Navarino, 1827 Part II

The Naval Battle of Navarino, Ambroise Louis Garneray

Unlike the Spartans, the Ottomans only had to guard the southern entrance. Almost daily reconnaissance reports meant that Codrington was aware that their fleet numbered just over a hundred ships, forty of which were non-combatant. Letellier had positioned the warships at anchor in order of battle; a horseshoe facing the entrance to the bay with the island of Sphakteria on the right, the tiny island of Chelonisi behind the centre of the crescent and Neokastro at the left. It had taken over three days for the French naval advisors to get the fleet into position and as they were no longer present, matters were left in the less experienced hands of the Ottoman captains. To break the formation would be difficult, and with Ibrahim away the responsibility of taking decisive action, either to withdraw or to embark on an offensive course, possibly for Hydra, would be beyond the safe remit of the admirals. Their only course was to wait.

The exact number and size of the combined Ottoman warships is a matter of some debate, ranging from sixty-five to an effective strength of around thirty-six. According to the anonymous Précis de la Bataille Navale de Navarin (Paris, 1829) compiled from the recollections of the French officers present, the Turco-Egyptian fleet consisted of three 74-gun ships-of-the-line, twenty frigates, thirty-two corvettes, seven brigs or sloops and five fireships, drawn up in three lines, the ships-of-the-line and the more powerful frigates at the front about two cables apart (about 600ft/183m), with the frigates and corvettes in the second line placed so as they could fire between the gaps, reinforced at the rear by a last line of smaller ships. The horseshoe was protected at the flanks by the fireships, three to the right and two to the left. For further protection, the left flank was overlooked by the fortress of Neokastro, while the right flank was within range of a gun battery on Sphakteria. The secretary to the Kapudan Bey, the Ottoman Vice-Admiral, assessed the size of the Turco-Egyptian force differently: two Turkish 84-gun battleships, one 76-gun ship, fifteen 48-gun frigates, eighteen corvettes, and four brigs, supported by the Egyptians’ four double-banked 64-gun frigates, eight corvettes of between 18 and 24 guns, eight brigs, and five fire-vessels; sixty-five vessels in total under sail.

In the absence of Ibrahim, the left wing of the horseshoe was under the command of Moharrem Bey in the French-built 60-gun frigate, Guerrière, renamed Murchid-i-Djihad (Warrior). Heading the line to the fore of Guerrière were the frigates, Hassan Bey’s 64-gun Ibsana (Ihsanya), followed by the 56-gun Souria and two 44-gunners. Behind Guerrière to the north came the two battleships, the 84-gun Ghiuh Rewan, flagship of the Imperial Admiral Tahir Pasha, and the 74-gun Fahti Bahri, which was said to be in poor condition and not well manned, but surprisingly this was the ship chosen to carry the flag of the Kapudan Bey. These were followed by the 64-gun double-decked frigate Leone (Lion), another 74-gunner Burj Zafer, and another double-decked frigate.

Heading the weaker right wing sheltering in the lee of Sphakteria were two 56-gun frigates, one of which was referred to in Western sources as the powerful Beautiful Sultana, followed by two Tunisian frigates, two 56-gun Turkish frigates and a smaller Tunisian frigate. Then came another Turkish frigate, commonly reported to be carrying the flag of Tahir Bey, but as the naval historian Roger Anderson argued it is more likely that Tahir was aboard the battleship Ghiuh Rewan, as he was able to see Codrigton during the encounter that was to follow. It is probable that the flag was mistaken for that of the Padrona Bey, the Vice-Admiral of the squadron. Two more Turkish 54-gun frigates completed the array. In the centre of the crescent sheltering behind Chelonisi were a number of brigs and sloops guarding thirty armed transport vessels.

The weather during the night of 19 October was poor, so any decisive activity by the Allies was on hold until conditions improved, but by morning the clouds had dispersed and Saturday 20 October dawned fine with a light breeze. By 4.00am the crews were already employed in last minute feverish preparation as the squadrons manoeuvred into formation. The British ships were in the vanguard near the bay’s entrance, waiting for the French and Russians to make up ground to join them. The operation took some time. It was 11.35 when the fleet was brought up to number with the addition of some latecomers, the brig Mastiff, the cutter Hind and the frigate Glasgow, which had been sent to hasten the return of the Cambrian and the Constantine from Kalamata. The allied squadrons were made up of twelve British ships (total 456 guns), eight Russian (490 guns) and seven French (352 guns). The British squadron included Codrington’s 84-gun flagship Asia, launched in 1824 and captained by another Napoleonic War veteran Edward Curzon, the 76-gun Genoa (which had been captured from the French) under Walter Bathurst, and the 74-gun Albion under John Acworth Omnanney, supported by the frigates Glasgow, Cambrian (launched in 1797), Dartmouth and the more modern small 28-gun Talbot. In addition, there were the sloops Rose, Mosquito, Brisk and Philomel, with between eighteen and ten guns each, and the Hind. The French were led by Admiral de Rigny’s 60-gun Sirène, the most modern of their ships commissioned in 1823, followed by the 74-gun Scipion, Trident and Breslau, which had all seen action in the Napoleonic Wars, supported by the 44-gun frigate Armide and the schooners Alcyon and Daphné. In the rear came the Russian squadron, which though fewer in number than the British possessed newer ships with more firepower, that included the one year-old 74-gun flagship Asov under Rear-Admiral Heiden, supported by the still-new 74-gun Gangout, Ezekiel and Alexander Nevsky, plus the frigates Constantine, Povernoy, Elena and Castor. With twenty-seven ships in all, whatever the reckoning, the Allies were considerably outnumbered by the Ottoman ships, but what was to their advantage was the superior seamanship of their crews.

Once the fleet had been mustered, it set its sails and led by the Asia made its way toward the bay’s entrance in two lines, with the French to starboard of the British and closest to the town, followed by the Russians to port abreast but slightly behind. They were embarking on a risky strategy, because, with the wind at their backs, retreat would be difficult. At mid-day the crews took one last dinner together and at 1.30 were ordered to prepare for action. Half an hour later the flagship entered the bay to a greeting blank round fired from one of the forts. The ships were passing within easy range of the Turkish gun-batteries and there was every expectation on the British crews’ part that they could soon be on the receiving end of a heavy barrage. As the men were drummed to quarters and the guns hurriedly manned and primed with double-shot, such fears were put to rest when they noticed that most of the Turks appeared unperturbed. They seemed to be happily watching the ships enter in a relaxed attitude, leaning on their guns or sitting on the battlements smoking their pipes. At the same moment, according to Codrington’s friend and apologist, Sir John Gore, a small boat appeared, dispatched from the Guerrière, with a message from Moharrem Bey requesting that the Allied fleet stop its progress. Codrington replied that he came to give the orders not receive them, and proceeded to take the Asia close up to the Guerrière and the Fahti Bahri and dropped anchor. The Asia was followed by the Genoa and Albion, which took up similar positions in line to the north, each within range of a principal enemy warship to starboard, and the Dartmouth took up its planned position covering the fireships nearest to the shore. They were all at anchor within five minutes of the Asia, by 2.15pm. In the meantime, the Turkish messenger had not returned to Moharrem Bey but had made for the shore, where he conferred with a number of chiefs and ran swiftly to a tent. After a short delay a red flag was raised and another blank fired, a signal for a boat to be sent from the Kapudan Bey south to the next in line, the Guerrière, and on to the fireship next to the Dartmouth. Charles McPherson on the Genoa saw events slightly differently. The messenger, an officer, came from the fortress shore, not from Moharrem Bey, and after barely two minutes’ parley aboard the Asia returned to shore, threw down his turban and ran to the fortress gate where he was met and immediately the red flag was waved and a gun fired. The British gunners straight away made ready and awaited the order to fire.

Codrington always insisted that his intentions were not hostile; he had even mustered a marine band on the poop deck of the Asia. In his communication to the Admiralty written the next day he stated:

I gave orders that no guns should be fired unless guns were first fired by the Turks; and those orders were strictly observed. The three English ships were accordingly permitted to pass the batteries and to moor, as they did with great rapidity, without any act of open hostility, although there was evident preparation for it in all the Turkish ships . . .

As he said afterwards, if he had intended to take on the enemy he would not have sailed into the centre of the horseshoe but have gone around to take them from behind. He had made the assumption from previous experience that a show of force would be enough. In addition, the fleet had not fully entered into the bay – the Russians in fact were still outside – when a disastrous event took place that would precipitate the battle. Who was to blame for the spark that caused the bloody encounter that followed became a matter of grave diplomatic concern. Although many logs were kept at the time, much of the evidence relied on reports written after the event. According to Captain Fellows aboard the Dartmouth, whose report was written nearly two months later, he had just taken up position between the fireship and the first frigate when a messenger, presumably the one dispatched from the Kapudan Bey, boarded and apparently began to prepare to set the fireship alight. In response to what he perceived as an immediate threat to the fleet, Captain Fellows sent First Lieutenant Smyth in the Dartmouth’s pinnace (a small rowing boat with a sail) to instruct the Turks to desist and leave the boat or move further away towards the shore, promising if they did so no harm would come to them.

As the pinnace made off Fellows called out to Lieutenant Smyth that ‘no act of hostility’ should be attempted by them ‘on any account’. Despite Smyth’s attempts to indicate that their intentions were peaceful, as the pinnace came alongside the fireship the coxswain was killed by a musket shot. Smyth repeated that they intended no harm, but more shots rang out, killing or wounding other members of the crew, and it could be seen that the fires were already being lit. Captain Fellows then dispatched Lieutenant Fitzroy in the cutter to tow the pinnace to safety. The cutter itself came under heavy musket fire from a boat carrying the Turks from the burning ship, and Fitzroy was killed. In response, Fellows ordered the marines to lay down covering fire for the retreating vessels.

It was now 2.25 and events were escalating rapidly. An Egyptian corvette, inshore, fired two shots, one of which passed over the Dartmouth. The other hit Admiral de Rigny’s Sirène just as it was in the act of laying anchor nearby, at the eastern point of the Ottoman horseshoe. This was perhaps the decisive act; for now, even if it was not the intention of the Turkish or Egyptian commanders to precipitate some form of aggressive action (in fact Tahir Pasha’s orders for the day said that he would ‘never raise the signal for combat, but . . . in case of attack each ship should defend itself individually’) there was no turning back from all-out conflict. In turn Codrington felt that if the Ottomans had intended to take on the allies, they would have waited until all the ships were at anchor, engaged in lengthy discussion throughout the day, and then attack at night with fireships. The way events unfolded instead bore all the hallmarks of an accident or misjudgement, and one with dire consequences. As a result, the battle unfolded with no plan or strategy as a chain reaction, individual ships taking on one another as an act of self-preservation or to aid their comrades. Any sense of how the engagement unfolded had to be reconstructed by the protagonists afterwards.

First, the Dartmouth returned the enemy fire, but initially de Rigny held back from fear of hitting his British ally. Opposite de Rigny was the Egyptian frigate Ibsania. Taking a speaking trumpet, de Rigny hailed the Egyptian saying that if she did not fire he would not, but to no avail. The Ibsania replied immediately by firing on both the Dartmouth and the Sirène. De Rigny now had no choice but to engage, upon which the shore batteries opened up on the Trident, the third of the French ships just entering the harbour. A general mêlée ensued on all sides with the Sirène the main target. The Scipion, the second French ship, had become vulnerable having reduced sail too quickly, and was also soon under fire from the shore as well as from Egyptian frigates on both sides, added to which a fireship quickly attached itself to its bow. As the flames from the fireship, urged on by a strong breeze, spread towards the gun batteries, sailors scorched themselves plunging into the flames in a frantic effort to put them out, or were wounded as the powder kegs went up. To avert disaster, Captain Milius took the drastic action of letting out the anchor-chain holding the ship, and setting the main-sail and top-sail to turn before the wind in an attempt to divert the flames from reaching the forward powder magazine.

The blazing Scipion was impeding the passage of the Trident and Breslau, and although Milius praised the immense bravery of the crew, their salvation came at the hands of a small boat sent out from the Trident that managed to tow the fireship away just as he was attempting his manoeuvre. The small boat, not large enough in itself to complete the task, was aided by the Dartmouth, the Rose and the Philomel, who attached tow-ropes to bring the fireship clear, after which it was destroyed by the French schooners Aleyone and Daphné. That it took so much effort to take care of one fireship was a mark of how dangerous a weapon it could be.

Once it was clear, the Scipion and the Trident made to lend their support to the Sirène, still bludgeoning it out with the Ibsania. After an hour and a half of punishment from the combined French guns the Ibsania, by now a total wreck, exploded into flames, leaving the French to turn their attention to the fort.

Towards the centre of the eastern wing, the Kapudan Bey aboard the Fahti Bahri took the exchange of fire between the Turks and the Dartmouth as his immediate cue to open fire on the Asia, a response not matched by the Guerrière. In fact, despite the battle having begun, Moharrem Bey sent an officer with a message to Codrington saying that he would hold fire and, in reply, Codrington assured him that he would not open fire first. This left the Asia free to divert all his attention onto the Fahti Bahri, which it had little difficulty in destroying. The lack of unanimity of purpose on the part of the Ottoman commanders was something that would cost the Turco-Egyptian fleet dear. After around three-quarters of an hour, Codrington felt obliged to make sure of the Egyptian commander’s continued neutrality. He sent an officer under a flag of truce with a young Greek interpreter, Petros Mikelis, known as Peter Mitchell to his British shipmates, to board the Guerrière. Unfortunately for Mikelis, an enemy officer looking out from a porthole for some reason, who may have recognised him, shot him dead. Codrington’s report leaves the motive in doubt. As he put it, the deed was done ‘with or without his [Moharrem’s] orders, I know not’. Although there were other Greeks employed by the allies, like Petros Mikelis particularly as pilots, he achieved the honour of being the only named Greek who died in the decisive battle for Greek liberty. There were Greeks serving on the Ottoman side too, but these were manacled hand and foot, their nameless bodies washed ashore in the days after the battle. The foolhardy shooting of Mikelis had the unfortunate repercussion of precipitating a general outburst of gunfire that brought the Guerrière into the battle. Codrington, who had until then been wary that with the ships in such close proximity the allies might be in danger of harming one another, saw any further attempt to broker a ceasefire as futile.

To the fore of the Asia, the Genoa had drawn up alongside the Ghiuh Rewan, where Captain Bathurst had followed Codrington’s command to only open fire when fired upon: but to no avail, for now his ship was under a heavy barrage from the Turkish flagship, another ship-of-the-line, and a 60-gun frigate. From the Ghiuh Rewan, the tall Codrington was clearly visible in his Admiral’s uniform, and Tahir Pasha ordered his snipers to target him. They were successful, and he was wounded several times, but they failed to remove him from his position on deck. His son Henry, who was serving with him as a Midshipman, was severely wounded in the leg by a fragment of iron railing and a musket ball; he only just avoided having it amputated. The Asia and the Genoa were outnumbered, and the Genoa in particular took a pounding. It suffered more fatalities than any other allied ship (26), including Captain Bathurst.

Despite their problems, when a fireship approached the Asia’s stern members of the Genoa’s crew manned one of the ship’s boats and dragged it out of the way, and then on their way back they still found time to pick up enemy sailors clinging to the wreckage of their destroyed ships. The men may have shown outstanding bravery, but Codrington was not happy with the conduct of Captain Bathurst or his replacement Captain Dickinson after Bathurst was killed. He complained that the Genoa had been incorrectly anchored, meaning that it presented its broadside guns to its own ships rather than to the enemy, which it could only fire upon successfully from the stern. Codrington’s accusations of misconduct against Captain Dickinson were quashed in a court-marshal two years later.

Of the British ships, the Albion had penetrated furthest into the bay, where it was attacked by a Turkish frigate, which it swiftly dealt with, only to be confronted by the three ships-of-the-line. Luckily for the Albion, the Breslau was near at hand. On his own initiative, Captain de la Bretonnière had taken the Breslau, the fourth French ship, into the centre of the enemy horseshoe, beyond the hard-pressed British ships, to fill the gap between the Albion and the newly arrived Russian flagship, the Azov, which was still manoeuvring into position. Bretonnière’s move was recognized by both his allies as decisive and courageous. The Breslau went on to help destroy the Ghiuh Rewan, three other frigates, and a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, an action acknowledged as playing a vital role in saving the Asov and the Albion from destruction. Together they completely destroyed the three battleships before the Breslau turned its attention to helping the arriving Russian squadron.

The Russians carried out their orders to the letter, taking up their positions with exemplary skill while under fire from the shore battery on Sphakteria and the ships on the Ottoman right flank. The Asov, Heiden’s flagship, was at the apex of the horseshoe near the Breslau and opposite the Tunisian squadron, who at first were reluctant to engage in the fighting. When battle did commence, the Asov found itself taking on five opposing battleships, and as a result suffered more casualties than any other allied ship; twenty-four dead and sixty-seven wounded. With the Breslau on hand to even up the odds, Heiden saw an opportunity to assist the Asia by transferring some of his guns to fire on the Guerrière, with the result that the Guerrière became a blazing wreck under the combined fire of the Russian and British ships. It had only taken twenty minutes for the Egyptian flag-ship to be driven ashore in flames, where Moharrem Bey managed to escape unharmed, before it exploded. As the larger enemy ships were put out of action, the allies became painfully aware of the skilful formation designed by Letellier when the smaller ships of the second line were able to open-up through the gaps in the front line, causing great damage, especially to the flagships of the allied admirals.

The Asov continued to take the fight to the enemy, dismasting a 60-gun ship, which then ran aground and blew up, and sinking two large frigates and a corvette. It was involved with the burning of the double-decked frigate said to be flying the flag of Tahir Pasha: the loss of life was severe, with 500 of its 600 crew being killed or wounded. On the left flank, to the southwest of the Russian ships, the frigates Cambrian, Glasgow and Talbot and the French frigate Armide had been given the task of dealing with the Ottoman right flank and the Sphakteria shore battery. As the Glasgow and Cambrian were late arrivals, the burden fell on the Talbot and Armide until they were supported by the Russian frigates. The smaller ships, Dartmouth, Rose and Brisk, with the French schooners Daphné and Aleyone on the east flank and Philomel and Mosquito on the west, had been given the job of destroying the fireships. They were so successful in carrying out their instructions that no fireship attack succeeded. Despite its size, the cutter Hind took up position with distinction alongside the Asia, right under the guns of the Guerrière, while in the midst of the mayhem on board the Mosquito a young artist named G.P. Reingle painted and illustrated the battle from first-hand observation.

The battle was over by nightfall, around 6.00pm, and throughout the night the sky was illumined by the explosions of the Turkish ships, some fired deliberately as an act of honour, even if there were men still aboard. It was an Ottoman defeat, but none of their ships struck their colours in surrender. The next day, Tahir Pasha boarded the Asia, where he received a tirade from Codrington accusing Ibrahim of a breach of faith and the advice to desist from hostilities or else the remaining ships and the fort would be destroyed. Afterwards it became clear that Tahir was in no way sympathetic towards the Egyptian Pasha and years later, as governor of Aidin, the district in which Smyrna was then situated, Tahir befriended Codrington’s son and expressed to him his warmest admiration of his father. The battle had been such a one-sided affair that it left the Ottomans totally defeated. The allies lost no ships, although several suffered significant damage, and suffered relatively few casualties: 174 killed and 475 wounded (the British 75 and 197, the French 40 and 141 and the Russians 59 and 137). As at the Battle of the Nile, there were wives aboard the British ships. Charles McPherson tells us that nine petty officers’ wives tended the wounded in the ‘cockpit’ (the area in the aft lower deck where the wounded were taken) of the Genoa. On the other hand, the Turco-Egyptian fleet was decimated; sixty ships destroyed with heavy losses, exacerbated by their poor facilities for treating the wounded, many of whom were chained to their posts. The battle was such a mortal blow to Turkish pride that, during the night or the day after, they fatalistically destroyed even those ships not beyond repair. According to Letellier the only fighting ships left afloat the day after were a dismasted frigate, four corvettes, six brigs and four schooners. Codrington estimated that there were 6,000 killed and 4,000 wounded, many of whom were not Turks or Egyptians but impressed Arabs, Greeks, North Africans, Slavs and even some captured British and American sailors.

The battle was fought while the enemy fleet and the larger part of allied ships were at anchor, leaving little room for manoeuvre. This reduced the contest to a slugging match. Only by hauling on the springs attached to the anchors could a ship adjust its position to get out of the line of fire or bring its guns to bear on the enemy. With the ships so close together, the orders given were for the use of double-shot, when two cannon balls were fired from the same gun; less accurate but more destructive at close range. This was sometimes ignored, as the sailors took to throwing everything at the Turks, including grape-shot and canister, even all piled in together. Heiden alone amongst the allied admirals was able to keep his ships together in a compact group, allowing him more control over his command, and with the frigates staying close to their ships-of-the-line they suffered fewer casualties as a result. Codrington had feared there might be animosity between the Russian and French ships, and it is possible that Codrington kept Heiden and de Rigny, who had only recently met, on opposite wings for that reason. There was talk of Russian ships firing on their own side, but with the difficulties of recognition and communication between foreign navies fighting together amid the general confusion it was inevitable that some shots would go astray. Codrington even blamed the Genoa for carelessly firing on the Asia. In no time the smoke from cannon fire and burning ships had become so thick that, despite the noise of battle, he had to resort to bellowing his orders through a loud hailer because his signals could not be seen. Even at close quarters the opposing ships were barely visible and the gunners on the Asia at one point took aim at the masthead of the Fahti Bahri as the only discernible target. In the event each squadron did its duty, and in addition to their superior skill and experience, displayed complete togetherness in their actions, coming to one another’s aid without hesitation. After the battle, there was agreement between the allied leaders that, unlike the enemy, their men had acted as one, eagerly defending one another against the common enemy. The display of naval virtues and the bravery of the men impressed de Rigny so much that when he wrote to his sister afterwards he wondered at the effect of an ‘English squadron and a French squadron side by side firing on the same target – poor target!’ He further went on to say that the victory was due to the plan agreed between the three commanders being well executed. In truth, Navarino was one of the least planned battles. The British admired the Russians’ precision and discipline, arriving as they did late to the action but to considerable effect, like the Prussian General Blücher at Waterloo. For his part Heiden thought the allied squadrons acted in such harmony that it was as though they came from one nation.

