Polish Winged Hussars

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The Winged Hussars were prominent in Jan Sobieski’s 30,000-man force that defeated the Turks at Vienna in September 1683. There, on the right wing of the Polish-German force, they pierced the Turkish lines, found themselves surrounded, and hacked their way out. They then re-formed and charged again, breaking the Turkish line.

An elite cavalry unit in Poland in the seventeenth century.

Traditionally, the term hussar is used to describe light cavalry. However, in Poland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, special units of heavy cavalry dominated by Poland’s nobility took the name hussar for their heavy cavalry units. The origin of the word probably derives from the Slavic word gussar, meaning “bandit,” a term that described the harassing form of combat in which they engaged. In a time of heavily armored knights, lightly armored hussars were used mainly for scouting and pursuit. Large numbers of foreign volunteers swelled the ranks of Poland’s army in what was that country’s heyday as a European power.

The hussars who were accepted from other countries brought with them their traditional uniforms, which were among the most aggressively fashionable cavalry attire ever worn. The Polish nobility saw a chance to flaunt their wealth and position while serving their king and country, so the flashy hussar uniform drew them in large numbers. The nobility, however, had been the armored knights and preferred the role of attacking to scouting, so they blended their traditional role with the more fashionable name and uniforms.

The uniform that they adopted started with the traditional tight-fitting pants, fur- lined jackets with braiding, and round fur hats with flat tops. For protection, the hussar wore a metal breastplate and a skirt of chain mail or heavy cloth. In battle the fur hat was replaced by a metal bowl- shaped helmet. In keeping with his need for expression, the hussar often wore a cape made of leopard skin and lined with silk. The horses were decorated as well, the rider painting them with dye, fitting the harness and livery with brass, and festooning the horse with feathered plumes. For dress parade, the traditional wing-shaped shield would sometimes be topped with stuffed animals, such as eagles.

The most distinctive accoutrement, how- ever, was the addition of tall feathered wings attached to the saddle or the hussar’s back. There is some debate as to the function of these wings: Some authorities say they were purely decorative, some say they were to foul lassoes used by steppe horsemen, while still others say that the feathers emitted a loud whistle when the horseman was at a gallop that enhanced the already fearsome visage of the onrushing cavalryman.

For weaponry, the Polish hussar had both a collection of personal arms and his steed itself. The type of horse necessary to bear an armored rider had long been bred in Europe, and the Poles mixed these with Arabian horses stolen or received as tribute from the Ottoman Empire. The strength, size, and endurance of the mixed breed made these horses among Europe’s finest, and only the wealthiest could afford them. Each hussar charged the enemy with a lance that measured as long as 24 feet, easily outreaching the pikes held by the defending infantry. Not surprisingly, the lance was also brightly decorated and strung with a pennant designating the rider’s unit. The hussar operated in a time when firearms were making their first major appearance in Europe, and he often carried wheel-lock pistols himself. His primary weapon, however, was a sword, either a straight-bladed sword for stabbing or the standard curved sabre for slashing. Some also carried a six-pound sledgehammer for throwing; it was tied to a lanyard fastened to the saddle for easier retrieval.

The hussars rode into battle organized in a unit called a poczet (“post”), consisting of a nobleman and two to five retainers, depending on how many the nobleman could afford to equip. Multiple poczets were organized into a choragiew (“banner”) numbering up to 200 men. This was the basic operational formation, and could be joined to as many as 40 more into a pulk, which operated as an independent division. Their main tactic was relatively simple: Mass into a wedge formation and break the enemy line. The hole would then be exploited by following infantry or light cavalry units while the hussars wrought havoc in the enemy rear.

The first major victory in which the hussars fought was in September 1605 at Kircholm near the Lithuanian border. Seven hundred of the winged hussars attacked a formation of 8,300 of Charles IX’s Swedish infantry and broke them. They also distinguished themselves against the Russians at the battle of Klushino in 1610 where 3,800 horsemen and 200 infantry defeated a force of 30,000, killing 15,000. Against the Swedes at the battle of Sztum in 1629, the hussars stood out in what was an inconclusive battle except for the serious wounding of the great Swedish king and general Gustavus Adolphus. Perhaps the hussars’ greatest glory was achieved among the later victories. Serving in the army of the great Polish leader Jan Sobieski, they fought against the Turks and proved decisive in the battle of Chocim, where 30,000 Turkish soldiers were defeated and Poland was cleared of Turkish forces. The hussars were also prominent in Sobieski’s 30,000-man force that defeated the Turks at Vienna in September 1683. There, on the right wing of the Polish-German force, they pierced the Turkish lines, found themselves surrounded, and hacked their way out. They then re-formed and charged again, breaking the Turkish line.

