Shortly before the First World War, the German light cruiser Saarbrücken leaves the port of Wilhelmshaven to make its last big journey before being decommissioned. But near Portugal the old ship encounters a mysterious phenomenon, and the crew unexpectedly finds itself in the Mediterranean, 1500 years in the past, at a historical moment: It's the year 378, the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire, the start of Völkerwanderung…the crew of the Saarbrücken decides that to survive they must make friends of the Romans. They had been the Kaiser's men in the 20th century, and now, in the past, another emperor might need their services…
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Dirk van den Boom
“Nice to see you go.”
The words couldn’t be misunderstood. The coldness in Karl’s voice emphasized their meaning. Rheinberg decided not to return this kind of farewell. When he left the house and walked to the sidewalk, he felt their eyes burning on his back.
The eyes of Helga, his sister, with the mixture of sadness and defiance that had already accompanied him all day since yesterday. The eyes of her husband Karl, clearly filled with hatred and contempt.
That had been apparent yesterday as well, in spite of the thin shell of courtesy covering their interaction. Karl received his brother-in-law in his small brick house in Yard Street. The shell had cracked quickly, the cracks had widened, and in the afternoon after a lunch of bland and overcooked potatoes and fish, it had finally broken. Karl had resumed his monologues and, as always, warmed quickly to the topic.
The system of exploitation, he repeated again and again, and capitalism. Feudalism of the mind and the corruption of monarchy. Freedom for those and retaliation for this, and then of course his greatest enemy: the favorites of the Emperor, the naval officers. Karl knew what he was talking about, or at least he pretended so. For six years he worked as a shipyard worker in Wilhelmshaven, and in this city there were only yards building for the imperial fleet. Since the Second Navy Law has been in force, they created constantly in day and night shifts the weapon that His Almighty Majesty ordered to be built. Karl earned every penny of his life with work as part of the system of exploitation, for which he seemed to feel only hate. When he brought out his pamphlets, publications of the social democratic presses, with waving flags and pictures of their leaders and heroes, especially Marx and Engels and Lassalle and whoever else, Lieutenant Commander Jan Rheinberg had enough.
Helga had noticed it right away. She was his sister, and at the same time the black sheep of the family, had ran away from home when barely 18 and then married a revolutionary, a simple worker, unworthy in every respect. Her father had never contacted her again, which was not surprising for the old, inflexible, rigid school principal and retired cavalry officer. Only mother sent her letters every now and then, often with money, because she lacked it all the time. Even during the first eight years of Jan’s career, when his parents had to subsidize his upkeep and put thousands into his training, before he was finally promoted to First Lieutenant and by that had achieved some financial independence, the letters came – just as had those pleas of his mother that he should visit Helga.
So he visited her at least once a year, and since his transfer to Wilhelmshaven six months ago, about once a month, to the highest displeasure of her husband. Jan himself felt no joy during these visits, but he did his duty – just as he had always done, even when his father had declared to him that he would give his only son to the naval academy, as people like him were sought after in the ever-expanding corps of officers. The “Seeoffizierskorps,” His Most High Majesty’s most precious favorites, and thus a safe career for a hard-working young man who had just passed a high school exam with highest honors and actually preferred …
But it only mattered what his father wanted.
Jan had done his duty. And as he left the house of his revolutionary in-law on that chilly October Sunday morning, he remembered the bitter cold in his voice as he had answered Karl during the previous evening. His words had been honor and commitment, patriotism and loyalty, and the meaning of the Most High authority without which a political system would break down into exactly the anarchy and arbitrariness that Karl and his followers surely strived for. He had lost control, was actually not such a fanatical supporter of the monarchy – or, to be more precise, of the current monarch. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Commander Rheinberg had a good, strong voice, which had come to maturity in Muerwik, as an instructor, a post he had held up until six months ago. A hated and beloved work, hated because of its monotony and poorer pay; loved because he taught, and education was important to him. Every night he read texts in Latin: Cicero, Sallust, Ambrosius. Latin he had actually preferred to …
What mattered now lay before him. In four hours, he had to report to the light cruiser Saarbrücken, one of the oldest ships of the Imperial Fleet, but only after visiting the White Castle and picking up his commander’s written instructions. The trip would go to the West Africa station, and the anticipation in Rheinberg outweighed the frustration that had accumulated during the last day and the silent, bitter morning in the house of his sister.
He shouldn’t have been so loud. Karl normally distributed his cheap, damaging propaganda only in the pub and his home, but very wisely not at the shipyard, and its content was supposed to roll off him like spray water on his rain jacket. But the cold anger that always rose suddenly in him when he came upon stupidity was difficult to manage. He and Karl didn’t understand each other; their worlds were totally different, only held together by the bridge of his sister.
They had both been adamant, stubborn and ungracious. It had to end in dispute. It always did.