Ibrahim Pasha returned to Navarino on the afternoon of 21 October to witness what was left of his fleet, and the Allies remained for a further four days. He still held most of the Peloponnese but he was cut off from his supply routes, and when 13,000 French veterans landed at Navarino in 1828 Mehmed Ali’s enthusiasm for the venture waned. The victory at Navarino signalled the end of the Turkish re-conquest of Greece. The initial reaction within the government circles of Britain, France and Russia was one of delight and Codrington was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath by the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Clarence. But as is often the way with politics, the change of administration that followed the death of Canning in August brought in a new Foreign Secretary, Lord Dudley, and a month after the battle Codrington found he had some questions to answer to the politicians back home in regard to his conduct. At first it was felt that he had overstepped the mark, and then that he had done too little. Codrington was forced to answer his critics in a lengthy report; to explain why he had not remained neutral and then when he stated that the retreating Ibrahim had taken Greek women and children to be sold as slaves in Alexandria, he was castigated for not intervening, even though this would have been against his orders and may have precipitated further hostilities. The next summer, the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, relieved him of his command. Codrington entered parliament himself as member for Devonport, using his position to fight for compensation from the Admiralty for the losses incurred by his men at their own expense. The Admiralty argued that as the nation was not at war, such expenses did not count. Codrington eventually won his case in 1834.

By then Greece, or at least a part of it, was free. Although Navarino did not bring about an immediate capitulation by the Turkish government, it was a turning point in the war, bringing European forces into play on the ground. With the Ottomans’ Albanian and Egyptian mercenaries putting up little resistance to the battle hardened French veterans of Napoleon’s army, Mehmed ordered his son to return home, leaving the Greeks and their allies to push the remaining Turks out of the peninsula. Sultan Mahmud’s provocation of war with Russia in retaliation to Navarino only brought the Tsar’s army across the Danube towards Constantinople and Ottoman capitulation. The 1829 Treaty of Adrianople recognized Greek autonomy, followed in 1830 by the Porte’s acceptance of an independent Greek state in the Protocol of London. The Kingdom of Greece was established in 1832. Ibrahim Pasha, for his part, suffered no lasting damage. He succeeded his father in Egypt and took on the Ottomans, as was always their intention, leading his country to independence.


4th June 1919 British submarine ‘L.55’ (1918, 960t, 6-21in tt, 2-4in). With the British Baltic Squadron blockading the Bolshevik naval base of Kronstadt on Kotlin Island laying off Petrograd, warships on both sides were lost. On the 4th (some accounts say the 9th) ‘L-55’ was in action with Russian patrols and sunk by the gunfire of destroyers ‘Azard’ and ‘Gavriil’. She is later raised and commissioned into the Soviet Navy as ‘L-55’

At the outset of war in 1914 the Baltic Sea was effectively closed to the Royal Navy, with its only presence being affected by a British submarine flotilla of initially six E class boats that entered the Baltic covertly to co-operate with the Russian Baltic Fleet based at Kronstadt. The Russian Baltic Fleet at the beginning of the war was greatly inferior to the German High Seas Fleet, where the German commander Admiral Erhard Schmidt could call on modern dreadnought battleships and battle-cruisers that could be quickly transferred from their bases on the North Sea coast to the Baltic via the Kiel Canal, which could just as easily be returned to the North Sea should the tactical situation demand it.

In August 1915 the Russian fleet commander Admiral Vasily Kanin had at his disposal in the Gulf of Riga the 14,450 ton pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, with a main armament of only two 12in and twelve 6in guns – a Borodino class ship similar to the four battleships that had been sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima in 1904. Also available to him were four small 1,700-ton gunboats, a minelayer and a flotilla of sixteen destroyers.

Early in August 1915, powerful units of the High Seas Fleet entered the Baltic with the intention of conducting a foray into the Gulf of Riga in support of German troops advancing from the south through Courland and to destroy the Russian naval forces stationed in the Gulf, including the Slava, and to capture the port of Riga.

On 8 August the German force comprising two dreadnoughts Nassau and SMS Posen of 18,600 tons, armed with twelve 11in guns and two pre-dreadnoughts, SMS Braunschweig and Elsass, mounting four 11in guns apiece and supported by four light cruisers and no less than fifty-six torpedo boats, attempted to break through the extensive minefields that protected the entrance to the Gulf.

At the same time the German fleet was further reinforced by the battle-cruisers Moltke, Von der Tann and Seydlitz commanded by Vice-Admiral von Hipper, who temporarily took over the command of the operation.

The two German pre-dreadnoughts engaged the Russian battleship Slava to allow the minesweepers to clear safe channels into the Gulf while the minelayer Deutschland was sent to mine Moon Sound to the north between the mainland and the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa.

Despite their overwhelming superiority, the German forces were unable to clear the minefields and retired, making a second attempt on 16 August, when they lost the minesweeper T46 and the torpedo boat V99. But in return they managed to damage the Slava and successfully cleared the minefields by 19 August, which allowed the German ships into the Gulf to attack the shore installations.

However, before this could be accomplished, reports of British and Allied submarines operating in the restricted waters of the Gulf caused the German ships to withdraw, which demonstrates the influence a handful of British submarines could exert on naval operations in such enclosed waters.

Vice-Admiral von Hipper’s battle-cruisers continued to operate in support of the army assault on Riga, when early on the morning of 20 August the Seydlitz was struck by a torpedo fired from the British submarine E1 commanded by Lieutenant Noel Laurence.

The torpedo struck the forward torpedo flat at the bow, but failed to detonate the stored torpedoes. However, the ship was sufficiently badly damaged to need repair at the Blohm & Voss yards in Hamburg, lasting until the end of September.

The E1 together with E9, commanded by Max Horton, had entered the Baltic on 15 October 1914 and based at Reval (modern Tallinn) in Estonia. The six E class submarines were joined by five of the earlier and smaller C class which had been shipped to the White Sea and transported by canal to Kronstadt where, as described earlier, they severely curtailed the iron ore trade between Sweden and Germany, as well as restricting German naval operations and training in the Baltic, which previously had been a German lake.

On the night of 18 October 1914 the E1 penetrated Kiel Bay and attacked the armoured cruiser SMS Victoria Louise, firing a single torpedo, which ran too deep, passing under the ship’s keel. This demonstration of British sea power reaching into the home of the German fleet in the Baltic caused the Kaiserliche Marine to be ever more cautious.

The E13, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, was accompanied by the E8, which safely made the passage, while E13 transiting the Danish Straits on 13 August 1915 became stranded on Saltholm Island south of Copenhagen.

At first light, the stranded submarine was spotted by Danish naval forces, who sent torpedo boats to investigate; these were later reinforced by the coast defence ship Peder Skram to ascertain the nationality of the vessel.

At the same time German torpedo boats also had the E13 under observation, as orders from the Danish naval Chief of Staff were received by the captain of the Peder Skram that he was to forestall any attempts by the Germans to seize or attack the British submarine. At 6.00 a.m. the Danish torpedo boat Storen reported two German torpedo boats passing close to the scene, followed by extensive wireless traffic.

Later, at 10.28 a.m., two German torpedo boats, G132 and G134, approached at high speed while flying the international abandon ship flag signals, and when within range, the G132 fired a single torpedo, which missed and exploded on the sea bed.

The Danish warships made no move to interfere and both German ships opened a rapid fire with deck guns on the helpless submarine that lasted less than 5 minutes, leaving the E13 on fire, with poisonous chlorine gas spreading through the hull. Lieutenant Commander Layton ordered abandon ship and fourteen crew members including the commander were taken off by the torpedo boat Storen, leaving fifteen dead, whose bodies were later recovered and returned to England.

The failure of the Danish ships to protect the E13 despite being ordered to protect her with all means at their disposal had allowed the Germans to carry out this attack.

The surviving crew were taken into internment for the duration, but Lieutenant Commander Layton and his first officer escaped to rejoin the fleet and the wreckage of E13 was later raised and scrapped.

The E18 and E19 arrived safely at Reval on 15 September 1915. On 10 October the E19 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Francis Cromie, patrolling south of the Swedish island of Oland in the early hours of the morning, spotted a German steamer, the SS Walther Leonhardt, carrying iron ore which, after being ordered to heave to and the crew taking to the boats, was sunk by an explosive charge.

Later that morning a second steamer, the SS Germania, also carrying iron ore, was sighted and attempted to escape, being pursued by E19 on the surface at 15 knots while firing her deck gun. The German ship eventually ran aground and a dynamite charge was laid which, although damaging the vessel, failed to sink it, and it was subsequently repaired.

After midday a third ship, the SS Guntrune, was boarded and, after the crew were in lifeboats, she was sunk by opening the seacocks. Immediately following this, another ship, the SS Director Repperhagen, was also sunk and finally at 5.30 p.m. the same day a fifth victim, the SS Nicomedia – whose crew, as they took to the boats, presented the British submariners with a barrel of beer – was sent to the bottom.

In a single day E9 had sunk four ore carriers and wrecked another ashore without the expenditure of a single torpedo.

Later, on 7 November 1915, the E19 patrolling off Cape Arkona on the Baltic island of Rugen fired two torpedoes at the light cruiser HMS Undine of 3,110 tons, causing her magazine to explode, but fortunately with the loss of only fourteen crew members.

This loss came only two weeks after the sinking of the 9,800-ton armoured cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert off Libau on 23 October by the E8, resulting in a heavy loss of life. This, together with the loss of the 3,750 ton light cruiser SMS Bremen to a Russian mine in February 1915, served as a further demonstration of the positive effect the British submarine flotilla was having on the German ability to operate safely within the Baltic.

The E18 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander R. Halahan, which had arrived at Reval on 18 June after being fired on by German cruisers during her passage, conducted four patrols, before being lost in June 1916, presumably to a mine in the eastern Baltic.

Much later in 1918 the E1, E8, E9 and E19 were scuttled outside Helsingfors in the civil war between the Bolsheviks and White Russian forces.

The four earlier C class submarines C26, C27, C32 and C35 of 290-ton surface displacement due to their short range were towed from Britain via the North Cape to Archangelsk in the White Sea. From there they were transported on barges through the White Sea canal, reaching St Petersburg in September 1916. But due to the lateness of the season and heavy ice they were not able to operate until the Spring of 1917.

The C32 became stranded in the Gulf of Riga and had to be abandoned, while the remaining three C class boats were blown up at Helsingfors to avoid capture in 1918.

An incident of the greatest significance to the conduct of the war took place on 25 August 1914 when the German light cruiser SMS Magdeburg of 4,500 tons ran aground on the island of Oldensholm off the Estonian coast while conducting a sweep with other ships in the Gulf of Finland. This ship had previously fired the first shots of the Great War when on 2 August 1914 the Magdeburg shelled Russian positions in the port of Libau. Two Russian cruisers opened fire on the stranded ship, which was badly damaged, causing the crew to be evacuated, after giving up attempts to re-float the ship.

Subsequently, after the German forces had been driven off, Russian divers were able to recover German naval and merchant code books then in use, which also revealed the methods employed for constructing future codes, which once delivered to the Admiralty cryptographers in London enabled the Admiralty to decipher almost all of the German wireless traffic for the remainder of the war.

In the land war, unlike the trench warfare that had prevailed in the west from Nieuport on the coast of Belgium to the Swiss border for the past four years, on the Eastern Front the war was a more mobile affair.

Initially, the Russian troops enjoyed brief success, advancing into Austrian territory, but were heavily defeated by the Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg in late August 1914.

In early 1915 the Allies attempted to relive the pressure on the Russians by attacking Turkey with a landing at Gallipoli, which as we have seen was a costly failure, and did little to help the situation on the Eastern Front.

The strain on Russia, a poorly governed and bankrupt country, was made worse by further defeats in the field, mutinies in the army and strikes and food riots in a civilian population living on the verge of starvation.

Political agitators of all colours appealed to the masses and a disaffected army to withdraw from the crippling war – a situation that led to further mutinies, civil unrest and finally the revolution of February 1917, which forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate in March, allowing for the formation of a democratic provisional government.

This was a coalition under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, who represented the moderate socialists, working together with the Soviet workers’ councils or Bolsheviks. Once installed, the Duma or parliament, assured the Allied powers that it intended to continue to prosecute the war against Imperial Germany on the Eastern Front.

In return for this promise, the Allies, including the United States, which had just entered the war in April 1917, increased proportionally the supply of war materials and economic aid, with large convoys of merchant ships carrying thousands of tons of military supplies and munitions to the vast warehouses in Archangel and the ice-free port of Murmansk, where due to the complicated bureaucracy of army it piled up largely unused. Plagued by further mutinies and mass desertions, the major Russian offensive of June 1918 was a failure and was in turn crushed by the German counter-offensive.

Finally, in October 1917, following food riots in St Petersburg, the Kerensky Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, establishing a Communist government determined to end their part in the war. This was followed 5 months later in March 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed with Germany, formally ending the war on the Eastern Front.

With the treaty the Russians temporarily surrendered a vast swathe of territory, including the Crimea to the Germans.

The signing of the treaty allowed the Germans to withdraw a large number of troops and re-deploy them on the Western Front, where they launched their last great offensive, which was doomed to failure as the Allies strengthened by fresh American troops counter-attacked in July 1918, throwing the Germans back, breaking their line in September 1918. While in the south the Italian Army defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the war was almost at an end.

At home the civilian population were suffering terrible privation as a result of the British economic blockade and, following mutinies in the High Sea Fleet in October 1918 when they refused orders to put to sea to engage the Grand Fleet, hoping for a victory that would put Germany in a better negotiating position at the now inevitable cessation of hostilities, the German general Staff sued for peace, obtaining an armistice on 11 November 1918.

Before this, however, and worryingly for the Allies, in April 1918 a division of German troops had landed in southern Finland, this being part of the territories ceded to Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, creating the fear that the Germans might seize the important railway between Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed) and the strategic seaport of Murmansk, threatening the vast stores of stockpiled war materials.

Coincidently, a civil war had broken out in Russia between the Bolsheviks (the Reds) and those still loyal to the Tsar and the monarchy (the White Russian forces or the Whites).

Into this confused situation the leaders of the British and French governments concluded that the western Allies should conduct a military intervention in north Russia with the three following objectives:

1.   To prevent the large stockpile of Allied military materials from falling into the hands of either Bolshevik or German forces.

2.   To rescue the Allied Czechoslovak Legion stranded along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, after being promised safe passage to the west from Vladivostok and later rescinded by the Bolsheviks.

3.   To defeat the Bolshevik Army with the aid of the Czechoslovak Legion and thereafter with the assistance of White Russian forces continue the war against Germany on the Eastern Front.

Other Allied objectives included to contain and defeat the rise of Bolshevism and to encourage the independence of the Baltic states from Russia.

The North Russian Expeditionary Force constituted in July 1918 consisted of some 15,000 British, French, American and Canadian soldiers and artillery. They were landed at Archangelsk, with the Allied forces occupying the port supported by a Royal Naval flotilla of more than twenty ships, which included the seaplane carriers HMS Pegasus and HMS Nairana.

The Allied troops, including Polish and White guard units, advanced down the Vaga and northern Dvina rivers into territory held by Red forces, capturing key points up to 150 miles south of Archangel. In this offensive they were supported by a force of eleven river monitors, minesweepers and White Russian gunboats.

These ships varied in size and armament but were generally of 540 tons’ displacement and mounted a single 9.2in and a 3in gun, performing valuable service on the navigable sections of the rivers. Nonetheless, Bolshevik gunboats, torpedo armed launches and mines took a steady toll on the Royal Naval flotilla.

On 18 September 1918, Bolshevik troops attacked the British Embassy in St Petersburg, sacking the building and killing the staff, including British Naval Attaché Captain Frances Crombie, whose body was mutilated by the attackers.

The initial Allied gains along the northern rivers and around Lake Onega were short-lived as the Bolsheviks gradually gained the upper hand, with more heavy artillery being used against Allied forces in the fierce fighting that caused the Allies to retreat from the Varga River during September, with the monitors making their final attack on the Red gunboats that month before withdrawing.

The final battles of the northern campaign were fought between March and April 1919 when, due to the inability of the Allies to hold the line and mutinies in the White Russian forces, the Allies withdrew from the northern theatre.

The last Royal Naval losses on the Dvina River was that of the monitors M25 and M27, each of 540 tons. On 16 September, due to a fall in the river level, the two monitors were trapped, unable to join other ships of the Northern force, and they had to be blown up to avoid them falling into the hands of the Reds.

Earlier, in June and July 1919 respectively, the armed trawlers HMS Sword Dance and Fandango were lost to mines on the Dvina River.

In the south the Allied intervention commenced immediately following the armistice and now that the Royal Navy had access to the Baltic. A powerful squadron of C class cruisers, V and W class destroyers and seaplane carriers was dispatched, initially under the command of Rear Admiral Alexander-Sinclair, but replaced in January 1919 by Rear-Admiral Walter Cowan, with Tallinn as their base.

The British squadron used their guns to bombard Bolshevik positions while supporting Latvian and Estonian forces, who had declared their independence from Russia along with Lithuania in November 1918.

The British ships had also severely curtailed the activities of the Russian Bolshevik fleet, effectively trapping them in their base at Kronstadt. During the course of these actions the 4,100 ton cruiser HMS Cassandra, armed with five 6in guns, while on operations against enemy positions, was mined and lost in the Gulf of Finland, fortunately with a minimum loss of life.

On 26 December 1918 the cruisers HMS Caradoc and HMS Calypso and four destroyers were supporting Estonian troops off Tallinn when they fired on two Bolshevik destroyers, the Avtroil and the Spartak, that had been shelling the port, with the Russian ships surrendering without reply to the British salvoes. The two captured ships were handed over to the Estonian Provisional Government where they were incorporated into the nascent Estonian Navy.

The situation in the eastern Baltic following the armistice of 11 November 1918 was a confused one. German troops had earlier in 1917 taken Riga after much fierce fighting, and the German Freikorps, together with the ethnic Baltic German Landeswehr troops, were still fighting against the Russians and newly established local Estonian National Army units, who in turn were fighting against the Red Army, and, as mentioned earlier, German troops had occupied southern Finland in April 1918.

Throughout the summer of 1919, while the Royal Navy kept the Bolshevik fleet largely contained in Kronstadt harbour, occasional sallies were made by the Reds. One such attack was when the battleship Petropavlovsk (not to be confused with an earlier ship of the same name that was lost at Tsushima in 1904), a modern dreadnought of 24,000 tons mounting twelve 12in guns, probed the British base at Tallinn on 31 May, scoring a hit on the destroyer Walker, which perversely persuaded Admiral Cowan to move his base closer to Kronstadt.

From their new base at Vantaa on the coast of southern Finland on 17 June, a flotilla of fast Coastal Motor Boats (CMB) attacked the harbour of Kronstadt, where, for the loss of three CMBs, the flotilla sank the light cruiser Oleg and an accommodation ship, as well as damaging two battleships with torpedoes.

One of the battleships damaged was the dreadnought Petropavlovsk, which was struck by two torpedoes, causing her to sink. Due to the shallow water, she was later raised and repaired.

The British CMBs were in action both in the Baltic and in the northern Russian river systems and the Caspian, where they took a steady toll on Bolshevik shipping. They had originally been designed in secret with stepped hydroplane hulls, incorporating chine to reduce and deflect bow spray, and were to be employed in attacking enemy ships at anchor in their harbours, where their small size, speed and shallow draft would in turn make them difficult targets to hit and allow them to pass over defensive minefields to press home their attacks.

Of the four CMBs that took part in the action on Kronstadt naval base, the CMB 88 is typical of the type. Built in the Thornycroft yard on the River Thames, she was 60ft overall, with a beam of 11ft, and displaced 11 tons. She was powered by two petrol engines with a combined 900hp on two screws, giving a speed of 40 to 42 knots.

She carried a complement of five and was armed with four Lewis machine guns and two 18in torpedoes. Once the CMB was heading at speed directly towards the target, the torpedo was launched with the engine running from a trough at the stern. As soon as the torpedo was running on course the CMB would turn aside to get out of its way.

Other Royal Naval ships were sent to the Baltic, including the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. This was a converted heavy cruiser of 9,340 tons’ displacement, with a flying-off deck forward of the funnel superstructure and landing-on deck aft, similar to the much larger Furious.

She was equipped to carry six aircraft that were employed to carry out bombing and strafing attacks on gun and searchlight emplacements on the Kronstadt naval base. Also, in the Autumn, the force was further strengthened by the arrival of the monitor HMS Erebus, a powerful vessel of 8,000 tons’ displacement and armed with two 15in guns that were used to effect in support of the White Russian Northern army’s offensive against Petrograd.

On 16 July two British minesweepers, HMS Myrtle and HMS Gentian, were lost off the island of Saaremaa to mines. These two ships were Flower class sloops, of which seventy-two were built. Designed on merchant ship lines with no frills, they were completed within a six-month building period.

Initially designed as minesweepers, these handy vessels performed other duties, with thirty-nine being completed as Q ships. They were also employed on convoy protection and anti-submarine work, armed with depth charges.

The typical Flower class sloop was of 1,200 tons’ displacement, with a length of 262ft on a beam of 33ft. Engine power was provided by a four cylinder triple expansion steam engine of 2,400hp on a single shaft, giving a speed of 15 to 17 knots.

Two other losses were those of the destroyer HMS Verulam, mined in the Gulf of Finland on 1 September 1919, and the destroyer HMS Vittoria, which was torpedoed by the Bolshevik submarine Pantera off the island of Seiskarin, this being the only success achieved by a Russian submarine in the conflict.

The Tsarist Russian Navy also conducted operations in the Black Sea against the Bolsheviks, without British assistance, while an even smaller group of British ships, supported with supplies and ammunition through Persia, operated on the land-locked Caspian Sea.

The Royal Navy put together an improvised flotilla of gunboats from commandeered local craft mounting 4in and 6in guns, which were active against the Red forces consisting of four old destroyers that had been sent from the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea via the Volga River into the Caspian, together with the fairly modern (1906) destroyer Moskvitann of 510 tons that carried two 12pdr guns and three torpedo tubes.

In an action between the Royal Navy scratch flotilla and the Bolshevik destroyers off Alexandrovsk, all the Russian Bolshevik ships and the Moskvitann were sunk or severely damaged.

At the beginning of the intervention in July 1918 some fourteen Allied countries including Japan, Italy and Portugal were involved. Britain and France, desperately short of soldiers for the Western Front, asked the United States to supply troops, which President Woodrow Wilson acceded to despite the misgivings of the State Department, who were very much against using American troops to support a despotic and undemocratic country such as Tsarist Russia, although at the same time they were alarmed by the equally ruthless alternative represented by the Bolsheviks, who threatened the capitalistic democracies through world revolution.

