Battles at Sea: The Paradox

First of June in 1794.

Here is an interesting question. If two fleets were to meet miles away from anywhere and destroy each other with no survivors or witnesses, and therefore no dispatches, would the battle’s impact on history be the same as if dispatches had been written? Or, to put it another way, what exact role do dispatches have in the formation of history?

Battles at sea have consequences, and they do so regardless of whether their course is subsequently related by admirals or others directly involved in them. Ships and sons fail to return home. The detritus of battle washes ashore. What is less obvious, though by no means less important, is that such documents may influence history and its interpretation more widely, and in ways that are only partially connected with the battle they describe. There are, after all, many ways to describe an event, and even the most apparently straightforward fact can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

These dispatches describe history, of course, but they also shape it, even now, and both that power and that process remain enigmatic. Besides, at the heart of this material lies a paradox. It was collated in an era of peace to celebrate the achievements of an earlier, war-mongering generation. The association between peace and war is explicit. The generation of naval officers, politicians and administrators who ran the navy in 1821, when the dispatches were first collated, and later in 1859, when they were bound into their magnificent velvet volume, knew an unprecedented period of peace. This was the age of Pax Britannica, when the size of the Royal Navy was as small as it had been for two generations. In 1812 there were 98 ships of the line crewed by 130,000 men. By 1817 no more than 13 ships of the line carried just 20,000 men. The once mighty British battle fleet was reduced to small squadrons of gunboats policing distant colonial coasts. Tristan de Cunha, Ceylon, Ascension Island, Trinidad, Tobago, St Lucia and Australia were all British territories from 1815. But those men who now ran the Admiralty also knew the preceding era of war, an apocalyptic age of violence and blood-letting. For them, the association between the one and the other, between war and peace, was transparent.

For us it is not so clear. Indeed, if one stops to consider, this collection of dispatches defies its own myth. By recording a generation of naval battles that ended almost a decade before the end of the war, it argues not for the triumph of naval battle, but for its ineffectiveness. It is, in fact, powerful proof that naval battles did not win wars.

By studying these battles in sequence, we can make new connections and we can appreciate the sheer scale of the challenge that faced the Royal Navy as the fortunes of war shifted and as new theatres of operations opened where others had been closed. We can see, for example, how the war turned sharply against Britain in the autumn of 1794 in spite of the victory on 1 June. We can see how Spain recovered sufficiently from defeat at St Vincent in 1797, and France from defeat at the Nile in 1798, to pose a significant Allied threat at Trafalgar in 1805. We can see how the destruction of the Spanish at St Vincent eased the naval threat in the Atlantic but encouraged a new theatre to open in the North Sea. We can see how the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 was irrelevant to the progress of the war and we can see how a crushing victory for Britain at Trafalgar did nothing to prevent France from sending powerful squadrons to sea in the following months, which in turn led to new naval threats in the Caribbean and East Indies and to battle at San Domingo in 1806.

The question that arises most forcefully from these dispatches, therefore, concerns the role of fleet battle in the shaping of history and, by demonstrating as it does the inability of decisive battle to bring about lasting peace, the collection necessarily draws our eye away from naval battle. Wars in this period were never brought to an end by apocalyptic battle but by negotiation. Military victories on land secured positions of strength from which to negotiate. Territory was the currency of war and it was armies and their soldiers that robbed the banks. The invasion threat under which the British laboured almost constantly between 1794 and 1815 can be understood in these terms. To seize a slice of British territory was not an end in itself but a desperate attempt by the French to secure a powerful bargaining chip. The very ability to wage such war, moreover, was governed by international politics and alliances which, themselves, were governed by money. Alliances were rarely offered freely but were purchased through vast subsidies.

So how does successful fleet battle fit into this picture? The Battle of the Nile had perhaps the most clearly defined strategic results. The British destroyed Napoleon’s invasion fleet and thus prevented his army from receiving the maritime support it needed to wage a successful campaign in Egypt. But most of the others have less obvious military results. The Battle of Copenhagen, it can be argued, was fought for nothing. The Tsar, who had pressured the Danes into joining an Armed Neutrality, was already dead. The remaining battles fit somewhere between these extremes and what they share must be measured in less clearly defined terms.

As a general rule, British naval victory made it more difficult for her enemies to secure their own maritime trade and to target that of other nations, which in turn made it more difficult for them to fund the war. British success also made it more difficult for her enemies to launch amphibious operations to secure the territory required to force a peace. British naval victory therefore strangled her enemies’ ability to wage war and to negotiate from a position of strength. British trade, meanwhile, became more secure. With more money to hand, more troops could be raised, more alliances bought and more ships built. Moreover, control of the sea lanes in turn increased the ability of the Royal Navy to launch military operations overseas.

Naval victories were, if you like, starbursts in a war of attrition that enabled the war to be won. It is no coincidence that the eight naval victories in this book were followed by Wellington’s 15 land victories, without a defeat, in Spain. The undeniable public attraction of those naval starbursts, meanwhile, generated its own influence on events. Everyone in Britain loved naval victory; they could never get enough of it. Every naval victory was appreciated by the public because it made both them as individuals and the nation feel more secure. The Navy kept them safe; the Navy kept them free; the Navy kept them British. The victories were also understood in terms of wealth; naval victories secured trade and trade generated money. Naval victory therefore generated public support for the navy and public support translated into political support. Money was found and infrastructure improved and ships were built. The relationship was symbiotic. Go and visit the great surviving naval dockyards at Plymouth or Chatham and you will be amazed by the facilities constructed: the rope walks, the dry docks, the victualling yards. Yes, these facilities were the foundation of British naval victory but they were also created because of British naval victory.

The relationship between the Navy and the public is central to the influence of naval victory upon history. As you sit and read the Admirals’ letters, imagine yourself as a direct descendant of a member of the public sitting and reading the published versions of these letters in 1794 or 1805, when everything was fresh and raw and a general and detailed perception of the battle was still elusive. What actually happened in the battle was far less important than what the dispatch described. The dispatch had already acquired an agency of its own.

That said, one of the most significant characteristics of these dispatches is their inaccuracy, an inaccuracy sometimes wilfully achieved. More often than not the fog of war has insufficiently cleared for numbers of captured ships or casualties to be accurate, but occasionally one’s gaze is deliberately drawn in certain directions. Collingwood’s Trafalgar dispatch is a masterpiece of such manipulation, giving as it does the false impression of absolute cohesion. In some respects, therefore, to search for the ‘truth’ behind the casualty figures or to plot with utmost care the track of a particular ship is rather to miss the point of naval battle and the dispatches that describe it. Naval battle was infinitely intricate, governed by the relationship between unpredictable bursts of wind and miles upon miles of rigging, and manipulated by thousands of men, each with their own motivation, desires and fears. But the story of naval battle was a blunt, unsubtle, instrument of propaganda. It did not necessarily matter if a dispatch was inaccurate; indeed, these dispatches support the argument that it is impossible to fight a war and tell the truth at the same time. The detail was always far less important than the overall message of absolute and repeated British victory.

The Uncertain

An inevitable casualty of such a broad message is any sense of doubt in the narrative we read, for here are seven battles and here are seven overwhelming British victories. One can be easily forgiven for presuming that, after the first one or two, the result was somehow viewed as inevitable; that in some way these battles were won even before they were fought. There is, of course, some value in this approach because it encourages us to appreciate the roles of the bureaucrats and administrators, the manufacturers and suppliers who rode the tides of paperwork to ensure that the ships were repaired, manned and victualled and the men fed, clothed and healthy. It was these individuals and organisations that laid the foundation for British naval victory.

Yet the dispatches themselves often highlight precisely what was uncertain, what was not inevitably to lead to naval victory. They emphasise the unpredictable role of wind, weather and damage; they remind us of the occasions when random events tipped the battle one way or another; above all, they remind us of the presence of an enemy intent on preventing the British from having their own way. The letters are clearly written by men who have fought a fierce and prolonged duel against a proud enemy. One can sense the adrenaline coursing through their bodies as they composed the letters; one can appreciate their relief at being alive and their delight at being victors. All of this helps to freshen our perspective of the battles by highlighting the choices that were available to the participants, the uncertain paths, the tumbling circumstance that guided the results.

How, therefore, can we reconcile this perspective of unpredictability and uncertainty with our understanding of how these victories were won? This is where the detail of battle has its value because the deeper one digs, the more uncertain the picture becomes. When we talk of gunnery, do we mean long distance or point blank? Is the enemy to windward or to leeward? How did developments in chemistry alter the potency of the gunpowder for each fleet? How did changes in gunnery equipment impact on gunnery efficiency? When we talk of seamanship, are we talking about repairing ships in action or the ability to maintain cohesion in fog? Are we talking about the ability to manoeuvre a ship with a disabled foremast, or the ability to engage from the lee position? In terms of leadership, are we talking about admirals commanding captains across vast expanses of ocean, about petty officers commanding sailors in the darkness of the gun decks or even about the leadership of seamen with no official rank but who nonetheless acted as natural leaders?

Each battle must be considered in its own right, each individual duel within each battle, even each ship on its own. Every ship was after all manned to varying degrees of completeness. For example, while a ship could be numerically well-manned, a large portion of her men could be soldiers or inexperienced landsmen rather than trained sailors. A portion of her crew might be suffering from a debilitating illness, be it typhus or scurvy. Nonetheless, even if we bear in mind that exceptions to every one of these following statements can be found in the seven battles in this book, it is generally the case that British gunners could fire with more accuracy and for longer than their enemies; that British hulls could better withstand a broadside than their enemies’; that British sailors could better cope with the carnage surrounding them; and that British sailors could repair their ships with greater efficiency both during and after battle. Most importantly of all, it seems that British sailors themselves knew all of this. They had come to recognise it in the previous war, the War of American Independence, and they had had their suspicions confirmed in 1794 in the first of these actions, The Glorious First of June. Simply put, British sailors knew that, if they could engage their enemy close enough and for long enough, the enemy’s guns would, eventually, fall silent.