After the victory at Vienna, the hussars’ days were numbered. By this time, armies were becoming increasingly dependent on firearms, and the heavy cavalry was a dying breed. As the Poles turned increasingly to the more traditional light cavalry for scouting and pursuit roles, the winged hussars faded away. They did, however, go out on a winning note, for they were never beaten in battle. Time and technology, not defeat, forced their demise.

Reference: Guttman, John, “Poland’s Warriors,” Military History, vol. 10, no. 5 (December 1993).

Rommel and Schirach

In 1937, Rommel was given the duties of liaison officer with the Hitler Jugend, under the charming but arrogant Baldur von Schirach. The two men did not like each other. Schirach, who was American-educated, disliked the ramrod-stiff Rommel whom he saw as a caricature of the Prussian officer. He was surprised when Rommel opened his mouth and spoke with a broad Swabian accent, and proved far less stiff than he had expected.-  Christer Jorgensen, “Rommel’s Panzers,” page 20

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In 1937, Rommel conducted a tour of Hitler Youth (HJ) meetings and encampments, and delivered lectures on German soldiering while inspecting facilities and exercises. Simultaneously, he was pressuring Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, to accept an agreement expanding the army’s involvement in Hitler Youth training. Schirach interpreted this as a bid to turn the Hitler Jugend into an army auxiliary, a “junior army” in his words. He refused, and Rommel, whom he had come to dislike personally, was denied access to the Hitler Jugend.  An agreement between the Army and the Hitler Youth was concluded, but on a far more limited scope than Rommel had sought. Cooperation was restricted to the army providing personnel to the Rifle School, much to the army’s chagrin. By 1939, the Hitler Jugend had 20,000 rifle instructors. Rommel retained his place at Potsdam and was awarded the highest war ribbons for excellent performance.

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Rommel first came to Hitler’s attention in 1934 during his visit to review the troops at Goslar. In 1935 he was posted as the War Ministry’s special liaison officer to Baldur von Schirach’s Hitler Youth Organization. He soon realized that he had no use for the young von Schirach’s methods and Rommel’s heavy Swabian accent did not sit well with the Hitler Youth leader’s expectations. They soon parted ways, but while in Potsdam Rommel had managed to complete his brilliant book on infantry tactics “Infantry Attacks” and get it published. This book obviously came to Hitler’s attention and apparently he was impressed by it. In 1938 when Hitler decided to visit his newly acquired Sudetenland he chose Rommel as the commandant for his Escort Battalion. This single appointment immediately propelled Rommel into the spotlight, where he would remain for many years to come. In November of that same year he was posted as Commandant of the officer cadet school at Wiener-Nuestadt, near Vienna. These would be some of their happiest years, and his family would live in comfortable surroundings. Again in March 1939 Hitler chose Rommel to command his mobile HQ during the occupation of Prague. With the invasion plans for Poland well under way, Rommel learned that he was promoted to Major General, and was subsequently made responsible for Hitler’s safety during his numerous visits to the front.

In ‘Stalingrad,’ Jochen Hellbeck uses forgotten interviews to take us inside the battle that turned the tide of World War II

By Alan Cate

Stalingrad
By Jochen Hellbeck

PublicAffairs, 512 pp., $29.99

Yorktown and Gettysburg rank highest among American martial epics of valor and victory. Most Brits would probably choose the World War II aerial Battle of Britain as their “finest hour.” To the French, Verdun – with its defiant cry, “they shall not pass” – represents a national Calvary of agony and endurance in World War I.

For the Russian people, even more deeply engraved on the national psyche, it’s Stalingrad, “the most ferocious and lethal battle in human history.” This titanic five-month encounter, with roughly a million casualties – dead, wounded, captured or missing – on each side, culminated in a shattering defeat of the Nazi invaders by the Soviets.

Military historians universally recognize it as the turning point of the Second World War, or, as it’s known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War.

In “Stalingrad: The City That Defeated the Third Reich” (PublicAffairs, 512 pp., $29.99), Jochen Hellbeck assembles what amounts to an histoire totale, or all-encompassing chronicle, of this pivotal contest. The book, previously published to great acclaim in Germany, centers around a remarkable collection of oral histories gathered by Soviet researchers during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the battle in 1942-43.

This documentary trove languished in the basement of a Moscow archive until Hellbeck, a German-born historian who teaches at Rutgers University, came upon it in 2008.

Comprising 215 eyewitness accounts – thousands of typescript pages – from participants ranging from generals to privates, as well as civilians, these interviews paint, writes Hellbeck, a “multifaceted picture” of incredible bravery and fortitude. Due, however, to their “candor and complexity,” they were censored during the war.

Afterward, the scholar who compiled them fell into political disfavor, and his project was buried and forgotten for more than six decades.

