August 7, HMS Revenge, Course 170, speed 6 knots 1440 hours
5 Nautical Miles North by East of Zeebrugge
“Sir! Pincher is engaging a U-boat off to port.”
“Signal Pincher to stay with the U-boat and keep her down while we execute our mission.”
In another ten minutes he would slow to five knots and turn to the west.
August 7, HMS Pincher, Course 170, Speed 8 knots, 1441 hours
6 Nautical miles North of Zeebrugge
“Sir! Ring is away”
The Pincher’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander Robert Marleigh-Davis, when he realized he was going to pass right over the U-boat had a rating toss a life ring over at about the approximate spot where the U-boat should have been. Marleigh-Davis knew it would begin drifting in the tide and wind almost immediately but it gave his lookouts and gunners a rough area where to look.
“Hard right rudder. Officer of the Deck, circle that ring for the time being.”
“Circle the ring, aye”
“Sir! We’ve been ordered to stay on the U-boat.”
Marleigh-Davis expected that order. He would have given the same order had he been in White’s place.
Marleigh-Davis was the rising star of the Dover Patrol. The Pincher was his first command and in his experience, he had learned a thing or two about running an effective ship. The Pincher was regularly the best vessel in the Dover Patrol in gunnery and the judges said she would easily pass the standards of the Grand Fleet. Her torpedo work was just as good. Her lookouts were sharp and her engineering department ran her engines to their peak.
Marleigh-Davis was unusual in that he had old chums in the Royal Navy’s submarine force. He had gone to see an old chum, another Lieutenant-Commander named Layton, up in Harwich when both of their ships were in port one day early in the spring. Most Royal Navy surface ship officers had little use for the grimy submarines, and the oddballs that crewed them. Not Marleigh-Davis. As a result, assuming the Huns had not come up with some technological advantage, the same limits that devilled the Royal Navy submarines probably vexed the Huns as well. Marleigh-Davis had spent much time wondering about how to take advantage of the submarines’ weaknesses.
It was rumored that the Pincher was going to the Grand fleet or to Harwich Force. In fact the Admiralty was mulling over the idea of sending Pincher north, but much farther north than the Grand Fleet.
Pincher herself was very unusual in the Dover Patrol. While the Patrol was the most heterogenous force in the Royal Navy, almost all of their destroyers were small, quick, short-legged craft. Except Pincher. Built in 1912, she was far and away the biggest destroyer in the Dover Patrol. Where most of the Patrol destroyers ran between 300 and 400 tons, the Pincher displaced 975 tons. Where most of the Patrol destroyers had a pair of twelve pounders or maybe a four-incher and two torpedo tubes, the Pincher sported four four-inch guns and four torpedo tubes. Where some of the Patrol destroyers would be hard pressed to go from Dover to Harwich (the “Tribal” class destroyers had to refuel at Calais to get back), the Pincher (with full bunkers of high-quality coal) could make transatlantic voyages, although she would have very empty bunkers by time she got there. For a small ship she was very weatherly and easy to handle in rough seas.
All this came at a show-stopping price. By the standards of Royal Navy destroyers built in 1912, the Pincher was slow. On her sea trials she made only 27 knots. She was barely faster than Attentive. With her size, she was also a bit unwieldy. Her turning radius was double that of the little “L” class destroyers which seemed ubiquitous in the Dover Patrol and Harwich Force.
“All guns train out to starboard. Fire if you see anything that looks like a periscope or submarine”
“Set torpedoes one and two to run at a depth of twenty feet and set three and four to run at fifty feet.”
Marleigh-Davis had found out that Royal Navy submarines felt themselves safe from ramming and shells at a depth of fifty feet and their periscope depth was about twenty feet. He assumed the German preferred depth might be about the same.
So Pincher began circling the life ring and waiting.
August 7, UB-17, Course 005, speed 1 knot, Depth 30 meters 1448 hours
11 kilometers North of Zeebrugge
Maddeningly, Rees and the crew could hear the sounds of many screws through the hull, but the sound of the torpedo boat that had tried to ram them stayed at about the same pitch.
“She’s circling us, sir. Holding us down while the others pass by.”
That seemed logical.
“Come left to 260 and mind your depth.”
August 7, HMS Revenge, Course 170, speed 6 knots 1450 hours
4 Nautical Miles North by East of Zeebrugge
“Captain, if you please slow your ship to five knots and train you main batteries to port”
“Officer of the deck, five knots. Guns load the main battery and train it to port.”
A minute passed. The Revenge slowed readily. The guns were swung around.
“If you would, Captain, come right to 265”
The orders were relayed and the old battleship began to swing around.
“Director, do you have the range?”
“Yes sir, 7,825 yards”
The plotters relayed elevation and azimuth information to the turrets.
“Fire as she bears, gentlemen”
A staggered salvo flew off toward the German base. Another followed three minutes later.
August 7, North Breakwater, Flandernflotille Base, 1451 hours
Kapitänleutnant Zimmermann, the base engineer, had been watching through an old telescope as the battleship turned. With the first puff of smoke from the turrets, he fired two white flares. Men on the ends of the breakwater lighted torches and began running back the breakwaters lighting off the woody debris the engineer had dragged out there. Zimmermann - his job done - ran like hell for a trench about 50 meters inland from the harbor. On the south breakwater, Petty Officer Van Vield lit the last of the piles, but he did not run to a muddy trench. He had spotted a gap in the rip-rap that made up the breakwater. It made a nice dry hole for him to sit in nowhere near any likely targets.
In the command bunker, Bartenbach sent a telegraph to the Admiral.
“Bombardment commenced at 1451 hours.
God save the Kaiser.”
And then the big shells began exploding.
August 7, HMS Revenge, Course 265, speed 5 knots 1515 hours
4 Nautical Miles North of Zeebrugge
“Cease fire. Reverse course”
Orders were relayed and the ship turned starboard to the reciprocal course.
The rangefinder was guessing. The smoke from the debris partially obscured his solution. Subsequently ranging would degrade even further.
And for the next twenty-four minutes the Revenge steamed east, spitting out another thirty-two 12 inch shells.
August 7, UB-17, Course 260, Speed 2 knots, Depth 30 meters 1526 hours
11 kilometers North of Zeebrugge
Rees’ little maneuver began to put some eccentricity into the torpedo boat’s screw sounds. Now, instead of a constant pitch, it seemed to come and go. Rees could not quite explain why but it seemed the torpedo boat was orbiting more to starboard with each orbit. Part of the answer was the motion of the UB-17 and part of it was the life ring drifting to the north in the wind. Machts nichts. It was time to attack.
“Set torpedoes for 1 meter. Open outer doors.”
The sound of the screws were at their faintest.
“Come right to 000”
“Next time she passes we run up to periscope depth and take a shot.”
As the U-boat made her turn, the sound of the screws got louder again.
August 7, HMS Fairy, Course 085, speed 5 knots 1528 hours
4.5 Nautical Miles North of Zeebrugge
The Fairy was a little (310 tons) old (built 1899) destroyer assigned to watch the northwest of the Revenge. So far this had been easy enough. The Revenge was slow and ponderous enough that the Fairy, even caught a bit unawares could quickly get back to where she belonged.
Her captain, Lieutenant Reginald Beaumont was in his first command. For some of his officers this was their first smell of the sea. His crew was short-handed. He only had 60% of the stokers she should have had, so her speed came in bursts as the stokers wore out. He only had enough gunners to man one twelve-pounder and his torpedo tubes were empty as he had no torpedomen to man them. The manpower losses of the Grand Fleet were felt throughout the Royal Navy.