WAR AGAINST THE DUTCH

Bruce Von Stetina – “The Second Day of the Four Day Battle of 1666” Battle from the second Anglo-Dutch War.

The consequence for Scotland of her involvement in the Civil Wars was a decade of Cromwellian occupation, a yoke that was not lifted until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Scottish privateers were by no means out of business, merely resting; the outbreak of the Second Dutch War in March 1665 was to herald the dawn of a veritable golden age of plunder. Preparations had been underway in the preceding autumn, as tensions mounted and some 500 Scots had been conscripted for naval service, many of whom lost their lives when London blew up off Gravesend. From the outset, Dutch raiders were active in the North Sea and severely restricted free movement of merchantmen. A garrison was established on Shetland to maintain watch upon the Sound of Bressay, now assuming a greater strategic value with the Royal Navy in command of the Channel routes. As hostilities deepened, the Scottish privateers, abetted by a ‘flexible’ approach from the Admiralty courts, enjoyed a bonanza. Leith was crowded with prizes. Fat-bellied Dutch ‘flyboats’, ‘hukers’ and merchantmen, the former hunted in the sea lanes off Norway where they loaded with timber.

One of the rising ‘stars’ of the privateering industry was William Hamilton of Dundee, master of the 22-gun Rothes. He scooped no fewer than 22 prizes, the most valuable of which, Charity, laden with furs, netted some £4,000 Scots, a very appreciable sum. Ironically, the outbreak of plague which affected London in the closing months of 1665 and closed the port, linked to a similar pestilence spreading through Flanders, sharpened the hunger of Scottish owners and masters. Hamilton began his first cruise in March 1666 and enjoyed an immediate run of successes. His second cruise began in June when he netted ten further prizes, including the recapture of a Scottish frigate Morton of Wemyss, which the enemy had taken previously. By late June or early July, Rothes was cruising as part of a squadron of four Scottish sail and became involved in a sharp action against a superior Dutch flotilla, four of which were captured and the rest seen off with loss. Hamilton was reported killed but, in fact, survived. Much aggrieved by the Scots’ depredations, the Dutch sent three men-of-war to blockade the Forth. Hamilton was joined by John Brown of Leith and John Aitchison of Pittenweem, when he sailed out to mount a challenge. A further brisk action now ensued and, though the Scottish privateers gave a good account of themselves, the Dutch proved too strong to defeat.

This was but a beginning. The Dutch were badly stung by the boldness of the privateers and their trade was much affected. Accordingly, on 29/30 April 1667 they mounted a raid in force against the Forth. Some 30-odd sail entered Leith Road on the evening of the 30th; three English men-of-war were within two miles but remained inactive, ‘. . . the captains being pitifully drunk . . .’ Burntisland was bombarded, but the forts returned a brisk fire and the attackers could gain no advantage. Locals flew to arms and Dalziell’s regiment came up. The magistrates at Leith sank one of Hamilton’s prizes as a block-ship and mounted guns around, sufficient to foil the enemy’s attempt to send in a fireship. The attackers achieved nothing and, by the start of May, Hamilton was active again, cutting out a 30-gun man-of-war. Rothes was by no means the only active privateer. Gideon Murray, who captained the

16-gun Thistle of Leith, garnered 17 prizes; John Brown, also of Leith with Lamb (16 guns), scored up to ten. Others who notched up notable captures were James Bennet (Barbara), William Gedd (Good Fortune), James Alexander (Lesley), George Cheyne and Andrew Smeaton.

No sooner had the Dutch departed than a fresh alarum occurred, on 29 May, when the sound of naval gunfire spread alarm and the citizens of Leith again rushed to arms, a fresh block-ship was sunk and the guns manned. Happily, this was an entirely false panic. The newcomers were an English squadron under Sir Jeremy Smith, discharging their ordnance to keep station in fog. Smith’s ships had already encountered an enemy convoy and taken 14 prizes and continued to ratchet their score most impressively. The boom in warship construction brought an additional benefit, creating a market for timber. The ubiquitous Pett purchased pine from Northern Scotland, and an enterprising Edinburgh businessman, Patrick Lyell, set up as a broker for timber and cordage taken as prize cargo. When the Treaty of Breda, sealed on 21 July 1667, brought hostilities to a close, the bonanza was ended, but Scottish privateers were bringing in prizes until virtually the moment of signing. Captain Archer of the 6-gun Joseph from Newcastle upon Tyne, cruising under a Scottish commission, brought in a brace of hefty prizes, and Captain Wood from Berwick netted eight!

Peace proved but an interlude. Rivalry between England and the United Provinces was too compelling. By April 1672, drums were again sounding, and the king had need of Scottish mariners once more. The Duke of Lennox, in his capacity as Admiral of Scotland, was empowered to issue letters of marque. There was no shortage of takers and, within a week, a score of capers were being fitted out. So popular was the notion of privateering that many seamen from Newcastle were hurrying north to seek commissions out of Scotland. A fascinating record survives, detailing the acquisition and fitting out of Lyon, from Dundee, captained by Thomas Lyell and with the Earl of Kinghorn as principal shareholder. She was bought at Leith for some £2,700. Five of her great guns were then purchased for an additional consideration of £496, and the owners incurred the extra expense of fitting out, new canvas and studding sails, tackle and cordage, a new ship’s boat and repairs to the pump. A crew had to be hired and victuals sourced: beef, pork, biscuit, dried fish, ale and salt. The captain enjoyed some additional supplies of liquor and tobacco. The master gunner, his needs more practical, needed powder and shot, paper for cartridges, sponges, a new copper ladle. Swivel guns were also purchased and a quantity of small arms. Total costs exceeded £6,000 Scots – a substantial outlay – and Lyon did not set off on her first cruise until 10 June.

As an investment, she soon proved her worth, returning with two handsome prizes, the cause for some celebration, even though the tortuous and costly business of the court proceedings lay ahead. War was the harbinger of a ripe harvest for the Admiralty court, and Susan Mowat calculates the returns during 1672 to have been handsome indeed, with the Judge Admiral picking up some £12,000 Scots, a very acceptable dividend for one who had ventured neither neck nor purse! For the Lyon’s owners her second cruise, which began on 11 September proved substantially less rewarding. She’d suffered some minor damage on her initial voyage, but was now riven by storm and driven aground off the coast of Scandinavia. Her salvage and repair were protracted, and she finally limped ingloriously home with nothing to show for her cruise other than significant costs. She was sold in the course of the following summer at a considerable loss. Privateering was, in every sense, a high risk venture.

Another investor in this high stakes game was Lennox himself. The Lord Admiral owned his own frigate, Speedwell, and his captain was the experienced Richard Borthwick, one who’d learnt his trade in the earlier conflict. We are fortunate in that a quantity of her lieutenant, Charles Whittington’s, correspondence survives. Speedwell sailed from Harwich on 27 April, cruising with another frigate, Portland. The Duke of Lennox was aboard the other vessel, but the ships soon parted and Speedwell gave chase to a flotilla of flyboats. As Whittington records:

We parted from them at the east end of the Dogger [Bank], chasing a dogger in the night, and next morning saw tow large flyboats, which we lost in a fog. Next day we saw ten flyboats from St Tuball which we gave chase to Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and took six . . .

This was a most encouraging beginning; while sailing from Leith in June the frigate scooped two more prizes. In late summer, she was active off the Dutch coast, taking a shoal of small craft and driving others ashore. This was after she’d caused some annoyance in Newcastle, where her press-gang had been active! Though she beat up the Dutch coast, causing much alarm and triggering the militia’s impotent rage, worsening weather and the presence of several Dutch men-of-war denied her any worthwhile captures. Speedwell set out on a fresh cruise in the autumn, suffering badly in foul weather, as Whittington’s letters reflect. While she was beating the harsh waters of the North Sea, she had lost her owner. Lennox had fallen overboard and drowned. Speedwell’s time as a Scottish privateer was at an end. The Duke’s death caused something of a hiatus as the commissions he’d issued now lapsed and had to be temporarily validated by the Lord Chancellor. In March 1673, the king’s brother, James, Duke of York, the future James II, was appointed High Admiral, though this did not immediately clear the backlog. Halcyon days were coming to an end. Many prizes were taken, but the accommodating ease of Scots law had been tightened to reflect the closer scrutiny of English practice. More and more cases were ‘assoiled’ – the captains failed to establish their case and captured vessels were not ajudged lawful prizes.

If the privateers, in the late seventeenth century, were enjoying something of a trade boom, the rest of the country was not. Times were hard; Scotland remained a small nation on the fringes of Europe. Restoration and the threat to religious independence had prompted a reaction from the more extremist members of the Kirk. Firstly, the abortive Pentland Rising of 1666, then the series of disturbances and repression centred on the south-west and known as ‘the Killing Time’. After the further political upheavals of the ‘Glorious Revolution’, with a smaller economy and limited exports, disadvantages exacerbated by a string of poor harvests in the 1690s, a climate of recession and uncertainty prevailed in Scotland. Even the privateers found war with France after 1689 not much to their liking. Some prizes were to be had off the west coast, but the glory days were gone. One of the proposed solutions was that advocated by William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England: the creation of a trading colony on the Isthmus of Panama.

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Steel Coffins: 7 December 1941 Part I

Mounted on the after deck of the “mother” submarine I-24, mini submarine HA-19 is boarded by its crew, Kazuo Sakamaki and Kiyoshi Inagaki, in the pre-dawn hours of December 7, 1941. Painting by Tom W. Freeman

On 28 November 1941 the Japanese First Special Attack Flotilla, consisting of the submarines I-16, I-18, I-20, I-22 and I-24, each carrying a single Type-A midget submarine clamped to the deck abaft the conning tower, began their journeys across the north Pacific to Hawaii. Aboard the I-22 was Captain Hanku Sasaki, commanding the flotilla, and he had issued orders that the submarines were to maintain a twenty-mile gap between one another as they journeyed across the ocean. Once out of Japanese territorial waters each submarine skipper informed the crew of their mission, and the purpose of the strange cargo they were hauling. Aboard the I-22, the skipper, Commander Kiyoi Ageta, declared to the assembled complement packed into the control room and the corridors leading away fore and aft: ‘Our ship is sailing for Hawaii now. Our objective is to discharge the special-type storage tube [a reference to the classified Type-A] to attack Pearl Harbor.’ The leader of the midget submarines once the flotilla had launched from the mother ships was Lieutenant Naoji Iwasa who was also based aboard the I-22.

Captain Sasaki’s plan of action for the five midget submarines constituting his Special Attack Force was simple. The midgets were to penetrate Pearl Harbor undetected and stay concealed inside the harbour until the main air assault began. Several options were then open to the midget submarine skippers. Firstly, once the first Japanese aircraft appeared overhead, they could immediately begin attacks on American warships inside the harbour. Secondly, the midget submarine commanders could wait for the lull between the first and second Japanese aerial waves, and attack then, creating an offensive bridge between the first two aerial assaults. Thirdly, the midget submarines could continue to remain concealed throughout the duration of the carrier plane assaults, only to emerge from the depths with the coming of darkness, and as the Americans began cleaning up launch their attacks by travelling anti-clockwise around Ford Island. Regardless of which plan the submarine skippers activated, their aim was to expend their torpedoes and then depart Pearl Harbor and make for the rendezvous point with the mother submarines at Lanai Island and recovery. Of course, these plans hinged on any of the five Type-As actually penetrating the entrance to Pearl Harbor undetected.

