About MSW

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“

The Sloop Of War

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The growth in the size of sloops (drawings to the same scale). Many of the Merlin class sloops of 1745 were converted to ship rig in the 1750s, although this was under consideration in the 1740s.

The year 1727 saw the death of George I and the coronation of his son who, like his father, would preside over a generally peaceful period, at least until 1739 when war would erupt again, this time with Spain in the Caribbean. This war later widened into the War of the Austrian Succession, which brought France into the conflict on the side of the Spanish. In the meantime the areas of tension affecting British possessions and trade overseas remained centred on the Caribbean and the Western Mediterranean. It was protection of these areas, particularly the Caribbean and the transatlantic trade, that was to result in the ever-increasing demand for sloops and small Sixth Rates.

The pivotal point in the history of the sloop of war was undoubtedly 1732, for it was in that year that the Admiralty and the Navy Board recognised a need to establish standard requirements in terms of measurement, burthen, armament and crew for general-purpose sloops. From this time onwards the size and number of cruising and bomb sloops in the Royal Navy was set to increase massively. Why this was so, during a period of comparative peace, is the central question: the answer, putting it broadly, was that the time was ripe. British naval capabilities and responsibilities were expanding, the transatlantic trade with the Caribbean was growing, the colonies themselves were becoming better established and the Mediterranean continued to be a region of potential instability. This all added up to an environment where a small, fast and handy vessel would be of great use, one that would work under the umbrella of British naval superiority and whose employment was economical but adequate for the job in hand. In broad terms the size was to remain close to 200 tons throughout the 1730s rising to 250 tons in the 1740s when there was an increase in gun calibre from 4pdrs with the introduction of the short 6pdr. This weapon was to remain the preferred armament for the sloop until the coming of the carronade in the late eighteenth century. From the late 1740s onwards ship rig would be increasingly common, either by conversion or through new-building, and burthen would eventually rise to 350 tons.

These increases in number and size reflect the nature of the wars that were about to engulf Europe and its overseas possessions. These started with the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ in 1739 between Britain and Spain. The unusual name for this war points up the root cause of the problem. Jenkins was the captain of a merchant ship which in 1731 was apprehended by the infamous Spanish Guarda Costa for dubious reasons relating to trade. In the ensuing fracas Jenkins had his ear cut off. Eight years later this incident was to become a retrospective ‘last straw’ in the British determination to harry and assault Spanish possessions and trade in the greater Caribbean.

It was essentially a war about trade and the licence that allowed Britain to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies of Central America. The conflict lasted until 1748, being subsumed in 1740 into the greater War of the Austrian Succession. Although France and Britain were engaged against each other on land from the outset, France did not declare war until 1744, following this with an attempted invasion that failed whilst still at sea. In 1740, the Royal Navy under Vernon was initially successful, capturing the small poorly defended Spanish port of Porto Bello in what is now Panama. But thereafter almost all the amphibious operations against Spanish possessions failed, not least due to the sickness and disease that invariably accompanied a long operation in the tropics, but also due to the difficulty of establishing harmonious inter-service relationships. Much of this was on the personal level.

The war in the Americas continued with the failure of British amphibious operations, largely through the afore-mentioned disease but also due to the well-defended nature of the Spanish ports. The element of surprise had been lost and the targets selected by Britain’s admiral in the region proved to be too hard a nut to crack. At sea privateers on all sides, French, Spanish and British, attacked each other’s trade, but only the British regularly used naval ships to provide escort to commercial shipping. Once again the sloop of war had the opportunity to engage her arch-enemy, the privateer.

In the Mediterranean 1744 saw a combined Franco-Spanish fleet sail from Toulon. There followed an indecisive engagement with the British fleet, based at Mahon but with orders to blockade Toulon and prevent the Spanish, with French assistance, from reinforcing their forces on the Italian peninsular. Britain, although only minimally involved in the plethora of land battles that punctuated this war, was an ally of Austria and its Hapsburg rulers and therefore as part of that alliance was committed to using its power at sea to support the Austrian cause in Italy. The Spanish interest in Italy lay in their desire to repossess the inheritance of their last Hapsburg king. The question arose over the right of a woman, Maria Theresa, to succeed to the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, an outcome unacceptable to many and providing Spain with an opportunity to grab parts of Italy.

At home, a Channel fleet under old Admiral Norris kept an eye on French moves for an invasion across the Channel or through a Jacobite rebellion in the North. In the event the invasion failed at sea and the rebellion, initially successful with Prince Charles Edward’s forces reaching Derby, turned into a rout at Culloden near Inverness.

The few naval successes in this period, apart from Porto Bello, came towards the end with the foundation of a new strategy that kept the British fleet at sea in the Western approaches when at war with France. From this position Britain could guard the Channel, since the seaborne element of any French invasion force must make use of Brest. It also allowed the British to attack French squadrons and convoys from an up-wind position; it also guarded any approach to Ireland and the Irish Sea, often a vulnerable point in the past. The difficulty was to sustain squadrons in waters that were habitually rough and gale-blown. However, Torbay, on the South Devon coast, offered a reasonable refuge in all winds except from east to south. The last major engagements of the war were fought off Finisterre, on the west coast of France, against French convoys, and both were successful. At the second Battle of Finisterre the British squadron was commanded by a young rear admiral named Edward Hawke. He destroyed the escort but the convoy escaped towards the West Indies, so immediately following the engagement he sent the fastsailing sloop Weazle III to Jamaica to warn of the arrival of an unescorted French convoy. The necessary action was taken to ‘welcome’ them.

The series of engagements of this war – at home, in the Americas, the East Indies and in the Mediterranean – can be seen as providing the British Navy and Army with experience that they would put to good use in the Seven Years War of the following decade. They also supplied the incentives to establish defensible bases capable of sustaining a large naval force and a victualling and logistic system to keep those bases and their ships in a condition to dominate their region.

At times the Royal Navy had been severely overstretched but by the conclusion of this war some hard lessons had been learned, and it had just about re-affirmed its position as the most powerful in the World. This was to be challenged in the next conflict, the Seven Years War (1757–1763), by a revitalised French Navy. Spain elected to remain neutral for most of the war, but very unwisely decided to enter it in 1761 on the side of France, which allowed a British Navy, at the height of its success and confidence, to seize both Havana and Manila. In this war Britain was to secure a dominant position in the Indian subcontinent, in North America and Canada and in the greater Caribbean. It left Britain with a global empire to protect but it provided her navy with bases from which she could dominate the seas.

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Exocet in Stanley

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Exocet – Land-based firing by MM38 battery at Hooker’s Point, near Stanley, that hit and damaged HMS Glamorgan 12th June. Stanley airfield in the background. DANIEL BECHENNEC

By this time the general intelligence assessment was that Argentina had accepted that the military defence of the Falklands was inevitable and that Great Britain must be dragged to the negotiating table by staging a high-profile incident, for instance targeting HMS Hermes or Invincible. But the Argentinian Navy had lost the maritime battle. Strengthening its military presence on West Falkland to threaten San Carlos and sandwich the British between Stanley and West Falkland with the airborne Strategic Reserve was another option. The Air Force had sufficient transport with its C-47s Dakotas, F-27 Fellowships and C-130 Hercules for a mass drop. The Navy could help with its three L-188 Electras, as could the Army with its three G-222 transports. But the Air Force could not guarantee a lengthy period of air superiority unless the two British aircraft carriers were neutralized, either by the weather or attack.

Soon after the start of British attacks on 1 May the Argentine Navy evaluated the possibility of installing an Exocet surface-to-surface system at Stanley to deter the Royal Navy from bombarding military positions. Transporting a shipboard system would take at least forty-four days and when a simple system needed to be devised, an engineering officer, Commander Julio Perez, and two civilians were tasked to come up with a solution, which they did within ten days. Christened the ‘Do-It-Yourself Firing Installation’, Perez’s development consisted of a generator, supporting hardware and two ramps for the Exocet box launchers all mounted on two trailers. The launchers themselves were cannibalized from two of Argentina’s A-69 corvettes. Perez’s team designed a firing sequence from a box with four telephone switchboard switches; these were manual to save time. Each had to be thrown in specific order timed by a stopwatch. This land-based system was ready in mid-May, but an attempt to fly it and Perez to Stanley on 24 May was thwarted by British air activity. Eventually, in early June, the system was landed, but by this time very wet weather had set in and since there was a danger of the Firing Installation trailer becoming bogged down in the mud, a short stretch of the tarmac road between the town and airport was selected as the firing point. Each night at 6pm the system was dragged from beneath camouflage netting and placed behind a 16-foot high bunker. It had to be ready by 8.30pm when British ships tended to begin their bombardments. The Air Force Westinghouse radars with the 2nd Air Surveillance and Control Group swept a 60-degree arc to the south of Stanley Common for long-range search. The Army provided fire control with its AN-TPS 43 Early Warning radar. Three Exocet missiles were sent. The first one proved to be defective, the second was wasted when a connection to the transformer was incorrectly fitted and veered to the right, as opposed to the left. The third was more successful.

