Posted on

“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?

.

Advertisements
Posted on

5 November: Hanson Hired, McClellan Fired, Heroes Sunk At Sea

Early November is a heady time, as the leaves are mostly gone, the American elections are over, and the northern hemisphere prepares for a long winter.  In 1781, 1862 and 1940, these events had very little to do with the year, or the weather, or the elections.

In 1781, the American Congress. still under the Articles of Confederation, elected John Hanson of Maryland as President of the United States Assembled, or President of the Continental Congress, or President of the Congress of the Confederacy, or President of Congress on 5 November.  This has confused people ever since, because “everyone knows” that George Washington of Virginia was the first President of the United States.  Not to be contrarian, but that’s…true and not true.  Hanson was elected by the Congress to a one year term under the Articles of Confederation; Washington was elected by Congress operating under the Constitution for a four-year term.  Hanson’s job was mostly ceremonial: Washington’s was as the head of the newly-create executive branch of the government.  Finally, and perhaps irrelevantly, the colonies had declared independence but had not yet won it (Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown less than a month before),  Peace talks, which would signal diplomatic recognition, were months away from even beginning when Hanson (presumably) took the oath.

On 5 November 1862, the day after the mid-term elections put Congress firmly in Republican control, President Abraham Lincoln relieved George B. McClellan of the command of the Army of the Potomac.  This was a generally unpopular move, but after McClellan’s disappointing performance as a commander, and despite his excellent service as an organizer and logician, Lincoln felt he had little choice.  Lincoln had removed “Little Mac” from the post of General in Chief the previous March so that he could concentrate on his brain child, the Peninsula campaign.  This led not to a march on Richmond but a scramble to save Washington and McClellan’s army.  McClellan was so enraged by Lincoln’s action that he went gunning for Lincoln’s job two years later, and lost badly.  Most of his beloved soldiers didn’t even vote for him.

But far away from the mid-Atlantic states, on 5 November 1940 and act of heroism indescribably removed from McClellan’s conduct took place.  On that date seven hundred-odd miles south south west of Reykjavik, HMS Jervis Bay, an Armed Merchant Cruiser (in other words, an ocean liner with a few guns) took on the German “pocket battleship” (a large cruiser with eleven inch guns) Admiral Scheer. Jervis Bay was the only escort protecting a 37 ship Halifax-to-Britain convoy.  The captain of Jervis Bay, Edward Fegen, ordered the convoy to scatter at about 12:50 in the afternoon and charged at Scheer with 6-inch guns blazing.  In a “battle” that probably lasted no more than two hours much of the convoy managed to escape behind smoke candles and darkness while their brave escort was shot to pieces.  While Scheer managed to get five of the merchantmen the rest made it to port.  Fegen was awarded the Victoria Cross on 22 November 1940…posthumously, having gone down with his ship (by one account he was already dead by the time his ship was abandoned).

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

“…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.