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12/29/14

Golem 7 - Hunt for the Bismarck

EXTENDED EXCERPT

Golem 7 – An Alternate History retelling of the fabled Hunt for the Bismarck .

History was not the province of the great, as so many believe. Fate hinges on the simplest of things: loose knots, a casual stumble, a chance meeting, something inadvertently dropped, or lost, or found. Something as careless as the flick of an old smoldering cigar stub could end up having dramatic repercussions that would affect all history yet to come. In the novel Golem 7,  a seemingly insignificant incident takes place in the port of Brest where the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau have berthed for rest and refit after a successful campaign as commerce raiders in 1941. The RAF harries them night and day, but the formidable AA defenses around the port, over 1000 flack guns, have protected the ships from serious harm until the morning of April 6, 1941 when RAF Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell pilots a lone Bristol Beaufort through a hail of fire  in a daring wave-top torpedo attack, and scores a vital hit on the battlecruiser Gneisenau.  He did not survive the attack, sacrificing his life and winning the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross for Valor.  Gneisenau is put out of action for 6 months, and is therefore unavailable to sortie out to aid the embattled battleship Bismarck as she makes a desperate run for the safety of that same port a little over a month later. That’s what history records… until a late evening in the early 21st century when a secret research project established to monitor data on the Internet begins to uncover strange variations in the history. An alert summons researchers to the hidden lab where they begin to sift through a bewildering trail of oddities in the history all revolving around pivotal moments in the war at sea during WWII. Strange variations are uncovered—at Abukir Bay where the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood fired her guns in anger for the very first time against the French Fleet when it refused to surrender… and at the Port of Brest, on the night of April 5, 1941, just hours before Campbell was to make that gallant and fateful attack. Yet these are but the foreshocks to the major tremor they uncover--the battleship Bismarck was not sun k on her maiden voyage, and now the research  team struggles to find out why, and determine how they can set the history back on its proper course Sinking the Bismarck.

This extended excerpt, presented with permission of the author, is from the Novel Golem 7, an amazing alternate history retelling of the fabled hunt for the Battleship Bismarck.

BEGIN EXCERPT:

Dock #8, Port of Brest, France – April 5, 1941

The battlecruiser Gneisenau rested quietly at #8 dock in the port of Brest, her repairs well in hand as she made ready for operations again. Even as the engineers finished up, tightening bolts on newly patched armor on the foredeck, and laying in pipe below decks, they still marveled at what a work of precision she was.

Her keel had been laid well before the war, in 1934, and then work was suddenly halted five months later when the engineers received instructions that the plans had been altered. Germany was quietly intent on violating the mandated limits imposed on her shipbuilding program in the Treaty of Versailles. And so the keel was laid afresh in May of 1935, and the dock workers jokingly referred to her as "the beast with two backs."

She had a classic, yet elegantly beautiful design, sleek lines with a sharp prow, yet with ominous mass that spoke of restrained power. As the plans were fleshed out in iron and steel, her decks mounted up and up, until her silhouette filled out into a massive, threatening profile, soon to be bristling with enormous guns housed in three turrets, two fore and one aft, each with three eleven inch barrels.

She was named after a Prussian field Marshall, as was her sister ship Scharnhorst, and both ships were built for that perfect combination of speed and power that would define their role in the next war that was even now brooding over the horizon.

Well behind Britain in terms of naval power, Germany had launched herself on an ambitious rearmament plan. While the Kriegsmarine would never be a force that could openly challenge the full might of the Royal Navy as they had done in the First World War, it would nonetheless be a potent threat, particularly to the vital cross Atlantic shipping routes England depended on.

A battlecruiser by design, Gneisenau was strong enough to smash anything that could catch her, and fast enough to outrun anything bigger. She was a dark panther, designed explicitly to hunt down the wallowing buffalo, lumbering steamers and cargo ships that would cluster in convoys, their sea lord’s eyes straining against the gray horizon at fearful night watches, ever alert for the wake of a U-Boat periscope cutting through the swelling tops of the waves.

The destroyer and cruiser escorts routinely assigned to convoy duty would rush in to ward off the wolf packs, but when a ship of the size and power of Gneisenau appeared they would be overmatched. A ship’s fighting power could be roughly equated to the size of the shells she could hurl at an opposing enemy. By comparison British destroyers mounted small guns firing a shell that was only 4.5 inches wide. Their main threat to shipping would come from mad dash torpedo attacks, but otherwise they were designed for defensive roles, principally anti-submarine work.

The light cruiser was a larger ship mounting six inch guns, but the German battlecruiser’s powerful weapons were nearly twice as big, and she had speed as well, able to steam as fast as either of these enemy ship classes. She would make short work of a British light cruiser. A heavy cruiser, mounting eight inch barrels might stand with her for a time, but would soon be overpowered and in grave danger. British heavy cruisers had three turrets with two eight inch guns in each, or a total of 6 barrels. Some had a fourth turret bringing that total to eight guns. Gneisenau, could easily engage two such ships with confidence and still have good prospects for victory. Her armor might shrug off hits received from a cruiser, but her bigger eleven inch guns would deliver powerful, accurate blows that could ravage the smaller ship, doing serious damage.

Only a British battleship carrying guns in the range of fourteen to sixteen inches could pose any real threat to Gneisenau, and so her very existence in the German order of battle, along with other ships like her, had forced the Royal Navy to assign a battleship to convoy escort duty whenever possible. There were never enough of the larger ships to go around, and so the German strategy was to break out into the Atlantic and look for the less well protected convoys where no battleship was present. In this they often received aid from able U-boat captains, who could find prey and vector in the larger raider to join the slaughter.

