War and History Fiction posted September 14, 2013


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An Alternative History of An Ill-Fated Ship

A Charmed Ship

by brentman99

"Iceberg ahead!! Less than a mile off the starboard bow!" cried Watchkeeper Fleet from the forward crow's nest high above the main deck. He gave the pre-arranged signal of three bells so quickly it seemed as if they were all one alarm.

First Officer Murdoch acknowledged the lookout's frantic warning with a shout of his own and took only a second before giving the orders that would sink or save the ship. Recalling how to deal with such an incident in his recent reading of Knight's Modern Seamanship (1910), Murdoch shouted crisp, clear orders to the helmsman: "All ahead emergency! Full right rudder!"

On her maiden voyage, the big ship had yet to be run-up to full speed. Murdoch was not sure what was going to happen, but he knew that he had to do something.
"Come on you big, sodding cow, turn! Speed up and turn, damn it!!" The helmsman thought that Mr. Murdoch believed cursing would move the ship quicker as he painted the air blue as he tried with all his being to make the ship turn.

He may have been right.

Slowly at first, the ship started to turn more quickly as the 50,000 horsepower engine kicked in. Within thirty seconds, or nearly two lifetimes it seemed to Murdoch, the almost 900 feet of the ship took up the new course away from danger. He could not help but stare at the massive iceberg as the ship passed it no more than one hundred yards to starboard. Though the mass towered nearly two hundred feet in the air, Murdoch knew that much more lay below the surface of the water. As the ship drafted just over 59 feet of water, he knew that there was scant room between the berg and the ship's bottom.


"That was a big bastard, it was!" Murdoch remarked to no one in particular. He picked up the handle for the ship's telephone and asked for the forward crow's nest. Hearing the seaman come on line, Murdoch quickly passed his message.

"Good eyes, Mr. Fleet. There will be an extra tot of rum for you when you go off duty. On my tab."

Fleet could only mumble a weak "Yes, Sir," before setting his mind back to the job at hand. He had just ten minutes left on his watch before he went off duty. When his relief arrived, Fleet's knees were still weak. While he was barely able to climb down the long ladder, he had no problem drinking the hot toddy purchased by Mr. Murdoch and a few of his own as well.

Once clear of the iceberg, Murdoch ordered the engine room to reduce speed and returned to the heading that Captain E.J. Smith had set in his night orders. He then turned to the ship's log and made the following entry:

14 April 1912 - 11:40 pm. Forward Lookout Fleet sighted iceberg at 11:39 pm. Evasive action taken and hazard passed one hundred yards to starboard. Ship responded well to sudden increase in speed and full rudder. After incident, returned to logged course and speed and iceberg lookouts have been doubled. Titanic is a charmed ship.

April 15, 1918

Captain Murdoch didn't believe in deja vu.

It was exactly six years to the day that the Titanic had narrowly avoided a potential disaster with an iceberg on her maiden voyage. Since then, the ship had made almost a hundred Atlantic crossings without incident. In fact, the Titanic set speed records that were yet to be broken by a ship of any nation. However, notoriety can work two ways. While Captain Murdoch was pleased with the attention his ship received, today he wished the "honour" he was currently experiencing rested with someone else.


In September 1914, Titanic was pressed into service as a troopship soon after Britain entered the war against Germany. Her luxurious tapestries, woodwork, fine china and fabulous trimmings were all stripped in order to allow the liner to carry as many troops as possible. In pre-war days, the ship carried comfortably approximately 2,200 passengers and crew. However, with peacetime restrictions lifted, the ship was now crowded with over 7,000 doughboys of the American First Division. Less than a day out of New York, the Americans were headed to France to fight in what the newspapers were calling The Great War.


Due to its high speed, the British Admiralty decided that the Titanic did not require an escorting warship. No German submarine could catch such a fast ship, so why bother? After four years of war, the Admiralty's estimation had, thus far, proven true. The Titanic had crossed the Atlantic total of fifty-eight times during the war. Only twice had she seen a submarine and was forced to avoid torpedoes on only one occasion. Murdoch's dubbing the Titanic a "charmed ship" on its maiden voyage seemed to hold true. But that was before unrestricted submarine warfare started up again in 1917.