The weapons, which the First Flotilla was to launch against Pearl Harbor hours before the arrival of the main aerial attack force, were intriguing creations reflecting Japanese ingenuity and the advance of naval warfare. The vessels were not small, each Type-A midget submarine measuring 78.5 feet in length and weighing forty-six tons. A two-man crew consisted of a junior officer who commanded the boat and an enlisted man who acted primarily as helmsman. The Type-A could managed 19 knots submerged, and had a potential maximum range of 100 miles if running on the surface at a conservative 2 knots. The midget would approach its target surfaced until diving for the final attack run. The role of the junior officer midget commander was to give helm orders and operate the submarine’s periscope. The commander decided the submarine’s course, speed and depth, and, of course, targets, and transmitted these orders to the petty officer helmsman. The petty officer was charged primarily with control of the helm, and he was required to keep his hands on the wheel for the duration of the mission as the midget was extremely sensitive and the helmsman could easily lose control of the vessel. The petty officer was also required to dive and surface the boat by pulling and turning an assortment of valves that operated the midget’s ballast tanks. Finally, when given the order by the commander, he was charged with firing the two 17 feet long 18-inch torpedoes loaded in the midgets two ‘under and over’ tubes in the bow. Each torpedo was packed with 300 pounds of TNT. The single greatest challenge faced by the midget crews, apart from heat exhaustion and being unable to stand up inside the vessel for hours on end, was maintaining the submarine’s balance, the Type-A being renowned for its instability at sea.

The ‘mother’ submarines that would transport the midgets to the waters around Hawaii were all of the Type-C1-class. Five of these vessels were completed in 1940 and 1941 respectively, and they were dedicated midget submarine transports. As well as the Pearl Harbor operation, the Type-C1 submarines I-16 and I-20 launched their midgets outside of the Royal Navy’s base at Diego Suarez in Madagascar on the night of 30 May 1942. Although neither the crews or the midget submarines themselves returned to the ‘mother’ ships they did manage to damage the old British battleship HMS Ramillies, and to sink the tanker British Loyalty inside the anchorage. The very next night, 31 May, thousands of miles to the east, the I-22 and I-24 (along with other Japanese submarines) launched their midgets in an attempt to penetrate Sydney harbour in Australia.

In November 1942 the I-16, I-20 and I-24 all launched midgets off Guadalcanal, but the damage inflicted to a single American transport was a heavy price to pay for the loss of all of the Type-A midgets that participated in the operation.

When fully loaded the 358.5 feet long Type-C1 submarine weighed in at 3,561 tons, and was powered by twin diesel engines generating 12,400 horsepower. This meant that the submarine could reach 23.5 knots on the surface, and an equally impressive 8 knots when running submerged on 2,000 horsepower electric motors. At a fuel-conserving 16 knots a surfaced Type C1 could sail 14,000 nautical miles without refuelling. However, the boats’ trim characteristics were shot to pieces by each having a forty-six ton midget submarine armed with two torpedoes secured to their decks. The submarines travelled submerged by day to avoid aerial detection, coming to the surface at night to charge their batteries. Heavy winter seas constantly washed over the submarines’ decks as the maintenance crews charged with taking care of the midgets clambered and skidded about. The crewmen had to tie themselves to the submarines with lifelines, and many were washed overboard by the waves, only to climb back onto the decks bruised, exhausted and coughing up seawater. Onboard the I-24 one of the midget’s torpedoes was damaged when the mother ship submerged, and it took the crew a full night in foul weather to fit a new torpedo, manhandling the steel fish up from inside the cluttered and cramped interior of the I-24 and into the midget.

Unlike the Type-B1 submarine utilized by the Japanese in patrolling the American west coast in 1941–42, the Type-C1 was not fitted with a reconnaissance aircraft. Armed with a total of twenty torpedoes, eight torpedo tubes were arranged in the bow, served via two separate torpedo rooms located one above the other. The type also mounted a 140mm (5.5-inch) deck-gun, and a rather inadequate single .50 cal. machine gun for anti-aircraft defence. One hundred and one men were required to crew each Type-Cl submarine, a huge complement for a submarine of the era and once again not matched or surpassed until the nuclear age.

As the I-22 crept closer to Oahu, Sasaki watched the coastline intently, but little stirred ashore in the darkness. A few lights were visible and an occasional searchlight beam punched out into the night sky. Sasaki’s confidence soared, and he began to believe that the boys of the Special Attack Force really would be successful and prove the value of their training and their innovative new equipment. As the five midget submarines and the ten hand-picked officers and seamen prepared to strike at the mighty American fleet resting at anchor, Sasaki had ‘…a feeling of confidence and a renewed hope that the attack would be successful’. The I-24’s midget developed a further problem, this time a malfunctioning gyro-compass, a vital piece of equipment without which navigation would have been almost impossible. Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki, the midget’s commander, and Petty Officer Second Class Kiyoshi Inagaki, the crewman, worked feverishly to correct the problem and insisted that their mission should go ahead even if the compass was not fixed in time, demonstrating both their eagerness to complete a mission they had spent months training for, and a willingness to disregard their own lives in the process. Commander Hiroshi Hanabusa, skipper of the I-24, reluctantly agreed to this request, not overly keen to send men on one-way missions, because as an experienced seaman he knew full well that the chances of Sakamaki and Inagaki returning from the mission would be remote with such faulty equipment to contend with.

As the sun slowly set on Saturday, 6 December 1941, the five Japanese mother submarines had assumed their midget launch positions approximately eight miles south of the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The radio operators aboard were periodically picking up Hawaiian music from the shore that echoed eerily through the boats as men moved about making last minute adjustments to their equipment, and officers peered intently through periscopes at the darkened land before them. Slightly after midnight the I-16 began the launch of Sub-Lieutenant Masaharu Yokoyama, aged twenty-two, and his midget. After the launch the I-16 was to proceed to the second, and some would have argued even then, rather unrealistic stage, of the flotilla battle plan: to await the return of the midgets from their attacks on Pearl Harbor. The five big submarines would position themselves seven miles west of Lanai Island, which itself is eighty miles east of Pearl Harbor. There the plan called for them to wait for two days before departing the area. When (if) the midget submarines managed to locate a mother submarine at this location, the midget’s crew was to be recovered and the Type-A then scuttled. Because the mother submarines would fan out off Lanai Island, more than one midget might rendezvous with the same submarine, so it was decided that recovery of the Type-As was impractical. The exhausted but hopefully victorious crews would have priority, as the equipment could be replaced. All of this was rather academic, as many officers and men aboard both the mother submarines and midgets knew, for the midget crews had already made their peace with God, and were prepared to sell their lives for the sake of the Emperor.

Yokoyama and his crewman, Petty Officer Second Class Sadamu Ueda, had already made their preparations for what they believed to be their final voyage. Should they be killed they would become ‘War Gods’, venerated at the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo. They could take satisfaction that if they died the Emperor himself would visit the shrine each year to pay his respects and pray for their souls. Religious rites had been conducted aboard the submarine, prayers said, and final farewell letters penned to their families back in Japan, the men enclosing locks of hair and fingernail clippings so that their families would have something physical to cremate should they perish. Both men had dressed in clean uniforms, as Shinto rites dictated, and with souls and bodies purified they had clambered up into their midget submarine from inside the I-16. The telephone link between the midget and the mother submarine was disconnected and at 12.42 a.m. on Sunday, 7 December, the midget lifted off under the water and departed for war.

Aboard the command submarine I-22 Lieutenant Iwasa, leader of the midget submarine group once they had left the mother ships, and his crewmen, Petty Officer First Class Naokichi Sasaki, clambered aboard their vessel. Both men carried family swords strapped to their backs in white cloth sashes. Just before Iwasa disappeared up the ladder into the Type-A he briefly addressed the crew of the I-22. He was full of gratitude for their assistance in getting him and Sasaki to the target area: ‘Our work begins now. Believing in divine help, we are about to depart to do our utmost to fulfil our final task so as not to betray your trust and expectation in us,’ he said, adding, ‘I pray for the future successful battles of I-22. Farewell.’ Iwasa bowed to the crew, who returned his salute, and then was sealed inside the midget. Grasping the inter-submarine telephone, Sasaki spoke to Iwasa for the final time before the midget departed. ‘Congratulations in advance on your success’, he said, ‘I hope you will do your job well. Good luck!’ Iwasa thanked his commanding officer for bringing all of them this far, and his final words indicated his acceptance of the nature of the coming mission when he said, ‘I wish you [Sasaki] to look after my private affairs.’ With the final farewells said the midget was released into the open sea at 1.15 a.m. The I-22’s crew faced the direction the midget had sailed and saluted in silence. It was now a waiting game, waiting for news of a series of successful attacks made by the men they had come to know during the journey across the Pacific, and a period of waiting for their triumphant return, however remote that possibility appeared.

A similar scene to that being played out aboard the I-22 had just concluded aboard the I-18, as Sub-Lieutenant Shigemi Furuno and Petty Officer First Class Shigenori Yokoyama lifted off and motored towards Pearl Harbor. Next to depart was Ensign Akira Hiro-o and Petty Officer Second Class Yoshio Katayama from the I-20. Aboard the I-24, the midget’s defective gyro-compass was still not functioning properly, so Sakamaki determined to navigate towards Pearl Harbor at periscope depth instead, navigating by eye. It was a suicidal decision, but both men were determined not to be left behind kicking their heels while their comrades made history. They were the last midget to depart, and lifted off at 3.33 a.m. The loss of the gyro-compass was soon keenly felt by Sakamaki, as he vainly tried to hold the submarine on a course for the harbour by taking regular periscope readings, but the midget floundered about, taking a long time to edge towards his objective as the dawn fast approached. All of the midgets were supposed to penetrate the entrance to the harbour before daybreak, and be in position to time their attacks with those of the carrier task force aircraft. This became increasingly remote for Sakamaki and his submarine as the slow progress meant he would arrive at the entrance to Pearl Harbor after the other midgets, and the American base would be fully alert to a Japanese presence.

The first line of defence that the five Japanese midget submarines would encounter, and have to slip by unnoticed if they had a chance of penetrating the harbour, were three American minesweepers, the USS Crossbill, Condor and Reedbird. Their job was to patrol the harbour approaches, and a First World War-vintage destroyer located behind them supported them in this task. The USS Ward had been launched during the middle of 1918, though she had not seen any action during the earlier conflict. In fact, the Ward had never fired her guns in anger, and after the First World War the vessel had been mothballed and placed in reserve at San Diego until called up for service in early 1941. Commissioned back into service, and assigned to the US Pacific Fleet as a harbour defence and patrol vessel, she was placed under the command of thirty-five year old Lieutenant William Outerbridge. At 3.57 a.m. the Condor reported sighting what appeared to be a small submarine periscope about two miles outside of the harbour buoy, and the Ward motored over to assist in a thorough search. The Ward conducted a sonar search but turned up no contacts, and after ninety minutes gave up and returned to her original patrol sector.