Hellbeck’s signal achievement lies in how he deploys and supplements his sources. He begins with an overview of the battle, placing it in the context of both the war and Soviet society. He reminds us that the U.S.S.R. did more than any country to defeat the Nazis and paid a much higher price.

The Red Army inflicted about 75 percent of all the casualties suffered by the Wehrmacht. Roughly 27 million Soviet citizens died – around 15 percent of Russia’s prewar population. In contrast, American World War II deaths number just over 400,000.

This introductory section also describes the origins of the interview project and its methodology, which Hellbeck hails for its “rigor” and “scholarly ethos.”

This volume’s most creative aspect resides in the “Rashomon”-like narratives Hellbeck produces by ingeniously weaving together numerous individual responses, and grouping “them chronologically and by location,” as if in a single conversation.

Thus we get multiple angles of vision on events such as the capture of the overall German commander at Stalingrad or a costly, failed assault on a Nazi-held position. Hellbeck aptly likens the effect to “a chorus of soldierly and civilian voices.”

The book also contains gripping, stand-alone accounts. Nurse Vera Gurova was among the nearly 1 million women who served in the Red Army. She and her sisters elicited this from her commander: “They can’t do what a man can do physically, but they outdo men in terms of courage.”

Sniper Vasily Zaytsev killed 242 Germans and was honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union. Explaining his remorseless hatred for the enemy, he commented to his interviewer, “you see girls hanging from the trees. Does that get to you?”

Rounding out “Stalingrad” are many photos, transcripts of German prisoner interrogations, excerpts from the diary of a dead German soldier and a brief coda that describes the battle’s aftermath and the unhappy fate of the band of researchers who tried to capture the Stalingrad experience in full.

Besides illuminating the human side of this colossal battle, Hellbeck also revises the common Western image of the Red Army as a horde driven forward “by pistol-waving political officers.”
To be sure, savage penalties were meted out to perceived shirkers. One general casually remarked that he personally “shot the commander and commissar of one regiment, and a short while later” executed “two brigade commanders” for their failings.

Nevertheless, Hellbeck’s findings compellingly suggest that it wasn’t just, or even mostly, coercion that motivated Soviet troops. Rather, it was a combination of effective “political conditioning” and genuine patriotism that inspired them.

Hellbeck concludes with a visit to the giant memorial in Volgograd, the name that replaced Stalingrad in 1961 as part of that era’s de-Stalinization. Words penned about the battle and its heroes by the renowned Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman are engraved on an exterior wall: “An iron wind struck them in the face, yet they kept moving forward. . . . Are these mortals?”

Inscribed inside the monument is this response: “Yes, we were mortal and few of us survived, but we all discharged our patriotic duty to our sacred Motherland.”

Slava-class cruisers

 

The Soviet program also produced three more cruiser classes during the 1980s and early 1990s, the first being the 20-ship Sovremenny- class designed for antiship warfare. They were followed by the 13-vessel Udaloy-class, which mounts weapons arrays for use against submarines. The final group of vessels that were completed between 1983 and 1989 are the two Slava-class cruisers. These vessels are a smaller, cheaper version of the Kirov class and are designed primarily as surface strike ships. All are conventionally powered. Together with the Kirov-class and two more units of the Kiev-class that were completed between 1981 and 1983, they are the final units produced by the Soviet Union before the collapse of the communist regime.

Men and women who operate cruisers do so in an environment where the future of their ships is questionable. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War have led to a massive reduction of the world’s cruiser force. Due to financial constraints that were a contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet system, Russia has been forced to scrap, decommission, or sell several of its cruisers. In 1990, three of the Kiev-class cruisers and both of the Moskva-class ships were retired from service and sold for scrap. The fate of the additional unit of the Kiev-class, Minsk, is perhaps one of the most unusual in the history of cruisers. Minsk was sold to private interests in China in the early 1990s, purportedly for conversion into a casino and entertainment complex. Two ships of the Kirov-class remain operational; the other two have been placed in reserve. One of these latter vessels, Kirov (now renamed Admiral Ushakov), suffered the nightmare of all crews that serve on nuclear-powered vessels. In 1990, this vessel had a nuclear accident and subsequently entered a shipyard in 1999 for repairs, but a lack of funds probably will lead to its being scrapped. The other reserve unit has been inoperable since the early 1990s in lieu of needed repairs. Like its sister ship, this vessel will also probably be discarded from lack of funds to make repairs. The situation is so poor that the Russian Navy is reportedly asking for donations to fund the repair project. Both units of the Slava-class are still in service. The Sovremenny-class has been reduced to nine ships. Four of the other units have been scrapped, while two others are derelict vessels awaiting disposal. An additional unit of the class has been hulked as a storage ship; another two have been sold to China. Two units were also placed in reserve, but the low budget of the Russian Navy has led to their deterioration at anchor. One sank while in reserve, and the other is entirely unserviceable. Of the 13 Udaloy-class ships, seven remain in service. Three were sold for scrap in the mid-1990s; another suffered a fire in 1991 and 1995 and is now a derelict. An additional unit has been in overhaul since 1990 and will probably not be reactivated owing to budget constraints. Only one Kara-class cruiser remains in service. By 1994, the old cruisers of the Kynda-, Kresta I-, and Kresta II-classes were all sold for scrap, and only one unit of the Kashin-class remained in service. In 2002, the result of all these reductions in the former Soviet Navy has led to a 21-ship cruiser force for the Russian Navy.

