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.

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.

Middle Ages – Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers

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Border Reiver Surname Map

Frontiers were different in the middle ages. Far more porous and less formal, they also depended on local relationships as much as national, either with individual lords or corporations like the great abbeys. And the Anglo-Scottish border made less sense than most. It divided people who were essentially similar, spoke the same language, farmed in the same way and for centuries had formed part of the old kingdom of Northumbria. It was the magnetic ambitions of the Gaelic-speaking kings in the north and the dynasties to the south which had pulled this polity apart and eventually drew a frontier line along the Tweed and the Cheviot tops.

The battle of Carham in 1018 is seen as a convenient watershed for the history of the border. In a bloody fight by the Tweed near Kelso, the spearmen of Northumbria were cut to pieces by Malcolm II of Scotland’s axemen. The Scottish annexation of the Tweed Basin was never seriously in doubt after that date and even though all sorts of anomalies (to say nothing of long-term English occupation in the future) remained, kings in the north gradually asserted themselves over the Borders.

In the later eleventh century William the Conqueror and his sons had difficulty in gaining control of the north of their new kingdom. It lay far from their power-base around London and still attracted the ambitious attention of the Scandinavian dynasty which had ruled England in the first half of the eleventh century. But the Norman kings moved to meet the expansiveness of the macMalcolm dynasty and William Rufus reclaimed Carlisle, making it a plantation town. Communities of Flemings, Normans and Irish settlers were given land in the old Roman city, the castle was rebuilt and the walls repaired. At the eastern end of the Hexham Gap, on the site of the fort on Hadrian’s Wall known as Pons Aelius, William Rufus’ brother, Robert Curthose, built a new castle. Rising on the high ground to the north of the Tyne Gorge, the Newcastle protected the lowest crossing point over the river. In this way Northumberland and north Cumberland were also understood as potential areas of dispute and conflict. This status was confirmed throughout the twelfth century by the macMalcolm kings’ claims on both areas. Often they were successful (due in large part to English distraction and weakness) and David I controlled much of the north of England. In 1153 he died in Carlisle Castle. But by 1157 the northern counties were back in English hands.

Control on either side of the border depended on a series of interlocking relationships of obligation. The church played a clear and progressively determinant role in drawing the Borders into Scotland and the northern counties into England. The bishops of St Andrews and Glasgow claimed independence from the Archbishops of York by maintaining pressure on the papacy in Rome, and they insisted on making all the important ecclesiastical appointments in the Borders. The jurisdiction of the Prince-Bishops of Durham extended right up to the Tweed (and in places beyond it) and they built a powerful castle at Norham to protect what they owned. As much as any other agency the church helped make the border a political reality.

In 1235 Alexander II married Joan, sister of Henry III of England. Two years later he agreed to the terms of the Treaty of York. In return for lands in Cumbria and the right to hang on to the old Liberty of Tynedale (as vassals of the English king), Alexander surrendered all of his claims to the earldom of Northumbria. The line of the Anglo-Scottish frontier was at last settled on the Tweed in the north-east and the Cheviot watershed, the Liddel Water and the little River Sark in the south-west.

This consolidation persuaded kings and their counsellors to organise. To cope with wrongdoing by Englishmen in Scotland and vice versa, the neighbouring jurisdictions needed a special legal mechanism. In 1248 six Scottish knights met with six English knights to discuss the formulation of what became known as the ‘laws of the marches’, and the following year these were codified and promulgated. In essence they insisted on the return of fugitives from justice, the recovery of debt and the regular production of accused parties at the ancient trysting places on the border line. Some of these, like the Reddenburn near Kelso, were well established and well known. Between 1249 and 1596 the laws of the marches were reviewed and recodified eight times.

Broadly the central transaction was simple. If an Englishman committed a crime in Scotland, for example a robbery, the Scot who had been robbed complained to the Scottish authorities. They in turn passed on the case to their English equivalent, who then investigated. If the charge was found to have substance, the English authorities were bound to produce the accused at a trysting place to answer for it. When it was followed through, this principle could work well and fairly. But it was not always followed through.