The weather was wet. Jan pulled up the collar of his uniform jacket. The very existence of this uniform in his house was an insult to him, Karl had emphasized that morning. Then Rheinberg had decided not to wait until noon and left right away. The officers’ mess was undoubtedly a friendlier place, and apart from that there was more than enough to do to bring the Saarbrücken back into service before it embarked on its great journey.
This simple thought noticeably improved Jan’s mood. He even dispensed with the tram and went the distance on foot. He had to clear his head, and nothing worked better than a Sunday’s walk. He touched the crackling paper in his uniform pocket with his right hand, the letter from his father, sent three days before his death, in which he told his son formally and without flourish that he had heard the news of his promotion and appointment as second-in-command with pride and appreciation. Then he said he hoped that Jan would continue to serve the Emperor faithfully, thereby continuing the honorable tradition of his ancestors.
Jan’s response didn’t reach him in time.
He shooed the brooding thoughts away. He could neither make the unexpected death of his father undone, yet the existence of annoying Karl Jansen, and he went to visit him only for his mother’s and finally the sake of his sister, who apparently loved this man. Commander Rheinberg’s sacrifices were considerable, because his superiors had reported the improper connection of his sister to the highest levels, and twice he had been forced to wait for a promotion longer than others. Ultimately, however, his zeal and his unwavering devotion to duty paid off, and he was finally promoted to a leading position on one of the fleet’s largest ships.
As Jan thought about it, he found himself humming happily. When he reached Adalbert Square, with its exact rows of trees and the shimmering construction of the naval station at its end, which was commonly called just the “White Castle,” he almost regained something like a good mood. He considered the fit of his uniform before passing the guards and was placed into a waiting room after a short presentation and explanation of his visit’s purpose. He had to wait a long time yet wasn’t bothered. The room was plain, but the chair comfortable and a boy brought him coffee and pastries after his behest. Usually collecting orders wasn’t always handled so formal, but this was the last great journey of the Saarbrücken, and after their return she would seal her fate as an accommodation ship. Marine officers and engineers of other units strangely had always just some important task in port to do, long enough to take a last look at the sleek, powerful ship that seemed to come from another time. The old warhorse, a BREMEN-class ship, had been the pinnacle of German engineering when it was built in 1902, and although 12 years later her sister ships had been more or less all replaced by modern turbine cruisers, Rheinberg still was proud of the old lady.
Captain von Krautz was still in the hospital with the flu. Station Chief Admiral von Herringen himself would pass the necessary orders to Rheinberg in his capacity as Executive Officer, and this was an honor for the sick commander, who had been in charge of the ship for the last seven years.
Rheinberg felt no excitement and no fear. He saw himself where he belonged, and he would prove himself. This course would lead him to his own command of a cruiser in due time. And his chance to prove himself was imminent, there was no doubt. The war, for which the Emperor in his wisdom had prepared his fleet so carefully, would soon arrive, as everyone who possessed sufficient intelligence knew. Rheinberg had no shortage of intelligence, and he expected the future with anticipation. War meant battle, and victory above all. That there would be victory was certain.
The voice of the adjutant interrupted his thoughts. A few moments later, Rheinberg found himself in the presence of an old admiral. Von Herringen was a tall figure with powerful, white whiskers. He had taken office just about a year before, and Rheinberg had the feeling that he would not hold it for long. The man was close to retirement age, and if there would actually be a war, then it took an officer who was as adept in civil affairs as in military matters. No one had any illusions about what war would mean for the city and region of Wilhelmshaven. The city most certainly would be declared a fortress, and that automatically would make the admiral also a civilian governor.
“Sit down, Commander!”
Rheinberg accepted the invitation. Von Herringen settled behind his wide desk and nodded at a sheaf of papers, which lay on the front edge of the tabletop.
“Take this, it’s the marching orders. They are sealed so that only Captain von Krautz can open them, as soon as he is discharged from the hospital. How is he doing?”
“Admiral, the captain is already quite lively. He has weathered the influenza very well and will take up his duties by tomorrow.”
“That’s good, that’s good. You will find your ship to be pretty packed on the way.”
Von Herringen pointed again to the paper bundle. “There have been some additions in the last minute. You know that international tensions are rising. Should it come to war, it will affect our colonies as well as the fatherland. The governor of Cameroon has requested additional troops. He will not get what he would’ve liked, but he will have at least one full army company. You will have to put them on the Saarbrücken.”
“That’ll be very packed indeed, Admiral!” Rheinberg said. A full company, or about four platoons of 40 men each, with all the equipment … an organizational nightmare.
“I know. There are also ammunition, additional guns, and 25,000 Goldmark to deliver to the governor. You will need to lash a large stash of cargo on deck so that there will be room for the soldiers below deck. Many of them will not feel too well, especially when it gets rough. The company commander, a Captain … Becker … seems to have been at sea quite a few times and might comfort our passengers. He will report with his men Monday afternoon, so you should be ready to receive them.”
