The Royal Navy: The Invasion Fleets before D-Day I

Wars are not won by defensive measures alone. Defence can only continue for so long. The war has to be taken to the enemy and where territory has been taken, it has to be won back, no matter how difficult that might be. Stalin recognized this, which is why he constantly demanded a ‘Second Front’ to relieve the pressure on his forces but, of course, he failed to accept that the Allies already had a second front on the North Atlantic, perhaps a third on the Arctic convoys or in the fighting in North Africa and later in Italy. To his mind none of these mattered, and what he wanted was a repeat of the First World War strategic situation with a Western Front in France and an Eastern Front in Russia.

Clearly North Africa was a good place to start and to exercise the growing Allied amphibious capability. Without the industrial support of Metropolitan France, resistance by Vichy forces, no matter how determined, was bound to be overcome sooner rather than later. That opposition was likely demonstrated not just by the Vichy refusal to surrender the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir and Oran, but by the fact that in May 1941 the Vichy regime had signed the Paris protocols with Germany. These allowed the Germans to use French bases in Syria – which prompted the British-led invasion of that country – and in Tunisia and French West Africa, as well as releasing almost 7,000 French prisoners of war for service with the Free French in North Africa.

Albacore “∅L” BF653 from 820 Squadron, HMS Formidable, during Operation Torch.

Operation Torch

Another factor in the choice of North Africa was that British and British Empire forces were already engaged in the Western Desert, in Libya and Egypt, and landings further west would help them by squeezing the Italians and Germans between two large Allied forces. The British had become increasingly successful in North Africa with the capture of El Alamein, but more was needed if the Mediterranean was to be secured. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had certainly helped to weaken the Axis forces in North Africa, attacking and sometimes cutting the supply lines from Italy to Libya.

For many this was the ‘Second Front’, landing almost 100,000 men in French Morocco and Algeria behind the Axis lines. The operation, code-named TORCH, had to take into account that Morocco included Spanish-held territory to the south and east of Tangier. The Allied naval commander was Admiral Andrew Cunningham of the Royal Navy, while the Supreme Commander was General Dwight Eisenhower of the United States Army.

The division of territory in Morocco between France and Spain meant that the invasion forces had to be divided into three. The Western Task Force, designated TF34, came from the United States with twenty-three transports to land 34,000 troops commanded by Major General Patton to the north and south of Casablanca. The force had covering fire from 3 US battleships as well as the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and 4 escort carriers, 7 cruisers and 38 destroyers.

The Centre Task Force came from England and was commanded by Commodore Troubridge, RN, with 2 escort carriers, 3 cruisers and 13 destroyers escorting and then supporting 28 transports and 19 landing craft, landing 39,000 soldiers commanded by Major General Fredendall at Oran in Algeria.

Near Algiers, 33,000 British and American troops under the command of Major General Ryder were landed from 16 transports and 17 landing craft with the aircraft carriers HMS Argus and Furious (the world’s first two aircraft carriers), 3 cruisers and 16 destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, RN.

Good communications are essential in any such operation but with the forces divided as they were, communications were more important than ever. Commodore Troubridge had his signals team in the exarmed merchant cruiser Large, which had been converted so hastily that the sleeping accommodation for staff officers, just aft of the bridge, was unfinished and umbrellas provided the only protection from the weather.

The landings all took place on 8 November, starting an hour or so after midnight at Oran and then shortly afterwards at Algiers, while those at Casablanca started at 04.30. Many of those involved were very inexperienced, and this told most with the pilots aboard the US ships. The escort carrier USS Santee had just 5 experienced pilots aboard and during the operation she lost 21 of her 31 aircraft, of which only one was ‘just possibly’ due to enemy action.

The invasion showed confusion among Vichy leaders. Admiral Darlan, in Oran and in overall command of Vichy French forces, agreed to a ceasefire if Marshal Philippe Pétain, the dictator of Vichy France, agreed, but Pétain was desperately trying to prevent German forces from entering unoccupied France. Darlan then decided to change sides and ordered his forces to side with the Allies, but a number of his subordinate commanders disagreed and allowed German forces to enter Tunisia.

Meanwhile, British and American ships attacked the Vichy positions with gunfire and carrier-borne air power. Several of the British Fleet Air Arm pilots were engaged in air-to-air combat with French fighters. Another was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, but while his captors decided what to do with him the Vichy French forces surrendered and he was back on board his ship within two days of being shot down. One of the shortest spells as a prisoner of war on record!

Operation Husky

Eight months were to pass before the next Allied invasion; that on Sicily, Operation HUSKY, on 10 July 1943. The delay was necessary because Axis forces in North Africa were still capable of fighting and it took until May 1943 before resupply became completely impossible and they surrendered to the Allies.

At this stage the United States would have preferred to start planning an invasion of France, but the British saw the taking of Sicily as more important. It would not only lead to the invasion of Italy, through which Churchill hoped to reach Germany, but more importantly it would ease the pressure on Malta and also enable the Mediterranean to be used by convoys once more. The saving in fuel and time of using the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal rather than sailing via the Cape was one consideration, but another was that this provided a massive one-off boost in both merchant shipping tonnage, estimated by some to be the equivalent of having an extra 1 million tons of shipping, and naval vessels, all of which could be used to ease the pressure elsewhere.

Invading France – or as Churchill insisted, landing in France, as he believed that as allies, the UK and USA could not ‘invade’ France to liberate it – was in any case going to be the hardest of all. While the so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’ was not as well-built and defended as Hitler liked to believe, it was still a formidable obstacle and the Germans had substantial air and ground forces in the country. Even the Americans began to realize that an invasion of France would take time to prepare, with rehearsals and training. A good indication of the size of the problem was that the original idea was for simultaneous invasions of Normandy and the south of France, but the resources simply were not available.

The decision to invade Sicily was taken at the Casablanca Conference held between 14 and 24 January 1943. Code-named SYMBOL, this was one of the most important conferences of the war, planning future strategy, and was attended by the British and American leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt, as well as Generals Alexander and Eisenhower. However, there was one noticeable absentee: Stalin. The Soviet leader was invited but he declined because of the critical situation at Stalingrad. It was at Casablanca that the Allies first decided to demand unconditional surrender and also planned a combined USAAF and RAF bomber offensive against Germany. A determined effort was also made to reconcile the different factions of the French armed forces represented by de Gaulle and Giraud, and this led to them forming a French National Committee for Liberation.

Stalin’s failure to attend the Casablanca Conference was yet another instance of his lack of logic, especially since he missed the opportunity to demand an Allied invasion of France and his much-desired ‘Second Front’. The Battle of Stalingrad was almost over, the Germans having been encircled and an attempt to relieve them foiled by the Russians. While final surrender did not come until 2 February, any other leader would have had the strategic perspective and the confidence to leave matters in the hands of trusted military commanders.

Much of the problem lay in Stalin’s policy of, in modern terms, micromanaging the war. He knew who was in command and where they were situated, down to middle-ranking officers. His close colleagues, in effect his war cabinet, were constantly harassed and bullied, humiliated in front of their peers. Often a close member of their family would be held in a gulag (prison camp), usually on rations that were not even at subsistence level. There was no trust, no semblance of being part of a team, but instead the rule of fear. In short, Stalin felt vulnerable.

Operation HUSKY was more akin to the Normandy landings than TORCH had been, with a combined amphibious and airborne assault. First, on 11 and 12 June 1943, the garrisons on two small Italian islands, Pantelleria and Lampedusa to the west of Malta, surrendered after bombardment by the Royal Navy and raids from Malta-based squadrons of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm.

For some time the Royal Navy had maintained what amounted to a second Mediterranean Fleet in what was officially known as Force H, based on Gibraltar, while the Mediterranean Fleet had been forced to withdraw to Alexandria in Egypt from the beginning of 1941. Force H had grown in strength and its successes had included participation in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. By mid-1943 it had 6 battleships and 2 modern aircraft carriers – HMS Indomitable and Formidable – plus 6 cruisers and 24 destroyers. Designed to be a fast-moving task force, it did not have escort carriers. Force H was to act as the covering force for Operation HUSKY. The landings were by an American Western Naval Task Force and a British Eastern Naval Task Force. There were 2,590 ships altogether with 2,000 landing craft, including the new landing ship tank (LST), with the intention of landing 180,000 men under General Dwight Eisenhower who had to face more than 275,000 men in General Guzzoni’s Italian Sixth Army.

Where the Allies were strongest was in the air, as well as at sea. The Allies had 3,700 aircraft, mainly operating from land bases in North Africa as well as the three airfields on Malta, while the Axis powers had 1,400 aircraft.

The Western Naval Task Force was to land the US Seventh Army on the south coast of Sicily, while the British Eastern Naval Task Force would land the British Eighth Army on the south-eastern point of the island. The Americans had to take the port of Licata and the British the port of Syracuse. After this, they were to seize the airfields around Catania.

The assault was launched from North Africa as the forces assembled would have overwhelmed the facilities available on the small island of Malta. On the eve of the invasion, bad weather nearly caused the landings to be postponed. This did at least lull the Axis commanders into a false sense of security, apart from which many of them had been led to believe that the Allies would head for Sardinia. The result was that the amphibious assault was a great success, but in the high winds the airborne assault was less so, with many paratroops landing in the seas while many of the Horsa gliders suffered the same fate having been released too early by their towing aircraft. More than 250 troops were drowned.

On 11 July a strong counter-attack was launched by German Panzer divisions, but this was broken up by Allied air power and a heavy bombardment from Force H.

Italian resistance virtually ended when Mussolini fell from power on 25 July, after which Hitler dropped his opposition to German troops being withdrawn and some 40,000 German and 62,000 Italian troops crossed the Straits of Messina to the Italian mainland starting on the night of 11/12 August, with much of their equipment and supplies intact.

Only the invasion of Normandy, Operation OVERLORD, was larger than HUSKY. More than any other operation, the invasion of Sicily provided the Allies with vital experience and many lessons were learned that would prove invaluable later.

Operation Avalanche

The logical move was for the Allies to follow the retreating Axis forces across the Straits of Messina and this is what Montgomery’s Eighth Army did on 3 September 1943. That same day, the Allies and the Italians signed a secret armistice at Syracuse.

The next step was to cut off as much of the German forces as possible and also shorten the advance towards Rome. This was done at Salerno on 9 September, the day after the armistice was announced. The landings at Salerno were co-ordinated with a British airborne landing at Taranto to enable the remains of the Italian fleet to escape to Malta. The airborne landing was covered by the guns of the six Force H battleships.

On learning of the armistice, the Germans moved quickly to seize Italian airfields. Salerno was chosen instead of a landing site further north because it was close to Allied airfields in Sicily but it was only just within range for fighter aircraft, meaning that they could spend very little time patrolling the area, usually no more than twenty minutes, and if combat occurred could not return to Sicily. The solution was to deploy aircraft carriers.

The United States Navy provided an Independence-class light carrier and four escort carriers. The Royal Navy once again deployed Force H to cover the landings with HMS Illustrious and Formidable, as well as creating an escort carrier fleet known as Force V with escort carriers HMS Attacker, Battler, Hunter and Stalker augmented by HMS Unicorn, a maintenance carrier but here, not for the last time in her career, used as an active fleet carrier with fighter sorties flown from her. Force V provided thirty Supermarine Spitfire fighters aboard each escort carrier and no fewer than sixty aboard Unicorn.

The British ships sailed from Malta as if to attack Taranto, but instead headed north to Salerno. Once off Salerno, Force V was given a ‘box’ in which to operate, flying off and recovering their aircraft. The trouble was that with so many other ships in the area, the box was too small, giving the carrier commanders great difficulty as they steamed from one end to another and then had to turn. This was nothing compared to the difficulties facing the pilots, trying to land on ships steaming close to one another and avoiding mid-air collisions. Worse still, the weather on this occasion was good, too good in fact. The Seafire needed a headwind of 25 knots over the flight deck for a safe take-off but in still air conditions the escort carriers could only provide 17 knots. Arrester wires and crash barriers had to be kept as tight as possible. Most escort carriers lacked catapults – known at the time as accelerators – and even when fitted, these hydraulically-powered aids lacked the punch of a modern steam catapult. The amphibious assault and the covering force on this occasion were much smaller, at 627 ships.

In contrast to the landings in North Africa and Sicily, the Luftwaffe mounted heavy attacks against the carriers and these were sustained until 14 September. The need for air cover meant that the carriers were asked to remain on station longer than originally planned, and their frantic racing up and down with the ‘box’ meant that fuel began to run low so they had to resort to using their reserve tanks. In addition to conventional bombing, the German response was augmented by the first use of radio-controlled glider bombs that damaged two British cruisers and the veteran battleship HMS Warspite.