The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were often teamed together, like two fearsome big cats leading a chariot of chaos. They had given the British fits in the operations against Norway, where they had dueled briefly with the proud battlecruiser Renown in an inconsequential engagement. Later they broke out into the Atlantic and had been prowling for several months. There they had orders to leave convoys escorted by battleships alone, but there were plenty of other fish in the sea, and they made a good haul, sinking 22 vessels accounting for over 115,000 tons before they pulled into Brest, and of these Gneisenau had accounted for 14 of the kills.

Now they licked their wounds in Brest, with Gneisenau making minor repairs while her sister ship underwent a second major refit of her boilers, which had been temperamental throughout that ship’s sea life. Given their demonstrated success as convoy raiders, the Germans were planning an even bigger operation in a few weeks time. Admiral Günther Lütjens would lead out their newest ship, built in style and design much like the Gneisenau, but even more massive, with larger fifteen inch guns and heavier armor. She was christened Bismarck, and would hopefully become a terror at sea to plague the Royal Navy for years to come. It was hoped that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau would sortie again soon to join the mighty Bismarck, where they would form a battlegroup powerful enough to take on any convoy they encountered, even those escorted by the heavier British ships.

Alas, Scharnhorst would not be ready, but Kapitan Otto Fein had high hopes that he would lead his own sortie with Gneisenau. If he could join with Bismarck and her cruiser escort Prince Eugen the Germans could assemble the most formidable task force they had sailed since Jutland.

This threat had not escaped the notice of the Royal Navy either, and the Admiralty had been sailing out a powerful task force to watch Brest, lay mines in the area, and hopefully keep the German ships bottled up. In this effort Force H at Gibraltar played the principle role though, as First Sea Lord Admiral Pound would try to explain to the Prime Minister later that month, their attention was constantly divided by the urgency of operations in the Mediterranean as well.

The heart of Force H, battlecruiser Renown, carrier Ark Royal, and cruiser Sheffield, had only just returned to Gibraltar after another supply run out to Malta, and their tired crews were settling in to their bunks at midnight on April 5th, 1941 knowing they were bound for sea yet again the following day—this time to the Atlantic. A cable had been received from the Admiralty indicating that the big German ships at Brest were being readied for operations. "Consider battlecruisers will probably leave Brest tonight," it read, as a local agent had been made aware that the Germans planned to move the battlecruiser Gneisenau to a mooring position out in the harbor.

And so the sailors slept fitfully that night, tucked into bunks and hanging in their hammocks, knowing they would put to sea again to stand blockade duty and wait for any sign of the German raiders in the week ahead. But the British spy had only half the story. The real reason that the big German ship was being moved was the discovery of an unexploded bomb near her berth at dock #8, dropped in a recent night raid by the RAF. By the time they discovered this, Force H had already sailed to stand watch, yet no German ships would appear. That is what the history recorded, at one time, but now something had gone terribly wrong.

The following morning a small trawler chugged into the port, a fisherman in a leaky boat hoping to ride out some worsening weather in a safe harbor. Even as the Germans made ready to carefully move Gneisenau, the trawler headed for the mooring pier, her skipper’s eyes intent on one particular spot, as though no other would do. The Harbor Master paid the small boat no attention, noting it’s arrival in his log and then taking a call from the tug captains ready to move Gneisenau.

The next minute he heard an explosion and was aghast to look and see the trawler had caught fire as it moored when a leaky fuel barrel on its aft deck was ignited by the still burning embers of a seaman’s cigar. The trawler careened into the pier, freshly oiled against the weather, and the fire spread. Within a few minutes a good segment of the mooring area was in flames, and frantic sirens sounded the alarm. Fire crews were soon racing to the scene, marked by thick oily black smoke in the early morning sky.

Word came into Kapitan Otto Fein on the bridge of Gneisenau that his mooring site was compromised, and the ship would have to be berthed deeper in the harbor. He sighed, eager for the sea as he was. Any move, however slight, that took him nearer to the green swells and white capped waves of the ocean gave him heart. Yet this was but a small setback. Another mooring site would be selected, hopefully not in a place that would prove too easy for the RAF should they come in the days ahead. He was waiting for final word from Admiral Lütjens, already chafing and pacing like a big restless cat in a zoo cage. His repairs had been made, and he had a full provision of fuel and ammunition. His ship was now nothing more than a dangerous target as long as it remained stationary in the harbor.

That night the dock crews would again drape her proud masts and turrets with the shaggy black camo netting that would hopefully disguise her from prying eyes, but he remained nervous and restless nonetheless.

As for the trawler, the fire was eventually put out and she was moored near the char-damaged pier. The Harbor Police searched in vain for her captain, with orders to immediately arrest the man for making an unauthorized berthing and upsetting the German plans, but he was nowhere to be found. So instead they marched off the hapless crew to be questioned by the Gestapo, leaving the trawler bobbing listlessly in the evening tide that evening.

The following morning the sound of an incoming plane was heard about 9:00 am. It was sighted at a low altitude, and within seconds the alert sirens were blaring, soon followed by a hail of anti-aircraft fire. Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell was aboard, bravely threading his way through steel laced streaks of tracer rounds from the ack ack cannons in his twin engine Beaufort torpedo bomber. It was one of a flight of three planes that had taken off from a base near Cornwall, yet weather had foiled the final rendezvous over the target, and he found himself alone. He had been sent by the British Coastal Command after receiving new intelligence concerning the planned relocation of the German battlecruiser, and he flew with a long, sleek torpedo strapped to his fuselage, intent on getting to the big ship before she was able to put to sea. Bearing in on the spot where he had been told to look for her, he was soon dismayed to find instead a small, ragged looking fishing trawler!

