The Sinking of the Szent Istvan

Death at Dawn – The Emperor’s Last Battleship. Szent Istvan. from Stephan Mussil on Vimeo.

The Austro-Hungarian Navy in late WWI had suffered a consistent decline and severe setbacks. Since 1917, the Allies had begun to use large convoys in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic in order to maintain their supplies to the Middle East, as well as to Italy and the Salonika front, in a similar way as in the Atlantic. While escorting these convoys took up a large capacity of the naval forces, the effort was worth it. Following the entry into the war by the USA, American destroyers were incorporated into these escort operations, alongside the British, French and Italian naval forces. However, the Allies were aware that this protection was only a conditional one and that, ultimately, it came down to hitting the German and Austro-Hungarian surface and submarine vessels in such a damaging way that the threat to Allied shipping would be reduced. Attempts were made at improving the fight against the naval forces of the Central Powers in that – in the second half of 1917 in particular – everything possible was done in order to precisely monitor the radio traffic and to decipher the code words whenever expedient.

Germans, Austrians and Hungarians had long ago become dissatisfied with the development of the naval war in the Mediterranean, despite sporadic successes. German statisticians had calculated that the tonnage figures of the ships sunk by the submarines were decreasing constantly per boat and per day. Even the numbers of Austro-Hungarian sinkings since the autumn of 1917 alone were cause for concern. In October 1917, an outstanding 12,000 tons of shipping space had still been destroyed, but in November only 4,000, and in December 1917 not a single sinking. The Germans were also becoming increasingly concerned due to the Allied aerial threat to Pula (Pola) and Kotor.

On 12 November 1917, Kaiser Wilhelm had visited Pula and had made a vain attempt to convince the Commander of the Fleet, Admiral Njegovan, to decommission the capital ships and to use the crew for other purposes. The visit by Kaiser Wilhelm took place at a time when the breakthrough Battle of Flitsch-Tolmein had been fought, and Austro-Hungarian and German troops had crossed the Tagliamento River and advanced to the Piave.

For the Allied fleet presence in the Mediterranean, this naturally did not remain without consequences. Italy had requested additional support from its allies, and wanted it to be transported across the sea in particular. The first to react were the British, who had two monitors enter the lagoons of Venice. However, Italy had also requested that Japan send additional destroyers. This request could not be met, while instead, the British and French gave the Italians the good advice of using their own naval forces more actively. British destroyers spent 70 per cent of their time at sea, while the Italians lay in the ports for a larger proportion of the time. However, the Entente powers had naturally understood Italy’s concern that the Austro-Hungarian troops might perhaps still wish to expand on the successes of the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo by landing in the Rimini area, or attacking Venice. The Allies were also concerned that Italy might be forced to withdraw from Albania. If Italy were to retire from the war, it was even considered how the Allies might take possession of the Italian fleet. But all these worries had been groundless.

The situation in Italy had continued to occupy the minds of the Allies. At a naval war conference at the end of November and the beginning of December 1917, the Italian Prime Minister Orlando pointed out that the Italian armaments industry could no longer function due to a lack of coal, and hoped that additional coal supplies from the Allied marines of at least 100,000 tons could be provided. The British and French were not in a position to fulfill the Italian requests, but they could do nothing else but assume additional tasks in the leadership of the naval war, transport more supplies across the sea and protect the convoys as best they could. Here, the Imperial and Royal Navy no longer appeared to represent a significant danger.

The activities of the Fleet continued to be reduced. Like the land army, the crews on the ships and the entire naval personnel were forced to acknowledge that the hardships were now being felt everywhere, and that the shortages caused significant limitations. In the short term, a measure appeared to take effect that had in fact seemed obvious: Vice Admiral Richard von Barry organised a fishing fleet of 650 boats and 4,500 sea men, most of them former fishermen, who were to provide additional food supplies. However, ultimately, this was also not the solution. Morale continued to sink, and lethal boredom became rife. In 1916, the Naval District Commander of Trieste, Vice Admiral Alfred von Koudelka, suggested deploying the sailors with the land army according to a type of rotation principle. This would surely stave off the boredom. He then received the inmates of the naval prison in Pula, who did indeed serve at the front, but who after completing their sentences returned to their ships. The experiment was not repeated.

Aside from more minor activities, Njegovan failed to disrupt the Allied fleets in the Adriatic. Neither were connections interrupted, nor were there larger naval battles com parable to the one in the Strait of Otranto, for example. With the sinking of the Wien, however, the calamity had already begun to descend upon the Imperial and Royal Navy. Next came the mutiny in Kotor, then Njegovan was dismissed and replaced by Rear Admiral Miklos von Horthy. His nomination as Commander of the Fleet was accompanied by a full shake-up of the command authorities in Vienna, new appointments and reassignment of posts. Horthy began to prepare the Fleet for action, even if it was not aimed at achieving much more than keeping the people busy, and thus counteracting at least one reason for the mutiny. And when, in May, another mutiny occurred on a torpedo boat in Pula, Horthy decided to make an example of those involved, and had the two ringleaders, a Czech and a Croat, shot as a public warning. Twenty men from each ship lying in Pula were required to attend the execution.

Clearly, the measure had an effect, since until the autumn the Commander of the Fleet no longer had substantial cause for concern with regard to the discipline of his ships’ crews. However, this altered nothing when it came to the lack of activity of the Fleet. Older ships were taken out of service and disarmed. Particular attention was paid to Kotor, where there had been fears of an Allied attack since the autumn of 1917. In April 1918, Emperor Karl asked Horthy whether an Austrian submarine might be sent to the Black Sea. Horthy refused; he referred not least to the fact that the Austro-Hungarian flag was already present in the Black Sea, since the Danube Flotilla units had arrived there.

In the spring of 1918, the naval war in the Adriatic had begun to take on other forms. Italians and Austrians attempted to cause damage through small forays, landing operations and penetration into the naval ports. The Allied measures for protecting their shipping, particularly the convoy system and the intensification of the fight against submarines, were taking effect. In January 1918, the Germans lost more submarines in the Mediterranean than throughout the entire year of 1917. In May 1918, German submarine losses in the Mediterranean again increased sharply. The British intensified their air attacks on Kotor, which had a greater effect than the British themselves were aware. The necessity of taking protective measures, and only being able to depart and come in to port under highly specific conditions had an enormous deceleration effect on the naval warfare and also obstructed the submarines in particular.

In this situation, Rear Admiral Horthy wanted to repeat his raid on the Otranto barrier. This time, however, not only a relatively small squadron was to take part, but also the 1st Battleship Division. The campaign was planned for 11 June. On the evening of 8 June, the first battleship group, with two ‘Tegetthoff’ class ships, left Pula. Horthy himself travelled on the flagship of the Fleet, the Viribus Unitis. The second group of battleships, with Szent Istvan and Tegetthoff, left Pula on the evening of 9 June. However, the Allies had been warned. The increase in radio traffic and aviation activity had drawn their attention to the fact that an operation was being planned. Even before dawn on 10 June, Italian torpedo boats (MAS = Motoscafi Antisomergibile) fired two torpedoes at the Szent Istvan. The battleship was so severely hit that it sank in less than three hours. Then Horthy abandoned the operation, since the element of surprise had without doubt been lost. Thus, the final turning point in the naval war had been only too obvious. Of less significance was the fact that the Americans had also sent a submarine fighter unit to the Mediterranean, in order to participate in the blockade of the Strait of Otranto. The ships, the majority of which were manned by volunteers and crews who had no experience of naval war at all, were now no more than an outward extension of the Allied presence. Until the end of the war, they failed to sink even a single submarine.

Following the failure of the Piave Offensive, the situation also deteriorated week by week, indeed almost daily, for the Imperial and Royal Navy. The transport of supplies by sea for the Imperial and Royal XIX Corps, which was then renamed `Army Group Albania’, was already very highly at risk. No other supply and evacuation opportunities were available. Loyalty among the troops was diminishing continuously. The submarines were achieving almost no further successes. The Germans were now nowhere near being able to make good the loss of the Austro-Hungarian vessels, and an increase in their number to 28 in total in the Mediterranean in August 1918 (including the submarine UB 128 under the command of Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris) remained without impact, since the number of vessels that were suitable for action was decreasing steadily. Horthy described the Fleet as still ready for service, and also claimed that the consequences of the revolt in Kotor had been overcome. However, he pointed out that the continuous escorts provided for the convoys sailing up and down the Adriatic coast, which were attempting to reach Albania in particular, were making extremely high demands on the torpedo boat flotilla. Since the construction of fourteen submarines and nine torpedo boats had been ordered, and that it could still not be predicted when they could be put into service, the collapse of the Fleet within a foreseeable period of time appeared to be inevitable. On 17 October, the Army High Command ordered the Austro-Hungarian submarines to end the commercial warfare and instructed them to restrict themselves from then on to standing ready to defend the Dalmatian ports. At this time, the Allied fleet formations were already more or less sailing freely in the waters of the Mediterranean. They even used their battleships to attack the Albanian coast and to block the Austrian ports. The last major operation conducted by the Imperial and Royal naval forces was to fire at the port of Durazzo on 2 October, which, while having no significant effect on the port itself, gave an Imperial and Royal submarine under Ship-of-the-Line Lieutenant Hermann Rigele the opportunity to torpedo a British cruiser. Thus, the end had also come for the Imperial and Royal Navy.