The difficulties faced by the carrier pilots meant that deck landing accidents accounted for a higher loss rate than the Luftwaffe with Force V’s 180 aircraft reduced to just 30 by 14 September. Meanwhile, the Germans had organized a massive counter-attack between 12 and 14 September.

As the campaign ashore moved slowly, a further amphibious assault was planned for Anzio further up the coast. For this, shore bases near the Salerno landing site were available and carrier air support was not needed, but even in January 1944 the landings at Anzio faced strong German opposition and it took four months for the Allies to break out of their beachhead. While Salerno and Vietri were captured, they remained too close to the German front line for either to be used as ports.

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The Royal Navy: The Invasion Fleets before D-Day II

Note: The unnamed CVL above Parthian class subs is an Colossus class CVL

Hands stand by their twin 4 inch gun turrets to repel any lurking enemy aircraft as HMS MAURITIUS fires a broadside at German positions in the Anzio beachhead.
A 22536
Part of
ADMIRALTY OFFICIAL COLLECTION
Royal Navy official photographer

Operation Shingle

Convalescing at Marrakesh in French Morocco after an illness, Churchill convened two conferences at his villa to discuss the situation in Italy where the hopes of a rapid advance on Rome following the Salerno landings had been foiled by strong German resistance. The first was held on 7 and 8 January 1944 with Churchill in the chair, accompanied by Lord Beaverbrook and attended by senior British and American officers. The second was on 12 January when Churchill and de Gaulle met.

Although the need for a second landing further north had been agreed in late 1943, the initial plan was cancelled in favour of landings at Anzio, code-named Operation SHINGLE, which was decided at the Marrakesh conferences. Little time was lost in mounting the operation which took place on 22 January but suffered accordingly as the force used was too small, simply the 6th US Corps of the Fifth US Army. The 6th US Corps was augmented by the 1st British Infantry Division and a British Commando brigade, which landed north of Anzio. Other forces landed at the port or to the south. Just 378 ships took part and air support was provided mainly by the USAAF with the Mediterranean Allied Tactical Air Force. The Germans deployed radio-controlled explosive boats and human torpedoes against the ships but with little effect while German air power was also weak in the area.

There was confusion over the objectives and instead of exploiting the initial surprise, the 6th US Corps found itself consolidating its position. Bad weather meant that the Allies had difficulty in reinforcing those ashore and by 26 January, Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, improvised a Fourteenth Army with a core of six divisions. This force surrounded the Allies, and attempts to break through saw both the British and the Americans suffer heavy casualties with 2,100 and 3,000 respectively. As the month drew to a close, Ultra intelligence warned the Allied commanders of a German counter-attack, to which they were able to respond effectively.

Fierce fighting in the second half of February saw the Germans suffer very heavy casualties with 5,389 men killed or wounded as the Allies moved heavy artillery and massive air power into position. Nevertheless, Kesselring managed to keep the Allies contained until they were able to break out and link up with the US Fifth Army on 25 May and begin the final advance on Rome.

Anzio was a big disappointment to the Allies. Churchill later wrote that he had ‘hoped that the Allies were hurling a wild cat onto the shore but all they got was a stranded whale.’ The US Navy’s official historian was equally blunt, writing that ‘putting such a small force ashore was akin to sending a boy on a man’s errand.’

The landings in the Mediterranean were not over until the Allies invaded the south of France in August, and even then there were further minor operations to re-take Axis-occupied territory. Nevertheless, Normandy was next and the Allies had learned much about amphibious operations both in the Mediterranean and in the Far East by this time. Two points were clear. The first was that the Germans might be losing the war, but they were still capable of mounting a formidable defence and still possessed the capability of fighting a highly mobile war so that large and well-equipped forces could be assembled quickly when needed. The second was that any assault had to be meticulously organized and assembled in such force that the defences could be overwhelmed, while the force ashore needed to be sustained and supported, regardless of the weather.

Nevertheless, there was much to be done and much to be learned before the Normandy landings.

St Nazaire

One idea that appealed to the British in particular was the idea of raids on enemy-held Europe. The Royal Navy had two successful raids during the First World War at Zeebrugge and Ostend, and so plans for such raids started soon after the withdrawal from Europe.

The first such raid was at St Nazaire on the night of 28 March 1942. This was the one major French Channel port that had a dry dock capable of accommodating the German battleship Tirpitz that occupied so much time of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. If the Normandie Dock (built for the French ocean liner of that name) was put beyond use, there would be no chance of the battleship being brought south from Norway to begin a career of commerce raiding. St Nazaire had been the intended destination for the Bismarck when she was sunk by the Royal Navy.

In an operation code-named CHARIOT, the destroyer Campbeltown, one of fifty Town-class ships provided by the United States Navy in 1940, was to be loaded with 3 tons of explosives and used to ram the dock gates before exploding 150 minutes later. Campbeltown was to be escorted by two destroyers, Atherstone and Tynedale, an MGB, an MTB and sixteen motor launches carrying army commandos led by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Newman of the Essex Regiment, who were to land and blow up the dock and other shore installations. In all, there were 44 army officers and 224 other ranks as well as 62 naval officers and 291 ratings. Overall command lay with Commander Robert Ryder in MGB314, with Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie in command of the Campbeltown. The two escorting destroyers were to pick up the raiders after the operation, assisted by further MTBs.

Leaving Falmouth in Cornwall before dawn on 27 March 1942, the timing of the operation was dictated by the spring tide and the need to cover 410 miles of open sea and 5 miles of the Loire estuary to reach St Nazaire. To help with the operation, Campbeltown was remodelled to look like a German destroyer and wore the German naval ensign. Despite being spotted by a U-boat, the small force was within 2 miles of St Nazaire before being picked up by German searchlights, but Ryder gained an extra three minutes by offering German identification signals; however, the small force was then extensively illuminated and came under heavy fire. Beattie continued at 20 knots, full speed for his elderly destroyer, and at 0134 on 28 March he rammed the dock gates, just four minutes later than scheduled. The ship penetrated the caisson to a depth of 36 feet.

Ryder landed under heavy fire to find that the destroyer was in exactly the right position and then ordered MTB74 to fire her torpedoes, which were also set to go off later, at the dock gates. Commandos ran ashore from Campbeltown to destroy the pumping house, anti-aircraft positions and a fuel tank, while those aboard the launches set up a diversionary raid on the Old Mole and the Old Entrance. The commandos also seized the Ile de St Nazaire, from which the withdrawal was to be made. In the ensuing fire-fight the commandos suffered heavy casualties as the Germans struck at their launches, and by the time Ryder ordered the withdrawal, just seven out of the sixteen were available.

During the withdrawal, heavily laden with wounded, they were intercepted by E-boats and an MTB sent to help with the rescue was sunk and another three damaged before the destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale were able to pick up the survivors and speed them to Falmouth. The cost of the operation was 144 men killed – 23 per cent of the raiding force – and another 215 captured, with 271 returning safely to Falmouth.

Campbeltown’s explosives did not go off on time and were not discovered by the Germans, so many German officers took their wives and mistresses aboard to see the ship. Around noon the following day Campbeltown finally blew up, taking 380 Germans with her. The next day, 30 May, the torpedoes also blew up, prompting French dockyard workers to attempt to take over the dock from the Germans, causing panic among the German gun crews who opened fire and in addition to killing eighty French dockyard workers also killed many of their own men.

Three VCs were awarded to the naval personnel involved and two to the army commandos, including their commanding officer. Commander Ryder received the VC for commanding the attack under heavy fire and ensuring that its objectives were met before ordering and organizing the withdrawal while his MGB was severely damaged. Beattie also received the VC for his coolness under fire and determination in ensuring that Campbeltown fulfilled her mission. Able Seaman William Savage aboard MGB314 showed great skill and determination as well as devotion to duty, maintaining fire while under heavy fire himself, but was fatally wounded as MGB314 attempted to withdraw. He died the following day.

Dieppe

The raid, originally known as Operation RUTTER but later renamed Operation JUBILEE, was to be launched from five ports in the south of England with Southampton as the most westerly and Newhaven the most easterly. There would be 5,000 Canadian troops, 1,000 British and 50 US Rangers, supported by 237 ships and aircraft from 74 squadrons, of which no fewer than 66 would be fighter squadrons. The heavy Canadian involvement was due to their commanding general wanting them to see action.

Given the complexity of the exercise and the lack of experience among the men and their commanders as the first of the Mediterranean landings was still some months away, an exercise was conducted to provide training and also to ensure that the arrangements were workable. This was just as well as the first exercise was a complete disaster, but ten days later all went well with the second. A date still had to be fixed and it was not until 1 July 1942 that the Dieppe operation was set for 4 July, or the first day after that date with favourable weather conditions.

The weather was bad and on 7 July the operation was postponed. General Montgomery in command of forces in the south of England wanted it cancelled as the troops involved had been briefed and he feared that security would be compromised. His objections were ignored and planning continued; he was then removed from the operation and posted to Egypt to command the British Eighth Army.

One of the changes made after his departure was that of the name to Operation JUBILEE, but more serious was the decision to cancel the planned aerial bombardment which it was feared could cost heavy French casualties. Instead, eight British destroyers would bombard the port but battleships, which could have made a difference with their guns of 14, 15 or even 16in calibre, were held back because they would be vulnerable to German shore-based artillery once they were in coastal waters. This was being overly cautious as the guns of these ships could easily fire over ranges of 20 miles, outside the range of German coastal artillery. Meanwhile, Montgomery’s concerns about security were soon justified as French double agents warned the Germans about British interest in Dieppe, while the commanding officer of the 1st Parachute Battalion was later to comment that from the start ‘security was abysmal’. In any case, increased radio traffic and the growing concentration of landing craft in the south coast ports were also detected by the Germans. The next change, as the weather continued to be poor, was that the planned paratroop landings were cancelled as the use of airborne forces was even more vulnerable to weather conditions. This decision was reversed.

In command of combined operations, Admiral Louis Mountbatten was anxious to see action and impatient for a landing on enemy territory, although this would be just another ‘hit and run’ raid. In this he was not alone. Churchill felt that there was much to be gained both in raising morale among the Allies and in showing Stalin that the British were taking the war to the enemy. In fact, by this time Stalin was already on the offensive in northern Russia, but his main concern was that the main German thrust had turned southwards towards Stalingrad.

Churchill later recalled:

I thought it most important that a large-scale operation should take place this summer, and military opinion seemed unanimous that until an operation on that scale was undertaken, no responsible general would take the responsibility of planning the main invasion…

In discussion with Admiral Mountbatten it became clear that time did not permit a new large-scale operation to be mounted during the summer (after ‘Rutter’ had been cancelled), but that Dieppe could be remounted (with the new code-name ‘Jubilee’) within a month, provided extraordinary steps were taken to ensure secrecy. For this reason no records were kept but, after the Canadian authorities and the Chiefs of Staff had given their approval, I personally went through the plans with the C.I.G.S., Admiral Mountbatten, and the Naval Force Commander, Captain J. Hughes-Hallett.

The initial plan for the attack was an unimaginative frontal assault, but this was developed with the use of British paratroops to attack the German artillery positions mounted on the headlands either side of the town and the port. There were plans for an aerial bombardment before the raid to soften up the target.

The special troops who were still assigned to the operation were Royal Marine, and Royal Navy Commandos, although the idea was not that they should lead the operation but instead they would follow the main force ashore from motor gunboats and destroy the harbour installations. There was even an ex-burglar on their strength who was supposed to break into a port office and burgle the safe, expecting to find important documents.

If security was poor before the raid, so too was intelligence about the target area. Allied air reconnaissance missed the German gun positions embedded in the cliff faces, while the suitability of the beach for tanks was assessed using holiday postcards and amateur photographs. In addition to poor knowledge of the terrain and the defences, there was little knowledge of enemy strength.

Although Mountbatten was in command of special operations, he was not going on the raid; the assault force would be led by Major General Roberts and the naval force by Captain Hughes-Hallett. Mountbatten did, nevertheless, address at least some of the troops before they embarked, as recalled by Sergeant George Cook of No. 4 Commando, which was to attack the artillery batteries at Varengeville-sur-Mer, to the west of Dieppe:

Mountbatten gave us a lecture – said he wished he was coming with us. Once we realised where we were going, I think 200 blokes thought, ‘I wish he were going instead of us.’ But yes, very nice talk. We cheered him – off he went. Then we started priming grenades, drawing ammunition. Our troop were doing the demolitions, so we drew explosives and we’d a fair amount of stuff which we packed up…Then we had a meal and we sailed – a beautiful evening, as we went down the Solent and past the Isle of Wight.