“Yes, Admiral. We’ll figure this out.”
That was easier said than done. But it was hardly for Rheinberg to discuss these details with von Herringen. Why they didn’t send a steamer together with the Saarbrücken, he could not explain. 25,000 Goldmark. He had to be extra cautious.
“I’m sure you will,” the stationmaster said. “You will take coal in Portugal; the authorities there will be informed of your itinerary. If war breaks out, you will not stop in Morocco, as all the coasts up until Togoland will be hostile. So don’t dare full cruising speed and save coal. If you arrive a day later, that’s not so bad. I don’t want the Saarbrücken to fall into enemy’s hands on her last big journey.”
Now Rheinberg couldn’t control himself. Von Herringen had sounded so determined and sure. “Admiral, can we really expect a declaration of war soon?”
Von Herringen allowed himself a thin smile. “Who am I to foresee the highest counsel from Berlin? But what I hear is encouraging. I’m sure that soon some questions will be clarified in quite unambiguous ways. You need to prepare yourself. It’s all in the instructions.”
“One more thing. No, two things. For one, you get a new chief engineer, Navy Chief Engineer Dahms, a short-term replacement. He will report tomorrow.”
“Yes, Admiral. And the second?”
Von Herringen sighed. He looked out of the window for a moment, lost in thought. The drizzle had been replaced by a chill. The fall began to show its unpleasant side. There would be heavy sea. Rheinberg deplored the infantry already.
“The reports of social democratic agitation in the file and the ranks of the non-commissioned officers are piling up. I don’t know how many stokers and mates have connections among the socialists; they often don’t profess openly. We are still united by the bond of love for the emperor, especially here in the fleet. But I just need to ask you especially to keep your eyes open.”
This “you especially” Rheinberg could understand in two different ways – as an appeal to his genuine responsibility as an executive officer directly in charge of the discipline in his crew, or as an indication toward his in-law, about whose existence von Herringen knew with absolute certainty. Rheinberg decided not to discuss it. In any case, he had gotten the message.
Luckily he could confine himself to a simple “Yes, Admiral!”, an appropriate response in any situation.
For a few minutes the conversation turned to chit-chat, then Rheinberg was allowed to leave. When the young officer left the White Castle, the rain had eased. The cold air that blew from the Jade Bay smelled like a storm. Nothing that couldn’t be tackled by a good light cruiser but nothing any experienced sailor longed for. An overloaded vessel, as the Saarbrücken would become, could use calmer waters.
Rheinberg glanced at the clock. Three hours still remained until he had to return to the ship, but on the other hand there was obviously more to do than expected. His boy had put his luggage on board a long time ago. Rheinberg started thinking about a rotating schedule for his and other’s cabins in order to optimally use the capacity of the Saarbrücken. During the walk to the fitting port, he quickly came to the conclusion that he himself would share his humble cabin with the captain of the embarked infantry, and that meant that he had to be put up for vigils as the infantryman should enjoy his sleep in the night. It was an act of politeness – Rheinberg was sure that Becker would have accepted any other arrangement without complaint – but it was helpful that Rheinberg loved vigils, because during that time the ship was really his.
When he reached the Saarbrücken, she was under steam. That meant all cargo had been loaded and that the engineer tested the engine, as well as checked the electric circuits. Rheinberg knew that the deputy chief in the engine room, Engineer Dortheim, has returned to his duty some days ago. He decided to take him aside and ask him about his new boss, who would arrive tomorrow. Officers like himself, the Navy Engineers knew each other well, although being of lower prestige and status. For a long time, this was a cause of friction, and some of Rheinberg’s comrades were not too reluctant to emphasize the difference through all sorts of snide remarks. Rheinberg had never held this belief and was always looking for a good relationship, even though he would stand as a simple lieutenant above even a veteran engineer in the ship’s hierarchy. The biggest distinction of rank became clear in the permission to marry: While naval officers received their permission to enter into a marriage directly by His Majesty, the dispensation for Navy Engineers was issued by command posts. There was no clearer sign of the social separation between the two groups, and the engineers had long urged that for them an imperial dispensation should be required as well. As it had been rumored, the Emperor was inclined to grant this, but the Admiralty, led by Fleet Admiral Tirpitz, still strongly opposed it.
Rheinberg didn’t concern himself with such matters. He served as first officer, being responsible for the functioning of the crew, and there was nothing more important for a technically complex entity like a light cruiser as a good team in the engine room, especially well-trained officers who had to be sure that the ship’s command treated them decently. And that exactly was Rheinberg’s intention.
His opinion might have been shaped by the fact that he himself had been frequently a victim of teasing and derogatory remarks. He was a commoner, and although no officer corps was as bourgeois as that of the Navy, the fifth consisting of noble sons still enjoyed special consideration. He had not had it as bad as those comrades who had not even had an old cavalry officer as a father. His roommate, Valentin, with whom he had served as a midshipman, had been a merchant’s son. No one was punished with more contempt than a Koofmich. Valentin had left the Navy one year after his promotion to lieutenant.
