"A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge...."
Posted 07 May 2021 - 02:31 PM
January 17, 1916
This fourth and final part of the three-day Möwe saga is a recast of the events of January 17, 1916, centering on the notion of HMS Essex and her captain acting upon the radio messages of SS Clan MacTavish, received on the evening of January 16, 1916. These garbled messages were, in fact, discarded/ignored by the wireless operators, with HMS Essex continuing her patrol some 150 miles south of the freighter’s last reported position. It was a long-shot opportunity to have ended Möwe’s career early on, tragically cast aside. Apologies given in advance for its long-winded nature.
Alone in HMS Essex’s cramped radio room, a young telegraph rating sat hunched at his station, head down, his headset held tightly over his ears. There it was again, he thought, a faint message, nearly obscured by crackling interference, a call for assistance, under attack, Clan MacTavish, along with a position. It repeated nearly a dozen times before it faded into an indiscernible stream, but he was able to jot down most, if not all of it. Looking at his watch, he noted the time and date in the wireless log as 1848, 16 January 1916.
He’d no sooner written into the log then the steel door behind him swung open, the CPO sticking his head in to check on him. Turning, the operator said nothing, just handed him the slip of paper.
“Are you sure?” his chief asked. He always harbored some doubts about these newly-minted wireless operators.
“It repeated a number of times; I wrote down what I could, but then I lost it.”
“Give it another twenty minutes. See if you can raise it again. I’ll be back ‘round in a bit.”
A half hour slipped by and the operator heard nothing, just a few faint wisps of inconsequential traffic. When the chief returned, the operator had nothing new to report. The surly CPO, mumbling something about having had his doubts, told the radioman he would need to stay on past the end of his watch as the lead telegraphist had taken ill and was laid up in sick bay.
He’d nearly given up on it when, at 2048, a new message from Clan MacTavish was heard, quite clear, reporting that the freighter had been attacked by an unidentified ship which they’d managed to elude. The message provided a revised time, position, and an approximate heading. The operator alerted the watch officer, who had the message taken to the bridge. At 2100, Essex’s captain, Hugh D. R. Watson, was sent for and told of the message. Looking at the charts, they determined that Essex could be on Clan MacTavish’s approximate position within eight or nine hours. At 2124, Watson messaged Cape Verde station, who ordered Essex off her patrol and sent north.
At 2018, Dohna-Schlodien ordered Möwe around to resume the pursuit of Clan MacTavish, but after nearly two hours searching in the darkness, no trace of the big freighter was found. The German made the presumption that MacTavish’s captain would quickly resume his original due-north course and set Möwe’s search in that direction; Oliver, in fact, had turned onto an ENE heading, moving nearly 180 degrees opposite the last glimpse he’d had of his adversary. Shortly before 2100, Oliver took one hell of a chance and ordered a short message sent advising of their encounter, the time, and an approximate position. Receiving no response and presuming no assistance was coming, he resolved to put as much water as possible between him and the German cruiser before dawn.
Dohna-Schlodien had decisions of his own to make, none of them particularly good. First, he radioed Berg on Appam, advising him that Möwe would not rendezvous with the liner again, instead ordering him to take the ship west to a neutral American port. He directed Berg to do this in a leisurely fashion, both to delay the release of the British prisoners she was carrying, as well as optimizing Möwe’s chances to disappear.
He next had to decide whether to remain in the area south of Funchal, move to another location somewhere along the West African coast, or simply push off for the hunting grounds of South America and a rendezvous with Corbridge for recoaling. While they had not detected any radio traffic overnight indicating the gig was up, he had to presume that the freighter, if able, would do so by morning. As the hours slipped by and no “alarm” traffic was overheard, Dohna-Schlodien made the decision to remain for a few days before heading west.
Hugh D. R. Watson had taken command of Essex on New Year’s Day, 1915. During the years leading up to the war, she’d had a reputation as a rather undisciplined ship, performing subpar on maneuvers while wreaking havoc in a number of ports of call. Watson, together with Hugh Tweedie, her previous commander, had gone a long ways toward getting the troublemakers and malcontents sorted. By January, 1916, she was performing as well as any of the cruisers assigned to foreign stations.