Suddenly an officer said, ‘Oh – they’ve got all the harbour lights lit.’ I looked over the prow of the boat and you could see lights on the shore. The lighthouse at Varengeville-sur-Mer was flashing, so I thought, Cor blimey – everybody awake. We’re going to have a pretty bad welcome here.

When we landed, there was some barbed wire. We’d a roll of wire netting which we threw over the barbed wire so we could run over it. The Germans were firing tracers from their pill-boxes, and Lord Lovat said, quite casually, ‘They’re firing too high.’ He was about six foot – I’m five foot four – so I thought, ‘If they’re firing over his head, there’s no danger they’re going to hit me’ – but they did fire their mortars and four or five blokes were killed on the beach.

Cook and his comrades advanced, firing. One of them shot a man out of an ack-ack tower, who ‘did a lovely swallow dive off the top’, before they reached an orchard accompanied by one of Cook’s friends, another sergeant, Geordie Horne, who was almost immediately shot dead, before Cook himself was hit in the face and shoulder.

Even before the raid began at 0450 on 19 August, the cover was blown completely as a number of the escorting warships had already engaged warships accompanying a German convoy off Puys and Berneval at 0348.

To avoid confusion, the landings were at four beaches each given a colour designation for the operation. One of these, the most easterly, was Blue Beach, where the assault started badly. After leaving the converted Belgian cross-Channel ferry Princess Astrid, the 10th Landing Craft Assault Flotilla started off in the wrong direction and eventually reached the beach sixteen minutes late as dawn was breaking and the element of surprise had been lost. The initial attacks were on the coastal batteries. The attack at Varengeville-sur-Mer by No. 4 Commando was successful, but this was the only unit to meet all of its objectives during the operation. The Royal Regiment of Canada landed at Puys, where they were virtually wiped out with just 60 of the regiment’s 543 men being evacuated from the beach after many were cut down on the ramp where the bodies piled up, while others were mown down by machine-gun fire as they attempted to cross the pebbled beach to the shelter of the sea wall 40 feet away.

Those offshore could not see what was happening ashore because the ships covering the landings had laid a dense smokescreen. This did nothing at all to protect those involved in the landings, but made command and control more difficult.

In the ensuing chaos, most of the landing craft carrying the marines were hit by gunfire on the run-in and the few men who reached the shore were killed or taken prisoner. In an attempt to regain control and end the suicidal mission, their CO stood up in the stern of his craft and signalled to those behind that they should turn back; he was then killed by German gunfire.

The RAF had allocated aircraft, including many fighters, to the operation but Squadron Leader ‘Johnnie’ Johnson leading No. 616 Squadron recalled that there was supposed to be a headquarters ship, HMS Calypso, with radar and RAF controllers aboard that was meant to be controlling air operations. On four sorties over Dieppe that day, he could never establish communications:

We could see very little except for a bloody great pall of smoke over the town, and lots of shelling going on down below. But we could do nothing about it because the attackers and defenders were all within a hundred yards of each other. We couldn’t help the army. When we got home after the first patrol, we knew that the whole thing had been a disaster, but there was nothing we could do to help them.

Withdrawal began at 1100 as the heavy fire continued. It took until 1400. When the assault force left, it left behind 3,367 Canadians who had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, as well as 275 RM Commandos. The Royal Navy lost a destroyer and 33 landing craft, with 550 men killed or wounded. The RAF lost 106 aircraft. Compared to this, the Germans lost just 591 men killed or wounded, and 48 aircraft.

The surviving landing craft had been ordered to the main beach at Dieppe at 1030. When the first of them arrived there, it was met by a solitary soldier and it was only after he had been handed a Lewis gun with which to defend himself that someone realized he was a German soldier attempting to desert. Once the withdrawal started in earnest, the few landing craft were overcrowded and in danger of being swamped. One of them was hit by a shell and capsized, but the crew managed to get their passengers aboard another vessel.

In the inevitable enquiry into what went wrong, many tried to blame Mountbatten, but as there was no reprimand and he remained in post, it seems that it was not his fault and he did not act alone, although there is no written record of the operation being given the go-ahead. General Sir Alan Brooke was abroad at the time and many believe that had he been at home in the War Cabinet, he might have persuaded Churchill to cancel the operation; however, this is conjecture.

Some believe that the disaster at Dieppe was necessary so that lessons could be learned in time for the Normandy landings but even so, there were many avoidable failings. Either there had to be a heavy aerial bombardment before the operation, or it should have been called off. Some form of reconnaissance from the sea was necessary: this would have noted the gun positions in the cliff face, and could also have assessed whether the shingle on the beach would have damaged the tank tracks, although the latter would have required reconnaissance parties to land on the beach and take samples without being noticed. In addition, much heavier naval firepower was needed and had to continue right up to the moment when the landing craft hit the shore.

A Navy Second to None

On September 6, 1901, a deranged anarchist shot President McKinley. The president lingered for eight days before dying on September 14. That made Theodore Roosevelt, at age forty-two, the youngest president in American history. “Teddy,” as he was often called, had been an enthusiastic navalist since childhood. His thesis at Harvard, a de- tailed study of the naval engagements of the War of 1812, was subsequently turned into a popular book that remains in print to this day. In 1890 he read and glowingly reviewed Mahan’s book, and he served as assistant secretary of the navy during McKinley’s first term, before being selected as his running mate in 1900. It is not surprising, therefore, that the U. S. Navy thrived during his administration. Two of the events most closely associated with his presidency are the cruise of the Great White Fleet (1907-9) and the construction of the Panama Canal, which opened for business in 1914, just as Europe was tumbling into war.The Great White Fleet

Mahan had postulated that battleships, especially battleships operating in a concentrated fleet, were the sine qua non of naval power. In 1902, the first year of Roosevelt’s presidency, the United States commissioned one new battleship, which was christened the Maine in honor of the one lost in Havana Harbor four years before. A year later the USS Missouri was commissioned. Then, between 1906 and 1908, no fewer than thirteen new battleships joined the fleet. After that there was no longer any doubt that the United States had decided to pursue the Mahanian prescription. Even as those new battleships put to sea, however, dramatic changes in ship design were redefining the index of naval power.

The biggest change concerned battleship armament. The USS New Hampshire, laid down in May 1905, boasted a main battery of four 12-inch guns plus a secondary battery of smaller guns. For some time ship designers and naval officers had observed that during the early stages of a naval engagement, when the ships were farthest apart, only the largest of their guns would be within range, which made a secondary battery largely irrelevant. When the USS South Carolina and USS Michigan were laid down in 1906, they each car- ried a much larger primary battery of eight 12-inch guns, twice as many as the New Hampshire. The South Carolina and Michigan were not completed, however, until 1910, and in the meantime Britain stole a nautical march on the United States-and on everyone else-by hurriedly completing HMS Dreadnought in 1906. With ten 12-inch guns and only a small secondary battery, she could bring twice as many guns to bear in the early stages of a battle than any other ship then afloat. From 1906 onward all battleships, of every nation, were classified either as dreadnoughts or pre-dreadnoughts.

Another big change in battleship design during this era was the switch from coal to oil as fuel. Oil generated more power and made ships faster-a critical advantage in battle. For the oil-rich United States this required simply reengineering the power plant. For the British, however, it was a much more serious transition, for while Britain had lots of coal, it possessed almost no domestic oil, which made Britain newly dependent on overseas oil. Britain “solved” this problem by creating the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, though it was a decision that carried the seeds of future complications in the Middle East. The result of these developments was that the modified yardstick of naval power was now the number of oil-burning dreadnoughts a nation possessed.

Elected in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt was eager to test the capabilities of the new, though already superseded, U. S. battleships. To do that he decided to dispatch sixteen of them on a round-the- world cruise. Because all the ships were painted peacetime white, their ensuing circumnavigation has ever since been known as the cruise of the “Great White Fleet.” Officially, at least, the purpose of the cruise was to test the ships’ capability on long voyages, though Roosevelt also expected significant political and diplomatic benefits. The fifteen- month cruise was a complete success. Logistically the navy learned important lessons about refueling at sea, and the press coverage ashore generated more popular support for the navy. Overseas other naval powers, especially Japan, took due notice of the arrival of the United States on the world stage.

The Panama Canal

Another of Mahan’s assertions was that a nation’s battle fleet should be kept intact as a single “fleet in being.” This was difficult for the United States, which had two coasts separated by a fourteen- thousand- mile journey around Cape Horn. The obvious solution was to build a canal across the Central American isthmus, a dream of mariners since the days of the early explorers. A French company had begun constructing a canal across Panama (then part of Colombia) in the 1880s but had gone bankrupt. In 1903 the United States signed the Hay-Herran Treaty with Colombia to take over the project. When the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty and demanded more money, investors in the original project helped to engineer a separatist revolution in Panama and appealed to the United States for support. Colombian authorities sought to suppress the rebellion, but the USS Nashville interceded to prevent the landing of Colombian troops, and soon thereafter the United States recognized Panama’s independence. Almost immediately the Roosevelt administration signed a treaty with the breakaway government that gave the United States control of a ten-mile-wide strip across the isthmus.

Work on the canal began almost at once. It was an enormous undertaking, and Roosevelt himself took particular interest in it, be- coming the first president to leave the country while in office when he made a trip to the Canal Zone to inspect progress. The canal opened for business in August 1914, two weeks after the opening shots of the First World War.

The next year saw an important change in the navy bureaucracy. The Board of Navy Commissioners, established in 1815, had been replaced by a decentralized bureau system in 1842. It performed in- differently until the Spanish-American War, after which the navy created something called the General Board to improve centralized planning. The General Board, however, was purely advisory, and it did not provide the kind of command leadership desired by the more progressive naval officers. Rear Admiral Bradley Fiske in particular pressed for the creation of a system modeled on that of the Prussian General Staff. His proposal might have died aborning but for the out- break of war in Europe, which provided the spur necessary to prod Congress into passing a bill creating the Office of Chief of Naval Operations, and in May 1915 William S. Benson became the first to hold that post.

U.S. Navy Battleship USS NEW JERSEY, 1918.

The U. S. Navy and World War I

The launching of the Dreadnought in 1906 helped trigger a naval arms race between Britain and Imperial Germany, one of several factors that contributed to rising tensions in Europe. When war broke out in 1914, the United States declared its neutrality. After Germany’s ruthless march through neutral Belgium, however, American sympathies were almost entirely with the Anglo-French allies, though most still wanted to stay out of the war. That changed when Germany decided to initiate unrestricted submarine warfare.

At root submarine warfare in the twentieth century was simply a more technologically advanced form of commerce raiding. In its objective it resembled both privateering during the American Revolution and the voyages of the CSS Alabama and other raiders during the Civil War. yet somehow striking unarmed merchant ships from the depths, often without warning, seemed particularly heinous. Just as the use of underwater mines in the Civil War had horrified contemporaries before their use became routine, the employment of submarines against merchant shipping shocked public sentiment in the early months of World War I. When a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the British passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, including 128 Americans, Americans were outraged. Germany insisted that the Lusitania was a legitimate target because it was carrying munitions, but the German government nevertheless offered assurances that such a thing would not happen again. yet only eight months later, in February 1917, Germany announced a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare aimed at starving Britain into submission. Nine weeks after that, on April 6, the United States declared war against Germany.

The months between the sinking of the Lusitania and the American declaration of war witnessed the only full-scale battleship fleet engagement in history. For most of the war the huge and expensive British and German battle fleets remained quietly in port on opposite sides of the North Sea, but in May 1916 the German fleet sortied. The ensuing confrontation, the Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916), involved fifty battleships plus several hundred other warships. The Germans got the best of it, which was a shock to Britons, who were used to hearing of Royal Navy triumphs. In the end, however, it made little strategic difference, for afterward the German fleet returned to its base at Kiel, and the two fleets never fought again.

Two months after the Battle of Jutland, the U. S. Congress voted for a historic expansion of the U. S. Navy by enacting what is sometimes called the Big Navy Act of 1916. President Woodrow Wilson sup- ported the act not necessarily to prepare the country for war but to ensure that it could defend its Atlantic frontier regardless of who emerged triumphant in Europe. The new bill authorized ten dreadnought battleships, six battlecruisers (armed like battleships but with less armor), ten “scout cruisers,” fifty destroyers, and, interestingly, sixty-seven submarines. The new battleships were to be enormous. Whereas the original Maine had displaced 6,300 tons and the Indiana class battleships displaced 10,000 tons, four of the new American dreadnoughts would displace 42,000 tons, and they would carry 16-inch guns, the largest guns yet placed on a warship.

None of these vessels had been completed when the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, and almost immediately it became obvious that the greatest peril to the Allied cause at sea was not Germany’s battleships but her U-boats. By then the German U-boats were sinking Allied ships faster than they could be replaced. The United States therefore halted construction of the big battle- ships and battlecruisers and devoted the men and material thus saved to building an armada of destroyers for escort duty.