The long campaign was brought to an end by the White Russian forces being unable to contain or defeat the growing Bolshevik armies, who were gaining territory and forcing the White Russian armies to retreat into an ever smaller area of Russia that was under their control. Further defections and mutinies hastened the process and there were even minor incidences of refusal to obey orders on Royal Naval ships, including HMS Vindictive and the cruiser HMS Delhi. Here, poor conditions and war weariness amongst British sailors who had endured four years of war and were now involved in a seemingly unwinable war that lacked public support at home and was plagued by divided objectives and a positive plan to achieve a successful outcome, together with the imminent collapse of the White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks, caused the final withdrawal of the western interventionist forces in early 1920.

The Royal Navy’s losses in the Baltic campaign amounted to the Light cruiser Cassandra, the destroyers Verulam and Vittoria, the submarine L55 and the sloops Gentain and Myrtle, plus the loss of four CMBs. Four E class and three C class submarines at Helsingfors were blown up to avoid capture. The operations led to the deaths of 107 Royal Navy personnel.

In the North Russian campaign on the Dvina and Vaga rivers, British losses amounted to two monitors, M25 and M27, and also the minesweepers Sword Dance and Fandango.

The monitor type of the Great War was a reworking of the coast defence ship, which it was realised could be effectively used for the bombardment of enemy shore positions. This type of ship being of shallow draught meant they were particularly useful on the Russian river systems. They could be built quickly and armed with whatever spare guns that were available, with the largest group of twenty-five or so built mounting either old 6in or 9.2in guns that gave sterling service not only in the Baltic but in the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

Other larger monitors carried 12in and 15in guns and although, for reasons of economy after the war, the majority were scrapped, two of the largest – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, each of 8,000 tons, both mounting two 15 guns – survived to serve in the Second World War.

The Allied intervention was an expensive operation that achieved little of any consequence and failed in its original purpose to crush the Bolshevik revolution and restore the Tsar, but was instrumental in allowing the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to achieve independence.

Malta Convoys and Torch

The main island of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean, 60 miles south of Sicily, is only 95 square miles. It is just 17 miles long by 9 miles wide. The landscape of this rocky island is almost Biblical with flat-topped houses in honey-coloured limestone set against stony hills. Contrasting with this is the brilliant blue sea and sky. Malta’s strategic position has made it attractive to traders, colonisers and invaders dating back to the Phoenicians. For 200 years, the Arabs ruled until ousted by Norman colonisers from Sicily. Spanish rule succeeded Sicily’s and it remained so until the sixteenth century in spite of persistent attacks from Berbers, Turks and Saracens. In 1530, Charles V of Spain granted the Knights of St John, ejected from Rhodes by the Turks, the islands as their new home. This move led ultimately to the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Knights and the Maltese withstood and eventually defeated the huge Turkish invasion fleet of Suleiman the Magnificent. More than two centuries of peace and prosperity followed until the unwanted arrival of Napoleon’s revolutionary French Army, who had ambitions in Egypt. French rule lasted only two years. Blockaded by the Royal Navy commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson and harried by the Maltese, the French occupying troops were forced to capitulate. Thus began the long association with Britain.

The Mediterranean island’s most climactic episode was the second Great Siege of Malta during 1941-42 when Malta endured incessant air attacks from both the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica. Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, declared war against Britain and France on 10 June 1940, and the following morning, ten Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero (sparrowhawk) tri-motored bombers attacked Valletta and surrounding districts. The first casualties were six Maltese gunners of the Royal Malta Artillery who were killed outright by a high-explosive bomb as they manned their guns at Valletta’s Fort St Elmo at the entrance to Grand Harbour. Malta’s only aerial defence at this time was a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters. The islanders now rallied to the Allied cause, promptly gathered their resources of fortitude and courage and immediately prepared themselves for a long and painful siege. Much would have to be done, since Malta was clearly defenceless at this stage. The immediate priority was to provide shelter for the civilian population. A gigantic programme to excavate underground shelters in all towns and villages was quickly mounted. Old railway tunnels and historic catacombs were soon converted for this purpose. With the help of experienced miners from South Wales and Yorkshire, serving with the Royal Engineers in Malta, the authorities were successful in providing adequate protection for the population within a year. The early completion of this crash ‘building’ programme greatly contributed to the relatively low figure of civilian casualties registered in Malta during the war. However, with some foresight, more lives would have been saved.

The Regia Aeronautica continued their bombing raids over Malta. Initially, only four Gloster Gladiators opposed the 200-plus aircraft. Legend has it that these were soon reduced to three. Nicknamed Faith, Hope and Charity, they battled alone, day and night, for three weeks. On 28 June 1940, four Hurricanes en route to the Middle East were kept in Malta to help the stalwart defenders. On 13 July, only one Gladiator and one Hurricane were serviceable, but by the end of the month, twelve more Hurricanes arrived. The Italian raids became noticeably less effective at a time when their supply lines from Sicily were assuming more importance for the build-up of Axis forces in North Africa. The singular failure of the Italians to silence Malta and effectively blockade her supply lines despite little or no opposition proved to be of great concern to the German High Command. Clearly, Malta-based aircraft, shipping and submarines had to be prevented from ever taking to the offensive since the Axis lifeline from Sicily to North Africa would otherwise be jeopardised. For this reason, it was decided that the Luftwaffe should move in, take over from the Italians and ‘finish’ the job in Malta once and for all.

With the Luftwaffe based on Sicilian airfields by December 1940, the siege of Malta commenced in earnest. On 9 January 1941, when nine Ju 87 Stukas of the Regia Aeronautica bombed shipping in Marsa Scirocco Bay, Malta, the forces of Fliegerkorps X on Sicily totalled sixty-one Stukas, seventy-seven long-range bombers, twelve long-range reconnaissance aircraft and twenty-two Bf 110 fighters. In a sustained attack on the British Fleet, which was escorting a convoy to Malta and Greece, the Luftwaffe badly damaged the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. On fire and crippled, Illustrious limped into Grand Harbour for repairs, but the Luftwaffe soon struck again. Over seventy dive bombers appeared over Malta and Illustrious bore the brunt of their bombs as she lay in dock. The dockyards and the Three Cities were also badly hit. Soon, the Axis had gained air supremacy over most of the Mediterranean. Enemy bombing raids on Malta intensified and ‘box barrages’ of the Maltese artillery could not deter them. The high-level aerial bombardment techniques, which the Italians had previously adopted, were immediately discarded by the Luftwaffe, which preferred to swoop down onto their targets.

With Rommel now preparing to redress Italian reverses in North Africa, German raids on Malta were intensified. This greatly assisted the Afrika Korps to win control of Cyrenaica and Rommel was looking to invade Egypt. By spring 1941, Greece and Crete had also fallen. These gains now posed a serious threat to Malta’s supply line from Alexandria. German strategy to strangle Malta to submission was clearly succeeding, but in June 1941, Hitler attacked Russia and strikes on Malta from Sicily became fewer. Malta’s strategic role in the battle for the control of supply lines in the Mediterranean now became vital. Rommel’s victories in North Africa had been largely due to his relatively secure supply links with Italy and Sicily and these depended on the Luftwaffe’s air superiority over Malta. Now, for the first time, the British in Malta went over to the offensive. Enemy shipping was attacked, Blenheims and Wellington bombers raided Naples and other Italian ports, and Hurricanes and Beaufighters systematically attacked targets in Sicily and Sardinia, while Tripoli in Libya was raided repeatedly and the Axis powers in North Africa were blockaded and deprived of supplies. By the autumn of 1941, the Allies had made sweeping gains in North Africa.

Almost too late, the Germans realised that Malta was the chief obstacle to progress in North Africa and the airfields on the island fortress would have to be put out of action permanently. By December 1941, the Luftwaffe in Sicily was back to full strength and the bombing of Malta recommenced with a vengeance. Plans were also laid for a German invasion. That December, the Luftwaffe made 169 air raids on Malta and the trickle of supplies to Rommel began to turn to a flood. By January 1942, he was able to re-take Cyrenaica and Malta’s supply route from Alexandria was now in jeopardy. Malta became isolated and on the defensive once more. From now on, the defence of Malta was crucial to the Allies. In a message to Malta, Winston Churchill tried to raise the island’s morale. ‘The eyes of all Britain and, indeed, of the British Empire are watching Malta in her struggle day by day and we are sure that her success as well as glory will reward your efforts.’

In early 1942, Malta was blitzed daily by the Luftwaffe, and in January, the Luftwaffe made 263 raids on targets in Malta. In February, 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped, and in March, the raids intensified. On 7 March, fifteen Spitfire Vbs were flown off the deck of the carrier Eagle and they landed at Ta’Qali. On 20 March, 143 Ju 88s and Bf 109s made a massed attack on the islands and heavy raids continued for two more days before the Luftwaffe switched to bombing a convoy of merchant ships heading for Valletta. Airfields came under constant attack and soon the blockade of Malta began to have a telling effect on the island’s reserves of stores, munitions and fuel. Food was in very short supply and ‘Victory Kitchens’ were introduced to feed the starving population. Sugar was unobtainable and even soap and matches had to be rationed. Many towns and cities were reduced to rubble. In April 1942 alone, more than 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Because of their proximity to the Naval Dockyards, the Three Cities were particularly badly hit. In Valletta too, many historic buildings were hit. The Royal Opera House, the Law Courts and some of the old auberges were totally destroyed. On 15 April, the morale of the Maltese people received a welcome boost. The following message arrived from King George VI: ‘To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’

That same month, in Operation Calendar, which resulted by personal arrangement between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt, the American carrier Wasp sailed from the Clyde for the Mediterranean with forty-seven Spitfires. On 20 April, when within range of Malta, the carrier flew off a combat air patrol of Grumman F4F Wildcats and then launched the forty-seven Spitfires of 601 and 603 Squadrons.

The Malta Convoys are as famous as those are to Murmansk and one convoy to the beleaguered island stands above all others. Because of Allied pressure on Rommel’s forces in North Africa, the planned German invasion of Malta scheduled for June 1942 had to be abandoned. Troops were diverted to strengthen the Afrika Korps, now halted at El Alamein. Part of the German bomber force based on Sicily was also withdrawn. Even so, the situation in Malta remained desperate. Just two supply ships, out of a total of six reached the island in July 1942 and barely a fortnight’s supply of vital provisions and fuel remained for survival. Operation Pedestal, therefore, was mounted to force a convoy through to Malta. A fleet of thirteen merchantmen plus the American-built and British-manned tanker Ohio with 11,500 tons of kerosene and fuel oil was gathered off Gibraltar. It was vital that the Ohio’s cargo reach Malta if the islands were to survive. Petrol was desperately needed for fighters and bombers and motor transport. Fuel oil was for shipping, the kerosene for cooking and lighting and the diesel oil for well-head pumping, without which there would be no drinking water. The merchantmen’s escort consisted of three aircraft carriers – Eagle, Victorious and Indomitable – with a total of seventy-two aircraft – two battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-four destroyers.

Pedestal entered the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of 10/11 August as eighteen Italian and three German submarines lay in wait. Also ranged against the convoy were 784 German and Italian aircraft, twenty-three Axis motor torpedo boats and the Italian fleet. On 11 August, U-73 hit the Eagle with four torpedoes, and the carrier capsized and sank within minutes. Of the 1,100 men on board, 900 survived. At sunset, thirty-six Luftwaffe aircraft mounted the first Axis air attack on the convoy. Next day, south of Sardinia, seventy Axis bombers escorted by fighters made their attacks. A bomb hit the Victorious flight-deck but it broke up and failed to do any damage. At nightfall the enemy bombers disabled the carrier HMS Indomitable when a bomb exploded on the flight-deck and her aircraft that were already airborne had to land on board Victorious, now the only carrier still operational. The intense U-boat and air attacks by the Axis threw the convoy into confusion. The cruiser Cairo and Clan Ferguson and Empire Hope were sunk, while the cruisers Nigeria and Kenya and the Brisbane Star were damaged. Ohio was set on fire but the vital tanker was able to continue after the flames had been put out. At midnight on 12/13 August, as the convoy rounded Cape Bon, eight Italian and two German motor torpedo boats attacked. They disabled the cruiser Manchester (which was later scuttled) and sank four of the merchantmen – the American-built merchant ships Santa Elisa and Almeria Lykes and the freighter Wairangi and Glenorchy.

As planned, Force Z had withdrawn from the convoy on the evening of the 12th. On the 13th, Pedestal was reduced to just three ships. In the morning, Waimarama, which was carrying petrol stored on deck and fuel and ammunition below, was hit and blew up. Ohio was badly damaged again when first a downed Ju 88 and shortly afterwards a disabled Stuka both crashed into her superstructure. The tanker remained afloat – just – but when the engines finally stopped shortly after, she lay dead in the water. In the afternoon, Dorset and one other ship was sunk. Brisbane Star, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and the MV Melbourne Star, which was loaded with 1,350 tons of high-octane petrol, 700 tons of kerosene, 1,450 tons of high explosive and several thousand tons of heavy oil, reached Valletta the following day. The events of the voyage are mainly described by D. R. Macfarlane DSO OBE, captain of the Melbourne Star.

Enemy reconnaissance aircraft had shadowed the convoy for several days before they entered the Mediterranean, but nothing of note happened until two days past Gibraltar when, a few minutes after 1 p.m. on 11 August, three or four explosions were felt, and looking westward, Macfarlane saw the aircraft carrier Eagle heeling over and her own planes slipping off her decks into the sea. A pilot bravely tried to take his aircraft off the sloping deck but it was heeling so fast that he could not do it. Later in the afternoon, the first air attacks began and went on until after dark. Quiet fell until daylight next morning, when bombing attacks were renewed and continued throughout the day. About noon, the merchantman Deucalion was hit by bombs and left behind with a destroyer guarding her, but unhappily, the Deucalion was sunk later that day.

The air attack grew in intensity about 7 p.m., just before the battleships and carriers were due to leave, and it was then that the carrier Indomitable was hit. ‘It was a most impressive sight to see her anti-aircraft guns firing away through the flames as she steamed towards the setting sun.’ The Indomitable’s aircraft had done very fine work. Two hours later, the convoy was changing formation when U-boats added their attack to that of dive-torpedo and high-level bombers. In the ensuing battle, two warships were hit, the tanker Ohio was torpedoed but far from sunk, a merchant vessel was hit and blew up and another was bombed and set on fire so that she had later to be abandoned.

Ohio ultimately reached Malta two days after the Melbourne Star. The chief officer, Mr Douglas H. Gray, had just finished his watch and was still on the bridge. ‘When the torpedo struck, the ship shook violently, steering gear broke, and all communication with the engine-room and after-end of the ship was cut off, with the exception of the telephone, which was still working. Fire broke out in the pump-room.’ He made an attempt to get the compressor started forward. The engineers were all down below … About an hour later, the vessel was under way and Mr Gray remained on the poop deck throughout the night carrying out the captain’s orders and steering the ship from that position. At 6 a.m. next day, they rejoined the convoy. The respite was brief. Two hours later, their guns were in action again. During that morning a Stuka which had dropped several near misses had its tail shot off; the tail landed on the Ohio’s poop. ‘In the same forenoon,’ says Mr Gray, ‘the second boiler blew out and the engines stopped. I was still steering from aft and the captain gave me instructions to come forward and make fast the tow to a destroyer which had offered to assist us. After I had made fast the tow, I came aft and disconnected the steam steering gear and connected up chain blocks to move the rudder, as the destroyer hadn’t enough weigh to tow us and the Ohio was going round in circles … We proceeded in this manner for about an hour, when the tow rope parted.’ A destroyer took them off but put them aboard again at 6 p.m. and they were towed by the destroyer Penn and the minesweeper Rye. They were again steering with chain blocks and had let go the paravane gear. Half an hour later, another air raid occurred; the Ohio was hit in the engine-room, and the boiler-room was wrecked. Orders were given to abandon ship, and Mr Gray along with others was picked up by a motor launch. Darkness was falling and a heavy raid was still centred upon the ship.

The Melbourne Star had continued to be in the thick of it. She had had to put her helm hard a-port and increase speed to avoid a collision just after the heavy fight in which the Ohio was first disabled, and she later found herself proceeding towards Malta, with two other ships following but, for the moment, unable to see any escort. However, as she neared Cape Bon lighthouse, a destroyer overtook her. They followed the destroyer inside the minefields but eventually lost her on account of her speed while, on the other hand, the Melbourne Star outdistanced the two ships following behind. She observed great activity ahead in the shape of tracer shells and bullets, which suggested E-boat attacks, but fortunately, when she reached that spot, all was quiet again. Captain Macfarlane adds, ‘We were giving a wonderful fireworks display from our exhaust and I was very perturbed about it. Everything possible had been done to stop it, without success.’ Soon afterwards, two things happened – they came up to a destroyer escort, and they received an SOS by wireless that a merchantman was torpedoed and stopped. The Melbourne Star zigzagged to the south of the destroyers, trying at intervals to drop in astern of one of them; during this period, she observed a very heavy explosion to the northward. Some time later, she was able to rejoin the main body of the convoy coming up astern and took up her station behind the Waiwarama.

‘At 8.10 a.m.,’ reports Captain Macfarlane, ‘dive bombers suddenly came out of the sun and a stick of bombs fell on the Waiwarama, which blew up and disappeared in a few seconds. We were showered with debris from this ship. A piece of plating five feet long fell on board. The base of a steel ventilator, half an inch thick and two feet six inches high, partly demolished one of our machine-gun posts. At the same time, a piece of angle iron narrowly missed a cadet. The sea was one sheet of fire, and as we were so close, we had to steam through it. I put the helm hard a-port and had to come down from where I was on monkey island to the bridge to save myself from being burned. It seemed as though we had been enveloped in flame and smoke for years, although it was only a matter of minutes, otherwise the ship could never have survived. The flames were leaping mast high – indeed, air pilots reported that at times they reached 2,000 feet. The heat was terrific. The air was becoming drier every minute, as though the oxygen was being sucked out of it, as, in fact, it was. When we inspected the damage afterwards, we found that nearly all the paint on the ship’s sides had been burnt away, and the bottoms of the lifeboats reduced to charcoal.’

Unable to see how they could avoid being blown up as they sailed through the flames, Captain Macfarlane had ordered everybody forward; however, they cleared the fire safely and he thereupon ordered everybody back to stations. It was now reported to him that thirty-six men were missing. ‘These men, thinking that the for’ard end of the ship had been struck and being quite certain that if they stayed aboard they would be blown up, jumped over the side. All our defences had now to be reorganised. Throughout the action, my men behaved splendidly; the team spirit was perfect, but after the loss of their comrades, they were keener than ever and we could not hold them back.’

Further air attacks occurred in which a merchantman was lost and the Ohio again damaged, but from the time the escort from Malta met them, the voyage was without further excitement. They reached Malta in company with two other merchantmen; a fourth arrived on the next day and the Ohio in tow the day after. The Melbourne Star had been in Malta over twelve hours before it was discovered that a 6-inch shell had landed during the voyage on top of the master’s dayroom, smashing deck planking and setting in but not penetrating the steel deck – all this without exploding.

On 15 August – the Feast of the Assumption – huge crowds in Grand Harbour witnessed an astounding sight. Incredibly, the stricken Ohio, which though disabled and sinking, had nevertheless remained afloat and was heading for Grand Harbour. Seventy miles out and unable to move under her own steam, she was lashed between two destroyers, Penn and Ledbury, and for forty-eight hours, Rye, a minesweeper painstakingly towed her to Valletta. Her precious cargo was discharged and the gallant tanker then left, for it was unable to put to sea ever again.

This epic convoy passed into legend and to this day is known as the ‘Santa Maria convoy’. Its safe arrival marked a turning point in Malta’s fortunes. Although still under siege, Malta was now in a better position to hit back. With a stronger fighting force, which soon included 100 Spitfires, air superiority was achieved by October 1942. By now, Malta had endured 1,660 air attacks and 1,386 people killed. October also coincided with General Montgomery’s 8th Army victory over Rommel at El Alamein. With North Africa in Allied hands, the siege of Malta was finally lifted. Soon after the islands became the operational launching pad for Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.

The fighter pilots that defended Malta arrived from all parts of the British Empire, Europe and the USA and Canada. On the night of 26 April 1943, Flight Lieutenant A. J. Hodgkinson DFC* of 23 Squadron shot down two Ju 88s which brought Malta’s defences score to 999 ‘kills’. But Hodgkinson was beaten in the Maltese sweepstake by Squadron Leader John Joseph Lynch, OC 249 Squadron at Qrendi, who was awarded the 1,000th Malta-victory when he shot down a Ju 52/3m 5 miles north of Cap Cafafu. An American citizen from Alhambra, California, Lynch joined the RAF in 1941, completing his training at OTU in September 1941 and being posted to 232 Squadron. The following month, he joined 121 ‘Eagle’ Squadron and later 71 ‘Eagle’ Squadron.43 Another American Malta ‘ace’ was Reade Franklin Tilley. Born in Clearwater, Florida, Tilley joined the RCAF on 10 June 1940, arriving in the UK early in 1941. Upon completion of training, he joined 121 ‘Eagle’ Squadron in May as a sergeant, subsequently receiving his commission in August. He claimed a probable on 24 March 1942, and in April, he was posted to 601 Squadron preparing to sail for Malta aboard the US carrier Wasp as part of Operation Calendar. Tilley damaged a Bf 109 on 28 April before transferring to 126 Squadron. His first victory came on 8 May, and on the 20th, he was awarded the DFC. Early in June he was one of several pilots flown to Gibraltar, where he re-embarked HMS Eagle to lead a new batch of Spitfire Vs and their pilots to Malta as part of Operation Salient. By 23 July, Tilley had destroyed seven enemy aircraft, plus damaging five. On 16 August, he left Malta and returned to Britain, where he later transferred to 8th Fighter Command in London where his first assignment was to carry orders for the invasion of North-West Africa to American fighter units in Britain.

In October 1942, the Mediterranean was the scene of yet another huge build up of forces when the Torch invasion with landings on the coast of French Morocco went ahead. Confusion in the Axis command was such that, even up until 7 November, the German Naval High Command still believed that the armada was a Malta-bound convoy. The Ranger and the escort carriers Suwannee (ACV-27), Sangamon (ACV-26) and Santee (ACV-29) were included in the three Naval Task Forces, which were under the direct command of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. The carriers’ combined strength numbered sixty-two Douglas SBD-3 and Grumman TBF-1 bombers, plus 109 F4F Wildcats. ‘Fighting Four’ (VF-4) in Ranger had been the original Wildcat unit and Lieutenant Commander Tommy Booth’s pilots generally had 500 hours or more in Wildcats alone. Opposing them were about 200 French naval and air force planes including many Martin- and Douglas-built bombers and Curtiss fighters. (Ironically, one of the French fighter units traced its ancestry to the Escadrille Lafayette, the squadron of American volunteer aviators in the First World War!) Many of the Vichy French pilots had fought in the Battle of France. American aviators were specifically forbidden to fire at the French aircraft unless fired upon.

