Heeresgruppe Nord retreats from Leningrad, 14 January–1 April 1944

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Otto Carius

For nearly three years, Heeresgruppe Nord had been holding its positions outside the city of Leningrad, with little change in the opposing lines. Although the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts had opened a land corridor to Leningrad with Operation Iskra in January 1943, a year later the Germans were still within artillery range of the city. Generalfeldmarschall Georg Wilhelm von Küchler commanded Heeresgruppe Nord from his headquarters in Pskov and he had two armies: AOK 18 holding the lines around Leningrad and AOK 16 deployed between Novgorod and Velikiye Luki. Given the static nature of warfare on the Leningrad sector, the OKH had stripped Generaloberst Georg Lindemann’s 18.Armee (AOK 18) down to the bone during 1943. Several Luftwaffe Feld-Divisionen were sent to this relatively quiet sector, which allowed Heer infantry divisions to be sent southward and AOK 18 received far fewer personnel replacements than other German armies. At the start of 1944, Lindemann had 20 divisions holding a 280km-long front. In terms of armour, AOK 18 had relied upon the Tigers from s. Pz.Abt. 502 to repel enemy attacks and this unit enjoyed a considerable amount of success outside Leningrad. Oberleutnant Otto Carius was one of the Tiger ‘aces’ who made a name for himself in this Stellungskrieg (positional warfare).

However, on 6 October 1943, the Soviet Kalinin Front launched a massive attack near the boundary of Heeresgruppe Nord and Heeresgruppe Mitte. The 3rd and 4th Shock Armies, with a total of 16 rifle divisions and 300 tanks, attacked the II.Luftwaffen-Feldkorps near Nevel and rapidly achieved a major breakthrough. Both AOK 16 and PzAOK 3 were compelled to commit all their reserves to this endangered sector, to prevent the Kalinin Front from driving a wedge between the two German army groups. Von Küchler had to send his only mobile reserve, the Tigers of s.Pz.Abt.502, to support a counter-attack intended to retake Nevel and crush the Soviet penetration. The fighting around Nevel dragged on indecisively for months, although the Germans claimed that 1,450 Soviet tanks were destroyed in this sector over the course of the battle.

Despite the distraction of the Nevel breakthrough, by late 1943 the OKH assessed that the Soviet Leningrad Front would eventually attack Heeresgruppe Nord’s AOK 18 in force, so Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s III.SS-Panzerkorps headquarters was sent to join Lindemann’s command in ealy December 1943, along with 11.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Nordland and 4.SS-Panzergrenadier-Brigade Nederland. Despite their grandiloquent titles, these recently-raised Waffen-SS formations were of mediocre quality, consisting primarily of Volksdeutsche, and poorly equipped. The Nordland’s SS-Panzer Battalion 11 was supposed to be equipped with Panther tanks, but most proved defective and the battalion was still unready for combat in January 1944.1 A few of the immobilized Panthers were sent to the front and dug in as strongpoints. Instead, the Nordland had SS-Sturmgeschutz Battalion 11 with 42 StuG III and the Nederland brigade had a battery with 10 StuG III. In order to increase its anti-tank capabilities, AOK 18 had also formed Panzer-Zerstorer-Bataillone 477 and 478, each equipped with 20 of the new 8.8cm Panzerschreck rocket launchers. As a contingency plan, Heeresgruppe Nord began construction of the Panther Line on 7 September 1943; the line was intended to run from Narva, behind Lake Peipus to Pskov and Ostrov. By the end of December, some anti-tank ditches and fieldworks were in place, but the bulk of the fortification effort would not be completed until March 1944.

The main problem for AOK 18 was the Oranienbaum salient, which the Red Army had held since late 1941. This heavily-fortified salient was supplied by sea and forced AOK 18 to maintain at least a corps-size formation to contain it. Steiner’s corps was assigned to defend the southern side of the Oranienbaum salient, to prevent a link-up between the Soviet forces in Leningrad and the enclave. Nordland would serve as a mobile reserve for this critical sector. However, von Küchler and Lindemann were not particularly concerned about the Oranienbaum salient, which had been a quiet sector for two years. Instead, von Küchler and Lindemann focused on repelling a Soviet breakout from Leningrad toward the Pulkovo Heights. Once again, the Germans were let down by their poor intelligence support, which failed to note a shift in Soviet intentions. General-leytenant Leonid A. Govorov, commander of the Leningrad Front, was resolved to end the German threat to the city and to destroy AOK 18. Instead of attacking from the east, as he had tried in all previous offensives in 1941–43, this time Govorov decided to make his main effort from the Oranienbaum salient.

General-leytenant Ivan F. Fediuninskiy, a protégé of Zhukov, was put in command of the 2nd Shock Army, which consisted of seven rifle divisions, two tank brigades and three tank regiments. Fediuninskiy’s strike force was quietly moved into the Oranienbaum salient in late December; not all of this could be concealed, but the Germans failed to appreciate this as the Soviet main effort. Instead, the Germans focused on General-polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s 42nd Army, which was outfitted with nine rifle divisions, two tank brigades, six tank regiments and two artillery divisions. Golikov’s preparations were meticulous, and for once the Red Army was allowed adequate time for preparation. On the morning of 14 January, Golikov attacked. Fediuninskiy’s artillery commenced a massive artillery bombardment against the 9. and 10.Luftwaffe-Feld-Divisionen on the eastern side of the salient. Two Soviet battleships supported the attack, with 305mm naval gunfire. After smashing their positions with over 100,000 rounds in 65 minutes, Fediuninskiy then attacked with five rifle divisions and two tank brigades. Contrary to expectations, the Luftwaffe troops put up a stout defence that prevented an immediate breakthrough and enabled Nordland to send some reinforcements. At the same time, Maslennikov distracted the German L Armeekorps with a massive bombardment, which kept Lindemann from committing his limited reserves against Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army. As night fell, Fediuninskiy committed a mobile group consisting of Polkovnik Aron Z. Oskotsky’s 152nd Tank Brigade and two tank regiments to begin pushing toward the road junction at Ropsha.

On the morning of 15 January, Maslennikov’s 42nd Army attacked the L Armeekorps after another lengthy artillery bombardment and quickly achieved a 4km-deep penetration on the Pulkovo Heights. The breakthrough was assisted by the 36th and 49th Guards Tank Regiments, each equipped with 21 Churchill tanks. Meanwhile, Fediuninskiy smashed the remnants of the two Luftwaffe divisions but mobile group Oskotsky was stopped by a counter-attack from Nordland before it could reach Ropsha. Lindemann was able to organize local counter-attacks on 16–17 January that temporarily slowed the two Soviet armies that were advancing toward each other. Nordland employed its assault guns and mobile artillery to strike at the flanks of the Soviet penetration, but could not seal it off. Maslennikov formed a mobile group with the 1st and 220th Tank Brigades, but these were stopped north of Krasnoye Selo. However after five days of battle, the German defence began to crumble and the Soviet armies surged toward Ropsha. On 19 January, the 2nd Shock Army and 42nd Army fought their way into Ropsha, which isolated a number of German units and forced Lindemann to retreat. Adding to von Küchler’s problems, Meretskov’s Volkhov Front launched an attack against AOK 16 which overran a Luftwaffe division at Novgorod and threatened to unhinge AOK 18’s right flank, as well. Lindemann’s centre was pierced and both flanks were in retreat.

Hitler ordered von Küchler and Lindemann to stand fast, as help was on the way. He promised the transfer of the 12.Panzer-Division from Heeresgruppe Mitte and Panzer-Grenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle from France to reinforce AOK 18, but neither would arrive soon enough to prevent Golikov from completing his breakout. Instead, the only immediate help came from s.Pz. Abt.502, which sent its 3.Kompanie under Leutnant Herbert Meyer with 15 Tigers by rail on 19 January. By the time Meyer’s Tigers arrived at Gatchina on 20 January, the station was already under artillery fire and the lead elements of the 42nd Army were approaching. With the rest of the battalion still en route, Meyer’s Tigers were scooped up by a local commander who ordered him to advance northwest to assist elements of the L Armeekorps, which were under pressure from Soviet armour. With a platoon of four Tigers, Meyer promptly advanced in a movement to contact, completely ignorant of both the friendly and enemy situation. Advancing to the sound of gunfire, Meyer unexpectedly bumped into an enemy tank battalion with 20–30 tanks. The terrain around Leningrad is heavily wooded and the ensuing action must have occurred at short range; three of Meyer’s four Tigers were knocked out and abandoned. Meyer returned with his last Tiger to link up with the rest of his company north of Gatchina, assembling a blocking force on the main road to Leningrad. However, Meyer had no supporting infantry and when the 42nd Army came rolling down the highway the next morning, Kampfgruppe Meyer was quickly encircled. Although Meyer’s Tigers knocked out eight enemy tanks and six anti-tank guns, the situation was hopeless since fuel and ammunition were low. In desperation, Meyer committed suicide and all 11 of his Tigers were destroyed or captured. Without support, the Tiger was little more than a bunker.

With AOK 18’s front broken and the Soviets rolling inexorably toward the Luga River, von Küchler’s nerve cracked and he ordered both armies to retreat to the Panther Line, even though its fortifications were incomplete. Under heavy pressure, AOK 18 conducted a fighting retreat to the Luga River, while AOK 16 fell back about 30km. The remaining Tigers of s.Pz.Abt.502 assisted the AOK 18 in its withdrawal by turning to ambush the Soviet spearheads; on 25 January they claimed 41 Soviet tanks destroyed at Voyskovitsy, 5km southwest of Gatchina. However, German supply lines were disrupted by the retreat and resupply of fuel and ammunition became problematic. On 28 January, the Tigers made a brief stand at Volosovo while the infantry retreated to the Luga River. One lone Tiger was engaged by a battalion with 27 T-34s; despite having only three AP rounds and nine HE rounds, it managed to knock out seven T-34s and then fall back. Yet aside from the few remaining assault guns, Heeresgruppe Nord had almost no other armoured units to serve as a rearguard.