Planning the “Dash” I

KMS Prinz Eugen

KMS Scharnhorst

Although Scharnhorst and Gneisenau posed a considerable threat to the British while lying at Brest in 1941 and the repeated raids by the Royal Air Force were far too inaccurate to do any serious damage, Hitler felt the two units were too exposed, and ordered them to return. Operation ‘Cerberus’, the daylight dash through the English Channel in February 1942, was probably the Kriegsmarine’s greatest success, for it took the British completely by surprise, the two battle-cruisers and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen slipping past ineffectual air and sea attacks. Apart from slight damage to Scharnhorst from a magnetic mine during the final phase it had been a humiliation for the British and proof that audacity pays.

The two great grey ships appeared off the entrance to the French Atlantic port of Brest just after dawn. They were Germany’s 32,000-ton battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau returning from marauding raids against Allied shipping in the Atlantic.

They had sailed from Kiel at the beginning of 1941. Evading the British Home Fleet based at Scapa Flow, they had broken through the Denmark Strait into the Atlantic. For the next two months like gigantic pirates they roamed the Atlantic shipping lanes sinking more than twenty ships totalling over 100,000 tons. It was the first—and last—successful foray by German battleships against Allied merchant shipping in the Second World War. Then in early March they seemed to disappear into Atlantic mists.

At 7 a.m. on 22 March 1941, as sullen French dock workers watched, they tied up at the quai Lannion in Brest. It was nearly a year since France had fallen and the French Naval base had been taken over by German dockyard workers from Wilhelmshaven. They had returned to Brest because they were badly in need of repairs. The two-months’ cruise had revealed serious defects in Scharnhorst’s boilers. The tubes of the super-heaters, especially, had given constant trouble threatening a major breakdown. German dockyard engineers who examined her estimated ten weeks would be needed for repairs. When her Kapitän, Kurt Hoffmann, reported this news to Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, head of the German Navy in Berlin, the German Admiralty staff were shocked at the extent of the repairs necessary.

Her sister ship Gneisenau was also in need of minor repairs. The refit of both battleships went ahead quickly but no Frenchman was allowed to work on them, for French workmen in the repair depots ashore went as slow as they dared to hold up the work of the German conquerors. Throughout the dockyard and in the town, the inhabitants were not only surly and hostile, but some of them were in touch with French underground agents, who would pass the information about the repairs to Britain.

After the ships’ arrival eight depressing days passed with unceasing rain and frequent false air-raid alarms. Then on the evening of 30 March came the real thing. The wail of sirens was followed by the crash of bombs. The flak gun crews poured up a curtain of fire but their shells could not reach high-flying planes.

Ashore, many officers of the German Naval Staff were killed when the hotel where they were accommodated was hit and caught fire. The ships were undamaged but when the fragments of bombs were examined by German experts next day they made an important discovery. The RAF had dropped 500-lb armour-piercing bombs specially made to crash through the armoured decks of the warships. The Germans then knew that this was no routine dock raid. These bombs were direct evidence that the RAF knew they were there. Now the raids would never cease. They were right. The RAF started to come day and night when weather permitted.

At dawn on 6 April a RAF torpedo-bomber suddenly dived out of the clouds. It was a Coastal Command Beaufort from St. Eval in Cornwall, piloted by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, who made a most courageous and determined attack upon Gneisenau. She was tied up to the buoy against a wall at the north end of the harbour, protected by the curving mole. The little hills all around the harbour bristled with clusters of guns and moored near the mole as extra protection were three flak ships.

The battleship’s position appeared to be impregnable. Even if an aircraft managed to deliver a low level attack it would not be able to pull out in time and must crash into the high ground surrounding the harbour.

But Kenneth Campbell dived down to deck level and flew steadily past the blazing muzzles of the flak ships’ guns. He skimmed over the mole and dropped his torpedo at point-blank range towards Gneisenau’s stern. As he did so, the German flak gunners hit him and he crashed in flames into the water.

But he had done his job. Seconds later his torpedo exploded against Gneisenau on the starboard side aft. Water rushed in and she began to list heavily. A salvage vessel which came alongside to pump tons of water from her scuppers had difficulty keeping her from sinking.

The bodies of Campbell and his gallant aircrew, Sgts. Scott, Mullis and Hillman, were fished out of the harbour and brought on board the battleship. Their bodies were draped in flags and placed on the quarterdeck, where a guard of honour was mounted as a mark of respect.

While this chivalrous ceremony was taking place, the salvage crews managed to pump enough water out to right her, since she could not remain in danger at the buoy. RAF spotter planes were now informing the British about every move of the battleships. Another attack like Campbell’s on Gneisenau would probably sink her.

The following morning Gneisenau again entered dry dock where inspection confirmed that Campbell’s torpedo had wrecked the starboard propeller and shaft tunnel. This would need six months to repair. She would be out of action twice as long as Scharnhorst.

When the British heard about Campbell’s heroic act he was awarded the highest decoration for gallantry, the Victoria Cross. The citation said: “Despising heavy odds Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell went cheerfully and resolutely to his task. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, he displayed valour of the highest order.”

As a result of Campbell’s torpedo both battleships were now due for a long stay so the German Navy decided to put their static fleet to some use. A detachment of a hundred midshipmen were sent from Germany to the Brest battleships to complete their training. They were posted equally to both ships and, as anti-aircraft defence was most vital, this was their main task. It became a brutal battle training for these budding officers. For some it was very short.

On the night of 10 April, the sirens again wailed and the first bomb explosions could be heard above the roar of the flak guns. Suddenly there came a series of tremendous flashes and explosions and a red glow lit up Gneisenau‘s superstructure. She had been hit by three bombs and was on fire. The bombs killed fifty and wounded ninety of her crew, the heaviest casualties being among the flak crews and the young midshipmen. At the time of the raid many of the off-duty midshipmen were in their quarters between decks. Most of them were killed by fragments of other big bombs exploding on the quayside.

As ambulances drew up at the ship’s gangway and long rows of stretcher cases were taken to hospital, Captain Hoffmann went across from Scharnhorst to offer help. He ordered a working-party to fight the fires on the mess decks, but they had to flood one magazine before the fires were controlled and Gneisenau out of danger.

The Germans’ main concern was to conceal the extent of the damage from the French, but each battleship could only make ten coffins, and this meant tiiey would have to call in French carpenters to make many more. When the order was given the news of the German dead spread rapidly among the inhabitants of Brest.

After this they arranged for most of the crews to sleep ashore in barracks, leaving only flak gunners and a duty watch in the ship. This raid also decided the authorities in Berlin to step up the A.A. defences of Brest. They increased the number of 4-inch guns to 150 and smaller flak guns to 1,200, to make a murderous concentration of fire. Also the two battleships were moved closer together. The lock gates were closed and protected by nets against torpedoes fired by either intruding submarines or wave-skimming planes.

In Scharnhorst’s old berth, Hoffmann built a wooden and sheet-iron replica of her on the hull of an old French cruiser, Jeanne d’Arc. Nets hung from the battleships’ masts to the dockside with paint sprayed over them to make them resemble clumps of trees. On the roofs of the Naval College the surviving midshipmen erected wooden huts to make it look like a village.

A network of artificial smoke-generators which could shroud the port under a thick fog within a few minutes was installed around the harbour. This last precaution aroused protests from the Luftwaffe who maintained that the dense smoke would endanger their fighter operations. This artificial fog also nearly caused a collision between the two battleships when they came to leave harbour.

The flak and the fighters gave them protection during the day but in darkness it was a different story. As the RAF’s heavy bombing continued nearly every night it looked as though not only would the ships be damaged but most of their crews endangered. Although many of them were taken at night in lorries to barracks in Brest, many were still being killed ashore so it was decided to move them farther out to avoid the raids.

They were moved at night to La Roche fifteen miles from Brest near the sleepy little Breton town of Landerneau. Both places were on the main line to Paris and the railway was used a lot to move crews about.

Hidden in a small forest of birch trees near Landerneau, barracks were built for the crews of each ship. It was also planned to build extra ones for the crew of another German battleship, Bismarck, due in for a refit after her own Atlantic merchant shipping forays. Outside the dockyard at Brest the large buoys swung at their moorings awaiting her arrival.

While the other two German battleships were being repaired in Brest, Bismarck was sheltering in the German-occupied Norwegian port of Bergen. But on a moonless night—20 May 1941—she slipped out, escorted by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. At noon next day, when the news reached the Admiralty in Whitehall, the Home Fleet was ordered to sail from Scapa Flow to intercept the German ships south of the Denmark Straits.

At dawn on 24 May the two German ships were in action with the British fleet, which included the veteran battle-cruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales on her maiden voyage. The Royal Navy had the worst of the battle. Hood, hit by Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, blew up. Prince of Wales was so badly damaged that she took no further part in the action. But smaller Royal Naval ships still shadowed the fast-steaming Bismarck.

In the afternoon the new aircraft-carrier Victorious was detached from the main force to attack her. When 825 Squadron of Swordfish rose from her flight deck to make a night attack on the German battleship, the leading plane was piloted by Lt.-Cdr. Eugene Esmonde.

At 11:30 p.m., when they were 120 miles from the carrier, Esmonde’s Swordfish squadron sighted Bismarck. Flying 100 feet above the waves in the darkness, they let go their torpedoes from less than 1,000 yards. As they banked away there was a roar followed by a flash and a curling plume of flame.

The Bismarck had been hit amidships.

The torpedo slowed her down, and after a three-day chase the Home Fleet again brought the Bismarck into action. This time she was alone. Four hours before the battle the Prinz Eugen had slipped away. The Bismarck sank under the guns and torpedoes of the Royal Navy.

