USS Cairo, USS Panay, SS Normandie, Hovercraft and Keeping Friends after the Election

So today we’re at sea…or at least on the water.  Yes, we know all about Washington DC being established as the US capitol  on 12 December 1800, and the donation of so much swampland in Manhattan for the UN in 1946, even the birth of Stand Watie in 1806 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1991.  Today, we’re afloat.

In June, at Memphis,  Cairo was a part of the largest naval battle fought on the Mississippi.

The lead vessel in the City class ironclad gunboats built on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the Civil War, USS Cairo was built by the Eads firm in Mound City, Illinois. Cairo displaced about 512 tons and was armed with 3 8-inch Dahlgren guns throughout her service, with a number of different rifled smoothbore guns (13 when she was commissioned in January 1862; 12 in November).  Cairo participated in the occupation of Clarksville, Tennessee on the Tennessee river in February 1962, in the occupation of Nashville later in the month, and was on the Mississippi by April, escorting mortar rafts at Fort Pillow. In June, at Memphis,  Cairo was a part of the largest naval battle fought on the Mississippi. In November, Cairo became a part of the Yazoo Pass expedition, an ill-fated attempt to outflank Vicksburg.  On 12 December, 1862, Cairo was sunk by a command-detonated mine, the first warship to ever be sunk by such a device.  Rediscovered in 1956, Cairo was raised in 1965 and is on display at Vicksburg.

In 1937, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Panay was increasingly called on to evacuate Americans in the path of the oncoming Japanese.

Built on the other side of the world for the US Navy, USS Panay (PR-5) was built at the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works, Shanghai for Yangtze River service and launched in November 1927.  Panay (named for an island in the Philippines) was armed with a single 3-in main gun and a number of small arms: her only mission was the protection of American citizens, missions and property along the river against the lawless elements that roamed China during her civil war. In 1937, after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Panay was increasingly called on to evacuate Americans in the path of the oncoming Japanese. On 12 December 1937, Panay and a number of other non-Chinese vessels carrying evacuees were attacked by Japanese aircraft above Nanking. Unknown to the Japanese at the time, a number of newsreel photographers on Panay shot the entire incident, right up until the little gunboat sank. The “Panay Incident” became an international sensation, and an embarrassment to the Japanese. Though reparations were paid in the amount of $2.2 million, relations between the US and Japan deteriorated.

A very fast ship that could cross the Atlantic in less than four days carrying more than 1,400 passengers, neither the French nor anyone else wanted Normandie to fall into German hands: the threat of surface raiders alone was compelling enough.

Before 1941, many of the largest European ocean liners had docked in neutral countries.  SS Normandie, an 86,000 ton French liner belonging to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique out of Le Havre, had been interned in New York on 3 September 1939. A very fast ship that could cross the Atlantic in less than four days carrying more than 1,400 passengers, neither the French nor anyone else wanted Normandie to fall into German hands: the threat of surface raiders alone was compelling enough.  Though her crew stayed aboard and her captain still commanded, she was going nowhere.  On 12 December 1941, five days after Pearl Harbor, the US Navy seized Normandie.  Conversion into a troopship named USS Lafayette commenced almost immediately, but a fire gutted and capsized her at the dockyard.  She was raised and scrapped in 1946.

Though they are considered aircraft by some, the first successful hovercraft (able to travel on water or land) prototype was demonstrated on 12 December 1955 by Christopher Cockerell.

The use of air cushions to make vehicles “float” had its origins in the 1870s, but powerplants were lacking for construction. An “air cushion boat” was built and demonstrated in Austria during WWI, but it died of lack of interest. Though they are considered aircraft by some, the first successful hovercraft (able to travel on water or land) prototype was demonstrated on 12 December 1955 by Christopher Cockerell. At the time the entire concept of a vehicle that traveled on a cushion of air was deemed classified in Britain, so funding had to come from either the Ministry of Defense or nowhere else. But the RAF called it a boat, and the RN called it an airplane, and the British Army simply wasn’t interested.  The idea languished for a short time until MoD realized that if no one in the defense establishment was interested, then it could hardly be a secret.