The Monmouth-class armored cruisers, of which Essex was one of ten, had been purpose-built for defending the sea lanes against marauding enemy cruisers and armed merchantmen. They were relatively lightly armed (14 six-inch in two twin turrets and six casemates) and armored (just 2-4 inches along the belt) as compared to the preceding Drake-class, but they had good speed, which was critical for the task at hand. Besides the lighter main armament, there were a number of design issues, the most glaring being eight of the six-inch were configured in two-tiered casemates, the lower of which were nearly awash in all but the calmest of conditions and lowest speeds. An anomaly in White’s string of cruiser designs, faults aside, they were lovely ships.
While Essex charged north at 18 knots, Watson was left to plan his search. With precious little information from MacTavish to build on, he started with the approximate position of her encounter which she’d radioed some eight hours earlier. Presuming the German was, at worst, a light cruiser, operating at a speed of 20 knots or less, he was left with a potential area of some 80,000 square nautical miles to deal with. That was, however, only if the raider had bolted in a straight line, which he thought unlikely. If the German had spent any significant time trying to track the freighter, the distance from the point of contact was probably far less, which would reduce the search area considerably, and a presumption that the German would stay close to the shipping lanes reduced it further. Drawing a circle around an area of some 6000 square nautical miles south and west of Madeira, he would focus his search there.
A postwar photo of Sir Hugh D. R. Watson from 1928.
Some ninety minutes before sunrise, a lookout reported a smudge of smoke on the horizon off Essex’s starboard bow. Sending the men to action stations, Watson had the cruiser move to investigate. What they discovered was nothing more than a 500-ton Portuguese trawler, belching a plume of oily smoke while dragging nets from its extended booms. Satisfied that this was no German raider, Watson pressed on at 15 knots, still more than two hours south of his targeted search area.
At 0740, another ship was encountered, this the Norwegian-flagged refrigerated motor vessel Sardinia, bound for Luanda with a cargo of fish, machine oil and parts. After a cursory inspection consuming the better part of forty minutes, both ships were back on their way, with Sardinia quickly disappearing over the southern horizon.
Nine hours after having dispatched Appam for her run west, Dohna-Schlodien was having second thoughts. The cargo liner might have proved useful as a decoy, screening Möwe in the event of a confrontation with a well-armed adversary. He made no effort to recall her, but it had him thinking. His failed overnight search for the freighter had taken him further north and east than he wanted. Presuming that any threat would likely come from the direction of Madeira, he ordered Möwe’s speed reduced to eight knots and a turn to the south-southwest. This would take them slowly across the established shipping lanes, as well as a line some forty miles west where traffic was reportedly moving in an attempt to avoid submarines that might be operating in the area. Once beyond that, sensing the risk of hanging around was too great, they’d head west for the Brazilian coast.
At 0920, Essex reached Clan MacTavish’s reported position at the time of her encounter with the German raider. As expected, there was nothing to be seen, the sea empty in all directions. MacTavish’s radio-location shortly before 2100 was nearly fifteen miles north-northeast, so Watson ordered Essex off on a line in that direction. He planned to continue on that heading for two or three hours, then begin a wide turn that would take the cruiser to the northwest.
By early afternoon, air temps had risen to a seasonal 61 degrees while sea conditions remained “gentle” (d12 roll of 3). At 1348, a faint wisp of smoke was reported off Essex’s port bow, some eight to twelve miles off. Checking the charts and their current position, Watson determined they were just outside the western edge of the standard north-south shipping lane, placing the ship fifteen to twenty nautical miles outside of where he’d expect one to be. Deciding to investigate, he ordered the helmsman to make a ten degree turn to port and speed increased back to 18 knots.