It was on the night of 7 May that German naval officers at Brest, surreptitiously listening to the B.B.C. news, heard: “At 10:37 G.M.T. the German battleship Bismarck was sunk.”

The German Navy in Brest took the news of Bismarck’s sinking gloomily. Equally depressing was the lack of news of her escorting cruiser, Prinz Eugen. Had she too been sunk? Or had she escaped and was preserving radio silence in case her calls were intercepted by the pursuing Royal Navy? For five days there was silence. Then at dawn on 1 June a buzz of excitement went round the battleship crews. Prinz Eugen had appeared at the entrance to Brest Harbour.

She brought grim news. When her captain, Helmuth Brinkmann, made a report to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin about the fate of the Bismarck, he stated that the British battleships now had such good radar equipment that it could not be evaded.

The rest of the situation was also depressing. Despite German precautions, day and night raids on Brest docks became a familiar part of their daily life. Almost every day, the B.B.C.’s nine o’clock news reported that bombers had visited Brest to attack the German warships.

The British realized that this constant bombing might eventually cause the Germans to make a desperate dash home. A series of conferences was held between Admiralty and Air Ministry planners. As a result Coastal Command was ordered to establish three separate dusk-to-dawn radar reconnaissance patrols off Brest and along the Channel. They became known as “Stopper,” which covered from Brest to Ushant, “Line SE” from Ushant to Brittany and “Habo” from Le Havre to Boulogne. Fighter Command also organized daylight Channel sweeps known as “Jim Crow.”

On 29 April 1941 an Air Ministry letter to the three RAF Commands—Fighter, Bomber and Coastal—said: “Scharnhorst and Gneisenau may attempt to reach a German port up the Channel route during the period April 30th to May 4th inclusive. It is considered probable that the Straits of Dover will be navigated in darkness. It is considered unlikely that the enemy would attempt the passage of the Straits in daylight. But if this should be attempted, a unique opportunity will be offered to both our surface craft and air striking force to engage the enemy ships in force whilst in the Straits of Dover.” Bomber Command was instructed to have strike forces in readiness for the Germans leaving Brest.

At this stage, the RAF were well ahead of the Germans in their tactical appreciation. It was not until 30 May—a month after the Air Ministry had considered the possibility of a Channel break-out—that the German Naval Command West in Paris sent a memorandum to Grand Admiral Raeder in Berlin suggesting a contingency plan: “The possibility of bringing heavy ships through the English Channel should be carefully examined. The route is shorter than the Iceland passage. There are good escort possibilities, both air and sea. Enemy radar could be jammed. Superior enemy units would not be present and the passage would be in the close proximity of our own harbours to which ships could be taken in the event of breakdowns.”

Raeder reacted strongly against this suggestion. He drew up a formidable list of hazards: “1. The difficulty of navigation in narrow waters. 2. The battleships must be seen by the British. 3. The danger from mines, torpedo boats, torpedo-carrying aircraft and dive-bombers.”

But Raeder’s principal objection was that mine-sweepers could not clear a wide enough path for the ships to take avoiding action in the event of torpedo attack. He concluded, “The naval war staff therefore consider an unobserved and safe escape through the Channel to be impossible.” This view entirely coincided with that of his opposite number in London, First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound.

Raeder had good reasons for being cautious. For he had only five battleships—including the “pocket” battleships—to the Royal Navy’s fifteen. He had no aircraft-carriers, although the Graf Zeppelin was under construction—but never completed—whilst the British had six operational carriers.

Planning the “Dash” II

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941. (C 4109) Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight attack on German warships docked at Brest, France. Two Handley Page Halifaxes of No. 35 Squadron RAF fly towards the dry docks in which the battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU are berthed (right), and over which a smoke screen is rapidly spreading. 18 December 1941 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Raeder, one of the ablest and most professional naval officers Germany has ever produced, nursed his ships like a duck with ducklings. During the fourteen years in which he was its Commander-in-Chief no one had guarded the honour of the German Navy more jealously than he.

When Raeder rejected the Channel plan it was generally felt among the admirals in Berlin that this was the end of the matter. For Hitler trusted Raeder’s judgement and had promoted him to Grand Admiral, second only to Goring as Hitler’s adviser for the prosecution of the war.

It came as a surprise when Admiral Krancke, Raeder’s personal representative on Hitler’s Supreme Staff, was summoned to the Führer’s headquarters and, standing stiffly to attention, listened pale-faced to the tirade of abuse concerning the German capital ships and their officers which Hitler hurled at him.

Hitler, at war with Russia since June, was becoming alarmed at the numerous small British commando raids on the coast of Norway, starting with the Lofotens in March 1941. He considered the Norwegian coastline to be the most vulnerable section of his Western Wall. The news had also reached Hitler that British convoys were bringing tanks, aircraft and guns to the Eastern Front. He decided that Norway, where in any case he had always thought the British intended to open a second front, had now become even more strategically important.

Meanwhile the RAF continued to keep up their non-stop bombing attacks on Brest. A month after Raeder had rejected the Channel plan—on the morning of 1 July—it was Prinz Eugens turn. While she lay alongside the eastern basin of the commercial dock, a RAF bomb smashed the ship’s armour-plating and exploded in the most vulnerable compartments— the plotting room and transmitting station. It killed forty-seven men, including her first officer, Cdr. Otto Stoos, and wounded thirty-two. It also put Prinz Eugen out of action for three months.

On the other hand, Scharnhorst was refitted and on the morning of 23 July left for La Pallice, 250 miles to the south, for trials to test her super-heaters and practise firing her guns. Captain Hoffmann chose the shoal-dotted waters around La Pallice because they afforded the best protection against submarines and he needed only a few patrol boats to keep watch.

A tanker took her place in the dock as a decoy and was covered with netting. To disguise the direction of her departure, the Germans put out false oil trails leading north from Brest. In spite of this careful camouflage, the ever-watchful RAF spotted the move and reported that Scharnhorst was moving south from her berth. Was she about to break out into the Atlantic? As spotter planes watched her, the opinion grew that this might be the long-awaited escape.

Unaware of the British suspicions, the battleship performed perfectly, reaching a speed of thirty knots without difficulty. She returned to La Pallice that evening, expecting to remain there for several days while minor adjustments were made.

Before dark a group of Stirling heavy bombers attacked her and made one direct hit with a heavy armour-piercing bomb. More heavy bomber attacks during the night damaged La Pallice docks. At dawn a RAF photographic reconnaissance plane was over La Pallice. As it revealed little serious damage it was decided to mount the most massive daylight raid on both battleships.

Ninety-nine RAF bombers took off, arriving over the battleships at 2 p.m. Three Flying Fortresses, sixty-three Wellingtons and eighteen Hampdens attacked the Gneisenau in Brest while eight Halifaxes bombed the Scharnhorst in La Pallice.

This was the first time Fortresses, fitted with the new Sperry bombsight for high altitude bombing, had taken part in a raid on the Brest battleships. They had arrived in England just three months before and the attack that hot July afternoon on the German battleships was only their third operation.

Because of the height at which they operated they carried special aircrews—none of them over 24 years old. The pilots of the three Fortresses, Wing-Cdr. Macdougall, Sq. Ldr. MacLaren and Flt.-Lt. Mathieson, were told to concentrate on the Gneisenau. At eight minutes past two they started bombing from a height of 30,000 feet, each aircraft dropping four 1100-lb. bombs which burst on the quays and docks. Although accurate flak was seen following them a thousand feet below they were too high for the German defences. After they had released their bombs three Messerschmitts climbed steeply towards them but the Fortresses turned away and lost them.

At the same time Wing-Cdr. Maw led the low-level British-built bombers down to 6,000 feet, their bombs bursting among the dockyard buildings. Pilot Officer Payne went down to 3,500 feet and as his bombs straddled the Gneisenau both he and his front gunner, Sgt. Wilkinson, were wounded by flak.

The Halifaxes attacked the Scharnhorst at La Pallice from 12,000 feet. She was easily identified by the high-flying bomber pilots from a cloudless sky, and a row of five bombs hit her. Thick smoke began to pour from her as terrific explosions shook the ship. Two bombs exploded on deck, causing a great rent. Yet she was lucky. The three heavy bombs that penetrated the armoured upper deck and smashed through the hull failed to explode, although they caused her to take in 6,000 tons of water.

The ship began to settle with a heavy list. But the efficient repair-parties quickly righted her and the damage was promptly repaired. A signal went to the port authorities for divers, who found the impact with Scharnhorst’s deck had torn the steel off one of the bombs and had helped to prevent it exploding. The holes in Scharnhorst’s hull were soon patched up.

Good luck was still with her for, miraculously, there were no casualties. She returned to Brest at twenty-seven knots.

The autumn of 1941 was the beginning of bad times for the German war machine. Hitler’s blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union was slowing up at die onset of the savage Russian winter. Hitler was personally conducting the campaign from his headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, known as Wolf’s Lair.

Since the start of the Russian campaign Admiral Raeder had heard nothing from his preoccupied Führer. But on 17 September, as the Admiral was preparing plans for using his battleships in the Atlantic shipping lanes again, he was summoned to a conference with Hitler at Wolf’s Lair.

Hitler did not want to hear about the Atlantic plan. He was convinced the British were going to invade Norway and interrupted to say, “The Atlantic can be left to the U-boats. Your battleships, all your major units, must be stationed along the Norwegian coast. They can be of some use in guarding Norway against invasion. They will be safer there from air attack than in Brest.”