…there is still reason to find common ground in mutual disgust of the bobbleheads that the political establishment–even those beyond the usual Ds and Rs–seem to be putting up for the sake of friendship.

I have had exchanges with some of my oldest friends (some going back to the days of Nixon) over the consequences of the November election. Though I realize that our politics don’t always align, that doesn’t mean that we can’t find common ground somewhere, at least in shared experience over a lifetime. In all these cases when my interlocutor expresses anguish or anger over the defeat of Clinton,  I found myself condemning all the candidates at being unworthy of our votes as a means of keeping peace: the exercise of a franchise that the world envies, and all too many people either ignore or find to be too tedious to be used.  Putting a pox on all their houses in this way has been surprisingly effective.  None of my more left-leaning friends or even relatives have found any reason to defend either the Greens or the Democrats, other than that, well, they didn’t have Trump on the ticket.  Similarly, no one has any great love for the Republicans, or have considered the Libertarians anything more than a distraction. As much as I believe the American electoral system has been corrupted by both money, favoritism and blatant media biases among other abuses, there is still reason to find common ground in mutual disgust of the bobbleheads that the political establishment–even those beyond the usual Ds and Rs–seem to be putting up for the sake of friendship. Then again, the minute media scrutiny that anyone in the spotlight is subject to is not for everyone.  I do wish that the major media would pay more attention to policy statements than to sound bites; past sins of word, thought and deed; recent gaffes and irrelevant current peccadilloes. Maybe someone, somewhere in some position of influence has never had a speeding ticket, never said anything that would potentially offend a future audience, or changed their minds on any issue, ever. Maybe, but not likely.

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Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

Eugene Ely, Coventry, Possum Hansell and the Consequences of Elections

Today, we celebrate, or at least acknowledge, obscurity, horror, firsts, and aviation…in our own way, of course.  As a natural consequence of today’s missive, your intrepid researcher/correspondent will endeavor as is his wont to bring you, his regular readers, entertainment, history, facts, (limited) opinions, and at least some sober analysis of events that took place on 14 November.  Among many other things, Robert Fulton was born on this day in 1765, James B. McPherson of Civil War fame was born in 1827, King Gillette patented his safety razor in 1904, and the Somme offensive ended in 1916.  But today, we talk about flying…and not.

Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.  

Aviation was an amateur endeavor in the heady days before WWI turned it into a deadly enterprise.  It was dangerous before airplanes started carrying weapons, but usually only to the intrepid adventurers flying the fragile kites.  Since Bishop Wright’s boys flew in the Kill Devil Hills in December 1903, the US Navy had been interested in aviation for scouting around the fleet.  Naval gunnery was not yet capable of firing over the horizon, but it wasn’t that far off. In 1910, Eugene Ely, a former auto salesman who taught himself to fly well enough to get a job with Glenn Curtis met Washington Chambers, who had been appointed by the US Navy to investigate the possibilities of heavier-than-air flying machines for scouting.  Since radios of the time weighted as much as the airplanes did, the machines would have to launch and land on or near a ship to have any use to battle fleets at sea. On 14 November, 1910, Ely took off from an 83-foot wooden platform built on the deck of light cruiser USS Birmingham anchored in Chesapeake Bay while in a Curtis pusher, the first time a heavier-than-air machine had launched (if barely) from a ship. Ely died in a crash less than a year later.

By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged.

