Antisubmarine War WWI – Mediterranean 1916-17

Kaba departing Ryojun, 1925. She was deployed in the Mediterranean in WWI.

Japanese cruiser Akashi in drydock. Rear-Admiral Kōzō Satō commanded the “Second Special Squadron” with Akashi as flagship with the 10th and 11th Destroyer Units (eight destroyers) based at Malta from 13 April 1917. He was reinforced by the 15th Destroyer Unit with four more destroyers from 1 June 1917 to carry out on direct escort duties for Allied troop transports in the Mediterranean.

The Allies had abandoned exclusive use of patrolled routes in the Mediterranean shortly before the Germans adopted unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans declared the great majority of the Mediterranean a Sperrgebiet (prohibited area) except for the extreme western portion off Spain, including the Balearics, and initially, the 20-mile-wide corridor to Greek waters. The Austrians promised to assist the Germans outside of the Adriatic. Their smaller submarines as they became available would now operate against Allied shipping between Malta and Cerigo. In the early part of 1917, the situation in the Mediterranean was deceptively favorable to the Allies, for in January the greater part of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla was under repair and refit at Pola and Cattaro after the heavy demands of 1916. In January sinkings fell to 78,541 tons, only 24 percent of the total of 328,391 tons sunk in all theaters. It was the lull before the storm, for by 10 February the Germans had 10 U-boats at sea in the Mediterranean, along with an Austrian submarine, and that month submarines sank 105,670 tons of shipping. This, however, represented only 20.3 percent of the 520,412 tons sunk in all theaters, for with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Mediterranean percentage of total sinkings inevitably declined. The successes of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla declined again in March to 61,917 tons, just under 11 percent of the total of 564,497 tons in all theaters. April 1917 turned into a record month for the Mediterranean flotilla, just as it was a record month for U-boats in all theaters. The Germans had 14 U-boats at sea at the beginning of the month, joined by 2 Austrians. They sank in the Mediterranean 254,911 tons (3,724 tons by submarine-laid mines), or 29.6 percent of the 860,334 tons sunk in all theaters. The Austrians contributed another 23,037 tons.

The Admiralty were so alarmed by the heavy losses along the coast of Algeria, which they naturally attributed to the ineffectiveness of French patrols, that they ordered British shipping to abandon the coastal route in favor of hugging the Spanish coast from Gibraltar to Cape San Antonio and then use dispersed routes to Malta. The French, however, complained that they were using more than eighty patrol craft of all sorts on their patrolled routes in the western Mediterranean whereas the British were escorting all British troopships or ships with valuable cargoes and following routes entirely different from the French. Furthermore, the French charged that the British used their destroyers to escort troopships, leaving trawlers on the patrolled routes through British zones. These trawlers often lacked wireless receivers and could not be counted upon to divert ships from threatened areas. Admiral Gauchet, now French commander in chief, described the situation on the Malta-Cerigo route as “every man for himself.”

Allied merchant ships deliberately made use of Spanish territorial waters. This proved to be correct, if not very heroic, and it naturally added to the length and duration of a voyage. German U-boat commanders were ordered to observe the Spanish 3-mile limit, and, in fact, to avoid mistakes they were normally to observe a 4-mile limit unless there was a particularly valuable target in the fourth mile and they were quite sure of their position. On the whole, German U-boat commanders respected Spanish territorial waters and the Allies made extensive use of them. The Allies suspected the Germans were violating them, but careful analysis of sinkings generally established that the ships had strayed out of those waters when they were sunk. It was not hard to do; navigation so close to the coast could be difficult and hazardous, and merchant ship captains often were inclined to take a shortcut across the curve of a bay, which made them legitimate targets for the Germans. U-boat commanders were not angels; they obviously found more than enough targets in the Mediterranean without having to violate Spanish waters.

The Mediterranean situation could not be ignored by the Allied leaders by the spring of 1917. In early April General Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff, asked Jellicoe about a joint statement from the British naval leaders as to what reductions at Salonika would be necessary if the British were to continue the war in 1918. Jellicoe was a strong partisan of abandoning the Salonika expedition because of the strain on shipping and naval resources to support it. He recommended the immediate reduction or withdrawal of the British contingent, and he advocated a complete withdrawal if the cabinet expected the war to continue beyond 1917. This would then allow the British to recover a number of patrol craft for safeguarding commerce in home waters, free a large amount of shipping to build up a reserve of food and supply the French and Italians with coal and other necessities, and permit the British to give better protection to the sea communications with the army in Egypt. The French could be expected to strongly oppose what in their eyes was a British attempt to abandon the Salonika expedition, where France was preponderant, in favor of the pursuit of imperial gains in Palestine. An Allied conference with the Italians at St. Jean de Maurienne on 19 April took no decision on Jellicoe’s proposal, and one is inclined to believe that if the Allies did not succeed in mastering the submarine danger the issue was likely to be moot. It would then be a question of whether or not the British could continue the war.