He called Norway the “zone of destiny.” Hitler, who had referred to himself to Raeder as “a land animal,” said to him, “Battleships are not good for anything. The big guns would be more useful and less vulnerable in emplacements ashore. I have plans for disarming these steel monsters and using them for the defence of the Norwegian coast.”

There was a second conference in November when Hitler produced a marked map of the Norwegian coast with areas shown from which the two battleships and Prinz Eugen could operate against the British. He was impatient with Raeder. What was the major part of German sea power doing bottled up and being bombed in Brest? He ended by inquiring harshly, “What solution does the Navy have?”

To placate him, Raeder brought out a contingency plan by Naval Group West in Paris which had been pigeon-holed. It suggested that, while awaiting completion of repairs to the battleships, an attempt might be made to send Prinz Eugen on a lone dash through the English Channel to a German port. Hitler, who had appeared uninterested, even bored, suddenly looked up and commented, “Why only the Prinz Eugen? Why not all the ships?”

Raeder, who was not expecting even the Prinz Eugen plan to be taken seriously, was astonished. He replied, “A dash through the Channel by a solitary cruiser is a very different matter, mein Führer, from a movement by a whole fleet.”

Hitler was the last person on earth to be put off by such a statement. “The issue of war will be decided in Norway,” he said. “Unless the British are fools they will attack us there.”

As he said this, he looked directly at Raeder and gave the Nazi salute in dismissal. Raeder flew back to Berlin and sent a signal to Admiral Saalwächter, Chief of Naval Group West in Paris, asking how soon the battleships could put to sea. He was not displeased when he received a reply that the two battleships would not be ready until December. It was just as well. By then Hitler, obsessed with the Russian front, might have forgotten this hare-brained idea.

At first Raeder tried to gain time saying he must have discussions with his staff. He explained the position to his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, in Berlin and also to Admiral Wagner, head of the Operations Section directing the war at sea, saying, “Hitler wants the ships back in home waters, for he believes there might be an attempt at a British invasion in the Norwegian area.”

As the Berlin naval chiefs studied the basic aspects of the plan their first objection was the state of crew training. The better trained the crews were, the more chance they had of pulling off a daring operation like this. Yet through no fault of Captain Hoffmann and his fellow commanders, the crews’ training and morale was very much below standard. Brest-bound as they were, always under the threatening shadow of the RAF, they were only able to carry out restricted exercises and drills. But the greatest obstacle to the plan would be the need for the strictest secrecy. Except for the most senior officers at Brest, no one could be allowed to know what was to happen. This would mean the crews could not be inspired by their training instructors with a promise of glory.

Yet the more Admiral Wagner studied the Führer’s plan the more he found he was not against the operation. This was because the entire world naval situation had changed suddenly on 6 December 1941, when America had come into the war. He considered the days were now over when the Germans could keep the ships in Brest as a constant Atlantic threat.

In his view, to do this indefinitely would be to invite disaster. The situation seemed quite plain; on one side there were the British with the increasingly destructive power of their bombing raids; but on the other side there was the menacing voice of the Führer. “You will remove the ships where I can employ them in the Norwegian theatre. Otherwise you will give me their guns and I will mount them in shore batteries. Make your choice, meine Herren.”

Was there an alternative to a break-out through the Channel? They could bring the ships north of Britain round by the Iceland route. But in their path in Scapa Flow lurked the might of the British battle fleet which was bound to intercept—and send them to join Bismarck at the bottom.

However, his intelligence reports revealed that the English appeared to have very little in the Channel.

His chief, Admiral Raeder, still did not like the plan. Like First Sea Lord Dudley Pound in the Admiralty in London he feared for his capital ships. If the ships were put out of action by the RAF or Royal Navy, it would be the virtual end of the German Navy as a force. Feeling that the ships would be too like sitting ducks on the narrow waters of the Channel, he told Wagner, “I cannot make this proposal to Hitler that we break through the Channel.”

Wagner argued the risk might have to be taken. He said, “If the ships are dismantled we will present the British with a bloodless victory. The German Navy will never hold up its head again. To concede victory to the enemy without a fight is to sentence the German Navy to death.”

Faced with these views, and the Führer’s fanatic insistence, Raeder began to give way a little—but he was still not convinced.

On 29 December, he had a stormy meeting with Hitler when the Führer persisted in his plan. When Raeder said that, after being in port for so long, his ships could hardly be expected to face the powerful British Home Fleet without some preparation, Hitler once again raved about “the uselessness of the battleships.” He refused even to allow the time for lengthy “shake-down” sea-going exercises and firing practice which Raeder wanted. For as he pointed out quite reasonably, they might easily be bombed and sunk while on these practices.

Raeder flew back to Berlin and passed the whole matter over to Naval Group West in Paris. Although the operation would be under the immediate command of Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax who commanded the Brest ships flying his flag in Scharnhorst, Naval Group West in Paris was responsible for all operational directions.

The Commander-in-Chief of Naval Group West was 59-year-old General-Admiral Alfred Saalwächter. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he had an exceptional mind. Although smallish in height, he was regarded in the German Navy as riesengross— “gigantic in stature.”

A Prussian, born at Neusalz on the River Oder, he had been a submarine commander in the First World war, but although he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross in 1940, he was no friend of the Führer, with whom, like so many German admirals, he had had differences.

Between wars, Saalwächter had gone round naval ports inspecting establishments and training personnel. He wrote a standard book on naval warfare for the German Navy, Seekriegsanleitung, which became the textbook for all officers.

His headquarters—Naval Group West—were in the Avenue Maréchal Faijolle, near the Bois de Boulogne. It was a large, four-storied mansion of Napoleon III period. The only indications of its naval importance were two striped sentry boxes at the entrance, each with a German sailor in blouse and gaiters carrying a rifle.

Saalwächter had a staff consisting of about fifteen high-ranking naval officers, with several hundred petty officers and technicians. On the upper floors of the mansion were the “cabins” where the staff officers lived and took their meals. In the basement was a big garage with a fleet of staff cars. The drivers were civilians, mostly white Russians. Their leader, ironically enough, had been a Russian admiral in the First World war.

As there were few German troops in metropolitan Paris at that time Saalwächter’s staff led a strange isolated life. They worked so hard they often did not go out for days at a time but they always had seats at the Paris Opera House because their chief liked opera. The only time Saalwächter appeared relaxed was when he was stealing an evening from his headquarters at the Opera.

At the end of 1941 Admiral Otto Ciliax, commander of the Brest squadron, was away on Christmas leave in Germany. He was not due back until the New Year. Ciliax—a product of the German: Naval Academy at Flensburg—was a tall, brusque black-haired man. He was a former captain of the Scharnhorst and was not very popular. He was a notorious martinet and nick-named “The Black Czar.” When a staff officer saluted him and his hand did not travel to his brow with regulation agility, a frown would come on Ciliax’s face as he returned his salute. A little bit later he would send a petty officer over to him with a message, “The Admiral’s compliments, mein kapitän, but he would like to speak with you.” Ciliax would say angrily, “I just wanted to tell you I did not like your salute!” As the Germans put it, he was a “starker Mann!”

Another reason he was not popular was that he could not delegate authority. In Scharnhorst, he and his staff had an admiral’s bridge immediately above Captain Hoffmann’s navigational bridge, and he was several times snubbed for giving orders on the running of the ship literally over the captain’s head.

If Ciliax met an officer whom he did not like the Admiral made him miserable. He suffered from stomach trouble and was frequently in some pain, which may have played a part in his irascibility. But with all his rough mannerisms he had dignity.

His Chief of Staff, the calm 41-year-old, pipe-smoking Captain Hans Jürgen Reinicke, had heard about his reputation before he joined him—so he was prepared. He swallowed what Ciliax said to him in public but later sought him out privately and told him if things continued in this manner he would put in for a. transfer. He had no more trouble and Reinicke became one of the few officers who could handle him.

Planning the “Dash” III

Hans-Jürgen Rudolf REINICKE [centre],  (*10/08/1902†29/01/1978)

On 30 December just after dinner an urgent signal was brought to Reinicke aboard Scharnhorst. It was from Naval Group West in Paris ordering him to report there at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Day. As the message said Admiral Ciliax was also being ordered to report in Paris, he realized it was more than a routine matter.

It was too late to catch the evening train to Paris so he took one the next morning. It was evening when he arrived at the Gare Montparnasse and crossed Paris to the Gare de l’Est to meet Admiral Ciliax recalled from home leave in Germany by the same cryptic message from Group West. It was not surprising that Ciliax, never noted for his good temper, came off the train in one of his blacker moods.

“What’s this all about, Reinicke?” he growled more than once. But his Chief of Staff could not enlighten him. They would both have to wait for their appointment next morning.

It was New Year’s Eve. They had a meal, split a bottle of champagne, and went to bed early.

The next morning they went to Group West headquarters and waited in a conference room for Alfred Saalwächter. He soon appeared with Admiral Schniewind, the new operational commander of the German Navy. Saalwächter briskly told Ciliax and Reinicke the news—the Führer wanted the three ships to leave Brest, proceed to their German home ports and then to Norway for operations there.

But Admiral Saalwächter revealed he was worried about the fate of his great ships. After he told them of the Führer’s demands he asked for their frank opinions. He was trying to organize expert opposition to dissuade the Führer. When Ciliax raised many objections against Hitler’s scheme, he told him to go away and put them in writing. After Ciliax had written his detailed objections, Saalwächter forwarded them with his own report to Raeder.

He wrote: “I submit herewith conclusions for the comprehensive scrutiny that has been ordered into the question of the withdrawal of the Brest Group eastwards through the Channel.