Rheinberg couldn’t blame him.
The guard protecting the gate to the deck of the Saarbrücken came to attention when he recognized Rheinberg. The first officer had already been a first lieutenant aboard the cruiser and had, as executive officer, commanded some squadron exercises in the North Sea. Nevertheless, the ship spent most of its time in the harbor, and Rheinberg had been busy with courses or dealing with administrative matters. It was a positive sign that the guard only allowed access to the ship after checking the ID of the approaching officer. Rheinberg nodded approvingly, then stood on the wet steel deck and closed his eyes for a moment. All the anger, all the musings, fell away from him. He forgot about Karl and his sister and the fact that he had received this rank and position two years later than other comrades of his seniority. It was here where he was now, and he was where he belonged.
Rheinberg opened his eyes and looked into the round face of Navy Medical Officer Dr. Hans Neumann, the ship’s chief physician. Neumann was the opposite to Rheinberg in every respect. Where Rheinberg was tall and wiry, he tended toward chubbiness. Where Rheinberg had a narrow face and a sharp, thin nose, radiating an aura of austerity – sometimes even without intending to – Neumann exuded comfort and joviality. And where Rheinberg fit into his uniform as if it were perfectly tailored, Neumann’s was always either too big or too small.
Rheinberg owed this man a lot. He wasn’t only a good doctor but had become a friend during the last six months. He had helped Rheinberg learn when rigidity came to an end and where a kind word in dealing with the crew helped much more – something they didn’t teach in naval school. Most didn’t even learn it as young officers. Some covered their insecurities by being the martinet. When Lieutenant Rheinberg had been on the wrong track, Dr. Neumann had saved him just in time, and Jan was eternally grateful to him for this assistance.
“Hans,” Rheinberg replied. “You’ve been on board for long?”
“For three days now. I’ve heard that we take a bunch of mud-eaters to Cameroon.”
“News spreads quickly.”
Dr. Neumann grinned and tugged at his not too well fitting uniform jacket.
“The big vomit will not be long in coming,” he croaked. “This is a great ride.”
“You’ll handle that. Who else has been reporting in already?”
“Klasewitz is on the bridge.”
Johann Freiherr von Klasewitz, a commander like Rheinberg, albeit with fewer years of service, and second officer, was exactly the sort of person with whom Rheinberg had always had trouble because of his middle-class background. Twice they’ve clashed seriously, and it had taken some time before the nobleman had recognized Rheinberg’s authority, although with recognizable reluctance.
“Then I’d better let him be alone,” Rheinberg said with a faint smile. “Are the new crewmembers on board?”
“So far as I’ve noticed, yes. I’ve examined already half of them.”
“Did they get all of their assignments?”
“Right after embarkation. The crew must first get used to the ship. This time we have around 20 percent new staff. I suggest that we begin with the skirmish drills sooner than later.”
Rheinberg looked at his clock. “I want lunch according to the normal routine. After lunch, leisure is limited to one o’clock. Instead of a normal duty, I want to damage control drills per division, up until dinner. After dinner, I want to talk all the division heads in the mess.”
“Probably not all heads are available,” Neumann said. “We still wait for some deck officers and NCOs. All in all, we’ve assembled quite a new crew. I understand that some men will arrive, together with the captain, day after tomorrow.”
“The drills are taking place anyway. Where no division heads are present, take the alternate or we let experienced NCOs lead. When Captain von Krautz comes on board, I don’t want to have to answer for a potentially poorly experienced crew without at least having tried to do something about it.”
“Talk to Klasewitz about it. He will be pleased.”
Rheinberg sighed. The second officer had never met someone like Dr. Neumann in his early career. The baron was like a martinet and would use each drill for merciless punishment, if he was not kept under control. Rheinberg wanted to postpone the conversation with the man as long as possible.
“We load coal on Thursday and on Sunday we have orders to sail. Not much time left. Housing the infantry is my biggest problem. We need to create additional space for hammocks. It will be even tighter than we already had it. We also need to ensure that peace prevails among the men.”
“We will manage, if we make good progress. But the autumn storms are expected. It would have been better if we would have sailed two months ago.”
Rheinberg shrugged and tapped the bundle with the orders in his breast pocket. “It’s the way it is.”
Neumann nodded. He cast a searching look at the sky. The clouds began to tear in some places. Hesitant sunlight danced across the brackish water of the harbor.
“I’d fancy a beautiful and sunny fall,” muttered the doctor.
“Me too. We’ll see. Seen my boy somewhere?”
“He is waiting for you but now …”
Neumann turned. “Chief Petty Officer!”