At the start of the war, submarines were required to stop and board ships to determine their cargo in accordance with accepted "cruiser rules" of warfare. If a submarine captain found that the ship was carrying contraband goods or war supplies, he was allowed to sink the vessel once all passengers and crew were moved to lifeboats. Through the then neutral United States, the German government issued a warning to all who would sail the Atlantic that they could be accidentally attacked if travelling on British ships. While there had been a short period where Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare and sank vessels without warning, the practice was so abhorrent that Kaiser Wilhelm II had put a stop to it in early 1915. However, once the United States entered the war, the Kaiser permitted his admirals to return to "sink on sight" rules.

For almost a year, Titanic had flaunted all German efforts to sink her during her New York to England troop-carrying runs. While the Germans had managed to sink a few small American ships, there had been nothing significant to make the US re-consider its decision to go to war against Germany. Thus, the Kaiser decided, since warnings had failed to keep the Americans out of the war, drastic shock tactics were needed to convey a new, darker message. Knowing its legend as a charmed ship, the Kaiser and his naval staff considered it fitting that the Titanic would be the bearer of his message.

Breaking the surface with rush of foam and bubbles, German submarine U-19 emerged from the green, icy depths of the Atlantic to charge its batteries. Despite the closeness of New York's harbour, just a hundred miles away, the young captain was confident that his small ship would remain undetected by local steamers and warships.

The shout "Captain to the radio room!" came to the bridge from below. Captain Erich Hartmann slid down the hatch and quickly made his way to the radio room, located amidships.

"What is it, now? Does the Kaiser want me to go shopping at Macy's for him?" Hartmann was a good captain with a famous sense of humour.

"No, Captain," said the wireless operator. "But I have a coded message for your eyes only."


"Maybe the Kaiser doesn't want everyone to know the Empress's sizes?" Taking the message, Hartmann turned to go. "I'll be in my cabin de-ciphering this."

Arriving at his closet-like cabin, Hartmann closed the door and went to the small safe that was welded to the bulkhead. Taking out a sealed package, he retrieved the codebook and began to work at transforming the jumbled letters into meaningful words. After five minutes and several re-readings, he reviewed his work.

"My God!" He whispered aloud. Throwing open his cabin door, Hartmann yelled out "Officers to the wardroom, now!"

In two minutes, the other three officers on the submarine were crammed around the small table that doubled as the officers' eating area. As nothing was secret for long on such a small vessel, the entire crew was eager to find out what was going on.

"Well, Kaiser Wilhelm has finally done it." Pausing for a few moments, Hartmann then gave the big news: "The Kaiser has ordered all available submarines in the area to stop hunting merchantmen and concentrate in this area to sink the Titanic!"

The men all began to speak at once:

"But how? She has eluded us for so long."

"She's too fast, how can we catch her?"

"How do we know where to look?"

In response to the questions, Hartmann pulled out a map and outlined the Kriegsmarine's plan in pencil. "The Titanic is known to use more or less the same general route, counting on its speed to protect her. Up until now, she has only had to deal with one submarine at a time. Well, let us see how well she handles five!"

He continued on after making a line of x's across a twenty mile stretch of ocean.

"Submarines U-19, U-22, U-34, U-37 and U-56 will form a line across the path that the Titanic will likely cross. Once one of our submarines spots her, the others will race to a position where they can fire torpedoes. The idea is that if we're lucky, more than one of us will be attacking her at the same time. She can dodge torpedoes from one direction, but I doubt a ship that big can evade torpedoes from two or more angles."

While the merits of the plan were obvious, the officers were not stupid.

"If this is such a great plan, how come we haven't seen it before?" asked Karl Smitts, the Torpedo Officer.

"Probably because it would leave other ships to run free to England. However, this is a new idea the Kriegsmarine big brains call a 'wolf pack.' Like a pack of wolves, we'll descend on a single, important ship and sink her. Where we have failed individually, maybe we can succeed together." Hartmann looked around the table. "Rest assured, men, I'm not very good at sharing my beer or kills. I want to be the one who sinks the Titanic. If not, I'll never hear the end of it when we get back to port, especially if it's Kleinscmidt who beats us to the punch!"