This comparatively civilised spirit of international cooperation did not last long. After the death of Alexander Ill’s only close heir, the little Maid of Norway, and the harassed and miserable reign of King John, war clouds began to gather over the Borders. In 1296 Edward I arrived on the banks of the Tweed at the head of a huge army, probably the largest to invade Scotland since Agricola’s legions marched north. While English armoured knights took Berwick in a matter of hours, riding right over the top of flimsy defences, no more than ‘a ditch and a barricade of boards’, a Scottish army mustered at Caddonlea near Galashiels. Less than half the size of Edward’s force, the Scots had no intention of moving east to confront him. Instead they adopted a strategy which would become standard. In their council of war at the camp at Caddonlea, the seven earls who led the Scots decided to attack England’s western frontier, advancing as far as Carlisle, and – redoubling the misery of ordinary Borderers – to burn, steal and kill in the countryside around. There was no escape, it seemed.

Between 1296 and 1328, what became known as the Wars of Independence trailed destruction in their wake, and on both sides of the border as armies crossed and recrossed. After the dreadful summers of 1315 and 1316 and the failure of the harvests, and the frequent passing of rapacious regiments of soldiers, ordinary Borderers must have despaired. These 34 years of destruction, the span of almost two generations, were another turning point, a time when the fundamental nature of society changed – and for the worse.

What did farmers and their families do in the face of an approaching army or raiding party? The sources are scant, almost silent. Chroniclers recorded the burning of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of farms, villages and towns, the beseiging of castles and the outcome of battles, but they have little or nothing to say about the people caught in this incessant crossfire. They must have fled. When Edward I returned to Berwick in 1298, it was said that the town was deserted, and when the Scots were mustering to raid into north Cumberland after Bannockburn, the English king’s officers assisted in moving farmers and their stock south and out of the way. This was almost certainly a general pattern. Quickly gathering up what was valuable and portable and driving their beasts before them, farmers and their families must have retreated to remote places and hid and sheltered as best they could. Perhaps they made for the summer sheilings up on the high pasture. Foraging parties will have found some but at least there was a chance of survival.

In 1308 Edward II was at York, ordering his sheriffs of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland to raise ‘posses’ to repel and pursue raiders, but not lead their men into Scotland unless absolutely necessary. This was most likely a measure to discourage the desperate, bands of riders looking to lift cattle after their own had gone. Government papers carried reports that English borderers were forming criminal alliances with Scots raiders, becoming ‘their companions and guides’, and sharing in plundered goods and stock. Simmering under the surface was a question of loyalty. Were Borderers more likely to be loyal to their surnames and their neighbours than to their nationality? It seems so.

In November 1315, after the first sunless summer and its unripened harvest, Edward II wrote to the Bishop of Durham asking that he forbid his tenants on the border from making local truces with their Scots neighbours. So that some sort of subsistence agriculture could go on, it appears that landowners had been reaching accommodations with each other, people they knew well. ‘The calamitous and helpless state’ of the people had driven them to ignore the state of war between England and Scotland and ignore their king’s wishes. And no wonder.

Famine had one thing to recommend it. It had at least prevented Edward II from reinvading Scotland in pursuit of revenge in the year following Bannockburn, but it probably encouraged more raiding across the border. Edmund de Caillou, the Captain of Berwick and a Gascon serving in the English army, led an expedition up the Tweed as far as the mouth of Teviotdale and Jedburgh. Returning with many head of cattle and much plunder, he was intercepted by Sir James Douglas. As a deliberate tactic the Scots commander sought out the Gascon and fought him in what amounted to a single combat. Douglas’ force was much smaller and he needed to decapitate the English raiders if he could. And he did.

A familiar pattern of raid and reprisal began to establish itself. Sometimes it baffled outsiders – and locals. In July 1317 two Italian cardinals were sent by the new Pope, John XXII, to England and Scotland to attempt to broker a peace and gather support for a crusade. Travelling through Northumberland, John de Ossa and Luca de Fieschi were ambushed by ‘banditti’. When confronted by two urbane Italian princes of the church in their scarlet skullcaps, the ‘banditti’ were somewhat nonplussed. Of course they robbed them of everything worth having, but failed to see the potential for a large ransom. Instead they abducted two local lords and left the cardinals, no doubt dazed but relieved, standing in the road.

