What Prices Paid_Part 4

by Jim Rapkins

HML Philopoemen

80 miles off the Danish Coast

Baltic Sea

12 January 1909

Ratings spoke quietly into the speaking tubes before them as Christian continued giving rapid-fire orders. “Helm, bring us about, make sure those buggers can’t get a good shot at the boats.” Crippen nodded. Admiral Jellicoe’s plan was for the larger leviathans to shield the lighter, more nimble vessels with their bulk, whilst opening up their broadsides at the Germans arrayed against them. The Edward VII-class leviathans were well armoured enough to take whatever the Krauts could throw at them. In this fight, the Germans were simply outclassed. Even with a decade’s worth of neglect, the ocean-going vessels of the Royal Navy were still a match for any navy in the world—whether augmented by Levs or not.

As if to illustrate the point, the Philopoemen heaved under his feet as the designated batteries opened fire. The thundercrack of each gun was largely absorbed by the mass of steel and wood that served as the Philopoemen’s superstructure, and only the wavering of the pegs holding aloft from his map board the wooden blocks that served as representations of the various fleet vessels gave any indication of the Germans’ return fire.

“Rupert, shift fire and hit those surface targets before the Counties go in. And for God’s sake, Rupert, make sure those gunners know what they’re hitting before they fire. Fisher will chew my arse out if any of those bloody floaties takes one from us!”

“Sir! Look at the Suffolk!” Both Crippen and Christian snapped their heads up in unison to look off the port bow at the British County-class light cruiser.

“Bloody fool! He’ll get his arse kicked!” Crippen nodded as he watched the other British vessel engage the German surface targets. Unlike the Philopoemen, which had stayed back and used its superior range to drop fire onto the German surface flotilla whilst continuing to engage the German leviathan fleet, the Suffolk had rushed forward and was now tilting at an angle of twenty-five degrees off the vertical, allowing its gunners a much clearer shot at the German boats, but exposing the softer superstructure to the German leviathan counter-fire.

Sensing the opening, two of the German vessels shifted fire away from the naval cruisers they were intent on engaging, and towards the Suffolk. A low-caliber cannonade peppered the deck of the British Lev, but there was no real damage as the British vessel raked the German flotilla with a full broadside. Black smoke exploded as the German vessels attempted to shroud their position from above, but it was too late, with several of the Suffolk’s shots hitting a target.

“Blast!” Christian shouted. “What the hell is that?! Bloody Admiralty told us all their Levs were accounted for!”

Crippen grabbed the field glasses off the plotting table and stepped outside the flying bridge, making sure to secure his guide strap’s dog clip to the recess provided for the purpose. Sure enough, emerging from the haze at the rear of the German leviathan formation was a massive vessel, bigger than even the Philopoemen and its brethren. Crippen could hear Christian, still roaring: “Rupert! Get on the horn and let Jellicoe know, now!”

Crippen was more concerned about the crew of the Suffolk. Their captain’s bravado in disregarding the threat of the German leviathans now saw them exposed to the murderous fire that only a Battleship could deliver. The new German arrival’s capabilities were unknown, but Crippen could count as many, if not more gun batteries as on the Philopoemen. As if reading his thoughts, the other British vessel slowly rolled on its axis, trying to present its armoured underbellly to the marauding German behemoth bearing down on it. The naval vessels it was ostensibly escorting were forgotten.

“Captain Christian! Admiral Jellicoe has given the withdraw order!”

“What?! God help me, boy, if you’ve messed up, I’ll God Walk you until you’re dead!”

“No, sir! Order has been confirmed, the surface vessels are taking too much damage.”

“Bullshit! Those bloody Krauts aren’t even getting a hit in!”

“Surface flotilla reports heavy fire, and—”

Crippen winced as a stream of invective flowed from his superior’s lips. “That’s why we’re using fecking Levs! What the feck did they think was going to happen?! Of course they’ll take heavy fire. Useless fecking bastards! Rupert! You tell Jellicoe to push those fecking floaties and we’ll make sure the Germans stay hit!” His frustration given voice, Christian walked outside the bridge to share a private word with Crippen. “Withdraw, Alun—withdraw! Fecking useless bastards. I—”

The captain’s next words were swallowed by an almighty explosion that rent the air. Wheeling quickly around to face the Suffolk, Crippen felt his mouth dry as little fires danced across a full third of the British vessel that was falling in a stream of fiery detritus across the wake of the German surface fleet. The Suffolk had managed to present its best face to the German battleship bearing down on it, and had still fallen. Like a pack of wolves, the remaining German cruisers fell into a formation with the larger vessel, seemingly sensing the British fleet’s moment of hesitation.

Crippen knew Christian was the most outspoken of the leviathan captains, but that didn’t mean he was the only one. The Sky Fleet had been formed from those officers and men that the Royal Navy considered expendable, and discipline was one of the main reasons. So he had no doubt the same conversation he’d just overheard between the contrite XO and the brusque captain was being replayed throughout the fleet. The Germans had seized that moment to show more cohesion than they had exhibited before, and the Suffolk and its crew were now paying the price. The British fleet was stronger and larger than its German counterpart, but the Germans weren’t hampered by the lack of communication and even respect that plagued the two separate halves of the British armada. Crippen hoped the fool at Whitehall was keelhauled, or more appropriately, God-walked for this debacle.

“Rupert! Get those guns on that bastard now! I want it out of my sky!”

“Admiral Jellicoe is ordering us to withdraw, Captain.”

“Rupert, fire the God-damned guns or I’ll kick you off the deck myself!”

“Cap’n Christian sir, look at the fleet!”

Despite Crippen’s earlier thought regarding the discipline of the Sky Fleet, when it came down to it, Admiral Jellicoe commanded a large amount of respect, and the repeated orders were slowly being obeyed. The Suffolk was struggling to set down in good shape, but thus far the Germans had refrained from further attacks. Only the Philopoemen remained at combat range, and the Germans fired sporadically, trying more to entice the Edward VII-class leviathan closer than to effectively damage it.

The Sky Fleet had lost here today, despite the decrepit forms of several Kormorant-class leviathans limping gingerly towards the rear of the German lines. They had failed, and with that, the image of invincibility the Sky Fleet had crafted was rendered impotent. Crippen looked towards his captain, the unspoken question asked by his arched eyebrows. Slamming a fist into the plotting table, Captain Christian nodded.

“Aye, Alun—rejoin the Fleet. The Germans have won this day.”

To Be Continued…

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