And yet all of this was soon to change. Seapower certainly changed the nature and direction of the Napoleonic wars but the Napoleonic wars also changed the nature of seapower.

The Change

Napoleon’s war against Britain continued after 1806 and he began new wars: against Portugal in 1807, Spain in 1808 and Russia in 1812. In that period the Royal Navy continued to fight the French, but it also fought the Danish, Russian and Ottoman navies. Lest we forget, Britain also went to war with America between 1812 and 1815. None of those conflicts, however, produced another fleet battle on the scale of those fought between 1794 and 1806. Too many people had tried to play with fire and been burned. No one was willing to spend the money on constructing a fleet and then, of all things, risk it in pitched battle with the British. Before very long, however, the coming of steam propulsion changed everything all over again, consigning the entire age of sailing warfare, rather than just the story of British dominance, to the past.

Steam-powered ships became bigger and armoured and their guns fired explosive shells unimaginable distances. Changes in technology also began to affect the way that military campaigns were reported. In 1850 the first under-sea telegraph cable was laid between Dover and Calais, allowing news to be passed rapidly to and from the continent. Five years later a cable linked Sweden, Denmark and Germany, and three years after that another was laid across the Atlantic. The ease with which a fleet’s activities could be reported over great distances was therefore changing although, surprisingly, we are still uncertain of the identity of the first naval battle reported by telegraph. It is likely to have been one of the naval battles of the Crimean War (1853–6), depending on the capability of the Russian telegraph system in different locations. We are on firmer footing with radio. Thomas Edison filed a patent as early as 1885 which described the ‘Means for transmitting signals electrically’, and the first battle between fleets to make significant use of wireless was fought 20 years later, when the Japanese destroyed the Russian battle fleet at Tsushima in 1905.

The last letters in this collection, therefore, mark neither the end of sailing warfare nor the end of the era of handwritten dispatches. However, they do mark the last significant fleet battle between British and French fleets in a war that had, by then, lasted 13 years and which was part of a longer tradition of naval warfare between the two countries that can be traced back over a century through the War of American Independence (1775–82), the Seven Years War (1755–62), the War of the Austrian Succession (1739–48) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) to the Nine Years War of 1688 to 1697. Moreover, none of the fleet battles that followed San Domingo in 1806, and very few that preceded The First of June in 1794, stands comparison with any of those fought between 1794 and 1806. It was an intense sliver of history, a period of unmatched ferocity at sea, a period that characterised and shaped the history of the world and a period populated by men whose achievements and sacrifices deserve the widest possible recognition.


The Battle of Nesjar

The battle of Nesjar between Olav Haraldsson and Earl Svein. This was the biggest sea-battle in Scandinavia in Viking times.


Two famous helmets from central Europe commonly associated with the Viking period are the ‘Olmürz’ helmet. displayed in Vienna, and the ‘St Wenceslas’ helmet from the Treasury of Prague Cathedral. The dome of each is a one-piece forging. While there is no evidence that this technique was used by Norse armourers, the daring of these items and the diverse nature of the equipment used by the Vikings suggests helmets of this type may have been in use. Olaf the Saint is said to have deployed a unit of 100 picked men at the battle of Nesjar armed in coats of mail and ‘foreign’ helmets.

The battle of Nesjar in 1016, between the Viking King Olav Haraldsson and the Earl of Lade, Svein Håkonsson, would come to be seen as the biggest and most decisive sea battle in Norwegian history. During the 11 or 12 years following his victory, King Olav worked to strengthen the king’s power at the expense of the local chieftains and – most important for his subsequent reputation – establish Christianity as the only permitted religion in the country.

Olav directed the battle from his own longship, Karlhode, named for the carving of a king’s head that adorned the bow-stem. According to Snorre, Olav’s tactic was to hold his fleet in tight formation and let the enemy attack first. When the enemy had cast their spears and other missiles against the king’s men’s shields, his men would attack more or less independently wherever they saw the possibility of capturing an enemy ship.

Earl Svein had a significantly bigger army than Olav, and his personal guard possibly numbered up to 200 heavily armed warriors. Olav had 100 men in chainmail on his ship, and he had hand-picked the troops to stand in the front ranks of the leading ships. Olav’s men were battle-hardened by their experience of wars in England, and they easily captured Svein’s ships, whose crews were mostly inexperienced in warfare. Olav’s own ship headed straight for the earl’s ship, and his men held it fast with grappling hooks. Svein responded by having the whole of his ship’s stem cut off, enabling him to flee.

Sea Battles

A runestone in Sweden memorializes the man Geirbjörn, who had been killed in a fight: “Norwegians killed him on Asbjörn’s ship.” It is tempting to think that Asbjörn was a Viking chieftain and that Geirbjörn died during a sea battle, but perhaps the ship was a merchant vessel and Geirbjörn was killed during a quarrel among merchants, or when a cargo ship was attacked by raiders.

Be that as it may, Vikings certainly knew how to fight at sea, although they did not at first have to do it much when they attacked their victims on raids in Europe, for the kings there did not have navies that could meet the Vikings on equal terms. The Europeans eventually learned to challenge the Vikings in their own element, on the water, as when, in 882, “King Alfred went out with ships and fought against four ship-loads of Danish men and took two of the ships, and killed the men; and two surrendered to him, and the men were badly knocked about and wounded before they surrendered.” Still, European navies never became very effective in defending against the Vikings, and the kings preferred to “fight fire with fire,” that is, to rely on Viking mercenaries to defend territory against other Vikings.

In Scandinavia itself, ambitious chieftains and kings often fought one another in great sea battles. The skalds liked to describe such heroic occasions in some detail, so we are happily able to learn much about how Vikings fought on ships. Later saga literature, such as the Heimskringla, tells with great verve exciting stories about sea battles, but they represent simply later authors imaginatively weaving narratives that have very little value as historical sources.

Before the actual sea battle began, the chieftain exhorted his warriors to fight bravely. Before he battled the Danish king in 1062, King Harald Hardruler of Norway, for example, “told the troops of warriors to shoot and strike,” and “the famous ruler said each of us must fall crosswise on top of one another rather than yield.” Ten the ship would be rowed to an enemy ship, preferably the leader’s: it would “lie alongside the ship.” When the warriors “join[ed] together the stems of the longships,” they created a platform on which they could fight.

Then the battle started. As one poet expressed it, with typical northern understatement, “it was not as if a maiden was bringing a man leek or ale”: in other words, it was a horrid experience.  “The bold lord cut down warriors; he walked enraged across the warship.” “We [warriors] went enraged onto the ships under the banners,” the warrior poet Sigvat recounted after fighting under Olav Haraldsson in the battle of Nesjar in 1016. Different poets celebrating different battles fill in the details. Warriors and, especially, their leaders were supposed to be “angry” during the fight- the word shows up repeatedly in the poetry. Their enemies suffered their anger; there was blood everywhere: “Dark blood splashed on the pliant row of nails [= ship], gore spurted on the shield-rail, the deck-plank was sprinkled with blood.” “The army fell on the deck” so that “the slain lay tightly packed on the boards,” unless they “went wounded overboard.” In the end, “the prince won the victory” and could take over the ships of those he had defeated. If they were still in a repairable state, ships were extremely valuable war booty, not surprising considering the amount of work that went into constructing the great longships.

Afterward, the bodies of the dead washed up on the beaches. With their characteristic fascination with gore, skalds like Arnorr jarlaskald did not hesitate to describe the grisly scene, where carrion eaters like eagles and wolves had been given a feast: Sandy corpses of [the loser] Sveinn’s men are cast from the south onto the beaches; far and wide people see where bodies float off Jutland. The wolf drags a heap of slain from the water; Olav’s son [= King Magnus Olavsson of Norway] made fasting forbidden for the eagle; the wolf tears a corpse in the bays.

Sea battles often had momentous effects, with the lives and reputations, not only of warriors, but also of entire kingdoms, hanging in the balance. Many a Scandinavian king and chieftain met his end in battle, like the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason, who fell in the battle of Svöldr in 1000, fighting a coalition of the Danish and Swedish kings as well as a Norwegian chieftain. His namesake Olav Haraldsson won Norwegian kingship at the battle of Nesjar in 1016. Olav’s half-brother Harald Hardruler tried to conquer Denmark from his rival, King Svein Estridsson, in the battle of Nissan River in 1062, but although the Norwegians were victorious in the battle, Harald did not gain Denmark. The battle was inconclusive since King Svein and some of his warriors managed to escape Harald’s clutches by ignominiously rowing ashore in a small boat. Great sea battles were often the decisive events when Scandinavian rulers fought wars with one another, and the skalds of the victorious ruler would make sure that his lord’s exploits became famous. In the historical sagas of high-medieval Iceland, battle narratives often allow for the most impressive and rousing prose. The Saga of Olav Trygvason from the early thirteenth century ends, for example, with a climactic retelling of the battle of Svöldr. The story has fascinated generations of Scandinavian schoolchildren, and it continues to impress modern readers.

A Hard Road to Russia

J & C Harrison’s Harmatris in her peacetime livery.

‘Caught on the Surface’.  The sinking of U-461 by RAAF Sunderland “U” of 461 Squadron RAAF,
 in the Bay of Biscay in July 1943.  [As depicted by aviation artist Robert Taylor.]

On 22 June 1812 the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the borders of Russia, marching towards what was to be a catastrophic defeat. One hundred and twenty-nine years later, to the day, Adolf Hitler set out to prove that he could succeed where Bonaparte had failed. On Sunday 22 June 1941, 164 divisions of the Wehrmacht, supported by 2,700 aircraft, advanced into the Soviet Union on a front extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In the first three months of the fighting, the Germans steam-rollered 300 miles deep into Soviet territory.