On the night of 27/28 May a large projectile hurtled across the flight deck of HMS Avenger while she was on the gun line south of Port Harriet and out of range of conventional artillery. It was then correctly assessed that Argentina might well have installed an Exocet system on the Falklands and to minimize the risk, Rear-Admiral Woodward created a 25-mile sanitized circumference from the suspected launch pad that no ship was to enter. It is significant that Exocet is a sea-skimming missile and therefore it is suggested that the Argentinians would have some difficulty hitting anything to the west because of the landmass. The problem for the Royal Navy was that Exocet was a weapon widely used by NATO and consequently a counter-measure had not been developed. The sinking of HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor led to some Royal Navy commanders becoming pre-occupied with it almost to the exclusion of risk-taking.

Four more missiles arrived by C-130 during the night of 5 June, but it was not until about 2.35am on the night of 12 June that a target presented itself. At 2.15am HMS Avenger and the County-class destroyer HMS Glamorgan had both completed the night’s mission of providing naval gunfire support to 3rd Commando Brigade attacking Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet and left to return to the Carrier Battle Group. Unfortunately for her Commanding Officer of HMS Glamorgan, Captain Michael Barrow, his destroyer clipped the sanitized area and when her radar footprint was detected by the Exocet launch team, a missile launched. Originally mistaking it for a 155mm shell, HMS Avenger recognized the radar configuration to be an Exocet and the target to be HMS Glamorgan. Barrow held his fire and then, when the missile was within a mile and half, he opened up with a Seacat but missed. However, the incoming missile was deflected sufficiently upward to miss the hull of the destroyer, but it slithered across the pitching deck into the hangar and exploded. Burning fuel from a wrecked Wessex helicopter spilled down a hole in the deck into the galley area, causing a major fire, and a fireball ripped into the gas turbine gear room. An officer, six air maintenance crew, four chefs, a steward and a marine engineer, totalling thirteen men, were killed and fourteen injured. Very many of those ashore witnessed the glow of the missile and the tiny explosion on the horizon as the Exocet exploded. Although HMS Glamorgan had an 8-degree list from the weight of water needed to fight the fires, she maintained a steady 18 knots and remained fully operational in spite of the damage.

Italian 15th Century Warfare I

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The battle of Caravaggio and the other battles were the set pieces of Italian warfare. Such battles were relatively rare, although it was naturally on these that the chroniclers concentrated. The administrative documents of military life rarely mention the battles except as an aside to explain casualties and losses of equipment. In this they are more realistic and more informative than the chronicles, but neither succeed in telling us what military life was really like. Fifteenth-century military diaries have yet to be discovered, but still an attempt must be made to get below the surface and look at the realities of military practice, the day-to-day activities of Italian soldiers.

One man who was a conscientious writer of diaries, at least during his official missions, was the Florentine Luca di Maso degli Albizzi. He was the brother of Rinaldo degli Albizzi, the leading Florentine statesman who was overthrown and exiled by the Medici in 1434. Luca, like many Florentines of his class, spent much of his life on missions as representative of the Florentine Republic, and in May 1432 he was dispatched as special envoy to the camp of the Florentine captain general, Niccolò da Tolentino, near Arezzo. For about three weeks he was with the army and his account of those days is an interesting insight which is worth looking at in some detail.

Luca degli Albizzi left Florence on 18 May with a junior assistant, Bernardetto de’ Medici, and fifteen followers. He spent the first night at Castel S. Giovanni in the upper Arno valley where he was met by the civilian commissary with the army and a group of condottieri who were also on their way to join the captain general. The 200 men of these condottieri were billeted some miles further on in Montevarchi, and it was agreed that Luca would pick them up there the next morning and they would all go on together to the camp. Luca was an early riser and the next morning he arrived at Montevarchi to find the soldiers still in bed. They were clearly billeted in houses all over the town, and it took until mid-day to get the squadrons assembled and on the road. They arrived at the camp in mid-afternoon to find that Niccolò da Tolentino had gone out the previous evening with a force of 700 men to try and catch the Sienese under Francesco Piccinino in a night ambush. As he was not yet back, Luca waited for a couple of hours and then rode to Arezzo to spend the night in comfort. Niccolò had in fact failed to catch the Sienese who had received warning of his intentions, but he had ridden all the way to Montepulciano which was being besieged by the Sienese and had sent supplies and more troops into the town before returning. This itself meant that Niccolò da Tolentino had ridden over 50 miles in the 24 hours, but this was not considered in any way extraordinary.

On the 20th Luca returned to the camp and spent six hours with the captain general and his senior officers. They drew up written plans for the campaign, and Niccolò outlined his immediate needs. The troops needed pay, but even more important he wanted 60 mules to carry provisions behind the army as he planned to move fast and did not want to waste time collecting food. He also wanted two or three bombards and some stonemasons to make balls for them. He thought that a few hundred militia auxiliaries would be useful, including 50 pioneers with spades and axes. Luca got off a messenger immediately to Florence with these requirements, and he himself began to ride round collecting the militia.

The strategic position which Luca and Niccolò da Tolentino faced was that a number of contingents of allied Sienese and Milanese troops were operating in southern Tuscany occupying castles and towns and damaging crops. Another Florentine army was camped near Pisa under Micheletto Attendolo, but the needs of the campaign were speed rather than great strength, so it was decided not to try and link up with Attendolo. Niccolò da Tolentino was very anxious to get on with it and declined an offer from Luca that he should postpone operations until the normal ceremony for handing him the baton as captain general had been arranged. News had come that the Sienese were besieging Linari and Gambassi in the Valdelsa, and speed was vital if these towns were to be saved. However, it was bound to take three or four days to collect what was needed and break camp.

After three days of intense activity, the militia, provisions, and munitions had been assembled, and at dawn on 24 May Niccolò da Tolentino moved off with his army of about 4,000 men. He had about 50 miles of difficult country to cover to reach the besieged towns, and as half of the force was made up of infantry and militia it could not move very fast. A messenger met them on the first day with the news that Linari had surrendered, but that the enemy forces were still divided into two camps, one commanded by Francesco Piccinino and the other by Bernardino della Carda. On the evening of the 26th the army reached Poggibonsi and there heard that the Sienese had united, taken Gambassi, and were now moving to meet Niccolò’s army. The night was one full of alarms and false alarms, in one of which Niccolò’s eldest son, Baldovino, was shot in the leg by a jumpy Florentine archer. Luca marvelled at the Captain’s self control when he heard of this incident.

The next day, Tuesday, Niccolò da Tolentino detached some of his infantry and militia north-westwards to begin the siege of Linari, and he himself went southwest to try and cut off an enemy march towards Siena. But again either he had received false information or the Sienese got word of his movements, and they doubled back and headed towards the Arno valley taking Pontedera on the way. This left Niccolò with the task of retaking Linari before he could move on in pursuit. He tried negotiations with the defenders, threatening to hang them all if he had to take the town by storm, but this proved useless. There were only 100 Milanese and Sienese infantry defending it, but it had good walls and they believed that Niccolò would not waste time over them. Indeed he did not plan to waste time; he wanted to get on and bring the enemy to battle, but he was determined to deal with Linari first. He only had small bombards and the weather was blazing hot, but nevertheless he ordered an assault at dawn on the morning of the 30th. Four breaches were made in the walls and Niccolò’s dismounted men-at-arms surged into the assault. After three hours of bitter fighting the town was taken and sacked. There were a number of casualties; all the professional infantry in the defence were held as prisoners, but the local defenders were allowed to go free; a number of women were also taken by the Florentines. Finally the walls of Linari were pulled down and half the town burnt. Linari was a Florentine town; the treatment of it was harsh but effective; this was partly a reflection of basic Florentine attitudes towards the subject towns, partly a matter of military necessity. The place had to be made useless to the Sienese otherwise this sort of warfare could go on indefinitely.

