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Naval Battle of Guadalcanal begins and World Kindness Day

13 November…fall…winter right around the corner…Thanksgiving…Christmas…egad, where did the year go?  Well, mid-November is right around the corner, and every year on 13 November we recall the death of Malcolm III at Alinwick in 1093 (said to have been the model for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who nonetheless was thought to have been real); the trial for treason of teenage Lady Jane Grey on 13 November 1553 (she had been queen of England for nine days that July); Benjamin Franklin writing “nothing…certain but death and taxes” in a letter penned on this day in 1789 (he was writing about the Constitution); Louis Brandeis was born on this day in 1856 in Louisville, Kentucky (the first adherent to the Jewish faith to be appointed to the Supreme Court); the first modern elastic brassier was patented on this day in 1913 (hardly the first, but said to be the biggest influence on the modern garment); the Holland Tunnel was opened on this day in 1927 (the first underwater double-tube road traffic tunnel in the world); and in 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington DC (colloquially known as “the gash in the ground”).  But today, we’re going to talk about the beginning of a four-day running gunfight in the southwest Pacific, and kindness.

Daniel Callaghan had never fought a night battle before, whereas the next senior officer in the area, Norman Scott, had. But Callaghan was senior by three days, so command fell to him.

The “naval battle of Guadalcanal” has always had trouble with definition.  It started, by some lights, on 12 November 1942 and ran through 15 November.  Some American scholars have called it the third and fourth battle of Savo Island, while the Japanese have called it the third and fourth battle of the Solomon Sea. Regardless of what it was called, at about 01:25 on 13 November, a Japanese task force of two battleships, a light cruiser and eleven destroyers entered the sound south of Savo Island, intending to sweep away any American warships, destroy the newly-arrived transports off the beach and shell the American positions around Henderson Field. Thy were detected about 01:24 by American radar, but Daniel Callaghan, the task force commander in first contact, wasn’t informed because of communications difficulties.  Callaghan’s force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and eight destroyers had no battle plan, and the ships with batter radar were not deployed in such a way that would take advantage of them.  Callaghan had never fought a night battle before, whereas the next senior officer in the area, Norman Scott, had. But Callaghan was senior by three days, so command fell to him.

Action 13 November
From Warfare Magazine

The two forces sighted each other a few moments apart sometime around 01:40, but Scott and his force were unprepared and uncoordinated for what followed. Japanese battleship Hiei and destroyer Akatsuki switched on searchlights, the shooting started, and the chaos ensued: one officer characterized it as “a barroom brawl after the lights had been shot out.”  At least six of the American vessels opened fire on on Akatsuki, which blew up and sank in a few minutes. Hiei also received close-range fire from destroyers too close for her to shoot back at.  The Japanese task force commander, Abe Hiroaki, was wounded and unable to command act decisively. Four Japanese ships, including both battleships, opened fire at Callaghan’s flagship, cruiser San Francisco, killing Callaghan and crippling American command and control for the rest of the night. San Francisco got free, but Hiei was also crippled by return fire.

Unable to improvise despite superior training and experience (not to mention Type 93 torpedoes), the samurai pulled out once again to find out how the plan failed.

In the confusion that followed, three more American destroyers, Laffey, Barton and Cushing, were sunk by gunfire and torpedoes.  Cruiser Atlanta was crippled by destroyers Nagara, Inazuma, Ikazuchi and Akatsuki, a torpedo hit setting Atlanta adriftSoon San Francisco fired on Atlanta, killing Scott and making the first naval battle for Guadalcanal the deadliest battle for US Navy flag officers, with one flagship killing another. Destroyer Amatsukaze was trying to finish off Atlanta and got clobbered by cruiser Helena.  Destroyers Aaron Ward and Sterett caught destroyer Yuudachi unawares and caused fatal damage.  Minutes later destroyer Sterett was caught by destroyer Teruzuki and damaged badly enough to have to pull out of the fight.  While this was going on, Aaron Ward got into a one-on-one tete-a-tete with battleship Kirishima which the American destroyer lost, but survived. Cruiser Portland, after helping sink Akatsuki, was hit by a torpedo from either Inazuma or Ikazuchi, knocking her out of the fighting, but not before she fired into Hiei.  Yuudachi and Amatsukaze hit cruiser Juneau with a torpedo while Juneau was exchanging fire with Yudachi.  Juneau stopped dead in the water and was out of the fight.  Destroyer Monssen was noticed by destroyers Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare, which smothered Monssen with gunfire and causing fatal damage. Amatsukaze tried to finish off San Francisco and did not notice cruiser Helena, which fired into Amatsukaze, knocking her out of the action. Amatsukaze escaped while Helena was distracted by an attack by Asagumo, Murasame, and Samidare. This brutal fighting took about forty minutes, after which the Japanese could have proceeded on their way.  But the confusion and injuries took the fight out of Abe, who could not have known that the Americans had only one light cruiser and one destroyer left against one battleship, a light cruiser and eight functional destroyers.   Once again, not knowing how well they did and the enemy failing to act as they were supposed to, Abe and his fleet withdrew.  Unable to improvise despite superior training and experience (not to mention Type 93 torpedoes), the samurai pulled out once again to find out how the plan failed.  The American lodgement on Guadalcanal was reprieved.