The next line of defence designed to prevent unauthorized penetration of Pearl Harbor was an anti-submarine and boat net stretched across the harbour mouth. Sections of this net could be opened to permit the passage of vessels into and out of the harbour, and it was the job of the patrol vessels to monitor who was coming and going. Around 5 a.m. the patrol boats Condor and Crossbill headed into the harbour through a gate that was opened for them. The gate was left open as the USS Antares, a navy repair ship towing an empty steel barge, was expected to pass through shortly afterwards. Sub-Lieutenant Yokoyama, aboard the I-16’s midget, saw his chance and decided to follow the Antares through the gate, hopefully fooling the sentinels on watch. Lookouts aboard the Ward watched the Antares pass in front of their vessel as she made her way towards the gate. Something, however, caught their attention, for their appeared to be an object moving in the water between the repair ship and the barge. After some animated discussions aboard the Ward, it was concluded that the object was most probably a loose buoy. Pearl Harbor had received many submarine sightings over the past year, all of which had turned out to be false alarms, and no one was in the mood for jumping to conclusions just yet. The sun was up by now, and the officers and lookouts took up their binoculars and trained them on the object in the water for a closer look. The ‘buoy’ appeared to be travelling at about 5 knots, and no one knew of an inanimate navigational marker doing this before. Lieutenant Outerbridge faced a dilemma: perhaps the object was some kind of new secret weapon being developed by the US Navy, and if he fired on it the consequences for him could have been dire. However, he had not been informed by 14th Naval District to expect any such activity in his sector, and the object was, after all, inside the restricted zone. Having made up his mind to attack the object, Outerbridge ordered the guns manned and the men to battle stations. By now seamen aboard both the Ward and the Antares were reporting that the object looked much less like a buoy, and much more like a small submarine conning tower cutting the surface of the water like a shark’s dorsal fin. A Catalina flying boat circling overhead had also taken an interest in the object, and dropped some smoke bombs to mark its position for the warships.

Steel Coffins: 7 December 1941 Part II

USS Ward opens fire on a Japanese sub. Art by Tom Freeman.

At 6.45 a.m. the Ward opened fire, the first shot from its No. 1 gun sailing over the little conning tower to land in the sea beyond. At this point the midget submarine was seen to noticeably increase speed, the commander evidently attempting to charge the open gate in the net and get inside the harbour. Shot number two from the Ward decided the issue, however, as the round ploughed into the base of the conning tower, but did not explode. The midget immediately heeled over violently and started to sink. Outerbridge decided to make sure and passed alongside the foundering submarine, four depth charges rolling off the back of the destroyer. The detonations finished the Japanese submarine, and she disappeared rapidly into the disturbed sea. The Ward now signalled to shore a message for the attention of Rear-Admiral Claude C. Bloch, Commandant of the 14th Naval District, and responsible for the Pearl Harbor base and facilities: ‘We have dropped depth charges upon sub operating in defensive area.’ Theoretically, such a message should have set alarm bells ringing all over Pearl Harbor that something was amiss, but when the first message was received (a second followed a couple of minutes later) at the Harbor Control Post at 6.51 a.m., getting the signals sent up the chain of command quickly proved difficult. A twenty-minute delayed ensued while the messages were decoded and re-sent, and because it was very early on Sunday morning only skeleton crews were manning the communication equipment anyway. The duty officer in charge of the security of the antisubmarine and ship net guarding the harbour, Lieutenant Harold Kaminski, took it upon himself to try to get things moving regarding some sort of response to the Ward’s messages. He telephoned Admiral Bloch’s chief-of-staff, Captain John B. Earle, and Kaminski also ordered the ready-duty destroyer, the USS Monaghan, to ‘proceed immediately and contact the Ward in defensive in sea area’. Captain Earle in turn telephoned Admiral Bloch, and the two senior officers discussed the reports, and concluded that it was probably just another false submarine sighting. With the Monaghan assisting the Ward the two vessels were more than capable of dealing with the situation. Earle told Kaminski to inform the 6th Fleet’s Operations Officer of the event, but to take no further action. Confusion reigned ashore, as the Ward now reported that she had intercepted a fishing sampan inside the security defence zone, and required a navy cutter to escort the vessel away from the vicinity. When Earle was informed he wondered why the Ward would go off intercepting sampans when she believed a submarine to be in the area, and concluded that the Ward’s crew had misidentified their earlier submarine contact. Therefore, it was just another false alarm.

The Japanese air armada of carrier aircraft, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, was fast approaching Oahu. Another American destroyer, the USS Chew, reported to 14th Naval District that she had attacked and sunk a midget submarine outside the entrance to the harbour. The Ward continued depth-charging operations as American patrol vessels charged about seeing submarines everywhere. They were still busily engaged in this when the first Japanese aircraft passed overhead and roared down to bomb and strafe Ford Island, Battleship Row and Hickam Field US Army Air Corps base. The reports of submarine contacts were soon drowned out by the full-scale aerial assault being made on the naval base and vessels moored in the harbour. The Ward and the Monaghan sounded ‘General Quarters’ at 8 a.m., after a Japanese bomb landed close to the Monaghan. Anti-aircraft guns were hastily manned, the crews doing what they could to return fire against the Japanese planes knocking Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Fleet to pieces virtually at will.

By 8.14 a.m. the harbour patrol destroyers had commenced a steady anti-aircraft barrage directed against Commander Fuchida’s carrier air group. The Monaghan was ordered to move down the harbour approach channel, and while making this journey she encountered the seaplane tender USS Curtiss at 8.53 a.m. Although a massive air battle raged overhead, the Curtiss was flying signal flags indicating that a submarine was threatening her. Crewmen aboard the destroyer watched as the Curtiss trained her guns on the water and opened fire at a floating object. The destroyer quickly identified the object as a small submarine before the craft slinked beneath the surface, reappearing at 8.40 a.m. This midget submarine was well within the harbour defences, cruising around off Ford Island in the centre of the harbour. The midget had been able to penetrate so deeply into Pearl Harbor because, as related earlier, a gate had been left open from 5 a.m. that morning at the entrance to allow the USS Antares to enter. It had remained open while the destroyer USS Ward had attacked and sunk a midget submarine by the harbour entrance, and no one had subsequently closed the boom and net as Pearl Harbor came under sustained and heavy air attack that morning. The midget that was lurking off Ford Island shot a single torpedo that sailed past the Curtiss, narrowly missing the light cruiser USS Rayleigh, before running into the land opposite Pearl City and exploding.

The Monaghan now attempted to deal with the midget, firing a single 5-inch shell at the small conning tower from her main gun, but the midget turned about and shot its final torpedo at the destroyer. The Japanese torpedo shot past the Monaghan and blew up when it struck land at Ford Island. Lieutenant-Commander W. P. Burford, captain of the Monaghan, decided upon a drastic course of action at this point. He ordered the engine room to give him full speed, and then pointed the destroyer’s bows at the little submarine and set to ram it. After a few seconds the destroyer struck the midget, which was dragged along the length of the Monaghan before it passed by. A quick-thinking torpedoman stationed in the destroyer’s stern watched the midget submarine trail along the side of his ship, and quickly fused a depth charge that he dropped overboard alongside the midget. Burford ordered another depth charge dropped, but then the Monaghan ran aground onto a submerged mud bank. The two depth charges exploded, and great geysers of seawater, black with oil, shot high into the air marking the destruction of the Japanese submarine. The Monaghan extricated herself from the mud. All the time this little action was occurring Japanese air attacks continued all around the Americans, but the Monaghan and her crew were unharmed.

The Japanese submariners continued in their efforts to press home attacks on the US fleet. At 9.50 a.m. the destroyer USS Blue obtained a contact with a suspected submarine outside the harbour. The Blue laid a pattern of depth charges and reported the probable destruction of the enemy vessel. Attempting to exit the carnage that was Pearl Harbor that morning, the light cruiser USS St. Louis dodged two torpedoes running towards her before they exploded. A small submarine conning tower was seen, and the cruiser engaged the target with her main batteries, claiming to have scored hits.

The I-24’s temperamental Type-A, whose defective gyrocompass had almost cost Ensign Sakamaki his place on the mission, was now the only midget still operational. Sakamaki’s boat, however, had been extensively damaged by the depth charge barrages laid at the harbour entrance. The midget’s steering gear was almost gone, and the batteries were cracked and leeching noxious fumes into the crew compartment as Sakamaki and Petty Officer Inagaki struggled to nurse their vessel towards the harbour entrance channel, and its open gate. Both men were buoyed up immensely when Sakamaki viewed through the periscope the huge columns of black smoke rising from Pearl Harbor, indicating the success of the aerial assault. Sakamaki was determined that he would add to the destruction with his two torpedoes, never considering abandoning his mission and attempting to rendezvous with the mother submarines. At 8.15 a.m. Sakamaki surfaced the boat to attempt to locate the harbour entrance and a potential target through his periscope, only to have the American destroyer USS Helm loom large in the lens as the ship raced for the open sea. The destroyer clearly discerned the midget submarine limping towards the harbour entrance. As the two vessels converged, the Japanese submarine ground onto a submerged reef, exposing herself completely to the Helm’s guns. But, although the destroyer blazed away no hits were made, and gingerly, Sakamaki was able to get the Type-A off the reef and submerged. Once beneath the waves the two Japanese sailors assessed their situation. The air inside the submarine was becoming unbearable, and the men were in danger of being overcome by the battery fumes. The defective steering meant the Type-A wallowed around uncontrollably, making directed movement or assuming a firing position almost impossible. One of the torpedo tubes had also become inoperable as a result of striking the reef, so Sakamaki decided to use his entire vessel as one giant torpedo and ram the next American warship they encountered. This would result in their deaths, but both men were fully committed to such an end. For the rest of the morning Sakamaki vainly tried to obtain some measure of control over the submarine, but another grounding on a reef knocked out the second torpedo tube. The midget was now adrift, with the crew swimming in and out of consciousness in the thick air inside the submarine, as they attempted to reach Lanai Island and the mother ships waiting there. Sakamaki opened the submarines hatch to air the crew compartment, before falling asleep again, and for the rest of the night of the 7–8 December the submarine drifted about, hatch open, crew asleep until further efforts were made to use the engine to get them to Lanai. The engine barely worked, and the attempt was abandoned, for without a compass they also had no idea where they were, and which direction salvation lay. At some point on the early morning of 8 December the midget submarine ran aground for the final time on a reef some way off a deserted beach. Sakamaki ordered the vessel abandoned, and the two Japanese plunged into the heavy sea and attempted to swim for the shore. Unfortunately, Petty Officer Inagaki was lost in the waves and drowned, while Sakamaki washed up exhausted but alive on Waimanalo Beach, close to a devastated Bellow’s Field Army Air Corps base. Sakamaki came ashore virtually into the arms of a patrol of American soldiers from the 298th Infantry Regiment and was taken prisoner. Sakamaki was the first Japanese serviceman taken prisoner during the Second World War, and the young naval officer was stricken with humiliation and shame. It was to prove an intelligence coup for the Americans, and they hoped to discover from Sakamaki more about the strange little submarines that had so boldly attacked the anchorage.

The First Special Attack Flotilla’s assault on Pearl Harbor was an abject failure. All of the Type-As were destroyed during the operation, and not a single torpedo fired by the midgets struck a single American ship. Of the ten sailors who crewed the vessels, only Ensign Sakamaki survived the ordeal. However, the men who undertook the mission had not really thought much of their chances of coming back alive. The Imperial Japanese Navy honoured the memories of the nine dead men, and they were elevated to the level of war-gods, and posthumously promoted. Lieutenant Iwasa, the leader of the First Special Attack Flotilla was promoted to commander. Yokoyama and Furuno were advanced to lieutenant-commanders, and Ensign Hiro-o was made a lieutenant. Petty Officer First Class Yokoyama and Sasaki were commissioned with the rank of special ensign, while Petty Officer Second Class Ueda, Katayama and Inagaki became warrant officers in the afterlife. Ensign Sakamaki, who had had the misfortune to fall alive into enemy hands, was studiously ignored in the praise and honours distributed after the operation. His bravery was, in the eyes of the Imperial Navy, cancelled out by his failure to sacrifice his life for the Emperor when placed in an impossible situation. To add insult to injury, the scuttling charge that Sakamaki had set inside his midget before abandoning ship had failed to detonate, and the Americans were able to recover an intact example of the Type-A to study.