No medieval community could survive a perpetual state of war and after another abortive English invasion in 1319, the terms of a truce were hammered out at Newcastle. Local contact between English and Scottish borderers was forbidden but the general heads of agreement look very much like a restatement and reinstatement of the laws of the marches. For the first time the appointment of officers to administer them is recorded. Known as ‘Conservators of the Truce’, two were drawn from Cumberland and Westmorland and four from Northumberland. They were bound to hear complaints about truce breakers, investigate them and seize and detain whoever was believed to have serious charges to face. So far so familiar. But 1319 saw an early organisational structure created to complement the old laws of the marches. These Conservators sound very like versions of the later March Wardens, the royal officers who would become central figures in sixteenth-century reiver society. No record of matching Scottish appointments survive, but for the reciprocal arrangements to work at all, these were likely to have been in place.

The arrangements did not work in 1322 when the truce was shattered by Edward II and his invading army. His men wasted the countryside as far north as Leith, but a year later negotiations resumed. Contact between Scots and English was again expressly forbidden – although one concession was made to practicality. The Conservators might meet their opposite numbers and hold ‘truce days’ to transact business. These could be held at the ancient trysting places along the border – at Kershope, Carter Bar and Reddenburn and elsewhere. By 1327 a famous name appeared on the scene. Henry de Percy was appointed as ‘the Principal Keeper of the Truce’ and paid 1,000 merks to maintain 100 men-at-arms and their ‘hobelars’ or ponies. The institutions of reiver society were slowly taking shape.

Another famous Border name emerged in the early fourteenth century. The Douglas family had been steadfast supporters of Robert de Bruce and tradition holds that the red heart in the centre of their coat of arms represents the great king’s. After his death from leprosy in 1328, Bruce’s heart was cut out of the hideous, decaying corpse and taken on crusade against the Moors in Spain by the Douglases. For many years the king had been under sentence of excommunication for his murder of John Comyn at the altar of Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, and even in death it seems that Bruce’s remains were employed in penitent works.

After Bannockburn, the Douglases received more material rewards, taking over ownership of the forests of Selkirk, Traquair and Ettrick in 1321-22. By the end of the fourteenth century, they had built up a wide patrimony which included estates in Teviotdale, Eskdale, Lauderdale and around Kelso. Over in the west a closely related branch of the family became powerful in Wigtownshire, the wonderfully named Archibald the Grim taking the old title of Lord of Galloway. This was all a deliberate but dangerous royal policy. To buttress the border, Scottish kings needed bulwarks, concentrations of substantial military capability, and so on the Scottish side, the Douglases grew mighty – and as war rumbled wearily on they became mightier still.

Robert de Bruce and his immediate successors were forced to contend with a serious dynastic complication. Edward Balliol had a legitimate claim to the throne of Scotland, and as the son of King John, it was in some ways a better claim than Bruce’s. After the hideous murder of his father, Edward III of England and his counsellors took over the simmering war with Scotland, and they found Edward Balliol a very handy political pawn. And because of geography and Balliol’s own claims to family property, much of this fascinating political subplot was played out across the Borders landscape.

Operation Bigamy

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At the beginning of August L Detachment was ordered to return to Cairo. M E H Q was concerned their desert base was in danger of being discovered by Italians who had recently occupied Siwa Oasis and were believed to be actively searching for L Detachment following the devastating raid on Sidi Haneish. In addition, as Stirling suspected the moment he received the order to return, M E H Q had something in mind for L Detachment. Stirling arrived in Cairo to discover that Churchill had sacked Claude Auchinleck and replaced him with General Harold Alexander. There was also a new commander of the Eighth Army, the acerbic General Bernard Montgomery. He was planning a big offensive for the end of October to start from the Alamein front and he had a job for Stirling which would be of some assistance. Montgomery’s concern was that Rommel’s Afrika Korps were being greatly strengthened by regular supply convoys arriving in the ports of Tobruk and Benghazi. Therefore he wanted L Detachment together with elements of Middle East Commando and the Special Boat Section (SBS) to raid the latter while a combined force of commandoes and infantry launched a simultaneous seaborne strike against Tobruk.