The next day Niccolò da Tolentino turned northwards to join up with Micheletto Attendolo and seek out the enemy in the Arno valley. By now the militia had melted away; they were getting far from their homes near Arezzo and the few days’ campaigning had been tough. On 1 June the army came out into the Arno plain. It was a Sunday and normally in Italian warfare this was regarded as a day of rest when little activity was expected. It was perhaps for this reason that Niccolò da Tolentino succeeded at last in catching the enemy. The Sienese had begun to besiege Montopoli, and Niccolò, moving rapidly now that his troops were out in the open country, came up on them fast. He and Luca went ahead with 30 cavalry and Luca who knew the area well pointed out the lie of the land. Niccolò felt however that he still did not have a clear enough idea of the enemy’s dispositions and so, while Luca stayed with the main body and gave an oration to the troops, he went on further ahead with a few men and thoroughly explored the enemy position. Then without further delay he launched his attack. The battle was short but hard fought, and Luca commented on the useful role of the infantry. The arrival of Micheletto Attendolo from the other direction completed what appears to have been a thoroughly well-planned and organised operation. The Sienese were completely routed, a number of captains and 150 men captured and 600 horses taken. Some of the prisoners escaped the next day as they were being escorted to Empoli, but were quickly rounded up. This battle, described by Luca degli Albizzi, was in fact the Rout of S. Romano later made famous by the series of paintings executed by Paolo Uccello for the Medici palace. Luca’s eye-witness account is somewhat different to traditional descriptions of the battle, which suggest that Niccolò da Tolentino was surprised with a handful of men and held out against enormous odds for eight hours until Attendolo arrived. No doubt a desire to glorify Niccolò’s achievement played some part in the distortions which have crept into the story, but Luca’s account of Niccolò leading a carefully planned attack does the condottiere no less credit in a different way.

The Florentine army got its rest day on Monday and then began to besiege Pontedera. This was, however, a more formidable task than the siege of Linari and without good artillery was likely to take some time. After a fortnight’s intense activity, during which the army had covered many miles of difficult country, taken a town by assault, and won an important victory, there was inevitably a lull. Luca degli Albizzi returned to Florence on the 6th to urge on the provision of supplies and artillery. He confessed that he felt completely exhausted.

This is an instructive glimpse into the life of an army and one which is all too rare in the fifteenth century. The mobility of Niccolò da Tolentino’s force, although half its strength consisted of infantry, is indicative of one of the major features of the warfare of the period. Luca degli Albizzi remarked at one point that only 300 of the 2,000 infantry in the army were concentrated together in one column and the rest were divided up amongst the cavalry squadrons. Does this perhaps mean that many of these infantry rode behind the men-at-arms on their horses when on the march? This could well be the explanation of the speed with which small armies could move. Niccolò da Tolentino’s army of course had very limited artillery and apparently no carts in the baggage train, but it did have 60 mules with provisions and was not living off the country. A larger army, and particularly later in the century, would inevitably have been much more encumbered with munitions and baggage. But it was usually the case that the heavy baggage was detached from the fighting elements of an army and moved on different routes in the rear.

We can get an impression of the activities of the other Florentine army in 1432 under Micheletto Attendolo from the letters written by Micheletto and his attendant commissaries to Florence. It had moved out of its winter quarters outside Pisa in late March and did not return to these quarters finally until mid-December. During the nine months, the army marched all over the Arno valley and deep into the hills on either side; it conducted at least four sieges and numerous skirmishes, but fought no major battle other than its tardy intervention at S. Romano. In 1440 Baldaccio d’Anghiari marched with a small force from Lucca to Piombino in two days—a distance of over 100 miles.

However, some of the most striking evidence for the mobility of mid-fifteenth-century armies comes from the campaigns of 1438–9 in Lombardy. The march of Gattamelata around Lake Garda in the autumn of 1438, when he escaped with his Venetian army from Brescia, became almost legendary in the annals of Italian warfare. Brescia was being closely besieged by the Milanese under Niccolò Piccinino and the direct route eastwards was well blocked. But it was essential to extricate Gattamelata’s main army, both because its size was creating serious provisioning problems in the beleaguered city and because without it the defence of the rest of the Venetian state, and particularly Verona, was dangerously weak. The only feasible escape route was over the mountains around the north of Lake Garda. It was a route which had never been used by large bodies of troops and was therefore thinly guarded by the Milanese. It was over this route that Gattamelata marched his army of 3,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry, brushing aside the Milanese opposition and reaching Verona in five days. Piccinino was astonished by the feat, but he himself in the next year almost equalled it. Brescia was still being besieged and Gattamelata and Francesco Sforza marched to relieve it by the same route through the mountains. Piccinino moved north from Brescia to meet them and was badly beaten at Tenno. It was said that he escaped from the town, as the Venetian troops swarmed into it, carried in a sack on the back of a German soldier. However, he quickly rallied his forces and marched them around the south shore of the lake to attack Verona, while the Venetian army was still in the mountains. His forced march took Verona completely by surprise, and he occupied the city, although failing to take its two fortresses. Anxious messengers rode through the night to carry the news to Gattamelata and Sforza, and they, again acting with remarkable speed, marched back over the by then familiar road. It was once again the turn of Piccinino to be surprised; thinking that the Venetian army was still on the other side of the lake, his troops were contentedly looting Verona when Sforza and Gattamelata arrived outside the walls. Once more they had done the long march through the mountains in unbelievable time and the Milanese were in no position to defend their new possession. Piccinino and his men were bundled unceremoniously out of Verona having been its masters for less than three days.

Italian 15th Century Warfare II

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The mobility of these armies around Lake Garda was the result of military necessity, but often the errant characteristics of Italian armies were dictated by the search for provisions. Particularly in the first half of the century, it was rare for camp to be pitched in the same place for more than two or three nights, even when the army was on the defensive. After 1450 the growing use of field fortifications and the improvement in provisioning organisation made camps much more permanent affairs. In 1479 the camp established by the Florentines and their allies at Poggio Imperiale was the base for the combined army throughout the summer.

It was Gattamelata and Sforza in 1439 who issued one of the best known sets of army regulations for this period. It was probably normal practice from early in the fifteenth century for a captain general to lay down regulations for the conduct of his army, particularly when in camp, but very few have survived. Such regulations were fairly stereotyped and clearly there were conventions about such things which soldiers accepted without question. In fact Italian army regulations differ little from those which have survived from English military administration of the same period. Gattamelata and Sforza were in a slightly unusual position in that they commanded a joint army; Gattamelata as Venetian captain general commanded the Venetian forces, Sforza was captain general of the League and commanded his own very large company and a certain number of Florentine-employed troops. Their regulations therefore had some peculiar features when they laid down the order of march; the two armies took turns day by day to lead and to be responsible for the defence of the marching column. Otherwise the regulations were conventional in their emphasis on not breaking ranks, on all provisioning companies being properly protected by cavalry, on the formation of a special billeting squadron consisting of representatives of each company, on the role of camp marshals, and on the procedure in the event of a sudden attack on the camp.

The one major omission from these regulations as compared with contemporary English ones was any reference to women in the camps. This was a distinction often noted by observers: Italian armies were encumbered (or perhaps inspired?) by the presence of large numbers of female camp followers. Niccolò da Tolentino’s army in 1432 took women from Linari after the assault and presumably added them to its following. But English regulations were quite specific that no women should be kept in the camp. Anyone finding a harlot about the camp could take all her money, break her arm, and drive her from the army. Niccolò de’ Favri, a member of the Venetian embassy in London, reported on Henry VIII’s 1513 expedition: ‘They did not take wenches with them and they were not profane swearers like our soldiers. Indeed there were few who failed daily to recite the office and Our Lady’s rosary.’ The second distinction observed by the Venetian seems to place the English army in a somewhat unreal light, although it is true that Italian army regulations were less concerned about blasphemy than contemporary maritime regulations. However, the distinction on the role of women in the camps was a true one, but one which reflected totally different social attitudes. Prostitution was an accepted feature of Italian society and so was the military brothel; the Florentines licensed brothels outside the walls of Pisa and used the proceeds from the taxes on them to repair the walls. The 211 prostitutes captured by the Paduans in the defeat of the Veronese army at the Brentelle in 1386 were escorted with great honour to Padua and entertained at the Lord of Padua’s table.

Given the seasonal nature of Italian warfare, camp life was only a part of the soldier’s life. The side about which we know even less is the conditions of troops in winter quarters. The Borgo S. Marco outside the walls of Pisa was often the winter quarters of Florentine armies and there Micheletto Attendolo spent the winter of 1431–2. It served the same purpose as the serragli of the Venetian cities, but one suspects that in the Borgo S. Marco troops were billeted in private houses, whereas in the serragli there were probably some form of permanent encampments. The bulk of the troops of a condottiere prince like Federigo da Montefeltro probably returned to their homes in and around Urbino in the winter, parading perhaps at infrequent intervals to receive pay. Even in the Venetian cities, where the companies had the same winter quarters for years on end, it seems likely that many of the soldiers had their families to which they returned when the campaigning season was over. But certainly, as the century advanced, there is increasing evidence that armies were held together and paid, at least in a rudimentary fashion, in the winter. Nor indeed was it always the case that campaigning stopped in the winter, and the winter break could certainly be very short; December and March were months in which there was often plenty of military activity. The summer break, still common in the first half of the century, was becoming less standard after 1450, although the Venetian army in the sixteenth century still held its manoeuvres in peacetime in spring and autumn.