Although up until the time she was attacked the USSR had been openly supporting Germany morally and economically, and had turned her back on a Britain fighting alone, her immediate reaction was to vociferously demand all possible help from that country. Despite her own urgent needs at home and in the Middle East, Britain at once offered tanks, aircraft and guns. The first convoy carrying war materials set out from a British port for North Russia, sailing via Iceland, on 12 August 1941. Thereafter, a similar convoy sailed every ten or fourteen days, right up until the end of the war.

The dangers facing the ships and men who sailed in the Russian convoys were frightening. Tempestuous seas, fog and blizzard, temperatures down to 40° below zero, round-the-clock daylight in summer, and unending darkness in winter, all added to the miindenty of the 2,000-mile passage. At the same time, through every mile steamed, the ships were under constant attack from German U-boats, aircraft and surface ships. To sail the Russian convoys was to experience all the rigours of the cruel sea, aggravated by the horrors of war at their most extreme.

In winter, the port of Glasgow, with its twelve straggling miles of dreary quaysides and 400 acres of windswept docks and basins, is not the most desirable resting place for a ship. In late November 1941, made even more cheerless by the constraints of a war already two years old, and by a blanket of cold, persistent drizzle, the Scottish port can have held little charm for the men of the British ship Harmatris. That they were soon to face a voyage to Arctic Russia, and all that entailed, perhaps made it just that much more bearable. In fact, there were many aboard the Harmatris who would gladly have endured a lifetime of winters in Glasgow, rather than sail for Russia.

Born in 1932 at the Lithgow Shipyard, Port Glasgow, just a few miles downstream from her loading berth, the 5,395-ton Harmatris was strongly built on lines of stark practicality, and capable of carrying anything from anthracite nuts to railway engines. Her coal-fired steam reciprocating engine gave her an operating speed of 8 to 9 knots, at which she carried her various cargoes with maximum economy. Owned by J & C Harrison of London, she was commanded by 47-year-old Captain R.W. Brundle of Hull, who was supported by a crew of forty-six. They included seven DEMS gunners, who manned and maintained her armament of one 4-inch, one 20 mm Hispano cannon, five .303 Lewis machine-guns, and two twin .303 Marlins. As an additional defence against attacking aircraft, she also carried two PAC rocket-launchers and five kites.

The Harmatris completed loading and sailed from Glasgow on the morning of 27 November, having on board 8,000 tons of military stores, vehicles and ammunition consigned to Archangel on the White Sea. Her orders were to proceed independently to Reykjavik, and there to await a convoy for Russia.

The 825-mile passage to Iceland was trouble-free, and the Harmatris sailed for Archangel in convoy on 4 December. In view of the ever-present danger of attack by German aircraft and surface ships based in northern Norway, the convoy was routed as far north as the limits of the polar ice pack would allow. It was expected, therefore, that the passage would take at least ten days. Given that Russian methods of discharging cargo were notoriously slow, Brundle and his men faced the prospect of spending Christmas and New Year in Archangel. This was not something they looked forward to.

Trouble came sooner than anticipated, but not from the enemy. Shortly after leaving Reykjavik, early on 6 December, the convoy ran into a strong south-westerly gale, which increased to storm-force as the eye of the depression passed over the ships. The wind then suddenly veered to the north-east, and the sea became very confused and high. The Harmatris, having a low centre of gravity due to a concentration of heavy cargo in her lower holds, began to roll violently. Within an hour she had fallen astern of the convoy, and was fighting a lonely battle against the angry elements in the grey half-light of the Arctic afternoon. As the day wore on, and the ever-lowering clouds turned the twilight into sombre darkness, mountainous seas began to break over the ship, flooding her well decks and tugging at the tightly wedged tarpaulins of her hatches. Captain Brundle, already deeply concerned for the safety of the vehicles stowed in the tween decks, was now faced with the possibility of having his hatches stove in. He had no alternative but to ride out the storm hove-to with the wind and sea on the bow. The Harmatris would make no progress towards her destination, but the damage to ship and cargo would be kept to a minimum.

At 2300, Brundle was still on the bridge, but the ship was riding more easily. He was tired, his tongue furred from too many cigarettes and cups of strong coffee, and he longed for a hot bath, followed by, perhaps, a few hours’ sleep. At his side was 23-year-old Third Officer William Watson, officer of the watch. When midnight came, the watch would be taken over by the more experienced Second Officer Young, and then Brundle hoped to be able to go below for a while. This was not to be.

The first hint that all was not well below decks came at 2330, when it was reported from aft that spray was evaporating into clouds of steam when hitting the deck plates alongside No.4 hatch. Brundle lost no time in ordering the hatch to be opened for investigation. His worst fears were confirmed when it was found that a lorry stowed in the tween decks was on fire, and had broken adrift. With every lurch of the ship, this blazing torch was slamming into the bales and cases stacked in the sides of the deck, spreading the fire and destruction in its wake.

Of all the dangers a seaman has to face in the course of his voyaging, there is none he fears more than fire at sea. For those on shore, fire is hazard enough, but can usually be swiftly dealt with by calling in the local fire brigade. At sea, in a merchant ship, there is no fire brigade to hand; the ship’s crew largely untrained in the techniques of fire-fighting and inadequately equipped, have no alternative but to fight the blaze unaided. Should the fire prove impossible to contain, there is only the last resort of taking to the boats – always assuming the weather is kindly disposed towards such a move. In the case of the Harmatris, already fighting for her life against mountainous seas, this means of escape was out of the question. For her crew there would be no running away from the fire.

Nor was time on their side, for in her No. 4 hold, separated from the fire only by a floor of wooden hatchboards, the Harmatris carried ten tons of cordite and a large quantity of small-arms ammunition. Brundle knew that once the flames penetrated into the lower hold, his ship would be finished. Leaving Third Officer Watson in charge of the bridge, he went aft to assess the situation.

On the after deck, Brundle met Chief Officer G. Masterman and Chief Steward R. Peart, who with a team of crew members were rigging hoses preparatory to entering the hatch. As no heavy seas were breaking over the after deck, this could be done in comparative safety, but Brundle first instructed Masterman to flood the hold with steam in an attempt to smother the fire.

It is probable that the blaze was now too well established for the steam appeared to have little or no effect, and after a while it became clear that they must get the hoses down into the tween deck. The forward end of the hatch was opened, and Masterman, wearing a smoke helmet and safety line, climbed down into the deck, dragging a fire hose behind him.

The task the Chief Officer had undertaken was a daunting one, for the tween deck was full of choking black smoke and searing flames. Added to this was the danger presented by the rampaging lorry. The protection afforded by the smoke helmet (a primitive form of breathing apparatus fed with outside air by a bellows and hose) was minimal. But with great courage, Masterman, a 41-year-old West Hartlepool man, turned his hose on the blaze, and continued to fight the fire until he was overcome by fumes and smoke. Fortunately, the men on deck saw his plight, and hauled him out of the hatch before he lost consciousness.

There was no lack of volunteers to take Masterman’s place. Chief Steward Peart, a South Walian in his early twenties, now donned the smoke helmet and spent thirty minutes below fighting the flames, before he too was forced to return to the deck. Fearing an explosion might rip the Harmatris open and send her to the bottom, Captain Brundle went forward to the bridge, where he instructed his radio officer to send out an SOS. The call for help was immediately answered by the 1,559-ton Zaafaran, a small British ship acting as rescue ship for the convoy. The Zaafaran reported she was proceeding towards the Harmatris at her maximum speed of 12 knots. Thus assured he had secured a chance of survival for his men, Brundle returned aft, and throughout the rest of the night he and Peart spelled each other in the smoke-filled tween deck in a desperate fight to quell the fire before it reached the explosives in the lower hold.

By 0730 on the 7th, the battle had been won. The fire was out, the runaway lorry secured, and Brundle was able to radio the Zaafaran that her indentvices would not be needed.

Although the Harmatris was no longer in immediate danger, a brief examination of her hatches, where accessible, showed that the terrible battering she had received over the previous twenty-four hours had played havoc with her cargo. In the tween decks other vehicles had broken adrift, causing chaos in the cargo around them. It was not possible to gain access to the lower holds, but it seemed likely that the damage below would be of the same order. Brundle decided it was pointless to proceed further, and radioed the Convoy Commodore asking permission to return to Glasgow to have his cargo examined and restowed. This was approved, and the Harmatris was brought round onto a southerly course to run for the Clyde with the wind and sea astern.

Far on the other side of the world, where the sun had not yet risen, Japanese carrier-borne aircraft were warming up in preparation for their attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Before the Harmatris reached the safety of the Clyde, the United States would be in the war.

Perhaps the only good to come out of the Hamatris’s abortive attempt to reach Russia was that Captain Brundle and his crew were able to spend Christmas tied up alongside in Glasgow. This was a small reward for men who had faced so much danger and who by their prompt action and unflinching courage had saved a valuable ship and her cargo from almost certain destruction. But the reward was more than they had asked for, and when, on the morning of the 26th, the Harmatris was again ready for sea, the tenuous links that had temporarily bound her to the shore were cut without hesitation. There was the business of an unfinished voyage to attend to.

The passage to Iceland in convoy was accomplished without incident, and in weather no worse than was to be expected in the North Atlantic in winter. On New Year’s Day 1942, the Harmatris once again entered Reykjavik harbour. Seven days later, she sailed in Convoy PQ 8, bound for the North Russian port of Murmansk, which lies in the Kola Inlet, and near the border with Finland.