The massive, ponderous form that slid down the ladder was well known to Rheinberg. Chief Petty Officer Harald Köhler was the senior NCO on board the Saarbrücken, just 50 years old. His beard was trimmed as impressively as the rest of his massive frame, and no one would’ve guessed his age. Köhler bristled not only from power, but as an elder of the NCOs, he was also the official spokesman for all NCOs and men. All complaints, all the problems, came to him first. The fact that everyone actually spoke frankly to him said much about the respect he commanded as well as his popularity. Rheinberg had learned to rely blindly on the older man during the last few weeks. If he remembered correctly, it was Neumann who had pointed him toward the importance of veteran NCOs.
Köhler saluted smartly.
Rheinberg looked around and grinned. “See von Klasewitz somewhere, Köhler?”
“No, sir, Lieutenant Commander.”
“Then stop the motions. Tell my boy that I’m on board and he should lay out a fresh uniform for me. I want to conduct a roll call by noon, and I don’t want to fail it myself.”
Köhler returned the grin. “I’ll gather him personally. Surely playing cards somewhere …”
“Fine. Any news?”
The question sounded casual, but was not meant that way. Köhler’s judgment had weight for Rheinberg. “Everything in order so far. A fine ship, but you knew that. The crew is still a little bit confused and must grow to know each other; we have plenty of newcomers. They abuse us a bit as a training ship, I guess. We’ll make it, though. I would suggest that we start with battle drills, at the latest, after the coal.”
“Better even before, but that won’t work. We have to deal with our guests from the infantry first.”
Köhler grimaced. “Would be easier if they would’ve sent our comrades.”
Rheinberg knew that the NCO was referring to the Marines. He shrugged. “No, it will be the infantry. Treat them well. It would be a good idea if you could become friends with one of their senior sergeants, drink a few beers with him, and gather ideas in regard to the needs of his men. I can’t use surprises on an already overcrowded ship.”
Rheinberg dismissed him. Köhler tapped his index finger against his forehead and turned away.
Rheinberg sighed and glanced at the bridge.
Neumann patted him reassuringly on the shoulder.
“Now you should go.”
“Yes, now I’ll have to. See you later.” Neumann nodded and disappeared.
Rheinberg proceeded without further hesitation to the bridge. It was not too far. When he entered the spacious command center with the all dominating wheel, he found only two men present. Quartermaster Börnsen stood behind the steering gear like the Saarbrücken was already on a grand voyage against the English. He fixed the slightly agitated water of the port with an intensity as if at any time the appearance of a torpedo was to be expected. Rheinberg rolled his eyes. The second officer was the other person on the bridge, a symbol of the perfect imperial officer, tall and muscular and with his angular face sporting a magnificent beard trim comparable to that of the Highest Majesty. This was not unusual among the officer corps, and the mere fact that Rheinberg preferred his face clean-shaven had been already enough to encourage von Klasewitz’s contempt toward him. The second officer, who also held the position of the artillery officer, smiled maliciously. Although he ranked lower than Rheinberg, his promotions had not been postponed, and his noble rank made him a better person anyway. Rheinberg’s father had taught him unconditional respect for the nobility from the cradle, but the young man hadn’t lost his mind before entering the military academy. Von Klasewitz was a pompous puppet, trying to compensate for his inability with unnecessary rigor and disciplinary arbitrariness. In fact, the only thing he was really familiar with was his artillery; with everything else, especially with people, he was not familiar at all.
He had come so far only because his father had found a sympathetic ear at court and because the Admiralty rather preferred nobility in senior positions. In contrast, Rheinberg had to work laboriously for what fate had given von Klasewitz.
“Commander!” The baron didn’t even attempt a half-hearted salute.
Rheinberg pointed a finger to Börnsen. “Did we receive new instructions, Mr. von Klasewitz?”
Incomprehension loomed on the picturesque face of the baron. “Why do you ask?”
“Do we have to sail now?”
“No, no … we don’t, don’t we?”
Rheinberg suppressed a sigh. “What is the quartermaster doing here? The Saarbrücken will be moved early on Thursday, when we get to the take coal. Now the ship is moored, and we haven’t everyone on board, including the captain.”
Von Klasewitz pressed his lips together. “I believe that we must be ready at all times. The enemy –”
“Will most probably not attack today,” Rheinberg completed the sentence. “The only mate that we could use on the bridge would probably be for signals. I don’t see one. I only see Börnsen clutching the helm, as if it would fall off if he lets go.”
Börnsen gave a nearly inaudible groan. Rheinberg admired him for his self-control. The mate was a good man; it was a shame that he was forced to this farce by his second officer.
“Börnsen, you can go,” Rheinberg finally said.
He didn’t wait for confirmation of the command but left the bridge together with the mate, leaving von Klasewitz alone.
The baron stared after him. His hands were clenched into fists until the knuckles went white out.
He said nothing.