The emphasis on active campaigning in spring and early summer, and again in the autumn, was not only the result of these being the more clement seasons for military operations. They were also the seasons when armies could do the most damage to crops, and this was always one of the prime aims of Italian warfare. Devastation and organised looting was economic warfare of a most effective kind; if carried out systematically it could have a much greater impact on a small Italian state than the defeat of its army in the field. The conscript pioneers attached to Italian armies were known as guastatori (devastators); their first function was breaking down and burning crops, and only subsequently did they become increasingly important as diggers of field fortifications and other constructive work.

Devastation and looting were therefore by no means necessarily to be linked with ill-discipline, although they were operations which could easily lead to loss of control and bad discipline. There were in fact two totally different sides to this problem. When an army was operating on friendly soil there was of course no question of systematic devastation. All provisions were in theory bought and, as far as possible, troops were kept under control. There were inevitably clashes between troops and civilians, but the condottieri were responsible for the discipline of their men and could be fined if these men inflicted damage on civilian property. The behaviour of troops in this situation was often the subject of complaints from the local populations, but the volume of individual complaints which have survived is not such as to suggest that the increasingly permanent armies were a positive scourge to their own civilians. After a defeat, when an army was in retreat, was the most dangerous time, and it was not uncommon for serious damage to be inflicted on the friendly local population. The other situation was that of an army operating in hostile territory when the whole outlook was totally different. Such armies lived as far as possible off the land and were committed to a policy of devastation. Both the collection of supplies and the ravaging were organised, and there were usually instructions that the property of the Church was to be spared. The condottieri were still concerned to see that their men did not get out of hand and that booty was divided up fairly.

Francesco Guicciardini, who was certainly no friend of the Italian mercenary system, remarked: ‘Ever since the times of antiquity in which military discipline was severely exercised, the soldiery had always been licentious and burdensome to the people, yet they never gave themselves loose to all manners of disorders, but lived for the most part on their pay, and their licentiousness was restrained within tolerable bounds. But the Spaniards in Italy were the first that presumed to maintain themselves wholly on the substance of the people.’ After 1494 the large French and Spanish armies in Italy were living permanently on hostile soil and behaved accordingly. The average Italian army of the fifteenth century spent most of its time billeted or camped on friendly soil, and this was when its ‘licentiousness was restrained within tolerable bounds’. Discipline depends to a large extent on long service under respected and responsible leaders; the peculiar and increasingly permanent condotta system of the fifteenth century provided these conditions to a greater extent than we sometimes imagine. It is significant that Luca degli Albizzi in the three weeks he was with the army in 1432 said not a word about bad discipline except to report that all the militia had deserted. Linari was sacked, but the impression given is that this was a calculated affair, a reprisal for resistance.

The possibilities of booty and at the same time a breakdown of discipline were always at their greatest when a town surrendered or was stormed after a siege. As in northern Europe, it was accepted practice in Italy that a town was formally summoned to surrender before a siege started. It was at this moment that a town could expect to secure the best terms before time, patience and lives had been lost in a siege. However, the terms of a surrender were by no means necessarily related to the length of the siege or the effort involved in it, nor indeed were the terms agreed necessarily honoured once the gates had been opened to a besieging army.

The Western Squadron

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HMS Royal George, right, shown fictitiously at the launch of HMS Cambridge in 1755 by John Cleveley the Elder (1757)

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Admiral Sir Edward Hawke defeating Admiral de Conflans in the Bay of Biscay
Artist: Thomas Luny

In 1758 and 1759 British fortunes had sharply improved in most parts of the world except in home waters. The Western Squadron spent much of 1758 under Anson’s command once more, but scurvy and victualling problems limited him to six weeks at sea, though he once victualled at sea from transports on the coast of Brittany. In October 1758, now under Saunders, the squadron again failed to intercept French ships entering and leaving Brest. It was clear to British ministers that the Western Squadron had to do better. It was all the more clear as it became evident that the French government, with its naval strength and colonial position weakening fast, had decided to solve its troubles at a stroke by invading Britain. Once again the English Jacobites were to play their part, and again there were unrealistic hopes of Spanish, Swedish and even Russian participation. By unorthodox financial manoeuvres enough money was borrowed to keep the French navy at sea for another summer. The plan was for the invasion force to sail with the main fleet, which had to come from Brest and Rochefort. It was, however, impossible to assemble the army at Brest, which always depended on food and raw materials imported by coastal shipping from the rest of France, and which by the spring of 1759 was already severely short of timber and unable to feed extra mouths. It was therefore decided to assemble the army around Vannes, in southern Brittany, where it could be fed, and where the inland sea of the Morbihan provided anchorage for transports. It followed that the Brest fleet had to sail down to collect the transports before returning to the English Channel.

It followed for the British that Brest was now the key point. Intermittent cruises in the Western Approaches would not suffice; it was necessary for the Western Squadron to be continually off Brest or very near it. Never before had the Royal Navy faced the dangers of a close blockade of Brest, and the geographical situation needs to be explained, for wind, tide and navigation were as always the limiting factors in naval operations. Brest dockyard lies on a narrow river, the Penfeld, issuing on to a huge enclosed roadstead, which itself communicates with the sea by a narrow channel, the Goulet, lying almost east and west with high ground on both sides. Outside the Goulet are two anchorages, Berthaume Bay on the north and Camaret Bay on the south side, themselves screened from the open Atlantic by extensive reefs and islands through which there are three passages. To the westward the Iroise is open but scattered with dangerous pinnacle rocks. To the northward the narrow and rock-strewn Four with its formidable tide-race leads into the English Channel. To the south the Chaussée de Sein, a long chain of reefs and islands (known to the English as the ‘Saints’ or ‘Seams’), stretches westwards into the Atlantic. Through it there is one deep but very narrow channel, the Raz de Sein, with the Tevennec rock in the middle of the channel at its northern end. The tide runs through the Goulet at three knots, the Four at four and a half knots and the Raz at seven knots. None of them could be passed except with the tide, and as it is twenty-five miles from the Goulet to the Raz it required exact timing to pass both on the same ebb (or, inward-bound, on the same flood), so that squadrons often had to anchor at least one tide in Berthaume or Camaret Bay. The distances are such that there is no one position from which a fleet could watch all three channels out of Brest except close in with the Goulet where they meet, but neither is there any ground high enough for watchers on the mainland of Brittany to see far enough out to sea to locate a blockading squadron in the offing.

In the prevailing south-westerlies it was easy for French ships to enter the Goulet, but to leave required an easterly or northerly wind; commonest in the late winter and spring, between January and May. At other times of the year the chance to sail from Brest usually came when one of the regular depressions blew in from the Atlantic over the British Isles, causing the wind in the Channel to veer northerly and easterly. Overall it is possible to sail from Brest on about 40 per cent of the days in the year. Because they were often sailing in northerly winds, and because they often wished to avoid the British, the French tended to use the Raz de Sein more often than the other channels.

For a different reason inward-bound squadrons often came the same way. It has been explained why Ushant was a dangerous landfall. No sane navigator, unsure of his position after weeks at sea, would head straight for Brest – least of all a navigator plotting on the Neptune François, the official French chart atlas from 1693 until 1822, which lays down the port thirty-five miles out of position. Instead French ships usually came in from the Atlantic on the parallel of Belle Isle, an excellent bold landfall, from which a south-westerly wind would carry a ship on the port tack to Lorient and Brest, or on the starboard to Nantes, Rochefort and Bordeaux. Alternatively they might first make Cape Finisterre or Cape Ortegal to fix their position and then strike north-eastward across the Bay to Belle Isle. From Belle Isle ships approached Brest from the south-east, past the headland of Penmarc’h and through the Raz de Sein. For the British this meant that any close watch on Brest required a squadron between the Seams and the Penmarks (to use English names), in which position the Breton coast is a deadly lee shore and the only possible escape in a westerly gale would be down into the Bay of Biscay, away from home. The only reasonably safe position for a British squadron watching Brest is west or north-west of Ushant, with the Channel open to leeward, but from here it is impossible to see the Raz de Sein.