Stirling was horrified at the plan, considering it anathema to L Detachment’s modus operandi. They were suited to small-scale raids, lightning guerrilla warfare, yet the Benghazi raid — codenamed Operation Bigamy — was large and cumbersome consisting of 200 men and a couple of Honey tanks. Apparently to give extra firepower to the SAS units led by Stirling, two M3 tanks were to be part of the attack force. The tanks were transported up the Nile to Wadi Halfa and then transported to Kufra on heavy trucks. One of the tanks broke down approximately 20 kilometres north-west of Kufra. It reminded him of the Layforce approach and the disastrous results of similar misguided plans. But Stirling was helpless in the face of M E H Q support for the attack and reluctantly began to plan for the operation scheduled for the night of 13/14 September. The Benghazi operation unfolded exactly as Stirling had feared. ‘The whole raid was a nonsense,’ recalled Sadler, who said the details of the attack were being openly discussed in Cairo long before they set out to attack the port. ‘In the lead up to Benghazi rumours had been buzzing around Cairo that something was up.’

The large column was ambushed on the approach to the city and forced to withdraw in haste towards the shelter of a faraway escarpment before first light. Those vehicles that failed to reach cover in time were machine gunned by enemy aircraft. From the escarpment it was another 25 miles to the RV in the Jebel Mountains and there they regrouped, tending their wounded and taking stock of the situation.’I saw David and Paddy at sundown that day,’ recalled Malcolm Pleydell, the unit’s medical officer. ‘David was his normal calm self and apologised for keeping me so busy with the wounded. But then he appeared unsettled for the first time I could remember and informed me that we were moving off shortly but because we had lost so many vehicles to Italian planes there weren’t enough places for the wounded.’

To Pleydell fell the task of deciding which of the wounded men were fit enough to travel and which must be left to the Italians. All but four soldiers were loaded onto the truck for the 800-mile trek back to Cairo. It was a melancholic moment for Pleydell as the convoy drove away from the quartet of wounded men in the company of a medical orderly who had volunteered to remain with them.’Someone began to play a mouth organ. The sobbing notes rose and fell, seemed to draw close and then recede,’ Pleydell wrote later. ‘The grumbles stopped and the men listened … it became one of those moments that remain intimately in the memory.’

The Tobruk raid was similarly disastrous leaving Stirling infuriated with himself and in particular the staff officers to whom he still referred to as ‘fossilised shit’. Writing later of the Benghazi debacle Stirling commented:’It was a sharp lesson which confirmed my previous views on the error of attacking strategical targets on a tactical scale.’

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Operation Bigamy: attacks on the airports of Barce and Benghazi, on the port of Benghazi and on the fort of Gialo (Jalo).

Barce: on 13 Sept. 1942 12 trucks, carrying 30 men of the LRDG commanded by Lt. Jake Easonsmith, reached a point at a distance of about 30 km from Barce, as planned. They had left el-Fayum and crossed 1,200 km of desert. The airport had good defences from the desert, but was left with a few men garrisoning the seaside; the men of the LRDG attacked along the coastal Balbia road, where the defences were low. They were able to destroy a truck and 16 airplanes and damage 7 airplanes. At 4 am of 14 Sept. they left the airport but suffered the first losses, then, during the day, were constantly strafed by Italian fighters that destroyed 10 of the trucks; the survivors reached L.G.125 (an improvised airstrip 200 west of Giarabub) and Kufra.

Benghazi: the task force was led by Col. David Stirling, founder of the SAS, and included some soldiers of the SBS dressed as Germans. When Stirling and his trucks, in the late evening of 13 Sept. 1942, pretending to be German, approached the garrison of a check-point near Bengasi, the German soldiers opened fire (they had been informed of the possible use of this trick). Thus the British forces retreated quickly, but the return to their base was very difficult: the desert was the grave of some of the men, and 3 surrendered to Italian garrisons in the following days. The plan of this attack has been criticized by one of the men of the SBS in his memoir: A. Gilbert, “The Desert War”, London, Motorbooks, 1995.

