Fire on the Waters
17 January 1942
16 miles SSW of KASSOS Island
Eastern Mediterranean Sea
The smoke of the convoy's freighters wafted up behind them, hideously visible in the sunlight which shined without real heat in the temperate weather of the eastern Mediterranean in winter. Fourty-eight ships, carrying the lifeblood of Cilicia, ammunition and oil and spare parts. These old freighters kept their plodding pace well enough behind the Spetses. The equally old battlecruiser showed her age well, all things said. She had fought under two different names, and been rebuilt in the late 20's, just in time to see action against the Draka in the Third Balkan War. Most people knew her by her first, and German, name. It was SMS Goeben. Fitting the crazed circumstances in the aftermath of the Great War in the Balkans and Russia, the admiral who's flag flew from her was a Russian—the Tsarist officer of German ethnicity, Ludwig Kerber.
Kerber himself was standing on one of the bridge wings for the moment, personally surveying the convoy laid out behind him with his Zeiss binoculars. Above came the steady drone of their fighter-cover, Macchi MC.202s from an airfield on the island of Karpathos in the Italian-held Dodecanese chain. The most dangerous part of the journey lay ahead, now. They were just passing out of sight of the island of Kassos, several miles to the southwest of Karpathos, and now fading into the distance in the starboard aft quarter. Ahead was open ocean, the convoy now headed directly south. If they continued on this route, they would sooner or later reach the shore of Africa—the Dominate. But of course they would not; no, the convoy was in truth simply clawing its way seaward, as a sailing ship might try to beat off from the coast to gain manoeuvring room when a storm came in. There was a storm here, lurking toward the shore:
The Drakian Air Force, operating out of airstrips on the coast of Lycia in Asia Minor, was a constant threat to the convoys. The air-cover helped, of course, and the fleet had ample anti-aircraft guns if nothing else. But other threats lurked in deep water. The main Drakian fleet was concentrated at Bizerte to keep the Regia Marina bottled up in the eastern Mediterranean on the one hand, and the allied navies of France and Spain in the western Med on the other. Their cruisers, however, had a much wider range of operation, and the Draka had big cruisers. Fast ships, too, and despite all their modernity they couldn't hold a candle to the Spetses; by modern standards she was slow, but the Germans had built their battlecruisers to last, and ten inch guns did not concern her crew.
Torpedoes were, at any rate, a greater fear, and that was another reason that the convoy was seeking sea room. Night provided cover from aerial attack, and that was why as much of the journey to Cyprus as possible would be made at night, but it also was the ideal time for a torpedo attack, fast boats coming out from the coast of Asia Minor. This meant that the convoys had to be perfectly timed so that the first stages of the open water journey were in the light, under the cover of aircraft from Karpathos, while they were still fairly close to Asia Minor. The later stages were then made under the cover of darkness, until at last the merchants were within the safety of the British territorial waters of Cyprus. Here British destroyers and cruisers would provide a neutral escort to the eastern tip of Cyprus, where on leaving territorial waters the convoy would be protected by French destroyers, submarines, and aircraft until it reached Cilicia.
Ironically, the Spetses did not have the heaviest guns in the convoy. Those belonged to the three old Russian pre-dreadnoughts, likewise flying the Hellenic flag, which plodded along at the rear. While the Spetses had the speed to position herself between any threat from the other three quarters, aided by a force of a light cruiser and three destroyers, the old pre-dreadnoughts were tasked with fighting a rear-guard action in the worst case. Their batteries had integrated salvo firing in the Russian fashion, and they would put up a good fight if it came to it, but their crews were not under any illusions if the Drakan battleline were to actually interdict the convoy runs. The rest of the escort was provided by two detachments of a light cruiser and four destroyers each, covering the pre-dreadnoughts and the convoy ships alike from the threat of air attack and submarines.
Ludwig Kerber was an old man, and he knew his trade very well from his days as Admiral Essen's Chief of Staff in the Baltic. He had been passed up for replacing him when the good old Admiral died of pneumonia in 1915; it was because of his german name. Yet he had remained faithful to the old regime, even if when it was dead, and in the end came to Greece to ply his trade as one of the many Tsarist officers involved in all levels of the Hellenic military postwar. It was a sad, thankless post, the Greeks quietly spiteful, the emigre community a hollow, self-mocking shell of a real society, but there was nothing else left. The Third Balkan war had shown his skill where it counted, when he commanded a victorious cruiser squadron in a sharp action near Kastellion with a raiding force of Drakan destroyers. Now he commanded the convoy operations; they were worse on the crews of the escorts by far than the merchants, for they had to return from the empties of the last convoy run, which prevented them from using the speed of their ships to leave harm's way. And yet, so far, though there had been painful losses to torpedoes and air-raids, those losses had not stopped the convoys from succeeding.