These were some of the difficulties Sir Edward Hawke faced when he sailed with the Western Squadron in May 1759 under orders to keep as close to Brest as possible. There he developed a system by which the main squadron was kept in relative safety to seaward of Ushant, but in constant touch with an inshore squadron of two small ships of the line under a bold and skilful captain (Augustus Hervey) lying off the Black Rocks at the inner end of the Iroise, near enough to the Goulet to see anything coming in or out of Brest. Another small squadron was detached into the Bay to watch Rochefort and the French transports in the Morbihan. Initially Hawke was to return at intervals to Torbay for victuals and water, but by August he had thirty-two sail of the line, enough to take turns to visit port and still keep twenty or so on station permanently. At the same time a regular system of replenishment with fresh provisions at sea was developed, with transports carrying live cattle, vegetables and beer. This presented many practical difficulties, with deep-laden merchantmen beating up from Plymouth to the blockading station dead to windward, and coming alongside to trans-ship their cargoes in exposed anchorages or even the open sea. Great determination and expense were necessary, but as a result Hawke was able to keep his ships continually healthy and on station throughout the summer and autumn. The naval physician James Lind, like all professional observers, was astonished at what was now possible.

It is an observation, I think, worthy of record – that fourteen thousand persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of health upon the watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.

It had never been possible for a fleet at sea to remain healthy for so long.

With the French fleet commanded by the comte de Conflans believed to be ready to sail, Hawke remained at sea throughout the autumn, but was repeatedly blown off station by gales, to the alarm of the government – but not of Hawke. ‘Their Lordships may depend upon there being little foundation for the present alarms,’ he wrote from Plymouth Sound on 14 October. ‘While the wind is fair for the enemy’s coming out, it is also favourable for our keeping in; and while we are obliged to keep off, they cannot stir.’ A month later he was blown into Torbay by another gale, and on the same day he sailed, so did Conflans from Brest, 200 miles away. On 16 November, approaching Ushant, Hawke met the victualler Love & Unity who told him that the French were at sea. They were unlucky with the wind, which blew them not only out of Brest but far to the westward before they could shape a course for the Morbihan. On their own account, they were also suffering cruelly from a shortage of seamen, with only 70–80 per cent of their established number of able seamen, and a third of those mere novices, equivalent to British ‘ordinary seamen’. In fact most of Hawke’s captains would have thought themselves very well off with that manning: the real difference was between ships which had been continuously at sea for many months during which they had worked up their crews to a high state of efficiency, and those which had not left port.

The Morbihan, where the French transports lay, is itself within the great bay of Quiberon, which is screened from the open Atlantic by the Quiberon Peninsula, prolonged by a chain of islands ending at the southern end in the rocks called the Cardinals (les Cardinaux), with the bulk of Belle Isle further to seaward providing more shelter. On the 20th Conflans’ twenty-one ships of the line were approaching Belle Isle when their lookouts sighted Hawke’s twenty-three ships astern. The scene was dramatic. Both fleets were driving eastwards before a rising gale, the French shortening sail, Hawke’s ships shaking the reefs out of their topsails. Before them in the fading light of a winter’s afternoon lay a dangerous coast of which they had no reliable charts. Conflans was confident that the British would not dare to follow him into Quiberon Bay, underestimated the rate at which Hawke’s ships were closing, and chose to lead a headlong escape rather than form a line of battle. By mid-afternoon the leading British ships were already in action against the French rear as Conflans rounded the Cardinals to lead into the bay, when the wind suddenly veered two points, heading the French and throwing them into confusion. As the night came on, a fierce battle was fought in heavy seas. Trying to open her lower-deck gunports, the Thésée flooded and went down. The Superbe was sunk by two broadsides from Hawke’s flagship the Royal George. The final reckoning the following morning was one French ship taken and six (including Conflans’ flagship the Soleil Royal) wrecked or sunk, with the survivors scattered up and down the coast and six trapped in the Vilaine river with their guns thrown overboard. Two British ships were wrecked, but their crews were rescued. ‘When I consider the season of the year,’ Hawke reported,

the hard gales on the day of action, a flying enemy, the shortness of the day, and the coast we are on, I can boldly affirm that all that could possibly be done has been done. As to the loss we have sustained, let it be placed to the account of the necessity I was under of running all risks to break this strong force of the enemy.

No British admiral ever ran such navigational risks or gained so dramatic a victory. The threat of invasion vanished, and French sea officers fell into rage and despair. ‘I do not know everything about it,’ Captain S. F. Bigot de Morogues of the Magnifique wrote, ‘but I know too much. The battle of the 20th has annihilated the navy and finished its plans.’ ‘This is a consequence of what we have seen for a long time,’ another survivor wrote, ‘blunders, proofs of ignorance and then folly, plenty of zeal but no ability, plenty of gallantry but no sense, arrogance without prudence. That sums up what has just happened.

The Royal Navy Submarine WWII

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Submarines figured prominently in both world wars but in each case attention has focussed mainly on the role of the German U-boats, ignoring the work of British submariners and for that matter their American counterparts who did so much to interrupt supplies from Japan’s newfound empire to the home islands. British submariners wreaked havoc in the Baltic and the Bosphorus in the First World War, and maintained an outstanding campaign in the Mediterranean in the Second World War. So much of this has passed by unremarked and with little attention.

As in the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Navy’s submariners received extra money, but while the former described it rather nobly as ‘flying pay’, the submariners were blunt and to the point; to them it was ‘danger money’. Both these sections of the Royal Navy had been regarded as not very respectable when first formed, and indeed one First World War submariner was turned down for an important posting despite being favoured by an Allied government because the Admiralty thought he was ‘something of a pirate’.

Submariners and airmen were a breed apart. They had come together briefly between the two world wars with the ill-fated M2, the Royal Navy’s only attempt at an aircraft-carrying submarine whose aircrew, flying the diminutive Parnall Peto seaplane, were reputed to have received both danger money and flying pay. The extra money was necessary to attract men into the submarine service, for apart from the extra dangers there were many other hardships including cramped accommodation with the smell of diesel oil always present and a shortage of fresh water, which was why beards, known as a ‘full set’ in the Royal Navy, were so common among submariners. The Submarine Service was organized in flotillas for control and administrative convenience. There was never a set size for a flotilla; it could be just two or many more vessels, but they were usually grouped around a base such as the headquarters, HMS Dolphin , a stone frigate at Haslar, Gosport, or a depot ship such as HMS Forth .

Submarines were more than just another means of striking at enemy shipping. In contrast to the nuclear-powered submarine that spends most of its operational life submerged, Second World War submarines spent much of their time on the surface, only diving when threatened or when needing to be concealed before making an attack. Many attacks were made on the surface, using the deck gun rather than a more expensive torpedo, of which only replenishment stocks could be carried. The submarines of the day could cruise at a reasonable speed on the surface, but were very slow when submerged unless they made a high-speed dash, itself still not very fast, in which case their batteries would need recharging after about an hour.

Submarines could be used for mine-laying, inserting special forces and for reconnaissance or guiding an attacking force towards a landing area and also to carry urgent supplies. They had a greater radius of action than a destroyer and made use of much less manpower. In theory, they could get much closer to an enemy warship than a destroyer without being detected. The Royal Navy’s submarines varied greatly, ranging from the larger boats (submarines were never ships) for mine-laying and smaller craft for operations in confined or shallow waters, and of course there were the X-craft, the midget submarines.

Among the more notable successes of British submarines were the torpedoing and sinking of the German light cruiser Karlsruhe off Kristiansand during the Norwegian campaign by Truant on 9 April 1940. Later the ‘pocket battleship’ or Panzerschiff Lutzow was caught by Spearfish , commanded by Lieutenant Commander John Forbes, as the German ship was on her way from Norway to Germany for repairs to bomb damage. Although not sunk, Lutzow was disabled and had to be towed into harbour at Kiel.

This was not the last British success against a major German warship. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen , believed by many to have fired the fatal shell that destroyed HMS Hood and which had participated in the celebrated Channel Dash in February 1942, was discovered in Norwegian waters by Lieutenant Commander George Gregory in Trident on 23 February 1942 and a well-placed torpedo blew off part of her stern. A slow crawl with a temporary rudder to Trondheim was needed for temporary repairs before the ship could go to Kiel for permanent repairs, putting her out of service for the rest of the year.

British Submarine Strategy

Submarine strategy and tactics varied greatly between the belligerent nations during the Second World War. In 1939, the British Admiralty decided that the priority target for British submarines would be enemy warships. Submarines were to wait in their individual patrol areas, submerged, waiting for enemy warships to appear. By 1941 this strategy had been amended, especially in the Mediterranean where submarine commanders were given what amounted to a roving commission to attack anything that appeared worthwhile and, of course, merchantmen supplying Axis forces in North Africa or the Balkans were very worthwhile. The same approach later applied in the Far East.