…this phase of the fighting for the eastern Solomons was a strategic victory for the Americans, but a strategic catastrophe for the Japanese.

This spate of fighting went on for another three days and nights.  After daybreak on 13 November, Hiei was taken under tow by Kirishima, but Hiei sank north of Savo Island that night.  Yuudachi was dispatched by the crippled Portland.  The rest of the damaged survivors managed to get away. Over the next three days and nights the Japanese managed to bombard the beaches with a large cruiser force and fight their way into the transport area again, but ultimately the Japanese lost two battleships, a heavy cruiser, three destroyers and eleven transports to two American light cruisers and seven destroyers in five days. In real terms, this phase of the fighting for the eastern Solomons was a strategic victory for the Americans, but a strategic catastrophe for the Japanese. The Americans could repair their ships and replace their losses in a matter of months: the Japanese could never replace theirs, and repairs took resources that Japan simply didn’t have to spare.  While superior Japanese tactics, training and torpedoes won many battles, attrition, American numbers and innovation would eventually make the Japanese advantages of 1942 less important.

The World Kindness Movement called 13 November World Kindness Day in 1998. It’s officially observed in Canada, Japan, Australia , Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Italy, India and the UK. Schools all across the Western Hemisphere mark the day with readings and random acts of kindness.  Many writers, humanists and others have written and spoken much about kindness in general, but Kurt Vonnegut, in his otherwise dismissable God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, quoted the title character as saying:

“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”  

This, for my money, is the definitive declaration by someone in a position to know something about cruelty: be kind, now.  Vonnegut’s first literary success was Slaughterhouse Five, a semi-autobiographical science fiction novel about WWII, time travel, and the nature of a reality that I believe Vonnegut wanted desperately to both alter forever and leave. He lived through the destruction of Dresden in WWII, and in one interview complained that he could still smell the burned bodies. As Vonnegut was digging bodies out of the wreckage of Dresden, an anonymous US Navy corpsman was preparing himself for the fighting on Okinawa, where he would be caught by Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith rescuing a newborn from an abattoir, the lead photo for this essay. Kindness amid the horror.

Hopefully, by now, most of you will have at least visited JDBCOM.COM, and by now most of you have signed up for alerts for the updates, bought all the books advertises thereon, and have studiously studied every word I’ve written.  If not…what are you waiting for?

 

 

 

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Shenandoah Surrenders and National Saxophone Day

Remember, remember the Sixth of November…no, that rhyme is the fifth of November…Guy Fawkes Day was yesterday…sorry.

But the first week in November is when US elections are held every two years (four years for the chief executive).  Lincoln was elected the first time on 6 November in 1860; Jefferson Davis was also elected, ironically, a year later in 1861. The Japanese Emperor Tsuchimikado died in exile in Japan in 1231, the second emperor to abdicate in a row (it was a troubled time in Japan). Gustavus Adolphus was killed at Lutzen on this day in 1632, even as his Swedes won their last battle in the first phase of the Thirty Years’ War.  William McKinley won reelection as president in 1900; the Bolshevik phase of the Russian Revolution started in Petrograd in 1917; in 1950, the Chinese First Phase Offensive stopped at the Chongchon River in Korea; and in a final irony, on 6 November 1992, Boris Yeltsin outlawed the Communist Party in Russia.  But today, we’re going to talk about the last combat unit to surrender in the American Civil War, and about saxophones.

She should have had 109 officers and men, but left the Azores with barely half that.

Sea King was a British 1,018 ton iron-framed, teak-planked, full-rigged merchant sailing ship with auxiliary steam power launched in August 1863. After a year plying the Glasgow to Auckland route, she was sold to the Confederate States Navy in October 1864, renamed Shenandoah en route to Madeira, and was commissioned a 1,160 ton cruiser of eight guns on 19 October 1864 under the command of James Waddell, who had never had an independent command before.  She should have had 109 officers and men, but left the Azores with barely half that.

…at least three of the whalers that Waddell would destroy had been out since before Gettysburg, and were not going to be ready to return until after Appomattox: their economic value in war terms was zero.

Shenandoah’s mission was to attack Union shipping in waters that had yet to have been exploited, which to Waddell meant the Pacific.  On the way to the other side of the world, she took six ships in the Atlantic, burning six and bonding the last into Bahia with captives.  Well aware of the Confederacy’s diminishing fortunes, Waddell’s mission reflected Confederate strategy in 1864: to make the Union believe that continuing the war would not be worth the cost. But even if he were following that policy, he also had to be aware that it was not working, making his wanton destruction of the New England whaling fleet militarily pointless.  More than that, since the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, it was also economically useless: the whalers wouldn’t have made much more for New England after their current voyage.  At least three of the whalers that Waddell would destroy had been out since before Gettysburg, and were not going to be ready to return until after Appomattox: their economic value in war terms was zero.  Finally, after Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, Confederate leaders began to wonder if the war could be won on their terms: they had put much store in the potential of negotiating a European (territory-neutral) peace with McClellan.

Shenandoah took sixteen whalers before June, when Waddell learned that Lee had surrendered in April.