Thanks in part to Rear Admiral William S. Sims, sent to London just before the war began, the Anglo-American allies established a system of convoys in which destroyers and other small armed war- ships escorted merchant vessels through the danger zone off England and Ireland. Navy men had initially resisted the idea of convoys. Herding slow and balky merchant ships was passive and reactive, and convoy duty itself was tedious and unglamorous. In the end, however, convoys proved essential to Allied victory at sea.

Meanwhile, as the ground war staggered on to its bloody conclusion on the western front, the American dreadnoughts authorized in 1916 remained unfinished-steel skeletons awaiting completion. The United States did send a division of older coal-burning pre-dreadnoughts to join the British fleet at Scapa Flow, north of Scotland, more as a gesture of solidarity than a genuine contribution to Allied naval power.

The U. S. Navy also helped to erect a minefield across the northern exit from the North Sea to keep German U-boats from getting into the Atlantic sea lanes. By the end of the war the Americans had sown more than fifty-six thousand mines and the British another sixteen thousand. Although this may have deterred some U-boats, there is little evidence that it had a significant impact on the war effort.

Like all wars, World War I also triggered social change. A famous U. S. Navy recruiting poster of 1917 portrayed a comely young woman in a sailor suit exclaiming, “Gee I Wish I Were a Man, I’d Join the Navy.” Soon enough she could. Women had served as nurses in the navy since 1908; the first twenty of them came to be known as “the sacred twenty” since they were the first women to serve in uniform. During World War I their number grew to more than 1,500, though all of them served in hospitals ashore rather than on shipboard. In addition Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels announced that the navy would also begin to accept females as yeomen, a naval rating that designated secretarial duties, and before the war was over some 11,000 women served in this role. A year later the U. S. Marine Corps accepted the first women marines; they worked as accountants, typists, and stenographers. Despite these modest reforms, sea service and combat duty remained the exclusive province of males.

The Black Sea: The Naval War in the South 1942–43 I

“S 47” in the Black Sea still without the armoured bridge – the Kalotte.

R boats (Räumboote in German)

Verkehr mit Kleinfahrzeugen (MFP) in the Black Sea

During Operation Barbarossa, Army Group South marched through the Ukraine towards the shores of the Black Sea. The forces that comprised the Army Group had been weakened slightly by the invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece resulting in greater reliance on troops from other Axis nations, arguably blunting Barbarossa’s spearhead. The port city of Odessa held out against the invaders for two months under siege before Soviet forces successfully evacuated, while the Crimea then became the scene of some of the fiercest fighting on the Eastern front during 1941. The prize, Sevastopol, came under German siege on 30 October 1941 and stubbornly refused to crack. Key to Soviet ability to hold both cities was the Black Sea Fleet, comprising one battleship, five cruisers, three destroyer Leaders, eleven modern destroyers, four old destroyers, forty-four submarines, two gunboats, eighteen minesweepers and eighty-four MTBs.

Opposing them was the Royal Romanian Navy comprising four destroyers, six fleet torpedo boats, one submarine, five Midget submarines, two Minelayers and seven MTBs. The submarine Delfinul was temporarily commanded by Kaptlt Hermann Eckhardt, who had occupied a shore position in Constanta in a bid to help train Romanian submarine crews. At least ten Germans served alongside the Romanian crew during April 1942. Eckhardt was later posted to U432 and killed when his boat was sunk on 11 March 1943. The Germans for their part could field only the six small riverine vessels of the Danube Flotilla. Initially, a German naval mission in Romania had provided cooperation between the Axis powers, but Barbarossa necessitated greater German commitment. Kriegsmarine control of the region rested at the highest level with Marinegruppenkommando Süd (MGK Süd), headquartered in Sofia, Bulgaria. Immediately below this office was Admiral Black Sea (Kommandierende Admiräl im Schwarzen Meer) to which the U-boat commitment would be directly added. The Black Sea was further divided into three regions – Ukraine, Crimea and Caucasus – with individual Seekommandanturen, responsible for coastal security and working alongside a bewildering array of Italian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Croatian naval units as well as a small Ukrainian volunteer unit.

On 26 December 1941, Soviet troops made seaborne landings on the northern coast of the Kerch Peninsula, establishing five bridgeheads up to one battalion in strength each. While huge resources were still engaged in battering Sevastopol, the Germans were momentarily thrown off balance by their enemy’s ability to land troops in force with naval artillery support. Sevastopol was still supplied by freighters protected by the Black Sea Fleet, who simultaneously used artillery to great effect on besieging Axis troops. Typical supply convoys were small: generally one or two steamers with a small escort. In Berlin OKW recognised the Soviet Navy’s dominance of the Black Sea and both U-boats and S-boats were committed to transfer to the region.

Debate followed within OKW as to the best means of relocating U-boats to the Black Sea. During the First World War, small UB and UC-class U-boats that had comprised the bulk of the Adriatic’s Pola flotilla, were transported in segments overland by rail: each boat requiring three wagons, one for each major component with further wagons for the conning tower, engines and batteries. Reassembly took approximately fourteen days before the boats were ready for sea trials. The same principle would be applied to the transport of six small U-boats from Germany, using the combination of rivers, roads or rail.

Initial investigations into overland transport by OKM’s Quartermaster Division reported that by December 1941 boats could be moved from the Elbe to the Danube on railroad cars which could accommodate small Type IIs, with their engines and conning towers removed. If carried by pontoon along the river system a Danube bridge, which was being preserved as a historical monument, would require demolition. The total transfer time was estimated at ten to twelve months, causing Hitler to dismiss the idea in a conference on 12 December and instead concentrate on the transfer of the S-boats from the 1st S-flotilla. R-boats of the 3rd R-flotilla would also be transferred using this method, beginning in May 1942. Eventually, two R-flotillas, one S-flotilla, two escort flotillas, three U-Jagd flotillas, one Artillerietrager flotilla, one transport flotilla and four landing flotillas would comprise the bulk of the Kriegsmarine surface deployment within the Black Sea, all bar the S-boats grouped within the 10th Sicherungsdivision.

Nonetheless in January 1942 Hitler returned to the idea of Black Sea U-boats, proposing that Germany solicit the cooperation of neutral Turkey. U-boats already within the Mediterranean could perhaps be exchanged for Turkish submarines within the Black Sea, or sold to the Turks, transferred into the Black Sea and then bought back by the Reich. The suggestion that this political complexity could be subverted by simply sending U-boats through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus Straits was strongly refuted by OKM as Turkey could only allow U-boats to enter the Black Sea by violating the Montreux convention of 1936 that gave Turkey full control of the Straits, which restricted the passage of military vessels not belonging to Black Sea states. Historically, it had been proven that the upper echelons of the Third Reich were relatively unconcerned with adherence to international treaties and protocols. Since the convention was working to Germany’s advantage by preventing British naval forces from entering the Black Sea and Russian forces from entering the Mediterranean, Germany stood more to gain from Turkey’s adherence to the agreement. Furthermore, the sale and resale of U-boats was discounted as, if the Turks agreed, it would be a thin deception displaying Turkish disregard for her obligations as a neutral power. A separate proposal to simply purchase existing Turkish submarines was also refused by OKM as they would require considerable conversion and upgrade to reach the standards required by the Kriegsmarine. Thus, with Barbarossa clearly not bringing the rapid defeat of the Soviet Union envisaged by Hitler during 1941, the transfer of an initial three Type II U-boats was once again proposed and accepted.

On 15 April 1942, three Type IIB boats – U9 and U24 of Pillau’s 21st U-training flotilla and U19 of Gotenhafen’s 22nd – were chosen. All three boats had seen action within the North Sea and English Channel during the early months of the war before relegation to training duties. The same limitations in action noticeable in 1939 and 1940 would become evident once more, including a poor maximum surface speed of 13 knots. Underwater the boats could reach 7 knots, though only briefly before batteries ran dry. Armed with three bow tubes, a maximum of five torpedoes or twelve TMA mines could be carried. Crewed by between twenty-two and twenty-four men, the Type IIB originally sported a 20mm deck weapon though improvements within the Black Sea would later see some equipped with Wintergarten flak platforms abaft the conning tower.

On 15 April the three U-boats were gathered in Stettin awaiting the clearance of ice that marred the passage to Kiel. The entire transfer to their planned base at Constanta, Romania, was expected to take twenty-six weeks, each U-boat despatched in three to four week intervals. If the schedule was adhered to, they could be operational in the Black Sea before the Danube froze for winter 1942. In Kiel’s Deutsche Werke shipyard, they were stripped of as much as possible: conning tower, diesel engines, electrical motors, batteries, decking and other smaller items lifted out to reduce hull weight.

The upright hulls were attached to shallow-draught rafts, each constructed from five pontoons, which, once complete, were rotated 90 degrees until the U-boat lay on its starboard: in itself a complex task, manoeuvring the 250-ton hulls by way of careful partial flooding of the pontoons and U-boat trimming tanks. Beginning with U24 the rafts were then moved through the Kiel Canal to Hamburg and from there upstream along the Elbe River to Dresden. In the suburb of Übigau the pontoons were lifted by slipway from the water and the U-boat hull craned across to low-bed transport trailers fitted with solid rubber tires and pulled by heavy Kuhlemeyer trucks, each trailer pulled by four separate trucks. The Kuhlemeyer operated in various configurations: in line, on a single broad front or with two before and two behind dependent on the road and weather conditions at the time. The Deutsch Amerikanischen Petroleum Gesellschaft had previously used the vehicles to transport small tanker ships overland to the Danube and so the same principles were applied to the U-boats. From the slipway the autobahn that stretched to Ingolsdtadt was easily accessible. Travelling at a maximum of 8km/h the U-boat transport occupied 600 men and took fifty-six hours of laborious constant travelling – drivers changed without bringing the convoy to a halt. The manpower included shipbuilders, transport drivers, traffic police, security troops and engineers assigned to remove any potential obstacles along the route. Workshop vehicles, communications vehicles and tanker trucks laden with fuel accompanied each U-boat transport enabling supply and replenishment of the heavy Kuhlemeyer trucks. Each bridge to be traversed was examined by structural engineers before the U-boat was carried across and, if necessary, reinforced for the U-boat’s passage.

Once in Ingolstadt the boat was returned to the pontoons which had been shipped by rail from Dresden and then towed along the Danube River by tug boat to Galati, Romania. There the boats were reassembled, returned upright by once again using trimming tanks and the flooding of pontoons.

The Kriegsmarine already planned to strengthen the U-boat presence within the Black Sea to more than just three. Not only was it considered an ideal prospective training ground for future crews once Russia was beaten – the destruction of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet expected complete by November 1942 – but Hitler decreed in conference with Raeder on 26 August 1942 that the presence of an increased U-boat flotilla would have a ‘favourable political influence’ on pro-Axis Turkey. Correspondingly three more Type IIBs from the 21st and 22nd U-training flotillas were chosen for transfer while the original trio was still in transit. During September U18, U20 and U23 were taken to Kiel to begin an identical process of deconstruction and transport toward Constanta. Ironically, although the second trio of U-boats would find their passage interrupted and delayed for several weeks due to ice on the river, it was the summer heat that set back the first group – their transit by way of the Danube deferred due to drought causing low water level at Ingolstadt.

After a belated arrival, each boat took between forty-two and forty-five days to reassemble in Galati, recommissioned into the Kriegsmarine once complete and joining the newly established 30th U-boat Flotilla. From the shipyard they continued along the Danube, arriving eventually in Sulina within the Danube Delta, travelling onward in convoy with other craft into the Black Sea and on to the Romanian naval base at Constanta, the new home of the 30th U-boat Flotilla. Oberleutnant zur See Klaus Petersen’s U24 was the first boat to complete the journey: recommissioned on 14 October 1942 and reaching Constanta at 10.33 p.m. on 16 October. Kapitänleutnant Hans-Joachim Schmidt-Weichert’s U9 was recommissioned on 28 October, reaching Constanta on the penultimate day of the month while ObltzS Hans-Ludwig Gaude’s U19 was commissioned on 9 December and arrived at 30th U-boat Flotilla headquarters on 30 December.

As early as 6 October 1942, the flotilla’s operational plans had been outlined by SKL. German troops fighting in the Crimea required supply by sea and land, the former under threat from Soviet naval and aerial attack:

Adopt the view that southeastern Black Sea ports will remain in Russian hands for some time. They are, to a limited extent, jumping off bases for nuisance raids on our supplies and coast. Traffic of warships and merchant vessels converges off them.