Western Naval Task Force commanded by Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt consisted of 102 American vessels, of which twenty-nine were transports and they all sailed directly from the United States. The entirely British Centre Naval Task Force under Commodore Thomas H. Troubridge sailed from the Clyde with 18,500 American troops (building up to 39,000) who had been brought over to Scotland and Northern Ireland early in August. Eastern Task Force commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough was also entirely British50 but the assault force consisted of 23,000 British and 10,000 American troops commanded by Major General Charles Ryder, an American, whose objective was Algiers. All the Assault Force commanders reported directly to Lieutenant General Eisenhower.

Final operational orders were issued between 3 and 20 October 1942 in eight parts for the naval operation. The first convoys left the Clyde on 2 October. The first troop convoy left on 22 October with others following on 26 October and 1 November. The last convoy was due in Gibraltar on 4 November. The covering warships left their respective bases between 20 and 30 October. The concern over U-boat attacks did not materialise since their command in Germany failed to realise the significance of the convoys, despite spotting two leaving their bases. At this critical time in the Mediterranean, U-boats were engaging a convoy en route from Sierra Leone to Britain, so they too missed the naval build-up. As 340 ships converged on Gibraltar, the Allies had one last vain attempt to persuade the Vichy French to join the Allies or at least not to interfere with the landings. On 5 November, the whole operation hung in the balance as the entire force passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in just thirty-three hours. This involved the smaller vessels diverting to Gibraltar and refuelling, which demanded a flexible and fast refuelling programme. The Allied convoys came together at prearranged locations guided by infrared signal beams from Royal Navy submarines. On 7 November, RAF reconnaissance patrols commenced along a line between the east coast of Spain and the Bonifacio Strait (between Sardinia and Corsica) in order to detect any threatening moves by the Italian fleet; and north and west of Dakar in French West Africa to give early warning of any northward move towards Admiral Hewitt’s task force by French warships. All the while, Coastal Command aircraft were flying anti-U-boat operations and reconnaissance sorties over Italian and French naval bases.

On 8 November, Ranger and Suwannee steamed off Casablanca and Sangamon and Santee operated off the northern and southern areas respectively as the troops went ashore. A flight of seven F4Fs from the Santee became disorientated and ran low on fuel. One ditched in the sea and five crash-landed ashore. All six pilots were unhurt but a seventh was later reported killed. ‘Fighting Four’ and VF-9 from the Ranger lost six F4Fs in its first combat mission but VF-26 from Sangamon claimed three Vichy bombers and a fighter without loss. Eighteen of Ranger’s SBDs attacked naval facilities in Casablanca harbour where the French battleship Jean Bart added her 15-inch firepower to the shore batteries’ guns. The battleship was hit and one submarine was sunk. When a Vichy light cruiser and destroyer force threatened to intervene, Dauntlesses and Wildcats dropped to bomb and strafe and the cruiser and two destroyers were beached to prevent their sinking. SBDs and TBFs flew anti-submarine patrol and attacked Vichy airfields and strong points. Casablanca’s batteries continued to operate on 9 November until nine of Ranger’s SBDs silenced them with 1,000-lb bombs, scoring two direct hits on the Jean Bart. Suwannee’s TBF Avengers sank at least one Vichy vessel at sea, and in air combat, F4F pilots claimed about five enemy aircraft destroyed.

Finally, on 10 November, when Oran fell to General Fredendall’s forces, Admiral Jean Darlan, the Vichy Naval commander, issued an order for a cease-fire. After pressure from the Germans, the Vichy government in France countermanded this order, but the French forces in North Africa obeyed. Early in the morning of 11 November, Vichy forces in French West Africa surrendered. German forces then overran the unoccupied part of France. They also began pouring into Tunisia, but British forces eventually defeated them. The Allied push that followed into Tunisia on 15 November culminated in the defeat of the Axis forces, and in mid-May, German forces in northern Tunisia surrendered.

Task Force 77: Korea II

Throughout the winter of 1951/52, the war in Korea reached stalemate on the ground. In the air, the navy and USMC squadrons continued their interdiction and close air support strikes against North Korean targets. At sea, eight carriers took their turn in the Sea of Japan and normally four US carriers were on station at any one time. In March 1952, Operation Saturate, a sustained offensive aimed at short sections of railway line to deny their use to the enemy, was launched and TF 77 and its aircraft groups were part of this offensive. By April, Task Force 77 comprised Valley Forge with Air Task Group 1 (ATG-1) embarked; Philippine Sea with Air Group 11; Boxer, with Air Group 2 and Princeton, with Air Group 19.104 (At the end of the war, Lake Champlain was on station in place of Valley Forge.)

25 April 1952 was a grey, windy, rainy and violent day in the North Pacific. The Princeton was moving at about 20 knots with a wind of about 30, so it was fairly calm air, to those on board, but to Ensign Owen W. Dykema, a twenty-three-year-old F4U-4 Corsair pilot in VF-192 ‘Golden Dragons’ from Villa Park, Illinois, the sea “was being all tore up”. The waves were twenty to thirty feet high and breaking into white caps that were picked up by the wind and whipped across the surface like drifting snow. The young pilot thought, ‘Very impressive – especially when we could stand there in the warmth and calm and watch the forces of nature at work. Merle Wicker said that they were in a storm so big the waves, not just spray, came over the flight-deck, which was 60 feet up! A guy said one wave came up higher than the door and that was 40 feet. It sure was an impressive sight to watch. They just secured the deck just forward of their door because they took a couple of waves over the bow. The poor old destroyer out front was rolling all over the place. I tried to get a picture of the waves and the destroyer but it was pretty foggy and grey out.’

On 2 May, Owen W. Dykema flew his first combat mission of the war, in the third division of the ‘Golden Dragons’. He wrote a letterhome to his young wife Enid describing the day’s mission.

‘Speak to me softly, gal and watch what you say, I’m a ruff, tuff Korean veteran now. I had my first hop over war-torn Korea today. What a farce. There wasn’t a thing moving, anywhere. Not a soul in sight, even in the villages. We peacefully went in, dropped our bombs around a railroad – probably didn’t hit it – flew all over looking for targets, shot up some ox carts and small boats and left. In all that time we didn’t see a single return shot and only one person.

‘Some guy was running with his ox cart down a street of a town. So, Dineen made a run at him, to warn him away from his cart. But he kept going, so we all strafed him, except Strucel and I. Nobody hit him and the last we saw he was still going. A couple other ox carts that were sitting along a road we did hit, though. I got a long burst right into one of them. I probably used a hundred dollars worth of ammo to destroy a ten-dollar cart. Well, that’s this war. We also sank a sampan that was floating in a little bay. I put about fifty rounds right through the bottom.

‘If this hop is any indication of how this war is going to be, it’ll be long, dull and hard work. My bombing is lousy, now. I only saw one of my drops hit and it made a big blast in the middle of an empty field, about a hundred yards from the railroad! My butt was so sore when I got back I could hardly walk and my head feels like it is overloaded, or something. There’s no relaxing on these flights, you’re constantly in a deceptive weave.’

‘Nobody was in sight, of course, because they saw us coming and sounded the air raid warnings. Almost everybody, except the one crazy ox cart driver, was in some kind of underground bomb shelter. The ‘deceptive weave’ was based on the observation that it would take an AA round about 8 seconds to rise from the ground to our normal cruising altitude of about 8,000 feet. No matter how accurate their fire control system, in tracking us and anticipating where we would be in the next 8 seconds, if we kept up a random weaving motion (right and left and up and down), they could never really know where we would be when the round arrived at our altitude. If we held a steady course and altitude for 8 seconds, though, they could put a first round right into our cockpit. So, our division leader kept constantly banking, turning, climbing, diving and we poor followers were constantly working to stay with him. It was not too violent a weave, just enough to put us about 100 feet away from where we would have been had we flow straight and level for those 8 seconds. We couldn’t complain though; the alternative was less than attractive.

‘This was my first flight over enemy territory. We more or less followed a group from the Valley Forge on the rail strike, so they could show us how it was done. We circled and observed. Along-side the track there was a small hill and on that hill was a relatively heavy AA installation. One of the Valley’s divisions went after the hill, to silence the gun. They strafed and dropped what we called ‘grass cutters’. These were bombs with a radar fuse, set to explode just a few feet off the ground. The bombs were specially constructed to shatter into zillions of little, bullet-sized fragments, to sweep the surrounding area. They literally ‘mowed the grass’.

‘I was amazed at the change in appearance of the hill. When we had arrived it was a pleasant-looking, small green hill with a few small trees and this tiny, brown AA installation on top. Every now and then an unpleasant-looking stream of yellow-red fireballs would squirt out and then just drift on up toward the Valley’s planes. After they had dropped the grass cutters on the hill the whole top half was denuded and brown, with just bare stumps of trees left. I thought I had gotten disoriented, I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same hill!

‘Of course, the AA crew had reinforced tunnels to hide in. As soon as the bombs stopped going off they leaped out and fired at the planes going away. In the midst of all this one of the Valley’s pilots came on the air and matter-of-factly announced: “Red One, this is Red Four, Red Three was hit on that last run and went straight in. No chance of survival”. Despite all the destruction on the hill the AA team got him. A healthy, reasonably happy naval aviator, probably with a wife and kids, just like my own. And there he was just smashed into small pieces on the side of a little hill halfway around the world from his family. What a way to start an eight month tour of such nonsense.

‘Just a little west of that scene was a place that I located on my map as the limits of air rescue. If I was shot down to the east of that line and there was a “chance of survival”; a helicopter might make a trip in, protected by attack planes and try to pull me out. However, the helo pilots were loath to go further west than that and told us so (ergo, the stated line). I couldn’t blame them. Nevertheless, there it was – go down out there and I’d be on my own.’

‘Sunday 4 May was a cold, windy, foggy day,’ Dykema noted and he was not on the schedule at all. One ‘hop’ was launched at 0500 but the weather closed in and they were forced to land ashore, at a field behind the lines. On board the Princeton Dykema declared that the chow at noon was ‘lousy’ – ‘it was rice and some sort of yellow guck that looked like pressed scrambled eggs.’ Personally, Dykema would have gone for steak about twice a month, if they had ‘fair chow’ in between. There was nothing doing the next day either. Dykema didn’t get to fly his hop, which in a ‘funny way’ he missed. ‘It was a lot of hard work and I usually felt scared and uncomfortable when I did fly, yet I felt sad and fidgety if I didn’t. I really got a kick out of throwing the power to the plane and roaring off the deck, diving down on some ox cart and shooting it up. I guessed I’d really miss it when I got out of the navy.

‘Putting the power to it and roaring off the deck was in fact pretty exciting. We did what we called a deck launch, not using the catapults. It went something like this: I would line up at a starting point about 600 feet back from the bow. All take-off settings were ‘full’ – the cockpit would be full open, flaps full down, prop in full flat pitch, mixture full rich, cowl flaps full open and stick full back in my lap. Inside the cockpit were all the dials, gauges, levers and switches with which I had become so familiar over a few hundred hours of flying this bird. A last-minute check to be sure that the wings were filly locked in the extended position – okay. The launch director stood on the flight-deck out to the right and forward, in front of the wing. He would point at me with a closed fist (lock the brakes) and start twirling his signal flag over his head (turn up the engine to about half power). For a few seconds he would listen, to make sure it was running smoothly and sounded ready to go. He was standing in a 30 knot (about 35mph) wind coming down the deck with a Pratt and Whitney engine bellowing out about 1,000 horsepower and a 12½ foot diameter prop spinning at 1,800 rpm just 20 feet or so away. Further down the deck were a dozen or so similar whirling death traps, the props of the other planes on this strike. When he was satisfied he would sweep his flag down and forward, signalling me to “GO”.

‘I would then release the brakes, press on full power and full right rudder to counter the enormous torque of that huge engine and prop and start moving up the deck. The deep-throated roar of 2,200 horsepower just seemed to penetrate and vibrate ever fibre of my body. As soon as I could I would push the stick well forward, to raise the tail and get the nose down. Not only would this finally let me see where I was going (remember, this was the ‘hose-nose’ we were flying) but it was the “least drag configuration”, helping me accelerate faster. There ahead lay the few remaining feet of deck, with a six-storey drop to the ocean just beyond. A few people usually lined the deck edges, watching as I went by, but nobody waved good-bye.

‘About the time it looked like I might fall off the bow, the plane would start to feel light. It would bounce a little and stay airborne for brief periods. About then I would ease in some gentle back pressure on the stick and, if all was right in the world, the plane would fall off the deck, some 50 feet or so before the bow. Reaching down and left, a quick flip up on a lever would start the landing gear up. In most cases one of the wheels would come up well before the other, putting an unbalanced aerodynamic force on the plane. If the right gear came up first, the left gear still hanging down would slew me further to the left. Since I already had in full right rudder I would have to endure a short uncomfortable period of flying in a small left skid. After both gears were up and things smoothed out I could raise the flaps and be off separated from the humdrum world of heaving seas and gray metal walls and into the world of sunshine and fluffy clouds.

‘I got off that day but came right back. I flew the old plane that had a hydraulic failure every time it went out. When the hydraulic pressure (on a gauge in the cockpit) started hopping around just after take-off I wheeled it right around and landed back aboard. Too bad I did, too, because without me on his wing I guess old Struce just couldn’t fly. His engine caught fire just off the beach and he had to bail out. (Of course, Struce’s engine didn’t just catch fire; he was hit by AA over the beach. Normally I would have been flying his wing, just 30 or so feet away). They told me that the smoke and oil was pouring back over the cockpit and Struce calmly said, “Well, I guess this is a real emergency.” The skipper told him to bail out and he just said, “Well … okay.” He took his good old time about getting squared away and even after he jumped he was in no hurry to open his chute. While Ferguson circled over him old Struce was having a gay time in the water, splashing and waving. (I bet Struce was sure glad he was wearing his exposure suit (herein often referred to as ‘poopy suit’).) A destroyer picked him up right quick. It’d probably be a while until he flew again – he had to reassemble all his survival gear. It was customary that the captain of the rescue ship got his pistol and the crew whatever else of his gear they wanted. It was a small price to pay for rescue. He’d been riding Red and me because between us we’d damaged seven planes; now we’d get him because he was the only one in our division to completely lose one.

‘I had sort of a time coming aboard after I left the flight. The ship told me to jettison my external fuel tank but bring my bombs back aboard. Well, I thought I did, but I didn’t, so I came aboard with 1,100lbs of bombs and about 1,000 extra pounds of gas. It took a lot of power and speed to stay in the air on approach, but I got it all aboard. New experience anyway. The F4U-4 had four wing stations, to hang bombs, rockets, etc., under the outboard wings, beyond the fold hinges and two center stations under the inboard wings near the fuselage. Normally we carried about 2,000lbs of ordnance, say eight 250lb bombs or four 500 pounders on the wing stations or two 1,000 pounders on the center stations. Another typical load might have been two 500lb bombs on the center stations and eight 5-inch HVARS. So, I could have been even more overloaded. But this was another example of how the LSOB was apparently still trying to kill me. It was his responsibility, his job to signal a pilot or call him on the radio if he was not properly configured for landing, such as gear or hook not down or unauthorized external stores (bombs) still hanging under the plane. However, my friend the LSOB gave me no inkling that I still had everything attached. How could he have ‘overlooked’ 1,100lbs of bombs under the wings? That was definitely unsafe for me to have landed aboard with all that extra stuff still hanging underneath the plane. Not knowing I still had all that extra weight, I could easily have been reluctant to put on the required power on the approach, gotten too slow and stalled and spun in. As it turned out, without really being aware of it, I just kept adding the power necessary to hold my altitude marker (that spot on the ship’s mast) right on the horizon. Part way around the approach I realized I must be carrying a lot of power and was amazed to see about 60 inches showing on the engine man fold pressure gauge (practically full power). I thought that was just due to the extra weight of the bombs, which the ship had told me to bring back. Of course, once again, he gave me no corrective signals at all; just a perfect ‘Roger’ pass all the way.

‘On landing I could have: (1) broken the back of the plane, ending in some sort of strike damage (totalled); (2) knocked off and exploded my external (belly) fuel tank; (3) knocked off and exploded one or more of my bombs; or (4) all of the above. After the cut I had barely dropped my nose when I realized I was already sinking to the deck fast enough, so I immediately hauled back on the stick and eased it on to a relatively soft landing. Fortunately none of the bombs or the belly tank tore loose in the subsequent jerk to a stop. Also fortunately, my new, patented carrier approach left me in control almost all the way, very little dependent on the LSOB [Landing Signals Officer Boss]. I just had to make sure that I flew my own approach and knew where and how I was at all times. Despite all of LT LSOB’s efforts I intended to survive the whole cruise.’

On 6 May, Ensign Owen Dykema flew on an early morning strike from Princeton. ‘The skipper went on the pre-dawn ‘heckler’ hop with VC-3 (the night fighters) and we launched just after dawn. When we reached the coast the skipper and the three VC boys had a convoy of 17 trucks cornered on a winding mountain road. We asked permission from the strike controller to direct our strike to the trucks. There we were, only 10-15 miles from the first really worthwhile targets we’ve seen since we got here, loaded down with a couple tons of high explosives and ammo apiece. We could have spent a couple hours destroying 20-30,000 dollars worth of vehicles and supplies. But the controller said nix, bomb rails and sent three miserable jets over there with 200lbs of bombs apiece. They only got one truck and a bulldozer. By the time we bombed the tracks and hustled over there to strafe, there wasn’t a truck or person in sight, except the one the jets hit. It was sitting off the road covered with green foliage for camouflage. We strafed it like mad but couldn’t set it afire. The skipper had hit near one, knocked it off the road and rolled it down into the valley. Actually (of course) the strike controller’s decision was probably correct. The best weapon against trucks on a winding road was strafing with explosive (20mm) ammo, which the jets had and we didn’t. We just had solid .50-calibre chunks of metal. As we saw, we could pour those rounds into the trucks forever, and perhaps damage them severely (we had a hard time telling), but usually we couldn’t set them afire like the exploding 20mm could. Once on fire, the whole truck would go – cargo and all.

‘Two days later, on May 8, back off a hop, I landed aboard in semi-darkness. We had our usual rail strike, again. Carl was flying behind me and he said I got two good hits on the tracks, one with a 500-pounder. I was pulling out very sharply and turning so I could see my bombs hit and I saw the 500 and a pair of 100s hit right in there. They credited me with two cuts, anyway. The rest of the hop was too fouled up to mention, though. Normally we dropped our bombs out of about a 450-degree dive. Our (safe) tactics called for us to release at about 2,500 feet above the terrain. That means we were about 2/3 of a mile away from our target when we released. How’s that for accuracy – we were supposed to hit a railroad track about five feet wide from 3,500 feet away and we did! Then we would recover by pulling through and climbing out straight ahead, using about a 4G pullout. Under those conditions your bombs would hit just about the time you were back to a 45-degree climb out, wings level and Gs off. On this flight I was pulling about 6Gs and a little beyond level flight I rolled it hard to one side and squirmed around in my seat enough to be able to look back over my shoulder and see my bombs hit. Sometimes it was a pretty dramatic scene, because you were fairly low and the explosions could be pretty large. Otherwise, it was just a lot of hard work, lots of grunting against the Gs to keep from blacking out, lots of twisting around and not a whole lot of jinking to avoid the AA fire. The two tough times for AA fire were when you were diving on the target, because you had to fly steady for a few seconds to line up on the target and just after recovering from the dive, when everyone popped out of their trenches and fired at you going away. I got aboard on my first pass again – still haven’t had a wave-off since that very first pass in Hawaii.

‘On 10 May, I had the watch till four in the morning and then I ‘hit the pad’ and woke up at noon. Usually we got dressed two hours before launch so we could get into all our gear and get briefed on our strike, reconnaissance and other important information. Well two hours before launch time we were casually getting undressed to get into our poopy suits, when the squawk box blared, “Prop pilots man your planes.” We thought it was a joke. The skipper was there and he got on the intercom and told them we couldn’t possibly man planes right then because the pilots weren’t dressed, briefed or anything. The guy comes back, “This is a direct order from Captain Stroop,” the Captain of the ship. What else but to leap into what survival gear we could, man the planes and launch. There we were in the air a half-hour later, barely knowing where we were going and no idea of the reconnaissance routes, weather at the target or anything. So we just hit the beach, split up into divisions, bombed any rails we wanted, looked over the beach for ‘recco’ and came back. They say the order came directly from the Admiral on the Valley Forge, who was running our show. As it turned out, though, it was a pretty good hop, for me, all around. I got three and possibly four direct hits on the rails out of five drops, shot up a railroad car and some boats pretty well and got back aboard on a Roger pass! I enjoyed the hop a lot, until we got back around the ship. My butt was so sore I almost got sick in the cockpit. Had to open the canopy and get a blast of fresh air in my face. At the same time I got a crick in my neck from staring at the plane ahead of me. Oh woes! That’s what took all the joy out of this flying. I could hardly walk away from the plane when I shut down.

‘The hop on 12 May was ‘Special’. It seemed that our intelligence guys had a direct observer of some sort involved in a big meeting of all the North Korean and Chinese intelligence community. It was being held in a small town well up the coast from the bomb line (the front), in a big building like a resort hotel in this small town. They even professed to know the exact rooms where the intelligence big wigs were billeted and the exact schedule for breakfast. Our job was to surprise them just after first light and before they got up to go to breakfast, probably just when they were in the head for their morning ‘ablutions’ and blast them all. In the briefing for the strike, we were shown good pictures of the building, a large two-storey job and each of us was assigned a window. We were supposed to throw our napalm right in our assigned window. We didn’t think it would make much difference if we hit the window or not because at 250-300 knots that napalm was going to go through the wall no matter where it hit.

‘We took just two divisions (8) and we launched in the darkness just before dawn. We flew in to the beach right on the water, at 50 feet altitude or so, to avoid radar detection. Navigation was tricky because we were supposed to aim right at the beach, pull up at the coast, pop over the mountain range and find ourselves boring right down on the building. Any mistakes and we would give them time to get out of the building and into the bomb shelters.