He strained to look left and right, hoping to spy his target. There was a suspicious dark splotch further down the quay, its formless shape lost in the gray morning, but he could dimply see two other ships had been positioned to screen it off from just this sort of attack. The exploding shells and tracer rounds from lighter machine gun fire were perilously close now, and so he cursed his bad luck, pulled the plane into a sharp bank, and turned away.

Yet luck was with him after all, for in turning he narrowly avoided the flak burst that was to have struck his plane a fatal blow that morning. It was as much a stroke of serendipity where his personal fate was concerned, as it was a stroke of bad fortune for the war effort in general. His plane banked away into the mist, making a safe escape from the rain of fire that sought his life, and his rendezvous with death was broken that morning, strangely postponed.

When he was finally clear of the noise and fiery smoke of the harbor he calmed himself, took a deep breath, and had the presence of mind to radio Coastal Command with the bad news.

"Target not present," he said. "She’s not there."

Flying Officer Campbell waited until he was well away from the harbor before he banked again into a thick stand of clouds and headed away from the scene. His torpedo was supposed to have struck Gneisenau that morning, doing enough damage to make her a sitting duck for subsequent RAF bombing raids that would put her out of action for another seven months. He was also supposed to have been awarded the Victoria Cross that night, for conspicuous gallantry—posthumously. Now his award would have to wait.

As he banked into a stretch of low lying fog, he had a strange feeling of lightness and buoyancy, uplifting and oddly invigorating. He smiled, thinking it must be the adrenaline still coursing in his veins from the danger of the attack. Yet he could not help but feel that his lease on life had been extended another month, and he was light hearted as he flew back to base, safely hidden in the gray coastal clouds. In spite of the failure of his mission, it was good to be alive.

The brave sortie by Campbell had one other small effect that morning. It convinced the Germans that their ships in Brest were entirely too vulnerable to enemy air attack. With Gneisenau ready for operations, why not make a dash up the coast under bad weather to bring her home to Germany where she could join Admiral Lütjens with the Bismarck? Others argued that her position in Brest was ideal to support Bismarck by simply linking up with her in the Atlantic, and this side of the argument eventually won out. Kapitan Fein was ordered to make every effort to break out of port.

A few weeks later he did exactly that…

Admiralty Headquarters, London – April 20, 1941

Things were well tightened down that morning at the Admiralty Citadel. The Prime Minister was visiting, Churchill himself. Normally he would hold forth in the Cabinet War Rooms, a string of basement level rooms beneath Storey’s Gate. But today he had ambled over to the Admiralty bunker, through the long underground tunnel that was the beginning of a labyrinthine warren slowly taking shape and form beneath the city.

WWII was still in its adolescent years. Germany had initiated hostilities in September of 1939 by invading Poland, prompting an immediate declaration of war by England and France, but now she stood a lonesome watch on the world, bravely holding out behind the natural moat of the English Channel after the German blitzkrieg had outflanked the Maginot line and overrun France. The last of the British Expeditionary Force had been chased from the continent at Dunkirk nearly a year ago. Since that time all Britain could do was hold fast behind the Channel and her still formidable navy, and endure the continual bombing of Goering’s Luftwaffe.

The Blitz had driven much of London underground. Every subway, basement and cellar had been given a second life as a bomb shelter when the planes came. For Churchill, the basement War Cabinet building served him well most of the time, but the Admiralty held forth in a newly constructed bunker, with foundations 30 feet deep and a concrete roof some 20 feet thick as well. The Prime Minister considered the building a monstrosity, and a blight upon Horse Guards Parade where it sat like a squat fortress amid the more elegant architecture of Whitehall, the Old Ripley Building, and Admiralty House.

With little in the way of real land operations underway, the Admiralty itself had been the nucleus of much of Britain’s war effort in those early years. Way off in North Africa, Wavell maintained his post with the army, guarding the crown jewel in the Empire, Egypt. But between Alexandria and Cairo at the one end, and London at the other, there were thousands of miles of turbulent seas, constantly patrolled and surveilled by the Royal Navy and her fleet of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.

At times the Prime Minister felt as lonesome as a watchmen at the con of a roving cruiser on the slate gray sea. The great giants to the east and west, America and Russia, were still cautiously neutral, though the clutching gravity of the black hole of the war was inexorably tugging at them both. It would be just two more months before the Germans would launch their ill fated invasion of Mother Russia, prodding the Bear with the lightning jabs of her panzer divisions on June 22 of that same year. And six months later the Japanese would make an equal blunder when they sent six aircraft carriers to strike the sleeping American battle fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. But for now, England was fighting alone, and the old First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, was steering her bravely, like the captain on the bridge of an embattled cruiser, eyes ever guarded against the imminent threat of an oncoming ship looming on the horizon.

The occasion of the Prime Minister’s visit this morning was a cable that he had lately received from Wavell in Cairo. The British general was complaining bitterly that he lacked the necessary armor to plan and properly execute an offensive against the enemy, who were now threatening the frontiers of Egypt and Alexandria itself.