“The hazards applicable to a voyage of battleships through the Channel eastwards are summed up at the end of the outline.

“I view these hazards as being very great. I must for this reason alone give an urgent warning against it being carried out.

“On the 12 November I commented that one single surprise move to the west by one or by several battleships was feasible. But conversely, a move eastwards of the battleships is one combined with too great a peril. Subsequent navigation through the Channel would be rendered impossible because the element of surprise would have departed.

“It can be executed only during the period of the longest nights. It must be accompanied by control of the mine situation and air preponderance in the Channel.

“I do not take the view that the new experiences in the East Asian theatre of war can be taken as proof of the uselessness of battleships to abandon our warfare in the Atlantic.

[The sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft.]

Our opponent does not think so, as the unchanged characteristics of his heavy forces show.

“I advocate, as I have always done, the conception that the essential tasks of our battleships lie in the Atlantic.

“Our numerical inferiority affords us opportunities for success only by surprise offensive sorties directed at the enemy’s weak points which are to be found in his long Atlantic supply routes, and not by continually facing with defensive action a greatly superior enemy.

“At this time the best possibilities of success for the Brest Group lie in surprise action against north to south convoys. The Brest Group’s achievements already go to show that the enemy feels and fears this threat and straightaway tries by air attacks to rid himself of it.

“This pressure can only be made permanent if our battleship strength actually goes to sea. Yet even during the long period of repairs the enemy can hardly foretell with exactitude when one or several of the ships are able to pounce. Withdrawal of the Brest Group from the Atlantic means releasing the enemy from this strategic pressure.

“The plan for tying down his heavy naval forces in the Atlantic falls apart. Maintenance of pressure on other theatres of war such as East Asia and the Mediterranean must also stop. A perceptible strengthening of English sea power in East Asia will follow, thereby impeding Japan.

“In addition to actual strategic prizes, there is great prestige for our enemy. On the other hand there would be a great loss of prestige for us which would be made far worse if the ships were lost by the voyage through the Channel. Political consequences very damaging to us and our allies are inevitable.

“If our ships disappear from the Atlantic or from the Atlantic position people would rightly talk about a ‘lost battle’. Naval actions from Norway would not make up for such a move.

“We do not stand there on the Atlantic just for raiding possibilities against the enemy supply routes. We threaten Scotland, Iceland, the North Arctic and Russia.

“In the Norwegian harbours the aerial danger and with it the stresses for the Luftwaffe would hardly be less. The enemy at all times could by choice of place and time have greater superiority. Liaison with any battleships in the Atlantic would be impossible.

“I am convinced that the problem of the Atlantic position as it is at present cannot be gone back upon later. In any case, it is clear that a “bringing back again” of the ships would be enormously difficult.

“Finally, there are indications that if our ships withdrew from the Atlantic after a lost battle, to appear again in home waters and remain there it would be injurious to the psychology of our own ships’ companies, of the entire Navy and of the German people.

“I am therefore convinced that it would now be a very serious mistake by us at this time to withdraw the ships from Brest in their Atlantic position.

“I consider their remaining there, even though with heavy damage and lengthy repair times, is the correct course.

“There remains for consideration only the slight relief of the Luftwaffe which would come about in Brest.

“If the withdrawal plan of the Brest Group to the East is adhered to, then examination might be made as to whether Prinz Eugen should take part. By the cruiser remaining at Brest, at least a portion of the present strategic operations of the Brest Group would remain in being to confront our enemy.

“I submit with this report extracts from three letters of C-in-C of the ships (Ciliax), corresponding to my point of view, which he sent me after the first conference on the matter in Group West.

“Should the question be put through the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht to the Navy: ‘Break-out or Disarm?’ then I would say with a heavy heart that against the ‘Break-out’ with its enormous risks, I would prefer temporary disarmament. For when the fortunes of the day change the ordnance could be restored, whilst a loss of these valuable ships and their crews could only bring damage without benefit.”

It was a gloomy and defeatist document and Hitler was to have none of it. He was concerned that the constant BAF bombing was slowly fraying the fabric of crew morale.

Although unaware of Hitler’s plan and Saalwächter’s strong objections, the BAF bombing of Brest increased in December. And for the first time photographic planes revealed that all three ships seemed to be preparing for sea.

On Christmas Eve the Admiralty ordered seven submarines to form an “iron ring” around the approaches to Brest.

The navigator of Scharnhorst, 42-year-old Helmuth Giessler, was on Christmas leave. When he went off, neither he nor any other naval officers at Brest had any inkling that Hitler was holding a pistol at Baeder’s head demanding the ships leave Brest. At that time not even Admiral Ciliax had the faintest suspicion of their fate.

Giessler came back from his leave on the same day as Vice-Admiral Ciliax returned from the New Year’s Day conference with Admiral Saalwächter at Naval Group West in Paris. That evening Ciliax summoned him to his cabin. As navigating officer of the flagship he was responsible for the whole squadron so he had to be one of the first to be told about the plan. Ciliax informed him in his usual brusque way about the proposed operation. He added crisply, “Consider your needs and requirements, Giessler, and what preparations you consider necessary. You have until morning!”

With these words the Admiral dismissed him. That night Giessler climbed into his bunk but did not get a wink of sleep. He tossed about all night with the information racing through his brain.

A voyage of these great battleships through the narrow English Channel had been so improbable that he had hardly looked at the Channel charts—he had never considered them as waters where the Scharnhorst might sail. Now the problem was how to obtain these charts without arousing gossip and suspicion.

Next morning he called Chief Petty Officer Wehrlich to his cabin and handed him a list. “I require these charts, of the Mediterranean and these charts of Icelandic waters,” he said. “Also these of the West African coast.” He also demanded pilot books of the Mediterranean and everywhere else he could think of. Wehrlich kept bringing so much navigational material that towards the end of the day he could hardly enter his cabin for papers and books. Among this pile of material were his charts of the English Channel. In the middle of all his other requests, Giessler had slipped in a casual order for them.

Giessler had an extra problem. He knew Wehrlich was not experienced enough for the magnitude of his task—but Wehrlich’s predecessor, Lt. Johann Hinrichs was. He was the man he wanted at his side to help plan this vital operation.

He was now the skipper of a fleet of mine-sweeping trawlers, but when Giessler explained the situation to Ciliax, a puzzled Hinrichs received a secret signal posting him back to Scharnhorst. When he arrived Giessler let him into the secret. During those January days they sat together in the navigator’s cabin. Giessler kept muttering to himself “Ach so,” and humming tunelessly as they pored over his charts. They worked out the tides, times of darkness, depth of water, and the complete timetable the ships must try and adhere to hour by hour on the voyage from Brest to Wilhelmshaven.

While Giessler was working out his plan, unknown to him something happened which was to help him. On 2 January, the Royal Navy’s submarine “iron ring” faded away. High submarine losses in the Mediterranean and a bottle-neck in the training programme caused the “subs” to be withdrawn—and surveillance left to the RAE

Yet, as if to confirm Hitler’s attitude, at 8:30 p.m. on 6 January 1942, a RAF bomb burst against the hull of the Gneisenau as she was lying in Number Eight Dock. Several yards of her armour were ripped and two compartments were flooded.

On 12 January, Admirals Raeder, Saalwächter and Ciliax were summoned to Wolfs Lair for the final full-scale conference. Raeder brought his Chief of Staff, Admiral Fricke, while Ciliax was accompanied by Captain Reinicke, his own Chief of Staff, and Saalwächter by his mine expert, Commodore Friedrich Rüge. The. Luftwaffe was represented by Göring’s Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, accompanied by one of Germany’s famous fighter aces, Col. Adolf Galland, who had fought in the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War and was a veteran of the Rattles of France and Britain.

They arrived in a snowstorm at Wolfs Lair. Lt.-General Jodl, Hitler’s personal military adviser, who lived and worked there, described the Führer’s headquarters as “a cross between a monastery and a concentration camp.”

Hitler spent his days in a concrete bunker with a 20-foot thick roof. It was a sealed box with no window and no outlet to the open air. Next door was another similar concrete bunker used by Hitler as his map room, where he stood waiting for them. After giving them the Nazi salute he asked them to be seated round the big conference table.

At Hitler’s request, Raeder opened the session, saying, “The question of the passage of the Brest Group through the Channel has been examined by all agencies concerned. In the light of the Führer’s opinion, the German Fleet’s primary task is to defend the Norwegian coast and ports and, in so doing, it should use its might unsparingly. Since you, mein Führer, informed me that you insist upon the return of the heavy units to their home bases, I suggest that Vice-Admiral Ciliax report on the details of how this operation is to be prepared and carried out, and that Commodore Ruge subsequently report on the necessary mine-sweeping measures, to enable you, mein Führer, to make the final decision afterwards.”

Hitler replied: “The Naval Force at Brest has, above all, the welcome effect of tying up enemy air forces and diverting them from making attacks upon the German homeland. But with our ships at Brest, enemy sea forces are tied up to no greater extent than would be the case if the ships were stationed in Norway. If I could see any chance that the ships might remain undamaged for four to five months and, thereafter, be employed in operations in the Atlantic, I might be more inclined to consider leaving them in Brest.

“Since in my opinion such a development is not to be expected, I am determined to withdraw the ships from Brest to avoid exposing them to chance hits day after day. I fear that there will be a large-scale British-Russian offensive in Norway. I think that if a strong task force of battleships and cruisers, practically the entire German Fleet, were stationed along the Norwegian coast, it could, in conjunction with the German Air Force, make a decisive contribution towards the defence of the area.”