In January 1865 Shenandoah reached Melbourne in Australia in January 1865, where she had her bottom scraped, her larder filled with provisions, and signed on forty more men, while nineteen deserted. Proceeding north, Shenandoah took sixteen whalers before June, when Waddell learned that Lee had surrendered in April.  Undeterred, Shenandoah kept burning whalers until August, when a British ship showed Waddell newspapers announcing that both Joe Johnston and Edmund Smith had surrendered, and that Davis and his whole cabinet had been captured.

From the western coast of Mexico ten thousand miles to the river Mersey, Waddell and Shenandoah flew no flags, all the while being pursued by Union warships.

Waddell had something of a problem, in that much of his crew wasn’t even American-born.  After the death of Lincoln, he felt that any court in the United States would hang him and his men as pirates; his calculations about the minimal military value of his cruise was also probably on his mind.  Consequently, he decided to transform his vessel into an innocuous merchantman, store his guns belowdecks, and surrender to a third party. From the western coast of Mexico ten thousand miles to the river Mersey, Waddell and Shenandoah flew no flags, all the while being pursued by Union warships.  On 6 November 1865, Waddell surrendered his command to a British warship. Somewhat to Waddell’s surprise, he, his officers and crew were unconditionally paroled.  Shenandoah was eventually sold to the Sultan of Zanzibar, and she was wrecked in a storm in April 1872.

A decade later Sax patented what he is now best known for: the saxophone.

Today, 6 November, we also celebrate the birth of Adolphe Sax in Belgium in 1814 to a family of musical instrument makers. The younger Sax began experimenting with wind instrument designs at an early age, parenting a style of bass clarinet known as the saxhorn in 1836.  A decade later Sax patented what he is now best known for: the saxophone. While this signature instrument was a tremendous success it was also, like most instruments, a derivative of others. Sax spent the rest of his life defending his patents, and was eventually driven into penury, dying penniless in Paris in 1894.  On 6 November we honor Sax and his signature instruments, perhaps with a little Steely Dan:

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues–Walter Becker, Donald Fagen  

 

 

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Leyte Gulf and National Mole Day

OK, here we go with another 23 October.  Famous in song and story…well, sort of.  You see, it was on 23 October in the year 4004 BC that the universe as we know it was created, according to the 17th century Ussher Chronology.  But after that momentous event, the battle of Philippi on the Ionian Peninsula, killing off the old Roman republic, making Octavian the first Roman Emperor and driving the suicide of Brutus. 23 October 425 AD saw the Byzantine Emperor Valentinian III seated: he was six years old.  In 1642, the first battle of the (last) English Civil War was fought at Edgehill. In 1749 the War of Jenkin’s Ear began (a real thing: England declared war on Spain because some diplomat’s ear got lopped off in a sea battle).  The first plastic surgery was performed in England on this day in 1814: a nose reconstruction. On 23 October 1942 the British El Alamein offensive began in Egypt just as the Germans were capturing the Red October Tractor Works in Stalingrad, and just as the first US Navy convoy for the Torch invasion of North Africa was departing Norfolk, Virginia. Also, in 1983 a truck bomb destroyed the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 307 people (241 Americans) and wounding another 75. And in 2003, Madame Chiang Kai-shek died on 23 October at the age of 103.   Today is also Ipod Day (first hit the shelves on 23 October in 2001), National Boston Cream Pie Day (no idea), and National TV Talk Show Day (really?) which was designated because it’s also Johnny Carson’s birthday in 1922.  But today, we talk about the naval war in the Pacific in WWII, and Avogadro’s number, whatever that is.

This was Sho-Go-1, another over-complicated Japanese plan to win all in a single swoop.  It would result in the Battles of Leyte Gulf, the largest single naval action the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see.  

By late 1944, there had been momentous changes in the fortunes of the Navy of the Greater Japanese Empire (Dai-Nippon Teikoku Kaigun) since the heady days of 1941 and early 1942.  Most Japanese aircraft carriers had been sunk, their precious aircrews and irreplaceable maintainers drowning with them; the surface fleet was outnumbered, outclassed and outranged, their Type 93 torpedoes unable to compensate for American radar and numbers; the land-based, long-range air fleets had been decimated and worn out.  As the Americans stormed ashore on Leyte on 20 October, the Japanese were preparing what they felt was the supreme trap: luring the American covering forces away from the beaches, enabling the surface forces to destroy the American transports and driving them away.  This was Sho-Go-1, another over-complicated Japanese plan to win all in a single swoop.  It would result in the Battles of Leyte Gulf, the largest single naval action the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see.  I say Battles because there were really six: Palawan Passage (off the left lower corner of area 1 on the map below), Sibuyan Sea (area 1), San Bernardino Strait (to the left of area 1 and below the lower left corner of area 3), Surigao Strait (area 2), Samar (area 4), and Cape Engano (area 3).

Battles of Leyte Gulf
By Map_of_Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf.jpg: United States Army derivative work: Gdr at en.wikipedia – Map_of_Battle_of_Leyte_Gulf.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62371

And it all started on the night of 23 October 1944, when two American submarines spotted five Japanese battleships (including both Yamato and Musashi), ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fifteen destroyers sailing through the Palawan Passage (off the map, but to the left of area 1) from their fuel sources in the Dutch East Indies.  The two engaged the Japanese at daybreak, sinking two heavy cruisers and heavily damaging a third.  Though the fleet continued on, Musashi was sunk by carrier aircraft the next day, there was very little punch (or fuel) left in by the time they fought the Taffy escort group destroyers, escorts and jeep carriers off Samar on 25 October before turning back the way they came.