This sea area (after the probable fall of Tuapse, mainly off Poti and Batum) is a favourable operational area for our U-boats; attack on warships to be the principal objective [original emphasis], for the moment, down to and including destroyers. Given favourable opportunities, attacks on submarines are likewise unrestricted. U-boats are to regard attacks on enemy supply lines off the coast as a secondary task but should nevertheless take advantage of any favourable opportunities e.g., they might on occasion – for direct support of Army operations – concentrate their attack on supply traffic.

On the first operation the commanders will have to devote a certain amount of time to observing enemy warship movements and the naval situation within the operational area. Moreover for subsequent operations after the first surprise attack, enemy reactions will have to be taken into account.

The simultaneous employment of German and Italian U-boats in the same area is impracticable. An endeavour will be made to remedy the low operational efficiency of Italian boats by having them towed to the operational area by German U-boats. Such operations will depend on the outcome of discussions. The operational areas should be so divided that the Italians operate immediately to the northwest of our U-boats, primarily against merchant shipping, Italian boats will make the return passage on their own. It will thus be possible to occupy a fairly long coastal patrol line enabling us to observe traffic and at the same time attack warships off the most southerly bases, protect supplies from Russian attacks, prevent interference with merchant shipping off the coast further to the northwest and give direct support to German Army operations on the Caucasus front.

Operations would gain considerable support from cooperation with the Luftwaffe. Concentrated air attacks on the principal bases of the Russian Fleet would force it to put to sea and so create an opportunity for our U-boats to attack. There is, however, little hope of this until the Luftwaffe is free of other tasks. The findings of daily reconnaissance could for the time being be utilized for U-boat operations.

To extend U-boat operations involving a relatively long approach passage, a jumping off base is being established in Theodosia or Kerch, so that boats can be put in for a brief spell between two operations for restocking with torpedoes, refuelling, reprovisioning etc., and even to relieve certain sections of the crews.

Based in Bucharest, V.A. Hellmuth Heye (Admiral Black Sea until early November 1942) would later add his own addendum to these instructions, relating his opinion to 30th U-boat Flotilla officers that the Soviet Black Sea Fleet’s ‘excellent morale and capabilities’ would make its expected destruction by Luftwaffe harbour attacks unlikely. However, the presence of the U-boats would not only tie down Soviet naval forces and keep them away from army supply convoys, but also prevent the likelihood that – if faced with defeat as the land war passed them to the east – Soviet naval units could dismount their vessels’ heavy weapons for use ashore. Therefore every ship destroyed was also of direct benefit to the land war.

The 30th U-boat Flotilla was established under the command of veteran U-boat skipper Kaptlt Helmut Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum had joined the Reichsmarine in 1932 and served first aboard light cruisers as a Fähnrich zur See before transferring to the U-boat service in time to make more than one patrol as a watch officer during the Spanish Civil War. In February 1939 he took command of the Type IIA U2, making two war patrols within the North Sea before being transferred to skipper the new Type VIIB U73. Aboard this boat Rosenbaum sank eight ships within the Atlantic before breaking through the dangerous Strait of Gibraltar and scoring his largest victory on 11 August 1942 when he torpedoed and sank the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. Rewarded with a Knight’s Cross, Rosenbaum was brought ashore and posted to Romania and command of the 30th U-boat Flotilla, his flotilla engineer the talented Kaptlt (Ing.) Heinz Bruns previously of U75. Like the Arctic U-boat command, Rosenbaum was not directed by BdU but rather formed an operational staff within the Admiral Black Sea command: Heye replaced in November by VA Robert Witthoeft-Emden. Unlike most other flotilla commanders, who were primarily responsible for logistical matters, Rosenbaum would also exercise tactical control over his small flotilla. Rosenbaum conferred with Heye upon arrival in Romania, his superior emphasising the importance of attacking naval targets, such Russian merchant convoys that could be found likely to be not only very small and in shallow waters, but heavily defended and flanked by anti-U-boat minefields, best left to the attentions of S- and R-boats.

Meanwhile flotilla headquarters was established in Constanta, administrative and stores buildings provided near the harbour’s North Pier at the end of the main railway spur. The crews and staff were accommodated streets away within the town itself. Constanta, already fortified by the Romanians, had received German reinforcement since the country’s 1940 entry into the Axis alliance. The German mission in Bucharest planned defences at key points along the Black Sea coastline, modernising Romanian coastal artillery that was largely obsolete. During the winter of 1940 three 280mm cannon were situated at Constanta: the backbone of the Tirpitz naval battery, completed with 75mm and 20mm flak weapons. The battery – and its surrounding land defences – was served by 700 Kriegsmarine personnel of the 613th Marine Artillerie Abteilung, and by the time the 30th U-boat Flotilla began operations, over 3,700 German troops were stationed in Constanta alongside nearly 40,000 Romanian troops. The Tirpitz battery saw action against Soviet Naval Forces only once, on 26 June, 1941, when destroyers Moskva and Kharkov fired 350 shells into the harbour and its railway station. Several tanker carriages were destroyed before Romanian artillery and destroyers returned fire. The Tirpitz battery added thirty-nine shells to the battle, lightly damaging Kharkov and panicking the crew of Moskva enough with near misses that she ran onto a minefield and sank killing 331 of the 400 crew.

Petersen’s U24 sailed operationally on 27 October, escorted from harbour by three minesweepers and destined for the south-eastern waters off the Georgian coast. The three Soviet naval harbours of Batum, Poti and Sokhumi were considered the most promising areas for operations against military targets, although with little intelligence available on enemy dispositions – including minefields – within the area, Petersen was expected to spend time on reconnaissance for future U-boat operations.

Three days from harbour U24’s bridge watch sighted smoke but failed to locate the corresponding vessel. On 1 November Petersen attempted an attack against a Soviet submarine: two shots fired and both torpedoes failing, probably missing due to excessive range. It was a pattern repeated throughout the short patrol. On 5 November Petersen made a surfaced attack on what he identified as a small tanker – in actuality Soviet minesweeping trawler T492. At 7.18 p.m. a single G7e was fired that passed beneath the target ship, machine-gun fire from the trawler forcing U24 to dive and seek a second firing position. Just over two hours later, Petersen fired a G7a steam torpedo, which hit below the Soviet’s bridge, although a defective pistol rendered the torpedo a dud. Determined to make his attack count Petersen surfaced and opened fire with his deck-mounted 20mm cannon, the trawler returning machine-gun and rifle fire. Following at least one good hit on target, a magazine jam brought the attack to a halt and once again U24 was forced to dive away. Torpedoes exhausted, Petersen returned to port reporting his boat’s echo-sounder out of action and at least ten days repair required to repair gunfire damage to the conning tower. Petersen was ordered to return via the Turkish coast: reporting ‘lively merchant shipping traffic’ running near neutral waters.

The Black Sea: The Naval War in the South 1942–43 II

Meanwhile, Kaptlt Hans-Joachim Schmidt-Weichert’s U9 was nearing operational readiness, departure for her first patrol delayed until Petersen’s return to allow evaluation of his experience with the enemy and torpedo failures. U9 had sailed against Britain and France during 1940 under the command of Wolfgang Lüth, destined to become one of the most highly decorated U-boat captains of the war. The boat sported a large Iron Cross on either side of the conning tower – created by Lüth’s crew in remembrance of Otto Weddigen’s U9 from the last war, Weddigen Germany’s first U-boat ace. Schmidt-Weichert took the Iron-Cross boat from harbour at 7 a.m. on 11 November, bound for the same operational area that U24 had occupied. The patrol was relatively uneventful with only weak Soviet naval units found at sea and avoided by diving. A single steamer estimated at 1,500 tons was missed by torpedo shot and ultimately, the twenty-one-day patrol achieved nothing except the successful photographing of Poti harbour – U9 returning after fuel ran low.

Finding minimal Soviet targets, the U-boats were ordered to extend their patrol area north to Pitsunda Point, opening the hunt for merchant shipping. U24 put to sea once more on 24 November, her new skipper ObltzS Clemens Schöler. Five days from harbour, at 12.15 p.m., Schöler’s boat was shelled by three salvoes of Turkish coastal artillery while sailing eastwards seven nautical miles offshore, forcing the boat underwater to safety. By the beginning of December, intelligence reports indicated the return of large units of the Soviet fleet to Poti and Batum and Schöler immediately headed for the harbour approaches to lay in wait. He had already attempted to torpedo a Soviet destroyer but missed as the ship zigzagged. However, the Soviet fleet movements were completed by 5 December and Schöler prowled further north. Strong phosphorescence in the water was proving problematic for the U-boat at night, the shiny wake betraying the small craft’s presence. It was another barren patrol, U24 returning to Constanta after twenty-two days at sea and one unsuccessful Soviet air attack:

The Führer’s order for more supplies to be sent to Army Group A via the Crimea and the halting of shipping to Nikolaiev have created a new situation. As a result the main convoy traffic has now been switched from Constanta and the Danube to Sevastopol and Kerch.The available escort forces will be fully occupied. Russian submarines operating close inshore prove the greatest menace to convoys. Convoys proceeding to the Crimea must therefore avoid the coast and constantly vary their route … In view of the present general situation and of Russian opportunities for interfering with our supplies, U-boat operations against warships continue to be the main task. Sinking merchant tonnage off the central east coast can only bring very slight relief to the Caucasus front, I therefore consider that the U-boats should be transferred back to the area off the harbours of Poti and Batum, if only in the hope of to some extent tying down enemy naval activity, [sic] A situation report to this effect has been sent to Group South, U9 has been ordered to proceed at once to the operational area off Poti, to remain there until her return to base, and to attack large merchant vessels and warships from torpedo boat upwards.

U9 sailed once more on 19 December, escorted from harbour by Räumboot R35, but again experiencing frustrating failure. The boat was damaged by eight depth charges from a Soviet minesweeper on 27 December, the starboard deck railing destroyed, stuffing box around the RDF antennae damaged and leaking, deck planking warped and hull slightly dented. Low on fuel – and after failing with a three torpedo shot on a steamer – the boat reached Constanta at 10.39 a.m. on 7 January 1943.

While Schmidt-Weichert had been at sea, the face of the war on Russian soil had irrevocably changed. Axis forces at Stalingrad had collapsed; the final organised resistance ending on 2 February when Generaloberst Karl Strecker surrendered to Soviet forces. A pivotal moment in the war on the Eastern Front, Germany suffered some 400,000 casualties, but the battle was also a significant disaster for Romanian, Hungarian and Italian troops. Even a Croatian unit was lost in the maelstrom, news of which was withheld from the German public until the end of January.

Schöler took U24 to sea once more on 18 January, followed three days later by newly available U19, skippered by Kaptlt Hans-Ludwig Gaude who had just completed three weeks of training for his crew in the waters around Constanta. Gaude was ordered to the area between Sochi and Tuapse, refuelling on both outward and inbound journeys at Feodosia in order to extend the patrol length. Instructions included the code word Panthersprung, which would direct U19 to occupy a reconnaissance line south of Kerch and west of Novorossiyk, joining U24. During the previous November the Soviet ground offensive that had isolated Stalingrad had also battered its way to the shores of the Sea of Asov; the German 1st Panzer Army pushed back to Rostov and 17th Army towards the Taman Peninsular into what became the Kuban Bridgehead (known as Gotenkopf – Gothic Head – to the Wehrmacht). By February 1943 German troops had fallen back from Krasnodar to the Kuban defensive positions. For once, Hitler had authorised the strategic withdrawal not only to protect the eastern approaches to the Crimea but also to provide a launching point for future offensives against the Caucasus during 1943. Meanwhile Luftwaffe reconnaissance noted a build up in Soviet forces within ports along the Black Sea and OKW foresaw a major Soviet seaborne landing against the Kuban bridgehead.

On 4 February the Russians struck: landing troops at Cape Myskhako near Novorossiysk. Weak Kriegsmarine opposition allowed the successful ferrying of 150,000 men, 4,600 horses, 387 tanks, 463 guns, 106 rocket launchers, 3,000 tons of ammunition, 52,000 tons of supplies and 15,000 tons of oil and gasoline into action against the German lines during the first three months of 1943. If German attention had weighed more heavily on obliterating Soviet naval stations on the Caucasian coast, it is conceivable that the Wehrmacht’s war on land may have been eased: the Soviet coastal convoys and escorts denied their bases. As it was, Soviet troops concentrated on the recapture of Novorossiysk or, at least, the deprivation of the harbour to the Germans.

The attack had begun at midnight with Russian naval units shelling German shore batteries near Anapa and air raids within the German lines. At 1.05 a.m. the code word Panthersprung was issued and both U19 and U24 began to move toward their patrol line:

Report received from Naval Shore Commander, Caucasus that the enemy landed two tank battalions near Osiereika and south of Novorossiysk; single craft landed more troops near Sudchikaya, Countermeasures in progress. Attempts of weak forces to land in Novorossiysk harbour driven off. Further landing attempts, bringing up of reinforcements to earlier landing sites and support of Russian land operations by gunfire from cruisers and destroyers at sea must be expected in the coming night. The patrol lines (Panthersprung) assigned to U24 and U19 are too far north to be an effective defence. I have therefore decided to station the boats as close to the coastal landing site as possible and they have been ordered to take up a patrol line from air grid square 3539 (lower edge centre) to air grid square 7547 (lower right-hand corner).