Then it was Ciliax’s turn. “I recommend the necessity of leaving Brest under cover of darkness, taking maximum advantage of the element of surprise, and of passing through the Straits of Dover in the daytime. This will make the most effective use of the means of defence at our disposal.”

Hitler agreed, saying, “I emphasize particularly the surprise to be achieved by having the ships leave after dark.”

Ciliax said, “I must stress emphatically that a very strong destroyer and fighter protection must be provided on the day of the break-through itself from dawn to dusk.”

“I am aware of the decisive role to be played by the Air Force in this enterprise,” replied Hitler and turned to Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Lt.-General Jeschonnek, who said, “I do not believe I will be able to provide constant unfailing protection for the ships with the available 250 fighters which cannot possibly be reinforced.”

Even in the presence of the Führer he was exhibiting the Luftwaffe’s traditional reluctance to co-operate with the Navy. But with Hitler’s cold eyes upon him, Jeschonnek hastily promised to draw on the existing night-fighter formation to provide dawn fighter protection.

Hitler then asked for opinions as to the possibility of using the northern route saying, “I do not care which route is selected by the Navy, if only it is successful in getting those ships transferred to Norwegian waters.”

The four Admirals explained that the northern route was not suitable for several reasons. Baeder commented, “The present disposition of enemy forces is against such a move; there are two or three battleships and two aircraft-carriers in the Home Fleet. Moreover, the German air forces would not be able to provide the necessary air cover.”

Commodore Buge, commanding the seaward defences of the occupied French coast, including the mine-sweeping and mine-laying forces, was asked to report. Buge was able to assure Hitler that the menace from mines, always regarded as the main danger to forcing a passage through the Channel, was not as bad as imagined.

Baeder, still unsure of the Luftwaffe’s full support, repeated his demands to the Air Force for a very strong fighter cover. He also asked for attacks on enemy torpedo plane bases in the early morning of the day of the break-through, and possibly a few days earlier.

Lt.-General Jeschonnek replied stiffly, “The constant air cover demanded will leave insufficient aircraft for the heavy air battles that are sure to develop on the day of the breakthrough. We may expect our fighter force to become very inferior in strength—at least during the afternoon. Also our own anti-aircraft personnel are susceptible to fatigue in the afternoon as experience has shown.”

Col. Galland, who was to command the Luftwaffe fighter cover, also offered his opinion, “The strong Spitfire forces at the disposal of the British will render things difficult for the long-range fighters which we are going to employ.”

Raeder remarked that tide and daylight would determine the timing of the operation. That was the reason the date could not be changed. When he asked what should be done in case one or several ships were unable to move on the date set, Hitler decided, “If two battleships are in a position to move, they are to undertake the operation, if necessary without the cruiser. If only one battleship and the cruiser can move, they must do likewise. But in no case should the Prinz Eugen do so alone.”

Then Hitler, cutting through both air and naval objections, said briskly, “The ships must not leave port in the daytime as we are dependent on the element of surprise. This means that they will have to pass through the Dover Straits in the daytime. In view of past experience I do not believe the British capable of making and carrying out lightning decisions.

“This is why I do not think they will be as swift as is assumed by the Naval Staff and the Admiral Commanding Battleships in shifting their bomber and pursuit forces to the south-eastern part of England for an attack on our ships in the Dover Straits.

“Picture what would happen if the situation were reversed!—if a surprise report came in that British battleships have appeared in the Thames estuary and are heading for the Straits of Dover. In my opinion, even we would hardly be able to bring up air pursuit forces and bomber forces swiftly and mediodi-cally.”

He added dramatically, “The situation of the Brest Group is comparable with that of a cancer patient, who is doomed unless he submits to an operation. An operation, even though it might be a drastic one, will offer at least some hope that the patient’s life may yet be saved. The passage of our ships through the Channel would be such an operation. It must therefore be attempted.”

Finally Hitler said, “Nothing can be gained by leaving the ships at Brest. Should the Brest Group manage to escape through the Channel, however, there is a chance that it might be employed to good advantage at a later date. If the ships remain at Brest their ability to tie up enemy air forces may not continue for long. As long as they are in battle-worthy condition they will constitute worthwhile targets, which the enemy will feel obliged to attack. But the moment they are seriously damaged—and this may happen any day—the enemy will discontinue his attacks. In view of all this and in accordance with the suggestion of the C-in-C Navy I decide that the operation is to be prepared as proposed.”

That was it. After the conference Hitler entertained his admirals and generals at dinner in the concrete shelter where he lived. He ate frugally as usual but was more genial than anyone had seen him for a long time. He said, almost jovially, “You will find that this operation will turn out to be our most spectacular naval success of the war.”

He revealed his only doubt—would the Luftwaffe manage it? He realized that Galland with his fighters was the key figure in the operation. Saying good-bye to him he asked quietly, “Do you think they will bring it off?” When Galland assured him he thought they would he dismissed him with a rare smile.

The decision was made. Far from dismantling the great ships the Germans were to fight them through the English Channel in daylight. An attempt like this had not been made by an enemy of England for over three centuries—since the Spanish Armada of 1588.







Contemporary watercolor drawing of the American line of battle by Charles Randle. Drawing is titled as follows: New England Armed Vessels in Valcore Bay, Lake Champlain [including Royal Savage, Revenge, Lee, Trumble, Washington, Congress, Philadelphia, New York, Jersey,. Connecticut, Providence, New haven, Spitfire, Boston, and the Liberty] commanded by Benedict Arnold.

Control of the waters of Lake Champlain was key to the invasion of Canada from the south or of New York from the north. In 1775 all travel was on foot or waterborne. The only feasible route for a road between New York City and Montreal hugged the western shore of the lake so closely that it could be dominated by guns aboard lake vessels or cut by troops landed behind an army’s line of march from boats on the lake. There were few vessels of any size on the lake in 1775, and most that did exist were of the small, rowing type, with sails that could be used only when wind was from the rear. A flotilla of these craft would be at the mercy of a single armed sailing vessel. This explains the importance of the 10 May 1775 capture of a schooner belonging to the Loyalist Major, Philip Skene—renamed Liberty by the Americans—at Skenesboro at the southern end of the lake, and the use of the Liberty and two bateaux to capture a sloop renamed the Enterprise from the British at St. Johns at the northern end of the lake a week later.

After capturing the Enterprise the American commander, Benedict Arnold, returned to Fort Ticonderoga and devoted the summer of 1775 to building additional vessels. Meanwhile, the British dispatched four hundred troops to St. Johns and began construction of two large warships, each to mount from twelve to fourteen guns. Philip Schuyler, who had succeeded Arnold in command of U.S. forces in northern New York, returned to besiege St. Johns that fall. On 2 November, the British garrison surrendered and turned over to the Americans a large supply of naval stores, the newly completed schooner Royal Savage, and a sloop nearly ready for launching.


In the Canada invasion of 1775–1776, the Americans lost their entire St. Lawrence squadron. However, when they evacuated St. Johns on 18 June 1776, they still had the Liberty, Enterprise, and Royal Savage, which they had captured in 1775. The schooner Revenge was being built at Fort Ticonderoga, and from St. Johns the Americans evacuated frame timber to build the cutter Lee at Skenesboro. During the previous winter Schuyler had ordered that trees be felled; that abandoned sawmills at Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and Skenesboro be reopened; and that bateaux be constructed for the transport of men and supplies. At Skenesboro he ordered work begun on gundalows (vessels of from fifty to sixty feet in length, flat-bottomed with shallow drafts that mounted a single sail and carried a bow gun and two guns amidships) and galleys (larger vessels from 80 to 120 feet in length, with two lateen-rigged masts, and able to carry from ten to twelve guns).

The improvised boatyard at Skenesboro was worked by men from the ranks until thirty craftsmen were sent from Albany and another two hundred started arriving from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia. To lure skilled craftsmen to Lake Champlain, each was promised a month’s pay in advance, one and one-half rations per day, and a day’s pay for every twenty miles traveled to reach Skenesboro. This was more than anyone in the Continental navy, save Commodore Esek Hopkins, earned. In July 1776, Schuyler named Benedict Arnold to replace Jacobus Wynkoop as commander of the American squadron on Lake Champlain. When Arnold reached Skenesboro on 23 July, he found as many as five hundred men at work, three gundalows finished, and two others nearing completion. Arnold delegated supervision of construction to Brigadier General David Waterbury and devoted his energies to obtaining critical naval supplies—spikes, nails, hawsers, anchors, canvas, paint, and caulking. He was aided in this endeavor, ironically, by the British blockade of New York and Philadelphia, which helped divert supplies to Lake Champlain because it cut off the frigates being built at those cities. Arnold’s driving leadership caused his fleet to be ready more than a month before the British.

When added to the schooners Liberty, Revenge, and Royal Savage, the sloop Enterprise and the cutter Lee that had been captured from the British, the newly constructed vessels—the row galleys Congress, Trumbull, and Washington, eight gundalows (Boston, Connecticut, Jersey, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, and Spitfires), and numerous bateaux—gave Arnold a force the British could not ignore. Typical of the row galleys that would prove to be the most important American vessels, the Washington was seventy-two feet four inches on deck, twenty-foot beam, and six feet two inches in the hold, according to the Admiralty draught made after the British capture. The Washington mounted two eighteen-pounders, two twelve-pounders, two nine-pounders, and four four-pounders in her broadside, with a two-pounder and eight swivel guns on the quarterdeck.