Convoy PQ 8 was made up of eight merchant ships escorted by two minesweepers. Once clear of Reykjavik, the merchantmen formed up in two columns of four, with the Harmatris, acting as commodore ship, leading one of the columns. For the first two days they experienced strong winds and rough seas, adding to the miindenty of the sub-zero temperatures and never-ending darkness. Fortunately, the elements relented late on the 10th, and the small convoy ran into fine, calm weather. Also, during that night the ocean escort joined, consisting of the cruiindent HMS Trinidad, the destroyers Matabele and Somali, and the fleet minesweepers Harrier and Speedwell. This formidable array of strength was a most welcome sight, but the men in the merchant ships knew that it was also an indication of the many dangers ahead.

The convoy continued on a north-easterly course until, on the 11th, in latitude 73° 45’ N, it met with the ice field and was forced to divert further to the south. Six more days passed quietly, with the ships making 8 knots in unbelievably calm weather with maximum visibility. Only the bone-chilling cold and the tedious darkness, relieved by an hour or two of pale daylight each side of noon, marred what might have been a pleasant voyage.

On Saturday 17 January, the convoy was deep into the Barents Sea and shaping a course for the Kola Inlet. It seemed that the worst dangers had been passed, for there were less than 60 miles to go to waters guarded by Soviet forces. At 1615, the ships were formed into line astern, with the Harmatris, as commodore ship, leading. The cruiindent Trinidad was on her starboard bow, with HMS Harrier zig-zagging five cables ahead of Trinidad. The destroyers Somali and Matabele were stationed approximately 2,000 yards on the port and starboard beams respectively, while Speedwell brought up the rear. Of the local escort, scheduled to join within the next six hours, it had been reported that the fleet minesweepers Britomart and Salamander were fogbound in the Kola Inlet, where visibility was down to nil. Only HMS Sharpshooter, another fleet minesweeper, had managed to get under way and was proceeding seawards at all possible speed. However, the Senior Officer Escort, in HMS Trinidad, was not unduly worried. To the best of his knowledge, there were no reports of U-boats operating in the area, and the darkness would deter the enemy bombers. It was his opinion that, at this stage, the only real threat would come from mines. However, the SOE had not yet received a recent Admiralty signal warning of the presence of at least one enemy submarine known to be in the area. Ahead and to starboard of the convoy, U-454, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Burkhard Hackländer, lay waiting on the surface, hidden in the shadows of the long Arctic night.

At 1845, Captain Brundle, who had been on the bridge of the Harmatris so long that his feet seemed to have taken root in the deck, rasped the bristles of his chin and decided it was high time he went below for a shave. The weather was clear, and the experienced Masterman had the watch. Brundle walked out into the wing and took a quick look around the horizon. It was empty, except for the reassuring silhouettes of the escorting naval ships. The darkness was too complete to reveal the thin pencil of U-454’s periscope breaking the surface on the starboard bow.

Brundle was in the act of drawing aside the curtain at the doorway of his day cabin when the torpedo struck the Harmatris on her starboard side, and exploded with a thunderous roar. Half-deafened, Brundle clawed his way back up to the bridge, where he found that Masterman had already stopped the engines. The Chief Officer reported that the ship had been hit in No. 1 hold, whose hatches and derricks he had seen hurled skywards on the column of water thrown up by the explosion.

First giving orders for the crew to stand by the lifeboats, Brundle went forward with Masterman to assess the damage. He found the forecastle deck to be a smoking shambles, with No. 1 stripped of its hatches and tarpaulins, but there appeared to be no fire in the hold. The Harmatris was noticeably down by the head, and soundings taken of the bilges showed water in both forward holds, and rising rapidly. In spite of this, Brundle judged the ship was in no immediate danger of sinking.

The SOE, who had not yet received the Admiralty’s U-boat warning, at first thought the Harmatris must have struck a mine, but when the destroyer Matabele reported hearing torpedo hydrophone effect, he was quick to take action. Matabele and Somali were ordered to carry out an anti-submarine search to seaward of the convoy, and Speedwell was told to stand guard over the crippled merchant ship.

Aboard the Harmatris, Captain Brundle and his senior officers were discussing the possibility of saving their ship when, at 1935, three-quarters of an hour after the first, another explosion occurred amidships on her port side. The ship shuddered violently, but there was no flash or column of water usually associated with a torpedo striking, and Brundle concluded that his ship must have suffered the additional indignity of striking a mine. He concluded wrongly, the Harmatris having been the recipient of Hackländer’s second torpedo.

The damage caused by the second explosion appeared to be severe, and Brundle, fearing his lifeboats might be smashed in the next attack, decided it was time to get his men off. He signalled Speedwell and asked her to close in. The Harmatris was abandoned and all her crew were safely on board the minesweeper by 1945.

Although the Harmatris was so far down by the head that her propeller was out of the water, Brundle had ascertained before leaving her that her engine-room was still intact. Once aboard Speedwell, he discussed with her commander the possibility of taking his ship in tow, so that she might be beached and her valuable cargo saved. After some deliberation, it was agreed that the minesweeper would attempt to tow the Harmatris towards Cape Teriberski, which lay only 15 miles to starboard. When Brundle called for volunteers to re-board the ship with him, every member of his crew stepped forward.

Within the hour, they were all back on board the Harmatris, and towing lines had been passed and made fast. Speedwell took the strain, but the damaged merchantman refused to move. With her funnel belching black smoke, the minesweeper pulled harder, but succeeded only in parting the tow wire. On investigation, it was found that the first torpedo had caused the Harmatris’s starboard anchor to run out and drag on the bottom. The ship had in fact been brought up to her anchor with 130 fathoms of cable out. As the windlass had been shattered by the explosion, there could be no question of raising the anchor. Brundle sent for hammers and punches, and his men set about splitting the cable.

While this work was going on, the convoy, which had scattered after the attack on the Harmatris, was being re-formed by the other escorts, the tanker British Pride taking over as commodore ship. By 2130, the seven remaining merchantmen had formed up in single file, and resumed their original course. This done, Matabele was instructed to drop back and assist Speedwell with her tow.

At 2145, HMS Sharpshooter, having succeeded in breaking out of the fog-bound Kola Inlet, joined and took up station on the starboard beam of the convoy. Matabele, finding her assistance was not required by Speedwell, rejoined at 2215, and also took up a position to starboard. Cape Teriberski was now abeam only 10 miles off, and at each flash of its powerful light the convoy and its escorts were sharply silhouetted against the night sky. This gave Burkhard Hackländer the chance he had been waiting for. His sights were trained on the tanker British Pride, but it was the zig-zagging Matabele that caught his fan of two torpedoes. The British destroyer disappeared in a sheet of flame as her magazine exploded. Only two ratings survived the sinking.

The operation to cut the Harmatris’s anchor cable was meanwhile proceeding with agonising slowness. The fact that the joining shackles had not been split in many a long year, combined with the darkness and the icy cold, was making a difficult job almost impossible. Following the sudden loss of the Matabele, Speedwell’s commander became anxious for the safety of both ships, and signalled Brundle advising that he and his men would be better off aboard the minesweeper for the time being. Captain Brundle was very loth to leave his ship again, but as the Harmatris was now so obviously a sitting target, he took the Navy man’s advice. A hot meal and a few hours’ sleep would not go amiss.

With Brundle and his men back on board, Speedwell circled the area throughout the rest of the night, and at 0600 put the merchant crew back on their ship. There, they were immediately confronted by a major problem. They discovered that the main steam had been inadvertently left on throughout the night, with the result that the boilers had run dry. As a consequence of this catastrophic mistake, the decks’ steam pipes were frozen solid, and all winches therefore unusable. The task of splitting the cable and bringing aboard towlines was made more difficult, but with the help of a great deal of sweat and colourful language, both were accomplished. At 0800 on the 18th, HMS Speedwell commenced towing the Harmatris towards Murmansk at 5 knots. The rest of the convoy had long since disappeared over the horizon, and the two ships were sailing alone.

And still the torment was not yet over for the Harmatris. At around noon, in the short twilight that passes for daylight in the Arctic winter, a German aircraft suddenly appeared, roaring in at mast-top height and spraying the ship with cannon and machine-gun fire. Fortunately, the Harmatris’s DEMS gunners were already manning their guns, and returned fire with considerable accuracy. Speedwell’s guns joined in and arcs of tracer from both ships were seen to hit the attacking plane, which then headed for the shore trailing black smoke and losing height. An hour later, another enemy aircraft was sighted, but this one, no doubt aware of the fate of its predecessor, was more cautious. Maintaining a respectable height, it dropped a stick of bombs which fell harmlessly a mile away from the Harmatris. The aircraft then flew over the two ships without losing height, and fired its guns in a largely futile gesture of aggression. Both the Harmatris and Speedwell replied, but no hits were scored on either side. The plane flew off without attacking again.

Ironically, at 1430, HMS Speedwell, having faithfully watched over her disabled charge for nearly twenty hours, suffered her first damage and casualties – but not at the hand of the enemy. A high-pressure steam pipe burst in her boiler-room, and three seamen were badly scalded. Her commander signalled for a Soviet tug, which arrived within the hour, and took over the tow. Speedwell then headed for Murmansk at full speed to land her injured men. Two additional tugs arrived alongside the Harmatris at 1700, and she continued on her slow way, berthing in Murmansk at 0800 on the 20th.

With his ship safely tied up in port, Captain Brundle was for the first time able to make a detailed examination of the damage she had sustained. The second torpedo, which had struck amidships on the port side, he found had inflicted very little damage, except for a severe buckling of the hull and deck plates in the area. On the other hand, U-454’s first hit had caused chaos. The torpedo had torn a large hole in the hull on the starboard side forward, both the forepeak and forward watertight bulkheads were fractured, and No. 1 hold was three-quarters full of water. On deck, the locking bars of No. 1 hatch had been ripped off, and the wooden hatch-boards and tarpaulins were missing. The heavy steel hatch beams lay strewn around the decks, derricks were missing or bent double, and the shrouds and rigging of the foremast were draped with odds and ends of cargo blown out of the hold, giving the mast the appearance of a gigantic Christmas tree. Over all there lay a thick coating of ice and snow which, in a way, softened the horror of the mauling the ship had received.