The Last Majestic Sailing in Company

A second group of warships followed some 12km behind the vanguard with the battleship Kongo at its heart. She was surrounded by an inner ring of heavy ships – the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Chikuma, Kumano, Suzuya and Tone, with the light cruiser Yahagi fulfilling the same role as the Noshiro did in the first group. An outer circle of six destroyers completed this rear group.

Admiral Halsey, commanding US 3rd Fleet, had decided that the time had come to give Kurita’s Centre Force a searching examination and had sent scout planes out at dawn on 24 October to try to find its whereabouts. It was not certain at this stage that Kurita was intent on reaching the invasion site and doing battle with the US 3rd Fleet. It was just as conceivable that he might be intent on making for Manila Bay to bring reinforcements for the IJA troops on the ground in southern Luzon. Despite the advantages of signals intelligence, the Americans didn’t know for certain where Kurita was headed but the mystery was soon solved when a lone scout plane from the carrier Intrepid made radar contact with these enemy ships at 0746 hours on 24 October. It located them a few minutes later and reported the find at 0810 hours as they were passing south of Mindoro and moving eastwards in the direction of the Sibuyan Sea. Such a route meant only one thing to Halsey. Manila was out of the reckoning and Leyte Gulf was the obvious intended destination. This would be reached by going through the San Bernardino Strait. He ordered all his three task groups to close up and signalled McCain to abandon his trip to Ulithi and rejoin the rest of the task groups in the Philippines. It would take a couple of days to do just that since by this stage McCain and his ships were already roughly 600nm (1111km) east of the Philippines. In their absence, Halsey ordered an all-out attack on the Centre Force. In all a total of 251 planes flew off from his carriers to the Sibuyan Sea in four waves to attack Kurita’s ships. A mix of forty-five Avengers, Hellcats and Helldivers were the first ones to leave the Cabot and the Intrepid at about 0910 hours and they were followed by another forty-two from the same carriers at 1045 hours. A third wave of sixty-eight planes left the Essex and the Lexington within minutes of the second wave getting airborne, while a final group of ninety-six planes from the Cabot, Enterprise, Franklin and Intrepid began their sortie at 1313 hours.

Locating Kurita’s fleet at 1026 hours, the first wave of American planes found the enemy ships sailing in a battle formation notable for the fact that they were divided into two quite separate groups some distance apart. Each of these groups operated on the basis of an inner and outer set of concentric circles. Kurita’s new flagship, the Yamato, lay at the heart of the leading group. She was surrounded by a circle of heavy ships consisting of the super-battleship Musashi, the battleship Nagato, along with the heavy cruisers Chokai, Haguro and Myoko – all of which were spearheaded by the light cruiser Noshiro. Each of these ships maintained a distance of 2km from the Yamato at all times. Beyond this ‘inner’ 2km diameter circle was an outer ring of seven destroyers which maintained their positions a further 1.5km away from the inner core. A second group of warships followed some 12km behind the vanguard with the battleship Kongo at its heart. She was surrounded by an inner ring of heavy ships – the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Chikuma, Kumano, Suzuya and Tone, with the light cruiser Yahagi fulfilling the same role as the Noshiro did in the first group. An outer circle of six destroyers completed this rear group. Kurita had devised this battle formation because he felt he needed better cover against the possibility of any heavy air attack launched by the Americans and trusted that the Japanese A.A. potential was as good in practice as it might be judged on paper. It wasn’t.