Gialo: 200 men of the Sudan Defence Force, equipped also with artillery, coming from Kufra, attacked Gialo on 16 Sept. 1942. On 20 July Italian D’Antoni column takes possession of Gialo composed by: Command of 35. div. Pistoia with two battalions, one battery howitzers, 57. btn complementi bersaglieri, one armoured squadron “Monferrato”. The Italian garrison, assisted by air support, resisted until 21 Sept., when the British forces retreated because of an incoming Italian column from Agedabia.

Underestimating the Boers

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The British deceived themselves as to the military competence of the ‘armed farmers’ whom they were facing.

Transvaal, now free from the Zulu threat, rose in rebellion, and between December, 1880, and February, 1881, inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the British garrison. General George Colley, the British Governor of Natal at the time, was a brilliant soldier. He was, however, new to the area and had to rely upon his subordinates to advise him of the worth of his enemy. In this he was tragically ill-served.

Colonel Lanyon, Administrator of the Transvaal since 1879, gave Colley a wholly inaccurate assessment of the Boer military strength. He advised the Governor that the Boers were incapable of any united military action, that they were mortal cowards and that the mere sight of British regulars would be enough to make them sue for peace. In this Lanyon made the cardinal error of underestimating his enemy. The Boers had no standing army. However, they had a strong tradition of frontiermanship and had fought at times fanatically against a series of native enemies, including the much-vaunted Zulus. More fundamentally, with only 1,760 troops in the area, the British were badly outnumbered.

The first British encounter with the Boers proved catastrophic. On 20 December, 1880, a detachment of 264 soldiers from the 94th Regiment was stopped by a 1,000-strong commando dug in on the surrounding hills. The British were given the opportunity to retire, but declined and instead decided to fight it out. Their column was decimated with 77 soldiers killed and over 100 wounded. The Boer sharpshooting was astonishing and should have sent a warning to Colley. It did not. Instead, against all the rules of war, the British general decided to ‘invade’ the Transvaal, even though his enemy outnumbered him two-to-one, was well entrenched and knew the terrain well.

Soon thereafter the British suffered a further reverse at Laing’s Nek, close to the Boer main encampment, suffering 160 casualties out of a force of 480 officers and men. Colley must have known by now that he had underestimated the Boers, but refused to change his tactics and decided upon revenge. Majuba Hill, 2000 metres high, overlooked the Boer position and commanded their defences on Laing’s Nek. He reasoned that if the British were to take the Hill the Boers would be forced to evacuate Laing’s Nek and ultimately their entire position.

In the course of a night march he occupied the hilltop with 490 soldiers and 64 sailors. From the peak the enemy camp was less than 2km away and the effect of overlooking the Boers made the commander and his men over-confident. Rather than maintain the element of surprise groups of Highlanders heralded the daybreak by waving and jeering at the enemy below. Incensed by the behaviour of the soldiers and by the fact that the British had taken the hilltop on a Sunday, a day kept holy by the ultra-religious farmers, the Boers opened effective fire at once, causing casualties among the British who had not bothered to dig in.

Colley, who had fallen asleep as soon as he had reached the peak of the hill, could not believe that the Boers would not evacuate their camp. Instead they sent a picked force of 180 marksmen, most of them teenage farm workers, to climb the hill while covering fire from another 1,000 troops kept the British pinned down. Majuba was a convex hill, and without the protection of slit trenches the British could only engage the climbing enemy by exposing themselves to the fire from below.

Even when Lieutenant Hamilton, later to command the disastrous 1915 campaign in Gallipoli, woke Colley to advise him that at least 100 Boers had reached the summit of Majuba the General refused to accept the gravity of the situation. Instead he continued to doze, presumably to refresh himself for his ultimate occupation of the Boer position! When eventually Colley did appreciate his predicament and ordered the formation of a skirmishing line his men were shot to pieces by the Boer marksmen.

Within an hour of reaching the summit of Majuba Hill the Boers had completely routed the British, killing 93 soldiers, wounding 133 and taking 58 prisoners for the loss of one dead and five wounded. Colley himself was killed, reputedly by a twelve-year-old farm lad. The British had suffered a humiliating and unnecessary defeat, caused totally by their failure to appreciate the true military qualities of the boys and irregulars whom earlier Lanyon had referred to as ‘mortal cowards’. Less than twenty years later the British were destined to suffer a further series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the same enemy.