On this very day the largest convoy ever assembled was embarking troops and equipment destined for Wavell, including five fast transports with 295 tanks and 53 Hurricane fighters in their packing crates. As the Mediterranean Sea was still an active War zone, they could take the long way around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Red Sea to Egypt, braving only the threat of U-Boats and the occasional surface raider along the way. But today Winston had it in his mind that they could also take the more immediate, and shorter route through the Med itself. There the threats would come from both naval and air attack, and while not a match for British prowess on the high seas, the Italian Navy was still a credible force, and one to be given its due respect.

"Tell me then, if you please, Sir Dudley, what exactly to you determine the risks to be?" The Prime Minister fixed his First Sea Lord with an amiable, yet determined stare, waiting.

Admiral Dudley Pound had served as First Sea Lord since the outbreak of the war, a long time veteran of naval affairs and an experienced fleet officer. He had commanded the battleship Colossus in the first World War, leading her in the now famous Battle of Jutland where he sank two German cruisers. Between the wars he had served as CinC of the Mediterranean Fleet before taking his present post, so if there was any man in the room familiar with the hazards of those waters, it was Pound.

"To put it lightly," he began, "we’ve had increasing activity from the Italian fleet and air arm in opposition to our Malta supply operations. They’ve come to expect us now, and have been so bold of late as to sortie with some rather formidable squadrons."

"Yet Force H at Gibraltar has done well enough, wouldn’t you say, sir?"

"That they have, Mr. Prime Minister, but Force H has had its hands full of late. With Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at the French port of Brest, we’ve had to keep one eye over our shoulder, as it were. Half the time we’re pulled into the Atlantic to keep watch against a possible sortie by those ships. And in the Mediterranean, the Italian Admiral Iachino has shown an increasing willingness to commit his capital ships as well, particularly if we steam with any apparent attempt to threaten the Italian mainland."

"Why, he’s doing nothing more than we would do should these shores be threatened by the specter of enemy naval forces, Admiral."

"Indeed sir, but the majority of the staff here are of the opinion that if we route this particular convoy through the Med we’re likely to be in it up to our hat bands in little time."

"Your primary concern is with Admiral Iachino? He may be running his ships about of late, but he’s yet to stand up in a real fight where serious British metal is before him. I must be frank and state my belief that you exaggerate the threat from the Italian Navy, sir. This convoy will be well protected, with additional resources for our fleet operating out of Alexandria. I’ve spoken with Admiral Cunningham, and he believes the risks are acceptable."

"I am aware of the Admiral’s views, though I cannot agree."

"You cannot agree?" Winston allowed just a hint of derision to enter his voice now, thinking to impose his will on his First Sea Lord if necessary.

"Well, sir, we have superiority at sea, but we also have the German Tenth Fliegerkorps to consider if we make a run for Alexandria—always a risk with their Stukas and Heinkels."

"Yes, but an acceptable risk. And RAF intelligence reports the Germans may be pulling units from their Sicilian bases to bolster the Russian frontier. Bad business there in due course. Frankly I would rather ride the Tiger’s back in a mad dash to Egypt than languish for weeks on the open seas with the menace of a U-boat attack ever in the back of my mind. Going round the Cape of Good Hope will add another 40 days to the sea journey. That would mean Wavell would not get his tanks until early June. We could have them there at least three weeks earlier by taking the more direct route. No need to risk U-Boat attack with a longer sea voyage."

"The convoy system is stiffening up now, sir," said Admiral Pound. "We hit a poor patch while Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were at sea, but they’re both holed up in Brest at the moment."

"Where I hope you’ll keep them, First Sea Lord," said the Prime Minister. "And that being the case, we should be able to get this convoy handed off to Force H without much worry. And from Gibraltar you can send out the whole battle fleet to get them safely ashore in Egypt. Then I shall have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve quieted General Wavell, at least for the moment, until he dreams up some other reason why he cannot yet undertake offensive operations worthy of the name. If nearly 300 new tanks will not compel him to move, then nothing will, by God."

"Assuming the tanks reach him safely, sir." Pound admonished. "I may ask the question, and I’ll withdraw it if you deem it impertinent—what will General Wavell do with his Matildas if they’re lying at the bottom of the sea?"

"Come now, Sir Dudley, that is an outrageous notion. You have Renown, Repulse, Queen Elizabeth—more than a match for anything the Italians can sail. Cunningham has the battleships Barham and Valiant as well. And you’ll have the Ark Royal along with them to provide air cover."

"I mean no disrespect, sir, but the Ark Royal cannot put anything into the air to effectively oppose the German Tenth Fliegerkorps. They’re flying the old Swordfish, sir. The Old Stringbags, along with a few Fulmar fighters."

"And carrying fifty new Hurricanes, I might add," said the Prime Minister. If you move at good speed you’ll be under our own land based air cover as well—and all the more reason to get this convoy through with those Hurricanes for the air wing in Alexandria. Look here—the men of our 7th Armored division have had a rough go of late. They’ve been sitting on their thumbs, without tanks, and for an armored division that is a fairly sad state of affairs, wouldn’t you say? Now, I have the greatest respect for you, sir, and your opinion has been duly weighed here. Yet I must concur with Admiral Cunningham and believe we can push this convoy through. We’ll call it Operation Tiger then, shall we? Ride the tiger’s back!"