The conflicting policies in the Mediterranean had made it obvious that another international conference was necessary. The Corfu conference took place during the crisis of the naval war. It was held in Gauchet’s flagship Provence at Corfu 28 April to 1 May. The Allies unanimously decided they would not return to the discredited system of patrolled routes created at Malta in 1916. They would navigate only by night and along coastal routes whenever possible, and those coastal routes would be patrolled along with certain strategic straits. The conference made a major change in procedure: on routes that ran far from the coast, ships would be protected by convoys and escorts following dispersed routes, that is, routes chosen by a routing officer at the port of departure according to the circumstances of the moment.

The Corfu conference had really created a hybrid system rather than one of general convoys or ships sailing independently. All ships entering the Mediterranean were now required to stop at Gibraltar for instructions and formation into convoys before proceeding to Oran, although the authorities sometimes allowed ships to navigate independently without escort if there was no submarine danger. Ships followed the patrolled coastal route between Oran and Bizerte, but they were not necessarily escorted in those waters. Ships were formed into convoys again at Bizerte for the remainder of their voyage eastward. Ships bound from Gibraltar to Marseille or Genoa continued to follow Spanish coastal waters as long as the Germans respected them.

The most important decision of the Corfu conference as far as its implications for the future were concerned was the establishment of a “Direction Générale” at Malta, which was composed of officers delegated by the different navies and was charged with the direction of everything concerning transport routes and their protection. The idea was proposed by Admiral Gauchet, but the British managed to turn it to their own advantage, for they proposed that, without modifying the present system of a French commander in chief for all the Mediterranean, all the British naval forces be placed under a single commander. The British commander in chief would have an officer of flag rank charged with protecting transport routes who would be the British representative on the Direction Générale that Gauchet had proposed. The effect of this would be to give the British the predominant role in the antisubmarine campaign. Gauchet remained the theoretical commander in chief with the largest number of dreadnoughts, seemingly preoccupied with preparing for that major naval encounter with the Austrian fleet.

The French and the Italians had by far the preponderance in capital ships, but the real action in the Mediterranean by this date was the antisubmarine war, and here the balance had quietly swung decisively toward the British. In May 1917 the total of patrol vessels of all sorts in the Mediterranean, from destroyers to sloops, from trawlers to small torpedo boats, was: British, 429; French, 302; Italian, 119; and Japanese, 8. The British had really learned that the Mediterranean was too important to be left to the French. British interests, whether they were shipping or overseas expeditions, were extensive, and they could not rely on others who, with the best will in the world, were apt to lack the resources to do the job. The British were forced to assume the leading part in the antisubmarine war.

The Japanese contribution needs a word of explanation. The British had long been anxious for Japanese assistance. The Japanese had been reluctant to send forces to European waters, although they had, as we have seen, provided considerable assistance in the opening months of the war and later in the search for the German raiders. In mid-April Rear Admiral Kozo Sato arrived at Malta with the Tenth and Eleventh Japanese destroyer flotillas, eight 650-ton Kaba class. Sato flew his flag in the cruiser Akashi, which served as headquarters ship. In August 1917 the Fifteenth Flotilla arrived with four of the new 850-ton Momo class and the armored cruiser Idzumo, which relieved the Akashi. The Japanese were nominally independent, but actually carried out whatever orders they received from the British commander in chief at Malta. The Japanese in fact worked very closely with the British, particularly in escorting troopships. They soon gained an excellent reputation. Their ships were new and well-handled, and the British paid them the ultimate compliment by turning over two of their own H-class destroyers to be renamed and manned by Japanese crews for the duration of the war. This Japanese contribution of fourteen destroyers at a critical moment in the war against submarines has been largely forgotten, but under the circumstances it was far from negligible.

The decisions of the Corfu conference were only recommendations; they naturally had to be accepted by the respective governments. The Admiralty, however, acted fairly quickly, and the Malta-Alexandria convoy was introduced on 22 May with four ships escorted by four trawlers. It proved a success; only two ships were lost between 22 May and 16 July. The French on 18 June formally established a special directorate for the submarine war. The Direction générale de la guerre sous-marine was to a large extent the result of pressure from the French parliament, where there were strong suspicions that the French naval staff had been too tradition-bound and had not paid enough attention to submarine warfare.

Admiral the Honorable Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, second son of the seventh Baron Calthorpe, was appointed British Mediterranean commander in chief. He had formerly commanded the Second Cruiser Squadron and had been second sea lord in 1916. Calthorpe was hardly one of the household names of the war and was deceptively mild mannered. He apparently had a certain amount of difficulty getting his authority accepted by the other commands, but he grew in assurance as time went on. He also possessed good judgment, although he was unfortunately somewhat backward about realizing the value of convoys. At the end of the war he was destined to play a considerable role in negotiating the armistice with the Turks and subsequently became high commissioner in Turkey and the Black Sea. One of his staff officers considered him a man who never sought greatness but had it thrust on him.