As regards American preparedness concerning this new form of underwater warfare, the harbour defences were not impregnable to submarine attack even when carefully monitored. Although the Americans usefully would leave the gate in the harbour protective net wide open between 4.58 and 8.46 a.m., even if the gate had been firmly shut it would not have been impossible for the Japanese midget submarines to have penetrated Pearl Harbor. They could have passed beneath the net. According to Gordon W. Prange on 7 December 1941, the net extended to a depth of forty-five feet, but the harbour channel plunged down to a maximum depth of seventy-two feet. The Type-A midget was twenty feet tall, from the bottom of the keel to the top of the conning tower, and this would have given a midget seven feet of leeway beneath the net. Because the Americans left the net gate open for so long none of the five Japanese midgets was forced to attempt the tricky manoeuvre of passing under the net, but it remain theoretically possible, further demonstrating the usefulness of the Type-A in overcoming harbour defence measures.

The activities of the other submarines involved in the Pearl Harbor operation were similarly disappointing. The four boats of the 3rd Submarine Squadron achieved only two kills before returning to Kwajalein on 17 December. The I-68 was damaged after being heavily depth-charged by American patrol boats thirty miles from the entrance to Pearl Harbor on 7 December, and the I-69 ended up entangled in floating line off southern Oahu after an unsuccessful torpedo attack on a merchant ship. Whilst caught up the boat was also depth-charged, and the crew only managed to extricate their submarine by working flat out for forty hours. The boat came to the surface with the crew almost asphyxiated by the stale air onboard. The I-72 managed to sink a small freighter 250 miles south of Oahu on 8 December, and the I-75 made a similar claim when 100 miles south of Kauai on the 17th. The seven submarines forming the 1st Submarine Squadron under Rear-Admiral Sato only managed to sink one merchant ship on 11 December. The seven ocean cruising boats of 2nd Submarine Squadron would continue patrols until 11 January 1942. The I-7 successfully conducted a dawn reconnaissance of battered Pearl Harbor on 17 December, the E14Y1 floatplane obtaining enough data to enable a complete damage report to be sent to Tokyo. Three days previously the I-4 had sunk the 4,858-ton Norwegian merchant ship Hoegh Merchant off Makapuu Point, Oahu.

Later, the Japanese had endeavoured to find and destroy the American aircraft carriers that they had missed during the Pearl Harbor attack, and in January 1942 a Japanese submarine had torpedoed the USS Saratoga 500 miles west of Hawaii. The Saratoga, though damaged, survived to fight again, and on every occasion Japanese Naval Intelligence discovered the possible locations of American aircraft carriers all forces were directed towards locating and sinking them, often to the detriment of submarine operations then in play. This kind of strategy continued to demonstrate that in the Japanese Navy’s mind submarines were vessels designed to work in close cooperation with the surface fleet, taking them away from the more valuable, with hindsight, tasks of sinking Allied merchant ships. The Japanese resolutely refused to use their submarine force in a similar fashion to the Germans, often with terrible results for the submarines employed against the increasingly technologically advanced antisubmarine detection equipped Allied warships.

The Japanese determined to understand why their massively potent submarine service deployed during and after the Pearl Harbor operation had failed to achieve the kind of impact expected. One reason was a command structure that saw the commander of 6th Fleet submarines, Admiral Shimizu, ensconced firmly on dry land at his headquarters in Kwajalein. Shimizu was simply too far removed from the situation to make much impact, or to have changed plans while the operation was ongoing. The overall commander also had a penchant for sending radio messages to his submarines when they were laying in position around Hawaii before the attack, alerting the Americans to a suspicious build-up of Japanese forces in the region. The Americans took care in routing merchant ships away from the reported locations of Japanese submarines, thereby limiting the boats’ abilities to find and sink targets around the islands when war came. Planning was rather uncoordinated, with much of the potential the submarines posed being squandered, leading to all the glory going to the Imperial Naval Air Service. A final factor that upset the Japanese sub-surface plan was the unexpected strength of American anti-submarine forces, emphasized by the fate of the Special Attack Force midget submarines.

Imperial Spain Versus the Dutch: 1621-1639

Before the Battle of the Downs by Reinier Nooms, circa 1639, depicting the Dutch blockade off the English coast, the vessel shown is the Aemilia, Tromp’s flagship.

The battle of the downs, by willem van de velde

Before the truce expired, the Spanish had to figure out a way to recover and then fight off the Dutch. Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, thought he knew how. Spain was, like France, not a natural naval power and her most fearsome force was the army and not the navy. The Netherlands could be isolated by the army in Flanders, Olivares believed, its coast blockaded, its trade cut in the Channel by Spanish privateers and its economy ruined before the Spanish invaded its coastline.

Spain had to spread its limited naval forces thinly across the world to protect endless sea lanes and her sprawling empire from Dutch, French or English attack. The main Spanish fleet was the Armada del Mar Oceano, or Atlantic Fleet, created to defend the all important sea lanes across the Atlantic. Without the silver of New Spain (Mexico), Spain’s finances, and with them her ability to wage war, would collapse. By the early 1620s, following a belated construction programme begun in 1617, this fleet numbered 46 vessels. The main naval base, Cadiz, housed 23 vessels and another 18 galleons were stationed at Gibraltar.The Spanish had spent 2.6 million ducats on building some 24 galleons. By 1638, Spanish naval power had never been more impressive.

Truce or not, the Dutch had rounded the Cape of the Horn (Tierra del Fuego) in May 1615 with six warships under Admiral Joris van Speilbergen and routed, with the loss of two Spanish vessels, Admiral Rodrigo de Mendoza’s Armada del Mar Sur (Southern Pacific Fleet). Fleeing into Callao, Mendoza left the intrepid Dutch to plunder much of the Pacific coast of Spanish America.To prevent similar disasters in the Atlantic, the Spanish rebuilt their Convoy Fleet (Armada de la Guardia) specifically to protect the annual silver fleets (Flotas) that sailed from Vera Cruz via Havanna to Cadiz with Mexican silver. The Windward Fleet (Armada de Barlovento) was created under Admiral Fadrique de Toledo and stationed at Havana or Cadiz, depending on need, to clear out the pirates that infested the West Indies and threatened Spanish lines of communications. Yet demands linked to another war with France, which broke out in 1635, depleted both forces. These were still essentially defensive measures that left the Dutch free to grow ever stronger based on their near monopoly on trade with the Baltic. Without the timber from this trade, the Dutch ships would rot; without its naval stores (tar, pitch, rope and hemp), the Dutch Navy would deteriorate; and without Polish grain, its inhabitants would starve. Olivares therefore laid plans in 1626 to cooperate with Poland to build up a joint fleet, with bases either at Riga or Danzig, to prey on Dutch shipping. Plans for a naval base at Weimar or Stralsund were plotted until 1630, when Sweden’s entry into the Thirty Years’ War put paid to these plans.
Olivares was a bold global strategist who was willing to gamble for high stakes. If the Dutch western connection through the Channel could be cut, it would ruin them as much as if their Baltic lifeline were severed. In 1621, Olivares allocated 20,000 ducats to the improvement of Dunkirk and the building of 20 galleons there. The plan was to have 40 galleons at Dunkirk by January 1636. This was possible since the Spanish shipyards, despite shortages of money and skilled labour, were building 50 vessels per year during the 1620s and 1630s. Operating from Dunkirk, Spanish privateers took a heavy and steady toll on Dutch shipping and on the North Sea fisheries, hitting the Dutch in their pockets – their most vulnerable point.

The Downs 1638: Spain’s Final Gamble
By 1638, the Dutch – isolated and hopelessly divided – seemed ripe for the plucking. Olivares planned to crush the Dutch in a pincer between Cardinal Infante’s regulars in Belgium, advancing north of the Meuse-Rhine, and an amphibious landing on the Holland coast. Using Dunkirk as a base for this invasion fleet, the Spanish would send 20,000 men in specially built barges with blunt ends, shallow draughts, 12 guns and a capacity to carry 150 musketeers. Orders were issued for the already overstretched yards to begin mass producing the landing barges. Through their agents, the Dutch soon learnt what Olivares was planning and they laid siege to Dunkirk – the lynchpin of all the Count-Duke’s schemes for total victory. Olivares’ plan may have been bold but it was overly dependent on that single Channel port and it overestimated Spain’s sea power. Both errors were to prove fatal.

Battle of the Downs 1638
This most important of sea battles signalled the ascendancy of the Dutch as the world’s greatest naval power, yet it has often been overlooked. Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp managed, despite overwhelming odds, to defeat the Spanish fleet off the French coast. Admiral de Oquendo fled with his ships for the dubious safety of Spain’s former enemy, England, at the Downs. After waiting for reinforcements, and realizing that the Spanish would not come out to give battle, Tromp attacked on 21 October. Firing quick rounds and coming in close for a kill, his crews trusted in their audacity against an inexperienced enemy. The Spanish ships were raked with shot, and Tromp then unleashed his fireships with devastating results.The Santa Theresa, flagship of Admiral de Hoces, exploded, taking both the admiral and his crew to the bottom of the sea. Oquendo managed to escape with the remains of his fleet and delivered some, though not all, of the promised troops to the Cardinal-Infante’s army in Flanders.

In July 1639, Olivares concentrated the largest Armada since 1588 under the command of Admiral Antonio de Oquendo. This was a far from ideal choice since the Dutch had worsted him back in 1631 and he was up against an old sea dog, the Lieutenant Admiral of Holland, Maarten Tromp. Tromp had crushed the Spanish at Gravelines in 1588, and he now proceeded to blockade Dunkirk.

Again Olivares’ plans were on a grand scale. Oquendo’s great Armada would sweep up the Channel, defeat the Dutch Navy, relieve Dunkirk and prepare the way for an invasion of Holland. A fleet of 24 galleons assembled at Cadiz under Oquendo, while 63 vessels gathered under Vice Admiral Lope de Hoces at Corunna. A total of 30 transports (including 7 hired English ships) were to carry 8500 troops to Flanders. This Armada was numerically smaller than the one in 1588 (in both ships and men). But the Spanish had learnt the bitter lessons of that tragic year: their galleons had proper gunports, trained crews well able to use their guns and, above all, plenty of artillery. The galleons were faster, better equipped and more heavily gunned than in any previous Spanish fleet. Oquendo set sail on 6 September.

Dutch cruisers spotted this vast Armada of 77 warships and 55 transports just off Selsey Bill in the western approaches of the Channel.The signal was given to prepare for battle.Tromp had only 17 vessels but did not hesitate to attack. The Spanish Armada held good order, waiting to fire until the Dutch were close enough. With superior numbers and a favourable wind, Oquendo was sure he would win. The Spanish fought with customary fervour and at the mouth of the Somme managed to surround the Dutch. However, a number of Spanish ships, including Oquendo’s flagship Santiago, were badly damaged by Dutch fire. Conscious that his fleet’s first priority was to protect the Spanish troops, Oquendo signalled his captains to retreat.The fleet sailed northwards and took refuge at the anchorage of the Downs on the English coast.