‘In the event, our navigation was flawless. We did the pull up and pop over thing and there was the building! The sun was just up and shining from behind us on the side of the building. I could easily identify my personal window and it looked exactly as briefed. We strung out a little bit to avoid conflicting with one another and went straight on in. I was number six in and I could see the leader’s napalm going right into and directly around those windows. By the time I got up close, I had just about lost sight of my window in the smoke and flames from the earlier hits. Nevertheless, I think I got mine right in there. I cleared the roof of the building by only about 20 feet and got a clear, close-up view of the whole thing.

‘Our surprise was apparently complete. Nothing was stirring in the town and no AA responded. On circling back, we could see that the building was totally engulfed in flames. If all of our info was as correct as it seemed to be, the North Korean and Chinese intelligence community probably suffered its largest single loss in history. From the time we cleared the mountaintops and headed in until the first napalm hit was probably less than one minute. One pass, surprise was gone, so back home we went. On May 13, we unloaded about twelve tons of bombs on a long train sitting on a siding, left it burning and saw no return fire.’

Next day, Princeton headed for Yokosuka in heavy seas for Rest and Recreation ashore for a few days. On the first clear day, the huge, snow-covered Mount Fuji could be seen rising through layers of clouds just over the Naval Station. At sea again on May 22 and 23, Princeton had two launches each day before heading back into Yokosuka for a few more days. It was back to the war on June 2, and three days later, Owen Dykema flew the early hop that morning. In fact, they woke him at 0400 for a 0730 launch. ‘The skipper’s division and ours went down near Wonsan and hit the rails again. We sent the division of 193 and the one from 195 further South so our two divisions worked alone. We got twelve cuts for the eight of us. I only saw my first one and it landed about 50 feet to the right. I corrected after that, for the wind, but didn’t see if I hit. After we dropped our bombs, we went on recco and Struce and I left the others and cruised way inland to where there were just gravel roads and small villages and the heavily wooded mountains rise 6,000-7,000 feet in the air. It was a beautiful sunshiny morning, with little fleecy clouds hanging on the peaks – the war seemed far, far away. When we got back, Struce and I were #1 and 2 aboard. I even got an “OK” pass. Not bad after 23 days of no combat flying. I had seven combat missions now.’


As 1813 began, Britain was revitalized by Napoleon’s debacle in Russia. Sensing a historic turn in events, the British stripped their country of troops and reinforced Wellington’s army, with the intention of not only driving the French from Spain but also of crossing the Pyrenees to invade France. The Baltic ports were reopened to British trade just in time to prevent economic collapse. And Britain had new partners in the struggle against the French. Paid by British gold, Sweden joined the war on Britain’s side, and the Prussians, once again switching sides, allied themselves with the Russians. Revolt flared in Germany.

These developments were hardly good news for the Americans. The Yankees had banked on the bulk of the Royal Navy being tied up in European waters, but with Napoleon reeling, the British were able to reinforce their squadrons in North American waters. As a result, the frigates that had easily gotten to sea in the opening months of the struggle were bottled up in port on their return from their victorious cruises. Some did not get to sea again for the remainder of the war. Constellation, for example, was blockaded in Norfolk, and United States and the captured Macedonian were locked up in New London. Convoys also were established to protect merchantmen from the attacks of Yankee commerce-raiders. And the British soon got their chance to cheer a triumph at sea.

James Lawrence, as a reward for his victory over the British sloop Peacock, had been given command of Chesapeake, which was being fitted out in Boston. A few weeks before, John Rodgers had managed to evade a British blockading squadron with President and Congress and captured a dozen trading vessels, so Captain Philip Vere Broke, the British commander off Boston, resolved that Chesapeake would not be allowed to escape. He sent Lawrence a message saying he was sending away his supporting vessels and challenging him to an encounter between Chesapeake and his ship, the thirty-eight-gun Shannon, off Boston Light. Lawrence had put to sea on June 1, 1813, before he received this challenge, but he made no effort to elude Broke’s vessel.

Lawrence had considerable difficulty in manning Chesapeake because she was considered an unlucky ship, and many sailors had already succumbed to the lure of privateering. A large number of those who did sign on were foreigners and green hands, and she was hardly in fighting trim. An officer of Lawrence’s energy and experience would have improved the efficiency of his ship after a few weeks at sea, and rather than offering battle, he should have reined in his enthusiasm and slipped away to terrorize British commerce. In contrast, Broke was the Royal Navy’s most efficient and innovative gunnery enthusiast and had been in command of Shannon for seven years. Unlike many British officers, he drilled his men at the guns every day and had personally sighted in each piece. “Don’t try to dismast her,” Broke told his crew as they put to sea to deal with Chesapeake. “Kill the men and the ship is yours.”

Undoubtedly because his crew was inexperienced, Lawrence sailed Chesapeake to within fifty yards of Shannon without maneuvering for a raking position, and both ships unleashed broadsides at point-blank range. The intensive training that Broke had given his gun crews quickly paid off. The British fired far faster and more accurately than the Americans. British shot pounded Chesapeake’s hull and shrieked across her quarterdeck. Lawrence and several of his officers were mortally wounded. Taken below, he implored his remaining officers: “Don’t give up the ship!”

Badly damaged, her headsails shot away and her stern swinging in the wind, Chesapeake fouled her opponent, and the two vessels were lashed together. “Boarders away!” cried Broke as he led fifty men onto the deck of the American frigate. With most of their officers shot down, the ship’s polyglot crew fled below, and only her marine detachment made a stand. Gathered about the mainmast, they fought with bayonets and clubbed muskets until only a handful were still on their feet. “The enemy fought desperately, but in disorder,” related Broke, who suffered a serious head wound in the melee but recovered. Within fifteen minutes of the firing of the first broadside, Chesapeake was in British hands. The “butcher’s bill” was high—twenty-three British seamen killed and fifty-eight wounded, while forty-eight Americans were killed and ninety-nine wounded.

The sight of Chesapeake being shepherded into Halifax with the white ensign flying above the Stars and Stripes sent British spirits soaring, and the Royal Navy regained a portion of the luster lost in previous engagements with the Yankees. Broke was knighted, and his gunnery reforms were adopted by other officers.

Little more than two months later, the brig Argus, which had captured twenty British merchantmen in British waters, was brought to bay by the brig Pelican, off Cornwall. The night before, Argus had captured a wine-laden vessel out of Oporto. The ship was burned, but not before some of the American sailors got into the cargo, which probably influenced their performance in action. Although Argus could have shown her heels to the slower British vessel, Master Commandant William H. Allen chose to give battle. The two vessels were almost equal in force, but the British fire was brisk, and in short order Argus struck her flag. The action reflected little credit on Allen, who lost a leg and died of his wounds. Like James Lawrence, he displayed a romantic élan but showed no understanding of strategic reality. To have continued Argus’s successful career as a commerce raider would have been far more damaging to Britain than the capture of an insignificant brig—and even that was bungled.

In vivid contrast, early in 1813 David Porter took the stoutly built Essex around Cape Horn into the Pacific, on what became a classic raiding voyage. Porter’s objective was to destroy Britain’s Pacific whaling fleet off the Galapagos Islands, and at the same time to protect American vessels engaged in the trade. Within six months he captured a dozen whalers as well as several other ships with a total value of $2.5 million. Porter accomplished all this even though he had no base from which to operate and lived off captured supplies and gear. Prizes were so plentiful that twelve-year-old Midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, the captain’s ward, was assigned to one of them. When Essex required a refit, Porter sailed her three thousand miles across the Pacific to the Marquesas, where his crew had a taste of life in the South Seas while they overhauled their ship.

Early in 1814 Essex put into Valparaiso, Chile, where two British vessels, the frigate Phoebe and the sloop-of-war Cherub, which had been searching for the raider, caught up with her. Although Essex was rated at thirty-two guns, she actually mounted forty-six. Phoebe was similarly armed, and Cherub mounted twenty-six. Essex could have dealt with either of the enemy vessels singly, but together they were more than a match for her. Moreover, the American ship’s main battery consisted of short-range carronades, while Phoebe carried long eighteens, which meant she could stand off and demolish her opponent at long range without danger to herself. The ships lay in sight of each other for the better part of a month while waging a propaganda war. Essex hoisted a large white flag emblazoned “Free trade and sailors’ rights”; the British countered with “God and country, British sailors’ best rights.”

On March 28, 1814, the wind blew up and Essex slipped her cable and headed for the open sea. Escape seemed possible until a sudden squall struck her, sending the frigate’s main-topmast by the board. Phoebe and Cherub bore down on the disabled vessel as she lay in a small cove about three miles from Valparaiso. Porter made excellent use of his few long twelves and forced his opponents to draw off to make repairs. Taking up positions where Essex’s guns could not bear, they began systematically to shoot her to pieces. Midshipman Farragut later recalled that one gun was manned three times, one crew after another having been wiped out. As he helped work another gun, a single shot killed four of the gunners. Unable to close with the enemy, Porter tried to run Essex ashore and put the torch to her, but there was no escape. The spectacular Odyssey of the Salem frigate was over, and more than half her crew were either killed or wounded.

Increasingly, as the British blockade of the U.S. Navy’s warships tightened, the task of twisting the lion’s tail fell to the privateers that had fanned out across the sea lanes at the beginning of hostilities. It is estimated that at least 515 privateers were commissioned, mostly from Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. They were credited with capturing 1,346 vessels, and probably took others that were not reported. Many of these vessels were bagged off the coast of Portugal and Spain, where the victims were engaged in carrying supplies to Wellington’s army. Navy ships captured another 165 prizes.

To meet the needs of the privateersman, as well as those of slavers and smugglers, ship designers had developed the swift-sailing Baltimore clipper, a topsail schooner with a slim hull crowned by two tall masts and an immense spread of canvas. Usually armed with one “Long Tom” and several smaller guns, they were among the most graceful ships ever built, leading even a landsman such as Henry Adams to rhapsodize:

Beautiful beyond anything then known in naval construcion … the schooner was a wonderful invention. Not her battles, but her escapes won for her the open-mouthed admiration of the British captains who saw their prize double like a hare and slip through their fingers at the moment when capture was sure. Under any ordinary conditions of wind and weather, with an open sea, the schooner, if only she could get to windward, laughed at a frigate.

Privateer skippers often matched their ships in dash and daring. Captain Thomas Boyle of Baltimore raised havoc in the waters around Britain, first in the Comet and then in Chasseur. The profits from one cruise alone were $400,000. Taking a leaf from the British, Boyle, in the summer of 1814, published a mock proclamation putting the British Isles under blockade. Within two months he captured eighteen ships, burning them after removing their cargoes, which were valued at $100,000. The Baltimore schooner Kemp snatched five of the seven vessels in a convoy from under the nose of the escort and returned to port—all within eight days. The prizes were sold for $500,000, making this probably the war’s shortest and most successful cruise.

Although privateers were not supposed to engage British men of war, Captain Samuel Chester Reid of the seven-gun brig General Armstrong successfully violated this rule. Having captured twenty-four enemy prizes, Reid had taken shelter in the neutral port of Fayal in the Azores, where on September 26, 1814, the harbor was sealed by a squadron of British warships. Captain Robert Lloyd sent four boats carrying a hundred men rowing towards the Armstrong. Reid opened fire with his nine-pounders and the British withdrew.

The next night Lloyd launched another attack, this time with twelve boats carrying four hundred men. The attackers were badly cut up but kept coming. When the British boats bumped against the side of their ship, the Yankee privateersmen heaved cannonballs down into the craft, punching holes in the bottoms of several. Undeterred, the British swarmed on board the Armstrong. Reid and his ninety men met them with cutlass, pistol, and pike and the battle surged back and forth along the vessel’s deck. The slaughter among the boarding party was appalling. In forty minutes, Reid estimated, nearly two-thirds of its members were casualties, and the survivors plunged into sea. Two Americans were killed, seven wounded.

Lloyd declared that he would have the privateer at all costs. At daybreak, he sent the 18-gun sloop-of-war Carnation to finish the Armstrong. Reid replied as best he could, but his ship was shot to pieces. He scuttled the vessel, and as she sank, the surviving Americans swam ashore and took refuge in a convent outside Fayal. Claiming that several of the privateer’s crew were deserters from the Royal Navy, Lloyd had them rounded up. But he could not prove his claim, and the Portuguese authorities ordered the Americans released.

Yet, for all the enthusiasm with which Americans embraced privateering, it was not an effective weapon of war. Privateers damaged British commerce and sometimes captured valuable cargoes, but they were no substitute for a navy. They did nothing to weaken the stranglehold that the British had on the American coast, and possibly half the prizes captured by the privateers ended back in British hands when they were caught trying to make port. Throttled by the blockade and British privateers, which cost the Yankees some fourteen hundred vessels, American trade sank to disastrous levels. Exports dropped to only $6.9 million in 1814. A Boston newspaper presented a gloomy picture of conditions: “Our harbors blockaded, our shipping destroyed or rotting at the docks; silence and stillness in our cities; the grass growing upon the public wharves.” The American merchant marine was paying a stiff price for the Jeffersonian theory that it was not necessary to have a seagoing navy to protect the nation’s shipping.

With the war at sea now going against the Americans, attention was increasingly focused on the Great Lakes. The defeat of General William Hull on the northern frontier in the opening months of hostilities convinced President Madison and his advisers that control of the lakes was essential to successful operations against Canada. Few roads existed in the wilderness, and the chain of lakes provided the only satisfactory means of moving large military forces. Captain Isaac Chauncey was given command of American naval forces on the lakes and the task of overcoming British naval supremacy there. He made his headquarters on Lake Ontario, where both sides’ strongest forces were deployed.

Chauncey proved to be a conservative and methodical officer. Except for a few indecisive skirmishes, he and his British opposite number, Captain Sir James Yeo, conducted “a warfare of Dockyards and Arsenals” in which one side and then the other won temporary supremacy on Lake Ontario. By the time the war ended, the British had completed a 102-gun ship of the line and the Americans had two three-deckers of 120 guns each on the stocks.

Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, who directed the American naval effort on Lake Erie, was more vigorous than Chauncey. The twenty-seven-year-old Perry had been in command of a gunboat flotilla at Newport and had sought more active service. When he realized the magnitude of the task given him, he may well have wondered at the wisdom of his request: his mission was nothing less than to build a fleet in the wilderness and use it to wrest control of the lake from a superior British force. Perry established his base at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania), toward the northern end of the lake, early in 1813, and there, with the assistance of two remarkable craftsmen, Adam and Noah Brown, Perry set about building a fleet.

Originally the Browns were carpenters and house-builders rather than shipwrights, but they had opened a shipyard in New York a year before the war. With the outbreak of hostilities, they designed and built several privateers that were notable for their clean lines and speed. Using the green timber that grew beside the lake, Noah Brown, who was in charge of construction, built Perry two twenty-gun brigs—Lawrence and Niagara—and a flotilla of smaller craft. Iron, cordage, canvas, oakum, almost everything required for the building of the ships, as well as guns and munitions, had to be hauled overland from Pittsburgh or sailed from Buffalo. “The amount of work that Brown accomplished with about two hundred men, without power tools, and in a wilderness during the worst winter months, makes some of the modern wartime production feats something less than impressive,” notes Howard Chapelle, a historian of the sailing navy. “The man was tireless and ingenious.”

Although Perry had brought the nucleus of his crews with him from Newport, his ships were still shorthanded. Most seamen in the coastal ports avoided service on the lakes, even though a bonus of 25 percent was offered. There was little prospect of prize money in this frontier region, and Secretary of the Navy William Jones observed that such service was regarded as “one of peculiar privation, destitute of pecuniary stimulus.” Perry pleaded for men from Chauncey’s near-idle force, but Chauncey released only a handful. Relations between the two officers were so strained that Perry submitted his resignation, but the Navy Department refused it. To fill out his crews, Perry recruited untrained militiamen, Indians, and even one Russian who spoke no English. Fully one quarter of the men signed on and trained as sailors and marines were black.

While Perry was building his fleet, it was protected from British raids by a sandbar at the mouth of the harbor at Presque Isle. Now, he faced the problem of getting Lawrence and Niagara over the shoal in the face of a British blockade. Fortunately for the Americans, the British force, under the command of Commander Robert H. Barclay, a one-armed veteran of Trafalgar, left its station for a few days in August. Seizing the opportunity, Perry removed the guns from his heavier ships, and using “camels,” or pontoons, floated them over the bar. Unexpectedly faced with this powerful force, Barclay wished to avoid battle until he had strengthened his own flotilla, but he was short of provisions and could not afford to delay very long.

The two fleets met about twenty miles north of Put-in-Bay at the western end of the lake on September 10, 1813. Perry’s squadron consisted of nine vessels firing a total broadside of 896 pounds, to Barclay’s six vessels and broadside of 459 pounds. The Americans also had more long guns than the British, even though Lawrence and Niagara were armed primarily with carronades. Flying a blue banner emblazoned with James Lawrence’s dying words, “Don’t give up the ship,” in white letters, Perry led his fleet into battle in Lawrence. Niagara was commanded by Jesse D. Elliott, who had been senior officer on Lake Erie before Perry’s arrival. Four years older than Perry, he was junior to him on the Navy List and was not happy with his subordinate position.

Perry bore down on the British line in a single column, and Lawrence, which was in the van, absorbed the bulk of the enemy fire. Shortly before noon, the band on Detroit, Barclay’s flagship, struck up “Rule Britannia!” as her long twenty-fours pounded the slowly approaching Yankee flagship. Perry could not reply effectively because the range was too great for his guns. Shot thudded into Lawrence’s hull, and lines and blocks trailed from aloft. Large splinters flew about like straw in a wind. Perry closed with Detroit, and the ships engaged at pistol range. Almost all the British fire was soon trained on Lawrence. Some of Perry’s smaller ships and gunboats came to his aid, but Elliott, in Niagara, stood off, taking no part in the action.

The battle was fought at such close range that every shot struck home. Both Detroit and Lawrence suffered terribly. Barclay was badly wounded, as were many of his officers. Lawrence had gone into action with a crew of 103 men; all but 20 were killed or wounded. Many of the wounded were maimed again or killed while they were being treated, because the cockpit was above the waterline. Within two hours almost all her guns had been dismounted, and there were not enough unwounded men to fire those that were left. Perry summoned the surgeon’s assistants to lend a hand at the guns and, when no one else was left, called down into the cockpit: “Can any of the wounded pull a rope?” Several pitiful figures limped up to the deck to help him aim and fire the few remaining cannon.

Finally, at about 2:30 P.M., when Lawrence’s last gun had fallen silent, Perry decided to transfer to Niagara. Taking his twelve-year-old brother James, who was serving as a midshipman, four seamen, his broad pennant, and the flag bearing Lawrence’s words, he had himself rowed a half mile through a hail of shot to Elliott’s undamaged vessel. Lawrence, now an unmanageable wreck, surrendered, but the otherwise engaged British did not take possession of her.

Wasting no time in recriminations, Perry ordered Elliott to take the boat and bring up the remaining vessels of the squadron. Niagara’s sails caught a sudden breeze, and Perry, to the cheers of the rest of his ships, signaled close action and drove the brig, her guns pouring smoke and flames, into the enemy line. The British were in no condition to resist this fresh onslaught, and one after another, the battered ships struck their colors. Perry’s victory gave the Americans complete command of Lake Erie and allowed them to regain control of the Northwest. As soon as the surrendered ships had been secured, Perry penned on the back of an old letter a dispatch to General William Henry Harrison, the military commander in the Northwest:

We have met the enemy; and they are ours. Two ships, two Brigs, one schooner, and one Sloop.

From the heights of the Pyrenees, Wellington’s victorious Redcoats looked down on the fertile fields of France in the autumn of 1813. In the remote distance they could see the Bay of Biscay, where the warships of the Royal Navy were perpetually on the move, and the white sails of transports bearing the men and supplies that had made their triumphs possible. Had their eyes been able to penetrate the misty autumn horizon eastward to the Saxony plain, they would have seen the steely glint of marching armies. Scarcely a French family was not in mourning after the Russian debacle, but Napoleon had bled the nation for another half-million conscripts, many lads of only sixteen.

Near Leipzig in mid-October 1813, three hundred thousand Russians, Austrians, Swedes, and Prussians closed in on two-thirds as many Frenchmen. Some of the most savage fighting of the war followed, and the dead and wounded covered the surrounding fields. “The Battle of the Nations” ended with the utter rout of Napoleon’s army and casualties five times those at Austerlitz. Yet the war was not over. Though his sword was broken in his hand, the emperor rejected the offer of the allied rulers to cease hostilities if France would withdraw to her “natural frontiers” of the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. His sense of reality apparently having departed, Napoleon rejected the offer and told Prince Metternich that he might lose his throne, but he would bury Europe in ruins.


On September 11, 1814, at the Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain in New York, during the War of 1812.

Like Hitler, Napoleon saw the hope of a reversal of fortune in the possibility that his enemies, all deeply suspicious of each other, would fall out. Several times before, European coalitions had dissolved before him. If he could persuade his father-in-law, the Austrian emperor, to make a separate peace, he was convinced he could crush the Russians and the Prussians, whose forces were dangerously overextended. On March 13, 1814, Napoleon made his last coup by defeating the Prussians near Rheims in a tactical stroke not unlike Hitler’s Ardennes offensive of 1944. But Napoleon’s success was only temporary. Wellington was advancing on Toulouse, Paris was betrayed to the invaders by a defecting marshal, and Cossacks soon clattered down the Champs-Elysées. The wily Talleyrand, who had already ingratiated himself with Czar Alexander, proclaimed a rump government that declared the emperor dethroned.

Awaiting the end at Fontainebleau, Napoleon attempted to save something from the debacle by vainly trying to pass the throne to his three-year-old son and then abdicated unconditionally. Not long afterward, he swallowed a vial of poison he had carried on his person in Russia in case of capture. It had lost its potency and only made him sick. The allies allowed him to retain his title but his domain was limited to the tiny island of Elba in the Mediterranean. On April 28, 1814, with his personal entourage and an imperial guard of six hundred soldiers, Napoleon sailed for his new realm in the British frigate Undaunted. In Belgium, King Louis XVIII, gross, old, and almost forgotten, awaited the summons to the throne of France. “There is only one step,” Napoleon noted wryly, “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

While all the capitals of Europe were celebrating Napoleon’s fall, some twenty thousand of Wellington’s veterans were crossing the Atlantic to put an end to the annoying American war. With more troops and ships on hand, the British launched a three-pronged assault against the United States: an invasion from Canada, an escalation of the raids on the American coast, and an attack on New Orleans. The major objective of these offensives was to win pawns for use in the peace negotiations already under way in Ghent, Belgium.