Von Küchler’s retreat order was unauthorized and Hitler immediately sacked von Küchler and decided to replace him with Generaloberst Walter Model, who had already made a name for himself as a steadfast commander. However, by the time that Model arrived in Pskov on 31 January, Heeresgruppe Nord was already in full retreat and Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army was on the outskirts of Kingisepp. Even worse, Model found that AOK 18 had barely 17,000 combat troops to hold the 115km-wide front on the Luga River, which was insufficient to repulse a determined offensive. Affecting a bold front, Model declared that Heeresgruppe Nord would employ Schild und Schwert (sword and shield) tactics to stop the Soviet steamroller. By this he meant limited tactical withdrawals to enable him to concentrate enough troops for local counter-attacks. Model ordered the establishment of large-scale stützpunkte at Narva and Luga, while combing out infantry replacements from Heeresgruppe Nord’s rear-area troops. He personally went to inspect the defences at Narva and decided to commit the remaining Tigers to reinforce Steiner’s III. SS-Panzerkorps’ defence, since the loss of Narva would fatally compromise the Panther Line.

Yet despite Model’s bravado, the Soviet steamroller kept right on coming, advancing up to 16km per day, overrunning Kingisepp on 1 February and then seizing bridgeheads over the Luga River. At Narva, Fediuninskiy’s 2nd Shock Army managed to cross the Narva River south of the fortress city, but was stopped by a fanatical defence by Gruppe Sponheimer. Other Soviet elements crossed the frozen Lake Peipus, but were quickly destroyed. Generalleutnant Erpo von Bodenhausen’s 12.Panzer-Division arrived by rail from Heeresgruppe Mitte and Model decided to use it in a Schild und Schwert effort to stop the 42nd Army on the Luga River. The 12.Panzer-Division had never been completely refitted from its losses in 1941 and could only field a single Panzer-Abteilung, equipped with a mix of Pz III and Pz IV tanks. In contrast, the Leningrad Front received additional armour for the breakout, included some of the new KV-85s and IS-1s. After a few failed counter-attacks, von Bodenhausen used his armour and Panzergrenadiers to slow the Soviet advance, but the 42nd Army still managed to capture Luga on 13 February. Any hope Model had for standing on the Luga were demolished when Popov’s 2nd Baltic Front joined the Soviet offensive on 16 February and its 1st Shock Army overran the AOK 16 position at Staraya Russa. With Hitler’s grudging acceptance, Model ordered all of Heeresgruppe Nord to retreat to the Panther Line. When the troops arrived at the designated positions, they were forced to dig fighting positions in the frozen, snow covered ground. One innovation that did help was the ‘trench plow,’ a large steel hoe that was towed behind a semi-track vehicle and used to rip open the ground.

Govorov focused most of his effort on Narva, hoping to capture the city and outflank the rest of the Panther Line. He decided to reinforce Fediuninskiy with the 8th and 47th Armies. General der Infanterie Otto Sponheimer commanded a mixed force of survivors at Narva, including the Nordland division, the Nederland brigade, four infantry divisions and s.Pz.Abt.502 (with 23 operational Tigers), as well as Estonian Waffen-SS troops and Luftwaffe troops. In early February, the Panzer-Grenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle arrived to bolster his command.* Narva was a formidable defensive position, located on a narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Finland and Lake Peipus, surrounded by marshes and forests. The city itself was located on the west side of the Narva River, which effectively served as a wide moat. While the Nordland division moved into the city, Oberleutnant Otto Carius and four Tigers were left as a rearguard on the east side of the river to gain time for the Waffen-SS troops to fortify their position. Model promptly arrived at this exposed position and personally told Carius, ‘I am holding you personally responsible that no Russian tanks break through.’ Once the Nordland was dug in, Carius’ Tigers were allowed to retreat across the river and the bridge was blown up.

Rather ambitiously, the Soviets attempted a double envelopment of Gruppe Sponheimer at Narva, with the 47th Army crossing the Narva River north of the city at Riigi and Siivertsi and the 8th Army crossing south of the city at Krivasso. In addition, on 13–14 February the Soviet Baltic Fleet landed a battalion of naval infantry behind German lines on the Gulf of Finland. Somehow, Sponheimer was able to scrape together just enough of a reserve to deal with each Soviet attack. Otto Carius’ Tigers played a major role in defending Narva, first sending three Tigers to crush the amphibious attack on 14 February. Next, several Tigers assisted the Nordland in battering the northern Soviet bridgeheads on 18 February, then shifted to deal with the southern threat. While the Soviets came close to encircling Narva, the Tigers prevented the pincers from shutting and kept a narrow lifeline open. Soviet tanks crossed the river, but not in sufficient numbers to overcome s. Pz. Abt. 502, which was reinforced with 17 new Tigers in late February.

On 1 March, the Soviet 59th Army began a major offensive from the Krivasso bridgehead which created a substantial lodgement south of Narva. However, the Nordland division finally destroyed the small bridgeheads north of Narva, which allowed the Germans to shift the Feldherrnhalle division to block this southern threat. On 6 March, the Soviets heavily bombed Narva, turning it into a pile of rubble, then attacked across the river with 2nd Shock Army. On 17 March, the 59th Army attacked from the south to sever the main east-west rail line, but three Tigers under Carius managed to hold the thinly-manned HKL and destroyed 14 T-34s and 1 KV-1, which halted the attack. Instead of overwhelming Carius’ small force, the Soviets attacked piecemeal, with only company-size groups of tanks supporting a battalion of infantry. Despite heavy casualties, the German defence held and after two weeks of heavy fighting the Soviets ceased their attacks.

As the Soviet offensive ebbed, the OKH decided to mount a major counter-attack to try and eliminate the 59th Army’s Krivasso bridgehead. It was a decidedly low-budget affair. Oberst Graf von Strachwitz was sent to Narva to lead a Panzerkampfgruppe formed from the remaining Tigers and a handful of Panthers and Pz IVs scraped up from repair depots. Elements of three infantry divisions were also committed to the effort. On 26 March, Strachwitz attacked and in six days he managed to demolish the western side of the Soviet bridgehead. The 59th Army had not expected a tank attack and failed to establish effective anti-tank defences. Strachwitz resumed the counter-offensive in early April and achieved more success until the spring thaw brought a halt to his mobile operations. The Soviets still maintained a toehold at Krivasso, but the threat to Narva was temporarily reduced. Strachwitz’s counter-offensive inflicted about 12,000 casualties on the 59th Army and brought the Soviet steamroller to a halt.

By early April, the situation along the Panther Line had stabilized for Heeresgruppe Nord. The defence of Narva was difficult and resource-consuming, but the fanatical defence of the city brought Govorov’s advance to a halt. The Soviets became too engrossed with taking Narva, rather than pressing hard at other sectors of the Heeresgruppe Nord front. Consequently, the rest of AOK 16 and AOK 18 were able to establish a new defensive line on the border of Estonia, although the army group lacked mobile reserves. As it was, the Leningrad Front came close to breaking Heeresgruppe Nord in February and it was the lack of large armoured mobile groups that reduced the scale of the Soviet victory. With all the tank armies committed to the Ukraine, Govorov and Meretskov had to make due with combining various tank brigades and regiments into ad hoc groups, which was little better than the Red Army tactics of 1941–42. For the Germans, it was equally unnerving to realize how little armoured support they had when a positional campaign transitioned to mobile warfare.

OPERATION VARSITY

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Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders. Comment : This was Operation Varsity, part of Operation Plunder.

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By March 1945 the Allies had advanced up to the River Rhine, the last great defensive barrier against the western armies. The Canadians had fought through the Reichswald whilst the British had assisted in the restoring of the lines in the northern sector of the Ardennes following the Battle of the Bulge. Further to the south Hodge’s US 1st Army was at Koblenz on the Rhine and Patton’s 3rd Army was opposite Mainz. Montgomery, seeing a chance to cross the Rhine in the area of Wesel utilising his 21st Army Group put forward the plan for Operation Plunder. This would incorporate 1st Canadian, 2nd British and 9th US Armies. Crossing the Rhine they could then advance into the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr and on to the North German Plain, which was ideal ground for a rapid armoured advance. Montgomery would also include airborne forces in his plan. Dropping just behind the river crossings to secure towns on the intended route of advance as well as disrupting the German reaction to the crossings and halting reinforcements into the area. Learning lessons from the Market Garden debacle, the airborne troops would expect to link up with the ground forces within 24 hours.

The plan was for the Canadian 1st Army to hold the left flank of the assault whilst also making feint attacks across the river to draw the defenders’ attention from the main assault. The British 2nd Army was to make an assault crossing opposite Rees with the 1st Commando Brigade crossing just north of Wesel itself. The US 9th Army would cross further to the south with the aim of advancing on Munster whilst protecting the right flank. The airborne element would utilise the 17th US and 6th British Airborne Divisions. The 6th, made up of 3rd Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier James Hill, 5th Parachute Brigade commanded by Brigadier Nigel Poett and 6th Airlanding Brigade commanded by Brigadier Hugh Bellamy would drop around the towns of Hamminkeln and Schnappenberg and the Diersfordter Wald, a forested area east of the Rhine, secure the towns and the surrounding area and await for the arrival of the ground forces. They would also capture several crossings over the smaller Issel river to the east of the Rhine. The 17th, made up of 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Edson Raff, 513th PIR commanded by Colonel James Coutts and 194th Glider Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel James Pierce would drop just south of the 6th but north of Wesel, again securing areas of the Diersfordter Wald and disrupt any attempts by the enemy to reinforce the battle zone. The plan was also made to include the 13th US Airborne Division but due to a lack of transport aircraft this division was left behind.

Preparations for the crossing commenced on 16 March with the laying of a massive smoke screen to cover the Allied build up and deployment of the supporting artillery, which would total over 5,000 guns. Facing the upcoming assault were elements of the German 86th Corps and 2nd Parachute Corps, with the brunt of the attack been taken by 7th Parachute Division and the 84th Infantry Division. Further to the rear on the east side of the Issel river were the severely depleted but still threatening 116th Panzer Division, with a total of some seventy tanks. The area surrounding Wesel was also thick with anti-aircraft batteries.