Although confusion reigns to this day about just what happened in these air strikes and who did what to whom, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the first strike succeeded initially in both torpedoing Myoko and knocking her out of the line and even more significantly obtaining both a bomb hit and torpedo strike against Musashi, one of the two behemoths in the Centre Force. Each wave thereafter targeted the super-battleship and more bombs and torpedoes struck home with devastating effect over the next few hours. At least thirty-two hits were recorded against her and she received eighteen near-misses before she finally sank at 1935 hours later that same day with the loss of 1,023 officers and crew. All the other battleships, including the Yamato, were bombed as well, but none of them received the treatment accorded to the Musashi, or were disabled even if they were hit. Four hours before Musashi sank, seeing his fleet worn away first by enemy submarines and then by Mitscher’s aircraft, Kurita had decided not to tempt fate any longer and to reverse course temporarily so as not to sail in daylight into the narrow confines of the San Bernardino Strait where his remaining warships could be subject to yet another deadly series of attacks. About an hour after Kurita turned round again and resumed his original course, he received an emphatic signal from Toyoda at 1815 hours that made it very clear where the Vice-Admiral’s duty lay. Attack was the only option and he was instructed to put his faith in divine assistance. Kurita knew what that meant. His presence in Leyte Gulf was essential regardless of what losses his Centre Force sustained in getting there. Abandoning his concentric circle formation, Kurita gathered his remaining ships into what Ugaki would later describe as a ‘compound column’ and pressed on towards his original destination.

To Leyte Gulf

 
Sailing towards Leyte Gulf from left to right CA Chikuma, BB Nagato, BC Haruna, BC Kongo and CA Tone.
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Toyoda readied his various forces on 20 October for the decisive action to come. Setting dawn of 25 October 1944 as ‘X-Day’, he ordered Kurita and Vice- Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s forces to leave Brunei Bay on 22 October and instructed the three other components of the plan: the transport unit of Vice- Admiral Naomasa Sakonju from Manila, the 2nd Striking Force of Vice- Admiral Kiyohide Shima from the islands of the Pescadores in the waters off Formosa, and the diversionary force of Jisaburo Ozawa from the Inland Sea to set out on their travels so that they could meet the requirements of the plan. Despite their major setbacks in the recent past, the Japanese were still able to put a formidable naval force together for this latest and most decisive battle with the Americans. Apart from Musashi and Yamato, the two super-battleships that formed the apex of his designated Centre Force, Kurita could rely upon the substantial battleship Nagato, the two fast ex-battlecruisers that had been reclassified as battleships Haruna and Kongo, ten heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and fifteen destroyers. Shoji Nishimura’s warships, which were expected to form the southern part of the pincer movement against the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf, were much less impressive both in quantitative and qualitative terms than Kurita’s Centre Force. Although the southern force contained two battleships (Fuso and Yamashiro), the heavy cruiser Mogami and four destroyers, both of the battleships were relatively old, slow and ponderous. Because their route to Leyte Gulf by way of the Surigao Strait was more direct than that to be taken by Kurita, Nishimura left Brunei Bay seven hours after the cutting edge of Shō–Gō- 1 had left port at 0805 hours on 22 October for its longer, more circuitous voyage through the Philippines to Leyte Gulf via the Sibuyan Sea, the San Bernardino Strait and along the east coast of Samar – a distance of some 1400nm (2,593km). Shima’s group was meant to join it in the Sulu Sea west of Leyte and bring a further mix of two cruisers and seven destroyers to bear when the southern part of the pincer snapped shut. That at least was the theory, but would it work out in practice? Much hung on theory and speculation at this time. Ozawa’s appearance with the 1st Mobile Fleet was a case in point. It was to be a decoy force meant to lure Admiral Halsey 3rd Fleet away from Leyte to the north and enable Kurita, Nishimura and Shima to execute a brilliant pincer movement trapping and eliminating Vice-Admiral Thomas Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet off the invasion beaches in Leyte Gulf. Despite losing so many planes and, even more importantly, experienced pilots in the Pacific campaign, Ozawa could muster more than 100 aircraft for the fleet carrier Zuikaku and the light carriers Chitose, Chiyoda and Zuiho to use. Along with him, Ozawa brought two old battleships (Hyuga and Ise) which, despite having been converted into seaplane carriers, were carrying only guns – a battery of over a hundred light A.A. guns and six rocket launchers – and no aircraft for this operation. Their main purpose was to be the initial magnet for Halsey’s carrier fleet and then subsequently to defend the rest of Ozawa’s carriers with their A.A. armament. Rounding off his force were three light cruisers, eight destroyers and a supply force that brought together a further destroyer, two tankers and six corvettes. Commanding a decoy force with few aircraft at his disposal was no easy undertaking, but if any Japanese naval officer could pull off this risky manoeuvre Ozawa had the fearless qualities to do so.