Facing no opposition, the British put troops ashore at almost any point on the coast, disrupting trade and preventing American naval vessels and privateers from getting to sea. The Chesapeake Bay area was a major theater for such operations, which were climaxed by an amphibious assault on Washington and Baltimore in the summer of 1814. A flotilla of Yankee gunboats tried to intervene in the attack on Washington, but these craft were brushed aside and then destroyed by their crews to prevent them from failing into enemy hands. An attempt at a stand was made at Bladensburg, outside the capital, but the raw militiamen broke and ran. The only resistance was offered by the sailors and marines from the gunboat flotilla under the command of Joshua Barney, an old Revolutionary War hero. The British put the Capitol and other public buildings to the torch in revenge for the burning of York, the capital of Upper Canada. President Madison and most of the government fled.

The invaders now turned their attention to Baltimore, which, as the home port of 126 privateers, was regarded as “a nest of pirates.” Stalled by the city’s hastily erected defenses, a British army of nearly five thousand men waited for a fleet of frigates and bomb vessels to silence Fort McHenry, at the entrance to the harbor. The night-long bombardment on September 12 inspired Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer who witnessed the bombardment from the British fleet, to write the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The fleet’s guns outranged those of the fort, but the ships were prevented from running past it by a line of sunken hulks that blocked the channel, and the attack failed. A few days later, the troops were reem-barked, neither side having suffered much damage.

The invasion from Canada began in the summer of 1814. Sir George Prevost, the governor-general, followed the route of General John Burgoyne forty years before. He halted at Plattsburgh, on the western shore of Lake Champlain, and waited for the naval commander, Captain George Downie, to deal with a small American squadron under Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. Prevost, with twelve thousand men, could easily have brushed aside the fifteen hundred Americans led by General Alexander Macomb who were defending Plattsburgh, but he insisted that as long as the Americans controlled the lake, his flank and supply lines would be endangered.

With the aid of Noah Brown, the thirty-one-year-old Macdonough, who had been with Decatur at the burning of Philadelphia, built his fleet on the shores of the lake. They worked with such speed that the largest ship, the twenty-six-gun corvette Saratoga, was completed in little more than a month. She was joined by Eagle, a twenty-gun brig delivered just five days before the squadron went into action, two other sailing vessels, and ten oar-propelled gunboats manned mostly by soldiers and a handful of sailors. The British squadron consisted of the powerful frigate Confiance, of thirty-six guns, one brig, two sloops, and ten gunboats. The two squadrons were about equal in firepower.

Macdonough realized that to command Lake Champlain, he needed only to maintain what Mahan called “a fleet in being,” while Downie, to gain control, had to win a decisive victory. Accordingly, Macdonough decided to anchor his vessels in Plattsburgh Bay, a deep inlet on the western side of the lake, and await a British attack, as Benedict Arnold had done at Valcour during the Revolution. Macdonough ordered his vessels drawn up in a line from Cumberland Head to the shallows off Crab Island, close to the shore, so it could not be turned. As an added precaution, he had springs run out of the sterns of his vessels and attached to their anchor cables, which allowed them to be swung so their guns could be brought to bear on the approaching British.

Downie had wanted to delay going into action until he had time to train his crews, which included a number of Canadian militiamen, but he was prodded along by Prevost. As a result, Confiance went into battle with the fitters still on board. The British sailed southward on September 11, propelled along the reed-lined shore by a light breeze. When they were sighted off Cumberland Head, Macdonough, a devout man, called Saratoga’s officers and crew to prayers—and then to quarters. Most of the ranging shots fired by the British fell short, but one splintered a coop that housed a pet gamecock. Unharmed, the bird flew to a nearby gun, where it flapped its wings and crowed defiantly. To Macdonough’s crews, this seemed a good omen, and they cheered lustily. The commodore himself laid one of the first twenty-four-pounders that bore on the approaching British flagship, and the shot struck home.

Sailing into the bay in line abreast, the British came under heavy fire from the Americans. Downie tried to pass down the Yankee line, but in lee of Cumberland Head, the wind fell and he was forced to anchor Confiance only three hundred yards from Macdonough’s flagship. A British broadside smashed into Saratoga, and her deck ran red with blood. Some forty men were killed or wounded. Nevertheless, she kept up a brisk fire. Fifteen minutes later, one of Confiance’s cannon was dismounted and crushed Downie. The death of their commander so early in the battle had a serious effect on British morale. Macdonough himself had several narrow escapes. As he was aiming a gun, he was knocked unconscious by a falling spar. Later, a round shot tore the head off one of the gun’s crew and drove it into Macdonough’s face with such force that he was knocked sprawling.

Fighting spread up and down the line, and two British sloops and a small American vessel were put out of action. Saratoga and Confiance suffered the most, and both were taking on water. Saratoga was hulled 55 times and Confiance 105, Macdonough reported. Within two hours of the start of the battle, every one of Saratoga’s starboard guns had been put out of action. Heaving in on his spring, Macdonough had his ship pulled around so her undamaged port battery faced Confiance. The British tried the same trick but failed—and were caught by Saratoga’s merciless fire. One by one, the British vessels surrendered. Both sides had suffered severely. American casualties totaled more than a hundred killed and wounded, and Macdonough estimated that the British lost double this number.

Macdonough’s victory forced Prevost, whose simultaneous assault on Plattsburgh was repulsed by Macomb, to call off the invasion, and its effects reverberated far beyond the lake frontier. The peace talks at Ghent had stalled over British insistence on retaining all the territory she had conquered during the war, with a view to creating an Indian “buffer state” in the Northwest Territory between Canada and the United States. But the duke of Wellington, who had been offered command of British forces in America, said that unless Britain regained “a naval supremacy on the Lakes” peace should be made at once—and without territorial demands.

And Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, regarded the war as a tiresome distraction while he was fully occupied with the much more pleasant task of reshaping the post-Napoleonic world at a conference in Vienna. On Christmas Eve 1814 Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty that made no mention of impressment, the Orders in Council, or Britain’s violations of neutral rights, the reasons given by Madison for declaring war. The end of the conflict with Napoleon had rendered these issues moot.

Although the war was officially over, the fighting was not. News traveled slowly in those days, so the British continued their preparation for the descent on New Orleans. The expedition appeared off the mouth of the Mississippi on December 8, 1814, but before the British could advance against the city, they had to deal with a scattering of small sailing vessels and gunboats commanded by Master Commandant Daniel T. Patterson. The shortest route to the city led though Lake Borgne, a shallow bayou that opened up to the sea. Patterson stationed five gunboats there under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones. Forty-two British launches, each armed with a carronade and carrying a total of a thousand men, captured all of Jones’s craft in a short, bloody battle on December 14, but at the cost of about a hundred men killed and wounded—and valuable time, which General Andrew Jackson put to good use in preparing his defense of New Orleans.

By December 23 the British had pushed to within nine miles of the city but were thrown into confusion when the fourteen-gun schooner Carolina bombarded their encampment and Jackson launched a supporting attack. The Americans were driven off, but the final assault on the city had to be delayed until heavy guns could be brought up from the fleet to deal with Carolina. Although the schooner was eventually destroyed, Louisiana, of sixteen guns and the sole survivor of Patterson’s squadron, took part in repulsing the British attack on New Orleans on January 8, 1815. It was the worst British defeat in open battle for many years. Recognizing the important role the navy had played in the fight, a grateful Andrew Jackson told Patterson: “To your well-directed exertions must be ascribed in a great degree that embarrassment of the enemy which led to his ignominious flight.”

Throughout the closing months of the war, American naval captains impatiently awaited opportunities to escape the vigilant British blockading squadrons that lay offshore. Constitution managed to escape from Boston in December 1814, and President slipped to sea from New York in January 1815 during a blinding snowstorm. Decatur’s fabled luck soon ran out, however. President was severely damaged when the pilot ran her aground. Decatur managed to free the frigate and later said he would have returned to port had not the severity of the storm prevented him. The limping President was sighted by a British squadron consisting of Majestic, of fifty-six guns, and three frigates. Decatur tried to escape but was overhauled and forced to surrender. One of the pursuing vessels was knocked about by the Yankee frigate’s guns, and President suffered in the exchange. “With about one-fifth of my crew killed and wounded, my ship crippled, and a more than four-fold force opposed to me, without a chance to escape left, I deemed it my duty to surrender,” Decatur declared.

A month later, Constitution, sought by every ship of the Royal Navy since her escape from Boston, was cruising off Madeira when she encountered two British vessels, the light frigate Cyane, of twenty-two guns, and the sloop-of-war Levant, of twenty. The British captains gallantly if unwisely chose to fight. Within forty minutes, both ships were beaten into submission. Captain Charles Stewart put on one of the most brilliant demonstrations of shiphandling of the war. He attacked Cyane, backed down to engage Levant, then sailed ahead to reengage Cyane, and finally wore around to knock out Levant.

The Yankee sloops-of-war Hornet and Peacock also got to sea, and they took the last prizes of the war. Hornet, under Master Commandant James Biddle, captured the brig Penguin, of eighteen guns, after a twenty-minute fight in which the British vessel was transformed into little more than kindling. Peacock sailed into the Indian Ocean, where she captured four large Indiamen. On June 30, 1815, in Sunda Strait, she sighted a fourteen-gun brig belonging to the East India Company. The merchantman’s skipper informed Master Commandant Lewis Warrington that the war was over. Believing this was a ruse designed to permit his prey to escape, Warrington ordered the brig to strike its flag and send a boat. When the Briton refused, Warrington poured a broadside into his vessel, causing fifteen casualties. The brig’s name was Nautilus—the same as that of the first American vessel to be captured by the British at the beginning of the conflict three years before.

In years to come, Americans would forget the humiliations of the futile and inglorious War of 1812—the military defeats, the burning of the capital, the raids on the defenseless coast, and the blockade. With pride they recalled the exploits of Hull, Decatur, Perry, and Macdonough that had preserved the national honor and established a tradition of victory. By providing such a heritage, the U.S. Navy not only fostered a spirit of nationalism that at least temporarily put an end to narrow sectionalism that had threatened to tear the nation apart, it also gained popularity and acceptance for itself.

The Battle of Samar

At 6:35 A.M., as sunrise revealed a grayed-out and hazy dawn, the most powerful concentration of naval gun power the Japanese empire had ever assembled reordered its geometry in preparation for daylight operations. Twenty-five miles to Taffy 3’s north, lookouts on the heavy cruiser Chokai and light cruiser Noshiro reported aircraft approaching. So Halsey’s planes were coming after all, Takeo Kurita must have thought. Almost simultaneously, cat-eyed lookouts on the battleship Nagato spied masts on the horizon visible here and there through the rainsqualls that dropped down from the heavens like gauzy shrouds. An eight-knot easterly wind roused low swells from the sea. From the Yamato’s gunnery platform high above the bridge, Cdr. Tonosuke Otani, Kurita’s operations officer, squinted through a range-finding telescope and spotted the flat-topped silhouettes of American aircraft carriers.

The presence of carriers meant this was not Nishimura’s squadron. Kurita could not believe his luck. Here, within gun range at last, were the fast, first-line Essex-class fleet carriers that constituted the heart of the American fleet. There looked to be six or seven of them, accompanied by what lookouts took for Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, powerful combatants only six feet shorter than South Dakota-class battleships. The imagination of Admiral Koyanagi, Kurita’s chief of staff, ran wild. He believed they faced not an escort carrier group, but four or five big carriers escorted by one or two battleships and ten or more heavy cruisers.

As Ziggy Sprague’s task unit flees eastward into the wind, its six jeep carriers scrambling their pilots and aircrews, Kurita’s Center Force begins its high-speed pursuit, its battleships firing heavy salvos at extended range.

At 6:59, loaded with rounds designed to penetrate heavy armor, the great 18.1-inch rifles of the battleship Yamato trained to starboard and opened fire on Taffy 3 at a range of nearly twenty miles. One minute later Kurita issued a fleet-wide order for a “general attack.” The Kongo turned out to the east, in fast but independent pursuit. Ahead of the Yamato to port, the six heavy cruisers of Cruiser Divisions 5 and 7 formed into a single column, trying to take the lead in the chase. Angling to the southwest, the Nagato turned her sixteen-inch rifles twenty-five degrees to port and opened fire at a range of more than twenty miles. The swift Haruna loosed fourteen-inch salvos using its crude radar set.

Apparently unaware of the speed advantage his ships held over their American prey, Kurita seemed eager for his heavy cruisers to press the fight before the Americans could escape. A more disciplined (or better-informed) commander might have drawn his ships into a single line of battle, with destroyers in the forward van to scout the enemy and maneuver for a deadly torpedo attack.

For all the strength the Japanese Center Force brought into play, its commanders were unsettled about the manner in which the battle began. In the midst of the shift to a daytime antiaircraft formation, with each captain operating at his own freewheeling discretion, confusion took command of the Center Force. Vice Adm. Matome Ugaki, commanding Kurita’s First Battleship Division, composed of the Yamato and the Nagato, observed, “each unit seemed very slow in starting actions due to uncertainty about the enemy condition.” “I feared the spirit of all-out attack at short range was lacking,” Admiral Ugaki would write.

The heavy cruisers led the Japanese charge on Taffy 3. Cruiser Division 7’s commander, Vice Adm. Kazutaka Shiraishi, was a fifty-two-year-old Nagasaki native who had not had a seagoing command since 1940. Shiraishi received Kurita’s order, “Cruiser divisions attack!” and turned his ships to the southeast, steaming at their maximum speed of thirty-five knots. Aiming to flank the American ships from the east, he radioed each of his captains in succession: “We are closing the enemy. Intend to engage to starboard.” Then—bizarrely—though a general attack had been ordered, the vanguard of any such attack, the Center Force’s two divisions of hard-hitting destroyers, led by the light cruisers Noshiro and Yahagi, were ordered to the rear. Though there were doubters in his midst, Kurita was overjoyed by his perceived good fortune in encountering American carriers. At seven o’clock the Center Force commander dispatched a message that delighted Combined Fleet Headquarters: “WE ARE ENGAGING ENEMY IN GUN BATTLE” … and then “BY HEAVEN-SENT OPPORTUNITY WE ARE DASHING TO ATTACK THE ENEMY CARRIERS. The emperor’s fleet had been handed a dreamed-for chance. Carriers were queens of the seas, mobile and lethally armed with ship-killing planes. Now it was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s turn to move on the Philippine chessboard. Its rooks had America’s queens, so Kurita thought, lined up for slaughter.


As flecks of antiaircraft fire dotted the northern horizon around Bill Brooks’s Avenger, Ernest Evans emerged from his sea cabin on the destroyer Johnston and sized up Taffy 3’s predicament in an instant. Situated closest to the advancing enemy fleet, he could not have missed his ship’s consignment to quick destruction. Faced with it, Evans evidently saw no need to await orders from Commander Thomas aboard the Hoel or from Admiral Sprague. If carrier commanders traditionally saw the destroyers’ primary battle role as laying smoke screens to cover the flattops’ escape, Evans had other ideas about what he was supposed to do. Destroyers sortied. They interposed. They sacrificed themselves for the ships they were assigned to protect. Evans would do his duty for the Fanshaw Bay, the St. Lo, the Gambier Bay, the White Plains, the Kalinin Bay, and the Kitkun Bay. If that meant closing with an enemy whose guns were big enough to sink him with a single hit, so be it. He would make good on his commissioning-day promise—his warning—to his crew: the Johnston was a fighting ship. He would not back down.

Recalling his skipper’s speech in the context of the present situation, Bob Hagen, the Johnston’s gunnery officer, grew ill. As the ship’s senior lieutenant, he knew his skipper. The certainty that Evans would turn the ship into the teeth of the Japanese fleet saddled him with dread. This is an impossible situation with this skipper, Hagen thought. He’s not going to run. He doesn’t know how.

Hagen practically heard the orders before his skipper delivered them. His rapid-fire sequence suggested he had rehearsed all his Navy life for a moment such as this.

All hands to general quarters.

Prepare to attack major portion of the Japanese fleet.

All engines ahead flank.

Commence making smoke and stand by for a torpedo attack.

Left full rudder.

Lt. (jg) Ellsworth Welch couldn’t help but be impressed with his skipper’s brio, his calm, his directness of action, and clarity of thought. Why didn’t I think of that? he found himself wondering. Nothing like having a pro in charge.

Left full rudder meant that the ship would peel off to the north-northwest, away from the illusory sanctuary of the formation and charging toward the enemy fleet. The order made Robert Billie, a Minnesotan, want to go to ground like a gopher. “That was the only time I ever wanted to dig a trench.”

Bob Hagen ran his numbers—the fire-control computer could not help him here—and drew the same conclusion Jack Moore had on the Samuel B. Roberts: there was probably a fifty-fifty chance of survival. The long odds notwithstanding, he was in no hurry to climb up to the gun director. Though the situation seemed to demand urgent action—and indeed, he could count on his men being inside each of the five main gun mounts within about ninety seconds of going to general quarters—what was the point of hurry-up-and-wait? The gunners would have nothing to shoot at until the range to the enemy had closed from 35,000 yards to 18,000 yards, about six miles. Until then, the gunnery officer felt no immediate need to gaze upon the enemy ships through his binoculars.

The shellfire put out by the Japanese force was overwhelming. Battleship main battery rounds plunged down at the Johnston, shrieking like locomotives, smacking the sea with a slap and roar and sending up towers of dye-stained seawater. At that moment Hagen had as good a view of the Japanese dreadnoughts as he cared to have.

The Johnston’s gun boss contemplated the audacious path his captain had chosen and said quietly, “Please, sir, let us not go down before we fire our damn torpedoes.”

He did not doubt that Ernest Evans would do his best. Like the other officers on the Johnston, Hagen had come to see him as “a captain who could strike fighting spirit from his men the way steel strikes spark from a flint.” Evans’s conduct impressed him indelibly. “I can see him now,” Hagen would write, “short, barrel-chested, standing on the bridge with his hands on his hips, giving out with a running fire of orders in a bull voice.”

That Evans acted on instinct, ahead of actual orders, was elemental to his constitution and his experience. The crew in turn vested their faith in the all-encompassing will of the Cherokee warrior who had sworn that he would never withdraw. And who knew, perhaps promises as portentous as his carried with them some kind of implicit magic that assured their survival. The laws of probability and the lessons of recent combat history, however, heralded a different outcome. At the Battle of Savo Island, Japanese cruisers and destroyers had needed only six minutes to annihilate an Allied cruiser column. At Midway, American dive-bombers had wiped out most of a Japanese carrier task force in four decisive minutes. Alone against heavy cruisers and battleships—cruising through shell splashes fired by vessels up to thirty-five times her size—the Johnston would have no business surviving even that long. As the Army troops at Bataan or the Marines on Wake Island could attest, Americans had been overwhelmed in battle before. The Pacific had afforded them several occasions to refight the Alamo. Now, it seemed, it was the Navy’s turn.

As his ship sped to the northwest, alone against the Japanese fleet, Ernest Evans had no illusions that the Johnston’s five-inch main battery would do much damage. He knew that his only chance to send Japanese iron to the bottom of the Philippine Trench was to get close enough to fire his ten torpedoes, mounted in two quintuple mounts amidships, and plant a little torpex into their underbellies. Until then, all he could do was make his best speed and blow out as much smoke as his boilers were capable of making.

When the firemen received Captain Evans’s order to make smoke, they misinterpreted it as a reprimand. “But we are not making smoke,” came the defensive reply. Boiler room personnel trained hard to do anything but make smoke, lest the ship betray its location or foul its boiler tubes and require a painstaking cleaning. Evans grabbed the sound-powered phones and yelled, “I want a smoke screen, and I want it now!”

On the fantail, Lt. Jesse Cochran, the assistant engineering officer and head of a repair party, had trouble getting the chemical smoke generator going. Its valves were stuck fast from saltwater corrosion. Torpedoman first class Jim O’Gorek used a big adjustable wrench and vise grips to jog them loose, while Cochran and his party set depth charges on safe and dogged down all hatches and doors on the aft part of the ship. After a minute or so of urgent wrenching, the gray concoction was billowing in the ship’s wake, hanging close to the sea in the humid monsoon-season air. As the Japanese star shells burned overhead like miniature midday suns, advancing the light of the early morning, black smoke flowed from the ship’s two stacks, turning dawn back into night.

Smoke making was an act of sacrifice: the smoke flowed behind the ship that made it, shrouding everything in its wake. It gave its maker no protection. If Taffy 3 had a prayer to survive, it would depend on confusing Kurita and shielding the retreating escort carriers from view. “We were making smoke, zig-zagging and heading for the Jap fleet,” seaman John Mostowy would write, “at flank speed and alone.”

As the Johnston came around to port on Captain Evans’s order, taking a northwesterly course toward the Japanese fleet, seaman first class Bill Mercer pulled on a kapok life jacket. He was fastening it tight when a seaman named Gorman asked him if he was scared. Mercer, a Texan, said hell yeah, he was scared. In fact, his heart was thumping so hard beneath his ribs that he feared the Japanese might hear it. The only words Gorman could find in reply were a strange non sequitur: “This is fun.”

To quartermaster Neil Dethlefs, the situation seemed like the work of a cruel and uncaring universe. He had been on the Johnston for only three weeks. Not long ago he had been working aboard the hull repair ship Prometheus at Tulagi when the Johnston entered the harbor flashing signal lights requesting a replacement for a quartermaster who had trouble with seasickness. Dethlefs and another quartermaster on the Prometheus fit the job description, so they cut a deck of cards to determine who had to go. Dethlefs pulled an eight to his colleague’s king and dutifully reported to his yeoman for transfer to the destroyer. The bitter thought seized him now: he had arrived aboard the Johnston just in time to get himself killed.

As Captain Evans rang up flank speed, officer of the deck Lt. Ed DiGardi knew the Johnston wasn’t ready for an extended high-speed engagement. The fuel report indicated that the ship had only 12,000 gallons of fuel oil. At standard cruising speed, the ship burned 500 gallons an hour. But at a flank speed of thirty-six knots, the rate jumped to 5,000 gallons an hour. In just over two hours the tanks would be bone dry. The ship would go dead in the water, whether it was hit or not. Lieutenant DiGardi told the engineering officer, Lt. Joe Worling, to do what the engineer already knew had to be done: mix the oil with the 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel the ship carried in separate tanks. Though engineers hated the way the dirty-burning grog fouled the delicate boiler tubes and required a painstaking cleanout, there was no alternative in these desperate circumstances.