Though theoretically neutral, the pro-Dutch English played extremely reluctant hosts to their guests, who were charged through the nose for supplies. The hesitant and self-doubting Oquendo meanwhile agonized over whether to remain while his ships were repaired – giving the Dutch time to grow stronger – or to make a run for Dunkirk.Tromp made better use of his time. Dutch naval reinforcements, both warships and armed merchantmen, were pouring in and when he had more than 100 vessels, Tromp decided to attack. He detached 30 ships under Admiral Witte de With to keep Admiral Sir John Penington’s hovering English fleet at bay, and on 21 October gave the signal to attack.

A descending fog gave Tromp’s battle line, sailing bow to stern, good cover as it came upon the enemy, taking the Spanish by surprise. The Dutch had small, compact warships but good artillery and crews to handle the guns. Generally, the Dutch relied on aggressive close-quarter fighting, sometimes boarding, and the liberal, deadly use of fireships. Given the Spanish superiority in weight, in the height of ships’ sides, in artillery and, above all, in armed crews, Tromp decided to keep a prudent distance. He had 96 warships and 12 fireships. His own flagship, Aemelia, had a mere 46 guns. Like sheep in a pen, the Spanish vessels huddled around Oquendo’s Santiago and the Portuguese flagship Santa Theresa as the Dutch sea wolves bore down. The thick fog made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe and many a Spanish ship fired into the massed ranks of their own fleet.The Dutch moved closer, firing at close range and raking the crowded Spanish decks with deadly shot.The Santiago was so riddled with shot that it looked, the Dutch joked, like a colander.

Tromp now played his ace. Against a disorganized and unnerved enemy whose commander had lost control over his large fleet, the Dutch unleashed the dreaded fireships. These wreaked havoc within the tightly massed ranks of the enemy. Among their victims was the Santa Theresa, which caught fire and blew up with all men on board, including Admiral Hoces.

Oquendo fled with whatever ships he could muster, including the Santiago, to the Belgian coast. It was Spain’s last throw of the dice and the gamble had failed. Spain’s once mighty navy was a shadow of its former self and the Dutch, thanks to Tromp and his intrepid Dutchmen, now ruled the waves.

Target California I

Japanese 6th Fleet Headquarters at Kwajalein had come up with a further innovative use for submarines that had already been employed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The seven submarines of 1st Submarine Squadron were given a new task, and were to bring the war in the Pacific to America’s doorstep. Joined by the I-10 and I-26 from the original Pearl Harbor Reconnaissance Unit, Vice-Admiral Shimizu ordered the nine submarines to pursue the enemy eastwards and to patrol off the American west coast. The American public and military were already jittery following the audacious Japanese aerial and submarine attack on Hawaii, and rumours abounded of the likely next move by the Japanese towards the mainland of the United States. Perhaps an enemy landing on the lightly defended Pacific coasts of California or Oregon was a distinct possibility? The Japanese knew of American invasion fears and the redeployment of Japanese submarines close to these very coasts would hopefully have an adverse effect on civilian morale far outweighing any strategic or military impact they would have been able to make with the limited resources placed at their disposal.

Each of the eventual eight Japanese submarines that moved into position was ordered to interdict American coastal shipping by lying off the major shipping lanes, such as those located off Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rear-Admiral Sato, commander of 1st Submarine Squadron, was aboard his flagship, the I-9, directing operations at sea. It was expected that each skipper would make each of his seventeen torpedoes tell, and 6th Fleet had ordered them to only expend one torpedo per enemy ship. The submarine captains had also been ordered to expend all of the ammunition for their submarine’s 140mm deck-gun before returning to base. This would be achieved by supplementing the limited supply of torpedoes carried onboard by blasting merchant ships to pieces with the submarine’s artillery piece, and then turning the gun on vulnerable American coastal installations. It was a plan intended to spread fear and panic along the huge Pacific Ocean coast of the United States, a plan to set the inshore waters and shoreline ablaze.

The I-17 was a Type-B1 Japanese fleet submarine skippered by Lieutenant-Commander Kozo Nishino, an example of the most common and numerous class of submarine employed by Japan during the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1943 twenty were constructed, earlier examples such as the I-17 being equipped with the ingenious Yokosuka E14Y1 floatplane used for reconnaissance. A watertight hanger was fitted aft of the conning tower, the aircraft being launched by means of a catapult and ramp built into the submarine’s deck. Each B1 submarine was 356.5 feet long with a top speed on the surface of 23.5 knots, or 8 knots submerged and running on electric motors. Prior to the introduction of nuclear-powered submarines in the 1950s the vessels that fought in the Second World War were essentially submersibles rather than true submarines. Japanese, German, British and American submarines, and the submarines of every nation able to maintain undersea fleets, were all limited by their central power sources. Submarines at this stage were powered by diesel engines while they were at the surface, making them relatively fast and ideal platforms to launch anti-commerce and anti-warship attacks from, especially when cloaked by the cover of darkness. The power of large Japanese diesels fitted to many types of their submarines produced enough speed to allow the vessels to keep pace with the surface battle fleet – which remained a primary consideration of Japanese submarine designers throughout the Second World War. If forced below the surface of the water, or if attempting a submerged attack, the submarine was powered by electric motors running off cumbersome and space consuming batteries. The submarine immediately lost its speed and agility beneath the sea, and could only remain submerged while the air aboard remained breathable for the crew. The Japanese would not be able to match the Germans in advanced submarine design during the Second World War to overcome the twin problems of increasing underwater speed and staying semi-permanently submerged during patrols, and their submarine force would pay a heavy price as Allied anti-submarine technology developed exponentially as the war progressed. The Germans went some way to overcoming the problems of extended periods spent below the surface and running on electric motors by the incorporation of a Dutch design known as the snorkel. Basically, a submarine was fitted with a large mast that could be raised until the head was above the surface of the water, the submarine remaining submerged. Air would be sucked into the snorkel head, allowing the diesel engines to be run while the submarine was submerged, and the boat aired, theoretically enabling a German U-boat to conduct its patrol entirely submerged and therefore rendering it less vulnerable to Allied attacks. Fitted to most late-war German U-boats the snorkel often malfunctioned due to poor construction or components, and if waves splashed over the snorkel head the diesel engines would suck air from inside the U-boat, causing the crew great discomfort, especially to their ears and occasionally causing unconsciousness. Allied warships could also locate the snorkel head in the same way as a periscope mast, and the submarine would be attacked. Japanese submarines were not fitted with this technology, even though the Germans gave the Japanese detailed plans of the apparatus as part of ongoing German-Japanese trade and military technology exchanges between 1942 and 1945.

If a Type-B1 submarine was run at full speed on the surface the skipper would have rapidly used up his available diesel fuel, severely curtailing the boats operational potential, so a top speed was simply the boats potential power. Rather, a sensible skipper would be able to take his B1 on a round-trip patrol of approximately 14,000 nautical miles at a conservative 16 knots without requiring a single refuelling pit stop. This would make the B1 submarine the ideal platform with which to sail across the Northern Pacific to the west coast of the United States, and bring the war to America’s doorstep. Added to the potency of the B1’s great range was a 140mm deck-gun designed to assist a skipper in sinking ships. The deck-gun fired armour piercing anti-ship ammunition, designed to penetrate the steel hulls of ships and explode within. Pump a sufficient quantity of these cheap shells into a merchant ship and the result was a foregone conclusion, and just as effective as a torpedo. It was a more economical option than expending one of the seventeen torpedoes carried aboard the B1 through one of the boat’s six torpedo tubes. Ninety-four officers and men crewed the B1, including two pilots and two observers to man the Yokosuka floatplane (one pilot and observer acting as a reserve crew).

Although the B1 was not the biggest submarine type employed by the Imperial Navy, the Japanese nonetheless cornered the market in producing large submarines during the Second World War. The B1 was bigger, better armed, quicker and with a greater range than the closest comparable German U-boat type. For example, the Type IXC U-boat had given the Germans the ability to take the war to the east coasts of the United States, Canada and all around South Africa by 1942 and could motor an impressive 11,000 nautical miles at 12 knots before requiring refuelling. However, the Type IXC, at 252 feet long, was nearly 100 feet shorter than the Japanese B1, and was armed with fourteen torpedoes and a 105mm deck-gun and anti-aircraft weapons. Importantly, although German U-boats were smaller, had a shorter range and carried less munitions than their Japanese counterparts, they were quicker to submerge and were progressively equipped with superior technology such as radar detectors and snorkels that increased their survivability. The fundamental difference between a Japanese submarine and a German U-boat was not so much the technical specifications and technologies utilized in creating them, but the method in which they were employed. The Japanese viewed submarines as essentially fleet reconnaissance vessels to replace cruisers in that role, whereas the Germans saw submarines as the tool with which to sink millions of tons of enemy merchant shipping in order to reduce the industrial/military output of their opponents, and create hardship on the enemy home front.

Nishino aboard the I-17 was proceeding on the surface in the pre-dawn darkness fifteen miles off Cape Mendocino, California on 18 December 1941, lookouts armed with powerful binoculars patiently scanning the barely discernable horizon on all points of the compass, and studying the sky in case of air attack. They were quiet, speaking only briefly in hushed tones, using their ears as well as their eyes to search out engine noises above the rhythmic reverberations of the I-17’s twin diesels as they lazily pushed them through the dark Pacific waters. The eerie red glow of low night lighting crept up the conning tower ladder from the control room below, etching the faces of the Japanese submariners into fixed masks of concentration and anticipation. Suddenly, as the first glow of dawn began to rise on the eastern horizon a lookout let out a guttural exclamation. His arm shot out in the direction of the approaching ship, a compass bearing relayed to the helmsman below, as Nishino ordered his vessel closed up and made ready for action. In normal circumstances a submarine captain would attack his intended target with a spread of torpedoes, a staggered shot that would fan out to intercept the intended target(s) after calculations of the speed and direction of the prey had been computed into the attack plot. Nishino was under strict orders to only expend a single torpedo per enemy ship, which did not give him much latitude for attack, and meant that the Japanese submarine would have to move up very close to the target ship to be sure of not wasting the valuable mechanical fish. Nishino decided that the best method of attack as the merchant ship hove into view was the employment of the deck-gun for the time being. If he could inflict sufficient damage to the freighter with his gun, enough to stop her, he could then decide whether to finish her off with more armour-piercing shells or close in for a single torpedo strike against a static target. The I-17, however, was rolling heavily in the swell as crewmen busily prepared the deck-gun for immediate action, manhandling shells from the gun’s ready locker, ramming home a round with a solid thump as the breech was closed and the gun commander awaited the signal from the bridge to open fire.

The ship in the gunners’ sights was the American freighter Samoa under the command of Captain Nels Sinnes, who was about to be abruptly awoken by the report of a submarine close by. The Samoa had already sustained damage, but not from enemy action. She had been caught by a heavy storm which had washed away one of the ship’s lifeboats. The Samoa also had a noticeable list to port, as the engineers had been shifting water in the ballast tanks following the battering from the ocean. The pronounced list, and the remnants of the wooden lifeboat hanging from its launching davits, would be providential in saving the ship from the attentions of the I-17 in the minutes that followed.