It was literally the death ride of the Japanese Navy.

As confused as it looks, (and it really is) many scholars have made excellent descriptions of this huge gunfight at sea that I won’t try to paraphrase.  By the end of it on 26 October the Japanese had lost over 12, 000 more men, four aircraft carriers with about 300 aircraft, pilots and maintainers, and 24 surface combat vessels.  It was literally the death ride of the Japanese Navy.  Though William Halsey, commanding the Third Fleet, has been criticized for being baited away from the support of Thomas Kincaid’s Seventh Fleet, one primary objective of the naval forces in the area was to destroy Japanese air capabilities, which he did.  Kurita Takeo, commanding the big battleship force called the Center Force, had also been roundly and soundly critiqued and criticized.  However, Kurita was not yet of the mindset that Japan was finished, and felt it necessary to preserve as much of his strength as he could.


One of the best things about doing a blog like this is I occasionally get to talk about subjects that I know absolutely nothing of, yet I get to find out as I do my research.  National Mole Day is celebrated by chemists, physicists and others of their ilk between 6:02 AM and 6:02 PM annually on 23 October, and it has nothing to do with the little insectivores that my dog wants to dig up all the time.  No, this is probably one of the most contrived “holidays” that anyone could have ever dreamed up.  You see:

  • 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd power (no, I couldn’t figure out how to create a superscript in here) is Avogadro’s number;
  • Amedeo Avogadro was an Italian scientist who came up with a law of science that says that equal volumes of gases under the same conditions will contain the same number of molecules, and the value therein derived is named after him;
  • Avogadro’s number roughly defines the number of particles in one mole (a derivative of molecule but molecules and atoms comprise moles) of substance;
  • The mole is one of the seven basic building blocks for the SI (“metric”) system of metrology.

National Mole Day was first proposed by a now-retired Wisconsin chemistry teacher in 1991.  It is a part of National Chemistry Week, which spans the Sunday through Saturday in which 23 October falls, meaning it’s happening right now this year (2017); hopefully you were prepared.  The American Chemical Society supports this effort in schools to encourage students interested in STEM subjects.  Fascinating, huh?


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As many of you know, and many don’t, the new JDBCOM.COM website is up and running, for everyone to be able, of course, read my fascinating bits of trivia and wisdom, and hopefully buy my books, which are being listed there as fast as I can make it possible.  I’m not ashamed to admit it: I’m a greedy capitalist who wants as much money as I can legally and ethically lay my hands on.  Tell all your friends; come back and buy gifts for everyone you know.  But, above all, stay tuned for more blogs to come.

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Ninety-Five Theses, The Last Judgement, The Spanish Flu, Reuben James, and Halloween

31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things.  So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.  And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese.  But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway.  But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else.  The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do.  A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences.  These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See,  were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death.  Great if one could afford it, but very few could.  This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them.  Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.

While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts.  Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.  Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission  from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable.  The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.

Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.

But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity   By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half.  Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions.  Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months.  The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922.  One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly.  Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.

Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.

And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean.  USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off.  The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law.  While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”

The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation  of US law.  

Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year).  While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections.  And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves.  At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.

Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.

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Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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Winchelsea, Hatteras Inlet and Copenhagen

Three naval battles share 29 August, roughly seven centuries apart.  However, they do have a common thread: The influence of maritime traffic and navies on national affairs.  Though the Hundred Year’s War, the American Civil War, and WWII in Europe are usually viewed as predominantly land wars, their naval aspects were crucial to the course of the land wars.

In the Edwardian phase  (1337-1360) of the Hundred Year’s War, piracy along the Breton coast was costing English merchants dearly.  Today we think of “piracy” as a private enterprise between civilians, but until the mid-19th century commerce raiding by ostensible civilians was often sanctioned if not actively supported by states and monarchs.  Castilian ships regularly captured English cargo ships and murdered their crews.  When a Castilian/Genoese fleet loaded with Flemish cargoes was headed to the Basque ports in August, 1350, Edward III and a fleet of English and Genoese ships struck the Castilians as they sailed south just off French coast, but the battle got its name from the old Kentish town of Winchelsea that the English fleet departed from.  While not much is known for certain about the battle itself except that the English ships were generally larger but were likely outnumbered. It was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships.  The English flagship was sunk, but Edward managed to escape to a captured Spanish ship.  By the end of the day the English had captured more Castilian vessels (14 according to most sources) than they lost (two for certain, but perhaps more).  Winchelsea, also known as Les Espagnols sur Mer (“the Spaniards on the Sea”) was followed a year later by a peace treaty with Castile, which set the conditions for a treaty with Portugal in 1353 and the isolation of France in the century-long conflict over who ruled what part of France.  The treaty with Portugal was the foundation of English diplomacy for centuries.