Not everyone was entirely despondent. Looking down to the bridge from the gun director, Bob Hagen swore that he could see Captain Evans’s “heart grinning” as he led his ship into the fight.


From the bridge of the Fanshaw Bay, Ziggy Sprague took in the vicious columns of water rising around the White Plains and the other CVEs on the edge of the formation nearest the enemy and saw a terrible beauty. The splashes from the salvos rose in a rainbow of colors: red, pink, purple, green, yellow—each so dyed in order to help the enemy gunners correct the fall of their shots.

In the whole horrible course of the war in four wide oceans, not once had an American aircraft carrier been sunk by gunfire from an enemy surface ship. The historic nature of Sprague’s plight was not lost on him. In the triumphant closing phase of the war against Japan, Admiral Sprague, an emissary of the world’s greatest sea power, was going to see all six of his flattops sunk by gunfire. It was certain to happen. It wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes. There was no other possible outcome.

For the kid from Rockport, the situation was beyond imagining. “I wouldn’t say it was like a bad dream, for my mind had never experienced anything from which such a nightmare could have been spun.” Once Clifton Sprague had dreamed of going to West Point, of parading on horseback before cheering crowds down his hometown thoroughfare. He had become a Navy admiral instead. Now he would have his appointment with notoriety, leading thirteen ships whose pending destruction would go down in history just as surely as they would go down to the bottomless deep of the Philippine Trench: “Neither could such dream stuff have been recalled from my reading in some history book, because nothing like this had ever happened in history.”

By any measure the mathematics of the engagement were preposterously against them. The Yamato displaced nearly seventy thousand tons. She alone matched almost exactly in weight all thirteen ships of Taffy 3. Each of her three main gun turrets weighed more than an entire Fletcher-class destroyer. Her armor belts—sixteen inches thick at the waterline and more than two feet thick on her gun turrets—were impenetrable to an American destroyer’s guns. Her nine 18.1-inch rifles were the biggest guns that ever went to sea, firing 3,200-pound shells more than twenty-six miles. Their development was so secret that even Admiral Kurita did not know their true size. The superbattleship’s secondary battery of six six-inch guns packed twice the hitting power of anything Ziggy Sprague’s largest escorts had. The ship was a great gray beast whose bulk pressed down into the ocean and possessed it, displacing enough water to raise measurably the level of a small lake. At flank speed of twenty-seven knots, the Yamato sliced the sea and drew it back around her in a roiling maelstrom, leaving a wake that capsized small boats.

The Yamato was not the only ship that completely outgunned Sprague’s task unit. The Nagato, displacing 42,850 tons, fielded eight sixteen-inch guns, and the Kongo and her sister ship the Haruna (36,600 tons) were fast frontline battleships armed with eight-gun fourteen-inch batteries. Kurita’s six heavy cruisers were thirty-five-knot killers that had a cumulative displacement equal to that of the Yamato. Finally, Kurita had two flotillas of destroyers, eleven in all, each led by a light cruiser, the Yahagi and the Noshiro (8,543 tons), with six-inch batteries. On paper each of the destroyers matched the Johnston, the Hoel, or the Heermann in speed and torpedo power if not quite in gunnery. The only weapon in Sprague’s modest arsenal that Kurita could not match was aircraft. Each of the six American jeeps carried about thirty planes. But loaded with depth charges, antipersonnel bombs, rockets, and the machine guns in their wings—not to mention the propaganda leaflets they sometimes carried in lieu of more kinetic payloads—they were not armed for attacking heavy surface ships.

A fighting force cannot be reduced to its order of battle any more than a ship’s value can be reduced to the number of guns she carries or the shaft horsepower her turbines can generate. A vessel draws life from the spirit of her crew, which derives in large part from the leadership qualities of her chiefs and officers. Morale defies quantification—and yet it weighs significantly on the ultimate lethality of the tools of war. A ship’s effectiveness is the product of thousands of bonds that develop between individual officers and crew. The bonds form and break in a chain reaction, the power of which is determined by drill, by relationships, by fortitude, faith, and values. Task force commanders can be only abstractly aware of these uncountable qualities as they exist on the particular ships under their command. The officers of the ships themselves see these qualities more clearly but still can only guess how the chemical reactions will coalesce when the real shooting starts and men begin to die. And so orders of battle are drawn up to focus on the tangibles: speed, displacement, armament, and sensors. On that score Taffy 3 scarcely even registered on the scale of force that Takeo Kurita brought against them.

Thanks to Ensign Brooks’s diligent sighting report, Admiral Sprague knew precisely what he faced. “I thought, we might as well give them all we’ve got before we go down,” he later recalled. That meant getting into position to launch planes and putting as much distance as possible between his ships and the faster Japanese. Both of those goals could be met by heading east, into the wind.

Ziggy Sprague coolly measured what would become a steadily shifting matrix of variables—enemy course headings, patterns of wind and squalls, the effectiveness of his own ships’ evasions and protective smoke laying and the effect of the enemy fire—and instinctively planned his escape. He ordered his ships to turn from their northerly course to an eastward one, on heading 090. Three factors recommended that course: first, it was directly away from the Japanese fleet; second, it brought a strong wind rushing from bow to stern over his carrier decks—an apparent headwind of twenty-two knots was necessary to get a fully loaded Avenger airborne, even with catapult assistance; and third, it took him toward open ocean, where he could hope for the intervention not only of rainsqualls but perhaps also of other American ships. “I wanted to pull the enemy out where somebody could smack him,” he would write; either Oldendorf or Halsey, wherever they were, could handle that job. “If we were going to expend ourselves I wanted to make it count.”

At 6:50 Sprague flipped on the TBS radio and ordered the skippers of his command, “Signal execute on receipt. Shackle baker uncle easy unshackle turn.” Between the words shackle and unshackle was the coded numerical heading Sprague intended to follow. Baker Uncle Easy were the encoded integers for a heading of 090. All as one, the helmsmen on twelve of Taffy 3’s thirteen ships turned to the right, bringing their ships on an eastward heading. Sprague also passed the order to begin making smoke for concealment. Aboard the jeep carriers, flight deck crews raced to ready their planes for launch.

It took only five minutes to turn the six nimble carriers onto a windward course. Sprague ordered, “Launch all planes as soon as possible,” then hedged against the long-shot possibility that the fleet opposing him might yet be friendly: “Caution all pilots to identify all ships before attacking.” The roar and colorful splashes of incoming shells, however, all but removed that distant possibility.

Many of Sprague’s planes had been airborne since first light, flying off before daybreak to strike targets on Leyte. Now, needing the bombs they carried, he ordered them to abort and return. He also needed help from the other two Taffies to his south. On the TBS circuit he raised the commander of Taffy 2, Rear Adm. Felix Stump, “Come in please. Come in please…. To any or all: We have enemy fleet consisting of BBs and cruisers fifteen miles astern closing us. We are being fired on.”

Admiral Stump got on the line, already briefed by intercepted radio transmissions, and said, “Don’t be alarmed, Ziggy, remember we’re back of you. Don’t get excited! Don’t do anything rash!” Since Stump’s Taffy 2 was the only of the three Taffies not under direct attack—Taffy 1 would be fighting off land-based Japanese aircraft most of the morning—he was best positioned to help Sprague. Still, something about his tone tended to undercut his advice.

Thomas Sprague, in simultaneous command of Taffy 1 and all three Taffies, recognized that in the coming fight Ziggy Sprague should be free to decide how to conduct it. All that Thomas Sprague could do for him was cover bureaucratic bases and ask the Seventh Fleet’s commander of support aircraft for permission to launch all available torpedo bombers and “go after them.” The request was duly granted, and thereafter, according to Admiral Stump, “no orders were received from anyone during the entire day, nor were any necessary.” It was Ziggy Sprague’s battle to win or lose, “using the initiative that was required under the prevailing circumstances.”

Ziggy Sprague knew that help was a long way off. What he didn’t know was that Jesse Oldendorf’s battleships, idling in Leyte Gulf after their historic victory in Surigao Strait, would be kept from coming to his assistance because Admiral Kinkaid feared the Southern Force might turn around and attack again through Surigao Strait. Though one might question the wisdom of ensuring against a contingent disaster when a very real one was already at hand, the cold fact of October 25 was that Admiral Sprague, the ships and men of Taffy 3, and their brothers to their south, would have no help from the overwhelming naval power marshaled to their north and south. They were on their own.

Sprague’s moves in the crucible of imminent combat were swift but not rash. One trait of good commanders is that they make simple decisions at the right times and without delay. Sprague was an instinctive and forceful decision maker. He played golf in a hurry. He didn’t line up his putts. He just walked up to the ball and hit it. When he met his future wife, Annabel, he knew immediately he would marry her. At Pearl Harbor he knew right away what to do with the few weapons he had on the Tangier. On the morning of October 25, with an overwhelming Japanese task force pressing down on him, he saw instantly the surest route to his slim hope of survival. If he did not completely resign himself to dying, he at least accepted the reasonable certainty of an imminent swim. If no assistance came from other ships, Sprague would settle for the intervention of a heavenly being of whom during quieter periods of his life he had asked, and to whom he had given, relatively little.

Battle of Samar – What if TF34 was there?

Dunkerque and the Strasbourg Battleships

Dunkerque as built.


The design of Dunkerque and Strasbourg was heavily influenced by the latest British practice. The battleships Nelson and Rodney, scaled-down versions of the G3 battlecruiser design of 1922, entered service in August and November 1927 respectively and had a major impact on the thinking of other navies. They introduced a number of revolutionary design features: an all-forward main armament with the machinery aft, a secondary battery in trainable twin turrets above the weather deck, a tower structure to carry the main fire control directors, and an inclined 14/13in armour belt topped by an exceptionally heavy armoured deck. The all-forward main armament placed the turrets at the broadest part of the hull to maximise protection for the magazines from shells and torpedoes. Locating the machinery aft saved on shaft length and therefore on weight. The inclined armour belt was equivalent to a thicker vertical belt, and a shell striking at an oblique angle was more likely to be deflected or broken up. And the secondary turrets had better all-weather capability, superior firing arcs and greater range than casemate-mounted guns; they also benefited from replenishment systems similar to those of the main guns, which gave them a high sustained rate of fire.

Many of the key features of the Nelson design were focused on securing complete protection for the magazines and machinery. In particular, the length of the armoured citadel was reduced to a minimum in order to maximise armour thickness; this ran counter to accepted practice in other navies, notably the US Navy, which saw the armoured belt as a protector not only of the ship’s vitals but also of its buoyancy and stability.

The French ships were by no means slavish copies of Nelson and Rodney, but the influence of the British ships on Dunkerque and Strasbourg and on their successors is readily apparent, particularly if the latter ships are compared with earlier French capital ship designs such as the 37,000-tonne battlecruisers. The all-forward main armament with the secondary guns in trainable turrets aft, the single funnel and heavy tower structure amidships, the inclined armour belt topped by a heavy armoured deck over the magazines and machinery, and the relatively short length of the armoured citadel (equivalent to approximately 58 per cent of length between perpendiculars); all these features were characteristic of the latest British capital ship designs, and distinguish Dunkerque and Strasbourg from the ‘paper’ designs of the 1920s. In her general configuration and layout Dunkerque is as different from the 37,000-tonne battlecruiser as the last French treaty cruiser Algérie from the Suffren class.

However, there were also many important design differences between the British and the French ships, some of which relate to the relatively high speed of the French ships and others which result from Dunkerque being designed almost ten years later, when naval technology had moved on. The Nelsons had a two-shaft propulsion system with eight boilers and two sets of turbines delivering 45,000shp for their designed speed of 23 knots; Dunkerque and her sister had four shafts, six boilers and four sets of turbines delivering 107,000shp for 29.5 knots. Although the Indret boilers developed for Dunkerque were large high-pressure models and were housed side by side in pairs, the three boiler rooms were necessarily longer than those of the Nelsons. Moreover, the four-shaft propulsion system required two separate engine rooms, so the machinery spaces occupied a length of 53.5 metres as compared with 41.5 metres in the British ships. The French vessels, however, had only two main gun turrets because of the adoption of quadruple mountings, so the machinery spaces could be moved farther forward and occupied a more central position, with the forward engine room (housing the turbines for the wing shafts) in the broadest part of the hull amidships. As a result, the secondary quad turrets could be located abaft the superstructures – in the Nelsons these were abeam the superstructures – enjoying excellent arcs on after bearings.

The layout adopted for Dunkerque freed up the stern for comprehensive aviation facilities which included a trainable 22-metre catapult and a two-tier hangar on the centreline served by a lift. Three long-range reconnaissance aircraft could be carried, which was a particularly valuable resource when the ships were hunting down enemy commerce raiders. By locating the big guns forward and the aircraft facilities on the quarterdeck, the risk of blast damage was eliminated, and the arrangement also had the advantage of placing the aircraft and the hangar close to the volatile aviation fuel, which in accordance with customary French practice was stowed in tanks isolated from the hull structure in the upper part of the stern.

Other novel features of the design included the mounting of fire control directors one above the other atop the forward tower and around the heavy pole mainmast. This arrangement was to have an unforeseen drawback, but it was certainly an ingenious way of economising on centreline space, and it ensured clear, uninterrupted training arcs for the directors. Considerable attention was also given to ‘passive’ protection measures such as subdivision, the layout of the machinery spaces, and the design and location of the main gun turrets. Despite the single funnel a ‘unit’ machinery arrangement was adopted, with one boiler room forward and the other two between the two engine rooms. This had the disadvantage of extensive – and poorly protected – uptake trunking leading from the forward boiler room above the main armoured deck to the single funnel, but enabled the ship to continue to steam with two or even three adjacent machinery compartments flooded or otherwise out of action. The quadruple turrets were divided into two independent gunhouses by a central 40mm bulkhead which extended down into the working chamber beneath the turret at a reduced thickness of 25mm. In order to minimise the risk of both turrets being disabled by a single shell or torpedo hit, they were separated by a distance of 28.5 metres – significantly greater than in the British Nelsons.


During the first four months of the war forty per cent of Allied ship losses resulted from magnetic mines; after that, the percentage of losses dropped by half. On the whole, while magnetic mines constituted an added hazard to navigation and a source of mental anxiety to the High Command, they caused less actual losses than might have been expected. In fact they proved less deadly than the more conventional weapons, such as submarines or surface raiders.

At the very beginning, however, the situation was at times so alarming that Winston Churchill, accompanied by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, made a special trip to Maintenon to ask the French Navy for assistance.

Admiral Darlan, who, like General Gamelin, had a special train at his personal disposal, sent it to Cherbourg to pick up the distinguished guests. The French naval stewards who manned the dining car were ordered to make certain that there would be no lack of champagne and other spirituous refreshments. Consequently the atmosphere of the meeting was particularly cordial. The conference took place under the trees of the Parc de Noailles, a setting which somewhat astonished the English. But the exchange of views which took place was straightforward and without ulterior motive, for both sides had in mind the one objective of winning the war. Curiously enough, when one reflects on events which were to follow, Mr. Churchill declared to Admiral Darlan that he had complete confidence in the Admiral and his officers—but he would prefer that the French Navy Minister and the French politicians not be kept too well informed on operating plans as he, Mr. Churchill, did not consider them capable of keeping a secret!

The British were particularly interested in the large new French battleships. To meet German battleship and cruiser raids they had only battleships that were too slow or battle cruisers that were too thinly armored. Until the time the new Prince of Wales would be ready in 1941, the British were counting a great deal on the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg, as well as on the Richelieu, then nearing completion, and on the Jean Bart, under construction, which they asked be completed at the earliest possible moment.

French industry was to perform miracles in this respect; the British were far ahead in submarine detection gear, and they promised to provide the French Navy with a class of trawlers equipped with asdic.

Returning to London after his conference with the French Admiralty, Mr. Churchill informed the House of Commons on November 8, “I wish to point out to you the remarkable contribution of the French Navy, which has never been, for many generations, as powerful and effective as it is now.” Later, he was to write in his memoirs that French assistance “exceeded by a great deal all the promises made or engagements entered into before the war.”

A few days after the conference, and in the same spirit of fellowship, the British Admiralty asked for the assistance of French submarines in escorting the transatlantic convoys being formed at Halifax. To defend against German surface ships that might possibly be encountered, the convoy escort generally included one British battleship or cruiser and one submarine steaming in the midst of the merchant ship group. From November, 1939, to May, 1940, except for the middle of the winter, French submarines of 1,500 tons alternated with British submarines in escorting eight Halifax convoys. On the African coast, likewise, the British often requested French assistance in escorting British convoys for Sierra Leone and Cape Town.

With their resources strained by the transatlantic convoys, the Royal Navy no longer had enough ships to escort their important shipping which traversed the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean unguarded, but which had to be convoyed from Gibraltar to England. The French Navy agreed to take turns with the British Navy in escort duty on that essential route, and from October, 1939, to May, 1940, French destroyers, torpedo boats, and sloops provided the escort for 29 convoys in one direction and 27 in the other. Ships thus escorted totalled 2,100, of which 89 per cent were British or British-chartered vessels. Out of the 56 convoys, only four ships were lost—three British and one Greek.

These large convoys, sometimes numbering as many as 60 ships, were too unwieldy to burden them further by adding French ships bound from the Mediterranean or Morocco to French Atlantic ports. Moreover many of the older French merchant ships could not make the minimum required speed of nine knots to keep up with the English convoys. Consequently the French Admiralty was forced to sail its ships in small groups from Oran and Casablanca, and then form them into one convoy off Gibraltar for the run north; on the return voyage, the procedure was reversed. From October, 1939, to May, 1940, the Navy thus escorted almost 200 small convoys between the Bay of Biscay and Gibraltar. These convoys totalled 1,532 French or French-chartered ships, of which only seven were sunk by the enemy.

The greatest deficiency of the French Navy in antisubmarine warfare was in submarine detection devices. Rarely was a U-boat found on the surface where well-aimed guns would quickly eradicate it, and the only way to reach it down below was by depth bombs. Differently from the gun crews, for whom target practice was frequently held, there had been no practice at depth bombing with live charges. Consequently the ships too often mistook the great surface upheaval resulting from the explosion of the depth bomb as sure evidence of a “kill.” To reduce such erroneous reports to a minimum, the French Admiralty distributed a film on depth charging which showed the true crescent-shaped eddies formed on the surface by a series of explosions. Still, in order not to discourage the attackers, the Admiralty was quite liberal in giving credits to those who had pressed home an attack vigorously.

Up to May, 1940, the French Navy had recorded more than fifty attacks on submarines in the western theater, not counting numerous ineffectual searches. In the eastern end of the Channel, German submarine activity was practically zero, thanks to the effective Allied Pas-de-Calais minefield barrier, in which three U-boats were sunk during the month of October. Most of the reports of submarines sunk, however, were found to be erroneous. Such was the case with the U-boat which the Lorientaise reported it had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on January 19, 1940, and which a diver even claimed he had actually seen lying on the bottom. German archives, examined after the war, proved however that no U-boat was lost in that vicinity. Similarly the U-41, attacked with gunfire and depth charges by the Siroco in the Bay of Biscay on November 20, 1939, and reported sunk, was able to return to port and report the attack. These same German archives, however, confirmed the victory of the Simoun, which rammed and sank the U-54 on February 23, 1940—a sinking which had not been officially recognized by the French Admiralty at the time.

As for other attacks carried out in conjunction with British forces, the degree of success attributable to either will never be known. Such was the case of the U-55, attacked simultaneously on January 30, 1940, by the French destroyer Valmy and two British destroyers and a British plane.

The really important thing was that the U-boat had been sunk!

In addition to convoy escort and antisubmarine warfare—routine tasks in any naval war—numerous other missions devolved upon the French Naval Forces.

First there was the protection of the heavy troop movements at the beginning of the war: seven convoys transporting two divisions from Africa to the Rhine front; eight troop convoys from Marseilles and Algiers to Beirut, to form the Army of the Levant; and two convoys of British troops from Gibraltar to Malta, which were escorted by the French. In addition a steady stream of native African troops—45,000 men in nine months—began to flow from Dakar and Casablanca to France.

Other important convoys were those carrying the British Expeditionary Force to French soil—four modern divisions in 1939, and thirteen by the end of May, 1940. At first these landed at Brest and in the ports of the Loire, in order to be beyond range of German air raids. The escort was British, though French destroyers and fighter planes often participated in the protection of convoys carrying troops. Local patrols and the sweeping of harbors and harbor entrances for mines was the particular responsibility of the French.

The great minefield barrier which the Allied navies had laid across the Pas-de-Calais at the beginning of the war, had only two narrow passageways through it, each of which was guarded by microphones and other detection gear. One of these passageways was close to the English coast, and opened toward the Downs roadstead; the other was at the foot of Cape Gris-Nez, and opened toward Dunkirk. As its share in the barrier, the French Navy laid 1,000 mines, but within the next few weeks the swift Channel currents tore over 200 of them up and deposited them on the nearby beaches. But just as many British-laid mines washed up on these same beaches. With typical courtesy the French mine disposal officer disarmed these mines, disassembled them, greased them, and returned them to their British owners.

As soon as the Pas-de-Calais mine barrier was in place, the terminal ports for British military convoys were moved closer to the front. Saint-Malo replaced Brest, but the principal port of disembarkation was Cherbourg, where before April, 1940, over 300,000 men were landed without incident. On mail steamers from Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk a stream of sick or wounded men, of non-combatants from various organizations, and of men on leave crossed the Channel for England, sometimes as many as 2,000 or 3,000 within a day.

It was not only in the Channel that the French Navy cooperated in ensuring the safety of British troop convoys; in December, 1939, London requested the loan of the Dunkerque to escort a Halifax-to-England convoy of seven passenger liners carrying Canadian troops to join the British Expeditionary Corps in Europe.

Other crossings requiring special care were the convoys carrying gold. Not only was the United States of America not in the war at that time, but it was so fearful of being dragged in that a special neutrality law—the “cash and carry” law—governed all dealings with the belligerents. Under the law these latter were required to pay for all purchases in cash and then to transport the goods themselves, as American ships were forbidden to enter the war zone. The Allies had to transport the purchased goods either in their own ships or in neutral ships chartered by them. When the Allies ran out of U.S. dollars, the only currency the Americans would accept was gold.

In November, 1939, the battleship Lorraine, escorted by two cruisers, carried the first shipment of gold to the United States; on its return it escorted a convoy of merchant ships loaded with airplanes. When in December the Dunkerque went to Halifax to escort the Canadian troop convoy mentioned above, it deposited there, as at a teller’s window in a bank, 100 tons of gold. The aircraft carrier Béarn, going to pick up airplanes in the United States, took over 250 tons of gold, and the passenger liner Pasteur an additional 400 tons. The cruiser Emile Bertin started for America with 300 tons, but the armistice intervened and she was diverted to Fort-de-France, in the island of Martinique, instead.