From the time the Harmatris first set out from Glasgow on that grey November day in 1941, almost two months had elapsed. Two months during which her crew had faced up to, and survived, more perils than most men will meet in a lifetime. Yet never once did they indentiously consider abandoning their appointed task, which was to deliver a desperately needed cargo to the Soviet Union. Whether their valiant efforts were appreciated by the recipients is a matter which will be debated for as long as those who indentved in the Russian convoys are alive.

The crippling of the Harmatris and the sinking of the Matabele with such fearful loss of life proved to be the pinnacle in the careers of Burkhard Hackländer and U-454. They sank no more ships, and on 1 August 1943 had the misfortune to be surprised on the surface in the Bay of Biscay by a Sunderland of Coastal Command. When the flying boat dived to attack, U-454’s gunners put up such a fierce barrage that the aircraft crashed into the sea, but its bombs had been released at precisely the right moment, and the U-boat was hit and sunk. Hackländer and twelve other survivors from U-454 were picked up later by the Royal Navy. Thus were the Harmatris and Matabele revenged.

The Fleet that Saved Texas

The Texan sloop-of-war Austin.

Few realize it today, but the Texas Revolution started at sea, and it was at sea its hard-won independence was saved by the little-known Texas Navy.

On September 1, 1835, the armed merchantman San Felipe thwarted an attempted boarding by a Mexican war sloop. Aboard San Felipe were revolutionaries Stephen Austin and Don Lorenzo de Zavala. Their near escape from the Mexican navy made them realized that with Texas’ immense coastline and its reliance on maritime trade, war with Mexico would mean a war at sea. Texas needed a navy.

The Texas provisional government bought a 70-ton former privateer with four to six small guns and renamed her Liberty. Next came the Invincible, a former slave trader with six short-range carronades and a nine-pound swivel gun. Brutus, a 160-tonner armed with a long 18-pounder and nine short guns, followed. The last ship in the fledgling navy was the Independence. At about 170 tons and mounting nine to 11 guns, Independence was placed in the command of Charles E. Hawkins, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant who also became the fleet’s commodore.

Hawkins understood his fledgling navy was too small to fight fleet actions with its Mexican counterpart. He focused instead on commerce raiding, attacking, and capturing merchant ships carrying war supplies to Mexico. The bounty captured with this strategy proved profitable to the Texians’ land war.

On her first cruise, Liberty captured the Mexican merchantmen Pelicano, carrying a cargo of gunpowder hidden within crates of flour. The powder was given to Sam Houston’s army. On April 10, 1836, Invincible boarded the American merchantman, Pocket, sailing for Matamoras. Hidden aboard was powder, shot, and food for the Mexican army. Also found were dispatches addressed to Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna revealing his invasion plans for Texas.

Liberty, on coastal patrol, captured another U.S. merchantman smuggling war materiel to Matamoras.

Texas Blockaded

Houston’s victory against Santa Anna at San Jacinto in April 1836 supposedly gave Texas its independence. In fact, it simply resulted in a temporary truce. Santa Ana was not ready to give up. While the Texas fleet refitted in New Orleans, Santa Ana ordered the Mexican navy to blockade Texas ports. The result was devastating.

While returning from her refit, the Independence was intercepted by the Mexican naval blockade. After a running gun battle, she was forced to lower her colors. In August, Invincible was intercepted by Mexican warships outside Galveston Bay and riddled with shot. Brutus sailed to Invincible’s aid, only to run aground on a sandbar where she was broken to pieces by the sea.

With its navy sunk, Texas was vulnerable to a Mexican invasion from the sea. Fortunately for the Texans, a dispute over Mexican debts owed to France resulted in a French blockade of Mexico’s ports. What became known as the Pastry War gave Texas a chance to rebuild its fleet.

President Mirabeau Lamar convinced the Texas Congress to buy nine new ships. A converted passenger side-wheeler, Zavala, carried eight guns. The 600-ton flagship Austin was armed with 20 24-pounders. Three 170-ton schooners—San Jacinto, San Bernard, and San Antonio—were each armed with six 12-pound carronades. The brigs Wharton and Archer, about 400 tons each, were armed with 15 18-pounders, plus a 12-pound long rifle on the Wharton. The tender Louisville and the receiving ship Potomac made up the rest of the fleet.

A U.S. Navy lieutenant, Edwin Ward Moore, was named post captain of the Austin and commodore of the new Texas Navy.

In late 1840, Moore stood out with Austin, San Antonio, and San Bernard, leaving behind both brigs for coastal duty. The steamer Zavala was laid up for repairs. The cruise went badly. On February 11, 1842, a mutiny broke out on the San Antonio. One officer was killed before the uprising was put down. Two mutineers were later hanged.

Then San Antonio was lost at sea. Later, San Bernard was driven ashore by a storm.

Worse was happening at home. Lamar was succeeded by Houston, assuming his second term as president. Despite his war hero reputation, Houston was both anti-army and navy. Houston convinced the Texas legislature to pass a secret act ordering the fleet sold off. Alerted to plan, Commodore Moore took Austin and Wharton to New Orleans, out of Houston’s reach. He repeatedly ignored orders to bring the ships home.

Battle of Campeche

In the Spring of 1843, Moore received news the Mexican Navy had acquired three new armed steamers—Guadaloupe, Moctezuma, and Regenerador—and four smaller sailing ships. Seeing the danger posed to Texas, Moore set out with his two-ship fleet and intercepted the Mexican fleet off the coast of Campeche, a state on the Yucatán Peninsula. What ensued was one of the most incredible and least known naval battles in history.

The Battle of Campeche started on the morning of April 30, 1843. Austin and Wharton sailed straight into the Mexican fleet, firing port and starboard broadsides, and driving a wedge between the steamers Guadaloupe and Moctezuma, and their escorts. With their force divided, the Mexicans broke off. The Mexicans lost 20 crewmen killed. Wharton lost two crewmen, the Austin none.

Reinforced by the Regenerador, the Mexican fleet attacked Moore on May 16, with Guadaloupe and the Montezuma falling on Austin. The Texas flagship took a pounding for nearly two hours. Suddenly, Moore turned on his pursuers, sailing between them firing broadsides. The steamers staggered under the assault. Their wooden side wheels splintered and their decks became littered with dead and wounded. Again, the Mexicans broke off, but Austin pursued the enemy for 14 miles until her own battle damage forced Moore to break off.

The Mexicans lost 87 killed; the Texans five. The battle showed the Mexican navy, despite better ships and armament, had no stomach for battle. The victory inspired revolutionaries in the Mexican state of Yucatan to rise in rebellion, taking Santa Anna’s attention away from his invasion plans for Texas. That summer, Mexico signed a truce with Texas.

Within hours of the battle, however, Moore learned Houston had proclaimed the commodore and his men pirates. Moore stood court-martial on numerous counts ranging from treason to embezzlement. He was acquitted of all except disobeying orders; no penalty was given. Instead, Moore was hailed as the “Nelson of Texas.”

Texas joined the United States in 1845. What was left of its small fleet was turned over to the U.S. Navy, which sold them for scrap.


The Exploits of British Submarines in the Dardanelles Campaign

German concern over Turkish powers of resistance led to the decision to send German submarines to the Mediterranean. The results were actually even more damaging for the Anglo-French cause than the failure of the Dardanelles campaign. In early March, as the British and French warships pounded away at the Dardanelles, Enver Pasha and the Turkish leaders pleaded for submarines to attack the Allied fleet. The Germans tried to induce their Austrian allies to send a submarine out from the Adriatic to the Dardanelles. The Austrians declined, largely for technical reasons. They had only seven submarines, and most of them lacked the range. Moreover, with their former Triple Alliance ally Italy drifting into a position of open hostility, they were obviously loath to lose the services of any of their handful of underseas craft, which had so far proved so effective in restricting the operations of the overwhelmingly superior French fleet. The Germans eventually despaired of getting anything from the Austrians and resolved to do the job themselves. On 13 March they decided to send one large boat with extra fuel oil directly to the Mediterranean, while a pair of small UB.I-class boats would be sent in sections by rail to Pola, where they would be assembled by German engineers. They anticipated the UB boats would arrive in Turkish waters about the end of April.

A major problem for the British and French was therefore on the way, but it would have no effect on their landings on the peninsula, which took place on 25 April. The British 29th Division landed at the tip of Cape Helles, and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—the ANZACs—landed farther to the north on the Gallipoli Peninsula and at great cost established a beachhead. The French landed on the Asiatic shore as a diversion, and later shifted their forces to the European side. The Turkish counterattacks failed to push the Allies into the sea, but the Allies in turn could not progress far beyond the beachhead nor capture the commanding height of Achi Baba. Barbed wire and machine guns proved as difficult to overcome at Gallipoli as they were on the western front. The result, despite the landing of new British divisions, was a stalemate, and the Royal Navy had the major obligation of supplying the army over open beaches from island bases 50 to 60 miles away, providing artillery support, and the added worry that intelligence indicated German submarines were on their way.42 The logistical aspect should not be underestimated. In September Wemyss wrote that at Mudros harbor there were always between 150 and 170 ships, not counting innumerable small craft.

The supplies of the Turkish army on the peninsula were to a large extent waterborne, and on 10 May de Robeck cabled the Admiralty about the possibility of a renewed naval attack to force the Dardanelles and cut off the supply line. De Robeck himself, apparently, did not believe the presence of the Allied fleet in the Marmara would be decisive and was prodded into sending the cable by his chief of staff, Keyes. According to Keyes, de Robeck realized the importance of a successful attack to the army struggling on shore, but feared for the army’s fate should the attack fail, and declined to take responsibility for running the risk of failure. Keyes told him to place the responsibility for ordering the attack on the government but to make it clear that if ordered, he would be prepared to attempt to force the Strait. Guépratte, although not present at the conference, would have been more than ready to participate.