One of the Gundalows, the Philadelphia, was recovered in 1935 by T. F. Hagglund in a remarkably good state of preservation, and a description has been assembled. It was an open boat measuring fifty-three feet four inches, fifteen feet six inches beam, and three feet ten inches depth amidships; flat-bottomed; and rigged with two square sails on a single mast. The gundalows were all armed with a twelve-pounder in the bow and two nine-pounders amidships; they carried forty-five men and were equipped with oars (as were the galleys). Having no outside keels, although this was called for in Arnold’s specifications, the gundalows could not sail into the wind; however, ‘‘with their relatively powerful rig [they] were very fast off the wind,’’ says the historian Howard L. Chapelle (p. 113).

On 24 August, Arnold sailed from Crown Point with the eleven vessels that were ready. He was joined later by the galleys Congress, Trumbull, and Washington and the gundalows New Jersey and Philadelphia as they were completed. The Gates was not completed in time for the battle. The existence of another gundalow, the Success, has been referred to by some authors, but it is not named as a participant in the Battle of Valcour Island by any eyewitness.


Meanwhile, at St. Johns, the British assembled a squadron of similarly disparate vessels. A large gundalow, the Convert, was captured from the Americans as they withdrew southward in June 1776, renamed the Loyal Convert, moved around the rapids on the Richelieu River, and reassembled at St. Johns, as were the schooners Maria, also captured from the Americans; the Carleton, which had been brought in pieces from a dockyard in England; and last of all, the three-masted ship sloop Inflexible, which was not ready for service until 4 October. The most remarkable vessel in Carleton’s fleet was the 422-ton ‘‘radeau,’’ or sailing scow, built at St. Johns and named Thunderer. Carrying a threehundred- man complement and two large howitzers, six twenty-four-pounders, and six twelve-pounders (manned during the battle of Valcour Island by the gunners of the Hanau Regiment), it was almost ninety-two feet long and over thirty-three feet in beam. The Thunderer had two masts (leading a contemporary British officer to call her a ketch), but being flat-bottomed, it could not work to windward and did not participate in the battle.

The British also moved several smaller boats past the rapids from the St. Lawrence: twenty gunboats each having one gun; four long boats with a field gun each; and twenty-four provision boats or bateaux—many received in frame from England. The Maria, with fourteen six-pounder guns, the Loyal Convert, with seven nine-pounders, and the Thunderer did not get within effective range during the battle of Valcour Island. The Inflexible delivered a long-range fire with her eighteen twelve-pounders initially, then was finally able to get within point-blank range and discharge five broadsides, which completely silenced Arnold’s guns and probably did most of the damage suffered by the American flotilla. Cannon in the fifteen to twenty gunboats that participated in the fight (Arnold estimated their number in those terms) varied in caliber from nine-pounders to twenty-four pounders.

At the start of Burgoyne’s offensive in 1777, the British flotilla consisted of the British gunboats and sailing vessels of their 1776 squadron; the captured Lee, New Jersey, and Washington; a newly built sailing vessel, the Royal George; five provision ships (Commissary, Receit, Delivery, Ration, and Camel); and ten transport bateaux. At Skenesboro on 6 July 1777, the last of the American squadron was burned by the departing rebels (Revenge, Enterprise, and Gates) or captured (Trumbull and Liberty).

BIBLIOGRAPHY Chapelle, Howard I. The History of the American Sailing Ship. New York: Norton, 1949. Lundeberg, Philip K. The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain in 1776. Basin Harbor, Vt.: n.p., 1995. Malcolmson, Robert. Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834. London: Chatham, 2001.

Naval actions at the Siege of Ochakov (1788)

The Russian flotilla waited too long before retreating, and one of its vessels, the double-sloop No. 2, was overtaken by small craft and its commander, Saken, blew himself up.

Siege of Ochakov Catherine’s favorite, Prince Potyomkin, failed to reduce the Turkish fortress of Ochakov by bombardment and blockade in the siege of 1787. It eventually fell to an assault by General Alexander Suvorov in 1789.

The campaign of 1788 revolved around the siege of Ochakov, the key to Turkish offensive designs in both the Crimea and southern Ukraine. In the spring, Rumiantsev led 37,000 troops across the Dniester, while in June Potemkin personally led 50,000 troops across the Bug to lay siege to Ochakov. The supporting Russian Black Sea Fleet succeeded in driving off a Turkish covering fleet and inflicting heavy casualties. Potemkin had little taste for risking his troops in an all-out immediate assault on the fortress, however, so he settled down with entrenched forces to conduct a classic siege. Only on 6 December, after exposure and disease had exacted a considerable toll from the besieging forces, dld Potemkin finally elect to take the fortress by storm. A concerted assault in subfreezing temperatures by six Russian columns carried the day, but not before Potemkin lost nearly 1,000 killed and nearly 2,000 wounded. A disheartened Potemkin withdrew his forces into winter quarters, then departed for St. Petersburg

This was a series of mainly small-ship actions which occurred along the coast of what is now Ukraine during the Russo-Turkish War (1787-92) as Russian and Turkish ships and boats supported their land armies in the struggle for control of Ochakov, a strategic position. The main actions at sea happened on 17, 18, 28 and 29 June and 9 July 1788. On 9 July also, the larger Turkish ships left and on 14 July they fought the Russian Sevastopol fleet about 100 miles to the south.

The Russians had a small sailing ship fleet, commanded by Alexiano, but finally taken command of by John Paul Jones on 6 June, and a gunboat flotilla (the makeup of which changed over the course of the fighting), commanded by Prince Charles of Nassau-Siegen. Both of these men had been made Russian Rear-Admirals, and were themselves commanded by the ineffectual Prince Potemkin. The Russian land armies were commanded by Suvorov.


The Turks had a large mixed fleet, commanded by Kapudan Pasha (admiral in chief) Hassan el Ghazi, part of which came in close to support the fighting, and part of which stayed out. It is hard to determine the makeup of this force accurately. Most of its ships were probably armed merchantmen, carrying around 40 guns, a few were probably larger. Different accounts give different numbers, but according to an 8 April list from Istanbul, the fleet consisted of 12 battleships, 13 frigates, 2 bombs, 2 galleys, 10 gunboats and 6 fireships. There were some xebecs (oared vessels of 30 or more guns) as well, but perhaps these were counted as frigates


On 19 March 1788, the Russian sailing fleet moved from its position near Cherson to Cape Stanislav.

On 21 April, Nassau-Siegen reached Cherson with his flotilla and on 24 April moved into the Liman.

On 27 May, the Russian Sevastopol’ fleet under Count Voinovitch attempted to leave port but was forced back almost immediately by adverse conditions. If it had sailed, it might have met the Turkish fleet earlier than it did.

On 30 May Jones arrived, but left to confer with Suvorov about the building of a new battery at Kinburn (on the south coast, facing Ochakov) before returning on 6 June.

Meanwhile, on 31 May the Turkish fleet had arrived. The Russian flotilla waited too long before retreating, and one of its vessels, the double-sloop No. 2, was overtaken by small craft and its commander, Saken, blew himself up.

After a minor action on 17 June, on 18 June at about 7.30 am 5 Turkish galleys and 36 small craft attacked the inshore end of the Russian line, which was perpendicular to the coast. At first the Russians had only 6 galleys, 4 barges and 4 double-sloops to oppose them. At about 10 a.m. el Ghazi arrived with 12 more vessels, but Nassau-Siegen and Jones had advanced the offshore ends to bring their whole forces into action and at 10.30 the Turks withdrew with the loss of 2 or 3 vessels burnt and blown up. At about 11 a.m. firing stopped and by 12 p.m. the Russian flotilla had rejoined the sailing ships.

On 27 June at 12 p.m., the Turkish fleet steered for the left (windward) end of the Russian line but at 2 p.m. their flagship ran aground and the other ships anchored in disarray. Adverse winds prevented the Russians from attacking until about 2 a.m. on 28 June when it shifted to the NNE, but the Turkish ship had been refloated and the Turks tried to form a line. At about 4 a.m. all the Russians advanced and at 5.15 a.m. they were in action. The Turkish second flagship ran aground and Nassau-Siegen sent in the left wing of his flotilla to attack her. This left his right wing weak, and Malyi Aleksandr was sunk by Turkish bombs. However, the Turkish battleship was burnt, this fate also falling to her flagship later. At 9.30 p.m., the Turks withdrew under the Ochakov guns; el Ghazi decided to withdraw his sailing ships completely, but the new battery at Kinburn forced him so far to the north that 9 of his ships ran aground, and the next morning the Russian flotilla surrounded these and several small craft and destroyed them all except for one 54-gun battleship, which they refloated.


The Turks had lost 2 battleships and 885 captured on 28 June, and perhaps 8 battleships, 2 frigates, 2 xebecs, 1 bomb, 1 galley and 1 transport and 788 captured on 29 June. Russian casualties were 18 killed and 67 wounded in the flotilla, and probably slight losses in the sailing ships.

The Turkish fleet appeared near Pirezin Adası, west of Ochakov, on 1 July, to try to rescue the small craft, but decided not to pass the batteries again and on 9 July it put to sea to meet the Russian Sevastopol’ fleet, which it fought in the Battle of Fidonisi to the south on 14 July.

On 9 July also the Russian army began to assault Ochakov and the Russian flotilla attacked the Turkish vessels there. Forces involved in this were as follows: Russian: 7 galleys, 7 double-sloops, 7 floating batteries, 7 “decked boats” and 22 gunboats. Turkish: 2 20-gun xebecs/frigates, 5 galleys, 1 kirlangitch (very similar to a galley), 1 16-gun brigantine, 1 bomb and 2 gunboats.

