US Navy—Avalanche 1943


Rowan (DD405), seen here in November 1942, engaged three S-boats on the night of 11 September 1943 and was hit by a single torpedo which detonated her after magazine. The destroyer sank in less than a minute.

The weather co-operated on 9 September and the initial AVALANCHE landings went much more smoothly than either TORCH or HUSKY, but the German 16th Panzer Div was in defensive positions behind the beaches and soon made life difficult for both main landing forces. Naval forces provided essential fire support, breaking up tank concentrations. By the end of the first day, the Allies held four separate beachheads. The next two days were spent joining the Allied beachheads, but by 13 September the position was still shallow and the German forces, which had been gathering around the beachhead, launched a major counterattack along the Sele River, where the Allied sectors met. At one point, Clark asked Hewitt to prepare to carry troops from the American sector south of the Sele to reinforce the northern sector, but this proved unnecessary. That night and the next, parts of the 82nd Airborne Div dropped into the beachhead and provided vital reinforcement to the lines. Renewed German attacks on 14 September were defeated and, the next day, the Germans went over to the defensive. Montgomery’s Eighth Army coming up from Calabria reached the beachhead on 16 September.

The naval forces supporting the landings offshore became the target of German naval and air forces. The first important attack was by three S-boats – S151, S152 and S158 – fast motor torpedo boats (known to the Allies as E-boats) that had sortied from Civitavecchia, north of Rome, after dark on 10 September.‡ At 2215 that same night, the convoy SNF.1 started forming up, 16 cargo ships and assault transports returning empty to Oran, escorted by ten destroyers. The convoy had not completed assembling when destroyer Rowan took station on the convoy’s starboard bow at 2240. She was still at that station just after midnight when the quiet night suddenly became very busy.

About 0015, 11 September the Officer of the Watch reported a torpedo wake crossing starboard bow, distant about 100 feet. This was confirmed by the sound operators. Speed was increased to 15 knots, full right rudder was ordered and a turn made to run down torpedo track …

Jumping to the logical conclusion that the torpedo had come from a U-boat, the captain, Lieutenant Commander R. S. Ford, ordered depth charges armed and set for shallow detonation. However, it became clear almost immediately that the torpedo must have come from a surface craft.

At the same time SG radar contact was made on bearing 335° True, distant about 5,000 yards. Initial ranges appeared to be closing and then began to increase rapidly. Speed was increased successively to 20 knots, 25 knots and 27 knots within a period of a minute. A report over the TBS had been made … that we were investigating possibility of “E” Boats … Ranges commenced to decrease slowly and at about 4,800 yards fire was opened with the forward 5″ guns, full radar control. Ranges now appeared to increase and a report was received from the SG radar operator that the “E” Boats were separating and proceeding on diverging courses.

The two S-boats rapidly pulled away, and Rowan ceased firing, increased speed to 32 knots and turned back towards the convoy.

After proceeding on this course for approximately 4 minutes, SG radar operator reported another contact on the port quarter, range 2,800 yards … FD radar was coached on this target by SG and control was ordered to open fire. It was reported by control that guns 1 and 2 could not bear, and control was ordered to open fire with 3 and 4. In the meantime a turn to 140° true was made to bring all guns to bear. This course of 140° had just been reached when the range to the target was reported at 2000 yards. Believing that this would be the range at which a torpedo would be fired, full right rudder was ordered to bring the target astern … The ship was swinging rapidly to starboard with full right rudder and had swung about 30° when torpedo struck. It is believed the torpedo struck the port quarter and exploded the after magazine. The ship sank … in a total of about 40 seconds.

So sudden and cataclysmic was Rowan’s sinking that only men whose duty station was above deck had any chance of survival, and the fact that any men were pulled alive from the oil-covered sea was due to the initiative of a torpedo-man who, without waiting for orders, had disarmed the depth charges after learning the target was not a U-boat. Seventy-five out of her complement of 273 were pulled from the water, many of them badly wounded; four of those later died of their injuries.


Damage control teams pour water into turret No. 3 on Savannah, 11 September 1943, while others look to the wounded in the other turrets. One man to the right of turret No. 2 is beyond all help. Note the damaged life rafts on the turret tops, stocked with containers of water and rations.

Later that same morning, the Americans got their first taste of the ‘Fritz X’ guided bomb. Again, it was a flight of Do 217s from Southern France, attacking Savannah at 0944.

The bomb made only a ‘whooshing’ noise as it hit. Considerable debris from balso [sic] life rafts stowed on top of turret #3 was thrown high into the air. A heavy jolt was felt at the same time. Dense clouds of smoke poured from turret #3 and many small fires were started on deck, probably from flaming bits of the life rafts … A tremendous turbulence of water abreast turret #3 to port and the venting of much smoke from the explosion within the ship through this turbulence led many topside personnel aft to think that the bomb had been a near miss.

That simple description does not do justice to the devastation done by the missile or to the incredible luck and skill that allowed the ship to survive what could well have been a fatal blow. When the bomb hit the turret roof, made of 2-inch STS – a homogeneous nickel-steel armor plate used for decks and other structural uses not requiring face-hardening – it punched a 21½-inch hole, demolished a rammer, deflected off the turret roller path straight down through two armored decks before exploding in the handling room of Turret No. 3. The explosion blew smoke and flame upward into the turret, killing the entire gun crew, also blowing out the bulkheads fore and aft, causing heavy casualties among the magazine and gun crews of the two other forward main battery turrets. Most seriously, it started powder fires in several of the forward magazines. Fortunately, the explosion was of such magnitude that it also blew a hole, 28 feet in length, in Savannah’s bottom and pushed out her shell plating on her port side for a length of 45 feet, opening the riveted seam below the armor belt. The inrushing water from these hull breaches extinguished the powder fires, undoubtedly preventing a magazine explosion.

The damage to Savannah was serious, but never life-threatening. She immediately took an 8° list to port and was down 11 feet at the bow, but no additional flooding occurred after the first five minutes, and counterflooding corrected the list to 3½° by 1121. By 1758 that same day, Savannah was underway for Malta at 12 knots, later increased to 18 knots. She was docked at Malta on 19 September, where she was repaired sufficiently to allow her to depart for Philadelphia on 7 December, where she began an eight-month overhaul that lasted into September 1944. Her damage and her survival were best summed up in the War Damage Report:

The bomb that struck SAVANNAH was the largest, both in total weight and size of charge, to have scored a hit on a U.S. naval vessel. Further, the bomb also detonated in the midst of main and secondary battery magazines – a location usually regarded as certain to cause the immediate and violent destruction of the vessel. Finally, the hit was the first made on a U.S. naval vessel by a German radio-controlled bomb.

Her survival was rightly attributed to her rugged construction – the Brooklyn class was the first to use a new longitudinal framing system that added strength without adding weight – and to the resourcefulness of her crew. Nevertheless, she paid a heavy price; 206 officers and men were killed outright or later died of their wounds.

The Allies moved quickly to develop counter-measures to defeat the ‘Fritz X’ and the equally dangerous Hs 293 rocket-boosted glide bomb. Both used the same transmitter/receiver combination for the radio link from aircraft to guided-bomb. The US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) had a jamming transmitter ready and installed in two destroyer escorts by late September, but the XCJ jammed the wrong frequencies and proved ineffective. The modified XCJ-1, which jammed the correct frequencies, was ready by the end of the year. The British introduced the Type 650 jammer at the same time, which had the advantage of not requiring the operator to search manually through the 18 possible command frequencies available to the transmitter.

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