The French outpost of Cilicia, an embattled allied territory surrounded on every side by the Dominate, maintained its sturdy defence in the maddening terrain of the Taurus Mountains, and in doing so protected the millions of refugees who had made Cilicia their home after the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Draka. But that defence, no matter how imposing the French fortifications and extensive the stockpiling and development of industry had been, would only last for as long as the convoys continued to come through. If they failed, the end would not come quickly, but eventually the aircraft would no longer fly, the tanks would break down. Paratroopers would come down from the sky and landings would be made on the coast, and the result would be a slaughter. That would not happen on Kerber's watch—nor that of the Royal Hellenic Navy as a whole--and so did the old Goeben sortie, steaming proudly forth for one last war.
Fire on the Waters
17 January 1942
105mi S. of KARPATHOS Island
Eastern Mediterranean Sea
Their run to the south had been good. Ludwig had slept while he had the chance, when the constant drone of eighteen MC.202s circling overhead and airships scouting before them had guaranteed a considerable measure of safety, and before the expected manoeuvres at the end of the run. He ate a quiet meal in his cabin, reflecting on the fine selection of dishes—admittedly all Greek, except for the borscht which had wormed its way into the navy's cuisine thanks to the Russian emigres--that were available to him. There was no guilt, of course, for as an officer and a gentleman raised under the Tsars, he expected as much. But it did make him glad, nonetheless, that he was in the Navy, where a man might at least die with a full stomach.
Such maudlin thoughts did last for long. Ludwig was a Baltic seaman at heart, and even twenty years on the Mediterranean couldn't shake his inner astonishment, perhaps wariness, at how pleasant the weather was in January. It was not entirely unwarranted, for storms came quickly and unexpected in the Mediterranean at this time of year, and they were in fact quite frequent. He almost would have liked such a storm, for it would have removed the threat of attack by small craft, but then again his ancient destroyers could scarcely handle a seaway, and though submarines couldn't either, a submerged one would be quite the difficulty then.
He headed up to the flagbridge, wearing an overcoat and gloves over his uniform, though it was more out of the care one takes with one's health in old age than any particular bite to the climate, at least to him. His Greek Chief of Staff was less resilient. Walking out in the open for a moment he paused and stared out over the empty sea. The MC.202s had left, the Italian dirigibles had recovered their scout planes until the morning, and the twilight was rapidly fading. It was a splendid sight, those perfect waters of the Mediterranean stretching out until they faded into the darkness of the horizon, and for a moment it seemed impossible that they were at war.
Yet they were, and the sea itself served to conceal the principle danger to the convoy, that of submarine attack. Lookouts strained their eyes to the sea for the tell-tale sign of a torpedo wake or a periscope, and the best young lads—trained in night vision and chosen from the select few one-in-a-hundred men who had natural eyesight rivalling anyone else's with a pair of binoculars—would seen begin their long evening duty. The Royal Hellenic Navy was strong, but the simple fact of the matter was that there was not a single radar set in the whole bloody fleet.
A glance back to the convoy showed the great clouds of coal smoke rising up from the freighters, the rapidly gathering darkness largely obscuring it and all but completely obscuring the hulls of the ships. The destroyers and light cruiser of his forward covering force were silhouetted, however, quite beautifully. The old Askold in particular with her five funnels was a comfortable sight, leaving Ludwig for a moment to think that he was still sailing in the company of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet. But then he chuckled, looking around at the ship around him who through sheer incongruity disabused him of that notion, and turned to head into the flagbridge with a slight shake of his head.
For the next hour after he relieved his Chief of Staff there was very little to do except wait. The convoy held course and formation well, no threats were reported, and no problems developed. A nagging worry in his mind was the condition of the ancient reciprocating engines on the pre-dreadnoughts, but they were well maintained, all things said, and their current speed did not tax those engines greatly. Besides that, something much more important and much more difficulty was now coming up for him to deal with.
The convoy was maintaining a speed of seven and a half knots; about 13.9 kilometers every hour. They had passed out of sight of Kassos twelve hours ago making their run due south and had traveled some 160 kilometers, to exactly 34 degrees north latitude. This put as much range between them and the Drakian coast of Anatolia as possible, and they were roughly equidistant from the coast of Africa. Sunset had been at 1727 hours local time, and they had been traveling under the cover of darkness for about an hour, discounting twilight. It was now 1854 hours, and sunrise on the 18th was at 0717 hours, leaving them with rather less than twelve hours of protection against aircraft: an aerial attack might be successfully staged up to thirty minutes before sunrise.
They were now to turn and run due east at 34 degrees north. For the next twelve hours the only realistic danger was torpedo attack. For eleven hours after that, however, they would face their point of greatest vulnerability, to far from friendly soil to have sufficient fighter cover and sailing under daylight. Then they'd run for another ten hours under darkness before turning once more, then to the northeast. A last leg of somewhat less than seven hours would then bring the convoy to the safety of British territorial waters in Episkopi Bay, with the four hours of sunlight over that leg being relatively safe, for the Dominate did not want to create a situation where a hot pursuit could result in an action in British territorial waters.