The Royal Navy did not neglect specialized craft, including the midget submarine. After experimenting with a one-man design known as the Welman – basically a cross between a midget submarine and a human torpedo – British midget submarines evolved into the X-craft with a four-man crew. One or two members of the crew had to leave the craft in wet suits with breathing apparatus to place explosive charges on the target. This was a different approach from the Axis navies, who used midget submarines armed with torpedoes carried externally. The finest hour for the X-craft was on 20 September 1943 when six of these vessels penetrated the defences around the Altenfjord in Norway and placed explosive charges on the hull of the German battleship Tirpitz , damaging her machinery and main armament so that she was out of action for seven months. Tirpitz had earlier been the target for British human torpedoes, known to the Royal Navy as ‘chariots’, that had mounted an unsuccessful attempt to sink the ship in October 1942.

Later, on 6 June 1944, two X-craft undertook beach reconnaissance before the Normandy landings and then provided guidance to the British beaches.

Other targets included a floating dock in Norway, while a development of the X-craft, the XE-craft, was used in the Far East to disable Japanese communication cables and they also damaged a cruiser.

During the Second World War, British submarines sank 169 warships, including 35 U-boats, and 493 merchant vessels, but at a high cost with no fewer than 74 British submarines sunk, a third of the total number deployed during the war. A third of British submarine losses were due to enemy minefields. Just one submarine, Triumph , survived contact with an enemy mine and her survival was all the more remarkable as she lost her bows as far back as frame eight, which meant that she also lost her torpedo tubes and ten torpedoes!

The Malta Submarines

Before the outbreak of war, the Admiralty saw Malta as a base for submarines and other forces able to attack the Italian supply lines supporting their forces in North Africa. Yet, the battle was far from one-sided and within three days of Italy entering the war on 10 June 1940, three British submarines, Grampus , Odin and Orpheus , had been sunk by Italian warships. As the bombing of Malta intensified, submarines in port had to lie submerged on the harbour bed in the hope of being missed.

In 1941 Malta became an operational base for submarines. This was not without difficulty as most of the necessary supplies had been taken to Alexandria, but submarines operating from Gibraltar to Malta overloaded with torpedoes and other supplies until stocks were built up. The use of Malta as an offensive base was helped by the introduction of the new U-class submarines, smaller than many of the other classes but ideal for the clear waters of the Mediterranean in which, all too often, sonar is not needed to spot a submerged submarine.

These clear waters often proved fatal for larger submarines, but the U-class was better suited to the conditions, although the class had had its origins in plans for a smaller training submarine. Nine of the U-class were deployed to Malta as the 10th Submarine Flotilla: Undaunted , Union , Upholder , Upright , Utmost , Unique , Urge , Ursula and Usk . Usk and Undaunted did not survive long, but their place was soon taken by others of the same class. In addition to attacking Axis convoys and warships, these submarines were also ideal for landing raiding parties on the Italian coast and on one occasion wrecked a railway line along which trains carrying munitions for the Luftwaffe bases in Sicily travelled.

The submarines were based at Manoel Island, which lay in the Marsamxett Harbour and was approached by a causeway off the main road from Valletta to Sliema, the island effectively dividing Sliema Creek from Lazaretto Creek. Originally a fort designed to cover the outskirts of Valletta which towered over the other side of the harbour, Manoel Island became a naval base with workshops and accommodation for resting submariners and for artificers, the Royal Navy’s term for skilled tradesmen, who were often senior ratings. The submarines were moored alongside. Substantial anti-aircraft defences were placed on Manoel Island, as being on the opposite side of Valletta from the Grand Harbour did not spare the base from heavy aerial attack.

Offensive submarine operations based on Malta started in February 1941 with patrols by Unique , Upright and Utmost . The first significant engagement was later that month when Upright , commanded by Lieutenant E.D. Norman, sank the Italian cruiser Armando Diaz , one of two cruisers escorting a large Axis convoy. No doubt the Italians had put on two cruisers to impress their German allies, but there were no major British warships in the area and the cruiser, which posed no threat to a submarine, proved an ideal target.

Reconnaissance reports of large-scale shipping movements were received on 8 March and resulted in three boats being sent to sea. This was despite Utmost , commanded by Lieutenant Commander R.D. Cayley, having only been in harbour for twenty-four hours. The following day she found and sank the Italian merchantman Capo Vita . On 10 March Unique sank another merchantman, the Fenicia . Later in the month these submarines were at sea again, with Utmost finding a convoy of five ships on 28 March and torpedoing and sinking the Heraklia , while the Ruhr had to be towed into port. The return voyage for the depleted convoy was no less eventful when Upright torpedoed and severely damaged the Galilea , reported as being a straggler.

In April Upholder joined the Malta flotilla, and for almost a year she and her commander, Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Wanklyn, played havoc with the Axis convoys. From April 1941 to March 1942, this one submarine accounted for three large troop-carrying liners each of more than 18,000 tons, seven other merchant ships, a destroyer and two German U-boats, as well as damaging a cruiser and three merchant ships. The first two troopships had been in a convoy of three approached by Wanklyn steering on the surface and skilfully firing a spread of four torpedoes at the ships. Two of the troopships managed to zigzag into the path of the torpedoes with one sinking immediately, leaving the other to be finished off by Wanklyn when he returned the following morning. Ursula missed the third troopship which managed to reach Tripoli safely. For his time in the Mediterranean Wanklyn was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British service decoration, and the DSO. It was a sad day when Upholder was lost off Tripoli with all hands in April 1942.

So successful was the Malta-based 10th Flotilla in disrupting the supplies for Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert campaign that his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Fritz Bayerlein, later admitted: ‘We should have taken Alexandria and reached the Suez Canal had it not been for the work of your submarines.’

For about a year the Malta-based submariners exacted a high price from the enemy, but even so, opportunities were missed. More than any other type of warship, submarines needed to practise ‘deconfliction’, largely because of the difficulty of recognizing other submarines. Deconfliction is the deliberate separation of friendly forces. In British submarine practice, this meant placing submarines to operate independently within designated patrol zones known as billets, and any other submarine found in that area was to be regarded as hostile. Off Malta there were often so many British submarines that it was necessary to impose an embargo on night attacks on other submarines because of the difficulty in accurate recognition.

Early one morning in 1942, Upright was on the surface when her lookouts spotted another larger submarine on a reciprocal course and it was not until the two boats had passed that they realized the other submarine was a large U-boat. There were many U-boats off Malta at the time and no one will ever know whether the Germans were working to the same rules or whether their lookouts failed to spot the smaller British submarine. This almost certainly wasn’t the only occasion on which two submarines from opposing navies met and passed each other by. Another instance was when an Italian and a British submarine encountered one another on the surface at night and after exchanging mutually unintelligible signals, both dived.

Even with such missed opportunities, the submarines from Manoel Island accounted for 54,000 tons of Axis merchant shipping between October 1941 and February 1942, as well as a destroyer, two submarines and two other ships off Taranto.

The ‘Magic Carpet’

During the First World War, the Germans had established a company to operate merchant submarines to carry much-needed strategic materials and bring them past the increasingly effective British blockade of German ports. While there was no equivalent British submarine ‘line’, given the strategic importance of Malta and the desperate plight of the islanders and the forces garrisoned there, British submariners were keen to show just what they could do. The submarine supply line that was established became known as the ‘Magic Carpet’.

While at first the Axis hold on Malta had been relatively light, by 1941 the situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Many convoys did not get through at all, and all suffered serious losses. It became the practice for every submarine heading to Malta from Gibraltar or Alexandria to carry at least some items of stores in addition to their usual torpedoes or mines. The true Magic Carpet submarines were the larger vessels, especially the mine-laying submarines Cachalot and Rorqual , as well as the fleet submarine Clyde and the larger boats of the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’ classes. An even better supply-carrying submarine would have been the Royal Navy’s sole aircraft-carrying submarine, M2 , whose aircraft hangar would have made a good cargo hold, but she had been lost in an accident some years before the war. An alternative could have been the French submarine Surcouf , a large 2,800-ton boat also with a hangar and in service with the Free French, but she was eventually lost in the Caribbean.