The Prime Minister clenched his fist, as if to hearten the spirit of his First Sea Lord, though he had determined he would insist on this operation if it came to it, and make it a matter of utmost importance. If he ever wanted to convince the Americans to weigh in and stand to arms for Britain, then it was incumbent upon him to first prove the British army could do more than organize a miraculous retreat. Rommel had landed his Afrika Korps in Libya a month earlier, and chased the British army all the way to the Egyptian border, with a good portion of the army cut off and besieged at the fortified port of Tobruk on the Libyan coast.

Though the threat to Alexandria was now very real, the Prime Minister had received an Ultra intercept of a report concerning Rommel’s condition at this time. It described the German position as weak, lacking adequate fuel and supplies, and strongly advised no further push into Egypt. But Churchill was not going to tell his First Sea Lord about it for the moment. He wanted to create as much urgency as possible on his side of the discussion, and relieving Tobruk was uppermost in his mind. He had to get Wavell moving! He needed a victory, and he was determined to have one before summer’s end.

"As you wish, Mr. Prime Minister." Admiral Pound deferred. It was still against his better judgment, but he was unwilling to make an issue of the matter. "We’ll have to keep our trousers neatly folded on this one, sir," He said quietly.

"Neatly folded and in the drawer," said Winston. "If word gets out on this, Jerry will spare no effort to insure those tanks do end up at the bottom of the sea."

"We’ve stood watch on Brest most of April, and it does appear that the two German battlecruisers are laid up for repairs."

"Perhaps the Royal Air Force can pay them a nightly visit," said the Prime Minister.

"Without doubt," said Admiral Pound. "Tried to get at one with a low level torpedo attack a few weeks ago, but there was just too much flak. So I suppose we’ll have to rely on night bombing by the RAF at higher altitudes. "

Churchill smiled. "Tell Admiral Somerfield at Force H that he’s done a bang up job, and wish him God speed. We’ll be running the convoy his way behind the screen you have already set up on Brest, and he may expect their arrival at Gibraltar by the 6th of May. It will come in two parts, 8A and then 8B sometime after."

"Very well, sir. The German ships are holed up for the moment, but the situation may change."

Churchill fixed him with a steady eye as he nodded to leave. "Situations always change, my good man. There’s nothing more certain than that."

When the Prime Minister had left him Pound sighed heavily. "That they do," he said aloud. Tiger Convoy indeed, he thought for a moment, then decided. We’ll designate this one Convoy WS-8A. The WS stood for "Winston Special."

Port of Brest, France – May 5, 1941, 23:30 Hours

Kapitan Otto Fein was finally a happy man again. He was putting out to sea, and this time without Admiral Lütjens in command. The admiral had guided the ships on the last sortie with Scharnhorst, but now he was preoccupied with the planning of another operation farther north, the inaugural cruise and breakout of the more powerful battleship Bismarck. Fein had orders to get to sea by any means possible, and head out into the Atlantic to wait for her big brother. Until then he would have free rein to attack any undefended convoy he might encounter along the way. By launching this arrow early, the Germans also hoped to draw off British assets that might be used to oppose Bismarck.

Lütjens will be sticking his thumb in my pie soon enough, he thought. But perhaps I can pick a few berries before that happens.

A man of 46 years, Fein had entered the navy in 1914 and made his way steadily up through the ranks from Radio Officer, to Watch Officer on minor ships until he was finally made Navigation Officer on his first decent fighting ship, the heavy cruiser Koln in 1934. It had been a long twenty years, but his persistence soon landed him in positions of increasing responsibility, an able Chief of Staff at the Naval Station of the Baltic Sea, a stint in the Naval Academy as advisor to OKW just before the war, and then another Chief of Staff position in Naval Group North. Yet his itch for combat command was finally satisfied when they gave him Gneisenau in August of 1940. Since that time he had made good use of her!

In his estimation he was already too late getting away this night. It would have been better if he had slipped out five days ago when the moon was still young, but the combination of unusually clear weather that week and pesky British air raids had prevented him from leaving. Now the clouds were heavy overhead, assuring the RAF would not be visiting, and the low lying coastal fog was thickening up nicely. He could not even see the crescent moon, which was a good sign.

Just after midnight, his ship was finally ready to pull up anchor and slip out of the harbor, the blackout curtains pulled tightly shut on every window, her speed low so as to quiet her engines as well. One never knew who might be watching on the coast, though he found it hard to believe the British naval intelligence would not soon learn he had departed. All able seamen and sailors who should have been roiling about the pubs and brothels of the city that night were discretely missing, a fact that any careful observer would not have failed to note.

No matter. He was adrift and away from his mooring, and under his own power as the last of the harbor tugs chugged away. Gneisenau was ready for a fight if he could find one, though he had no idea just how soon he would be heavily engaged again.

He broke out to sea, relieved to see the sharp bow of his ship knifing smartly through the ocean swells as the battlecruiser picked up speed. How long would it take before he would find anything worth shooting at, he wondered? His answer came two hours later while he slept in his wardroom.

A quiet knock on the door roused him from sleep. A Ward Officer had news the enemy was already on to him! "We’ve just been notified by Kriegsmarine intelligence, sir. The cable was decoded and reads as follows: "Salmon and Gluckstein are out for a stroll."

 Salmon and Gluckstein were a firm of tobacconists in the U.K. at that time, but it was also an easy to remember handle the British sailors had given to the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They were also called "the twins," being of the same class and design, but tonight Fein would steam alone. Scharnhorst was still fussing with her leaky steam boilers.

They already had wind of him, he thought. So much for secrecy and bad weather. And it appears the British thought both battlecruisers had gone to sea. Perhaps they were just admitting to that possibility in the service of caution, but it also might mean he would soon find himself in a roiling naval chase.