Captain Sinnes quickly dressed and, grasping a life jacket, ordered his crew to muster at their lifeboat stations. The sailors frantically stripped the covers from the open boats and began swinging them out on their davits ready to launch when the Japanese opened fire. Five times the I-17’s deck-gun barked, its flat high velocity report sounding out across the empty sea, the armour-piercing shells tearing towards the defenceless Samoa. Four missed to fountain in the choppy ocean, the Japanese gunners pitching hot, steaming shell cases overboard as others fetched fresh shells from the ready locker. The fifth shell exploded above the Samoa with an ear-splitting crack, white-hot shrapnel pummelling the deck. The Japanese submarine was rolling erratically on the disturbed sea, making it difficult for the gunners to accurately target the American ship, and they were reduced to flinging shells in the general direction of the enemy vessel and hoping for a lucky strike. Commander Nishino quickly tired of this pointless shooting and ordered a surfaced torpedo attack, the fish leaving the I-17’s bow with a hiss of compressed air and a trail of bubbles, quickly crossing the barely seventy yards that separated hunter and prey. In the early dawn light it appeared to the crews of both vessels to be a foregone conclusion.

Incredibly, as the crew of the Samoa braced for impact and a thunderous explosion, nothing happened. The torpedo passed clean underneath the merchant ship. The blind torpedo cruised on a short distance and then erupted in a massive tumult of water, smoke, fire and flying shrapnel. Fragments of the torpedo thumped harmlessly onto the Samoa’s deck, the I-17 a low black shape that drifted ominously closer to the American ship. Officers aboard the submarine attempted to assess the damage the torpedo, which they erroneously assumed had struck the Samoa, had caused. Now perhaps no more than forty feet from the side of the merchant ship, the early morning gloom frustrated their efforts. Still the I-17 closed with the Samoa, coming to within fifteen feet of the hull. Someone aboard the I-17, according to the Americans, yelled out in English ‘Hi ya!’ Captain Sinnes yelling back ‘What do you want of us?’ when he already knew the answer. From his position alongside the Samoa Nishino observed the vessel’s heavy port list and assumed she was doomed. The I-17 slowly pulled away and disappeared. Nishino instructed his radio operator to report a successful kill to the I-15, coordinating submarine operations from her position off San Francisco.

The Samoa arrived safely in San Diego on 20 December after her close encounter, saved by storm damage and the poor early dawn light. On the same day Nishino redirected his submarine to its original position off Cape Mendocino, some twenty miles from the American coast. The crew of the I-17 awaited another target of opportunity, buoyed up by their apparent first successful sinking of an enemy vessel of the mission. The day wore on with no sightings of American merchant ships, until, bathed by early afternoon winter sunshine, the lookouts were once more laboriously scanning the horizon and biding their time. Nishino made no attempt to disguise his presence so close to the coast, believing he had little to fear from American naval or air forces still reeling from the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor fourteen days previously. Just after 1.30 p.m. the sight of the oil tanker Emidio heading towards San Francisco rewarded Nishino’s patience. The Emidio was only carrying ballast, returning empty from Seattle’s Socony-Vacuum Oil Company facility.

Captain Clark Farrow reacted as swiftly as he could to the report of a submarine gaining on his ship. Nishino aboard the I-17 ordered full power, the big diesels churning confidently ahead, the submarine making fully 20 knots, her exhausts trailing blue clouds of fumes into the clear Pacific air. Captain Farrow lightened his ship, dumping ballast that made the Emidio steady in the water but painfully slow, frantically ringing ‘full speed ahead’ on the engine room telegraph. The I-17 cut through the water, closing rapidly on the Emidio’s stern, crew racing to man the deck-gun as Nishino manoeuvred his boat for the attack. It was imperative that the American ship be prevented from radioing for assistance, and therefore reporting Nishino’s position to United States forces. Captain Farrow was already a step ahead of Nishino, however, as he had ordered his radio operator to send the following short Morse message: ‘SOS, SOS: Under attack by enemy sub.’

Nishino ordered the gun crew into action, the first shell exploding close to the Emidio’s radio antenna, blowing the fragile communication mast into useless scrap. In rapid succession the submarine’s gun banged twice more, the shells screaming across the ocean into the defenceless Emidio, a lifeboat exploding into smouldering matchwood. Ashore, the US Army Air Corps were already scrambling a pair of medium bombers following the receipt of the Emidio’s distress signal and position, in the hope of destroying the Japanese submarine. Captain Farrow realized his ship was doomed, as the bombers would take some time to arrive, and he ordered the engines stopped. Meanwhile, the plucky radio operator had managed to restore communications with the shore by erecting a makeshift antenna. A white flag was hastily run up a mast and the tanker gradually slowed. The crew worked feverishly to swing out the remaining lifeboats while under constant shellfire from the I-17, Nishino ignoring the white flag and refusing to give the merchant seamen time to depart in the boats. It was not long before another shell found its mark, blowing three unfortunate crewmen into the water as it ploughed into their lifeboat. Twenty-nine crewmen were crowded aboard the lifeboats and pulled hard on the oars in an attempt to get clear of the Emidio, while four men, including the resourceful radio operator, remained aboard the ship, perhaps from a refusal to give up the vessel, or out of ignorance of the order to abandon ship issued by the captain.

On board the I-17 lookouts had reported two black dots approaching from the mainland, which could only mean aircraft. Nishino ordered the bridge cleared, the submariners hastily clattering down into the pressure hull, securing the hatches as the submarine blew its tanks and slid beneath the waves in a swirl of white water. The Emidio’s remaining crewmen now turned their eyes skyward as the American bombers roared in low over the stricken merchantman. The two aircraft circled the spot where the I-17 had a moment before submerged, eventually releasing a single depth charge. The I-17 lurched violently as the depth charge detonated, but it was not close enough to cause the submarine any damage. Perhaps realizing that the American aircraft lacked the wherewithal and experience to launch a more devastating and coordinated anti-submarine attack Nishino did the opposite of most submarine skippers in his position. Ordering the I-17 to periscope depth Nishino swiftly relocated the fully stopped Emidio. Orders were issued to partially surface the boat, and a torpedo was launched at the stationary American ship 200 yards distant. The torpedo ran true, impacting in the Emidio’s stern and detonating inside the ship with a massive blast of fire, smoke and debris. The Emidio lurched over as the engine room rapidly filled with freezing seawater. The torpedo claimed two of the four crewmen who had not vacated the ship earlier, and a third was injured. The radio operator, topside in his shack, frantically transmitted ‘Torpedoed in the stern’ before throwing himself clear of the ship into the sea. The surviving engineer, though wounded, also managed to struggle clear of the Emidio, and along with the radio operator he was plucked to safety by the small flotilla of lifeboats standing off the tanker.

The I-17 slipped once more beneath the waves as the two American bombers roared in to resume their ineffectual attack. Another depth charge plummeted into the sea and detonated in a giant plume of white water, concentric circles created by the sonic force of the explosion pushing out from the epicentre. The I-17 escaped damage once more and motored quietly away from the scene, sure again of a confirmed kill.

The Emidio, though grievously wounded and abandoned by her crew, drifted off with the current. Lost for several days from human eyes, this Second World War Mary Celeste eventually ground up against jagged rocks opposite Crescent City, California, over eighty miles from her encounter with the I-17. As for her crew, their ordeal was to be sixteen hours in open boats and battling through an unsettling rainstorm before rescue by the US Coast Guard lightship Shawnee located off Humboldt Bay.

The I-23, another Type-B1 Japanese submarine with orders to sink unescorted American merchant ships, was active at the same time as the I-17 was attempting to sink the tanker Emidio. Constructed at the Yokosuka Navy Yard, the I-23 had entered service in September 1941. She was just in time to play a crucial part in ‘Operation Z’, the submarine contribution to the Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor. On 13 December the I-23 began her relocation from the waters off Hawaii for the west coast of the United States.

On 20 December the I-23 was approximately twenty miles off Monterey Bay, California, and with a target in sight. The American tanker Agwiworld, a 6,771-tonner belonging to the Richmond Oil Company was the Japanese target. Like a fighter pilot swooping down on a hapless rookie opponent, Lieutenant-Commander Shibata approached the oblivious Agwiworld with the early afternoon sun behind his boat, a classic attack from out of the sun. Coupled with a heavy swell the big Japanese submarine’s approach behind the tanker was unobserved. The first the Agwiworld and her captain, Frederick Goncalves, knew of the presence of the Japanese submarine was the thump of the impact and explosion of a 140mm armour-piercing shell in the ship’s stern. The I-23 moved into a firing position to enable her deck-gunners to blast the tanker to scrap. However, due to the rough conditions, the Japanese sailors experienced difficulties loading and aiming the deck-gun. The I-23’s deck was awash as the boat rolled and pitched in the swell. Captain Goncalves did everything he could to make the Agwiworld as difficult a target as possible to hit, zigzagging through the whistling shells, probably eight or nine of them, before the I-23 was seen to submerge. Commander Shibata had clearly lost interest in his prey. The heavy seas and the fact that in order to achieve a good attacking position he would have had to have driven the I-23 harder would have risked the lives of his gunners, who could have been swept overboard. A further factor which precluded a more determined assault on the tanker originated in the submarine’s own radio room. The operator alerted his captain to the fact that the enemy ship had reported the Japanese submarine’s attack to the US Navy, and assistance in the form of anti-submarine assets were undoubtedly on their way.

Shibata and the crew of the I-23 were frustrated as they departed from the scene of their first attack on an American ship to search out further prey. Some time later Shibata encountered the 2,119-ton American merchant ship Dorothy Phillips. Employing an identical method of attack as that used against the Agwiworld, gunners again pumped high velocity armour piercing rounds into the hapless steamer. Although the I-23 successfully disabled the Dorothy Phillips’s steering by wrecking the ship’s rudder with a shell strike, a torpedo attack was not pressed home, presumably because the sea conditions were still unfavourable. Nevertheless, the Dorothy Phillips eventually ran aground so Shibata had scored a victory of sorts.

Lieutenant-Commander Kanji Matsumura was an experienced submarine skipper, having previously commanded the RO-65, RO-66 and RO-61 before commissioning the I-21 into service on 15 July 1941. As with the other boats assigned to operations along the United States west coast, the I-21 was formerly part of the submarine task group that made up an element of ‘Operation Z’. On 9 December the submarine I-6 had reported a Lexington-class aircraft carrier and two cruisers heading north-east. The Japanese were well aware that although they had scored a notable victory against the US Pacific Fleet’s battleship squadron they had failed to sink or damage a single American aircraft carrier. It was imperative that American carriers be sunk or damaged wherever found for the Japanese themselves had already demonstrated the power of naval aviation in this new conflict, and the days of the big-gun battleship appeared to be numbered. Vice-Admiral Shimizu at 6th Fleet Headquarters at Kwajalein, on receiving the intelligence report from the I-6, immediately ordered all submarines not involved with the launching of the midget submarines during the Pearl Harbor operation, known as the Special Attack Force, to proceed at flank speed and sink the American carrier. The I-21 was included in Shimizu’s force sent to intercept the vessel later identified as the USS Enterprise, but her progress was hampered by problems with the submarine’s diesel engines and electrics. Carrier-based Douglas SBD Dauntless aircraft spotted the I-21 on the surface on a number of occasions, necessitating Matsumura to crash-dive. Matsumura became increasingly fed up with constantly being forced beneath the waves by patrolling American aircraft. He decided upon a bold course of action – to remain surfaced and take on the enemy aircraft with his anti-aircraft armament. Motoring on the surface at 1 p.m. on the afternoon of 13 December a lone Dauntless attacked the submarine from the port side, but the accuracy of the Japanese anti-aircraft barrage caused the pilot to abort his attack run and go around for a second attempt. Diving towards the port side of the submarine again the American aircraft released a single bomb which slammed into the sea close to the I-21, but which failed to detonate.