During the afternoon of the 23 March 1945 a massive air raid on Wesel was followed by a four hour bombardment from the allied artillery covering the entire 21st Army Group front but concentrating on the town of Wesel. Late that evening the first elements of 2nd Army, the 51st Highland Division made its crossing in amphibious Buffalo vehicles, the crossing taking less than three minutes. The path was laid by an array of searchlights and tracer fire firing from the west to the east bank. Just after midnight the 15th (Scottish) Division would land on the east bank too. The 1st Commando Brigade would do the same landing just north of Wesel. No. 46 (RM) Commando were in the lead and managed to create a bridgehead, despite tough resistance. No. 6 Commando then passed through their positions and began entering the outskirts of the town before they were met by local counter-attacks. The Germans, alerted for days by the smoke screen and the preliminary bombardment were dazed, but soon began to put up a solid defence all along the eastern bank of the Rhine, the 51st Division did not manage to capture the northern town of Rees by the end of the first day, whilst the 15th Division was facing Fallschirmjaeger well emplaced with machine guns and numerous anti-tank ditches.

To the south the Americans were meeting less stubborn resistance but were still taking casualties. The lead unit, 30th Infantry Division managed to gain a strong foothold on the eastern bank whilst the 79th Division did the same to their south.

On the morning of 24 March 1,600 transports, mostly C-47 Dakotas but with some newly arrived C-46 Commando and C-54 transports, began to form up above Belgium. Being towed by these aircraft were a total of 1,300 gliders, made up of Horsa, Waco and the heavy lift Hamilcar. The vast armada stretched for some 200 miles and was heavily protected by fighter aircraft. This was to be the largest airborne drop in military history.

The 3rd Parachute Brigade were the first over their drop zone, DZ ‘A’, and were met with ferocious anit-aircraft fire. The unit did however manage to land as a cohesive unit on the drop zone ten minutes before their H-Hour of 10.00. Once on the ground they held off local counter-attacks and went about clearing their area of the Diersfordter as well as moving on the village of Schnappenberg, which was captured by 14.00.

Closely following the 3rd were the men of 5th Parachute Brigade, landing on DZ ‘B’. Here the men again landed within their designated area but were met with intense artillery fire onto the drop zone. This had to be neutralised before the Brigade could then go about its tasks.

The 6th Airlanding Brigade was separated into companys for its assault. The 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light infantry landed to the north on LZ ‘O’. Their task being to secure the two bridges over the River Issel. The 1st Royal Ulster Rifles landed just south on LZ ‘U’ to secure the main road bridge whilst 12th Battalion of Devonshire Regiment landed LZ ‘P’ tasked with the capture of Hamminkeln. By now the German defenders were fully alerted and the slow moving gliders, along with the towing aircraft were met with heavy flak. This took an extreme toll on the glidermen with many casualties from aircraft crashing or making emergency landings. These same flak cannons were then lowered to the horizontal where they engaged the brigade as they formed up on their respective landing zones. 2 Ox and Bucks captured the two bridges and established footholds on the eastern bank of the Issel. 1 RUR also captured their bridge. 12 Devons took the most casualties on landing but despite this moved on Hamminkeln and took it with the aid of the misdropped men of 513th PIR. As the glidermen dug in to defend their positions local counter-attacks by the Germans, supported by armour were made, these being fought off. However the area around 2 Ox and Bucks positions at the road bridge was severely threatened and they were pushed from the east bank. This was taken with an immediate counter-attack, but when enemy armour approached the bridge it was decided to blow it.

First of the American units to drop was the 507th PIR. They were to drop on DZ ‘W’ but due to a thick haze low to the ground half of the regiment landed further north of the town of Diersfordt. Nevertheless the men made their way to the rest of the regiment, engaging any enemy they saw on their way, again all the regiments tanks were fulfilled by the early afternoon.

Next to drop were the 517th PIR. En route to the drop their aircraft hit a particularly bad belt of flak, taking a huge toll on the transports, especially the C-46 Commando aircraft. The C-47s with which the paras were familiar with had been fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks, however the C-46s did not have this facility and were very susceptible to explode due to the high volume of flak. General Matthew Ridgway would later forbid the use of the type in future operations. To add to the drama the ground haze caused the 507th to be misdropped on the 6th Airlanding Brigades area. Typically of paratroopers they dealt with the problem quickly and adapted their plans accordingly. They joined forces with their British counterparts and aided in the capture of Hamminkeln.

West of the 507th the 194th GIR came down on LZ ‘S’. Again the gliders and transports took heavy casualties, the glidermen actually landing amongst an artillery emplacement engaging targets on the western bank of the Rhine. This was duly silenced by the glidermen.

As 24 March came to a close all the tasks given to the men of the various airborne units had been accomplished. The German rear had been thrown into disarray and allowed for the consolidation of the bridgehead over the Rhine by the land forces. The routes taken by any potential counter-attack from the German panzer units stationed further to the rear were held and the town of Hamminkeln had been captured. By midnight of 24 March the 15th Division had made contact with the 6th Airborne and armour was starting to come across the river to further reinforce the bridgehead. By the following day twelve pontoon bridges were laid across the Rhine to aid the stream of Allied forces east of the river. The attack had been costly on the airborne forces, with the 6th Airborne suffering 1,300 casualties and the 17th Airborne suffering a similar amount. However the lessons learned from Market Garden had proved to be fruitful, with an airborne army landing in the enemy’s direct rear area a swift victory could be achieved. The German defences in the west had been cracked and now the road was open for 21st Army Group to exploit the gap and continue on to the Elbe river, swinging south to join with the American counterparts, who had forced various crossings along the southern part of the Rhine. Within six weeks the war in Europe would come to an end.

The Royal Oak

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HMS Royal Oak

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U 47 – Kapitänleutnant Günther Prien

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As war approached Admiral Karl Donitz, in charge of the German U-boat arm, was already considering an attack on Scapa Flow, despite the loss of U-18 and UB-116 in the last war. After war broke out he got aerial reconnaissance photographs from the Luftwaffe and came to the conclusion:

In Holm Sound, there are only two steamers which seem to be sunk across Kirk Sound and another on the north side. To the south of the latter end and up to Lamb Holm there are: a first gap 17 m wide at low tide mark, where the depth reaches 7m; and a second smaller, to the north. On both sides the shore is almost uninhabited. I think it is possible to pass there during the night and on the surface at flood tide. The greatest difficulty remains the navigation.

Donitz offered the job to Gunther Prien, captain of U-47, who ‘possessed all the qualities of leadership and all the necessary nautical knowledge’. Prien took the charts and papers home and studied them before agreeing to go. The night of 13/14 October was chosen because slack water was in the middle of the night – the tides could be up to 12 knots and the maximum speed of a submerged U-boat was 7 knots. U-47 sailed on 8 October and four days later she was submerged off Orkney with her officers taking fixes on the navigational lights and observing shipping movements. Early in the morning of the 13th the crew were crowded into the forward compartment and Prien told them what they were going to do. There was silence, but he observed, ‘Their faces were quite calm and nothing was to be read in them, neither astonishment, nor fear.’ The crew rested until the afternoon and then were given a ‘feast’ of veal cutlets and green cabbage. They surfaced at 7.15 in the evening, German time (one hour ahead of British time), and prepared for action, getting the torpedoes ready for reloading and setting charges so that the boat could be blown up if it fell into enemy hands.

Prien headed into Holm Sound but was shocked that it was ‘disgustingly light’ due to the Aurora Borealis. At one stage he mistook the blockship in Skerry Sound for the one in Kirk Sound and nearly went the wrong way. But the navigator used dead reckoning to correct the course. The submarine turned sharply to starboard and headed north, then turned west into the ill-defended Kirk Sound. Prien was well prepared for the passage and went through with ‘unbelievable speed’, scraping against the cable of one of the blockships as the submarine swung violently to and fro in the currents.

Inside the Flow, Prien headed west to look around for warships. There was nothing south of Cava so he turned north to see what he believed were two capital ships, one of the Royal Oak class and the battlecruiser Repulse. In fact the second ship was the aircraft transport Pegasus, formerly the Ark Royal, an early seaplane carrier of the First World War. Prien fired one torpedo at the supposed Repulse and two at the Royal Oak. Only one struck home.

Around midnight Commander Renshaw, the engineer officer of the Royal Oak, was in his bunk when he was awakened by a violent explosion below him in the after part of the ship:

Turned out and pulled on a few clothes and hurried to the Admiral’s lobby. Saw R. A. 2 [Rear-Admiral H. E. C. Balgrove, Second Battle Squadron]. He said ‘That it came from directly below us. Locate what it is, Engineer Commander.’ I said ‘I agree Sir,’ I then opened up W. T. [watertight] door to Tiller Flat. Ordered Mr Dunstons, Warrant Engineer who had arrived to open sliding door cautiously, fully expecting to find compartment flooded. I descended into Tiller Flat, searched, found all in order and came out of it again shutting sliding and W.T. door.

Renshaw searched other parts of the ship on the captain’s instructions and found nothing. He was beginning to think it was an internal CO2 explosion. But in the meantime U-47 got ready for a second attack:

Torpedo fired from stern; in the bow two tubes are loaded; three torpedoes from the bow. After three tense minutes comes the detonations on the nearer ship. There is a loud explosion, roar, and rumbling. Then come columns of water, followed by columns of fire and splinters fly through the air. The harbour springs to life. Destroyers are lit up, signalling starts on every side, and on land 200 metres away from me the cars roar along the roads. A battleship has been sunk, a second damaged, and three other torpedoes have gone to blazes. All the tubes are empty. I decide to withdraw.