Early in WWII Hitler placed prohibitions on attacking populated areas.  Gradually those prohibitions fell away until they were a dim, if quaint, memory. In the industrialization of the West Midlands of Great Britain ancient cities like the ancient cathedral city of Coventry, with its dense population and proximity to coal, became prime targets for German bombers.  Along with the 14th century cathedral was the Coventry Ordnance Works which made gun mountings for the Royal Navy, and other plants that together supplied a quarter of the RAF’s aircraft. On the night of 14 November 1940, some five hundred German bombers from Luftflotte 3 and the pathfinders of  Kampfgruppe 100 bombed Coventry in an operation called Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata). By the time the all clear sounded at 6:15 on 15 November, about 4,300 homes were destroyed, and two-thirds of the buildings in the city were damaged. Over a thousand people were killed and injured during the attack, and only one German bomber was shot down. It was the first use of pathfinder aircraft equipped with beam-riding navigation equipment and bombing patterns intended to mark targets, and one of the first to use a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs to intentionally start large fires.

Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.

Studying Coventry and the other large air strikes in Europe and Asia before America’s entry in WWII was Heywood S. “Possum” Hansell, an American Army Air Corps officer, a man with a long pedigree of service. Hansell was a member of the “Bomber Mafia,” a small group of vocal advocates of daylight precision air bombardment that included Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Ira Eaker and Jimmy Doolittle. Hansell was the chief of the Foreign Intelligence Section in the Office of the Chief of the Air Corps, and responsible for writing two papers known as AWP-1 and AWP-42, outlining the Army Air Force’s plans for strategic air warfare against both Germany and Japan. As a reward for his work, Hansell was given the command of the 1st Bomb Wing, the B-17 component of the Eighth Air Force in England. Those first six months was crucial for the future of strategic bombing, and for the notions of an independent air force.  Hansell was also the architect of the Combined Bomber Offensive with the RAF.  Soon, hansell found himself shifted out of Europe and the Flying Fortresses to Asia and the Superfortresses, the B-29s. But Possum was a better staff man than he was a commander, and the multitude of serious command-level problems on Saipan, with the B-29, and with the completely new command arrangements (Twentieth Air Force was commanded from Washington).  As a result, Hansell was replaced by fellow Mafia member Curtis LeMay.  After the war Hansell held a number of minor, if important posts in training and administration, retiring from the Air Force for the last time in 1955.  Possum Hansell, the architect of the bombing campaigns in Europe and Asia, died in Hilton Head, South Carolina on 14 November, 1988.

History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.

And so.  As Barack Obama told the assembled Republicans on 10 October 2010, “elections have consequences.” Last week, your intrepid researcher briefly discussed the then-upcoming election, where the United States was choosing between the first woman presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, from a major party and the first non-politician, non-military candidate, Donald Trump, from another.  History was going to be made either way, but the outcome was, it was thought, in the bag for one side.  Except…it didn’t roll that way.  Much to nearly everyone’s surprise,  the political neophyte Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and rather resoundingly.  One of the (many) consequences of  this election is the almost-certain end of the Clinton family’s quarter-century of influence on national politics. Another will be that Trump, having very few political debt to pay, will be free to choose people who will do their jobs, not kowtow to others just to curry favor.  Once again, we shall see.

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.

“Diving Boats”, Foote, Laconia and “What We Knew”

On 12 September 2001, it seems, we “knew” a lot more than we did just a few days before.  One of these was the extreme depths of courage, and of fear.  But even before we “knew” all of that, there were important events in the Thames, Connecticut and the South Atlantic.

Of many submarine boat experiments in history, the first multi-source documented public exposition of a submersible craft was in the River Thames on 12 September 1620.  Cornelius Drebbel, described as a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England, had designed and constructed the vessel, the nature of which is unclear, but is depicted as having oars.  Regrettably, oars would ill suit a submersible, so we really don’t know what Drebbel’s invention looked like.  But, it is accepted as the first public exposition of a submarine craft.

Cornelius Drebbel, described as a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England, had designed and constructed the vessel, the nature of which is unclear…

On 12 September 1808, Andrew Hull Foote was born in New Haven, Connecticut.  Knowing nothing of submarines except rumors and legends, Foote began his career at West Point, resigning in 1822 when he was appointed a midshipman (officer cadet) in the US Navy (the Naval Academy was established in 1845).  Foote rose steadily in the ranks until the Civil War, when he was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron, when it was less a squadron than an idea for a squadron.  By 1863, after Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, and Island Number Ten on the Mississippi had all fallen under the guns of the gunboats he helped to organize, Foote was appointed the US Navy’s second Rear Admiral, and sent to command the Southern Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  En route, however, he suddenly and unexpectedly died in New York on 23 June 1863.