British Naval Conflict 1940 I

HMS Hood

Germany had conquered much of Europe and even seized British territory, but the might of the Royal Navy, still the largest maritime force in the world, continued to represent a formidable obstacle to the Reich’s ambitions. Whereas the British army was much weaker and smaller than the German army, the Royal Navy was far stronger than the Kriegsmarine. As Grand Admiral Raeder wrote later of the first serious discussions within the Reich’s High Command about Operation Sea Lion,

A German invasion of England would be a matter of life and death for the British, and they would unhesitatingly commit their naval forces to the last ship and last man, into an all-out fight for survival … We in the Navy doubted that we could establish conditions that would guarantee even reasonably safe protection for a crossing of the Channel … It could not be expected that our Air Force could make up for our lack of naval supremacy.

The man charged with upholding that supremacy was the uncharismatic Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord since 1939. A stolid, uninspiring figure, dogged by the poor health that would kill him within three years, he was also dedicated and reliable, having never failed in any of the commands he had held since becoming a captain in 1914.

He had a colossal force under his command. Whereas Britain had thirteen battleships and battlecruisers in mid-June 1940, Germany had just two, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, both of which had suffered serious damage in Norwegian waters and were undergoing major repairs. The chasm was even wider when it came to destroyers. After the heavy losses of Norway, the Kreisgmarine had just 10 in operation, whereas the Royal Navy could deploy 169. Nor was it just a matter of quantity. Although many of Britain’s capital ships were of First World War vintage, they had undergone substantial reconstruction in the 1930s and could be highly effective in combat. Contrary to the fashionable idea that all Britain’s armed forces were run down by penny-pinching, appeasing, insular governments during the 1920s and 1930s, Britain’s navy had been significantly modernised. In the interwar years, it was building more ships than any other navy: during the period in which the Royal Navy constructed five aircraft carriers, the Germans built none.

Moreover, Britain possessed a tremendously powerful force in its own waters to tackle any invasion threat. At the start of July 1940, the operational Home Fleet comprised five battleships, three battlecruisers, eleven cruisers and fifty-three destroyers, with a further twenty-three destroyers based in Liverpool, which were designated for convoy duties but could be available in an emergency.

Even this is to underplay the Navy’s strength. The total potential destroyer force in home waters was actually 115 ships, including vessels under repair and refitting, many of which had sustained damage at Dunkirk but would soon be operational again, as well as those from the Royal Canadian Navy. In support of this were a huge number of other vessels, including 700 armed coastal fast patrol craft, of which between 200 and 300 were always at sea between the Wash and Newhaven, seen as the most likely points for a German landing. There were also 25 fast minesweepers, 20 corvettes (a light, manoeuvrable warship), and 140 minesweeper trawlers operating between Sunderland and Portsmouth. For wider reconnaissance, the Admiralty could deploy 35 submarines, as well as the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm.

With the invasion threat deepening, the Admiralty expanded the Royal Navy Patrol Service, which was largely staffed by former merchant seamen and trawlermen operating auxiliary vessels for minesweeping, reconnaissance and escort duties. With its headquarters in Lowestoft on Suffolk coast, the RNPS had around 800 adapted trawlers, drifters and other, smaller boats, as well as 100 harbour defence patrol craft that also operated on inland waterways.

Further maritime defences came from the erection of mine barrages. One, stretching along parts of the east coast, was laid 30 to 70 miles offshore and was made up of 35,000 mines. Another barrage of 10,000 mines was laid just outside Dover. By the end of June, the Admiralty had also installed 150 6-inch gun batteries along the eastern and southern coasts, manned by 8,000 naval ratings and Royal Marines.

The officer in charge of the Home Fleet was Sir Charles Forbes, appointed in 1938. Technically able, outspoken and forthright in his views, he was even willing to stand up to Churchill on occasions. In the summer of 1940 a serious controversy arose when his ideas on the disposition of the Home Fleet clashed with those of other senior members of the Admiralty. At the crux of this row was Forbes’s reluctance to place a sufficiently strong naval force in the most vulnerable areas along the southern and eastern coasts.

Pound and other senior admirals felt that the Home Fleet had to be ready to strike quickly if the Germans came across the Channel or the North Sea. This meant, in particular, building up strong naval protection in the Nore Command, which covered the English coast from the Humber to Dover. At this point of maximum danger, the Admiralty wanted a minimum of thirty-six destroyers, which were to be divided into four flotillas based at the Humber, at Harwich in Essex, and at Sheerness and Dover in Kent. The Nore Command, which was led by the splendidly named Sir Reginald Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, was also to be supported by five cruisers and other vessels taken from escort duties, including sloops, corvettes and anti-aircraft cruisers.

But Forbes was less worried about the enemy threat in the south and east; his priorities were the protection of the western approaches to the Atlantic and keeping his fleet, especially the big capital ships, intact. Indeed, it was over the issue of the battleships and battlecruisers that he clashed most fiercely with the rest of the Admiralty.

An original thinker as well as an outspoken one, he fought hard to keep his heavy ships in the far north at Scapa Flow, rather than send them south to Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, as was proposed, closer to areas where, according to the naval staff, the enemy might be expected to land or attack. It was Forbes’s profound conviction, however, that the Germans had no intention of mounting an invasion at all, and therefore it would be foolish to put men and resources at risk against a non-existent threat. The naval staff stubbornly believed that if the Kriegsmarine commanders knew that the Royal Navy had ‘no heavy ship south of Scapa Flow’, they would attack and ‘retire long before any equal British force could arrive to bring them to action’. Summing up the Admiralty’s view, Captain Cecil Harcourt, the Royal Navy’s Director of Operations, urged strongly that the main capital ships be based at Rosyth.

Ever more convinced of his position, Forbes sent a long, three-page memorandum to the Admiralty on 4 June, seeking to justify his deep scepticism about the possibility of a German invasion of England while praising the skill with which the Royal Navy had just evacuated 338,000 men from Dunkirk despite the Luftwaffe’s supposed dominance in the air. A far greater, more immediate priority than anti-invasion measures, he concluded, was the protection of supply lines and communications across the Atlantic. ‘The enemy has realized that he can only defeat this country if he can sever lines of communication.’ With the benefit of hindsight, several historians have held Forbes’s document to be a magisterial, cool-headed refutation of the invasion fever that gripped the British authorities in the summer of 1940, though at the time most of his colleagues found him stubbornly complacent.

The dispute raged on, while Forbes continued to show his independence of mind, writing to Pound with a tone of condescension on 15 June: ‘I should have thought that the German Army was fully employed in France, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium and Denmark and would therefore not be likely to stage an overseas invasion on the East coast during the next few weeks,’ and again insisting that most heavy ships remained in the north.

By now the naval situation was rapidly changing because of the collapse of France, which made the southern and eastern coasts even more vulnerable and also raised the possibility that the huge French fleet could fall into the hands of the Germans. Just as disturbingly, Italy was now an enemy in the Mediterranean, while there was a danger that Spain could also opportunistically join the Axis powers, thereby threatening Gibraltar. For the Admiralty as a whole, the developments in Europe made Forbes’s strategy for the Home Fleet all the more problematic, provoking further intense debate.

The deepening sense of urgency within the Admiralty about a potential invasion was reflected at a high-level meeting, chaired by Pound, on 30 June, where it was agreed that maritime reconnaissance had to be improved, patrols around Dover reinforced, better liaison with Ironside’s Home Forces established, and the destroyer force in the south and east increased. ‘Invasion might be attempted during the next fortnight,’ warned Pound, ordering his staff to ‘sift every commitment or application for destroyers most rigorously, as in his opinion as many destroyers as possible should be made available for anti-invasion duties.’ But Forbes’s stubbornness also bore fruit. Pound, who had never been as unequivocal about Rosyth as many of his subordinates, now signalled his willingness to reach a compromise, based on the intelligence that on 20 June the Gneisenau, the Kriegsmarine’s only operational battlecruiser, had been badly damaged by a torpedo attack and was undergoing repairs in Norway. When asked why the main Home Fleet had still not moved to Rosyth, Pound replied that ‘this seemed unnecessary so long as the only effective enemy battlecruiser was believed to be at Trondheim,’ an argument that ran counter to everything that most of his colleagues had been saying to Forbes for weeks. Pound had to admit to the Chiefs of Staff on 2 July that the measures ‘are not entirely in accordance with those recommended as necessary to meet the invasion’: in particular, ‘no battleships are at Rosyth’ and ‘the destroyer force available in the Nore Command is only little more than half the considered necessary number.’ Churchill himself said that he was ‘a little anxious’ at the decision to keep the capital ships at Scapa and ‘would prefer to see’ two of the vessels at Rosyth. Looking back on the mood in military circles during that period, the historian Basil Liddell Hart remembered that ‘the Navy’s dispositions did not promise a very prompt intervention in the Channel, for the admirals were almost as anxious about the menace of the German Air Force as the German admirals were about the interference of the Royal Navy.’

Forbes seems to have been completely sure in his convictions, shocking a naval strategy conference in the early summer of 1940 by stating that his heavy ships would not operate south of the Wash ‘under any circumstances’. Rather than exploding at this comment, Churchill, who was chairing the meeting, said that ‘he never took much notice of what the Royal Navy said they would or would not do in advance of an event.’ He continued in this mildly jocular tone: ‘Since they invariably undertook the impossible whenever the situation demanded, he had not a shadow of doubt … we would see every available battleship storming through the Straits of Dover.’

But Forbes did not get his way over the cruiser and destroyer forces. Throughout the summer, he kept asking for the coastal defences to be reduced so as to provide more support in the western approaches and on the Atlantic routes, a request he made with ever greater urgency as British shipping losses mounted. In June, Britain lost the equivalent of 284,000 gross tons of shipping to German U-boats, followed by 196,000 tons in July and a gross tonnage of 295,000 in August. Pound and the other admirals stuck to their strategy of maintaining as strong an anti-invasion force as possible in the south. From late July onwards, the Nore Command could deploy at least four cruisers, thirty-two destroyers and seven sloops, the bulk of them being out on patrol every night. In the same period, twelve destroyers and a cruiser were stationed at Portsmouth, as well as at least forty vessels, including motor torpedo boats, at Dover, while cruisers continuously patrolled the east coast from the Forth to the Thames. Churchill backed up this policy, stating that ‘the losses in the western approaches must be accepted’, although this made him press Roosevelt all the more strongly for a large batch of US destroyers.

His case at the White House was helped by one of his most ruthless, controversial decisions of the entire war, reverberating throughout the world and impressing upon both Hitler and Roosevelt the seriousness of Britain’s determination to continue the struggle. It was driven by fears that, following France’s conquest, the French fleet would be taken over by the Axis nations. Such a step would not only transform the balance of maritime power in Europe but would also increase the potential risk of invasion, since the Kriegsmarine would be massively reinforced by the arrival of Gallic ships.

In June 1940, France still had a potent navy. Led by Admiral Jean François Darlan, it consisted of seven battleships, twenty cruisers, two aircraft carriers and several dozen destroyers. Its flagship, the Richelieu, had been launched in 1939 and was one of the biggest, most modern vessels on the seas, weighing 35,000 tons and carrying seventeen 6- and 15-inch guns. For Pound, it was ‘the most powerful battleship in the world today’.