As part of the plan to shore up resistance on Leyte to assist the 20,000 Japanese troops already there, Naomasa Sakonju was made responsible for bringing in troop reinforcements in the shape of the 30th and 102nd Infantry Divisions to Ormoc, a port on the northwest coast of the island. His force, consisting of the heavy cruiser Aoba and the old light cruiser Kinu, a destroyer and four fast transports, stayed well clear of the invasion sites in Leyte Gulf, but was still found a few miles south of Cape Calavite off the northeast coast of the island of Mindoro at 0325 hours on 23 October by the US submarine Bream which managed to torpedo the Aoba before making good her escape. That hadn’t been in the script and neither were the activities of two other American submarines, Dace and Darter, which were to strike with even more telling effect a few hours after Bream’s moment of partial success. Cruising off the west coast of the island of Palawan, the two submarines picked up Kurita’s Centre Force on their radar screens at 0116 hours on 23 October. They reported the contact to Halsey and closed in on the warships which were intent on conserving fuel and only making about 15 knots during the hours of darkness. Manoeuvring their way into position before dawn broke, the two submarines waited for the Centre Force to pass before Darter fired a spread of six torpedoes at Kurita’s flagship Atago at 980 yards (274m) distance at 0632 hours. Four of them hit home with deadly effect a minute later. Atago took on an almost immediate 25* list and sank within twenty minutes. Darter was far from finished. She also managed to hit the Takao twice two minutes later on her starboard side totally destroying her rudder, carving two sizable holes in her hull, smashing two of her four propellers and flooding three of her boiler rooms. Not surprisingly, she took on a 10* list to starboard. Her day was done. She was forced to limp back to port in Brunei Bay in the company of the two destroyers Asashimo and the Naganami. Well before arrangements could be carried out to save the Takao, however, Dace announced her entrance onto the scene by firing four torpedoes at the heavy cruiser Maya – all of which hit her port side at 0657 hours and literally blew her apart. She took a few minutes to join her flagship in sinking. Rescued from the wreck of the Atago before she foundered, Kurita quickly transferred his flag to the Yamato (much to Ugaki’s chagrin) and forged on ahead determined that he would fulfil his part of the Shō–Gō- 1 plan even if the element of surprise had been lost, which it obviously had been!

Japan’s Panama Canal Buster I

Members of the US Navy inspecting the plane hangar of I-400.

It was seven minutes before midnight on August 28, 1945, when a large unidentified object appeared on the radar screen of USS Segundo, a Balao-class submarine on patrol south of Japan. It had been 13 days since Japan’s sur­ren­der an­nounce­ment, and Segundo‘s commanding of­fi­cer, Lieu­tenant Commander S.L. John­son, was on the lookout for remnants of Japan’s naval fleet. Segundo was 18 days out from Midway, and except for an en­coun­ter with a Japanese fishing boat, the patrol had been uneventful.

Soon after Segundo changed course to intercept the blip, Commander Johnson and his men realized they were on the trail of a Japanese submarine. After tracking the sub for more than four hours, Johnson tired of the cat-and-mouse game and radioed for it to stop, receiving a positive acknowledgement in reply. But as Segundoclosed in, Johnson and his crew were literally in for a big surprise.

The vessel 1,900 yards off their bow was not your average Japanese submarine; it was I-401, flagship of the I-400class known as Sen-Toku, or special submarines. At the time I-400s were the biggest submarines ever built, and they would remain so for nearly 20 years after the war. The sub Commander Johnson intercepted simply dwarfedSegundo.

Johnson and his men were about to discover that they’d happened upon one of the war’s most unusual and innovative weapon systems. Not only was I-401bristling with topside weaponry, the sub was also designed to carry, launch and retrieve three Aichi M6A1 Seiran floatplane attack bombers. In other words, I-401wasn’t just a major offensive weapon in a submarine fleet used to playing defense—it was actually the world’s first purpose-built underwater aircraft carrier.

Japan’s I-400 subs were just over 400 feet long and displaced 6,560 tons when submerged. Segundo was nearly 25 percent shorter and displaced less than half that tonnage. Remarkably, I-400s could travel 37,500 nautical miles at 14 knots while surfaced, equivalent to going 1½ times around the world without refueling, while Segundo could travel less than 12,000 nautical miles at 10 knots surfaced. I-400s carried between 157 and 200 officers, crew and passengers, compared to Segundo‘s complement of 81 men.

Originally conceived in 1942 to attack U.S. coastal cities, the I-400subs and their Seirans were central to an audacious, top-secret plan to stop the Allies’ Pacific advance by disguising the floatplane bombers with U.S. Army Air Forces insignia and attacking the Panama Canal. It was a desperate, Hail Mary–type mission to slow the American advance in the closing days of World War II. However, when the giant subs were finished too late in the war to be effective in stemming the Allied tide, they were reassigned to attack U.S. carrier forces at Ulithi Atoll, the launch point for a devastating air campaign against Japan in preparation for Operation Olym­pic, the planned invasion of the island nation.