On board the Royal Oak, as Renshaw reported,

. . .  A second terrific explosion shook ship which immediately began to list to starboard. At intervals of a few seconds, a 3rd and 4th explosion shook ship and list rapidly increased and lights failed. Heard Captain say he was going up to forecastle and followed him up Forward Hatch with a number of others. Made my way aft along Port side to Quarter Deck with list increasing the whole time. Someone, I think a Warrant Officer said to me ‘What is to be done now’ I said “Nothing can save her now.’ R.A.2 emerged from darkness and said ‘What caused those explosions do you think?’ I said ‘Torpedoes, Sir.’ He said ‘My God’, turned away and walked forward. I did not see him again.

Many seamen slept through the first explosion but could not ignore the others. Leading Seaman Green was on watch on the starboard side of the flag deck when he heard the second explosion and saw a column of water alongside the forecastle, followed by more alongside the bridge. On the marines’ messdeck a big yellow flash came through the starboard door and all the hammocks caught fire. The man in the hammock next to Marine A. R. Jordan jumped out but went straight on down, for there was no deck for him to land on.14 Other survivors had equally horrific experiences as the ship turned over:

As he went, half blown, half running, it was hard to keep upright. With all dark below, the ship had begun to heel slowly and remorselessly over to starboard. It was hard to find the doors, still harder to open them, because they were no longer vertical. Several times, Wilson found himself across the diagonal of a door before he had reached out to open it. The ship was really turning now, and he knew he had a long way to go. His goal was a ladder by the galley, leading to the upper deck. About forty men were struggling round it, milling, shouting, cursing, unable to see what they were doing . . .

Also in the scrum was Batterbury. The second explosion had sent him running from forward to his chums in the mess, which was near the ladder. He had only a hundred yards to go, but some of the watertight doors were closed for damage-control purposes and others were slamming to with the heel of the ship; it was impossible to go in a straight line.

A door slammed behind him, crushing the head of a man who was trying to get through it. Batterbury saw his eyes and tongue sticking out, then came the sound of the third explosion, and the lights failed. He ran on. The anti-flash curtains in the battery aft were aflame and people were pouring up from the stokers’ messdeck below, ‘hollering and howling about men being on fire down there’. This new scrum of men, many of them dazed with horror, scrambled for the ladder. It was, said Batterbury dryly, ‘survival of the fittest’. The fear of being trapped inside the heeling ship was overwhelming. Batterbury himself was frantic to get a foot on the ladder.

Meanwhile U-47 was retreating through Kirk Sound.

It is now low tide, the current is against us. Engines at slow speed and dead slow, I attempt to get away  . . . Course 058, slow. I make no progress. At high [speed] I pass the southern blockship with nothing to spare. The helmsman does magnificently. High speed ahead both, finally three-quarters speed and full ahead all out. Free of the blockships – ahead a mole! Hard over and again about, and at 02.15 we are once more outside.

The life-saving arrangements on the Royal Oak were inadequate, as her captain had recognised before the sinking. The boats and rafts were insufficient to accommodate the whole crew and could not be launched quickly in an emergency, while requests for life-jackets for all the men had been lost in the Admiralty machine. The hero of the episode was Richard Gatt, skipper of the drifter Daisy II which was alongside the Royal Oak at the time. He backed his boat away from the sinking ship and then lit a gas lamp to alert the men in the water. About 250 were picked up. Boats from the Pegasus, anchored about half a mile away, were launched as soon as the alarm was raised, and went over to the scene, but the base at Lyness was too far away to send help in time. Most of the survivors were taken on board the Pegasus. In all, 833 officers and men were lost out of a total of 1,400.

A court of inquiry concluded that the Royal Oak had indeed been sunk by torpedoes fired by a submarine and there was no evidence of any other form of attack, though conspiracy theories involving sabotage have always surrounded the sinking. The inquiry noted that any of the seven entrances to the Flow was possible, though Switha Sound and Water Sound were extremely unlikely. For example, a U-boat might have entered by

Passing through the gap in the Flotta end of the Hoxa boom on the surface or trimmed down. This gap is [blank] wide with a least depth of water of 15 ft at High Water and considerably more over the greater part. There was no lookout on shore at the gap. One drifter was patrolling the whole entrance which is 1½ miles wide. Approaching this gap would take the submarine within 5 cables of the battery on Stanger Head.

Another possibility was ‘Passing through the opening of Kirk Sound south of S.S. “Thames” on the surface: this opening is 400 feet wide with a depth of 4 to 4½ fathoms at Low Water. There is another opening about 200 feet wide with a depth of 15 feet or more at High Water.’ It was conjectured that ‘in many respects Kirk Sound would present the least difficulty.’ The inquiry identified nine possible gaps in the defences and much needed to be done if Scapa Flow was ever to be safe again.

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When the sirens sounded over the Forth on the afternoon of Monday 16 October, two days after the sinking of the Royal Oak, it was not a false alarm. Nine Junkers 88s of the Luftwaffe were under orders to attack the great battlecruiser HMS Hood, which they knew had travelled up the east coast to the firth. But the Hood had already gone into dock at Rosyth and the raiders were instructed not to attack targets ashore, for fear of civilian casualties. Instead they bombed two cruisers, the Southampton and Edinburgh, and the destroyer Mohawk, killing fifteen men in the Edinburgh. The local squadrons of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 602 and 603, were already on patrol and shot down two of the Junkers, after mistakenly firing on an RAF Anson. This was the first raid of the war on British territory, and the two Junkers were the first enemy aircraft to fall on British soil. The following day there were raids on Scapa Flow, though the fleet had moved to Loch Ewe by now. The Iron Duke was damaged by a near miss and beached. She was to remain in this state for the rest of the war, still serving as a depot ship.

The wide estuary of the Forth remained a tempting target for bombers, as it had been for U-boats in the previous war. In November, when the Germans first used their ‘secret weapon’, the magnetic mine, they were dropped by aircraft in the Forth and the Thames and the new cruiser HMS Belfast was blown up on the way out of the Forth on the 21st and spent more than two years under repair. It had been put in place by U-31. On 9 February 1940 the Luftwaffe lost two Heinkel 111s, the first in the sea off Peterhead and the second near North Berwick. On 16 March Scapa Flow was raided by fifteen aircraft and some bombs were dropped on land; Mr James Isbister of Bridge of Waithe ran out of his house to help a neighbour but was killed outright by a bomb – the first civilian casualty of an air raid in Britain in the war. A newspaper report of April 1940 suggested that 13 out of 25 bombing raids on Britain had been aimed at Scotland, and 28 out of 47 reconnaissance flights.

If anyone thought this was the shape of things to come, they were wrong. Eventually London was bombed, but the Forth saw very little of the Luftwaffe after the spring of 1940. It was early in 1940 before the first RAF fighters arrived at Scapa and by March three fighter squadrons were operating from the air stations at Wick and Hatston, and Fleet Air Arm squadrons, albeit with obsolete aircraft, were allocated to the air defence. Subsequent German raids on Orkney suffered quite heavy losses. The attack on the Flow intensified in April because the Germans, preparing for a campaign in Norway, had particular reasons to neutralise the Home Fleet. On 8 April a force of sixty bombers arrived, but were driven off by more than 1,700 rounds fired by anti-aircraft guns, while three bombers were shot down by fighters. They attacked again on the 10th and six German aircraft were lost, including one which crashed on landing at its base. There was a half-hearted raid on the 25th but the attack was not pressed home and the only casualty was one chicken. Scapa was no longer an easy target for the Luftwaffe, and by now their attention was diverted fully to Norway.

Battleships for Export – German Classes

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Russian battleships of the Sevastopol class, built to a local design after the political decision not to proceed with the competition-winning Blohm & Voss scheme.

During the later nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Great Britain had obtained the lion’s share of warship orders from powers unable for reasons of technology or capacity to build their own. France also had a flourishing warship-export trade. Germany had, as already noted, built two battleships for China in the 1880s and cruisers for her and Japan, but since then had not matched the success of her rivals. However, the advent of the dreadnought era brought about new opportunities, as a number of powers launched international competitions for new materiel.

A number of competitions were run during the years leading up to 1914, in particular following the appearance of Dreadnought, which allowed existing force levels to be reset. A particular example was in South America, where the ordering of the Brazilian Minas Gerais class in Great Britain began a short-lived local naval race. Thus, specifications were issued by Argentina in 1908 to a range of shipbuilders for a pair of ‘answers’. Blohm & Voss were amongst those invited, although in the end the orders went to US yards.

BATTLESHIP DESIGNS FOR RUSSIA

Blohm & Voss were particularly active in the export market, and had already been involved in bidding for the new generation of Russian battleships. Discussions regarding these had begun in April 1906, with a basic concept of a turbine-driven ship, with twelve 12in [305mm] and twenty 4.7in [120mm] and 254mm belt armour recommended in May. A number of internal proposals, and then more from the British firm of Vickers, culminated in international proposals being invited at the end of 1907. AG Vulcan, Blohm & Voss, Schichau and Germaniawerft were amongst the invitees, with the first two submitting proposals. Ships would be built in Russia.

The bids were divided between those with a ‘linear’ arrangement of four triple turrets (i.e. all on a single level) and those with other arrangements. Blohm & Voss submitted eleven variants of a basic scheme 627 (I–X and Xb), of which 627-IV had been worked out in detail. This 22,000t vessel had twelve 12in [305mm] in triple turrets fore and aft, with a twin superimposed forward and another two en echelon amidships. 627-I had six twins, superimposed fore and aft, the midships pair en echelon; 627-II was similar, but with the midships turrets on the centreline; 627-III had Nassau’s ‘hexagonal’ turret arrangement; 627-V had triples fore and aft, with twins superimposed fore and aft, and midships; 627-VII followed Dreadnought, albeit with triples fore and aft; 627-VIII had four triples, with the midships pair en echelon; 627-IX had triples superimposed fore and aft; and 627-X had the ‘linear’ arrangement.