The cable arrived at a bad time in London, where Churchill was in the midst of the negotiations for the naval convention that would accompany Italy’s entry into the war and knew that German submarines were on their way to the Mediterranean and that the Italians would have to be supported by British ships. He therefore favored a “limited operation” to attempt to sweep the Kephez minefield under the cover of the fleet, compelling the forts to exhaust their ammunition. Fisher, however, was against any attempt to rush the Narrows before the army had occupied the adjacent shores and found even the limited operation excessive. Churchill had to compromise with a very weak telegram to de Robeck on the 13th, instructing him to inform the Admiralty and obtain its approval before taking any decisive step. Fisher, supported by the other sea lords, dispatched an additional cable that effectively killed any idea of a renewed naval offensive. They informed de Robeck, always lukewarm about the whole idea, that the Admiralty thought the moment for an independent naval attempt had passed and would not rise again, and that his role was to support the army. After all these years, the bitterness and disappointment of Keyes can still be felt: “So the great opportunities which had been open to the Fleet since 4th April [when the destroyer minesweepers were ready] were allowed to slip away, and the Allied Army, having suffered 26,000 casualties in its effort to secure the Gallipoli shore, was to continue the struggle, in order that the Fleet might steam by without any undue loss.”

The British suffered a severe loss even before the submarines arrived. The old battleship Goliath had anchored in Morto Bay, an exposed position, where her artillery support to the army had provoked the Germans and Turks. On the night of 12–13 May, Kapitänleutnant Rudolph Firle, a German officer commanding the Turkish destroyer Muavenet, succeeded in torpedoing and sinking the Goliath with heavy loss of life. The loss eventually had important political repercussions in England. Fisher, knowing submarines were on the way, had been very nervous over the superdreadnought Queen Elizabeth at the Dardanelles and anxious to bring her back to the Grand Fleet. He now renewed these demands more vigorously than ever, and he and Churchill decided to replace the Queen Elizabeth with the old battleships Exmouth and Venerable and two monitors with 14-inch guns. Kitchener, however, objected to the effect the Queen Elizabeth’s withdrawal would have on the army’s morale. The next few days brought the Fisher-Churchill disagreement over the Dardanelles to the boiling point when Churchill prepared to send additional reinforcements to the Dardanelles, and on 15 May Fisher resigned. Fisher’s resignation came shortly after a scandal over the shortage of artillery shells in France. The government was in danger of being overturned, and Prime Minister Asquith was forced to form a coalition government with the Conservative opposition on 25 May. Their price for joining the government included the demand that Churchill leave the Admiralty, and he was banished to the meaningless sinecure, the Duchy of Lancaster, from which he would shortly resign in disgust for service with the army in France. Arthur J. Balfour, a former prime minister, became first lord, and Admiral Sir Henry Jackson became First Sea Lord.

Churchill’s departure from office coincided with the arrival of German submarines at the Dardanelles. The small UB.7 and UB.8 were assembled at Pola in the first half of May and towed through the Strait of Otranto at night by Austrian warships in order to conserve fuel. They then slipped the tow and headed for the coast of Asia Minor. The larger U-boat, U.21 under Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing, sailed for the Mediterranean from German waters on 25 April. Hersing met a chartered Spanish supply ship in the Gulf of Corcubion in northwest Spain on the night of 2 May and took on oil. He discovered, however, that the fuel oil was unsuitable for his diesel engines. Hersing made careful calculations and decided to proceed to Cattaro directly, where by economical use of his engines he arrived on 13 May with only 1.8 tons of his original 56.5 tons of fuel remaining. Hersing proved it was possible for U-boats to make the voyage to the Mediterranean directly from Germany, and in the future newer U-boats would be able to omit the potentially troublesome clandestine call in neutral Spain.

The wireless messages to U.21 at Cattaro were intercepted and read by Room 40, which passed on the warning to de Robeck. De Robeck decided to meet the danger by ordering troop transports to go no farther than Mudros, where troops would be ferried to the Gallipoli Peninsula at night by fleet sweepers. Vital ammunition ships would also discharge their cargoes into trawlers and sweepers at Mudros. Regular supply ships would still go, if necessary, to Cape Helles or Kephalo (Imbros), where advance bases would be created by means of net and boom defenses. Ships required by the army as “covering ships” would be the only ones at sea, they would sail only at night, if possible, and as ships had to anchor for accurate fire, they would be protected by nets, if they had them, during daylight hours. It is not surprising that de Robeck wrote on 16 May: “Now my most important requirement are nets & lighters on which to hang the nets and place them round these ships.”

Hersing and U.21 demonstrated that the antitorpedo nets, which had been such a prominent feature of the prewar battleships, were unable to stop a U-boat’s torpedo. On 25 May he sank the battleship Triumph, and on the 27th the battleship Majestic. The smaller UB boats were less successful; they made Smyrna safely, but only UB.8 sank anything before they reached Constantinople, and that turned out to be a dummy ship, the former transport Merion disguised to resemble the battle cruiser Tiger. Hersing also had less luck when he passed through the Dardanelles on his second mission early in July. He sank the French steamer Carthage (5,601) on 4 July, but the ship had been risked unnecessarily, and U.21 was hindered by the strong Allied countermeasures from achieving further success. The cruise came to a premature end when U.21’s hull was damaged by an underwater explosion, probably a mine. The submarine limped back to Constantinople and was out of action for at least six weeks.

German submarine successes against the Dardanelles expedition in the summer of 1915 did not live up to their promising beginning. UB.14 after completion at Pola was towed by the Austrians through the Strait of Otranto, called at the island of Orak off Bodrum on the Turkish coast, and then operated against the transport route between Alexandria and the Dardanelles, where on 13 August her commander, Oberleutnant zur See von Heimburg, sank the transport Royal Edward (11,117 tons), with a loss of more than nine hundred lives, and damaged another transport before reaching Constantinople. But von Heimburg also found his work hampered by the large number of small craft in the vicinity of the Dardanelles and the weak battery capacity of the UB boats. The UB boats could only carry a very limited number of torpedoes and could only spend a few days on station. The serious submarine campaign against Allied shipping in the Mediterranean did not begin until September and October when the new large boats arrived. It caused great damage, but most of the German successes took place far from the Dardanelles and on the lines of communication.

The arrival of German submarines consequently did not and could not end the Dardanelles expedition. Except for ships foolishly risked, such as the Carthage, the British measures at the Strait were reasonably effective. German submarines found operations off the Strait unprofitable because of wiser British tactics, the hoard of small craft, extensive and heavy net and boom defenses, and eventually shallow-draft monitors for artillery support.

The British and French conducted their own submarine offensive against the Turks. This began even before the commencement of the Dardanelles expedition, when on 13 December 1914 Lieutenant Norman Holbrook in the old B.11 sank the ancient Turkish battleship Messudiyeh near the entrance to the Dardanelles and received the Victoria Cross. The passage through the Dardanelles and the Narrows was extremely difficult, and also tricky because of the current and differences in density between layers of the water that made the craft difficult to control. The British boats were more successful than the less-handy French craft, none of which returned. There is no space in a general history of this sort to tell the story in any detail, but British submarines operated in the Sea of Marmara from April to the end of the campaign. Two of the commanders, Lieutenant-Commander Edward C. Boyle (E.14) and Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith (E.11), won Victoria Crosses. Nasmith sank a steamer anchored alongside the arsenal in the Golden Horn at Constantinople in May, and on another cruise on 8 August sank the Turkish battleship Barbarossa, which had steamed down to support the Turkish defenses at the Strait. E.11 and E.14 made a deliberate attempt to cut the road to Gallipoli where it ran near the water, shelling troops attempting to pass. The Germans and Turks constantly worked at improving their defenses, particularly the Nagara net, and the game grew more and more difficult. The submarines by themselves, however, no matter how spectacular their exploits, could not alter the outcome of the campaign. The British and French each lost four submarines either trying to pass the Dardanelles or in the Marmara. The British claimed 1 battleship, 1 old coast-defense ship, 1 destroyer, 5 gunboats, 11 transports, 44 steamers, and 148 other vessels. There are discrepancies with German figures, possibly because some of the Turkish craft were beached and later salved. The German official history credits British submarines with twenty-five steamers (about 26,000 tons) totally destroyed and ten steamers (about 27,000 tons) badly damaged and out of action for the Dardanelles campaign, as well as the destruction of about 3,000 tons of small craft, for a total of 56,000 tons. The exploits of their submarines were for the British the proudest and most successful aspect of the Dardanelles campaign.

USS Intrepid

Attack Squadron 15 (VA-15).


  • August 1965: Although scheduled to transition to the A-6 Intruder, VA-15 began training under VA-44 for transition to the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk.
  • 4 April–21 November 1966: VA-15 deployed to Vietnam as a component of CVW-10 embarked on USS Intrepid. CVW-10 was an all-attack air wing composed of four attack squadrons, two squadrons flying A-4 Skyhawks and two squadrons with A-1 Skyraiders.
  • 15 May 1966: The squadron flew its first combat mission since March 1945 when it was designated VT- 4 and a member of Carrier Air Group 4.
  • 1967: VA-15 again returned to Southeast Asia on the USS Intrepid


The jet-powered follow-on to the Skyraider in the light attack aircraft category was the subsonic Douglas Skyhawk series that first showed up in US Navy and US Marine Corps service in 1956. It eventually served in a variety of versions. The pre-1962 designation system labelled them the A4D-1, the A4D-2, A4D-2N, and the A4D-5. In 1962, they became respectively the A4-A, the A-4B, A-4C, and the A-4E.

