma. Initially he had intended to have the destroyers make torpedo run against the British fleet prior to the battleships giving the coupe de grace. Now, with three escorting the crippled Roon, and two dealing with the hulk of the crippled British cruiser and picking up survivors, sending the destroyers in would leave the fleet exposed and open to potential submarine attacks, which were certain to be heading towards the beleaguered ships. After giving it a moment of thought, Lindemann played his next card.
“Schrader, get us in close. Ensure those orders reach the rest of the fleet.” Those last words, directed at Walther, seated at his radio set. The battleships, already running at 31 knots, had been running a course that kept the British warships at roughly a 45-degree angle off the starboard bow. Now, Lindemann narrowed that angle to only 20 degrees. While the course change meant many of the secondaries and the rear main battery turrets could no longer bear on the enemy, the distance would be closed quicker.
After what seemed like only a few salvos, reports came from the turrets that they had already exhausted two-thirds of the ammunition available. Each gun only had about fifteen rounds left. Reports of a course change reached Fraser’s hands. Seeing the German leviathans ploughing towards them, Fraser shivered. Despite years at sea, the sight of those numerous battleships and big cruisers, some larger than the older training battleships the Royal Navy possesed, silhouetted against the now-risen sun, sent chills down his spine. The long twin barrels in the rear of the ship stood out against the yellows and blues in the sky. The clouds, while still present, had parted enough for the sun to break through. Ironic, Fraser thought. It's like the dawn of a new day, a new era, and we’re sailing to our deaths. A glance around the CIC showed faces that contrasted strongly with the view from Vanguard’s bridge. The only proverbial ray of sunshine for the British were a few hits by Vanguard on a German cruiser, which could be seen in the distance surrounded by several destroyers and another cruiser. A brief smile crossed the British admiral’s face as he observed smoke coming from the cruiser’s stern. She was down by the stern, and didn’t appear to be making headway. While he would have liked to finish her off with some shells, there weren’t any to spare with the German dreadnoughts closing in.
“Open fire,” came the curt order from Lindemann as the fleet closed with within ten kilometers of the British formation. “Draw their attention onto us and away from Roon.” The peaceful tranquility of the morning was shattered with the flashes of flame and ear-spitting roar of a dozen 406 mm guns opening fire once more, in company with the battleships’ secondary batteries and cruiser guns. Down in the forward turrets the gunners sweated, and several decks below them, the loaders and ammunition handlers grunted with exertion, then braced for the recoil as the big guns fired. With a flash and roar, the massive shells were sent flying downrange towards the oncoming British warships.
“Swing us out to port,” Lindemann said. The simpleness of the order, and the cleanliness with which it was delivered came as stark contrast to what the order would entail. The big battlewagon gracefully turned out, and a glance behind him showed Friedrich Der Große following exactly in Kurfurst’s wake. As the gun batteries at the rear were unmasked, they added their rhythmic booming to the bass crescendo that coursed throughout the flagship.
“Secondary batteries are to engage British destroyers and keep them at bay. Once dealt with, engage British cruisers.”
Schrader eyed his admiral. “Ernst, do you really intend to eliminate this entire fleet?”
Admiral Lindemann faced his friend. “Kapital Schrader. Complete destruction is necessary to ensure the control of these waters belongs to the Kriegsmarine, and to ensure U-boats are able to run through these waters unmolested.” He turned back to the action outside. “So to answer your question, yes. I intend to do my damndest to finish every British ship I can.”
Schrader nodded. He’d forgotten that Lindemann sometimes got like this during battles, where his usual easy going personality took a backseat to the stoic, reserved persona Lindemann also possessed. “Understood, sir.”
A momentary twinge of sadness tugged at Schrader’s heart as he realised that within a few hours, thousands of British sailors would either be dead, or at the least, prisoners of war. Schrader shook his head to clear his thoughts. He was here to do a job, to fight enemy ships-of-the-line. He couldn’t think about anything else right now or it would drive him crazy.
Getting back to the task at hand, Schrader kept his eyes trained on the British warships as Kurfirst’s main battery ripped into the British superstructure. The longer he looked at the British ships out the bridge window, the more nervous he got about what he had considered the one major weakness of the Kurfurst’s design. The firing arcs on the rear turrets left a bit to be desired, as in order to bring them to bear the ship and to expose an uncomfortable amount of her broadside. If Schrader wanted to prevent anything, it would be unnecessary damage to his ship. Damage was inevitable in battle, but the more that could be mitigated, the better.Wincing internally, Schrader watched Vanguard return Grosser Kurfurst’s fire with her forward turrets. He felt a muffled thud and breathed a sigh of relief as the British shells struck the battleship’s belt armor and bounced.