The Second Boer War of 1899–1902 symbolized Britain’s towering imperial status, but at the same time exposed potentially crippling weaknesses in her military machine. The British public were told by their government that the war was being fought to protect the Uitlanders, a pro-British minority in the Transvaal, from Afrikaner tyranny. The Afrikaners of the Transvaal and Orange Free State believed that Whitehall, in support of the expansionist policies of Cecil Rhodes, had hatched a plot to strip them of their independence and subordinate them to the British Empire.

The opposing sides were, on the face of it, ludicrously unequal. Britain, arguably the greatest power in the world, her navy invincible and ubiquitous, her overseas trade colossal and her global influence all-pervasive, completely surrounded the Boer colonies. The war should have been over by Christmas, and might well have been had the British military not deceived itself as to its own strength and its enemy’s inabilities.

Britain put 448,000 troops into the field; the Boers could at no time call upon more than 70,000 men, and probably never had more than 40,000 on active service. Moreover, the Afrikaner forces were almost exclusively composed of civilians under arms. Only a small standing infantry force and their artillery was uniformed and the latter, according to the British, was unskilled in close-battery warfare. (Another self-deceipt, it was in fact Prussian trained and highly effective.)

The British forces, despite their numerical advantage in South Africa, had scarcely profited from their humiliation during the earlier Boer War. They possessed no general staff to plan and coordinate tactics and strategy, and a paltry £11,000 a year was spent on the maintenance of the Intelligence Division. The generals, most of whom still regarded brains as a dangerous commodity, saw the ‘ideal British battle’ as one invoving the frontal engagement of lightly armed natives, such as the Dervishes who had smashed themselves against the British lines at Omdurman in 1898. Kitchener, the victor of Omdurman, was later to complain in South Africa that the Boers would not ‘stand up to a fair fight’.

The British Army closed its eyes to the potential of mounted infantry. Ten per cent of the imperial troops in South Africa were admittedly mounted, but these were mainly cavalry who, although they carried carbines as well as sabres and lances, had little idea how to use them. Only later did the War Office listen to its self-governing colonies and accept their invitation to send units of experienced horsemen.

Deficiencies in British training and tactics were made apparent to all in the space of one week when three independent columns suffered bloody maulings at the hands of the Boers. Better leadership coupled with a greater respect for the enemy would have saved precious lives, but at that time the British still harboured the deceipt that the Boers, as soldiers, offered no greater potential threat than the Dervishes.

Attempts to relieve the sieges of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley met with disaster. The advancing columns were stopped at Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso and slaughtered. During the course of what became known as ‘Black Week’ the British Army sustained 7,000 casualties for the gain of no appreciable ground. Their maps were inaccurate, their compasses faulty, and in most instances their reconnaissance was non-existent.

So low was their regard for their Boer opponents that the officers in command ignored every basic rule of combat. During the Battle of Colenso Colonel Charles Long, an artillery officer with a great deal of military experience in India, supported by Brigadier Barton’s infantry, decided to charge the enemy with his twelve 15-pdr field guns and six naval guns. While nearly 5km from the enemy position he ordered his guns to gallop forward, leaving Barton’s covering infantry fire behind. When only 1,000m from the Boer position, and having left the naval guns 600m behind and the infantry a further 750m behind them, he ordered his guns to take post. They did so with all the precision and discipline of a regiment deploying on the parade ground at Woolwich and were slaughtered by the combined might of 1,000 Boer rifles.

At the same time Major General Hart, as brave a man and as great a fool as Long, ordered his Irish Brigade to advance in broad daylight shoulder-to-shoulder towards the Boer positions. Even when the Boer marksmen opened fire and the Irish began to take heavy casualties Hart refused to allow them to deploy into skirmishing order. By the time that Hart withdrew his brigade had suffered 532 dead and wounded, one of the most futile operations of the entire war in South Africa.

Only later did the British concede the worth of their enemy. They then introduced a series of new and wholly uncompromising tactics which, although they were to lead to victory, were to cause immense suffering among the civilian population which might have been averted had the British, at the beginning, not deceived themselves as to the military competence of the ‘armed farmers’ whom they were facing.