[Winchelsea] was all-day affair in an age when naval battles were essentially land battles fought on ships

At the beginning of the American Civil War a small group of naval officers met in Washington as what became known as the Blockade Board.  After a week of discussions, they laid a long-term plan for beginning the longest and largest blockade that had been conducted since the Declaration of Paris in 1856.  How they planned to do it with fewer than fifty warships in commission was anyone’s guess.  But, soon, it became clear that the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port to have a maximum effect, just those served by railroads.  This simple conclusion reduced the number of seceded state ports to be covered–immediately, anyway–from fifty to less than twenty.  The first target was not a port directly but a place where blockading ships could seek refuge and resupply: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The Outer Banks had also been harboring a number of Confederate raiders and privateers.  The battle of the Hatteras Inlet Batteries on 28-29 August 1861–also known as Forts Clark and Hatteras–pitted seven ships of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Silas Stringham that was carrying parts of volunteer regiments and a handful of Regulars under Benjamin Butler against less than a thousand Confederates under WIlliam Martin and Samuel Barron manning two incomplete earthwork forts.  Landing the troops under bombardment on 28 August, there was little initial progress in part owing to bad weather which kept the largest Union ships far out to sea.  On 29 August the seas moderated and the big guns started blasting the beleaguered Confederates who, as so often was the case in the 1861-65 conflict, stood no chance of being reinforced.  At about 11 AM Barron surrendered, and just short of 700 men went into captivity.  The victory buoyed Union morale shortly after the disaster at Bull Run just a month before, and ended a threat to Union shipping that had already begun to be felt.

…the Union wouldn’t have to blockade every port, just those served by railroads.  This reduced the number of ports to be covered from fifty to less than twenty.

After April 1940, when Denmark was overrun in a nearly bloodless campaign by Germany, Denmark lived a primarily twilight existence as a “protectorate,” where most Danish institutions continued unchanged (including the monarchy). Danes even joined in the war against the Soviet Union. Most of the Danish Navy was in Copenhagen, though some units had been caught in Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands when the country surrendered, and had been working with the Allies. More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.  But, by 1943, Danish semi-neutrality was wearing thin. Niels Bohr had scattered Denmark’s best scientists all over the world before the invasion, and was profoundly uninterested in helping Germany’s nuclear ambitions.  Allied saboteurs and agents found easy egress into Europe through Denmark’s porous border with Sweden. King Christian was accused of disrespecting Hitler because of his brief response to one of Hitler’s overlong personal communications. Refusal to institute capital punishment for sabotage, failure to turn over Danish Jews, and a host of other perceived slights and offenses, aggravated by  the imminent fall of the Italian government and the Allied success in Sicily, moved the Germans to close down the Danish government and seize the ships in the Copenhagen dockyards in late August. On 29 August, 1943, scuttling charges destroyed thirty-two of them, leaving just fourteen small  vessels to the Germans.  Germany’s navy was small to begin with, and built on commerce raiding.  Denmark’s even smaller fleet included nine submarines, but even more minecraft–important commodities when the Germans and Russian between them had sewn more than a million sea mines in the eastern Baltic by then.

More Danes were killed in merchant marine service and in the Danish “Free Corps” fighting in Russia than as a result of the invasion and the occupation.

The English naval response to the Castilian nautical depredations could have been said to set the pace for the rest of the first half of the Hundred Year’s War, if there was a pace to that disjointed conflict. While the blockade that the Union Navy envisioned would take nearly two years to be emplaced, it would still be somewhat porous even to the end.  Still, no blockade could or should ever be perfect.  Winchelsea and Cape Hatteras had a great deal to do with trade, while the mass suicide of the Danish Navy, like that of the German High Seas Fleet in 1919, was at least in part to do with spite.  Sometimes, that is all that’s needed.  In capital-intensive naval warfare, where a single fleet unit can cost as much  to build, supply and operate for a month as a thousand land soldiers might cost in a year, the cost and pace of naval activity can rarely be judged by three actions.  But by destroying a Castilian fleet, grabbing a blockade base, and denying an important small-ship asset to a resource-starved enemy, England, the Union, and Denmark demonstrated, even if in a small way, how important navies can be to larger conflicts.

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Compare and Contrast: Java Sea and Bismarck Sea…and Kendo

Taking place only a year apart, the battles off Java between 27 February and 1 March, 1942, and the air attacks on a Japanese task force in the Bismarck Sea between 2 and 4 March, 1943, could not have been more different in outcome or in net result.  Together, they also serve to show how Japan intended their Pacific War to be conducted: more like a kendo match than a struggle for survival.

The battles around Java took place only weeks after Japan started her Pacific/Dutch East Indies offensive in December 1941.  On 27 February, a Japanese escort of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fourteen destroyers under Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi, met a scratch force of two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, commanding the naval contingent of the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command that was trying to attack a Japanese amphibious tack force approaching Java in the Java Sea.

The outcome was never really in doubt.  The Allied ships had never fought or maneuvered together; the largest group of them with any coherence was the four ships of the US Navy’s Destroyer Division 58.  The Japanese had trained together for a year, and had already fought two successful actions as a unit.  In a running battle over some seven hours on 27 February half the Allied fleet was sunk and Doorman killed to no Japanese losses.  Next day two of the Allied survivors were sunk at the Sunda Straights by another surface escort, this time two small Japanese ships were lost. At the Java Sea again on 28 February, three more survivors of the earlier battle were lost.  Ten ships and over two thousand men were lost to total Japanese personnel loss of probably less than a hundred.  The Dutch Asiatic fleet and the US Navy’s Asiatic Squadron were irreparably damaged.  The Netherlands never regained its prewar presence in Indonesia.