The Russian Naval Technical Committee placed 627-X at the top of the ‘linear’ category, with 627-V and VI in second place in the ‘other’ category. An assessment by the Naval General Staff placed 627-X in second place, behind one from Ansaldo of Genoa. At joint meetings in June and July the two bodies, it was agreed that only ‘linear’ designs should be considered further, leaving 627-X, the Ansaldo design, plus a ‘linear’ version of the Russian Baltic Works scheme that had come top of the Naval Technical Committee’s ‘other’ list.

In the meantime Blohm & Voss had been working-up 627-X into a detailed design, with a number of sub-variants (627-XA, XB, &c), with various alternative arrangements of machinery, decks and other features being produced into the autumn. However, while the Ansaldo design had now been ruled out, resulting in Wilhelm II going so far as to send a telegram of congratulations to Blohm & Voss for winning the competition, protests from France objecting to funds from major loans she had made to Russia finding their way to Germany and internal pressure to favour Russian solution meant that the award of a contract to a German company had become politically impossible. The award was thus made to the Baltic Works of St Petersburg for the design that would become the Sevastopol class.

However, the Baltic Works and the Admiralty Works, which would build the new ships, exhorted the government to purchase the full range of drawings produced for 627-X and its sub-variants to aid in the development of the Sevastopols. This was done, hard negotiations resulting in a price being paid that was a quarter of that first demanded by Blohm & Voss.

In 1911 a further international contest was launched for the design of what would become the Izmail class battlecruisers. Alongside various Russian and British firms, AG Vulcan submitted two designs, while Blohm & Voss partnered with the Russian Putilovskii Works to produce a dozen initial options for the nine-14in [356mm]-gun ship originally envisaged. These were sufficiently well regarded that Putilovskii was amongst those firms requested to re-bid when the requirement was changed to twelve guns.

Scheme 707-XVII was also considered a good design by the gunnery and General Staff assessors, but was rejected by the shipbuilding authorities as having a hull structure and machinery that did not accord with Russian practice. The ships were thus built to an Admiralty Shipyard (St Petersburg) design. However, the Blohm & Voss/Pulitovskii link was maintained, and German personnel made significant contributions to the studies for 16in [406mm]-gunned battleships carried out by the Russian company early in 1914 against potential future national requirements.

THE GREEK BATTLESHIP

In response to Turkey’s expanding battlefleet, Greece formulated a programme, agreed in March 1912, providing for a 13,716t armoured ship (its size limited by the floating dock at Piraeus), two destroyers, six torpedo boats, two submarines and a depot ship. The competition for the capital ship brought forth a range of bidders form a number of countries. Although half of the Greek Board on Naval Construction were members of the British naval mission that had been in Greece since 1910 the contract was not the expected British walk-over. The best price was offered by Krupp for a ship to be built by AG Vulcan, but Vickers scored highest on hull and machinery, while the US Bethlehem bid was favoured for its armament and protection. An informal meeting between Wilhelm II (the brother of the Greek Crown Princess), who annually holidayed on Corfu, and the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos (1864–1936), led to a promise to purchase from Germany, albeit after a further round of bidding.

Thus, bids from Vickers, Orlando of Italy and AG Vulcan having been judged all-but-equal on technical merit, the contract was given to Vulcan as the lowest bid on 30 July 1912 – thus adding to the yard’s existing Greek portfolio of a pair of destroyers, ordered on 29 June, and fulfilled by diverting two vessels already under construction for the German Navy (V5 and V6, which became Nea Genea and Kervanos). The armoured ship was to be armed and armoured, however, by Bethlehem – a subsequent suggestion that Krupp products might be substituted for the latter was dropped for fear of disturbing the whole contracting process.

As ordered, at a cost of £1,106,500, the ship would carry a main battery of six 14in [356mm] guns, of the same type as installed in the American New York class. However, as such a ship would be badly outgunned by the ten-main-gunned Turkish ship, there were proposals in August to modify the design to increase its capabilities. Initially, an increase to 16,500t was contemplated, but this was then raised to 19,815t and the contract amended accordingly on 23 December 1912, in spite of the opposition of the Greek Prime Minister. As re-cast as a fully-fledged battleship, the ship, to be named Salamis, had eight main guns, although was still inferior to Reshadieh, and also to Sultan Osman I, the fourteen-12in ex-Brazilian Rio de Janeiro, purchased in 1914. Accordingly, a French Bretagne class vessel with ten 340mm guns was ordered that year, with the American battleships Mississippi and Idaho acquired (as Kilkis and Lemnos, after a worldwide search) to provide interim capability, since neither Salamis nor the French order would be ready before the two Turkish vessels would complete during the autumn of 1914.

Salamis was laid down to the new design in July 1913, with a contracted delivery date of 28 March 1915, for a price £1,693,000, to be paid in nine instalments against specific milestones. The Greeks had made progress payments amounting to the equivalent of £450,000 up to July 1914, but the outbreak of war found Salamis still on the slip, with only 17 per cent of her American armour delivered. Thus, while the hull was structurally complete, with boilers and some other machinery installed, the ship lacked the two superimposed main barbettes, her armour deck, side armour, conning tower, not to mention her turrets and main and secondary guns, still completing in in the USA.

Work continued until November to allow the hull to be launched to clear the slipway; it appears that she was to be launched under the new name Vasilefs Georgios, presumably to match the name, Vasilefs Konstantinos, allocated to the French order, although the name Salamis continued to be used in all post-First World War documents. After launching, nothing more was done than house over the openings in the deck to put the unfinished ship in a state of preservation; this work was complete by the end of December 1914.19 AG Vulcan later stated that this stoppage of work was primarily owing to the failure of Greece to make the stage payments it regarded as due in the autumn of 1914, rather than the outbreak of war.

Since it was clear that her American guns and armour would not be delivered for the duration of the war, and that domestic production of these items would take two years at least, no serious consideration was given to completing the vessel for German service – and most certainly not under the name Tirpitz, as has been speculated on occasion. In fact, the main turrets, their guns and those intended for the secondary battery were sold to the British on 10 November 1914 – something of which the shipyard professed themselves to be unaware, and which Bethlehem were unwilling to publicly admit into the 1920s; the main guns and turrets were installed in the four Abercrombie class monitors, the secondary guns for coastal defence at Scapa Flow.

BATTLESHIPS FOR THE NETHERLANDS

In 1912, the ongoing expansion of the Japanese Navy led to a decision in the Netherlands to expand their navy in defence of their East Indies possessions. Initially, four more coast defence armoured ships of a design that had been evolved over several generations since the Evertsen class, laid down in 1893, was envisaged, but doubts about the effectiveness of such vessels led to the an enquiry to Germania in September 1912 regarding fully-fledged battleships. This resulted in the design of a vessel that was essentially a Kaiser, with the superfiring turret aft deleted and the calibre of the remaining eight guns raised to 34cm, plus twelve 15cm weapons. Armour would be slightly thinner, to give an extra 1kt. The design was generally liked, except for the en-échelon arrangement of half the main battery, a revised version with superimposed turrets fore and aft, plus other amendments, being requested.

The revised version (scheme 753) was 700t heavier, included an increase in the number of secondary guns to sixteen, a further 0.5kt, modified protection, and looked very different, with a single funnel and a tripod mast. A further variant placed added another 700t, placed the main battery in two quadruple turrets and further enhanced the protection.

In parallel, a Dutch Royal Commission was appointed to consider the matter, its report in August 1913 recommending the acquisition of nine full-size battleships, five for the East Indies (one in reserve) and four for home waters, of 21,000t, with a speed of 21kt (oil firing only), with eight 34.3cm, sixteen 15cm and twelve 75mm guns. They would be designed for a twenty-year life, twelve in the Indies, followed by eight at home.

After extensive debate, it was decided to procure four battleships, to be somewhat larger than those recommended, and all to be permanently stationed in the Indies. The specification was modified in November 1913 to set the armament at eight 34cm/45, sixteen 15cm and twelve 75mm guns, plus three/five submerged TT, the speed at 21kt and the minimum range at 5000nm (9300km) at 12kt; protection would comprise a main belt at least 250mm, with the turrets and conning tower at least 300mm thick. A further amendment in March 1914 set a displacement of 25,000t and raised the calibre of the main battery to 35.6cm, the speed to 22kt and the range to 6000nm (11,000km). All ships would be built abroad, given a lack of appropriate slips in the Netherlands.

Eleven invitations having been issued, for return by 4 June 1914, proposals were received from seven bidders, including Germania, Blohm & Voss, AG Vulcan (with a version of Salamis, guns and armour again coming from Bethlehem) and AG Weser. Germania’s scheme 806 was the favourite, given the yard’s previous engagement with the Dutch. However, the outbreak of the First World War led to the frustration of the scheme before anything could be done to pass the requisite financial legislation. Instead, three 7000t cruisers were authorised, to Germania plans; two (Java and Sumatra) were belatedly completed in 1925, and the third (Celebes) ultimately cancelled, to be re-ordered as De Ruyter in 1933.

THE 80-GUN SHIP

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This painting by Thomas Luny shows the final stage of the capture of the French 80-gun Guillaume Tell by HMS Foudroyant, also 80 guns, off Malta on 30 March 1800. The other British ships are the 64-gun Lion (to the right) and the frigate Penelope, whose skilful harassing attacks had delayed the big French two-decker long enough for the others to get into action.

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A draught proposed for building in his majesty’s yard at Plymouth, a ship to carry 80 guns. Navy office, 15th May 1788.

In the eighteenth century the two-decked 80-gun ship was a decidedly foreign type, the first to serve in the Royal Navy being the French Foudroyant, captured in 1758, followed by the ex-Spanish Gibraltar taken in 1780. Being longer, the 80 carried more guns per deck than the standard 74, and the upper deck calibre was usually heavier to boot; in fact, as pointed out above, the French 80 carried more broadside weight of metal than a British 98. Furthermore, their great waterline length tended to make them fast, and with only two gundecks they were noticeably more weatherly than towering Second Rates. Yet despite these obvious advantages only two British-built 80s saw service in the wars of 1793–1815.