Rheinberg had hoped to take infantry and coal on board separately. As always, it worked exactly not the way it was planned. Three things happened simultaneously: After the Saarbrücken had been transferred to the coal port and the filling up started, the signals mate on duty excitedly asked for him. The first officer was rushed to the bridge, in the suspicious expectation that something went wrong with the coal, causing an accident or a malfunction, which unfortunately occurred from time to time and sometimes could seriously injure someone. Fortunately, his assumption was not confirmed. The alternative wasn’t much more pleasant.
“The infantry,” repeated the mate, pointing to the bank.
Indeed. A day earlier than announced the army came marching and in full gear. Fortunately, they didn’t just storm aboard. As a short, stocky man broke from the pack and purposefully headed for the gangway, Rheinberg knew that this could only be Captain Becker. In his mind, he already saw how the coal dust-covered crew would guide the immaculately marching infantry with a big smile through the coal dust-covered ship, so that at the end they would look like they had done duty at the boilers.
“Where is the duty officer?”
“Lieutenant Joergensen is below, monitoring the storage of the coal together with the deputy engineer.”
Rheinberg sighed. Who had not yet appeared, was the new engineer, Navy Chief Engineer Dahms, whose job this was supposed to be. He was about to leave the bridge to meet Becker, when he saw a car pull up. Rheinberg focused his eyes and immediately another deep sigh burst out. Climbing out of the car, a little shaky, came Captain Harald von Krautz, the commanding officer of the Saarbrücken, whose return had actually been announced for later in the evening. But he had probably not been able to put up with the care of the nurses anymore, and Rheinberg could not resent him for that. But his return was inopportune, actually quite so. In the corner of his eye he saw the grins of the bridge crew in anticipation that the simultaneous arrival of the three officers could develop into something amusing. Rheinberg held back any rebuke. Schadenfreude was still the sincerest pleasure of them all, even if he was the object of it.
Rheinberg ran toward the men. Becker and Krautz had simultaneously reached the guard at the gangway, as he also jumped ashore. For a moment, the soldier on duty looked speechless at the three men. Becker opened his mouth, but von Krautz spoke first.
“Gentlemen, it seems to me that we have a small party here.”
“Captain,” replied Rheinberg. “It’s all a bit awkward …”
Von Krautz smiled. “I hope you’re not talking about me?”
Rheinberg’s face turned a little bit red. “Of course not, I –”
“He refers to me,” interjected the infantryman with his deep voice. “And he’s right, we didn’t arrive at the planned time.”
Now Rheinberg was a little bit embarrassed, because he had firmly resolved to provide their guests with a thoroughly warm welcome.
“Captain, I’ve certainly not meant it that way,” he answered lamely, and looked at the broad grin on the faces of both men and capitulated. “Gentlemen, welcome aboard the Saarbrücken. Captain, I –”
Von Krautz raised his hands. “Nothing, Rheinberg! If you expect me to formally assume command, then you are in error. You have your fun with the comrades of the army, and I will disappear in my cabin until dinner.” He bowed to Becker. “Captain, I put the fate of your men in the capable hands of my Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Rheinberg. I would be pleased to welcome you this evening as my guest in the mess. The food of the Imperial Navy is much better than in the army, I can tell you.”
Becker returned the gesture. “Captain, I thank you. We’ll see you tonight!”
Without further ado, von Krautz waved off his servant. The boy had carried the luggage out of the car and tried to lift the first suitcase on board. Then von Krautz turned and nodded to Rheinberg with about the same grin that had been seen on the bridge, and squeezed past him to the guard, presenting his papers. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared aboard the cruiser.
Rheinberg eyed Becker. The infantryman was a good four inches shorter than him but looked very strong. He had a healthy, ruddy complexion, and his wide, soft-looking face was covered with freckles. Rheinberg guessed him to be in his late 20s. His deep, dark voice did not fit the boyish appearance. When he took Rheinberg’s proffered right, he pressed it firmly, which hinted at the strength in his arms.
“Commander, I really have to apologize for this mess. I myself had the intention to announce our arrival in time. It’s all gone upside down. I’ve got a new deputy, and then lacked half the men, because the train from Oldenburg had an engine-failure. My troop is brand new; I know no more than a third of them. I’m just so tired.”
Becker’s smile was open and disarming. Rheinberg’s bad mood melted away. He immediately took to the captain and only shook his head. “We take it as it is,” he said. “I must ask you and your men to wait for another two hours before boarding. I want to finish with the coal before. It doesn’t look like rain, so let the men sit and smoke a pipe. We can also bring out coffee. But please let us do one thing after the other.”
Becker didn’t even discuss it. He called a young man with the rank of lieutenant and introduced him as his deputy. Lieutenant Klaus von Geeren listened attentively to the explanations of his superior, then he turned and barked some commands. A short time later, the soldiers were sitting on their backpacks, and tobacco made the rounds.