A year later the tables had turned.  After abandoning Guadalcanal and losing the Papua peninsula, the Japanese planned to reinforce their lodgement in New Guinea by sending a reinforcing brigade to Lae on eight troop transports and eight destroyers out of Rabaul.  The Australian/American Allies intercepted their messages and determined to stop them.

The Japanese convoy’s route was out of American aircraft carrier range, but well within range of medium bombers.  Commanded by Rear Admiral Masatomi Kimura, the convoy was to leave Simpson Harbor on 28 February skirt the northern coast of New Britain and round the island on the eastern end, running in to Lae by 4 March before the Americans knew they were there.  Even so, the Imperial High Command only believed the odds of success were about 50-50.

The Allies knew where the Japanese were most of the time due to their network of aerial observation, radio intercepts, coast watchers and submarine patrols.  By 4 March only 1,200 of the 6,700 soldiers that left Rabaul had arrived at Lae, and the rest were either killed in the five destroyers and eight transports sunk by American and Australian aircraft, or had gone back to Rabaul in the one destroyer that turned back.  The Allies lost less than twenty men.  In two days of free-for-all attacks on the convoy. Australian Beaufighters had strafed with 20 mm cannon, PBYs had dropped bombs, and medium bombers had strafed and skip-bombed their way into the history books as the second sea fight fought primarily by land-based land force aircraft (the first was when the Japanese sank HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales 8 December 1941).  The Japanese, as a result, elected not to reinforce New Guinea through Lae again.

Looking at these two actions, one is struck not only by the reversal of Japan’s fortunes in the Pacific War, but by the reasons for it.  Neither action depended on or were affected by the fast Japanese carrier forces–the Kido Butai— that had been devastated at Coral Sea and Midway.  So, was the Bismarck Sea fight affected by the loss of the Japanese carriers just three months after their decisive win around Java?  On the outside, no.  But Japan’s attitudes towards the war were.  At Midway, the Japanese task force turned around and went home after the fourth carrier was sunk.  Why?  They had nothing to do with the landings, and by some analyses the landing itself was bait for the American carriers.

The answer lies partly in the expectations of the samurai leadership or their Pacific War, and in the sport of wooden swords called kendo.  Japan earnestly believed that the Western powers, once they had felt the devastating power of  Japan’s navy and army, would shrink from any further violence and seek peace.  This, they believed, would take no more than a few months.  When the Allies kept fighting, even after the fall of Java and the bombing of Australia, Japan pushed harder, planning “final blows” in the Solomons, Alaska and the very end of the Hawaiian archipelago at Midway.  When the Americans had the temerity to attack Japan itself with the Doolittle stunt, these plans became reality.

Then came the Coral Sea, and then Midway.  To the samurai mind, their plans failed not because the Americans fought well, but because someone had failed their plans.  Their opponent would not recognize the superior skill of Japan’s sword masters and bow to their inevitable defeat.  The gods judging this global kendo match were not calling their death blows correctly.  Thus, strategically, the samurai leadership of Japan became confused and went into a defensive stance until their opponents grew weary.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan At War, 1941-45 examines the Japanese war in the Pacific, and how the swaggering swordsmen of Japan decided to take on the whole world.  Available in hardbound, paper and PDF.

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Housatonic the Unlucky

By all accounts USS Housatonic was a fine, bluff vessel, a screw sloop of 1,200 tons and a conventional broadside weight of metal somewhere in the range of a thousand pounds.  By the standards of the mid-1860s she was a sturdy blockader that had captured two valuable prizes in three months soon after she took station off Charleston.  She had bombarded Fort Wagner (of Glory fame), and had landed more than one raiding and scouting party around the Charleston defenses.

But on the night of 17 February 1864, she had the ill luck of encountering an enemy that she could not overcome.  H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submersible, rammed her spar torpedo into Housatonic just after 9 PM, blowing a hole in the sloop big enough to drive a pony and trap through.  The issue wasn’t in doubt, but Housatonic only lost five men.

Hunley went on to fame and glory in the popular press mostly because she was the first submersible vessel to have sunk an operational warship, not because she was a successful vessel.  She was lost with all hands–after killing two other crews including her inventor, perhaps that was for the best.  Hunley was discovered and raised in 2000; her victim’s location was well marked in charts (albeit as a hazard to navigation) until the early 20th century, and only her anchor remains.

So a hundred and fifty one years on, what’s to be said about the emergence of undersea warfare?  The introduction of the submarine to commerce warfare would change the nature of naval war itself.  The submarine was at first forced to observe conventional and unwritten “cruiser rules” that required they stop and search their intended prey, giving their passengers and crew an opportunity to take to their boats.  But in the press of war that honorable option soon gave way, as honor often does, to expediency.  Targets didn’t stop; weather was hazardous for small submarines to try to come alongside; Q-ships became a menace.  By 1915 cruiser rules were abandoned, and by 1917 unrestricted submarine warfare, where submarines were shooting anything not bearing an Imperial German flag within an exclusion zone around the British Isles, was a horrible reality.  That, eventually, would lead to even worse luck for Germany, and also to Japan a generation later.  Today, cruiser rules are usually regarded as merely quaint.