Three reasons may be advanced for this apparently illogical state of affairs. The most important is the lack of a clear role – at least in the first decade of the war – for what were relatively expensive ships; they had neither the accommodation most admirals required in a flagship, nor did they have the presence of a three-decker in battle, so the British showed a decided preference for 98s. The second is more subtle, and largely invisible to historians like William James, who was an outspoken advocate of 80-gun two-deckers: the extreme length of these ships made them very vulnerable to hogging, the structural distortion caused by the less buoyant ends drooping in relation to the midships body. The British had first-hand experience of this, having tried to build two-decker 80s as early as the 1690s, but this very structural weakness caused them to be rapidly rebuilt with three decks; the resulting ‘three-decker 80s’ were probably the most heavily criticised warship class of their day, an unhappy experience that was seared into the corporate memory of the Navy’s administrators. Before the diagonal construction methods of Sir Robert Seppings were perfected in the post-war years, it was difficult to build a two-decked hull of more than about 180ft with sufficient girder strength for British requirements. In general, French and Spanish ships made relatively short sorties, but when 80s were exposed to the rigours of almost continuous sea-time in the Royal Navy they became time-consuming and costly to maintain. The final reason for so little shipbuilding effort being expended on the 80 must be the significant numbers taken from the enemy: all bar two of the ship were prizes.

With so few ships in service it is difficult to generalise about their employment, but like all first-class ships there was a tendency to allocate them to the Channel or Mediterranean Fleets, the majority being kept in home waters. Here some of the more active flag officers began to discover the advantages of the 80, particularly for winter cruising or inshore blockade duties. As a vice-admiral, Cornwallis had the 80-gun Caesar in the winter of 1794, before hoisting his flag in the First Rate Royal Sovereign, and in the following years Sans Pareil wore the flag of Rear-Admiral Seymour, despite the presence of a number of 98s acting as private ships. Foudroyant was chosen by Lord Keith as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet after the Queen Charlotte was destroyed by fire in 1800, but the reverse of the medal was represented by the Gibraltar, which was under-armed, a very dull sailer, and consequently nobody’s favourite as a flagship.

However, in the 1790s while the French and Spanish still possessed significant fleets-in-being, there was a tendency to assign a three-decker to most detached squadrons – Cornwallis’s Retreat would have been unthinkable without the awesome bulk of the Royal Sovereign to deter the numerically superior French force. The close blockade instigated by St Vincent demanded the utmost in sailing qualities from the ships employed in the inshore squadrons, and so the habit arose of leading such detachments from 80s rather than leewardly three-deckers. Saumarez commanded such a squadron off Brest from the Caesar in the first half of 1801 and kept the same ship when transferred to the Cadiz station; thus she was his flagship and fought with distinction in the actions of Algesiras and the Gut of Gibraltar later in the year. As the strategy of blockade became effective, and especially after the heavy French and Spanish losses of 1805, enemy battlefleet activity was largely reduced to the escape of relatively small divisions. The subsequent British pursuit was usually entrusted to flying squadrons, but initially these were hampered by the lumbering 98s chosen as flagships – in January 1801, for example, Sir Robert Calder’s Prince of Wales, 98 led a select detachment of Channel Fleet two-deckers in search of Ganteaume’s squadron, which contained no three-deckers. There was always a problem with combining ships of substantially different sailing qualities, and Lieutenant Hoffman, when serving in the Minotaur found himself sandwiched between the laggardly Prince ahead and the Spartiate, a French prize which ‘sailed like a witch’, astern; Minotaur constantly threatened to collide with Prince while simultaneously threatened with being run down by Spartiate.

Only the second British-designed 80-gun two-decker (after Caesar of 1783), it is perhaps significant that Foudroyant was ordered almost simultaneously with the enlarged 98s of the Dreadnought class as if by way of comparison. Although popular in France and Spain, the 80 in Britain seems to have been regarded as a (perhaps inferior) rival to the Second Rate, and there was a clear reluctance to introduce them in numbers. There was little to choose between the two types in terms of tonnage, and with a 24pdr upper battery the 80 had some advantages in firepower but the small three-decker was regarded as a better proposition in battle. Foudroyant was Nelson’s flagship in 1799–1800, when she was involved in the capture of both Généreux and Guillaume Tell, the refugees from the battle of the Nile. (J2514)

By 1806, when Willaumez’s and Leissègues’s divisions slipped out of Brest, the pursuing forces of Sir John Borlase Warren and Sir Richard Strachan were both commanded from 80s (Foudroyant and Caesar respectively), although they still each had a 98 attached because one French squadron was known to include a three-decker. Ironically, Leissègues’s force – including the 120-gun Impérial – was tracked down and destroyed off San Domingo by Vice-Admiral Duckworth with a squadron that contained nothing larger than the 80-gun Canopus. There was less success against Willaumez, and both Warren and Strachan eventually abandoned their three-deckers. As William James dryly concluded, ‘It had by this time been found that a 98-gun ship was no acquisition to a flying squadron.’

Thereafter, detached squadrons were often commanded from 80-gun ships, particularly where fast-sailing might be a significant qualification. Sir Richard Strachan’s Caesar had led the force that rounded up the Trafalgar stragglers in 1805 and was later the flagship of Rear-Admiral Stopford’s division off Rochefort. Canopus was another popular ship, in succession flying the flags of Rear-Admirals Campbell, Louis and Martin between 1803 and 1809. Foudroyant, after a spell as Rear-Admiral Graves’ flagship in the Channel, led Rear-Admiral de Courcy’s South America squadron in 1809. The 80 was also employed on occasion as the flagship of a secondary station, like the Sans Pareil at Jamaica in 1801.

In this respect, the 80 finally developed a role, but it was not distinctive enough – large 74s often functioned as flagships on similar missions – to warrant large-scale construction. The first British-designed 80 since 1788 was ordered in 1809 (and that from a desire to test the hull form of the captured Danish Christian VII), but only one other was laid down before the end of the war, and neither saw service before 1815. Nevertheless, with the coming of Seppings’s diagonal construction system longer ships were suddenly feasible, and post-war two-deckers grew to 84 and even 90 guns.

Japanese Midget Submarine Operations 1942-45 I

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“Ko-Hyoteki” midget submarines. One of the scuttled and abandoned kō-hyōteki in the shallows in the Solomons, 1942.

As the I-boats and midget submarines of the second special attack flotilla sortied to the Indian ocean and Australia, Japanese naval planners were hard at work assessing the next major fleet operation, a massive naval strike at Midway and the Aleutians, to seize the islands and establish an eastern defensive perimeter for japan, as well as provide a base for closer strikes at Hawaii. As part of the planning for Midway, both Chiyoda and Nisshin, each loaded with twelve kō-hyōteki, steamed behind the strike force to establish a midget submarine base at Kure Atoll (Parshall and Tully 2007:48–49, 453; Spennemann 2013). Defeat at Midway scuttled those plans, and the unscathed tenders returned to Japan with their midgets.

While Midway was an unmitigated failure, the feint to the north and the seizure of the western end of the Aleutian chain established garrisons on the islands of Attu and Kiska. Japanese troops waded ashore on Kiska on June 7, 1942, quickly capturing the island’s two-man radio station crew. Attu was also quickly taken with no resistance. In the aftermath of the Midway disaster, the Japanese decided to hold their tenuous position in these barren, windswept islands. It was not necessarily a tactical advantage, but it posed a psychologically strategic value. Thousands of troops, materiel, and additional weapons were shipped to Attu and Kiska, each respectively 650 and 800 miles from Japan’s northern shores. In the months that followed the seizure of the islands, the Japanese constructed coastal and antiaircraft defenses, a seaplane base, camps, roads, and an airfield (Chandonnet 2008; Garfield 1995).

As part of the fortification program, the navy sent Chiyoda to Kiska. The ship carried six kō-hyōteki and landed them on the island on July 4, 1942. The midgets augmented Kiska’s defenses, which now included a large garrison, five hundred civilian laborers, seacoast guns, and the support of twelve I-class submarines. Naval engineers built a 30-foot-wide, 200-foot-long submarine pen and launching facility for the midgets on the edge of Kiska harbor. It included several buildings—a machine shop, a battery repair shop, an acid storage building (for the batteries), an equipment storage building, and a powerhouse with a diesel generator. The sub pen was set inside a concrete-lined excavation cut into the shore, with two sets of 6-foot-wide narrow gauge track. Steel cradles held the subs, which were winched ashore. The pen was covered by a large wooden truss roof (Payne 1943:34). The first midget base outside of Japan, the new facility represented the navy’s return to the original concept of the midgets as shore-based, coastal defense weapons.

However, the kō-hyōteki were never used in Aleutian combat. The occupation of the islands resulted in a furious response from the United States, which began a year-long campaign to oust the Japanese. Aerial bombardment and harassment was followed by a naval campaign to interdict the flow of supplies by sea. The midget base was damaged in a September 14, 1942, air raid launched from Adak Island that sank vessels in the harbor and strafed the submarines. Later raids bombed the base, destroying the power plant, and one of the midgets was put out of commission by a fragmentation bomb that peppered and pierced the aft hull. Attu was taken by a joint American and Canadian invasion force in May 1943, and most of the occupation force died in the battle and a last-ditch suicidal banzai charge that saw nearly a thousand Japanese die. In the aftermath of the retaking of Attu, Japan gave the order to evacuate Kiska, and on July 28, under the cover of weather, ships loaded 5,183 men and headed home. The midget corps, before departing, set off the scuttling charges in their last three, relatively undamaged kō-hyōteki. When the allied invasion force landed on Kiska on August 15, they found a deserted island filled with abandoned buildings and destroyed equipment, including the wrecked midgets (Coyle 2014:101–10).

GUADALCANAL

After the defeat at Midway and the ill-fated Aleutians venture, the Imperial Japanese Navy still hoped that the kō-hyōteki could play an important role in the war. In late 1942, the number of kō-hyōteki constructed stood at forty-four; of these, at least a third had been lost along with most of the original class of midget submariners. The corps was about to lose more.