The men were well aware of the rivalry between U-19 and her sister submarine U-22. They rode the highs and lows of the friendly rivalry almost as fiercely as their captain. Many bottles of beer and champagne had changed hands since the two vessels were launched and went to war. Currently, U-19 was leading in tonnage sunk. But from past experience, they knew that Hartmann hated to buy beer that neither he nor his crew couldn't drink.

Waving his pencil around a small circle, Hartmann outlined his plan. "I think that Titanic will likely pass through this area in the next three hours. A spy reported to the Kriegsmarine only an hour ago that she just left port. It doesn't give us long, maybe four hours or so at the speed she'll be travelling at, but luckily all five submarines are only now closing in on New York. We must remain on the surface until we spot her, so let's get to it."

The officers gave a quick "Yes, Sir," then moved into action. Within a minute of the breakup of the meeting, the U-19's engine noise increased and the submarine heeled sharply to the port as the helmsman moved to the course that the captain had set. While the U-19 was coming around, the watch of three spotters and the captain prepared to go topside.

In a little over three hours, Hartmann was the first to spot the black smudge against the white sky. He was lucky. Up until an hour ago, the sky had been grey and it would have been very hard to see the smoke. Another twenty minutes and he was able to make out the outline of a mast on the horizon. No longer in doubt of the identity of the approaching ship, Hartmann turned to the open hatch and shouted, "Send the following message 'Titanic spotted on course 057. Moving into attack position.' Have the other wolf pack submarines send us their positions."

Ten minutes later, Hartmann received the replies. "Apparently, that bastard Kleinschmidt is only seven miles away from us and will be closing as well. We have to hit Titanic before he does." Calling for full speed, Hartmann radioed his intentions to the U-22 and raced to take up a position off the Titanic's starboard bow, leaving other the submarine to move to the port side of the big ship. In thirty minutes she would be bracketed and have no where to turn.

At exactly 11:41 am on April 15, 1918, the Titanic's fate was sealed by a friendly rivalry when eight torpedoes from two submarines raced out towards the huge ship. On the bridge, Captain Murdoch was heard to say "Oh, shit!" when the lookouts called to report multiple torpedo tracks heading towards the ship from both quarters. His call for an increase in speed and a quick turn to starboard, the same maneuver that saved Titanic from disaster six years earlier, allowed him to evade the first and last of the torpedoes, but exposed his amidships to multiple hits.

The first torpedo crashed just behind funnel #1, to be followed by another hit seconds later behind funnel #2. The other six torpedoes hit various parts of the ship, but the most critical damage was already done. Despite the watertight compartments, no ship could handle such immediate and simultaneous damage. Like a wrestler bent over the knee of his opponent, Titanic's back was broken in an instant and the big ship ripped into two pieces. Over four thousand men, stacked in bunks that were five levels high, were killed when the torpedoes hit. The remainder were trapped below decks and died a slow death when the ship sank in less than two minutes.

As the world now knows, the wolf pack was a shocking success. U-19 and U-22 shared the credit for the kill that became famous and brought an early exit of the US from the Great War. Of the seven thousand men of the US First Division and over a thousand crew members, less than two hundred were able to scramble into lifeboats or cling to wreckage scattered in the water when the big ship went down.

The announcement by the Kaiser that his submariners had sunk the mighty Titanic was, at first, denied as rumour by the British Admiralty. However, as their efforts to raise Titanic by wireless went unanswered, the Admiralty feared the worst. Several US ships raced to the scene of the sinking and found only the couple of hundred men who were thrown overboard when the torpedoes hit. The sea was littered with life preservers and dead bodies as they bubbled from the depths to the surface from the two pieces of the ship once they impacted with the sea floor over a mile below.

In 1912, Titanic was a charmed ship. In 1918, it became a death ship. A maneuver that saves the day one time, can seal its fate another. We never know if being saved from a bad fate today will only mean suffering even greater pain tomorrow.


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I love Harry Turtledove's alternative history novels and always wanted to come up with something of my own. Here is my first crack at it. Hope you like it.
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