The main attack at Novorossiysk was wiped out, but another beachhead at nearby Mount Myshako held out and was reinforced to 17,000 men within days. Soviet entrenchment closed the harbour to German use and, despite fierce land attacks, the Russian lines held.

U9, having departed Constanta bound for refuelling in Feodosia, was also ordered to join the Panthersprung boats on 6 February while U24 was forced to leave for refuelling. Schöler had already missed two ships with torpedoes: one 500-ton netlayer and a 1,500-ton steamer untouched, despite U24 having shadowed the steamer for a full day before attacking. He had also sighted a formation of two cruisers and destroyer escorts but was too distant to intervene.

On 11 February U19 also refuelled in Feodosia, taking fuel, water and provisions from the moored tanker Breslau as well as repairing a damaged compressor. Gaude reported an unsuccessful attack on two Soviet destroyers at the beginning of February, but nothing else sighted. Vizeadmiral Witthoeft-Emden (Admiral Black Sea) was frustrated by the U-boats’ lack of enemy contact, reasoning that enemy supply convoys were hugging the coastline. Nonetheless, he maintained that they must be intercepted in order to relieve some of the pressure on German lines ashore. Correspondingly the Panthersprung boats were ordered to fresh patrol zones: U9 to the coast between Ghelenjik and Tuapse; U24 between Adler and Cape Pitsunda; and U19, after refuelling in Feodosia, to the former patrol line south of Novorossiysk. All three boats achieved nothing. U19 missed a destroyer with another spread of three torpedoes on 15 February before the boat began her return to Constanta. Likewise U24 reported pistol failures on two torpedoes fired at Soviet destroyers and a lack of merchant targets despite Luftwaffe reports of heavy shipping within his patrol area.

The last of the trio, U9, had taken the chance at Feodosia to have welding done on the conning tower before joining the Panthersprung. The boat was shelled from land and attacked by aircraft during the patrol, the periscope strafed by Soviet fighters but undamaged. Despite a malfunctioning echo-sounder and gyro-compass, the boat was refuelled and reprovisioned again in Feodosia on 26 February and sent to the sea off Anapa to search for Soviet destroyers shelling German positions ashore. The hunt yielded nothing and U9 reached Constanta on 3 March, the final leg of the journey escorted by a BV138 flying boat of Seeaufklärungs-Fliegergruppe 125.

Both U19 and U24 were at sea during the latter half of March. Gaude’s U19 prowled the sea-lanes off Sevastopol and Kerch, destroying floating mines with sub-machine-gun fire and attacking an unidentified passenger steamer on 23 March with a full bow salvo of three torpedoes. Strong detonations were heard within the submerged U-boat and Gaude observed what he recorded as a 2,500-ton ship lying stopped through his periscope. Escorting minesweepers dropped four depth charges but failed to damage the retreating boat. Nevertheless, mechanical problems with the starboard drive shaft forced a return to Constanta, Rosenbaum recording the patrol as ‘clear and considered’ after debriefing the young skipper.

Schöler’s U24 had actually encountered Gaude’s boat while at sea on 22 March, making an emergency dive to safety as he believed U19 to be Russian. Dodging aircraft over the days that followed, U24 finally sighted a worthwhile target on the last day of the month. At 12.15 p.m. a tanker escorted by two destroyers and a minesweeper were sighted near the coast at Pitsunda in Gagri Bay. Fifteen minutes later Schöler launched two torpedoes and claimed a hit on 8,228-ton Sovetskaja Neft as the tanker began to burn. Soviet sources report that ship already damaged by Luftwaffe torpedoes on 26 March in Tuapse and it seems likely that Schöler had actually attacked the 7,661-ton tanker Kreml’ which remained afloat despite the damage and ensuing fires aboard. The Soviets had begun to fill only the central shore-side compartments of their tankers for such voyages, the vulnerable bow, stern and seaward compartments used instead for ballast lest they be attacked by Luftwaffe, S-boat or U-boat torpedoes. With the tanker ablaze escorting minesweepers, supported by a pair of MBR-2 aircraft, began dropping depth charges around the submerged U-boat that caused some minor damage. Amidst the cacophony of explosions, Schöler recorded the sound of sinking noises heard through the water and erroneously claimed the misidentified tanker as sunk. U24 was eventually able to shake loose her pursuit and headed for Feodosia for resupply with fuel and provisions and conduct minor repairs before returning to sea at 12.30 p.m. on 10 April. Schöler was to participate in Operation Neptune – the clearing of the Soviet bridgehead at Novorossiysk:

If they follow their previous custom, the enemy will probably bring up reinforcements to the beachhead from Kabardinka Bay, Ghelenj’ik and Tuapse. Any evacuation will probably be carried out by the same route. As the Army operations are receiving strong support from the Luftwaffe, I presume that the enemy will not be able to bring up supplies or carry out evacuation by sea during the day. They will thus be compelled to bring up their naval transports at night. My duty is to prevent this. All my offensive forces will be sent into the area between the beachhead and Tuapse concentrating on the stretch between Myshako and Cape Doob.

On 31 March, Soviet troops had defeated the German 17th Army in the Kuban Peninsula and captured Anastasyevsk north of Novorossiysk. A fresh Soviet offensive was launched in early April, attempting to push the Germans out of the Taman Peninsula while the Wehrmacht’s 17th Army in turn attempted to destroy the Soviet bridgehead around Novorossiysk.

German reinforcement of Anapa was intended to allow the final destruction of the enemy bridgehead at Mount Myshako; the U-boats – and S-boats of the 1st S-flotilla – assigned interception of coastal supply traffic to Mishako. Schöler was ordered upon receipt of the code word Jagdkönig to operate as long-range escort for one of the frequent army convoys resupplying troops at Anapa and the Wehrmacht’s tenuous grip on the Taman Peninsular. While wounded men and civilians were convoyed west to the Crimean Peninsula, whatever combat units could be flung into the line, along with ammunition and supplies, were transported east in what would ultimately prove a vain defence.

Once in the operational area U24 was to patrol during daylight between Cape Idokopas and Tuapse: from dusk until dawn between Chugovkopas and Tuapse as close to the coast as possible, with torpedo attacks made on any and every worthwhile target. Once the operation was over, U24 would be given fresh radioed instructions.

Schöler sailed as planned on 10 April while in Constanta U19 was being readied for sea once more, but after two days at sea Schöler reported recurring mechanical problems with U24’s port engine, forcing a return to Constanta. This interfered with Neptune’s plans and so Gaude’s U19 was ordered to replace U24. Neptune had already been postponed several days in a row due to low-lying cloud cover preventing Luftwaffe support, the army’s vacillation rendering S-boat participation hazardous in the extreme due to the moon state making them particularly vulnerable to ground fire.

Gaude sailed on 14 April toward Tuapse alongside U9 as part of Neptune, the operation finally beginning at 6 a.m. on 17 April. While S-boats were heavily engaged in the attack, U19 experienced a frustrating lack of targets. Gaude was cleared to attack any shallow-draught troop-carrying lighters with torpedoes following an attempted Soviet submarine attack on a German barge carrying the wounded away from the front line. Still no opportunities arose. Finally, on 24 April, Army Group A suspended Neptune after gaining little headway and suffering heavy casualties. U19 was released to head to the area between Cape Uchdere and Gagri, still finding nothing. On 27 April, Gaude reported Matrosen Kirstein sick with a high fever, rendezvousing with S-boat S51 the following day and transferring the ill man aboard for high speed transfer to hospital. Three failed torpedo shots against an enemy destroyer on 29 April marked the sole encounter with the enemy and U19 returned after twenty-one days at sea.

Schmidt-Weichert’s U9 had also achieved little during its twenty-four days at sea. After parting company with the returning U24, U9 had attacked the damaged tanker Kreml’ at 2.41 p.m. on 5 May, one of three torpedoes fired at the escorted ship detonating after ten minutes and mistakenly taken as a hit. Six depth charges followed, buffeting the U-boat, which escaped unharmed. U9 was back in Constanta on 10 May.

The first of the three reinforcements arrived for Rosenbaum’s flotilla during early May: U18 recommissioned into the Kriegsmarine on 6 May; followed later by U20 on 26 May and U23 on 3 June. Despite their transit from Germany delayed by ice, all three boats were operational by June. Rosenbaum reshuffled his crews; ObltzS Clemens Schöler transferred to take command of U20, his place in U24 retaken by ObltzS Klaus Petersen, while U23 was skippered by ObltzS Rolf-Birger Wahlen, former watch officer aboard an Atlantic U-boat.

Meanwhile U9 sailed once more from Constanta on 20 May, escorted by two R-boats and a Heinkel He 114 float plane. The patrol took a familiar path; the occasional floating mine destroyed by machine-gun or sub-machine-gun fire: diving to escape Soviet air attack after a brief flurry of shots from the boat’s flak weapon. On 26 May the boat was shelled by Soviet artillery south of Novorossiysk, escaping by submerging. Two days later Soviet MTB TK106 encountered the boat and dropped eight depth charges that caused light damage but did not impede the patrol. The boat was again depth charged at the beginning of June and machine gunned by strafing aircraft that narrowly missed inflicting injury. After meeting and exchanging information with ObltzS Karl Fliege’s U18, Schmidt-Weichert headed for Feodosia to resupply from the tanker Inga, taking on board fuel and provisions. On 12 June, the boat docked in Constanta with no success claimed, transferred to the shipyard in Galati where U9 received a complete overhaul and the damaged conning tower repaired. She would not sail again until August.

Schöler’s first patrol with U20 was cut short after only eight days; a heavy air attack on the evening of 25 June forcing the boat under but with no real damage. During the days that followed Schöler attempted to torpedo an ASW trawler and received eight depth charges for his trouble, followed by hours of air attack during which twenty-one depth charges were dropped around the boat. With the bilge pump non-operational, U20 returned to Constanta on 29 June.

Bismarck: The Reckoning

The Bismarck was estimated to be 52 miles distant. With a strong crosswind, the Swordfish struggled to maintain course and keep speed at 80 knots. 45 They calculated they’d be onto the Bismarck in about forty-five minutes. The first aircraft in the No. 4 subflight, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant M. J. Lithgow, was equipped with an ASV (air search) radar watched intently by observer Sub-Lieutenant N. C. Cooper. As they droned through clouds and mist, Cooper spotted something on his screen. Against the roar of the engine he shouted the contact course and speed through the voice tube connecting him to Lithgow. Then he stood up into the slipstream and signaled the rest of the squadron that he had picked up a radar contact about 20 miles to starboard. He swung his arm to indicate the direction. The squadron banked sharply to settle on the new course. In the second aircraft of Lithgow’s subflight, the officer commanding the squadron, Lieutenant Commander J. A. Stewart-Moore, thought that the contact did not correspond with the position of the Bismarck as given to the pilots in the carrier ready room. But, “as there were said to be no British ships in the area, it had to be German.” Then they saw a dark gray shape on the sea sliding by gaps in the clouds. It looked more like a cruiser than a battleship. Was it the Prinz Eugen? The Royal Navy pilots took up attack position, dove through the clouds, lost sight of each other as they descended, then poked through the cloud bottoms. Stewart-Moore’s pilot, Lieutenant H. de G. Hunter, yelled through the voice tube, “It’s the Sheffield!”

With her twin funnels, the Sheffield looked nothing like the Bismarck, but the adrenaline was flowing and the blood was up. Hunter pulled up and waggled his wings. Neither his Swordfish, nor any of the others were equipped with radios to talk to each other; they could speak only to the Ark Royal. One by one the other aircraft executed their attacks in textbook fashion as Hunter and Stewart-Moore looked on in horror. The Swordfish dove toward the British cruiser, flattened out near the water, held their speed and altitude, then dropped. One by one the torpedoes entered the water as the men aboard HMS Sheffield watched, transfixed by the terrible fate about to overwhelm them. A cool customer on the outside, Captain Larcom was sorely tempted to order his antiaircraft gunners to open fire. But the immediate job was to save the Sheffield. He tensed and waited for the torpedoes to hit the water, ready to bark out orders to the coxswain to turn this way and that to comb the tracks and avoid the deadly fish.