So Housatonic and her five crewmen , blockading Charleston Harbor on a cold night in 1864, were the first of many hundreds of ships and many thousands of people who would be unlucky enough to be killed on cold and dark nights by unseen attackers.

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Ft Donelson on Lincoln’s Birthday

After a forced march of some five days, some 25,000 men under US Grant started his assault on Ft Donelson on 12 February 1862.  The weather on 6 February when they left Ft Henry on the Tennessee River was balmy, but by the time they were halfway to the Confederate fort on the Cumberland it turned cold and wet.  The Federals, few of whom had ever heard a shot in anger nor gone more than a day’s walk from where they were born, suffered in the cold in part because they had discarded their heavy winter coats and blankets along the way.

The Confederates, less than a week after the loss of Ft Henry, scrambled to protect the last bastion protecting Nashville, just three days’ march south.  Nearly all the Confederate uniform manufacturing west of Virginia, and half the ammunition manufacturing, was in Nashville.  That and some 16,000 Confederate troops (probably more) at Ft Donelson, as well as 48 irreplaceable artillery pieces were in peril from the larger Federal force.  Albert S. Johnson, the Confederate commander of District Number 2 that encompassed everything Confederate between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, knew that holding Ft Donelson was key to holding middle Tennessee and the gateway to the Southern interior, but had nearly nothing to send to John B Floyd, the garrison’s commander.

As Grant began his siege (Impractical, since his batteries only had the ammunition in their batteries, as his staff had neglected to send any more), he realized that if Ft Donelson held out more than a few days, he would have to withdraw or wait for reinforcements.  Henry W. Halleck, Grant’s boss, had already said that Grant had to win to get stronger.  Excuses were not to be tolerated, for Grant’s reputation in the Army was not one of a stellar officer, but tainted by allegations of drink.  To go any further at all just to provide for his family, Grant had to take Ft Donelson.  To hold the western theater at all, Pillow had to hold it.

If Grant informed Halleck that he had reached Ft Donelson it would have been by horseback messenger to Ft Henry (or by steamboat to either Paducah or Galena), then by relays of telegraph stations to Halleck at St Louis.  If Lincoln had heard about Ft Donelson before it was captured, it would have been at least a day after his 53rd birthday.  Still, when he and the rest of the country heard about the fall of the fort, he regarded it as a wonderful gift.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War is the story of the middle Tennessee campaign in the spring of 1862, of which Forts Henry and Donelson were just the opening act.  Available in paperback and PDF at fine booksellers everywhere.

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HMS Dreadnought Changes Everything ca 1906

On 10 February 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched amid great fanfare…and consternation.  What’s another coal-fired battleship when the Royal Navy already had scores of them afloat?

To begin, Dreadnought, the brainchild of John “Jackie” Fisher, was not just another battleship, but a revolutionary advance on naval architecture.  at somewhat under 19,000 tons, she was bigger than the Lord Nelson class that was under construction at the time, and had heavier longitudinal bulkheads.  But mere size and bulkheads were not enough.  She carried ten 12 inch/45 caliber guns in five turrets for main armament and over her short service life several quick-firing gun arrangements.  Other battleships before Dreadnought carried as many as five different sizes of “main” armament, making ammunition supply a nightmare and compromising the most important thing a battleship had to do: destroy other battleships.  Before Dreadnought, some commentators doubted that a typical battleship carried enough ammunition to sink their counterparts.  With four Parsons turbine engines (Dreadnought was the first battleship built with turbines), she was fast–at 24 knots, close to the speed of some destroyers. With Krupp cemented steel armor in an 11 inch armor belt, she was built in less than a year, albeit with a great deal of stockpiling and prefabrication.  Dreadnought represented everything that British naval supremacy and industrial might had meant since Trafalgar.

Navalists for years had talked about combining speed with gun power in a warship, but Fisher was the first to finish his.  Japan with the Satsuma class and the Americans with the South Carolina class would closely follow, but it was Germany that became most alarmed.  And therein lay the biggest challenge: Wilhelm II demanded that his Imperial German Navy be a challenge–if not a threat–to British naval supremacy, for reasons that are debated still.  But British policy at the same time demanded that the Royal Navy be as large or larger than the next two navies combined.  This meant that if Germany, Japan, and the United States (other powers had long before given up on the “battleship race”) built fleets of modern battleships in response to Dreadnought, regardless of diplomatic status, the Royal Navy had to build more.

And Dreadnought was only the first.  Every battleship completed afterwards–there would be more than a hundred–were called “dreadnoughts” or “super-dreadnoughts” after the introduction of oil furnaces, and every one before her launching “pre-dreadnoughts.”

Germany soon unveiled a plan to build a fleet of battleships and supporting vessels that in twenty years would exceed the dock space available in all of Europe.  The competition between Germany and Britain, and soon thereafter between the US and Japan, heated up before WWI to meet the demand for more and more ships, guns, engines, fuel sources and armor plate until the shots at Sarajevo in the spring of 1914 sparked the fire that would end–arguably–only in 1945.