"Increase speed to 28 knots," he said, wanting to get well out to sea as fast as he could.

"Aye sir, and we also have this cable. Orders having to do with a "Tiger 1," or so it reads.

Fein took the cable, reading it in the dim cabin light. It was addressed to a force designated Tiger 1, and simply read: "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright." There was nothing more. Kipling, he thought. Now what in the world can that be about? He resolved to get bundled up and head for the bridge at once.

 

Over a hundred and fifty miles to the south, Force H was making good speed and steaming north to rendezvous with Tiger Convoy and its precious cargo bound for Alexandria. The task force was comprised of the Battlecruiser Renown, fast carrier Ark Royal, light cruisers Fiji and Sheffield along with three smaller destroyers. They had been making good speed, particularly after hearing that an old nemesis had put to sea. The two German battlecruisers were reported to have sailed from Brest after all! The RAF had pounded them for the last three weeks, but apparently the Germans had been able to make them seaworthy.

Tiger Convoy was already escorted by the battleship Queen Elizabeth, and battlecruiser Repulse on her way as part of the force to reinforce Admiral Cunningham’s fleet at Alexandria. But the Admiralty was apparently taking no chances on this mission. They wanted additional support from Force H as the convoy neared Gibraltar. All had gone off like clockwork until the cable came in: "Salmon and Gluckstein are out for a stroll."

The Renown was captained by Sir Rhoderick Robert McGrigor, a man of 48 years, and he was much like his German counterpart on board Gneisenau. He had risen through the ranks, serving on destroyers in the Med and with the Grand Fleet at the famous Battle of Jutland in the First World War. Dubbed "Wee Mac" for his stature, he had been in a foul mood in recent days.

 Of late he had been ping-ponging back and forth between the Atlantic and the Med with Force H. Just a few days ago they had him cruising in the Med to escort a captured French steamer. The navy had it towed to Gibraltar for inspection and then set back on its course to Casablanca. But someone got it in his head that the Vichy French there might try to recover the ship, and so Renown was ordered out to provide naval cover against that possibility. It was a damn good waste of petrol, he thought, employing the efforts of a battlecruiser to guard a lowly tramp steamer!

Renown was fast and powerful, designed back in the era that had spawned ships like the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood. In fact, she was very similar to that ship in design. With her six fifteen inch guns she outclassed the smaller German battlecruisers in terms of firepower, and her armor, while not as strong as later British designs, was adequate to the task. The ship had tangled with Salmon and Gluckstein once before during operations surrounding the German invasion of Norway. There Renown carried herself quite well, inflicting hits on Gneisenau and driving the two German battlecruisers off in the ensuing action, even though she was outgunned.

"Now it seems we may get another round," he said aloud to his bridge staff. He was making good speed, but had need of haste given the close proximity of the valuable Tiger Convoy. There were too many ships laden with troops, tanks, and crated planes to put at risk. And the Prime Minister seemed to have a particular interest in the fate of this particular convoy as well. Now that it had come under threat, the coded message "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright" was sent to all ships of the fleet. It was no surprise to him, then, when Admiral Somerville ordered him to alter course slightly so as to put his task force between the convoy and any possible approach by the German raiders.

 "I want to get some eyes out in front of me, what with Ark Royal along for the party," he said. He did not want to stumble upon the Germans with a vulnerable aircraft carrier at his side. "Let’s get a cruiser out in front. Make to Sheffield: increase speed to maximum and take station in the vanguard of the Task Force. I’m sure Admiral Somerville would concur." The cruiser’s radar set out in front would also extend his forward awareness of the battle space.

The admiral had no objection and so HMS Sheffield, under the command of Captain Charles Arthur Larcom, steamed on ahead, his watches well manned and searching the dark night for any sign of enemy ships. Sheffield could make all of 32 knots, while the Renown fell back at 28 knots as the force sped north in the dark. She held that speed for a good while until the engine room called up with a warning. The ship was having trouble with her bearings again. They had a tendency to overheat when she was running up near top speed, and in fact had been completely removed, re-metaled, and replaced some six months ago for this very same reason.

"It is number nine again?" he asked his Chief of Engineers when the man had been summoned to the bridge.

"Indeed sir, it is. That bearing gets a lot of rotation at high speed, sir." The number nine bearing had been the culprit last time as well, and the last thing the captain wanted as he steamed into possible battle situation was a dodgy bearing on his main engine turbine.

"If we could ease off a bit we might get her cooled off, sir," said his Chief of Engineers.

"Very well," said McGrigor. "I’ll roll her back to 24 knots. Would that do?"

"It would help, sir, and we’ll get it sorted out straight away."

"See that you do, Johnny," said McGrigor. "I don’t fancy the idea of going into a fight with a gimpy leg."

"Aye, aye, sir."

He gave the order to slow the big ship down, and thinking it best to observe radio silence, gave instructions that Ark Royal and other nearby ships should be signaled by lamp and advised of the speed change. Sheffield in the van was some ways off, however and, as it happened, her aft watchman was fishing about for a walnut that had slipped from his grasp to the deck of his conning station.

"Blast," he said, getting down in his hands and knees briefly to grope for the nut. When the lamp signal was beamed his way, it was not seen.

 

Aboard the Gneisenau, German hydrophone operators soon picked up the thrumming sound of many ships off to the south. Kapitan Fein hesitated briefly, wondering if this were another battle force coming up from Gibraltar.