After nearly an hour of steaming, Essex had made little headway in reaching and identifying the vessel, although the smoke was a bit darker and better-defined. Watson realized two things: (1) Essex was slowly reeling in its quarry, and (2) the ship was travelling nearly perpendicular to the “normal” traffic lanes, highly suspicious behavior in Watson’s mind. He ordered speed increased to 20 knots.
Up ahead, Dohna-Schlodien had run through a similar analytical process, although his being laced with considerable caution. A topside lookout had spotted smoke off Möwe’s port quarter at 1406, and while Dohna-Schlodien would have dearly loved to turn back and harvest another merchantman, he did not, instead observing its position over time with the intention of determining its course. If it was observed to be moving north-south along the sea lane, then he would pursue it. It did not; in fact, after nearly an hour the ship’s position astern of Möwe had barely moved, indicating the ship was travelling on a similar heading, possibly in pursuit. Dohna-Schlodien decided it would be prudent to try and put as much water between them as possible. At 1436, he ordered a slight turn to port which, after a few minutes, the ship astern mimicked. This confirmed his suspicion that Möwe was being pursued, and he ordered his ship ahead at flank speed (14 knots).
The inexorable march to some sort of endgame had begun, and Dohna-Schlodien was up against it. With more than three hours until sunset, he knew there was little chance of escaping into darkness, and the cloudless blue skies overhead gave little hope of a sudden squall or fog-bank to provide sanctuary. Short of a miracle, he knew he would have to face down his pursuer or strike his colors.
At 1512, Watson received word from the watch officer overhead that the ship had come into view, revealing itself to be a two-masted, single-funnel steamer, flag unknown. Still nearly twelve miles off, Watson ordered a signal sent, identifying himself as the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Essex and requesting the steamer’s identity. Receiving no response, he ordered the query sent again, to which a delayed response was returned that the ship is the Harrison Line’s Benefactor out of Liverpool. Watson finds that curious and decides he wants a closer look. At Essex’s current speed, she is closing on the merchantman at a rate of one mile every ten minutes.
Peering aft through his battered Zeiss binoculars, Dohna-Schlodien could clearly see the outline of the three-funnel cruiser bearing down on Möwe. He was playing it coy, the British Red Ensign still fluttering above his ship, but he wondered how long the charade could last. To bring his 5.9-inch to bear, he would need to turn out from his present course to present his broadside, and his gun crews, which had proved themselves largely ineffective against a hostile ship less than 24 hours ago, would require a range of 4000-6000 yards for any chance, a torpedo half that. He didn’t like the odds, but to simply give up without a shot was unacceptable.
By 1542, the range was down to nine miles, still nearly 16000 yards. Watson ordered a new signal sent by lamp, demanding the ship heave to. There was no response, nor any indication that she intended to stop. Perhaps at the outer limits of lamp range, it was possible the signal was missed or misunderstood, but Watson had his doubts. At 1612, having closed to within six miles, he ordered the signal sent again, and again received no reply, although the ship was now observed to slow somewhat.
Dohna-Schlodien realized Möwe was rapidly approaching her Götterdämmerung moment. She couldn’t run and she couldn’t hide, but perhaps she could act in an erratic manner, thereby confusing her pursuer. With the range down to 8800 yards, he ordered a pair of distress flares launched, hoping this might give Essex pause. He then ordered Möwe’s speed to be gradually reduced to ten knots. Presuming the cruiser would continue her rapid approach, he hoped to get the range down to three miles or less, whereupon he’d turn across the Englander’s bow and open fire.
Watson and the others on Essex’s bridge watched in wonder as the pair of flares arced into the afternoon sky. What sort of tomfoolery was this, Watson wondered. Whatever it was, he’d had about enough of it. By 1642, the range was just a shade more than two miles, with Essex overtaking the freighter by a mile every six minutes. Sensing that his ability to maneuver was tightening as the distance closed, he ordered the cruiser’s speed reduced to 15 knots with an 18-degree turn to port. He then turned to his XO, “Signal them again, full stop, or we open fire.”