So what happened to Dreadnought?  She was the only one of her class built, and throughout her career she was a maintenance challenge.  Apparently she leaked rather severely, and spent much of her career in the waters around Britain.  She was a notorious sucker of coal, needing her bunkers filled at least every four days even in good weather.  She was, however, the only battleship to sink a submarine when in May 1915, she rammed and sank the German U-29.  The only shots he ever fired in anger were at German aircraft headed for England.  She was broken up in 1923.

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Beginnings: Crop Duster a Winner; Japan Attacks Russia and Britain; Bloody Mary is Beheaded; Elizabeth II Becomes Queen

As the badge on today’s post says, Crop Duster: A Novel of WII is an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Writers Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards for Mainstream Fiction.  This is a long-winded way of saying that Crop Duster is regarded at one of the five best of over a hundred submitted books in this category.  It’s also a Notable Book in Shelf Unbound’s Self-Published E-Book Awards for 2014 for Page-Turners. Find out what the judges see is so great about Crop Duster today.  Available in paperback and E-book at fine booksellers everywhere.


On the night of 8 February 1904, Japan attacked the Russian naval base at Port Arthur with torpedoes from four destroyers.  A Russian protected cruiser (Pallada) keeled over and sank, and two battleships (Retvizan and Tsarevich ) were damaged.  An indecisive daylight action the next morning damaged vessels on both sides, but the Japanese had the advantage of being able to sail out of range of the Russian shore batteries, while the Russians were trapped in port by the strong Japanese fleet.

As the opening battle of what would come to be called the Russo-Japanese War, Port Arthur was a template for Japanese conflict initiation for the next fifty years: strong attacks with little warning followed by relentless pressing of the advantages of surprise.  While the Japanese attacks in 1904, 1914, 1932, 1937 and 1941 were expected in a general sense, their location often was not.  The 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore after two months of attacks all around the Pacific Rim was forewarned, but the British had never expected an attack from landward along the Malay Peninsula.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look At Japan at War, 1941-1945 probes the Japanese mindset reaching back to before the Tokugawas. Available in hardback, paperback and PDF.


Two distantly related events, ironically, are marked in early February.  Mary,Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587, an unfortunate victim of a dynastic feud begun in prehistory, for all intents and purposes.  The Stuart throne of Scotland dated from the 14th century (or 12th, for purists) in a country that had the poor luck of being weaker than most of her neighbors but stronger than her closest kin.  Britain had the sense to try to “civilize” the traditionally tribal Scots off and on for centuries, while Scotland allied with France and was used as a cudgel against Ireland in between periods of independence.  Mary’s poor timing that she would reign while Elizabeth I sat in Windsor, but was lucky enough that Elizabeth would be childless, so that her son would inherit the throne of England.

Nearly four centuries later, Elizabeth II,oldest daughter of George VI would be proclaimed queen on 6 February 1952.  She would be the first British monarch for over a century who was not also empress of India. She is at this writing the longest reigning British monarch in history.


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“…Und Vin ze Var!” and Other Myths of War

On 3 February 1917, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in the wake of Germany’s announcement that she would commence unrestricted submarine warfare again.  The notion that Germany would be able to “win” the war against Britain by doing this was popular at the time, but unfounded.  It’s not clear exactly what the Germans expected, but “winning” the European war by then was simply a matter of outliving rivals.  France, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia and the Balkan states were completely spent: Britain was conscripting men for the first time in her history; Germany was starving through her first “turnip winter.”  Of all the world powers, only the United States was relatively undamaged by the war, then entering its third year.

Germany certainly hoped for victory, but in this more innocent time “victory” didn’t mean conquering one’s enemies and destroying their capacity and their will for war as it would in 1945.  What it meant was another negotiated settlement between leaders in morning coats and top hats; a dignified congress of gentlemen discussing matters before retiring and dressing for dinner.  There were to be no unseemly marches of mere soldiers past hastily built reviewing stands as the Americans had in 1865, and no shocking assassinations of emperors as the Mexicans had in 1866 to their Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I that France had so generously placed on the throne.

But on 3 February 1945, Operation Thunderclap would augur just such portents in Germany.  A thousand US bombers hit Berlin over the course of about three hours, plagued by German fighters and pummeled by flak.  While Germany was dying and everyone seemed to know it but Hitler, she was still vary dangerous.

Thunderclap wasn’t the first thousand plane raid.  That distinction belongs to Operation Millennium in 1942, when the RAF hit Cologne in the heart of the Ruhr with not quite a thousand bombers (though they did send over a thousand, not quite a thousand reached the target).  The point of these large raids, as the fictional Otto Thielmann would discover in Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII as he watched Cologne go up in flames, was that it took very large volumes of unguided iron bombs to do what the prewar bomber advocates had insisted would take very little.  Technology of the time didn’t allow the kind of theoretical precision that men like Harris and Eaker had promised.  But, Cologne also showed that large groups of aircraft could overwhelm Germany’s defenses.  Such strikes couldn’t win, but they could enable victory.

Finally, in the height of irony, on 3 February 1924 Woodrow Wilson finally succumbed to the series of strokes that had weakened him for somewhat over a decade.  The conflict for which he would be forever identified was long over, though the aftermath and rebound had only begun, but Wilson died after lingering for nearly a year as a complete invalid, and nearly five years as a somewhat feeble old man.  While his wartime decision-making will be forever tainted by politics, his record as a reformer and wartime president must also be weighed and colored by his chronic illnesses.