Rheinberg threw a hard look at the cruiser. As expected, he saw Chief Petty Officer Köhler standing at the railing, like if he had just been waiting for the searching eye of the officer, and he gestured that they needed one-and-a-half hours. Rheinberg had calculated correctly. He raised his thumb and turned back to Becker.
“You, sir, I can already bring on board. There is a lot going on, but I will take the opportunity to give you a little tour of the ship.”
Becker nodded. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. You’ve got a beautiful old piece of machinery here.”
“You ever had the pleasure sailing with the fleet?” Rheinberg knew that he had, but he wanted to give the captain an opportunity to brag about his experiences a bit.
“I already have had a stint in German South-West. I had been a substitute for a sick comrade and traveled with the cruiser on station, like now. It’s been a while; I was a fresh lieutenant and the ship was an old aviso.”
“Long time,” confirmed Rheinberg. Those boats had been an ultimately very unreliable class of ships whose tasks were now taken over by the light cruisers. “Well, once again, welcome aboard!”
And with that he led Becker up the gangway to the deck.
“The Saarbrücken is one of the oldest ships in the fleet,” he began at once with his introduction and proceeded before Becker. “It was completed in 1902 as the second ship of the BREMEN-class, the first having ten 10.5-cm quick-loading cannons.” Rheinberg pointed toward the turret and passed on. “We have six of them now, and a 15-cm gun both in the bow and the stern. We needed the bigger punch.”
“I suspect the conversion has affected the ship,” said Becker and knocked on the gun barrel covered with a tarp.
“Somewhat, yes. The foremast was put into the bridge due to safety considerations. The electrical system has been brought up to date. What we didn’t get were turbines. The Lübeck has them, but we still breathe in the traditional way.”
“Three-cylinder triple expansion engines, ten navy water-tube boilers with natural circulation,” pontificated Becker.
Rheinberg raised his eyebrows and nodded. “You know your stuff, Captain.”
“I should have become a naval officer. No, it’s one of my principles to pursue the most optimal preparation, no matter what the mission is. Many of my comrades allow themselves to be too surprised by the things they should have expected. My good lieutenant didn’t even deemed it necessary to know where Cameroon actually is. He said he’ll see once we arrive at the port of Douala.”
Rheinberg grinned. “No real port. There is a beautiful harbor, but with a long pier because it is too shallow for us to get close.”
Becker nodded. “I have also told him. Then I sent him in seclusion for some hours, together with an atlas and a geography book about our colonies. I’ve made myself familiar with the cruiser even earlier. It’s just a magnificent piece of engineering. While what they are building today doesn’t have the curved bow or the decorations anymore – this one still had a certain style and grace.”
Rheinberg could not help but agree with the infantryman. The new vessels were significantly more functional than the old Saarbrücken. He was ready to confess that this increased functionality had its merits. During the last 11 years, the technical development had not stopped. The installation of Parsons turbines in the sister ship Lübeck two years after the Saarbrücken had been built, becoming the first ship in the fleet with the new technology, was a good example.
Becker interrupted his thoughts. “How big is the crew?” They had reached the bow and stood directly above the rich ornaments.
“287 NCOs and enlisted men, 18 officers,” Rheinberg replied promptly. “And recently, yet another 160 infantrymen.”
Becker grinned. “We will make ourselves as small as possible, I promise.”
Rheinberg made a generous gesture. “We will manage somehow. However, the ship is pretty overloaded, and therefore we’ll load less coal than usual. Our speed will be a leisurely pace, because our Lady could swallow over 10 tons of coal per hour in full speed. We will remain at half speed, which extends our trip but preserves our coal reserves. In Portugal, we will fill up, and then sail slowly to Cameroon. Expect some weeks of travel, as the journey will take time.”
Becker sighed. “I suspect you will sweeten our time with some nice drills.”
“Exactly. Every one of your men gets an assignment. You all need to know where you have to be in the event of something unexpected. And we will practice until they know it in their sleep.”
“Great prospects.” Becker knocked on the rail. “But I am very confident that the old lady will deliver us to our goal.”
“So am I,” Rheinberg said. He turned and enjoyed the view of the bridge where a pale von Klasewitz stood and stared at the two men. “That’s the second officer,” said Rheinberg, when he realized that Becker had noticed the stare. “Keep dear to the captain or me, or even better, if there is anything to ask for, talk to Chief Petty Officer Köhler. He has been on board for ten years and knows corners of whose existence I’m not aware. If something doesn’t work out, especially in regard to the relationship between your men and my crew, he is the contact person.”
Becker nodded thoughtfully. “I have a sergeant, who should make friends with him …”
Rheinberg was pleased that he was apparently going along very well with the captain. Again his eyes fell on the stiff figure of von Klasewitz who scrutinized them as if they were discussing the formation of a “workers and soldiers council” on the Saarbrücken. Rheinberg felt that Becker would “appreciate” this man just like him. This had perhaps something to do with the fact that the infantryman seemed to be a commoner like Rheinberg. That was a little bit rarer in the army than in the fleet. Becker, therefore, certainly did not always feel easy in the vicinity of highly respectable noble superiors like von Klasewitz.