Foote rose steadily in the ranks until the Civil War, when he was appointed to command the Mississippi River Squadron when it was less a squadron than an idea for a squadron.

On 12 September 1942,  HMS Laconia, a 19,000 ton former Cunard liner that had been launched in 1922, taken into the Royal Navy and converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) in 1939, then converted to a troopship in 1941, was torpedoed in the South Atlantic by U-156.  These are the bare facts of the matter but, like many such incidents, they tend to get buried under details.  Realizing that of the two thousand plus passengers and crew of the fast liner, sailing alone, stood little chance of surviving in the open Atlantic north of Ascension Island, the commander and crew of U-156 surfaced.  While broadcasting his humanitarian intent, the U-boat skipper began to rescue the survivors, along with other U-boats that were sent to the area.  The British thought it was a ruse, and after four days, in company with at least three (Vichy) French ships, an American B-24 bomber attacked the German submarines, which were then compelled to dive and abandon the rescue effort.  About half the passengers and crew were eventually lost.  The incident spurred Karl Doenitz to issue the “Laconia Order,” which forbade German U-boats from offering any humanitarian assistance to their victims.  Before this, many U-boat captains, especially after surface attacks, provided food and water, medical aid and navigational assistance, but rarely afterwards.  U-156 was lost with all hands off Barbados on 8 March 1943 by an American PBY. At Nuremberg in 1946, the Laconia Order became part of Doenitz’ indictment,  but was later withdrawn.

While broadcasting his humanitarian intent, the U-boat skipper began to rescue the survivors, along with other U-boats that were sent to the area.

For many of us who remember that fateful Wednesday in 2001, when we woke to find that the body count in New York, Arlington and Shanksville was considerably less than had been originally feared, what we all “knew” on Tuesday night was a great deal less than we thought.  What we were becoming certain of was that some outfit called Al Qaida had sent people–mostly middle class young men who had never seen a refugee camp–to crash airplanes kamikaze-like into buildings.  What the fourth target was is, to this day, still uncertain, though most evidence points at the White House.  And that next morning many of us who were military members in the Guard and Reserve took off with bag and baggage, while others who had been military members were called to service again, and many more who were hoping to separate were told “not today.”  Though this correspondent had retired earlier that year, they just didn’t need a beat-up old infantryman/interrogator/ analyst badly enough to call him up.  But, they did call many of this correspondents squad mates, classmates and former associates, twenty of whom were either killed or injured badly enough to be out of the military for good.  But, that’s all in the service of the Republic, and that’s what matters, right?

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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.

20 November: Cambrai and Tarawa

As a matter of perspective, these two battles shouldn’t even be in the same century.  The British attack on the German positions in front of  Cambrai  in norther France were a part of a conflict that Tarawa could not seriously have been a part of, but the slaughter-fest of Tarawa was easily a throwback to the butchery of the Western Front of WWI.

By late 1917 the Allied planners were not only running out of men they were running out of generals willing to use their soldiers bodies as battering rams against each other.  1917 was a weak mirror of 1916’s horrific bloodletting on all fronts from Flanders to the Caucasus.  The French Army was on the verge of collapse, the British relying on Canadians and Australians to shore up their staggering troops, and the Americans were unwilling to do what they were supposed to do, which was to turn over their milk-and-beef-fed manpower to the French and British to shore up their bleeding divisions.

So the British turned to Winston Churchill’s “land battleships” that we now know as “tanks.”  They had nearly four hundred of the huge mechanical contraptions on hand, and thought that with creeping barrages, infiltrating infantry, close air-ground coordination and some good weather they might achieve a breakthrough that could seize the German supply hub at Cambrai, cutting off supply to the Hindenburg Line and displacing the whole of the German force in France.  Although this sounds a great deal like what the Germans would do six months later in the “Michael” offensive and beyond, the British had taken the same lessons from the success of the Huitier tactics first seen in Russia that the Germans who developed them had.