The ‘P’ or Porpoise -class minelayers and Clyde all proved to be especially efficient supply vessels with plenty of room between their casing and the pressure hull for stores, and sometimes one of the batteries would be removed to provide extra space; the mine stowage tunnel was another good cargo space. Rorqual on one occasion carried 24 personnel, 147 bags of mail, 2 tons of medical stores, 62 tons of aviation spirit and 45 tons of kerosene. Inevitably there was also much unofficial cargo, such as gin for the wardrooms and other officers’ messes on Malta, and even Lord Gort, the island’s austere governor, was not above having a small consignment of gramophone records brought out to him in this way. Cargo was sometimes carried externally in small containers welded to the casing of a submarine.

Impressive though the efforts of the submariners were, they could not compare with a merchant ship which at this time could carry as much as 7,500 tons of cargo compared with the 200 tons or so of a large submarine. For the submariners, there were problems as well, as the cargo gave rise to problems with buoyancy. Once Cachalot had so much sea water absorbed by wooden packing cases that her first lieutenant (i.e. on a smaller warship, the second-in-command) had to pump out 1,000 gallons of water from her internal tanks to compensate. Fuel was another hazard. In July 1941, Talisman carried 5,500 gallons in cans stowed beneath her casing, while on other occasions fuel could be carried in external fuel tanks. When carrying petrol in cans, submarines were not allowed to dive below 65 feet, while high-octane aviation fuel in the external tanks meant that fumes venting in the usual way constituted a fire hazard so smoking was banned on the conning tower and pyrotechnic recognition signals were also banned. These problems were in addition to conditions in the Mediterranean favouring smaller submarines rather than larger.

A good example of what could be done was the case of Saracen . She reached Malta via Gibraltar, sailing with a Malta-bound convoy. Smaller than the mine-laying submarines, Saracen had two of her fuel tanks cleared of diesel and filled with aviation fuel instead, while every space aboard was filled with food with priority being given to medical supplies and powered or tinned milk for children and babies. After reaching Malta, Saracen left to search for Italian merchantmen, but instead sank a destroyer and an Italian submarine.

In peacetime, Malta had been one of the most popular postings for the Royal Navy and an equally popular place to call. In wartime, despite the miserable conditions aboard submarines that had to remain submerged during daytime when in harbour, there was little enthusiasm for a ‘run ashore’, visiting the bars and other attractions of Valletta. Ashore, there was little to eat and not much to drink. Things were so bad that one army officer recalled his pleasure at being invited to dinner aboard a submarine.

In addition to the tradition of flying her ‘Jolly Roger’ at the end of a successful patrol, Porpoise added a second flag beneath the Jolly Roger’s tally of ships sunk. This was marked ‘PCS’ for ‘Porpoise Carrier Service’ with a white bar for each successful supply run, and this boat alone had at least four of these.

After delivering supplies to Malta, the Magic Carpet submarines would take mines from the island’s underground stores and proceed north to lay them off the main Italian ports, such as Palermo, before returning to Egypt or Gibraltar. They also torpedoed Axis shipping, and on one occasion an Italian submarine was torpedoed and sunk before an Italian merchant ship was also torpedoed, and as this stubbornly refused to sink, the submarine surfaced and sank her with gunfire.

The arrival of the famous Malta convoy Operation PEDESTAL in August 1942 reduced the pressure on the submarines to supply Malta and allowed increased offensive patrolling.

Despite this, by October 1942 the situation was again becoming difficult, with a renewed German air offensive. At this time, five submarines – Unbending , Unbroken , United , Utmost and Safari – attacked a convoy of five merchant ships including a tanker escorted by seven destroyers south of the Italian island of Pantelleria, co-ordinating the attack with aircraft from Malta.

The role of the submarine was varied. On 21 April 1941, the British Mediterranean Fleet ventured west for an attack on the Italian-held port of Tripoli. Accuracy was usually a great difficulty when attacking a land target from the sea in the dark, so Cunningham had the submarine Truant positioned exactly 4 miles off the harbour, showing a light to seaward as a navigation mark for the bombardment. Then in July, two submarines helped to confuse the enemy and assist a convoy en passage to Malta. The convoy was code-named Operation SUBSTANCE. While the Mediterranean Fleet steamed west from Alexandria to Malta and Force H escorted the convoy east from Gibraltar, the two submarines were west of Crete making fleet signals to indicate that the Mediterranean Fleet was operating in the area while the fleet itself maintained radio silence.

Truant was one of the new ‘T’-class submarines intended for operation in distant waters, which was to prove useful once Japan entered the war. The class could handle the long Pacific distances. It displaced 1,571 tons while submerged and had eight bow torpedo tubes as well as another aft and two amidships, with a 4in gun and light anti-aircraft weapons. Surface speed was just over 15 knots, but while submerged these boats could manage 9 knots, although the batteries needed to be recharged after an hour so the usual submerged speed was around 2 or 3 knots.

Originally Truant and her sisters had a range of 8,000 miles but on later boats this was extended to 11,000 miles by the use of welding to strengthen the boats during construction and by using some of the ballast tanks to carry fuel. However, this still compared badly with the range of more than 32,000 miles of the German Type IXD U-boat.

Japan’s interest in acquiring German uranium

u234_kptlt_fehler_uss_sutton

Johann Heinrich Fehler’s U-234.

Japan’s interest in acquiring German uranium was fueled by necessity. Early efforts to locate deposits of uranium within the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere had revealed only marginal amounts of usable ore; the Japanese army’s procurement director, Gen. Kawashima Toranosuke, recalled that upon witnessing the minuscule amount of uranium produced by the promising Kikune mine in Korea, he “wanted to cry.” Meanwhile, in Europe, Germany had acquired substantial stocks of uranium oxide through the seizure of over 1,000 tons of uranium oxide ore from the Union Minière warehouse in Belgium as well as rich ore deposits in Czechoslovakia. Japan’s wartime industry needed uranium oxide for the extraction of radium, and Japanese physicists also required the ore for experimentation with isotope separation and uranium enrichment. Therefore, on 7 July 1943, Japanese Imperial Army headquarters in Tokyo requested that the Japanese attaché in Berlin, Oshima Hiroshi, approach the Germans concerning “the possibility of exporting to Japan pitchblende (uranium) from the Czechoslovakia region.”

In September, Oshima notified Tokyo that negotiations with the Germans into the matter were progressing, but he needed a statement “showing [uranium’s] importance for purposes of study.” This was an alarming demand; Japanese officials were not used to revealing the exact reasons for their requests. Dr. Nishina Yoshio, Japan’s director of nuclear research, confided to his assistant Kigoshi Kunihiko that he did not wish to disclose his plans for using the uranium to the Germans, who would not stand for Japanese competition in the field of nuclear research. Nishina was investigating isotope separation and uranium enrichment and, if successful, would require substantial amounts of uranium oxide. His need for uranium was critical, and he did not want to jeopardize one of the few sources from which he could obtain the precious ore; any scarcity of uranium would bottleneck his research. Kigoshi suggested that Nishina tell the Germans that the uranium would be used as a catalyst for chemical reactions, thus diverting suspicions that Japanese research rivaled that of Germany. Convinced that the Germans would believe this story, Nishina authorized the formal request and forwarded it to the Japanese War Ministry.

Germany did indeed possess impressive quantities of uranium oxide, and a good deal of the ore was stored at Kiel. German naval munitions experts had discovered that the heavy atomic weight of the substance rendered uranium oxide ideal for the coating of large-caliber naval guns; later in the war the Luftwaffe followed suit and began using the ore in the manufacture of missile warheads. The clamor for uranium oxide for this use was so great that by 1943 the munitions industry’s requests for the ore competed with those of Germany’s atomic researchers in Berlin. Metallic uranium plates, vital for the construction of experimental atomic piles, became a rarity; German uranium suppliers such as Auer and Degussa often explained missed shipments by complaining that the military hoarded most of the readily available stocks of metallic uranium. While it is not difficult to imagine that Germany could have arranged uranium oxide shipments to Japan upon request, it is extremely doubtful that German military and armament officials would have parted with valuable metallic uranium. As a result, most experts agree with Dr. Helmut Rechenberg of the Max Planck Institute for Physics that, given the depleted capacity of German industry to produce metallic uranium during the late war years, it can be assumed “with great certainty that the uranium material [aboard U-234] was not metal but oxide.”

On 15 November, Japan’s Vice Minister of War J. Tory directed Oshima to obtain 100 kilograms (221 pounds) of uranium oxide and forwarded Nishina’s cover story that the ore would be used “as a catalyst in the manufacture of butanol.” Five days later Oshima reported that the Germans possessed substantial quantities from which they would able to supply the requested uranium and “its by-products at present.” However, Oshima was confused as to how much was required; he informed Tokyo that although the latest messages had requested 100 kilograms, “this is an error of one ton compared with the quantity [previously] mentioned. Therefore, please be advised that we will order one ton.”