In response to the ongoing struggle in the Solomon Islands, where Japanese and Allied forces continued to wage air, land, and sea battles, the navy decided to deploy some of the kō-hyōteki to that theater. Admiral Ugaki, while an early proponent of the midget program, was uneasy with the decision, noting in his diary on September 30, 1942, that Chiyoda had arrived at Truk from Kure with eleven submarines on board: “According to the skipper who came to report, training and readiness of the craft were still insufficient. I can’t help but feeling we called them down too soon, disregarding these points. We shouldn’t use them unless success is believed certain. Otherwise, judging from past experiences, sacrifices would only be increased for nothing. I warned the staff accordingly and told them to keep on with their training for the time being” (Chihaya 1991:220–21).

By October, the crews were apparently ready, and Chiyoda sailed to the Solomons with six kō-hyōteki designated as the Third Special Attack Unit. The commander of the Third Destroyer Squadron argued for placing the midgets at Lunga or Tulagi, while Combined Fleet staff argued for operating the subs between Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands. Ugaki decided to land the midgets at Guadalcanal, where a base was established for them at the island’s northwest tip, near Cape Esperance, at Kamimbo Bay.

A “Tokyo Express” run on October 11 brought the necessary materials for the base in the destroyer Shirayuki along with 1,100 soldiers (Frank 1990:321–22). Ugaki remained distressed, because although “consideration to giving them a chance to participate in a battle since they were brought down here can be appreciated, what I am afraid of most is that it will only result in belittling human lives and arms, and sending them to certain death, yet bringing no contribution to the outcome of the operation” (Chihaya 1991:234). Nonetheless, Chiyoda delivered eight more submarines in October to Shortland, Bougainville.

A document recovered from a sunken kō-hyōteki in June 1943 outlined the strategy for the midgets: “Plan of Attack against Anchored Enemy Warships for the Kō-hyōteki Based at Guadalcanal: The Time for Resolute Action.” Resolute action meant acting quickly and decisively: “Upon receiving a report that the enemy has been discovered, the attack will be carried out with the least possible delay. Do not lose your opportunity because you vainly delayed and thereby allowed the enemy to escape into a strongly defended harbor” (Plan of Attack 1943). The orders stressed that two midget submarines were to be deployed against a “powerful” enemy ship and that “four or more will not be ordinarily be used simultaneously at one spot,” perhaps because of the possibility of complete loss, as seen in Pearl Harbor, Diego Suarez, and Sydney.

The kō-hyōteki were ordered to remain submerged daily from 30 minutes before sunrise until dusk and then make evening attacks. While exhorted to pick out “the most powerful ship or transport” as a target, midget submariners were given the discretion to expend a torpedo on patrol craft. After attacking, commanders were to take a “suitably circuitous route.” If disabled or out of power, the subs were to be towed to Japanese-occupied islands; if this was impossible, the subs could be scuttled, but the crews were not to commit suicide. These orders saved the lives of five midget crews at Guadalcanal, who were the first members of the kō-hyōteki corps sent into combat who lived to fight another day.

The setting for midget submarine operations in the Solomon Islands was Indispensable Strait between Florida and Malaita islands and Savo Sound between Guadalcanal and Florida islands, with tiny Savo island between them. There, as part of a Japanese plan that deployed RO and I-class submarines to ambush American shipping going up the slot to Guadalcanal, the Imperial Japanese Navy sent I-16, I-20, and I-24, each with a kō-hyōteki, to attack American ships anchored off Guadalcanal in early November 1942.

From a position 5 miles off Cape Esperance, I-20 launched a midget commanded by Sublieutenant Nobuharu Kunihiro and crewed by Petty Officer First Class Goro Inoue at 02:22 on November 7. Two hours later, while patrolling the Lunga anchorage off the southern end of Savo island, Kunahiro avoided destroyers screening the area and continued to Lunga Point. Just before 09:30, Kunihiro and Inoue fired one of their torpedoes at the destroyer USS Lansdowne (DD-486), which was busy unloading mortar ammunition. The torpedo passed astern of Lansdowne, which went into action just as the torpedo struck the nearby transport Majaba (AG-43) “cleanly amidships on the starboard side” (Commanding Officer, USS Lansdowne 1942). Badly damaged, Majaba did not sink, as its crew beached it. Lansdowne, meanwhile, “slipped her chain and swing around with full rudder and emergency full ahead” and pursued an aggressive depth charge attack on the midget, dropping a total of twenty-two depth charges over the next half hour (Commanding Officer, USS Lansdowne 1942). I-20 tou, undamaged, retreated, but a faulty gyrocompass led Kunahiro to strand his sub in shallow water off the beach at Malvovo. After flooding their sub, the two midget submariners escaped—the first in the program to do so (Warner and Seno 1986:165).

Over the course of little more than a month, from November 11 to December 13, seven other sorties resulted in the loss of all seven of the midgets. The first was that launched from I-16 and commanded by Lieutenant (j.g.) Teiji Yamaki and crewed by Petty Officer First Class Ryoichi Hashimoto. Yamaki, a veteran of the first training class, had been scheduled to participate in the Sydney attack, but a battery explosion in his kō-hyōteki killed his crew member and badly burned him. Now recovered, he was back in action, but his mission was cut short when during the launch from the mother sub, his rudder struck the launch cradle and was disabled. Unable to steer, Yamaki surfaced and scuttled his craft but escaped alive, as did Hashimoto, by swimming ashore (Warner and Seno 1986:165). Another midget, launched from I-20 on November 19, developed an oil leak and was scuttled, but its crew, Sublieutenant Yoshiaki Miyoshi and Petty Officer Kiyoshi Umeda, escaped and swam ashore. Their craft may have been one later raised from some 10 meters (30 feet) of water off Cape Esperance on January 4, 1945, by the coast guard buoy tender Ironwood (WAGL-297), which raised and loaded the wreck onto a crane barge and beached it near Hutchinson Creek on Florida island for examination and disarmament by attempting to remove the torpedoes. After what was reported as a “thorough search,” with the torpedoes still stuck in their tubes, the sub was scuttled off to Gavutu island (Commanding Officer, USCG Ironwood 1945).

The next midget loss was commanded by Lieutenant Yasuki Mukai and crewed by Petty Officer First Class Kyugoro Sano. Launched by I-24 on November 22, 1942, 14 miles off Cape Esperance, it was never seen again. The fifth loss was I-16 tou, launched on November 28 from just 3,000 yards off Lunga Point. Sublieutenant Hiroshi Hoka and Petty Officer Shinsaku Inokuma managed a daring feat, firing through a screen of five destroyers to hit the 6,200 ton freighter USS Alchiba (AKA-6). The torpedo tore into the hold, igniting Alchiba’s cargo of aviation fuel, bombs, and ammunition. “The impact was followed immediately by an explosion throwing a column of flame and smoke approximately one hundred and fifty feet into the air. Fire immediately seemed to fill number two hold and to spread to number one hold” (Commanding Officer, USS Alchiba 1942). The crew managed to beach the burning ship at Lunga Point, where they hastily unloaded ammunition and fought the fire as small arms and ammunition overheated and exploded. The fire burned for days as the heroic crew of Alchiba, joined by volunteers from other ships, successfully fought to save the ship. After a month of resting half sunk as a “sitting duck,” Alchiba was refloated and moved to repair facilities (Tibbets 1996:49–50). Alchiba would live to fight another day, but I-16 tou and its crew did not return from the mission (Warner and Seno 1986:166).

On December 2, I-20 launched Lieutenant (j.g.) Chiaka Tanaka and Chief Petty Officer Mamoru Mitani. They attacked but missed the freighter SS Joseph Teal and then fled, pursued by depth charges. They nearly made it back to base but abandoned their craft and swam ashore. The attack was noted by Admiral Ugaki in his diary on December 3, who wrote that he had received a report that one of the midgets had “penetrated Lunga Roads and attacked an enemy transport between capes Lunga and Cori. After confirming two torpedoes [had] hit, it withdrew, submerging deep, and eventually came back to the base at Kamimbo, detouring Cape Esperance, after being attacked with depth charges for one and a half hours. Its crew was all safe, but the boat sank from leaking at 1430” (Chihaya 1991:292).

The seventh loss was crewed by Lieutenant (j.g.) Tomio Tsuji and Petty Officer First Class Daiseiki Tsubokura, who launched from I-24 on December 7. They torpedoed Alchiba, still stranded on the beach from the earlier attack, and flooded its engineering spaces. Two of the crew were killed and six injured, but as noted earlier, Alchiba survived (Commanding Officer, USS Alchiba 1942). The midget submarine crew did not. They were attacked by a SBD Dauntless dive bomber in an attack coordinated with PC-477 as they withdrew from Alchiba. The damaged sub and its crew sank in more than 2,000 feet of water. The last loss was on December 13, when I-16 launched Lieutenant (j.g.) Yoshimi Kado and Petty Officer Second Class Toshio Yahagi. They claimed to have engaged a destroyer before withdrawing and scuttling their sub near Kamimbo. Guadalcanal, like Diego Suarez, proved ultimately to be the finest hours for the kō-hyōteki corps, stirring feats of bravery and death at Pearl Harbor and Sydney notwithstanding. Two vessels had been damaged in each attack, although not taken out of the war. Ramillies, British Loyalty, Majaba, and Alchiba were all returned to service. The price was eight subs and six trained crew—and the gains purchased by their loss had no real effect. Despite their limited success, the midgets had failed to achieve even a tactical victory. The war had turned against Japan, which after Midway, now lost Guadalcanal.

Japanese Midget Submarine Operations 1942-45 II

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HA69 “Hei-Hyoteki C” midget submarine on board of landing ship 5-go 8/1944.