But Commander Johnson and his men did not know any of this at the time because the United States was unaware that Japan had underwater aircraft carriers and knew little about its powerful attack bombers. As a result, when Johnson got a good look at I-401, he marveled at the “latest thing in Jap subs.”

After I-401 and its sister sub, I-400, surrendered in August 1945, U.S. officials were similarly staggered by their size, long-range capability and ability to carry and launch floatplane bombers. The Allies had nothing comparable in their fleet. Had the I-400s been built just six months earlier and succeeded in their mission, they could have thrown a major wrench into the Allied advance, giving Japan valuable time to regroup and rearm.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, which has restored the last surviving Aichi M6A1 (see “Re­stored,” P. 58 in the print version of Aviation History, May 2008 edition), calls the I-400–class subs and their Seirans “an ingenious blend of aviation and marine technology.” In other words, it was a state-of-the-art sub with a similarly sophisticated plane designed to inflict serious damage.

The I-400s boasted a maximum speed of 18.75 knots surfaced, or 6.5 knots submerged. They could dive to a depth of 330 feet, shallower than most U.S. subs at the time, and had a draft of 23 feet—fairly deep but hardly surprising given the sub’s size.

Nevertheless, the I-400s were to submarines what the Yamato class was to battleships. They carried Type 95 torpedoes, a smaller version of the Type 93 Long Lance torpedoes, the most advanced used by any navy in the war. The oxygen-powered 95s traveled nearly three times farther than the American Mark 14s, carried more explosive punch, left virtually no wake and were the second fastest torpedoes built during the war (Type 93s were the fastest). They were launched from eight 21-inch forward torpedo tubes, four on each side (two upper and two lower). Unlike U.S. subs, I-400s had no aft torpedo tubes, which could prove a shortcoming in certain situations, but topside they were all business, with one 5.5-inch rear- facing deck gun, three triple-barrel 25mm anti-aircraft guns on top of the aircraft hangar and a single 25mm gun on the bridge.

The most innovative aspect of the I-400 subs, however, was their role as underwater aircraft carriers. Each packed three Seirans in a huge, 115-foot-long watertight hangar that projected from the bridge structure onto the deck. The hangar was so large that the conning tower had to be offset seven feet to port of centerline to accommodate it. The hangar in turn was offset two feet to starboard to compensate for its size. A massive hydraulic hangar door opened onto a 120-foot-long compressed-air catapult that launched the Seirans. A collapsible hydraulic crane lifted the planes back on board for hangar storage. It was the unusual, bulbous shape of I-401‘s hangar that especially captured the interest of Johnson and his men.

In a recent interview at his son’s home outside Tokyo, Lt. Cmdr. Nobukiyo Nambu, who captained I-401, said the I-400subs were maneuverable for their size. “I-401‘s maneuverability under the sea was no different than other subs, though it had a greater turning radius on the surface,” recalled the 97-year-old, who is surprisingly tall for a submarine captain and still maintains an erect bearing.

Born in 1911, Nambu is a living history lesson. Though he walks with a cane and is hard of hearing, he recently authored a successful book about his adventures aboard I-401. His navy career began with a scholarship to Eta­jima, Japan’s naval academy, attending submarine school and graduating as a member of class number 62. Nambu served as the chief torpedo officer on I-17 during the Pearl Harbor attack and later shelled Santa Bar­bara, Calif., in February 1942, an incident that became the basis for Steven Spielberg’s movie 1941. After the war he served in Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force, achieving the rank of rear admiral.

Lieutenant Muneo Bando, Nambu’s chief navigator and a sometime observer aboard a Seiran, remembered I-401 as harder to navigate than a smaller sub. He said the big boat required one kilometer to stop and the crew experienced a 30-second delay in re­sponse to steering commands. But I-400s gained a reputation for riding smoothly in rough seas due to their double hull construction—essentially two large steel tubes laid side by side.

The I-400s were specifically designed as underwater aircraft carriers to support the M6A1 Seiran, designed by Aichi’s chief engineer, Toshio Ozaki, and built in the company’s Nagoya factory. The Seiran was intended to strike directly at the U.S. mainland. Unlike previous sub-based aircraft designed for reconnaissance or defensive measures, it was a purely offensive weapon built to command respect.

In the book I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft-Carrying Strike Submarine, Lieutenant Ta­dashi Funada, a test pilot who flew the first Seiran prototype, is credited with naming the aircraft. The name Seiran is composed of two Japanese words that can be translated as “storm out of a clear sky.” According to the authors, Lieutenant Funada’s hope was that the bomber would gain the key element of surprise by suddenly seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Aichi completed the first Seiran prototype in the fall of 1943, and the Imperial Japanese Navy was happy enough with the result to order production to start immediately. The original production goal of 44 aircraft was eventually reduced to 28 (including two M6A1-K trainers) due to the plane’s cost and war-driven material shortages, not to mention two major earthquakes and relentless bombing by B-29s, both of which damaged Aichi’s Seiran factory.