At 3.15 a.m. firing started. The 2 Turkish gunboats and 1 galley were captured by the Russians and the rest were burnt. Firing ceased at 9.30. Russian casualties were 24 killed and 80 wounded.


Battle of Valcour Island

Royal Savage is shown run aground and burning, while British ships fire on her (watercolor by unknown artist, ca. 1925)


The British followed up their success in clearing Canada of American invaders in May and June 1776 by cautiously advancing south to Lake Champlain. This advance revealed a facet of their capability because, on 11 and 13 October 1776, on the lake near Ile Valcour, a British flotilla that had been built from scratch under the command of Captain Thomas Pringle defeated an American flotilla under Benedict Arnold, destroying eleven American ships.

Upon collapse of the ill-fated Canada invasion, the British prepared a counteroffensive. In June 1776 they forced the Americans to withdraw from Canada, pursuing them as far as Fort Chambly on the Richelieu River. Control of Lake Champlain was critical to operations in northern New York because the only passable road hugged the western shore of the lake and troops or supplies moving along it would be vulnerable to waterborne attack. Thus, both sides hastened to assemble fleets.

Major General Sir Guy Carleton established a base at St. Johns on the Richelieu River and spent the summer constructing vessels, while the Americans did the same at Skenesboro at the southern end of Lake Champlain. On 10 September, Carleton’s army, including Major General von Riedesel’s five thousand German mercenaries, began moving southward. Leaving four regiments and part of a fifth with some artillery to secure St. Johns and Fort Chambly, Carleton sent a younger brother, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Carleton, south with four hundred Indians in canoes; these were reinforced later with one hundred Canadian volunteers and thirteen hundred Germans. Brigadier General Simon Fraser went into position about five miles north of the New York state line with the light infantry, grenadiers, and the Twenty-fourth Foot. Ile aux Noix, which the British had taken in August and later organized into a fortified base, was occupied by Burgoyne with six regiments (the Ninth, Twenty-first, Thirty-first, Forty-seventh, Riedesel, and Hanau). Captain Thomas Pringle, Carleton’s naval commander, set sail with twenty-five vessels on 3 October, the day after work was completed on the sloop of war Inflexible. On 14 October, Burgoyne and Fraser started forward with all but two of Carleton’s British regiments (the Twentieth and Sixty-first garrisoned Ile aux Noix). (All German troops were left in Canada except the Hanau artillery, which was on the Thunderer.)


Having left Crown Point on 24 August with the ten craft that were ready, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold moved north to Windmill Point, near the Canadian border. Threatened in these narrow waters by some of Carleton’s Indians, he had withdrawn to the vicinity of Cumberland Head by 19 September. Then, having taken soundings of the half-mile channel between rocky Valcour Island and the west shore, Arnold skillfully anchored his ships in a crescent-shaped formation across the channel on the 23rd. The day of the battle he had fifteen vessels under his command: the sloop Enterprise ; the schooners Royal Savage and Revenge ; the galleys Congress, Trumbull, and Washington ; the cutter Lee; and eight gundalows. (The Gates galley was still under construction at Ticonderoga, the schooner Liberty had been sent after supplies, and there is no record of a ninth gundalow, Success, being present.)

Carleton sailed southward cautiously until 11 October, when he rounded Cumberland Head with a strong wind behind him and overshot his quarry by two miles before he realized it. The Revenge sighted the oncoming British fleet as it cleared Cumberland Head at 8 A.M. and scurried into Valcour Channel to inform Arnold, who quickly assembled his commanding officers on the Congress, went over his brilliantly unorthodox plan, and exhorted them to put up a ‘‘resolute’’ defense. When Brigadier General David Waterbury, his second in command, advised executing a fighting retreat to Ticonderoga, Arnold overruled him, explaining that given the uncertainty of winds and inexperience of his crews, such a maneuver would be more dangerous than making a stand. Arnold ordered the Revenge to sail toward the enemy until spotted, then return and join the line of battle; ordered his four fastest vessels, Royal Savage, Congress, Trumbull, and Washington, to sally forth to inflict what damage they might, but also to draw the enemy into the southern end of the channel and minimize the chance that Carleton might be smart enough either to anchor out of range and await a southern wind or return up the lake to come around the northern end of Valcour; and ordered his (Arnold’s) other craft to form a line of battle across the channel, facing south.

When Arnold and his galleys and schooners withdrew, beating against the wind, the British impetuously gave chase. Caught by winds made treacherous by the cliffs and tall timber along the shorelines, the Royal Savage grounded on the southwest tip of Valcour Island. The British schooner Carleton (armed with twelve cannon that fired six-pound shot), which aggressively led the attack, blasted the unfortunate Royal Savage with a crippling broadside and was passing, with all sails set, along the American front when it was suddenly betrayed by the same wind and whirled straight toward the American boats. Under heavy musket and cannon fire, Lieutenant James Dacres, its commander, anchored the Carleton and then, with a spring in its cable, swung it into position to fire broadside. British gunboats moved to support Dacres, but four of the five larger vessels were prevented by the northerly wind from entering the fray. By 12:30 P.M., a general engagement was in progress. At a range of 350 yards, with observation impeded by a haze of gun smoke, the two forces hammered away. In the absence of trained gunners, Arnold personally pointed most of the cannon fired from the Congress.

After about an hour, the spring was shot away from the battered Carleton, which then turned on the anchor to face helplessly toward the converging fire of Arnold’s fleet. When Pringle signaled it to withdraw, nineteen-year-old Midshipman Edward Pellew, in command since Dacres and the next-senior officer had been knocked out of action, climbed onto the bowsprit and tried to make a jib draw into the northeast wind and bring it about to sail away. Unsuccessful, he remained a conspicuous target of massed cannon and musket fire until he could throw a line to two boats that came up to tow the Carleton to safety.

The chagrined crew of the Royal Savage manned its guns until driven off by gunfire. A crew from the Thunderer boarded it and manned the guns until driven off by American fire. When the Americans tried to return, a crew from the Maria beat them to it and set the vessel afire. After dark, the Royal Savage exploded when the flames reached its magazine.

The British gunboats withdrew as dusk fell (around 5 o’clock) and continued their fire until dark from a line six hundred to seven hundred yards farther south. About the same time, the Inflexible managed to come up and deliver five broadsides that silenced Arnold’s guns.

Carleton’s Indian auxiliaries had landed on both shores of Valcour Channel and began to deliver They delivered a harassing, but generally ineffective, musket fire from the trees.


The British thought they had Arnold trapped and expected to destroy him the next day in Valcour Channel, but Arnold had not finished outgeneraling Carleton. Aided by a northeast breeze, a dark night, dense fog, and Carleton’s fear of the shoals along the shoreline, Arnold’s battered flotilla escaped by rowing with muffled oars single file between the western end of the British line and the shore. Colonel Edward Wigglesworth led with the Trumbull at 7 P.M.; the Congress and Washington brought up the rear. (Two vessels remained in the channel: the Royal Savage, which was on fire, and a gundalow, the Philadelphia, which sank an hour after the battle ended.) By midnight the last vessel had passed the British. Unfortunately, the slight north wind that had aided their escape turned, and by dawn their ten hours of backbreaking rowing and pumping had taken the last five of Arnold’s battered craft a mere eight miles. At Schuyler’s Island, desperate attempts at repair were made. The gundalows Providence and New York were unsalvageable, so their equipment was removed and they were scuttled in fifty fathoms. The Jersey foundered on a rock and, being too waterlogged to burn, had to be abandoned. At about 1:30 P.M. the hastily repaired Congress and Washington started rowing south.

When dawn revealed Arnold’s escape, Carleton sent scouts to track him, set out in pursuit himself, and then returned to his starting point to relay orders to the army to move southward. This allowed the Americans to keep ahead of their hunters on 12 October, but the next day the British closed the gap. At dawn on the 13th, after creeping six miles in sixteen hours, Arnold and his last two vessels were abreast of Willsborough, twenty-eight miles from Crown Point. When the wind turned to the northeast the British benefited first and got to within a mile before the sails of the slower-moving American vessels began to fill. At 11 A.M. at Split Rock, the end came quickly. The Maria, followed by the Inflexible and the Carleton, forced Waterbury to surrender the Washington and his 110 men. The Lee ran ashore and was abandoned. The Congress and four gundalows (that had fallen back from Wigglesworth’s group) kept up a running fight against the three enemy ships, which used their speed and maneuverability to rake the Americans at pointblank range. In a final act of defiance, the die-hard Arnold signaled his ships to windward, a maneuver the British could not follow, and the Americans rowed for Buttonmould Bay on the east (Vermont) shore. Here he beached and burned his wrecks with their colors still flying. That night Arnold reached Crown Point (ten miles away) with two hundred men, having escaped an Indian ambush en route. At Crown Point, Arnold found the Trumbull, Enterprise, Revenge, Liberty, and (according to some reports) ‘‘one gundalow.’’

Unable to hold Crown Point against such heavy odds, Arnold burned its buildings. He then withdrew to Fort Ticonderoga with his survivors of Valcour Island and with Lieutenant Colonel Hartley’s garrison of the Sixth Pennsylvania.


Benedict Arnold’s name is forever linked to treason, but on Lake Champlain, against all odds, he constructed a squadron that may well have saved the American Revolution by delaying the British invasion of 1776 until it was too late in the season for Carleton to press further southward. Arnold had lost the entire squadron, but the stout resistance of his men led Carleton to fear that if the defenders of Fort Ticonderoga fought as tenaciously, then winter would close in before it could be taken. Thus, on 2 November he began withdrawing to Canada.