"Kriegsmarine Intelligence has no northbound convoy scheduled," said his first officer. "But we are getting more on this Tiger message lately received in the second cable. Group West sends that this may be code for a particularly vital convoy heading south and due in Gibraltar tomorrow morning. They may have already passed us, sir. This could be that very convoy!"

Fein considered for a moment. He was alone, and suddenly his mission to the Atlantic had an unwelcome edge to it. There was entirely too much activity to suit him this early on. He had hoped for a few days quiet steaming until he could get into position well out in the Atlantic, possibly linking up with a U-Boat pack or two. Yet if this was the vital convoy naval intelligence was angling for it was incumbent upon him to at least have a look. Yet if it was vital to British interests, it would most likely be well protected.

"What about Force H?" he asked. "Have we any more news?"

"Last word was that they were still in the Med, sir, haggling over a captured Vichy French cargo vessel."

"Just like the British," said Fein. "They’ll tussle like a bulldog for any bone they find. But that is good news." He decided. "Come round to compass heading 195 degrees. We’ll see if we can sneak up on the heels of this convoy and have a look at it. Perhaps we can take a nip or two as well."

"If this is an important convoy there may be battleships escorting it, sir."

"That being the case we will simply tip our hat and make off into the Atlantic," said Fein.

The powerful ship came smartly around on the new heading, and the crew was soon ordered to full battle stations. Minutes later the magazines were alive with activity, and the massive shells, over a thousand pounds in weight, were loaded in her guns, and packed off with baled cordite charges. Soon the red lights winked on signaling "guns ready," and the crew waited anxiously for word from the bridge. Another big cat was on the prowl that night, closing rapidly, albeit unknowingly, on Force H, for Tiger convoy was still well north of Fein’s position, not south as Fein suspected.

It was not long before the hydrophone operators indicated the sound of rapid screw rotation dead ahead. As radar was yet in its infancy, the hydrophone actually outranged the new devices, and was usually the first to give warning of enemy approach.

"Listening station thinks we may have a cruiser out there, sir."

Captain Fein nodded, no longer happy to have indulged his curiosity. Whatever it was, that ship would not be alone. There would be more behind it, close at hand. He realized that with both ships making high speed the distance between them was now closing at over sixty miles per hour. He had little time to decide whether to hold this course or turn off now before he was discovered, and attempt to get out into the Atlantic.

Then again, if this was the convoy it would be very like the British to send a brave sheep dog out like this to try and frighten off a potential threat. He decided to hold course until they got closer to make an assessment.

Twenty minutes later he had his answer.

"Ship ahead on Seetakt radar, sir."

"One ship?"

"Aye, sir, and from the sound of its props on the hydrophones it looks to be a single cruiser, or possibly a destroyer."

That made sense if this was his sheepdog, thought Fein. He was already within range of the contact, but firing blind at night based on radar and hydrophone readings alone was not wise. All he would do would give away his position.

"Steady as she goes, and ready on forward turrets," he ordered. A few minutes more and he might get good optical ranging on the other ship, he thought, and his gamble paid off. Forward spotters signaled one ship ahead and Fein immediately gave a steering order.

"Come to 270 degrees rudder."

He wanted to turn his ship to the right so as to bring all his guns to bear in a broadside. The maneuver would also get him headed in the direction he wanted to move next, west, and out into the Atlantic. The seconds ticked off as the great ship surged ahead, coming around on the new heading where she was now picking up a twenty knot headwind. The spray from her sharp bow as she lanced through the grey swells was washing back and over the massive forward turrets, which were even now completing their turn to range on the oncoming enemy ship. It was now or never, thought Fein, and he gave the order to fire.

 

The forward watch on Sheffield was staring ahead into the grey night, eyes straining at the thickening of a shadow in the distance. He had been an Able Seaman aboard "Old Shiny" as her crew affectionately called the cruiser, for eight long years now.

While the bigger battleships in the fleet had proud names like Renown, Repulse and others, all the cruisers bore the name of a city, though the city of Sheffield had waited some time before she got her first fighting ship. London, Nottingham, and Newcastle had ships at sea for centuries bearing their names, but Sheffield was only just commissioned in July of 1936, a shiny new addition to the Royal Navy cruiser fleet, and one that made the locals there equally proud. She was one of ten in her class, each named for a similar town. All together the class itself was named after the first ship off the line, that being the Southhampton.

Sheffield was called "Old Shiny" for another reason as well. All the fittings that were normally crafted in brass on the other ships in the line had been machined in stainless steel, a high chromium content metal that was very resistant to corrosion at the time. Her railings gleamed in the pale moonlight as it broke through the overhead cloud cover briefly, and the stanchions, horns and ships bells, also made of steel, winked as she rolled in the turbulent sea. Her main ship’s bell had been made by a local company in the city, Hatfield’s, and the ladies club had taken it upon themselves to make a silken Union Jack and snappy pennants for the ship as well.

She also had forward directed radar, one of the first ships in the fleet to get the new devices. It was mounted well up on the foremast, which came to be called the "cuckoo’s nest" when the odd antennas and metallic siding of the radar equipment were added there.

With this equipment she was pressed into service as a patrol ship over many a long, cold and lonesome night in the North Atlantic. Her first prize of the war had been the German freighter Gloria, which she captured and delivered to a British port. And she had distinguished herself with good service in the Norwegian campaign, going so far as to send her crew ashore armed with anything they could find to try and hold off German paratroopers in the early hours of the invasion. But her virtue remained as a patrol ship, so it was no surprise when she got the order to steam ahead.