Former Lieutenant Atsushi Asamura, the leader of Squadron Number 1, which was re­sponsible for the planned attack on the Panama Canal, confirmed the difficulties surrounding Seiran production. Interviewed in his Tokyo apartment, the 86-year-old former pilot said, “The Seirans that were custom built were of good quality, but as they scaled back production the quality became poor due to material shortages and difficult manufacturing conditions.” In fact, many of the Aichi employees responsible for building the Seirans were high school students.

Nevertheless, Lieutenant Asamura, who remains fit and speaks in a strong voice, recalled the Seiran as “a good performance aircraft,” confirming its reputation as streamlined and responsive, with excellent attack power. “It was a versatile plane since it was both an attack bomber and had long distance range,” Asamura said, illustrating the Seiran’s easy handling by holding his arms out like wings, then grabbing an imaginary stick. “But there was no big difference in how it handled a sea landing compared to other planes.”

Asamura also recalled that the Seiran’s liquid-cooled engine provided pilots with much better visibility than the bulkier and more common air-cooled engines in use at the time. The Atsuta 30 series 12-cylinder inverted Vee engine (Japan’s version of a German Daimler-Benz DB 601A) delivered 1,400 hp, and its liquid-cooled design meant it didn’t need as much warm-up time as an air-cooled engine, so the plane could launch faster. Given the danger subs faced on the surface, this was a distinct advantage.

The Seiran featured a metal frame construction with a riveted metal fuselage and triple-blade propeller. It required a crew of two: a pilot and an observer who sat in a tandem configu­ration. The observer served as radio operator and navigator, also manning the flexible rear-facing 13mm machine gun, which flipped up from a recess in the fuselage and locked into place for firing. The aircraft carried either a 551-pound bomb with its floats attached or a 1,764-pound bomb (or torpedo) without floats. The heavier ordnance meant that the pilot would have to ditch the plane upon his return, or it was a one-way suicide mission.

By necessity, the Seiran had hydraulically folding wings similar to the Grumman F6F Hellcat’s that rotated 90 degrees to ensure the aircraft fit inside its small, tubelike hangar, which was only 11 feet 6 inches in diameter. Part of the horizontal stabilizer and the tip of the vertical stabilizer also folded down to accommodate the tight fit. The plane’s floats were detachable and stored separately, as were their support pylons and spare parts.

One of the key requirements of the Seiran was that it could be rolled out on a dolly, assembled by its ground crew and launched in a very short time. Reports vary on how fast this could be accomplished. According to Commander Nambu, intensive training enabled the I-401 crew to launch three planes within 45 minutes. But Nambu also noted that given the rough handling the Seirans received during sea launches and landings, it was difficult to keep all three in good operating condition at the same time.

The Smithsonian notes the Seirans had “interesting design features built in…that ranged in engineering quality from the ingenious to the seemingly absurd.” The fact that some of the floatplane’s parts were painted with luminescent paint for night assembly certainly has to fall into the former category. Lieutenant Asamura claimed the Seiran cost “50 times more than a Zero to produce,” and though it’s not possible to confirm the exact cost, clearly they were expensive to manufacture.

Although some German and British subs had carried reconnaissance aircraft on their decks during World War I, Japan was the only nation to use submarine-launched aircraft in WWII. At the beginning of the war, it had approximately 63 oceangoing subs, 11 carrying one catapult-launched reconnaissance plane each. Even­tually, Japan would expand this to a total of 41 aircraft-carrying subs.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet and architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, gets credit for the I-400class of submarines and its Seiran bomber, though I-401‘s Commander Na­mbu says the actual idea for an underwater aircraft carrier probably originated from lower down in the command structure. Admiral Yamamoto’s vision in 1942 was for the underwater aircraft carriers to launch their Seiran attack bombers against U.S. coastal cities such as Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, to deliver a Doolittle-like blow to American morale.

The original plan was to build 18 I-400– class subs, but after Yamamoto was ambushed and killed by Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in April 1943, the guiding hand behind the I-400subs was gone. Construction plans were scaled back to nine subs, due in part to steel shortages. Actual construction began on five subs but was later reduced to three, of which only two (I-400 and I-401) made it into service. A third, I-402, was converted into a fuel tanker and completed in July 1945 but never saw active duty.

Final design plans for the underwater aircraft carriers were finished by May 1942, and construction on the first sub (I-400) began at Kure’s dockyards in January 1943. I-401‘s construction quickly followed. By December 30, 1944, I-400was complete, and I-401 was completed less than two weeks later. Both subs immediately deployed for their shakedown cruises.

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