This picture shows the size comparison between the USS Forrestal on the right, a Forrestal-class carrier, and the USS Intrepid (CVA-11), a modernized Essex-class carrier with an angled flight deck, seen on the left. The USS Forrestal suffered two large accidental fires, the worst of which occurred in 1967 and killed 134 crewmen and wounded another 161. The same fire also destroyed twenty-one aircraft.

Even as Project SCB-27A was progressing, new advancements in both carrier and carrier aircraft designs compelled the US navy to adjust its plans. It was decided that six additional unmodified Essex-class carriers would go through a new upgrading process, as well as the USS Oriskany, already upgraded under SCB-27A.

The previously unmodified Essex-class carriers to go through this new upgrade programme, labelled Project SCB-27C, included the USS Intrepid (CV-11), USS Ticonderoga (CV-14), USS Lexington (CV-16), USS Hancock (CV-19), USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) and USS Shangri-La (CV-38).

Project SCB-27C included the addition of a new more powerful British-designed steam catapult system and the removal of one of the carrier’s two centreline elevators. The deleted aft (rear) near centreline elevator was replaced by another deck-edge elevator located aft of the carrier’s islands on the starboard side. Another design change was an increase in the carrier’s beam of 11 feet.

In October 1952 the US navy classified the majority of its modernized Essex-class carriers as ‘attack carriers’ and assigned them the new letter suffix designation code ‘CVA’. The CVAs normally carried a combination of aircraft (i.e. fighters and fighter-bombers) and attack aircraft, assigned the letter suffix ‘AD’, the latter being capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Also carried on board the CVAs were special-purpose aircraft such as photo reconnaissance and airborne early warning planes, the first of the latter being the WF-1 Tracer.

The first three Essex-class carriers modified under Project SCB-27C – the USS Intrepid, USS Ticonderoga and USS Hancock – were retro-fitted with angled flight decks to conform to the Project SCB-125 standard in 1957. In addition, eight of the nine Essex-class carriers that had previously received the Project SCB-27A upgrades were fitted with angled flight decks under Project SCB-125.

Of the various post-war modernization upgrades, only the USS Oriskany went through Project SCB-27A, Project SCB-27C and Project SCB-125 upgrades. The carrier was also the only Essex-class vessel to be fitted with an aluminium flight deck in place of the standard unarmoured metal flight deck covered with wooden planking.

Another design feature that appeared on the Essex-class carriers brought up to the Project SCB-125 standard was an enclosed hurricane bow in place of the original open bow space. As time went on, all the post-war modernized Essex-class carriers that went through Project SCB-27A and Project SCB-27C were retro-fitted with enclosed hurricane bows. All four surviving Essex-class carriers currently preserved as museum ships – USS Yorktown (CVS-10), USS Intrepid (CVS-11), USS Hornet (CVS-12) and USS Lexington (AVT-16) – were brought up to the Project SCB-125 standard.

USN Attack Planes

Before the Hornet appeared on US Navy carriers, there were a number of aircraft dedicated to the attack role that flew from carriers during the postwar years. The first of these was the Douglas Skyraider that came in numerous models, AD-1 through AD-7, with sub-variants of each model, not all being employed by the US Navy and US Marine Corps. In 1962, the last three models of the Skyraider built were re-labelled. The AD-5 became the A-1E, the AD-6 became the A-1H, and the last model, originally designated the AD-7, was re-labelled as the A-1J.

The Skyraider was a prop-driven aircraft originally designed during the Second World War, but did not begin appearing on US Navy carriers until 1949. It saw service in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before being retired by the US Navy in 1968. Total production of the Skyraider numbered 3,180 units, with many being employed by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, but not the Korean War.

The Skyraider was not the only prop-driven specialized ground attack aircraft adopted by the US Navy in the early postwar years. There was the Martin AM-1 Mauler, but it did not live up to expectations and was in service only from 1948 until 1953, before the US Navy withdrew it in favor of the better performing Skyraider. Only 151 units of the Mauler were built.

The jet-powered follow-on to the Skyraider in the light attack aircraft category was the subsonic Douglas Skyhawk series that first showed up in US Navy and US Marine Corps service in 1956. It eventually served in a variety of versions. The pre-1962 designation system labelled them the A4D-1, the A4D-2, A4D-2N, and the A4D-5. In 1962, they became respectively the A4-A, the A-4B, A-4C, and the A-4E.

Appearing in US Navy and US Marine Corps service after 1967 was the A-4F model of the Skyhawk that can be easily identified by the upper fuselage hump pod that contained additional avionics. One hundred units of the A-4C were later rebuilt to the A-4F model standard and designated the A-4L. They served only with US Navy Reserve squadrons. The US Marine Corps employed 158 units of the aircraft designated A-4M Skyhawk, that had a more powerful engine and improved avionics.

The last production unit of the A-4M was delivered to the US Marine Corps in 1979, with the Skyhawk series being withdrawn from US Marine Corps service in 1998, and US Navy use in 2003. A total of 2,960 units of the aircraft were built, with over 550 being two-seat trainers.

The eventual replacement for the Skyhawk on US Navy carriers in 1966 was the Vought A-7 Corsair II. It saw combat in the Vietnam War and remained in service long enough to be employed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. It was retired soon after that Middle Eastern conflict. In total, the US Navy acquired 997 units of the Corsair II, with 60 being two-seat trainers, designated the TA-7C. The Corsair II was not adopted by the US Marine Corps, which preferred to stay with the Skyhawk, until it could be replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. The Corsair II also served with the USAF and several US allies.

Supplementing the light attack Skyhawk and Corsair II, beginning in 1963, and eventually replacing them on US Navy carriers was the Grumman A-6 Intruder, classified as a medium attack aircraft. The Intruder was an all-weather aircraft that could also operate at night. Its baptism in combat was the Vietnam War, with the initial model labelled the A-6A. Later versions included the A-6B, A-6C, and the final model, the A-6E that entered service in 1970.

Over 700 units of the Intruder eventually entered service with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. The latter retired their Intruder inventory in 1993 and the US Navy in 1996. It was the last dedicated attack aircraft in US Navy and US Marine Corps service.

A variant of the Intruder still in service is the EA-6B Prowler, which is an electronic-warfare (EW) aircraft intended to degrade enemy air-defense systems by jamming their electronic signals or killing them with anti-radiation missiles. The aircraft first entered service in 1971 with the US Navy and US Marine Corps. It will be retired from US Navy service in 2015, but retained by the US Marine Corps until 2019.

There was also an aerial refuelling version of the A-6 Intruder, designated the KA-6D. It could carry over 3,200 gallons of jet fuel that was transferred to other aircraft by hose-and-drogue pods. In total, ninety units of the KA-6D were placed into service by converting older model Intruders to the new role. Due to age-related fatigue problems, the aircraft is no longer in service with the US Navy.

Off California…

Sinking of the SS Montebello by George H. Cooper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ship in the gunners’ sights was the American freighter Samoa under the command of Captain Nels Sinnes, who was about to be abruptly awoken by the report of a submarine close by. The Samoa had already sustained damage, but not from enemy action. She had been caught by a heavy storm which had washed away one of the ship’s lifeboats. The Samoa also had a noticeable list to port, as the engineers had been shifting water in the ballast tanks following the battering from the ocean. The pronounced list, and the remnants of the wooden lifeboat hanging from its launching davits, would be providential in saving the ship from the attentions of the I-1 7 in the minutes that followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following the unsuccessful operation to intercept and sink the Enterprise and her escorts, on 14 December Matsumura and the I-21 were assigned a new patrol area off Point Arguello in California, a promontory of land fifty-five miles north of Santa Barbara. Motoring just below the surface close to the shore on the morning of 22 December, Commander Matsumura spotted the H. M. Story, a Standard Oil Company tanker, as he scanned the horizon at periscope depth. For two days the I-21 had waited in this position, only coming to the surface at night to recharge the submarine’s batteries and air the boat. Lookouts aboard the H. M. Story never spied the periscope mast cutting through the waves, as the instrument’s blank gaze determined the American ship’s speed and course. Matsumura now seized his opportunity and ordered the I-21 to surface. The bulky submarine rose majestically to the surface, ballast tanks blowing noisily and hatches clanking metallically as officers and men manned the conning tower bridge and the deck-gun, the air thick with bellowed commands. As Matsumura and his officers fixed the H. M. Story in their binoculars the submarine’s deck-gun blazed into life.

Witnesses ashore said they saw a torpedo running in the sea, as the I-21 was between the H. M. Story and the quiet beach at Point Arguello. The tanker was approximately three miles from the shoreline. What had first attracted the witnesses’ attention was the report of the submarine’s deck-gun, but the gunners view of the target was quickly obscured by thick black smoke emitted from the H. M. Story as the vessel attempted to avoid destruction. What was believed to have been a torpedo was observed rapidly exiting the smoke screen as the H. M. Story went full ahead. The Japanese Long Lance torpedo shot through the water towards the tanker, occasionally coming to the surface, slapping white spray off the tops of the waves as it did so. Matsumura was once more unsuccessful as the torpedo passed in front of the tanker. This indicates again the limiting effect of the order issued to submarine commanders to only expend one torpedo per merchant ship. If the German method of firing a spread of two or three torpedoes had been employed the H. M. Story, and probably many other merchant ships throughout the region, would have almost certainly been struck. The use of the deck-gun to attempt to wreck a merchant ship’s communications equipment, as well as hasten the ship’s sinking, was also proving to be a suspect attack method. The H. M. Story was able to radio for assistance, and shore-based US Army Air Corps bombers quickly arrived on the scene. These aircraft dropped several bombs in an attempt to destroy the now submerged I-21, but without effect. More importantly, however, was the fact that Matsumura had intercepted and failed to sink two American tankers, on each occasion being forced to give up the hunt and slink off frustrated to attempt to locate some other target.