Tonight "Shiny Sheff" was rolling forward in increasingly rough seas and, unbeknownst to her captain, she was slowly pulling away from the rest of Force H.

It was well after two in the morning when her radar antenna detected something amiss in the cold night ahead. She had contact on another ship, and word soon went out to the watches to keep a sharp eye out for the enemy. Action stations jangled the crew from their fitful sleep as the cruiser made ready for battle. Eyes were pressed hard into the rubber cups of field glasses and the watchmen scoured the angry seas ahead. The aft watch perked up as well, suddenly realizing he could no longer make out the familiar shape of Renown behind them. He was about to call the bridge and notify the captain, but events took another turn.

The shadow the forward watch had seen suddenly changed shape, growing larger and more extended. He removed his field glasses, trying to clean the sea spray from the lenses, and rubbed his eyes for good measure. When he looked again he saw an ominous silhouette, dark and threatening, as if the night itself had taken shape and form, thickening into the angled contours of a massive ship.

He gave the warning cry just as the darkness was brilliantly split open by the orange fire of many big guns. Seconds later he heard their crashing report, a loud boom in the dark. Agonizing seconds passed and he heard another, more chilling sound as heavy shells sailed over the ship, falling in her churning wake and adding to the wild white water there. Huge spumes of ocean leapt up where they fell, and one flew directly over the cuckoo’s nest where the watchman was stationed, close enough that he could feel the swoosh of the massive metal projectile as it passed overhead.

Captain Larcom was shocked at the suddenness of the attack. He was only just getting radar reports on the contact ahead when the first salvos landed near his ship. Sheffield had sailed right up on a large German warship, though the enemy was still some ways off. His mind raced, considering at once that this foe may not yet be in range of his smaller six inch guns, and he had already been straddled by a fairly accurate barrage.

"Make to Renown," he said quickly. "German battlecruiser, dead ahead, and we are under fire. Turning about to lead her home."

Then he gave the order hard a port to bring his ship about and make smoke. There was no way he could stand in a fight with this enemy alone. Once Renown came up it would be a different matter, but for the moment his only move was to cover Old Shiny with thick, black smoke and high tail it back to Force H.

How in the world did we get this far ahead, he thought? He should still have Renown in sight off his aft quarter, but by the time the watch there reported empty seas it was too late.

The cruiser heaved over, turning sharply in response to the helm, and at that moment the enemy fired again, this time with deadly effect. A single 11 inch shell struck the cruiser amidships and there was a considerable explosion. One of her stacks was blown clear away and the round splintered the whole area with shrapnel, penetrating deep into the ship.

Aboard Renown, Captain McGrigor saw the action lighting up the black horizon ahead, and heard the distant boom of heavy guns a moment thereafter. The ship had clamored to action stations and the bleary eyed men were taught at their posts, the cold night air chasing the last remnants of sleep from those who had been lucky enough to find a place in a hammock or bunk.

"Twenty degrees to port and ready on main batteries," said McGrigor. Wee Mac was ready for a fight.

The ship turned and the captain turned to his executive officer. "Give me 28 knots or better," he said coolly. "I’m afraid the Chief of Engineers will have to keep his ice water handy on bearing number nine."

"Aye, sir. All ahead full battle speed."

"Now then," said McGrigor. "Let’s see if Jerry cares to pick on someone her own size." Moments later he gave the order to fire and the Renown’s six big 15 inch guns growled out their warning salvo. He did not yet know whether he faced one or both of the twin German battlecruisers, but he would let his guns announce his angry presence nonetheless.

END EXCERPT

About the Novel:

Written by the breakthrough Kirov Series novels, Golem 7 is volume V in the Meridian series and stands apart from all the others as a stand-alone novel that begins as a time travel story and morphs into an exciting WWII naval saga. It tells the story of a project team monitoring current events and reported history by use of a clever program migrating through the internet called a “Golem.” Installed on hundreds of millions of computers across the world, the Golems constantly monitor the history recorded on the internet and compare it to the data stored in a massive “RAM Bank” to look for variations or contradictions. An alert system summons key researchers to the data center hidden deep within the Lawrence Berkeley labs when variations occur where they can operate in a protected “Nexus Point” to review and analyze the history and determine what has caused the  variation.

The novel opens when one of the researchers identifies a confounding change in the history of WWII—the battleship Bismarck was not sunk on her maiden voyage! Now the team sets out to discover how and why this could have happened, and resolves to “sink the Bismarck” and restore the history they know by means of a clever intervention that allows them to broadcast information through time—right to the British Admiralty engaged in the desperate hunt for the German battleship, which receives unaccountable, yet credible “intelligence” as the campaign unfolds. Yet as they struggle to aid the Royal Navy, the project team learns just how precarious the campaign was, and how chancy and uncertain the final outcome was as they struggle to put the dreadful German raider in her watery grave.

The novel transitions between scenes set in the research labs as analysts sleuth the history for clues on how the variation occurred, and the stakes could not be higher. One of the variations they have identified has come from the muzzle of HMS Hood’s mighty guns at Abukir bay when a salvo struck the harbor quay and killed the family of an Arab dock worker there. Decades later, his ancestors have plotted revenge in a way that promises catastrophe.

A great read for Naval Fiction fans, The complete novel, Golem 7, is now available for kindle on Amazon.com. This book also serves as a “prelude” to events now unfolding in the Kirov Series with the release of book 16, Paradox Hour.

 

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