A generation later, the Americans were trying to decide the best way to grapple with the Japanese in the Pacific.  With New Guinea in hand, the Solomons more secure than they were, and the Japanese fleet unbalanced, the planners looked at the next step towards the prewar plan to blockade Japan prior to invasion.  They needed the Marshall Islands as bases, and from the Solomons and the Allied bases in New Zealand and French Polynesia, that meant they needed the Gilbert Islands.  The largest island in that chain was Betio, a part of the Tarawa atoll.

The Americans had spent much of the period between Versailles and Pearl Harbor thinking about how to cross a quarter of the world to bring Japan under its guns.  The US Marines were the US Navy’s base-grabbers, and the Marines had been built from the fire team level up to secure the bases needed to do that.  But like the large numbers of tanks at Cambrai, they had very little live experience at capturing hot beaches.  They had been blooded in the Solomons (where the landing was essentially unopposed) and at Makin (a raid), but their long training and many beach landings had not prepared them for an opposed landing.  They knew that the Gallipoli campaign was, to put it mildly, a negative example of what to do.   But, tactically, how this would work was still a theory.

Cambrai kicked off on 20 November 1917 with the British Third Army under Julian Byng barraging the German Second and Third Armies under Georg von der Marwitz in front of Cambrai, followed by a fraction (sources differ, but probably more than  400) of the tanks that made it to the front and their accompanying infantry.  Though the Germans were ready and had some antitank weapons the sheer number was a problem, even if the early machines were more likely to simply break down than be knocked out by enemy action.  The result was an unexpectedly spectacular British success in some places, unexpected failure in others.

At Tarawa, success was a matter of staying alive.  By the time the Marines stormed ashore on 20 November 1943 the Americas had pounded the two mile by 800 yard coral rock with more ordnance in three days than the Americans used in their civil war.  As the landing craft carrying Julian Smith’s 2nd Marine Division approached the beaches they grounded, often as not, on  coral reefs that hadn’t been accounted for in pre-battle planning.  No one had expected that around that blasted coral rock, oceanographers would first discover the maximum neep tide that would only occur about twice a year, and not everywhere at the same time.  But the landing craft grounded on the reefs that were supposed to be underwater a hundred yards or so from the beach, the ramps would drop, and the Marines would step out into the water often over their heads, and the lucky ones would merely drown.  Many of the rest would be shredded by the Japanese of Keiji Shibazaki’s garrison’s automatic weapons and artillery, which were quite unaffected by the American bombardment.  By dark on the first day the Marines were barely ashore, their casualties in some companies was more than 50%, and the Japanese just kept fighting.

Cambrai turned into a version of what had already happened over and again on the Western Front: attack, counter-attack, bombardment and repeat.  This went on until 7 December, and the territorial gains were minuscule compared to the human cost.  Both sides used the new infiltration tactics, but in the end the artillery dominated, as did exhaustion and a weariness of killing.  Very little changed for another eighty thousand casualties and a quarter of the tanks in the world.

On Tarawa, the slaughtering went on for three days.  The first use of what what would be called “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics were used against Japanese strongpoints (essentially pinning the defenders down with automatic weapons fire so that flamethrowers could get close enough to be effective).  The Marines suffered some three thousand casualties with about half killed out of a 16,000 man division.  Of somewhat more than 4,600 Japanese defenders, all but 150 or so were killed.

Cambrai pointed the way to eventual success of armored thrusts and coordinated air/ground tactics, together with quick and intense artillery barrages that the Germans would use in 1918, and again in 1939.  Tarawa would point the way to Japanese destruction by isolation because death was their only option as long as they kept faith with the leadership in Tokyo.  It would also show the Americans that hot beaches would need somewhat more than raw courage to overcome.