In Berlin, Oshima forwarded the request to Maj. Kigoshi Yasukazu—who, coincidentally, was the brother of Nishina’s assistant Kigoshi Kunihiko—and directed him to acquire the uranium from the Germans. However, Reich officials viewed the request with suspicion. They did not believe that the Japanese intended to use the uranium solely for chemical experiments or the manufacture of butanol, and therefore refused to ship the ore. This reluctance infuriated General Kawashima, who sent an angry memorandum to German officials revealing that Japan actually desired the uranium for atomic research. In a footnote to his cable Kawashima admonished the Germans for their lack of solidarity and compliance with the Tripartite Alliance, asking, “What is going on here that you don’t want to cooperate?”

Kawashima’s indignation, and Oshima’s considerable diplomatic talents, finally persuaded Berlin to acquiesce. In late 1943 Germany agreed to ship the uranium oxide to Japan via two Japanese submarines. Kigoshi Yasukazu, who coordinated the uranium oxide acquisition, accompanied both consignments to Kiel and supervised the loading of both submarines. The initial shipment, which departed Kiel on 30 March 1944, was lost en route to the Far East when its conveyance submarine, Ro-501, was sunk. However, what happened to the second shipment remains somewhat of a mystery. Kigoshi himself could not verify the fate of the submarine. According to some reports, the boat never left Germany. However, in a May 1945 Associated Press interview, Adm. Jonas Ingram, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, revealed that during the summer of 1944 two Japanese submarines were engaged by American forces off the coast of Iceland. One of these submarines was sunk; the other was only damaged and subsequently escaped. Both submarines had been attempting to access the Atlantic via the Iceland-Faroes passage, the traditional route of U-boats deploying from the North Sea to the Atlantic; it is therefore likely that these two submarines were Ro-501 and her sister boat, both of which had sortied from Kiel. In addition, in a 1953 article in the Japanese journal Dai-horin, Japanese army major Yamamoto Yoichi claimed that in 1944 Japan did receive 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of uranium oxide from Germany by submarine. On the basis of this evidence, it appears that the 1943 uranium oxide request was loaded on board Japanese submarines at Kiel, and at least part of the original one ton arrived in Japan in late 1944.

Japan eventually developed reserves of uranium oxide throughout the various territories under its dominion. However, increased requirements from the scientific and military communities soon put a strain on this inventory. In 1944 the Japanese Army Air Technical Department (JAATD) initiated the extraction of 500 kilograms of uranium oxide from the Kikune mine in Korea; however, by the time serial mining began, the JAATD had already requested an additional 500 kilograms. In mid-1944 the Imperial Japanese Navy also asked the Ministry of Munitions for 500 kilograms of uranium oxide. And at the Kyûrikagaku kenkyûjo (Physics and Chemistry Research Institute) in Tokyo, where Dr. Nishina and Kigoshi Kunihiko were attempting to enrich uranium, the dearth of resources had prompted Nishina to request a consignment of uranium as well. Japan’s inventory being of neither the quantity nor the quality to meet these requirements, Germany once again received a request for help from its Axis partner.

In December 1944 Oshima received the request in Berlin and subsequently relayed it to officials of Germany’s overseas-shipping authority, the Marinesonderdienst-Ausland (MSD). MSD officials worked with Kigoshi Yasukazu to coordinate the logistics of gathering the uranium and delivering it to Kiel for loading onto one of three submarines scheduled for departure to Japan in the spring of 1945. In addition, the Marine Sonderstabsweigstellebeinat (Special Naval Home Substation Branch) in Kiel dispatched the MSD’s Commander Becker to various facilities throughout southern Germany to determine “what and how much was to be included in the cargo.” By February 1945 the procurement was complete, and Major Kigoshi met MSD officials in Kiel to organize and oversee the loading of 560 kilograms of uranium oxide onto the next submarine mission to Japan, Johann Heinrich Fehler’s U-234.

The loading of U-234’s uranium oxide is described in Wolfgang Hirschfeld’s memoirs. Hirschfeld stated that each container, “possibly steel and lead, nine inches along on each side and enormously heavy,” was inspected and labeled by the two Japanese passengers, Tomonaga and Shoji. The containers were then delivered to a loading party under the direction of Lt. (jg) Karl Pfaff and lowered into one of the (forward) vertical mine shafts. Hirschfeld also recalled that in addition to Pfaff, Tomonaga, and Shoji, Major Kigoshi was quayside at Kiel, directing the loading of “ten cases of uranium oxide” into the bowels of U-234.

Much of the confusion surrounding U-234’s cargo of uranium oxide arises from conflicting accounts of how the ore was handled once it arrived in America. In Portsmouth most of U-234’s cargo was immediately unloaded, processed, and dispersed to various facilities for testing and evaluation; however, the uranium oxide remained aboard the submarine for a time while American authorities pondered exactly how to dispose of it.

Cdr. Alexander W. Moffat, the surface unit commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier’s Northern Group, was present at U-234’s unloading. In his memoir Moffat stated that the uranium oxide was removed from the submarine the week following her arrival in Portsmouth. He claimed that “the first items to come ashore were the two saddle tanks [which had been] burned free of the deck by welders.” Once the saddle tanks had been secured on the dock, “technicians removed a sample of the contents for laboratory analysis. . . . It seemed to be an odorless granular powder. . . . Word soon spread that the saddle tanks contained uranium.”

The account Hirschfeld gave in his own memoir is vastly different from Moffat’s. Hirschfeld claimed that the uranium was not unloaded until July, when he witnessed six cargo containers lifted from the forward mine shafts and deposited on the dock. Once ashore, the tubes were examined by men “carrying small hand appliances,” which, Hirschfeld was informed, were Geiger counters. Apparently the six containers “were contaminated to such an extent with radiation” that the exact location of the uranium could not be determined. To aid in locating the uranium, Hirschfeld recalled, ONI officials decided to commandeer Karl Pfaff, who had directed U-234’s loading in Kiel.

The disparity between Moffat’s and Hirschfeld’s testimony cannot be easily explained away; in any case, it is certain that Pfaff played an important role in the navy’s disposition of the uranium. Although originally interned in the holding facility at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, Pfaff had been transferred to the army’s interrogation facility at Fort Hunt in Alexandria, Virginia. On 27 May the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations alerted Portsmouth to information regarding U-234’s cargo that had come to light during Pfaff’s interrogation at Fort Hunt. Pfaff had disclosed that he had been in charge of the cargo in Kiel, both preparing the manifest and personally supervising the loading of all mine tubes. Pfaff had further informed his captors that they should ensure, when unloading the submarine, that the “long containers [were] unpacked in horizontal position and short containers in vertical position,” and he declared himself “available and willing” to aid in the unloading should the ONI desire his help. A return 28 May memorandum from Portsmouth to the CNO reported that the containers had already been unloaded and that Portsmouth was awaiting a CNO directive whether to open the containers there or ship them to Washington for disposition. In reference to Pfaff’s offer of help, the 28 May memorandum also specified that “Pfaff should be available where containers are opened.”

Although Germany and Japan were further advanced in their nuclear programs than first suspected, it is unlikely that the Axis partners had developed a critical-mass reactor or applicable bomb program by the spring of 1945. Stanford University professor Dr. David Holloway points out that in May 1945, when the NKVD’s Gen. Avraamii Zaveniagin’s Soviet scientific mission arrived in Germany to investigate the German atomic program, they found that German scientists “had not separated uranium-235, nor had they built a nuclear pile; nor had they progressed very far in their understanding of how to build an atomic bomb.” The devastation of war at home, the scarcity of essential raw materials, the lack of an extensive government-supported scientific infrastructure, and the absence of a substantial economic and industrial framework all combined to hinder progress. Germany simply could not compete with the United States.

Although the extent of Axis atomic research may not yet be fully understood, U-234’s consignment of uranium oxide was not indicative of any large-scale Axis program, nor did it provide American authorities with any substantial windfall of unique value. Richard Thurston correctly observes that “there is no reason to believe that [U-234’s cargo] contained any elements not readily available to the U.S. and British teams working at Los Alamos and other places.” In all probability, U-234’s cargo was examined, analyzed, and shipped to whichever department needed it; likely destinations might include reactor development, military use, or medical or research purposes. Or maybe, as Thurston offers, tongue in cheek, the cargo is “stored intact in the same cave in Kansas as the Ark of the Covenant.” In any event, U-234’s uranium oxide will continue to mystify and to spark debate. When the big Type XB slipped below the surface of the North Atlantic for the last time in 1947, she left an enduring legacy as one of the continuing controversies of World War II.