The German battleships were now so close that tracking the British ships was tricky. With his fleet getting too close and wanting to avoid a potential suicide attempt by the trapped British fleet, Lindemann ordered the fleet to turn away. “Turn away now? And show broadside to the British ships at this range?” Schrader shot his admiral a look.
“We’re going to turn away and open the range so the destroyers can go in.” Lindemann, squinting against the glare of the sun, continued to give new orders. “Once the destroyers have retired, the cruisers will polish off the survivors. Should everything go according to plan, the destroyers will then return to pick up survivors.”
Schrader nodded. Now that Kurfurst had turned away, the glare of the rising sun made it difficult to see without squinting. Before Lindemann could convey his plans to Bey, Lutjens, or the destroyers, the ship lurched and rocked. Several shouts came from different men on the bridge as they were thrown from their stations. No sooner had the initial shock of the hit registered, then a blast of heat washed over the bridge and flashes of fire reflected off the windows. Fighting to pull themselves upright, the two officers immediately called for a damage report.
Reports came in of a hit to the ship’s superstructure, between her funnels. While there was no threat to the ship’s stability, unbeknownst to anyone on Grosser Kurfurst’s bridge, the hit and subsequent shock has bent the uptakes for the ship’s rear funnel. Now, instead of the exhaust from the ship’s boilers and turbines reaching the outside, it was trapped inside the funnel, and would reach the engine room if left unchecked. The heavy smoke posed a serious threat to the crew in the #2 engine room, and could result in a serious reduction in the ship’s speed and ability to maneuver.
Across the waters between the opposing fleets, Admiral Fraser watched in silence as his fleet sailed towards the German ships. When a small flash caught his eye, a brief smile cracked on his lips, though it faded just as fast. He was tired, tired enough that it took him a moment of looking again at the German fleet that there were now only two battleships in front of him. Just as he was about to scold the lookout for missing the movement of such an important ship, a cry came from across the bridge, on the ship’s port side.
“Ships to port! One battleship, two cruisers and several destroyers bearing 350.” The panic in the young rating’s voice was apparent. Fraser bowed his head. He realised that he’d sailed into a crossfire, setup by the Germans and missed by him, due in part to his exhaustion.
“German ships have opened fire!”
“Main German fleet has turned away!”
“Neptune reports critical damage to her boiler rooms!”
“Jutland reports fire on her bridge”
Aboard Baydn, Lutjens watched the scene before him unfold. It looked as if the British fleet hadn’t even noticed that roughly a third of the German ships had split off and flanked them. The five British battleships were in line abreast, guns all trained to starboard and firing at Grosser Kurfurst and Friedrich Der Grosse. He had heard the report by Roon just after initiating his turn away. He hadn’t heard any more on the status of the big cruiser since, and was hoping she was still afloat. He quickly ordered the destroyers to go in for a torpedo run, as he could see and was informed of, Lindemann’s abrupt change of course. Once the destroyers had initiated their runs, Lutjens turned to Baydn’s young captain, Joachim Pfeiffer. “Once the destroyers have made their runs, open fire. I assume the British know we are here now, so we have to hope the destroyers come through in one pieces.”
Pfeiffer nodded. “Understood, sir. Once the DD’s are clear, or should we open fire now?”
His inexperience is showing, Lutjens thought, and he suppressed a groan. “Kaptain, if we open fire now, there is as high a possibility that we will hit friendly ships as well as enemy. Wait till my orders to open fire.” The skipper saluted, and turned back to his post.
After a painstaking twenty minute wait, Z-53 reported she had dropped her fish and was turning away. Only Z-56 had taken a beating, blasted by several shells from a British cruiser.
“Open fire,” came Lutjens’ curt command, and almost instantaneously, the big guns aboard Baydn and her only slightly-smaller consorts announced their presence, locking the beleaguered British warships in a heavy crossfire. A faint smile briefly crossed Lutjens’ normally-stoic face.
Across the water, on Kurfurst’s bridge, Lindemann now countered her previous order to turn away. As the British cruisers and destroyers switched their fire away from the battleships to counter threat from the destroyers and their metal fish, they would present the German battleships in front of them with a flat broadside. Should Vanguard, Lion, Conqueror, Thunderer, and Temeraire maintain their course, torpedoes were in the water, and Baydn, Berlin and Konigsberg would have their broadsides .