THE LAST CAMPAIGNS

By the end of 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy worked to redesign and redeploy the kō-hyōteki. Unfortunately for Japan, this effort focused on the technical deficiencies of the submarines instead of focusing on the misuse of the craft and crews on ill-suited missions. Private doubts plagued naval leaders and doubtless some of the veterans of the corps, but the program pushed on. As the last group of Type A submarines was completed, a new sub, numbered HA-53, was designed and laid down in October 1942 and completed in February 1943 with a major difference. Less than a third of a meter (1 foot longer than the Type A boats), its extra space accommodated a 40 hp, 25 kilowatt diesel generator to recharge the sub’s batteries, thus correcting the major design inefficiency of the earlier midgets. From this prototype, called an otsu-gata (Type B), a new group of hei-gata (Type C) boats emerged (Itani et al. 1993:127). These 81-foot-long, 49 ton craft carried a crew of three, the third man serving as the engineer. More complex than their predecessors, the hei-gata began to emerge from the factory in the summer of 1943, with five modified kō-hyōteki, HA-49, HA-50, HA-51, HA-52, and HA-53 rebuilt as Type C boats.

The Imperial Japanese Navy decided to ship these five submarines to the Bismarck Archipelago (now in Papua New Guinea) to be based at the former Australian base at Rabaul, which was now a heavily built up and fortified Japanese bastion after its January 1942 capture. As supply convoys ferried supplies and personnel and towed a supply and support vessel for the midget submarines, the submarines were readied for towing across the Pacific. Only two of the five would arrive, the first being HA-53, which reached Rabaul on December 16, 1943, under tow of the merchant ship Hidaka Maru. HA-52 arrived under tow of the support ship Sanko Maru, which steamed from Palau with the sub on February 12, 1944. Diverted to Kavieng, New Ireland, Sanko Maru and HA-52 arrived at Three Islands Harbor, New Hanover, in time for a US aerial assault on February 16 that sent the ship to the bottom. Strafed and straddled by near misses from bombs, HA-52 was scuttled by the crew after the second day of attacks on February 17. The other midgets fared no better. The submarine USS Seawolf sank the tanker Yamazuru Maru, towing HA-50, on January 14, 1944. The submarine USS Whale sank Tarushima Maru, towing HA-51, on January 17, 1944. Finally, the ship Neikai Maru, towing HA-49, was sunk by aircraft January 28, 1944 (Cressman 2000:205, 208). With only HA-53 at Rabaul, there was to be no effective midget submarine force in the Bismarcks. The base itself, heavily bombed and strafed throughout the first months of 1944, was left cutoff and mauled until the end of the war. When surviving Japanese forces surrendered on September 6, 1945, they scuttled HA-53 in shallow water.

Japan was withdrawing from the South Pacific. A lack of fuel led the Sixth Submarine Fleet to withdraw from Truk in the spring of 1944. The navy sent the beleaguered garrison at Saipan some of the new kō-hyōteki. Again, they made no appreciable difference. Two boats out of five towed there were lost at sea, and the other three and their crews vanished in the destruction of Japanese forces who massed for one last banzai charge during the island’s invasion. In the aftermath of the battle for Saipan, one of the submarines was discovered in 60 feet of water, raised for inspection, and then scuttled (Commander Surface Squadron Twelve 1944:12). The sad legacy of the midget submariners, begun at Pearl Harbor, continued to be one of needless sacrifice.

Ten of the new Type C boats were sent to the Philippines on D-type destroyer transports in 1944. Based in the southern Visayas at Davao, Cebu, and Zamboanga, the midgets were commanded by Captain Kaku Harada, one-time skipper of Chiyoda and the “father” of the program. Hammered by American attacks, the bases were abandoned in favor of Cebu, where Harada was located at the end of the war at the 33rd Naval Special Base (Smith 1991:609). There the last of the midgets fought to the close of the Philippine campaign from an advance base at Dumaguete at the southern side of Negros Island, where they sortied to ambush US forces coming through Surigao Strait into the Mindanao Sea.

While the Japanese claimed to have sunk a destroyer with a midget attack on December 8 and two transports on December 18 in Ormoc Bay, the reports were false. Another Japanese claim that a later, newly developed Type D sub sank a cruiser and four cargo ships in early 1945 likewise is not supported by either Japanese or US records. The United States, however, did sink a submarine in Ormoc Bay on November 28, 1944, and while the target was listed as a possible I-boat, it may well have been a midget. Another of the Cebu-based midgets was definitely lost when it was stranded in December (Holmes 1966:398). The Cebu midgets were the last Japanese submarine forces left in the Philippines by February 1945. A plan to send the larger submarine RO-43 to Cebu with torpedoes and supplies for the midgets was called off by naval headquarters; the midgets, as always, were expendable.

An attack on USS Boise (CL-47) on January 5, 1945, as it approached Luzon by three midgets was met by the destroyers USS Nicholas (DD-449) and Taylor (DD-468). Boise executed an emergency turn and evaded a torpedo by maneuvering “radically at high speeds” (Commanding Officer, USS Boise 1945). An escorting TBF aircraft from a nearby carrier spotted one sub, and a well-placed bomb drove it to the surface, where Taylor rammed and depth charged it, sending the kō-hyōteki and its crew to the bottom (Commanding Officer, USS Boise 1945). The other two midgets escaped, reporting back in Cebu they had sunk an American destroyer and one other warship (Rohwer 1983:287). The midgets based at Dumaguete waged a bitter war against the US Navy through March, reporting various unverified successes and one successful attack. In what was likely an attack by a Dama-guete-based midget on February 21, the destroyer USS Renshaw (DD-499) was hit with a single torpedo while escorting landing ships and craft through Surigao Strait. The torpedo tore into the destroyer, killing nineteen of the crew. The ship’s log reported: “Ship is dead in the water. Examination shows that forward engine room and the after fire room are completely flooded and open to the sea. The bulkhead between the after fire room and after engine room is intact but bulging aft about one foot. There are numerous leaks from bulkhead ruptures where cable pass through the bulkhead that are slowly leaking and flooding the after engine room” (Renshaw Log, February 21, 1945).

Drifting without power, Renshaw engaged the midget with a 40 mm antiaircraft gun. The midget escaped, and after starting an emergency generator, and with assistance of other ships, Renshaw survived.

In March, as troops landed at Cebu, the destroyers USS Conyngham (DD-371) and Flusser (DD-368) encountered another midget and bracketed it with shells, but it escaped. The next morning, however, the destroyer Newman (DE-205) spotted a midget some 7 miles south of the previous day’s encounter. Approaching the sub, Newman’s crew opened fire with automatic weapons, reporting they had struck the conning tower and possibly sank it (Morison 1963:236). It was the end of the kō-hyōteki force at Cebu; the remaining three subs were scuttled, and the base and sub crews joined land forces defending Cebu (Willoughby and Prange 1994:548, n. 72; Vego 2006:298). When the battle ended, the Japanese lost 5,500 men, and another 8,500 troops surrendered (Smith 1991:617).

The summer of 1944 also saw the Japanese send a force of eleven Type C boats to Okinawa. A base at Unten Ko, a small village on the north shore of the Motubu Peninsula, on the northwest shore of the island, housed them in a tiny harbor in the lee of two small offshore islets, Kouri and Yaguchi (Appleman et al. 1948:142–43). The base also housed a torpedo depot and four squadrons of explosive-packed Shinyo suicide boats. The base’s presence was known to US forces, and an aircraft carrier strike on October 10, 1944, hit it and sank at least two midgets and the depot ship, the 5,160 ton Jingei. A later report claimed that four midgets were sunk in the attack (Appleman et al. 1948:45). This may be true, for by March 1945, only six operational midgets remained, three of which sortied on March 25 to attack TF 54, the Okinawa bombardment force. Only one of the kō-hyōteki, HA-67, returned, its crew claiming their torpedoes hit an “enemy battleship.” The attack may have been on the destroyer USS Halligan (DD-584). On March 26, while patrolling off Okinawa, the bow of the destroyer exploded, with the forward half of the ship literally disintegrating, killing 160 of the 327-man crew. The badly damaged ship drifted ashore and was a total loss. US Navy accounts state Halligan struck a mine, but the commander of HA-67 reported he fired two torpedoes at a ship that exploded on that date. If true, it was the only midget submarine success at that stage of the war (Stille 2014:44). On the same day, however, the minesweeper USS Strength (AM-309) reported it came under attack from a partially submerged midget submarine, which fired its torpedoes but missed. In the confusion of the battle and the loss of most of the Japanese contingent and records, the reality of the role of the midget submarines in the battle for Okinawa will likely never be known.

On that same day, the cruisers USS Wichita (CA-45), Biloxi (CL-80), and St. Louis (CL-49) reported spotting torpedo tracks in the morning. USS Callaghan (DD-792) definitely accounted for one of the midgets that day. While screening the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40), the destroyer’s crew noticed “a small periscope . . . about 35 yards to port and abreast the bridge” (Commanding Officer, USS Callaghan 1945). The destroyer went hard to port and depth charged the area, blowing the sub to the surface. Rolling on its side, the sub sank. Callaghan kept depth charging until an oil slick and pieces of wood from the midget’s interior rewarded their efforts (Commanding Officer, USS Callaghan 1945).

Another midget attacked the transport USS Catron (APA-71) on April 5, but the torpedo missed the ship and exploded on the reef. The following day, the last operational submarine at Okinawa was scuttled, and the base and sub crews joined the naval forces of Rear Admiral Minoru Ota and the land forces of General Mitsuri Ushijima’s 32nd Army for a last-ditch fight to the death with the invading US forces. The base at Unten Ko was cut off and isolated on April 7, when the 29th Marines reached Nago and isolated the Motobo Peninsula. The Marines discovered twenty-one sub pens and six destroyed midgets when they reached the base, another tangible reminder of the failure of a once-vaunted program and its craft (Dyer 1972:1100).

After the fall of the island, and the death of most of its defenders, a small group of seven of the kō-hyōteki corps joined fifteen infantry soldiers in an attempt to escape to Japan. Pushing off from Okinawa in a small barge in early August, they drifted through the islands without food and water for 3 weeks, strafed on occasion by American planes. Eight survivors were reportedly rescued on August 18 by an unnamed US submarine (Warner and Seno 1986:194–95).