As early as 7 June, when it was obvious that the French were heading for defeat on land, the Admiralty had discussed the problem. According to the official note of the meeting, Pound took the view that, in the eventuality of an armistice, ‘the only practical way to deal with the matter was to sink the French fleet’, since he was doubtful that the French government would ‘turn it over to us’. The one other possibility that would help Britain would be a decision by the French to scuttle their own ships.

Through diplomatic channels, the US warned France that if its fleet were to surrender to Germany, the government would lose American goodwill. During the days leading up to the official armistice, Darlan tried to reassure America and Britain that there was no risk of any German seizure of the fleet, declaring, ‘I will never surrender it – I do not yet know where it will go or whether it will be destroyed, but the Germans will never have it.’ Attempts were made to persuade the French government to send the fleet to British ports, without success, although the French promised that ‘the ships would fight the Germans and if necessary scuttle’ rather than surrender.

In fact, Hitler, never very interested in naval affairs, viewed the French navy as something of an irrelevance. The agreed peace terms reflected this attitude. The French fleet, with the exception of the vessels based in the colonies, was to be assembled in France’s home ports, where the ships would be demobilised or disarmed. Furthermore, under Article 8 of the armistice, the Germans ‘solemnly and expressly’ declared that ‘they have no intention of making any claim to the French war fleet at the time of the conclusion of the peace.’

Soon after the armistice’s signing, Churchill told the Commons that Article 8 ‘makes it clear that French warships pass into German and Italian control while fully armed. What was the value of the solemn declaration that they would not be used for their own war purposes? Ask half a dozen countries what is the value of such a solemn assurance.’ Nor did the government have much trust in Admiral Darlan, whose anti-British credentials were later displayed when he became a minister in Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy regime.

As concern intensified about French and German intentions, Churchill was inundated with advice about the French fleet. The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw urged him to ‘to declare war on France and capture her fleet (which would gladly strike its colours to us) before AH [Adolf Hitler] draws breath’. The unorthodox idea was even put forward of purchasing the fleet, but it was recognised that the money would have gone straight to the Reich.

Rigorous action was required, the Admiralty decided, a view that was increasingly shared by Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff, who said that if the French ships reached their home ports, Britain should be ‘under no illusions as to the certainty that, sooner or later, the Germans will employ them against us’. Uncertainty about the French fleet must end so that the Royal Navy could concentrate on measures ‘to meet the imminent threat of invasion’.

Importantly, the White House also informed Britain that America would not object to any steps that kept the French fleet out of German control. Following an interview with President Roosevelt, the British ambassador Lord Lothian reported to London, ‘I asked him whether this meant that American opinion would support forcible seizure of these ships. He said certainly. They would expect them to be seized rather than they should fall into German hands.’

At this stage, the bulk of the French fleet was widely spread across Europe and North Africa, with by far the most important element being the main striking force or Force de Raid, which was gathered in the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir, near Oran. Commanded by Admiral Marcel Gensoul, a figure described by one senior British officer as a ‘somewhat pig-headed, negative touchy French admiral who, like many small men in big positions, was rather full of his own importance’, the Force de Raid was made up of six destroyers, an aircraft carrier and no fewer than four capital ships, including the modern battlecruisers the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg. It was the sheer weight of this naval power that convinced the British that they had to act.

British Naval Conflict 1940 II

French shells fall between HMS Hood and HMS Valiant during the attack on Mers-el-Kébir

Negotiations were opened with Gensoul about the possibility of handing over his Oran fleet to the Royal Navy, but came to nothing. Churchill’s government therefore conceived a plan called Operation Catapult, in which the Royal Navy would use its influence to neutralise, by physical coercion if necessary, the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. The War Cabinet agreed that, at the same time as Catapult was implemented, the French vessels in Britain and Alexandria would either be seized or disarmed.

By late June, the Admiralty had already assembled a powerful formation, commanded by Vice-Admiral James Somerville and known as Force H, to strengthen the Royal Navy in the western Mediterranean and reinforce the defence of Gibraltar,

When they met at the office of A.V. Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty, before Force H sailed, Pound told Somerville that he would have to ‘secure the transfer, surrender or destruction of the French warships at Oran so as to ensure those ships did not fall into German and Italian hands’.22 Alexander later recalled, ‘Somerville understood clearly the position and what had to be done. He said to me in my room at the Admiralty, “I quite recognise that, however repugnant this job may seem, the Government know it has got to be done, in the interests of the safety of the nation.” ’

That night, Pound and Churchill met in Downing Street to agree the ultimatum that Somerville would deliver to Admiral Gensoul once the Royal Navy arrived at Mers-el-Kebir. Four choices were to be given to the French. First, they could ‘sail with Britain and continue the fight for victory against the Germans and Italians’. Second, they could ‘sail with reduced crews to a British port’, after which their men would be quickly repatriated. In both these cases, the British promised to ‘restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war, or pay full compensation if they are damaged meanwhile’. The third option was ‘to sail with us with reduced crews to some port in the West Indies – Martinique for instance – where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated’. But the fourth option was far more belligerent. If all these ‘fair offers’ were refused, then the French would be instructed to sink their ships ‘within six hours’. Failing that, Somerville was to warn that he had ‘the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands’. These instructions were sent by Pound to Somerville the next day, 2 July.

The die had almost been cast, but for Churchill, a lifelong Francophile, the episode was a deeply painful one. That afternoon, he was seen in Downing Street by Beaverbrook, who told the prime minister that boldness was the only course. Beaverbrook later recalled their tense discussion in the garden of Downing Street. ‘There was a high wind blowing … Churchill declared that there was no other decision possible. Then he wept.’

The climax of Operation Catapult was now approaching, as Force H headed towards the Algerian coast. Further east in Alexandria, Admiral Cunningham, thanks to his easy authority and his close relationship with the French admiral René-Emile Godefroy, was able to negotiate an amicable settlement, whereby the French ships were to be disarmed by having the firing mechanisms removed from their guns and their tanks emptied of fuel. In Britain the takeover of the French ships caused more friction. Most of the Frenchmen surrendered their vessels without any resistance, but the story was very different aboard the submarine the Surcouf, where some of the crew refused to obey the Royal Navy’s instructions and in the ensuing skirmish four men died.

But the clash aboard the Surcouf paled beside the slaughter that was to unfold at Mers-el-Kebir on Wednesday 3 July. The advance part of Force H reached its destination just after dawn, and at seven in the morning Captain Cedric Holland, in the destroyer Foxhound, asked for permission to enter the harbour to negotiate with the prickly, status-conscious Admiral Gensoul. Holland handed over the letter with the British government’s four alternatives. Somerville, whose entire Force H had arrived at Mers-el-Kebir by noon, sent a signal to Gensoul, warning that no French ship would be allowed to leave the harbour unless the British terms were accepted. To show that this was not a bluff, he ordered a series of magnetic mines to be laid across the harbour entrance by Fleet Air Arm Swordfish biplanes from the Ark Royal.

Conflict seemed inevitable. In the early afternoon, Somerville sent a further signal, warning the French that unless the conditions were accepted by 3.30 p.m., he would open fire. The French employed delaying tactics, hoping to spin out discussions until darkness descended, then try to reach Toulon. Meanwhile their ships were raising steam ready to go to sea and all their direction-range finders were trained on Force H. Tensions continued to escalate.

After a further wait, Somerville sent a warning to Gensoul that unless the British terms were accepted by 5.30 p.m., he would open fire. The talks came to an end, with Gensoul confirming his rejection of the ultimatum and Holland returning to his destroyer.

At 5.54 p.m., as soon as the Foxhound was clear of the harbour, the three battleships of Force H opened up from a range of 17,500 yards, launching thirty-six salvoes of 15-inch shells at Gensoul’s fleet, a total of 144 shells, each of them weighing three-quarters of a ton. It was one of the most concentrated, deafening broadsides in British naval history. The thunderous roar from the guns filled the bay, huge columns of black smoke from the explosions soon rising from the harbour, with the French guns, on board the ships or from shore batteries, making their own contribution.

As Ronald Phillips, a sub-lieutenant on the HMS Hood, recalled, ‘The destruction wrought in that short period was terrible but necessary and inevitable.’ Apart from the sinking of the Bretagne, the British shells severely damaged Dunkerque, the Provence and a destroyer. Amidst the carnage, 1,297 French seamen were killed, a death toll that caused deep regret to some of the English sailors. Others felt differently, such as Morgan Morgan-Giles, an officer aboard the destroyer the Arethusa. ‘It has always been represented afterwards as a most harrowing thing, that we had tears in our eyes at having to attack our former allies. But the fact is that it was not like that. It was a purely professional thing we had to do.’

But Force H did not completely succeed in its objective. Despite the bombardment, the mine barrier and torpedo attacks from the Swordfish aircraft of the Ark Royal, the Strasbourg, two destroyers and three frigates managed to reach Toulon, having used the cover of heavy smoke to break out of the harbour.

The importance of Oran was not so much in its practical outcome for the Royal Navy but as a symbol of Britain’s ruthless determination to continue with the war. Perhaps even more than Dunkirk, the attack on the French fleet dramatically improved Britain’s prospects of survival. Public morale was lifted, Churchill’s position was strengthened and the American attitude to Britain’s war effort was transformed. The Ministry of Information recorded overwhelming public support for the Royal Navy’s action, finding on 4 July that ‘this strong action gives welcome evidence of Government vigour and decision’. This mood was also reflected in the Commons, where the attitude of many Tory backbenchers had remained equivocal towards Churchill because of lingering affection for Chamberlain. But by showing his true fighting spirit, the prime minister won over all the doubters. For the first time since taking power in May, he had almost the entire political class behind him. When he reported on the action at Mers-el-Kebir, the reception the House gave him was far more enthusiastic than anything that had followed his great orations in May and June.

John Colville, who watched the performance from the public gallery, recorded in his diary, ‘He told the whole story of Oran and the House listened enthralled and amazed. Gasps of surprise were audible but it was clear that the action taken was unanimously approved. When the speech was over all the Members rose to their feet, waved their order papers and cheered loudly. Winston left the House visibly affected.’29 The MP John Martin, who was also present, recalled that ‘there had been nothing like it, people said, since Munich. Churchill himself was quite overcome and his eyes filled with tears.’

The reaction among Americans was just as warm. Churchill’s ruthlessness was a source of inspiration rather than condemnation, demonstrating that Britain was willing to take the fight to the Reich. Roger Ingersoll, the editor of PM magazine, wrote: ‘I want to record what a deep satisfaction it was to me to read the news that someone stood up to Adolf Hitler, taking dangerous toys away from him. When an Allied officer gives an ultimatum and it isn’t a bluff, that’s news.’ Ingersoll concluded, ‘I’m all for sending supplies to England as long as it’s governed by a Churchill who will fight.’

In political terms, Oran portrayed Britain in a new heroic light, directly contradicting the stream of defeatist opinions that Ambassador Kennedy had continued to relay to Washington. This was crucial because it meant that the White House was now willing to circumvent the neutrality laws in providing all the support it could, particularly in the form of destroyers, aircraft and weapons.

Most important of all, the encounter at Mers-el-Kebir had a dramatic impact on Hitler’s attitude towards Britain. No longer could he hold to the belief that the enemy was about to crumble.