Rheinberg continued his tour of the ship. Becker proved to be an extremely attentive companion, as he soaked up every piece of information despite occasional jokes and lighthearted swipes at the fleet. At the end of their round they arrived at Rheinberg’s modest cabin. The commander made a sweeping motion.
“Be my guest, sir. I will endeavor to do the night watch, so that you can sleep in peace. If needed, I will be sleeping in the bathtub. My boy provides fresh linens.”
Becker nodded. His eyes fell on the only shelf in the room. It was so full of books that they probably wouldn’t slip even in the heaviest seas. He ran a finger over one spine and read the title aloud. “Edward Gibbon, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ ‘The Notitia Dignitatum’ in a new translation. Vegetius. Ambrosius … hm, you have a soft spot for Roman history, Lieutenant Commander.”
Rheinberg smiled sheepishly. “Since my early youth. My dad has promoted this interest; he said I could learn a lot from it.”
“Your father wanted you to be a professor of history?”
Rheinberg’s smile carried a painful touch. “No, he was determined from the beginning that I would become a naval officer. But the history of the late Roman Empire is mostly military history. A fascinating topic, anyway. I have in my parents’ house a whole wall full of books. Only the most important works I’ve taken; I read them time and again.”
Becker pulled with a little effort a thin book from the shelf. “Latin grammar. I’ll be damned, this is the grammar book from secondary school. It is certainly among the most hated books of my youth.”
Rheinberg grinned almost boyishly. “Latin is my passion. I was top of the class until graduation. I take it that it wasn’t your favorite subject?”
Becker frowned. “I was passable in Greek. Latin gave me a permanent headache. Who thinks up something like the ablative case?” He gently pushed the book back in its place. “I follow your passion for military history. We can learn much from the ancient generals.”
Rheinberg nodded. “We can, but unfortunately we don’t do it often. Captain, I have to devote myself to other obligations …”
Becker looked guilty. “I have stayed too long. I’ll return to my men, and we shall meet again, once I go on board with the troops. One thing, though: In one of my boxes are 25,000 Goldmarks for the governor of Cameroon. We should stow that one away safely!”
Rheinberg had almost forgotten the money. He tried not to show his disappointment about himself and acted as if he had expected this. “Of course,” he replied firmly. “The purser will take care of everything. The ship’s safe should be too small, but the Office of the Paymaster is doubly secured, and we will store the chest there. It is a safe place, and our Lieutenant Thies has already overseen large sums.”
“Then everything is settled. I find my way back to the deck on my own; I have to learn that as soon as possible anyway.”
“If anything is amiss, please contact me directly or Chief Petty Officer Köhler. With him, you are always in good hands.”
The farewell was quick and courteous. Rheinberg rushed upstairs to personally provide for the immediate shipment of the gold. He was grateful for the reminder, even if not saying so.
Rheinberg would definitely get along very well with the captain.
The Saarbrücken lurched.
Autumn had gathered his forces on the day before the solemn departure and swept through the jetties and piers of Wilhelmshaven, so that even a day later, the marching band finally decided to succumb to the weather and left. The assembled visitors who had the endurance to bid the cruiser farewell waved goodbye to the ship while being totally disheveled by wind and rain. Normally, the departure of a ship was the reason for the so-called whooling – the crying, happy, sad, quiet, loud and uncontrollable ritual – with which the relatives, friends and brides dismissed the sailors on long voyages. This time the weather didn’t really mean well for all of them. As the boatswain whistles were sounded, the regret about the final farewell gave way quickly to the joyous expectation to return to a warm and dry place. Rheinberg could clearly see from the bridge that the first had already begun to take up the way back to shelters as the Saarbrücken was only 20 meters away from the wharf. He didn’t blame anyone, not even the men of the infantry, who had preferred to stay in the cruiser’s interior. Their relatives, who were as a rule found in the vicinity of their home barracks further inside the Empire, had already bid them farewell during another occasion.
At the last possible moment, the infantrymen had taken delivery of a disassembled Benz 4-ton truck that had been hoisted aboard. Apparently the governor desperately needed a large vehicle in Cameroon and didn’t want to wait for a freighter. Köhler had cursed like a fishwife for hours and Rheinberg had allowed him to, because in the end the car parts were securely stowed in the most unlikely places on and below deck. Captain Becker had since been very, very kind to the old sergeant, something Rheinberg had noted with great joy. It was nice to meet officers every now and then who saw the men of lower rank as human beings.
Wind speeds up to 8 knots and a rough sea was nothing that could embarrass the very stable and safely-built cruiser, but the ship was overweight and some of the men on board lacked any experience with the sea. Rheinberg harbored some concerns and asked perhaps more than necessary for the well-being of guests. As the Saarbrücken
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