North of Point Arguello along the coast is the little town of Cayucas, and by the early morning of 23 December the I-21 was sitting quietly on the surface off the settlement, all eyes scanning the horizon. At 3 a.m. lookouts spotted the Larry Doheny, a twenty-year old empty Richmond Oil Company tanker skippered by Captain Roy Brieland. The Larry Doheny was six miles off Cayucas when Matsumura attempted once again to disable a ship with his deck-gun. The first shot roused the crew aboard the Larry Doheny, Captain Brieland frantically ordering the helmsman to deviate from his course and begin zigzagging in a desperate attempt to throw the Japanese gunners off target. In fact, Brieland’s evasive manoeuvres had almost succeeded in stalling Matsumura’s attack, for the Japanese skipper, after two shots had missed from his deck-gun, was about to issue the order to curtail the attack. The I-21 was hampered by both darkness and by Brieland’s violent evasive manoeuvring of his ship. However, at the last moment a lookout reported the enemy ship to be less than 200 yards from the submarine, and, importantly, exposing her port side. Matsumura ordered an immediate torpedo attack, the Long Lance quickly crossing the water between the two vessels. However, luck was on Brieland’s side, for as the Larry Doheny made another turn the Japanese torpedo sailed past the tanker and exploded some way off, the massive detonation clearly audible to the citizens of Cayucas already woken by the firing of the submarine’s deck-gun. With the expending of a torpedo Matsumura followed his standing orders and broke off the attack. The Larry Doheny had survived, but was, ironically, to come to grief at the hands of another Japanese submarine the following year, also off the west coast.

At 3 a.m. that same morning the 8,272-ton Union Oil Company tanker Montebello pulled away from the dockside at Port San Luis, California. She was bound for the Canadian port of Vancouver in British Columbia with a mixed cargo of oil and petrol. The bulk of her cargo, however, consisted of 4.1 million gallons of heavy crude oil loaded into ten separate storage tanks. Her captain, Olaf Eckstrom, placed her on course, not realizing that his route would bring his ship into the sights of the I-21 less than two hours later. He, and other merchant skippers, had received no warnings from the US Navy or the Coast Guard regarding prowling Japanese submarines that had already made several attacks on coastal shipping.

Commander Matsumura must have felt a dull rage at his failure to sink two defenceless American ships, both of which should have been easy kills for the big I-21. As the I-21 motored further north the search resumed once more for targets of opportunity, and that elusive first successful kill of the mission. At 5.30 a.m. Captain Eckstrom aboard the Montebello was informed that what appeared to be a submarine was stalking his vessel. Eckstrom went immediately to investigate and there was no mistaking the size and outline of a big submarine closing on the ship’s stern. Eckstrom followed the only anti-submarine direction at his disposal and ordered the helmsman to begin zigzagging in the hope of throwing the submarine’s aim off target, the same manoeuvre that had saved the Larry Doheny from destruction. After ten minutes Eckstrom realized that the manoeuvre was a futile gesture. The I-21 was closer than ever, and a Long Lance exited the submarine when the Montebello was broadside to her. With a blinding flash and a tremendous explosion the torpedo impacted amidships, the Montebello shuddering perceptively as the tanker slowed. It seemed clear to the crew aboard that the Montebello had been struck a fatal blow from which the only recourse was to abandon ship in the four wooden lifeboats available. Incredibly, through sheer good luck, the Japanese torpedo had struck the only compartment that was empty of oil or petrol. Had it struck elsewhere it is doubtful if more than a handful of the thirty-six men aboard would have survived the resultant inferno. What many crewmen remembered most was the courage under fire displayed by their Scandinavian skipper. And Eckstrom had only been promoted to captain one hour before the Montebello had departed port, when he was serving as first mate and the original captain had suddenly resigned. Eckstrom was ‘as cool as a snowdrift’ recalled the new first mate as he stood on the deck and ordered his crew to their lifeboats, and then gave the order to abandon ship. For his part, Eckstrom was not entirely convinced the Montebello was done for, and ordered the lifeboats to be rowed a distance from the vessel, and told the crew to sit on their oars and wait. Hopefully the Japanese submarine would depart, and perhaps the Montebello could be re-boarded if she was not discovered to be foundering. Commander Matsumura, however, had darker ideas concerning the fate of the American crew.

Even as the crew was taking to the lifeboats the Japanese opened fire on the Montebello with their deck-gun, firing approximately ten rounds at the listing vessel as the crew began to lower themselves over the side in their boats. Clearly, to Matsumura’s mind, the crew was expendable as the object of the attack was to make sure the Montebello went to the bottom. This kind of coldblooded assault was characteristic of Japanese naval operations throughout the Second World War, and was repeated on countless occasions. It is in direct contrast to the behaviour of German U-boat crews, who very often gave merchant seamen time to abandon their ship before finishing off a vessel with a torpedo or the deck-gun. Eckstrom and his crew rowed a distance from the Montebello, by another stroke of good fortune suffering no injuries from flying shrapnel as round after round hammered into the stricken tanker, and within forty-five minutes the Montebello had slid beneath the waves. Eckstrom now ordered his crew to begin pulling for the shore. They were some four miles from the Piedras Biancas lighthouse.

Matsumura had achieved the first kill of his mission to the United States west coast, but what followed was an attempt to murder the American sailors in their lifeboats. Machine guns were brought up into the conning tower of the submarine and fire was poured forth on the helpless lifeboats pulling hard for the coast. It was only poor visibility that saved the crew of the Montebello from murder at the hands of the Japanese, and Matsumura eventually ordered the submarine to leave the vicinity of the attack. Machine-gun bullets had struck lifeboats, though fortunately the crewmen sheltering inside them had not been injured. Although the malevolent Japanese submarine had departed, the hapless crew of the Montebello faced a new battle for survival in attempting to row lifeboats holed by machine-gun rounds to the shore through a heavy sea. Men took turns pulling on the oars or bailing water from their boats until, utterly exhausted, around noon they washed up on the beach opposite the town of Cambria.

Why the Japanese were intent on murdering the civilian crewmen of a vessel they had successfully sunk has an explanation. It was official policy even though it violated laws to which the Japanese were themselves signatories. According to Lord Russell of Liverpool’s seminal work The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes when Japan had signed the 1922 London Naval Treaty, Article 22 of that agreement provided that submarine actions must conform to International Law, and that ‘except in the case of persistent refusal to stop on being duly summoned, or of active resistance to visit and search, warships, whether surface vessel or submarine may not sink or render incapable of navigation a merchant vessel without having first placed passengers, crew and ship’s papers in a place of safety’. A ‘place of safety’ in the case of the Montebello was the ship’s lifeboats. The Japanese had allowed the 1922 Treaty to expire on 31 December 1936, but Article 22 remained binding on all signatories, ‘by virtue of Article 23, which laid down in Part IV of the expiring Treaty relating to submarines should remain in force without time limit’. So even though Japan considered the treaty expired, the section concerning submarine action remained in force forever, because it accorded with basic International Law. Further to this, Lord Russell also points out that Japan had signed a further Protocol in London on 6 November 1936 with the United States, Great Britain (including the Dominions and Empire), France and Italy, which incorporated verbatim the very provisions of Part IV of the 1922 Treaty relating to the conduct of submarines in war. Interestingly, Commander Matsumura’s actions regarding the crew of the Montebello actually predated the accepted change in Japanese government and naval policy towards merchant ship crews. His actions, however, certainly conform to the de facto attitude of the Imperial Navy to non-combatants. It was only following talks between Lieutenant-General Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese Ambassador to Germany, and Adolf Hitler in Berlin on 3 January 1942, a little under a month after the entry of the United States into the war, that Hitler suggested murdering surviving merchant ship crewmen. Although the German Navy flatly refused to entertain such a notion, Oshima was apparently sufficiently impressed by Hitler’s argument that depriving the Americans of trained crewmen would undermine their massive shipbuilding capacity that he reported to the Japanese government that such a measure should be adopted. It duly was, in flagrant violation of the laws outlined above, on 20 March 1943, when submarine skippers were ordered to exterminate all survivors from sunken ships, and Imperial forces faithfully carried out this order. Matsumura’s actions certainly predate the official order, but it is clear that either he was unaware of International Law and the agreements his country had signed regarding the correct behaviour of submarine skippers (which seems unlikely owing to his rank and experience), or that Matsumura and his contemporaries had been given tacit approval for such measures to be taken against helpless survivors. Subordinate Japanese military officers were not generally known for thinking for themselves, and following orders to the letter regardless of cost was very much the rule (one torpedo per merchant ship for example). It appears unlikely that Matsumura decided to murder some three dozen unarmed and defenceless sailors on a whim, or out of revenge for his earlier humiliation at failing to sink the H. M. Story and the Larry Doheny. There was a certain cold, calculated method in Matsumura’s actions that could only have been sanctioned by a higher authority than he.

The consequences of Matsumura’s sinking of the Montebello are still felt today. In 1996 the wreck of the tanker was located in 900 feet of water, sitting upright on the seabed adjacent to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. A preliminary investigation of the wreck by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) revealed that the Japanese torpedo had ruptured only two out of the Montebello’s ten oil storage tanks. The remaining eight tanks were still watertight, and full of millions of gallons of crude oil. As the wreck naturally deteriorates over time eventually that oil will be released into the surrounding ocean, which poses an alarming ecological issue for the nearby marine sanctuary. Salvaging the wreck has not been seriously considered due to the costs involved, so scientists can only regularly inspect the wreck for signs of degradation. Inevitably, this ghost of the Second World War sits rusting away, a potential ecological time bomb waiting to go off.