Then, a miracle. One by one all the torpedoes except one or two exploded within a minute of hitting the water. The Sheffield easily avoided the rest. The duplex pistols had malfunctioned. Perhaps this was due to a quirk in the earth’s magnetic field, or to tired, seasick men in the Ark Royal’s hangar deck who had failed to set them properly. Maybe the extreme turbulence on the sea had tossed the torpedoes about, upsetting the delicate firing mechanism. But whatever it was that gave a hint of divine intervention, it saved the Sheffield. The aircraft maintenance crews on the Ark Royal quickly exchanged duplex pistols for contact detonators when the next flight went out to attack the Bismarck.

The first strike force returned to the Ark Royal at 5:20 P. M., flying over four of Captain Vian’s destroyers and reporting their presence. Immediately every available torpedo bomber was scraped together for a second attack. Maund and Somerville hoped against hope that they might get a third attack in before darkness and weather closed flying operations, but neither one was really optimistic about it. One by one the aircraft were laboriously refueled, rearmed, and checked for damage, all on the open, sea-swept flight deck. Again, fifteen aircraft were to be sent out. The weather had not improved from earlier in the day, when the first strike had been launched, but at 7:10 P. M. the first of the aircraft lifted ponderously off the flight deck, directly into the spray thrown up by the Ark Royal’s bow, and climbed to the cloud base. Fourteen other aircraft followed. They formed up, flew over the Renown at 7:25, and headed under the cloud layer for the Sheffield-this time not to attack her, but to use her as a reference point from which to attack the Bismarck. At 7:55 they spotted the Sheffield, calculated their direction and distance from the Bismarck, then climbed into the cloud layer for the run to the German battleship. At 8:47P. M. the squadron began to lower through the clouds.

“Aircraft! Alarm! “The cry cut short Admiral Lütjens’ musings about his precarious situation and the Luftwaffe’s failure to start from their Biscay bases. Spotters on the Bismarck saw fifteen Swordfish torpedo bombers overhead, swooping down through the violent rain squalls and heavy clouds. But then, once more, they were gone as quickly as they had appeared.

“Aircraft! Alarm!” Time: 8:30 P. M. Another wave of Swordfish torpedo bombers dove out of the clouds, singly and in pairs, recklessly coming at the Bismarck from all angles. Once more, the battleship became a mountain of fire. First Gunnery Officer Schneider ordered his main as well as secondary armament to fire at the bubbling tracks approaching the Bismarck just below the surface of the sea, hoping to explode some of the incoming torpedoes. At the same time, the four hundred men of the flak sprang into action with their heavy 4-inchers, as well as lighter 1.5-inch and 75-inch “pom-pom” guns. Soon the barrels became red-hot and what little paint remained blistered. The Swordfish were so close, Seaman Georg Herzog remembered, that he was ordered to send up barrage fire rather than to target single craft. Suddenly the Bismarck began to heel violently from side to side. Next she lost speed. On the captain’s bridge, Lindemann once more was barking out furious commands: “All ahead full!” “All stop!” “Hard a-port!” “Hard a-starboard!” On and on, the staccato commands went, for fully fifteen minutes. One after another, the Bismarck evaded the deadly torpedoes.

Seaman Herzog, manning his port third 1.5-inch flak gun, saw three Swordfish approach the Bismarck from astern, at 270 degrees, then bank hard right, to 180 degrees. They were flying too low to allow accurate antiaircraft fire. Most of the planes were concentrating on the battleship’s port side. Then Herzog saw two other torpedo bombers on the port beam. They also banked right to come at the ship from starboard, and at 875 yards off the Bismarck’s stern they released their torpedoes. Two of the “fish,” only 13 to 20 feet apart, were headed to cross the battleship’s projected course. Captain Lindemann, afraid that a torpedo might hit his bow, thus seriously impairing the Bismarck’s maneuverability, screamed at his coxswain: “Hard a-port!” Perhaps he could cut in front of the expected track of the torpedoes. From the captain’s bridge, Lindemann anxiously watched as the Bismarck and the bubble tracks closed on each other second by second.

At that moment the Bismarck’s great 15-inch guns spewed out their deadly fire-at HMS Sheffield. Commander Adalbert Schneider’s first salvo splashed into the Atlantic short of the light cruiser. His second salvo straddled the ship; four further salvos fell close. Lethal shell fragments caused a dozen casualties, three of them fatal. The Sheffield at once began to lay down dense smoke and to flee the scene at flank speed.

The last group of Swordfish were met with immediate and intense antiaircraft fire. The No. 1 subflight went in first. They dropped. No hits. They scampered away, fishtailing, yawing, and corkscrewing over the seascape to get away from the intense antiaircraft fire. Then the No. 3 subflight went in, against the battleship’s port beam, scoring a hit about one-third the length from the stern. The three Swordfish escaped. Next the No. 2 subflight, down from 9,000 feet, went against the Bismarck’s starboard beam. Two misses and another hit amidships. The No. 4 subflight, joined by another aircraft, attacked on the port side. One Swordfish took a hundred flak hits but managed to limp home to the carrier. The No. 5 subflight got separated from the other attackers and from each other. One of the aircraft saw a torpedo hit the Bismarck on the starboard side, but no one was quite sure where, or who had launched it. In a half hour it was over. Torpedoes expended, the exhausted and sorely tried crews struggled back to the Ark Royal, where all landed safely. Some of the aircraft were so badly shot up they would never fly again. It was too late in the day for another strike, but Captain Maund reported “one and probably two hits.”

Maund underestimated the impact of the attack. The first explosion, near Section VII amidships, did little more than raise a giant waterspout into the air. But another blast, this one near Section II at the Bismarck’s stern, lifted the ship up by the stern and rocked her from side to side. A number of survivors recalled their fears that the Bismarck might actually capsize. But after what seemed an eternity, she righted herself on the water.

Down in the battleship’s engine rooms, near-panic ensued. Men were knocked down. Floor plates in the center engine room buckled upward a foot and a half. Welds split. Cable protectors stripped. Water poured in through the port shaft well. The safety valve in the starboard engine room closed and the engines shut down. The big ship was temporarily without power. The first damage-control team, consisting of men released from the Bismarck’s antiaircraft and secondary batteries, rushed aft and informed Captain Lindemann that the hole blasted in the Bismarck’s hull by the torpedo was so large that all the steering rooms were flooded and had to be evacuated. Seamen near the after armored hatch over the steering mechanism gazed down onto the open sea.

Seaman Herzog returned to his station; he recalled the sheer terror of the next few announcements over the ship’s loudspeakers. “Rudder system fouled. Rudder jammed hard a-starboard. Ship slows to 19 knots.” Then, “Ship steaming in a circle. Ship slows to 17 knots.” And finally, “Ship slows to 13 knots.” The Bismarck’s fourth gunnery officer, Lieutenant Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, on duty in the after firing-control station, sat almost on top of the torpedo hit. He heard the blast of the explosion and then got what he remembered as a “sickening feeling.” He knew the Bismarck had been hit; “My heart sank.” Müllenheim-Rechberg stared at the rudder indicator: “Left 12 degrees.” Seconds went by. Still the same: “Left 12 degrees.” The Bismarck increasingly began to list to starboard. She was in a continuous turn. “Left 12 degrees.” The rudder indicator was frozen at that setting. Speed had fallen to 13 knots. The howling nor’wester whipped the crests of the gigantic Atlantic breakers over the ship’s deck. “Left 12 degrees.” The rudder indicator was like a magnet, with all eyes aft riveted to it.

And then the full reality hit: the Bismarck’s twin parallel rudders were jammed. The battleship was turning wide circles in the middle of the Atlantic. St. Nazaire seemed an eternity away. Admiral Lütjens, laconic as always, signaled Paris at 9:05 P. M.: “Quadrant BE 6192; torpedo hit in stern!” And then at 9:15 P. M.: “Ship no longer maneuverable!”

On the Bismarck’s stern Captain Ernst Lindemann rushed down from the bridge to supervise repairs. Two engineers, Lieutenants Gerhard Junack and Hermann Giese, along with a master carpenter’s team, shored up the transverse bulkhead and sealed the broken valves and tubes. Next Lindemann sent men from the starboard gun turrets to the quarterdeck to try to place collision matting over the hole in the ship’s hull, but the torrents of incoming seawater could not be stemmed. From the command center, First Officer Hans Oels repeatedly called Giese for up-to-the-minute damage assessment reports. When would the Bismarck resume way? Oels demanded to know. On the admiral’s bridge, Fleet Chief Günther Lütjens anxiously paced up and down, demanding instant damage reports from Lindemann.

The main problem, of course, was with the jammed parallel rudders. Junack and Giese and a master’s mate came up with a plan: They would don diving gear, make their way through an armored hatch to the upper platform deck, and disengage the rudder-motor coupling. But each time they opened the armored hatch over the steering gear, the seawater blew them back-and then threatened to suck them down as the ship rose on the crest of a giant Atlantic breaker. Over and over, the same pattern: a torrent of water as the Bismarck plunged into a trough, then a sucking down as she rode the next wave crest. There was nothing to do but to close the hatch.

The Bismarck was now wallowing on an erratic course, roughly northwest, into 40-to- 50-mile-per-hour winds and toward the enemy. Back on the bridge, Captain Lindemann, practically, tried to use the three main engines to steer the ship. “Port engines half ahead, center and starboard engines stop!” “Port and center engines half ahead, starboard engines back slow!” “Port engines full ahead, starboard engines stop!” No combination of ahead and astern power worked. When Lindemann ordered the starboard engine to run at a higher speed than the port engine, for example, he could force the Bismarck to turn to port. But as soon as some speed was attained, the twin rudders, each with an area of 24 square yards, would bite into the sea and drive the ship back to starboard. Moreover, Lindemann’s repeated “Stop!” and “Full Power!” commands raised boiler pressure past prescribed limits. Temperature in the engine room climbed to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, as neither doors nor ventilators could be opened since the ship was still in a cleared-foraction state of readiness. The great ship’s hull vibrated noticeably throughout the ordeal.

A plan to send divers down to cut off the Bismarck’s rudders or to set charges to sever them was abandoned, as the violent seas were too high and the alternating pressure and suction of incoming and outgoing water allowed no one to get to the steering gear on the upper platform deck. Another plan, to weld the Arado floatplane’s hangar door to the starboard side of the stern at a 15-degree angle-which would correspond to a rudder position of 12 degrees-likewise had to be abandoned due to the high seas and roaring gale. And a third proposal, to send divers down to uncouple the starboard rudder, failed when the divers discovered that the coupling was so badly damaged that it could not be budged. Hourly damage-control teams struggled to clear the Bismarck’s fouled electric steering gear and rudders. Some even put forward the idea that a U-boat could be taken in tow as a steering drag, but Lindemann realized that a 700-ton submarine would be like a cork on the ocean.

Lütjens remained on the admiral’s bridge, alone with his thoughts. His cold, analytical mind allowed only one conclusion: The great ship was doomed. Neither the Scharnhorst nor the Gneisenau at Brest was seaworthy. Destroyers could make little headway in the heavy seas and against such a strong headwind. Tugs could not possibly reach the Bismarck for forty hours. U-boats could barely stay afloat on the raging sea. The British most likely would wait until dawn to move in for the kill. There was no need to pretend otherwise. The admiral’s staff-composed of experienced officers who had served with the pocket battleship Graf Spee off Montevideo in 1939 and with the battleship Gneisenau, as well as the heavy cruiser Blücher, during the Norway operation in 1940- most likely shared the task force commander’s assessment of his dire predicament.

A veteran of World War I, Lütjens was too painfully aware of the High Sea Fleet’s inglorious rebellion in 1917, revolution in 1918, and scuttling in 1919. And then there was December 1939, when Captain Hans Langsdorff had scuttled the Graf Spee off the River Plate rather than sortie against three British cruisers. For the stiff, duty-bound Lütjens, there could be no talk of scuttling or of surrendering his ship. If 2,220 officers and men had to be sacrificed, then that was the price the task force commander was willing to pay. In April 1941 Lütjens had discussed Rhine Exercise with several colleagues and a former fleet chief. Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, his predecessor, had warned Lütjens not to stick too closely to Raeder’s rigid orders but rather to improvise as conditions warranted. Lütjens, aware that Raeder had already fired two fleet chiefs for alleged “temerity,” vowed that he would not be the third. When Admiral Conrad Patzig, Lütjens’ mate from the Naval Academy Crew of 1907, had urged caution, Lütjens replied: “I am of the opinion that I should have to sacrifice myself sooner or later. I have closed out my private life.” His flagship now was not capable of maneuver, but her machinery, armaments, and crew were intact. The time had come for Lütjens to sacrifice himself. At 9:40 P. M.-just half an hour after the fatal torpedo strike-he informed Naval Group Command West of the inevitable: “Ship unable to maneuver. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.” The suddenness and the finality of the signal stunned both his fleet staff and the radiomen. There is no indication that Lütjens discussed this signal with Captain Lindemann.