In addition to safeguarding the transfer of all this gold without a penny’s loss, the French Navy also rescued, via Beirut, 78 tons of gold belonging to the Republic of Poland—gold which later figured in important diplomatic exchanges at the time of the evacuation of the reserves of the Bank of France when the country was invaded by the Germans.

Nor was the Navy’s part confined to the mere convoying of ships; it also mounted offensive operations against surface raiders which threatened them.

The operations of the German surface raiders are now well known, but in 1939 the Chiefs of Staff in London and Maintenon could not deduce the German plans from the maze of information, both true and false, which poured in from all over the world.

On September 30, for instance, news was received of the sinking of the English freighter Clement, sunk in the South Atlantic by a German pocket-battleship. The French battleship Strasbourg promptly sailed from Brest for Dakar on October 7, to join the British aircraft carrier Hermes in forming a “killer group.” The Strasbourg would be relieved later by two heavy cruisers from the French Mediterranean Squadron. These “killer groups” made periodic sweeps of the tropic seas, and eventually the raider, identified by then as the Admiral Graf Spee, was brought to action off the Río de la Plata on December 13, 1939, by a British force under Commodore Henry Harwood. Damaged, and driven into the neutral harbor of Montevideo, the Graf Spee scuttled herself. Perhaps her refusal to come out for a final fight was due in part to a rumor, carefully “leaked” by the French, that several large ships were cruising off the Río de la Plata.

A second German raider, the Deutschland, was reported loose in the North Atlantic on October 21. The Dunkerque and a division of cruisers promptly put to sea to safeguard to its destination an unescorted British convoy from the West Indies.

A month later a British auxiliary cruiser was sunk north of Scotland by the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Believing mistakenly that the blow had been struck by the Deutschland, which in reality had already returned to Germany undetected, the British sent out a search group built around the Dunkerque and the British battle cruiser Hood, which swept the northern seas unsuccessfully from November 25 to December 2.

In the Indian Ocean the French heavy cruiser Suffren was escorting Australian convoys, while in the Atlantic joint patrols searched for the Altmark, the Graf Spee’s supply ship. But the Altmark escaped all its hunters until two months later when it was intercepted in Norwegian waters, bare hours from the safety of its home port.

Also watched by the French Navy were certain areas suspected of running supplies to enemy ships at sea. One such area was the Iberian Peninsula. Spain was proclaimedly neutral, but her government was indebted to the Germans for help rendered during the Civil War. Also many German merchant ships, caught at sea by the war, had taken refuge in Spanish ports, especially Vigo. The British and French Admiralties suspected that some of these ships were secretly taking supplies out to enemy submarines or even enemy cruisers at sea. Therefore the French Navy had its light craft, during the entire war, patrolling the approaches to the Cantabrian coast and the principal ports from Bilbao to Vigo. French airplanes and even French submarines participated in these patrols at the beginning. Nevertheless, out of the score or more of German merchant ships that were reported to have slipped out of Spain’s northeast ports between September, 1939, and May, 1940, only two were intercepted. Of these one was captured, and the other was scuttled by its crew.

As for German submarines slipping in and obtaining supplies from German merchant ships anchored in Spanish harbors, even today little is really known.

The French naval attaché at Madrid sent in reports giving in detail the identifying numbers of German submarines supposed to have been supplied from merchant ships anchored in Spanish ports. German records examined after the war proved, however, that none of these particular submarines had been within hundreds of miles of Spain at the times cited. On the other hand a German submarine commander made an official report, as evidenced by the German archives, that he had had to forego seeking the shelter of the Spanish coast in order to recharge his batteries, because the sector was too closely patrolled by the French for safety.

In addition to all the areas mentioned thus far, the French Navy was also responsible for patrolling the regions of the Azores and of the Canary, Madeira, and Cape Verde Islands, where some German freighters and tankers had taken refuge. On several occasions our own submarines or auxiliary cruisers would investigate these suspected areas, and on September 23, 1939, the French submarine Poncelet captured the German freighter Chemnitz, which had slipped out of Las Palmas and was attempting to get back to Germany. In October a joint Franco-British “killer group” intercepted the German freighter Halle, which scuttled itself, and captured the German Santa Fe. In the middle of the following month the German freighter Trifels was captured by the French auxiliary cruiser Koutoubia, while trying to get away with 21,000 cases of gasoline. On February 14, 1940, a prize crew from the small sloop Elan sailed into Brest with the German Rostock, captured off the Spanish coast three days earlier.

But the most extraordinary episode was that of the German freighter Corrientes, which on the night of May 9 suddenly blew up with a mysterious explosion while trying to get under way in the Las Palmas roadstead. Now it can be revealed that the explosion was caused by two audacious officers from the French freighter, Rhin, cruising off the port, who swam in and placed limpet mines against the underwater hull of the German ship.

But convoy escorting, blockade duty, and vain “killer” patrols were not enough to fill a need for activity which the Italian status of nonbelligerency left unsatisfied in the Mediterranean. At the suggestion of the French Navy, the Royal Navy accepted the offer of a few French submarines to assist in keeping the watch in the North Sea against a possible sortie by the German forces.

The French submarine tender Jules Verne, with a division of 600-ton submarines, arrived at Harwich on March 23, 1940. A month later another division of 600-ton submarines as well as a division of 1,500-ton boats reported at Harwich, bringing the total to 12 submarines thus placed at the disposal of the British Command. The force was further increased by the submarine minelayer Rubis, since the services of such a vessel had also been requested by the British.

But the hazardous operations of this flotilla in German waters more properly belongs to the account of the Norwegian expedition and therefore will be told in that chapter, along with the equally fascinating story of the super-destroyers of our Fantasque-class in the grim battles of the North Sea.

Fifteen Days of War in the Mediterranean

It was a strange aberration that led Benito Mussolini to the balcony of the Palazzo di Venezia on June 10, 1940, to announce to the world the entry of Italy into the war. Strange, because he had made apparently sincere attempts to prevent the outbreak of war during that month of August, 1939. Upon the outbreak of hostilities he had immediately declared his country a nonbelligerent. Like the democracies, he had sided with Finland against the invading Russians. All along he had permitted Italian industry to fill French orders for war materials. In short, while remaining technically faithful to the Axis pact, he had given proof of intelligent moderation. Now he had suddenly given France the “stab in the back.” In actuality it was not France, but his own country, to which he was giving the coup de grâce.

There is no doubt that the Allies’ decision at London to blockade Germany by placing an embargo on her exports, even though these were carried in neutral ships, was a serious blunder. The Italians were exasperated by the stopping and boarding of their colliers bringing German coal to Italy, and still more exasperated when the embargo forced them to import this needed coal by rail over the Brenner Pass. Also there was undoubtedly a deep aversion between the Fascist leaders and many statesmen of the democracies. Nevertheless none of these reasons was sufficient to bring Italy into the war—which in the case of France could be considered almost fratricidal—and Italian opinion, including the military, was all against it.

The only explanation for Mussolini’s declaration of war is, perhaps, the slogan that circulated in Rome: “To participate in the peace, one must participate in the war.” Germany’s quick success in Norway had disturbed Mussolini. Now, with France apparently breaking up, he thought he had better get in a few quick shots if he wanted to sit down as a conqueror at the peace conference afterward—a conference where he could demand Nice, Corsica, Tunis, etc., as Italy’s legitimate compensation for participating in the victory.

The Allied Navies had been preparing against just such an action by Mussolini ever since the beginning of April. At that time responsibility for the Mediterranean was divided by agreement between the two Allies: the French Navy was to have responsibility for the western half, the Royal Navy for the eastern half. Although the British, strained by the demands of the Norwegian campaign, had given thought to asking the French Navy to take over the responsibility for the entire Mediterranean, it had been decided to adhere to the original agreement, with some slight modifications.

For instance, it was decided that as a precaution against Italy’s entry into the war, the French Raiding Force should be transferred immediately from Brest to the western Mediterranean, and that in addition another French squadron should be sent temporarily to the eastern Mediterranean where at the time the English had only some light forces.

In accordance with this plan, Admiral Gensoul’s squadron, consisting of the Dunkerque, Strasbourg, and several light groups, sailed for Mers-el-Kebir, French Algeria, arriving there on April 27. An improvised squadron called Force X, consisting of the old battleships Lorraine, Bretagne, and Provence, plus several heavy cruisers and some light craft, all commanded by Vice Admiral René Godfroy, were sent to Alexandria. They joined Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s two old British battleships which had just arrived there. Three weeks later, when Admiral Cunningham’s squadron was reinforced from England, the Bretagne and the Provence returned to the western Mediterranean; the Lorraine remained, to form part of a British division.

Thus, in order to cope with the Italian Fleet, the Allies had made strategic dispositions as follows: at Toulon, the Third French Squadron, of 4 heavy cruisers and a dozen destroyers; at Mers-el-Kebir and Algiers, Admiral Gensoul’s fast battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, and two older and slower battleships under Rear Admiral Jacques Bouxin, plus two cruiser divisions and many destroyers; at Bizerte, six divisions of French submarines; at Malta, a number of British submarines; and finally, at Alexandria, a British squadron and Force X, under the over-all command of Admiral Cunningham.

In basing the large ships of the Allied navies at the ends of the Mediterranean, far from Italian airfields, the Allied leaders were perhaps according the Italian Air Force the same respect they gave the Luftwaffe—something which experience later proved was overrating it.

Admiral, South (Admiral Esteva), who had cordial personal relationships with Admiral Cunningham, set up his headquarters at Bizerte. In anticipation of hostilities with Italy, British maritime traffic between the eastern and the western Mediterranean had been suspended and the ships routed around Africa. But in the western waters, traffic between France and North Africa continued as usual, under protective cover of the air forces of the 3rd and 4th Naval Districts and of the escort and patrol divisions in that area.

On May 15 the strategic plan had been formed that, if Italy entered the war, the Allies should attack that very night, should bombard her bases and industrial centers, and should shoot up her coasts to try to provoke the Italian Navy into coming out to fight. For aerial bombing, some Royal Air Force squadrons had been based in Provence, where they were in striking distance of the Po valley factories. The French 3rd Cruiser Squadron was to bombard the petroleum tank farms and other military installations in the Gulf of Genoa. The code name for this operation was “Vado.”

Other operations were to follow without delay: the Toulon forces were to strike in the Tyrrhenian Sea; the forces at Bizerte and Algiers were to raid southern Italy and Sicily; and the Alexandria forces were to strike in the Dodecanese and along the coasts of Cyrenaica.

Hostilities began at midnight on June 10. At 0850 on the morning of June 11 the French Admiralty sent out the order to execute Vado that evening. The English were informed that the French would rely on the assistance of their aviation units as previously planned. Admiral Emile Duplat, of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, received orders to go ahead even if the French Air Force could not provide him with air cover. When the order was confirmed at 1735 that afternoon, the cruiser force was assembled in the Salins d’Hyères roadstead, with turbines warmed up, waiting for night to fall so they could get under way and strike the target at daybreak.

Then, 22 minutes later, came the unexpected counterorder: “Cancel Vado. Cancel preceding dispatches. This is a Government order.”

Admiral Duplat sent a respectful but firm protest, but all in vain. Once more he was told that it was not the Admiralty but the Government which had given the counterorder.

Gloom settled over the ships. The crews had to be informed. The squadron made a crestfallen return to Toulon, since the Salins roadstead was poorly defended against air attacks.

What was going on?

The truth gradually came out. At Briare that day, during a Ministers’ conference one or them had remarked that, considering the position of France at the time, it seemed to him foolish to provoke the Italian Air Force unnecessarily by taking the offensive. This opinion had prevailed, and Admiral Darlan had had to abide by it. General Joseph Vuillemin, Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, received orders to stop the R.A.F. squadrons which were just getting ready to take off.

The decision thus made created considerable excitement. Churchill mentions it with decided acidity.

It is known that on June 10 the Italian Air Force was under very restrictive instructions: reconnaissance flights alone could be made, and these could not fly over the French coasts. It was really a most unusual war!

But the next day Mussolini lifted these restrictions. On June 12, some 21 Italian Savoia-79 bombers attacked Bizerte, damaging a few planes and setting fire to some gasoline drums on the Sidi Ahmed airfield.

Darlan thereupon managed to obtain a reversal1 of the counterorder. Vado would be carried out. Not that night, because there was not time enough, but on the night of June 13.

“Bizerte having been bombarded, the Government authorizes reprisals. The 3rd Squadron will carry out Vado the night of June 13. . . . Give British air squadrons freedom of action to attack.” Admiralty message, 2250, June 12.

As if to sweep away all French scruples, the Italians bombed Toulon that night, but so timidly that the French commander requested the antiaircraft batteries to save their ammunition.

The exact results of the shelling by the ships of Admiral Duplat at daybreak on June 14 have never been assessed. What counted were the exultant reports brought back by those who had participated in the action.

The squadron had approached the Italian coast in two groups, and despite enemy fire had carried out the bombardment exactly as planned. The Italian resistance had been feeble. Enemy aviation did not show up at all. Four or five motor torpedo boats attacked, but without success, and lost one ship for their temerity. Only one French ship was hit—the destroyer Albatros, which was struck in the fireroom by a 152-mm. shell, resulting in 10 men burned to death. She continued her firing, however, and returned with the rest of the squadron at 25 knots.

The first group consisted of Algérie and Foch; the second, of Dupleix and Colbert. Each group was escorted by two divisions of destroyers.

That same night the R.A.F. attacked the industrial centers of northern Italy, and the airplane Jules Verne,3 of Naval Air, gained laurels by bombing the gasoline storage tanks of Porto Maghere, at Venice.

The Jules Verne was a 4-engine commercial-type Farman plane with a 6,000-kilometer range of action. It had been requisitioned by the Navy to carry out scouting missions over the Atlantic. Though it had a negligible armament, it could carry over 4 tons of bombs. Manned by a crack crew under command of Lieutenant Commander Henri Daillière, the Jules Verne, during May and June of 1940, carried out a series of very risky operations over the enemy’s lines at Aachen, Flushing, and Rostock. It even ranged as far as Rome, where it flew several times to drop propaganda leaflets.

Its most famous operation was the bombing of Berlin—the first such action of the war—which it accomplished on June 8, despite violent antiaircraft fire. When the bombing officer had nothing left to drop on his objective, he took off his hobnailed boots and held them threateningly over the heads of the Berliners. The same petty officer, on a trip over Rome, became very worried because a bundle of leaflets he had dropped had failed to open. His comrades assured him that without a doubt he had made a direct bull’s-eye on the Vatican!

The following day Admiral Cunningham carried out a raid in the Dodecanese with two battleships, an aircraft carrier, and light forces. From Beirut, in Lebanon, Admiral Godfroy led the cruisers of Force X to the vicinity of the straits of Casso. The Bizerte submarines set up a barrier line in the central Mediterranean. Admiral Gensoul had sortied from Mers-el-Kebir on the false report4 that a German squadron was preparing to drive past the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean.

The origin of this false bit of intelligence lay in two suspected shadows—German supply ships, in fact—which had been detected in the Iceland-Faeroes channel several days earlier by the Northern Patrol, at the time of the sortie of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, during the evacuation of Narvik.

Surprisingly, almost no enemy submarines were sighted during all these operations. One launched an unsuccessful torpedo attack against a cruiser of the Raiding Force; another sank a Swedish freighter and a British cargo ship; a third, damaged, had to intern itself at Spanish Ceuta. Not a single enemy surface ship had shown itself.

Despite the entry of Italy into the war, French morale was high, and neither they nor their English allies had any idea of giving up control of the Mediterranean.

Merchant shipping in the western Mediterranean, which had been suspended on June 10, was resumed on the 12th. The ships followed the French and North African coastal routes as far as Port Vendres and Oran, respectively; there they were formed into convoys and routed, under escort, well to the westward of the Balearic Islands, as far as possible from enemy bases. One of these escorts, the French sloop Curieuse, rammed and sank the Italian submarine Provana 30 miles south of Cape Palos, on June 16.

Meanwhile, back in France, General René Olry’s Army of the Alps, reduced to three divisions, was holding its own against Italian attacks on the frontier. But on June 18, the Germans, rushing down the valley of the Saône, entered Lyons; on the 21st they occupied Clermont-Ferrand. To prevent his flank being turned, General Olry had to pivot hurriedly along the line of the Isère River. Instinctively reacting in the same way it had done when Paris was threatened, the Toulon navy yard rushed twenty 47-mm. and 65-mm. guns to that front, where their sailor crews distinguished themselves against German tanks at Voreppe, near Grenoble.

Here was the enemy in the valley of the Rhône. The usual throng of fugitives was swarming on all roads leading south. On June 21 a German bombing attack on Marseilles sank the passenger liner Chella and killed or wounded hundreds of civilians.

The port of Marseilles was one of the principal evacuation ports of southern France. Through here were routed not only many civilians, but also large detachments of troops and enormous quantities of raw materials—copper, brass, zinc, tin, molybdenum, petroleum etc. These invaluable strategic materials were hustled out of France ahead of the invaders, and were hidden in North Africa on the chance that there would come a day when France would reenter the fight.

During the days preceding the armistice, the majority of merchant vessels in French harbors got under way as soon as loaded and proceeded without waiting for convoy protection. But contrary to what was happening on the Atlantic side, shipping in the Mediterranean did not sustain a single loss from enemy mine, plane, or submarine.

People have asked why at this time the Navy did not evacuate a large part of the French Army, in order to continue the war from Africa.

As a matter of fact, all military groups which arrived at the docks of the French Mediterranean ports were evacuated. Even the Polish troops, for whom the Navy had no transports available when they first arrived, were safely carried away by the English—especially since they wanted to go to England, and not North Africa.

After the evacuation of Dunkirk and the ports of the north, the Royal Navy extended its evacuation operations—“Operation Aerial”—to retrieve all British troops and supply services still in France. It succeeded in evacuating approximately 180,000 men—including Polish troops—through Atlantic ports as far south as Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and slightly more than 10,000 through French Mediterranean ports.

One of the most interesting of such operations was the evacuation to Algeria of the entire movable stock of the French Air Force—trucks, cranes, tank cars, repair shops, spare parts, bombs, etc. This important material arrived at Port Vendres in sufficient time because the Air Force General Staff issued the necessary orders far enough in advance. At the same time all operational planes were being flown to North Africa.

The only way more troops could have been evacuated would have been for half of them to dig in and hold the Germans off while the other half hurried to the seaports and embarked. Such an operation would have been possible only if the plans had been made three or four weeks earlier, when there was still something of a front on the Somme and on the Aisne. But it was impossible for a single force to hold a front on the north and simultaneously retreat toward the south.

Also, it would have been necessary to assemble the required number of transports well in advance. At Dunkirk all that had been required was to evacuate, across a narrow strait, troops who had abandoned all of their equipment. But in the Mediterranean, if the evacuated troops were to carry on the war, it would have been necessary to load aboard with them the material they would need overseas—arms, ammunition, food, vehicles, petroleum—everything.

And to transport a single division overseas, with its necessary supplies and equipment, it was estimated that 20 suitable ships would be required. By violating all rules, it could have been done with half that number—but this would mean carrying men and nothing else, for while men can be squeezed, equipment is incompressible.

Briefly, it would have required 100 ships if it had been desired to embark, for example, 100,000 to 120,000 troops. And because of the demands for vessels in the Norway operation and in the evacuation of the Atlantic ports, the bulk of French Mediterranean shipping had been rushed to the Atlantic side of France. The same was true of English shipping, as the Mediterranean in principle was closed to it and everything was being routed around the Cape of Good Hope. Lastly, up until June 15, there was still talk of establishing a Breton Redoubt, which would have required additional shipping.

It is true that around June 12 the French Government did ask the Navy to plan for the evacuation of several hundred thousand men, without being able to give the dates or even the embarkation ports, Atlantic or Mediterranean. In order to obtain the necessary tonnage, the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, had decided to ask the British for assistance, and had sent General de Gaulle, Assistant Secretary of the Army, to London on that mission, as has been previously mentioned.

General de Gaulle’s trip was useless insofar as that mission was concerned. For the British had no time or ships to spare. Furthermore, there were no troops to embark. There were French ships in the Mediterranean sufficient to evacuate—as they did—all those who presented themselves at the evacuation ports during those days just before and after the armistice. These evacuations averaged several thousand troops each day, plus some civilians.

Since it was well known that armistice talks were in progress, there was not a person in the Navy who was not aching to fire a few last rounds or drop a few last bombs on the enemy before the end of the war—a day which they anticipated with great bitterness.

They just missed such an opportunity in the western Mediterranean on June 23. Some important French convoys were at sea that day between Marseilles and Oran. The 4th Cruiser Division, under Rear Admiral Jean Bourragué, with escorting destroyers, was convoying them. Coming out of their lethargy, the Italians had sent out a light task force, the Sansonetti squadron, the day before. After having steamed as far west as Minorca, these Italian ships were returning to their Sardinian bases when they were sighted by a French plane. The 3rd Cruiser Division, under Rear Admiral André Marquis, immediately got under way from Algiers to intercept them, but contact was lost and the enemy was not brought to battle.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the Lorraine sortied on June 20 with the British division to which she was attached. She bombarded Bardia, in Italian Cyrenaica, on June 21.

The French armistice delegation was meeting with the Italian delegates in Rome at that very time. When the news of the Bardia bombardment, as well as of the bombing of Trapani and Leghorn by French naval air squadrons, was given to the French delegates, a furtive smile lit up their faces. The Italians had the good taste to consider it all just a routine matter.

On the evening of June 22 the entire Franco-British squadron at Alexandria was scheduled to put to sea to bombard Augusta and to raid toward Messina, and to wipe out all Italian communications with Libya. The French cruisers were about to cast off from the buoys when suddenly the British battleships reversed course and Admiral Cunningham sent a signal cancelling the operation. The French were to learn later that the order to do so came from London direct.

The armistice with Germany had just been signed, and Churchill was taking no chances. In Churchill’s eyes it was imperative that French Force X be immobilized in the Alexandria roadstead, under control of the British, the moment the armistice became effective. It was the same pattern as was to be followed in the case of all French ships taking refuge in Great Britain; in fact the British admirals at Portsmouth and Plymouth were receiving orders to that effect at that very moment.

The French Navy had fired its last shots. But it was only now that its real trials and tribulations were to begin.