Watson’s “final” signal proved too late as an increasingly edgy Dohna-Schlodien, just seconds before, ordered Möwe into action. The Red Duster flying over her stern was quickly hauled down, replaced by the German naval ensign, with the ship lurching into a sharp turn to starboard, her speed returned to flank. The partitions are dropped to reveal her 5.9-inch, the disguised 4.1-inch on her stern is cleared and swung around for action, and the torpedo crews rotate their mounts outboard. He had, however, made his first mistake, choosing a turn to starboard under the presumption the cruiser would continue its rapid direct approach. Watson had not, instead choosing to turn to port, outside the freighter’s line, which now presented him a stern-on shot.
If Watson harbored any doubts of the German’s intentions, those were quickly dispelled. At 1648, Möwe’s stern mount 4.1-inch fires at a range of 3200 yards, scoring a non-penetrating hit on the face of Essex’s A-turret, sending splinters in all directions but causing only superficial damage and no casualties.
Möwe’s turn brings her starboard 5.9-inch to bear, commencing their fire at 1654. Dohna-Schlodien curses as a pair of tall columns of water erupt 50 yards off Essex’s stern. He knows every shot must count if they are to survive this fight. Watson, standing along the rail on the flying bridge, orders his main battery to commence firing, with nine 6-inch firing nearly in unison. With the range at 3000 yards (just 1.7 miles), all miss.
At 1700, Dohna-Schlodien makes a second blunder. Anticipating the cruiser to turn in on his ship attempting to further close the range, he orders Möwe to turn sharply to port, reversing back to something close to her original course. In so doing, her 5.9-inch again lose their fire angle. The 4.1-inch fires but misses. Essex unleashes another broadside, the range having widened to 3600 yards. While they score no direct hits, they are dreadfully close.
Möwe continues her turn back to port, now bringing her onto a line roughly parallel to Essex. With her 5.9-inch back on line, she fires a broadside, holing the cruiser at the waterline aft of Z-turret on her starboard side. At 4100, yards, however, Möwe has slipped outside the range of her torpedoes. Seconds later she is rocked by three hits from Essex, crushing two bulkheads below deck and starting a fire in her aft cargo hold (converted for coal storage). As seawater pours into the ship and smoke billows from her aft hold, Möwe’s speed drops to eight knots.
Within minutes, Möwe has gotten the bulkhead damage and related flooding contained, but the fire in her aft hold continues to burn (causing additional flooding). At 1712, the range widening, both ships fire and miss.
By 1718, Dohna-Schlodien’s XO reports the fire is under control, but the German’s speed has now fallen to just 5 knots. With scarcely enough momentum to maneuver, Möwe sends another volley in Essex’s direction, missing from 4500 yards; Essex returns fire, scoring a single hit which stoves in her forward port-side 5.9-inch position and making hash of the gun crew.
Minutes go by and the range continues to widen, now nearly 4800 yards. Looking at his watch, Watson realizes they’ve been at this for scarcely a half-hour. A-turret thunders and he looks up to see a 6-inch round plow into the German aft. As smoke again begins to pour out of her cargo hold, her remaining port-side 5.9-inch fires, the shell passing safely up and over the British cruiser’s funnels.
While Möwe quickly gets her fires back under control, the entire back half of the ship is now little more than a blackened hulk. With her pumps struggling to contain the flooding, her speed down to just five knots, nearly a third of her crew dead or wounded, and a quarter of her main armament out of action, her career comes to a fictional end. At 1730, Dohna-Schlodien orders the colors struck, his crew and prisoners into the boats. Standing along the rail, he watches as the men pull away, then heads below to open the seacocks.
- simanton and Brooks Witten like this
Posted 21 May 2021 - 01:46 PM
A nice prewar shot of HMS Essex, date and location unknown:
Produced by the Detroit Publishing Company, it's almost certain to be a U. S. location, Newport News perhaps. A personal favorite, HMS Essex and the other Monmouth-class cruisers were lovely ships. The two-deck casemate configuration is clearly seen here, as is her "flying bridge".
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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