Since Episkopi Bay was not legally a port (if it had been, only three ships could have anchored at a time, but it had no port facilities and was only a sheltered anchorage), the whole of the convoy escort could legally anchor there for twenty-four hours, sufficient time to organize the waiting merchants for the return run back to Crete, while the laden convoy proceeded under the escort of the British Neutrality Patrol to Famagusta. There it would wait until the French Consul in Famagusta received word that the French escort forces had left Alexandretta and were approaching Cyprus, after of which the convoy would once again sail under the protect of the British Neutrality Patrol to the Khlides Islands on the tip of Cape Apostolos, where the union with the French escorts would be effected.
One such convoy circuit was completed on average every fortnight (one circuit took only about eight days, but after four circuits in close succession the escorts had to be refitted for three weeks), and thus more than ten million tons of supplies could be delivered to Cilicia yearly. This was sufficient to maintain in Cilicia the ten infantry divisions and one armoured division, full air army, and the destroyer and submarine flotillas at Alexandretta, for food production on the fertile Cilician plain obviated the need for rations to be transported as well, and only ammunition, oil, and spare parts were required by the French forces which defended the nearly five million people living in Cilicia from certain slavery—and in doing so pinned down seven Janissary and one Citizen corps.
Of course, all of that meant that they were now coming onto a turn to bring the convoy onto 90 degrees true. Their current heading was 176 degrees, 47 minutes true. As a practical matter it was a turn of a bit more than 85 degrees to port. Ludwig stepped over to a small lighted console on the flagbridge which held the formation maneuvering board and used it to double-check the calculations in his head at the moment, shifting the cards on the plot until aligned to his satisfaction. It was difficult, even at seven and a half knots, to get the unwieldy merchants, unused to convoy formation, to make a turn of that magnitude. 250 yards were being covered by the convoy every minute, and there were only 500 yards spacing in column and 750 yards between columns.
With twelve columns, each of four rows, the maneuver demanded that each column from port to starboard advance a successive Very good, then, he thought to himself, and turned toward the signals officer:
“Orders for Convoy and BatDiv group commanders. 'Execute turn in column to 90 degrees true.' Destroyer group one: 'Slow to five knots and execute turn in column to ninety-five degrees true.' Destroyer group two: 'Accelerate to seventeen knots and hold course.'”
The officer saluted and turned away to transfer the orders to the lights party, as Ludwig walked to the nav bridge speaking tube. “Watch officer, this is Admiral Kerber. The flag squadron is to change heading to 90 degrees true, five degrees port rudder only. Confirm.”
“I copy, sir.” He read off the orders: “Squadron heading change, 90 degrees true, five degrees port rudder only.”
“Aye aye, Sir.”
The signal lights flashed in the dark of the Mediterranean night, blinking out the course change order, relayed down to the Convoy Commodore, who was stationed on the extreme port-forward ship of the convoy. It was his job to transform his orders into reality for the convoy, and that meant a very difficult manoeuvre. The merchants, traveling at 7.5 knots, required 560 yards spacing to execute a turn of somewhat in excess of eighty-six degrees to port; they only had 500 yards. That meant that the turn had to be accomplished in two stages or else the convoy slow down. Naturally against the danger of torpedo attack the convoy could not slow down, so two turns of fourty-three degrees each would have to bring the convoy into alignment, and not only that, but the turns would have to be offset by three hundred yards each, for each column. At that speed it meant that the entire evolution would require thirty minutes to complete.
As soon as the Convoy Commodore had issued his orders he relayed his intentions via blinker-light to the battle division of old pre-dreadnoughts trailing the convoy. They likewise adjusted their turn to the two-step of the Convoy Commodore so that they could hold position. The destroyers and light cruiser of destroyer group one were slowing and shifting to port of the formation as they turned, swinging to get back into their old position. Spetses' flag group began their slow turn to port as well; once it was completed Ludwig would order the force to accelerate to regain the lead position in the convoy. Fifteen minutes into the evolution, Ludwig ordered destroyer group two to execute its turn to port as well, which would leave it neatly to starboard of the convoy's main body, though the distance would have to be dressed a bit.
Under the winter night's dim light on the waters of the fortuitously placid—though ever able to erupt into vicious storm—Mediterranean the convoy shifted onto course for its thirty-three hour run to the vicinity of Cyprus. It was cool for the region, though much colder just a ways under the water, which was already quite deep in this, the eastern basin of the Earth's elderly and tideless sea. Those cool waters lapped over a submarine, her decks awash, some 12,000 yards to the northeast.