Torpedoes Away!

Condition of Sargo’s (SS-188) bottom prior to a paint job at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California, July 1941.

With much of the American Navy in tatters, with American airpower reduced to nearly nothing, and with American ground forces dying, retreating, or surrendering in droves throughout the Pacific, there seemed to be little hope for a major counteroffensive against the Japanese anytime soon.

The United States had but one force left in the Pacific capable of taking the fight to the enemy-the Submarine Force. Small though that force was-an army of ants trying to stop a stampeding herd of elephants- brave and sometimes foolhardy attempts were made by the submariners to interrupt Japan’s drive to dominate the Pacific.

During the remaining three weeks of December 1941, thirty-nine American submarines sailing from Pearl Harbor, Fremantle, and the Philippines conducted their first war patrols; fourteen went on their second; and one-Adrian Hurst’s Permit (SS-178)-went on its third. The results of the patrols were not just disappointing-they were downright appalling.

Swordfish in 1939

There were a few successes, however. Three Manila-based submarines did manage to draw blood. On 16 December, Chester C. Smith’s Swordfish (SS-193) sank a transport, while another enemy freighter was sent to the bottom by Wreford G. Chappie’s S-38 (SS-143) on 22 December; a third freighter was destroyed by Kenneth C. Hurd’s Seal (SS-183) the following day.

USS Swordfish underway off San Francisco, California, 13 June 1943

Seawolf underway off the Mare Island Navy Yard, California on 7 March 1943

Frederick B. Warder

During those final three weeks of December 1941 at least eleven other subs sighted targets, fired their torpedoes, but had no confirmed hits. 2 On 14 December 1941, Frederick B. Warder’s Seawolf (SS-197), normally based at Manila, slipped unnoticed into the harbor at Aparri, on the east coast of Luzon, where a small Japanese force had landed the day before. Seeing a seaplane tender at anchor, Warder fired a spread of four Mark XIV torpedoes armed with the new magnetic detonators-but there were no explosions. Somehow the torpedoes had either missed their targets entirely or their detonators failed to detonate. On his way out of the harbor, Warder fired four more torpedoes, but again, nothing. As Clay Blair notes, “Warder was furious. He had penetrated a harbor, fired eight precious torpedoes, achieved zero results.”

Sadly, most of the other American submarines had no better luck; their skippers’ patrol reports read like a laundry list of missed opportunities and heartbreaking failures. Near Formosa, Bill Wright’s Sturgeon, based in Fremantle, Australia, made a surface attack against a sitting duck cargo ship; all four torpedoes either missed or misfired. From Manila, Ted Aylward’s Searaven (SS-196) attacked two freighters, also near Formosa, without inflicting damage, while David Hurt, in Perch (SS- 176), with a good-size convoy in his sights, could not verify that any torpedoes struck home. Snapper (SS-185), under Hamilton “Ham” Stone, took on a cargo ship; it escaped unscathed. Pickerel (SS-177), with Barton E. Bacon Jr. at the helm, shot five torpedoes worth $10,000 apiece at a patrol boat; none hit it. Roland F. Pryce’s Spearfisb (SS-190) attacked an enemy submarine with four torpedoes, again without result.

Skipjack (SS-184), commanded by Charles L. Freeman, had a similar disappointing patrol. Spotting the choicest of targets-a big, fat Japanese aircraft carrier-Freeman closed in for the kill, fired three torpedoes, and got that sick feeling in his gut when none of them exploded. On Christmas day, Freeman tried again, this time at point-blank range against a heavy cruiser; as with the carrier, the target lived to fight another day. On New Year’s Eve 1941, Tarpon (SS-175), under Fewis Wallace, went after a light cruiser, but there was no New Year’s celebration because no hits were scored. After firing at least seventy torpedoes-$700,000 worth-Freeman and Wallace reported that in December they had sunk twenty-one enemy ships for a total of 120,400 tons. However, postwar records, compiled once access was gained to Japanese naval records, showed that only six ships, totaling 29,500 tons, were actually sunk. Not an auspicious beginning.

Even at this early stage of the war, and despite the many problems being encountered, legends of the submarine service were being created. One of the most unusual was that of the “red submarine.” When the Japanese struck Cavite Naval Base in the Philippines on 8 December, William E. “Pete” Ferrall’s Seadragon was undergoing an overhaul, including a complete repainting. There was no time to finish the paint job, so Seadragon set sail with just her red-lead undercoating showing.

The radio propagandist Tokyo Rose got wind of this unusual-color boat and soon was broadcasting to her listeners that America had a fleet of “Red Pirates” that were plundering Japanese shipping lanes; she promised that these criminal pirates would be executed when caught. Teaming of the broadcast, Ferrall’s men had a good laugh.

Although badly outnumbered, America’s antiquarian submarines were doing their best to make the Japanese warlords think twice before believing they had free rein in the Pacific. On 2 January 1942, Lieutenant Commander Edward C. Stephen of Grayback, sailing from Pearl Harbor, sank the 2,180-ton monster submarine 1-18 in the Solomons. On 24 January, as Japanese troops were preparing to land at Balikpapan, on Borneo’s southeast coast, a task force of four American destroyers and seven submarines, including William L. Wright’s Fremantle-based Sturgeon (SS-187), attacked and disrupted the amphibious operation, sinking four of the sixteen transports. Although the invasion was not halted, the damage done marked the first American naval “victory” of the war. It was small, it was insignificant, but it represented the tiniest glimmer of hope.

Hope would have been greater had the torpedoes been reliable. America’s submarines were armed with the latest Mark XIV steam-powered torpedoes equipped with Mark VI influence exploders. The failure of many torpedoes to detonate upon contact or within proximity of their targets was not the only problem; other torpedoes, for mysterious reasons, exploded prematurely, either just seconds after being launched or partway to the target.

Tyrell D. Jacobs, commander of the Manila-based Sargo (SS-188), experienced both vexations on one patrol. Encountering a large convoy near the major Japanese port at Cam Ranh Bay in French Indochina (later Vietnam) on 14 December 1941, Jacobs launched a torpedo; it exploded eighteen seconds after leaving the firing tube and nearly wrecked the sub. On the twenty-fourth, Jacobs fired five torpedoes at three heavily laden transport ships north of Borneo without recording any hits. Three days later, Sargo went after two more freighters and a tanker; again, zero hits.

A total of thirteen torpedoes that had cost American taxpayers $130,000 had been fired on Sargo’s first war patrol, and not one of them had so much as knocked the paint off an enemy vessel. Sargo might as well have been firing spit wads for all the good they were doing. Jacobs had a well-trained crew, so he knew the chances for “operator error” were slight; it had to be the “tin fish” themselves. He analyzed the data, did the math, and concluded that the Mark XIVs were running ten feet deeper than their settings indicated and passing too far beneath the enemy hulls to set off the magnetic exploders. Jacobs compensated by instructing his torpedomen to set the depth shallower, but he knew he was only guessing at a solution.

A few days later, Jacobs spotted a slow-moving tanker, had one torpedo set to run at a depth of just ten feet, and fired. The gunnery officer, after calculating range and torpedo speed, stood by in the control room with his stopwatch, marking off the seconds until the torpedo, if it was working correctly, would detonate. At the moment he should have heard an explosion, there was only silence. Jacobs upped the periscope to see the tanker continuing on its merry way, oblivious to the fact that it had just escaped destruction.

Angry and frustrated, Jacobs reported the problem of the malfunctioning torpedoes to higher command; the torpedo problem soon would become a scandal of major proportions within the Navy.

It did the American war effort little good for submarine commanders to risk their boats and crews’ lives by traveling thousands of miles into enemy-controlled waters to locate a target, fire their torpedoes, and then watch in helpless frustration as the intended targets sailed away unharmed. But that is exactly what was happening, and on a large scale.

The number of ships sunk by American submarines in January 1942 was woefully insignificant. Of the six boats that sailed from Pearl Harbor that month, only three of them reported hitting anything-just four enemy vessels worth 23,200 tons. Pollack, commanded by Stan Mosely, sank a merchantman near Tokyo Bay on 5 January, and David C. White’s Plunger lived up to its name, sending a cargo ship plunging beneath the waves near Kii Suido on 18 January. Grenfell’s Gudgeon sank the enemy submarine 7-173, on 27 January in empire waters. Eight additional American subs departing their Australia and Java bases did little better, sinking but six ships during the entire month, for a total of only 23,000 tons.

The scarcity of sinkings was due not only to the unreliability of the torpedoes but also to their scarcity. Admiral Thomas Withers, Commander of Submarines, Pacific, or ComSubPac, criticized boat commanders who “wasted” torpedoes on targets. If a commander shot a second fish at a target that had been hit by the first one, Withers would dash off a withering note condemning the “profligate expenditure” of precious munitions. And, in January 1942, the torpedoes were precious-only 101 were in reserve at Pearl Harbor. Clay Blair notes, “According to prewar production schedules, [Withers] was to receive 192 more by July-about 36 a month. However, his quota had been recently cut to 24 a month. At the rate his boats were expending torpedoes, he would need more than 500 to reach July. There was no way the production rate could be drastically increased to meet this demand. Unless his skippers were more conservative, Pearl Harbor would soon run out of torpedoes.”

The submarine force, then, faced two equally important problems- a physical shortage of torpedoes and torpedoes that, when they were fired, rarely sank anything.

There are three main reasons why torpedoes might not sink their intended targets.

First, getting the torpedoes’ firing platform-the submarine-into firing position without being spotted and attacked by the enemy is not always easy. Second, the range is important; the closer the submarine is to the target, the more likely the chance of a hit. Conversely, the farther away, the less likely it is that the torpedo will strike home. Finally, a stationary target, obviously, is much easier to hit than a moving one. If the target is zigzagging or employing some other type of evasive maneuver, the chance of hitting it is even more remote.

In many instances, the submarine captain would fire a “spread” of torpedoes-usually three torpedoes fired within a few seconds of one another-in the hope that at least one of them would hit. And hitting a target presenting its broad flank to the submarine-and thus making for a larger target area-is preferable to trying to put a torpedo “down the throat” (a head-on shot at a target coming toward the submarine) or “up the skirt” (shooting at the rear of a ship as it is steaming away).

Setting the correct information into the torpedo’s guidance system is also critical. For best results, a torpedo should explode just beneath the centerline of a ship; the detonation will usually be enough to “break her back” and cause immediate sinking. If set to run too deeply, the torpedo will glide completely beneath the target’s hull; if set too shallow, it will strike just below the waterline and not cause enough damage to ensure a sinking.

What must never happen is that, after maneuvering carefully into a good firing position, taking steady aim, dialing the correct information into the torpedo, and firing at the proper moment, the torpedo itself malfunctions. Unfortunately, malfunctioning torpedoes were all too often a curse that plagued American submariners, especially during the first half of the war.

During the First World War, only one manufacturing facility made torpedoes for the United States Navy-the Alexandria Torpedo Station of Alexandria, Virginia. The armistice of 1918 had led to the closure of that station for, after all, the Great War was supposed to have been the “war to end all wars.” The Washington and London Naval Treaties also put a damper on torpedo development, for the nations of the world fully believed that it was possible to outlaw war and the tools of war. As history proved, their idealism could not have been more misplaced.

In the 1930s, with obvious signs that civilization was marching in lockstep toward a new world conflict, the U. S. Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island, which had been established in 1869 as the Navy’s experimental station for torpedoes and torpedo equipment, explosives, and electrical equipment, went into the full-time manufacture of the underwater missiles; political wrangling delayed the reopening of the Alexandria facility until July 1941. In addition to these two, five more facilities-in Forest Park, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; Keyport, Washington; the Pontiac Division of General Motors in Michigan; and the International Harvester Corporation-received contracts to build torpedoes, not only for submarines but also for destroyers and aircraft. By the end of the war, over 57,000 torpedoes would be built. But the end of the war was a long way off. The torpedoes were needed now.

Even if there had been no torpedo shortage, the fact that the tin fish were so unreliable did not boost anyone’s confidence. Who in their right mind would want to sail into enemy-controlled waters and risk their boats and the lives of their crews with so little assurance that their torpedoes, once fired, would actually work?

And no matter how many submarine skippers sent in reports detailing the torpedo-detonation problem, there was no indication that anyone at ComSubPac or BuOrd or anywhere else was the slightest bit interested in acknowledging that a problem existed or that they wanted promptly to fix it. Just as maddeningly, the problem was intermittent; sometimes the torpedoes worked fine and sometimes they didn’t. How could anyone isolate a problem if the problems weren’t consistent?

The situation allowed innumerable enemy ships to escape destruction, and doubtless contributed to the prolongation of the war in the Pacific and the loss of many American lives.