The introduction of convoys into the Mediterranean proved difficult. The route structure was complex and the entire Mediterranean was considered a danger area, unlike the situation in the Atlantic where only about 350 miles required special protection for convoys. The British Isles naturally received priority in the allocation of escorts, and the Admiralty added to their own difficulties by insisting that convoys must remain small. There was also the problem of dealing with Allies, notably the Italians. The Italians proved extremely recalcitrant about contributing destroyers and escorts to the common cause, that is, convoys from Gibraltar, and Calthorpe really had no authority over their antisubmarine operations. The Italians insisted they were the only one of the Allies close to the enemy battle fleet, for Pola was only a few hours steaming distance from Venice. They therefore had to retain a significant destroyer force for the protection of Venice and needed their other antisubmarine forces for the protection of Italian traffic in the Tyrrhenian or on the routes to and from Albania and Libya.

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Japanese Seaplane Attack on the United States

B-1 1-15 type submarine

The states of the Pacific Northwest, such as Oregon and Washington, are covered with thick forest that stretches for hundreds of miles. These forests provided the Japanese with a plan to divert American men and resources away from other theatres of war, and to demoralize the American people by striking directly at mainland America. The Japanese attacks aimed to start huge forest fires throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the Japanese developed two methods to achieve this aim. First, seaplanes would be launched from Japanese submarines, the submarines surfacing undetected close to the Oregon coast. These seaplanes would deliver a small amount of incendiary bombs in an attempt to start a conflagration. Second, large balloons were designed and launched from mainland Japan, complex devices designed to cross the Pacific and release incendiary and antipersonnel bombs on America, code-named ‘Fugo’ by the Japanese or ‘windship weapons’.

The I-25 was one of eleven Japanese submarines that had been modified to carry, launch and recover the two-seater Yokosuka E14Y1 floatplane (code-named ‘Glen’ by the Allies). A large submarine, with a crew numbering ninety-seven and a cruising range of 14,000 miles, the I-25 had been constructed by Mitsubishi at Kobe, Japan, and completed in October 1941. Although she was positioned off Hawaö during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, damage precluded her from launching her aircraft to conduct reconnaissance for the attack fleet. In order to carry an aircraft, the submarine had been modified with a waterproof hangar positioned in front of the conning tower. To fit the Glen, its wings and horizontal stabilizer were folded up, and the floats removed. The aircraft was launched by means of a compressed air catapult positioned on two rails running along the submarine. After completing a sortie, the pilot landed the Glen in the sea, taxied up to the submarine, and the aircraft and crew were recovered.

Lieutenant Nobuo Fujita of the Imperial Japanese Navy came up with the idea of utilizing the reconnaissance aircraft carried aboard the B-1 1-15 type submarines, of which the 7-25 was the sixth boat commissioned, to launch incendiary attacks upon mainland United States and the subsidiary target of the Panama Canal. The I-25 was given the first mission, and Fujita would pilot the Glen. However, the I-25 had already visited the shores of America once before and conducted attacks. On 27 May 1942 her Glen was launched on a reconnaissance flight over Kodiak Island, Alaska, preparatory to the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands. So important was the photo-reconnaissance data derived from this sortie that another I-15 class submarine, the I-26, was on station with an empty hangar, ready to recover the I-25’s Glen should a problem arise. The I-25 continued her mission, travelling down the American coast, attacking the freighter Fort Camosun with her deck gun off Washington on 20 June. On the night of 21 June, the I-25 launched the first attack on mainland United States since the British in 1814, when she fired seventeen shells from her deck gun at Fort Stevens, a US Navy coastal defence installation on the north coast of Oregon. Some damage was inflicted on the baseball backstop and a major security alert was started. Fears grew that a Japanese invasion of Oregon was about to commence.

Having completed its patrol, the I-25 then turned for Japan, arriving back in Yokosuka by 27 July. On 15 August 1942, the I-25 departed Japan again and headed back to the United States, this time to initiate Lieutenant Fujita’s audacious plan to bomb America. By early September the Japanese submarine had arrived in foul weather off the Port Orford Heads in Oregon. The seas were too heavy to launch the Glen until 9 September. Surfacing just before dawn, the crew of the I-25 hastily assembled the aircraft and loaded incendiary bombs. Using the Cape Blanco lighthouse as a navigational beacon, Fujita and his crewman took off at sunrise and headed north-east until they reached the lighthouse, then turned south-east and covered a further 50 miles, releasing an incendiary bomb onto Mount Emily, in Siskiyou National Forest. Flying east for several miles, Fujita dropped his second bomb, and then headed back to the I-25. Unfortunately for Fujita, the bad weather, which had delayed the launch of his Glen on the submarine’s arrival off the coast of America, had also saturated the forests – his two incendiary bombs proved ineffective. Fujita headed back towards the submarine at low-level, but as the aircraft and crew were being recovered from the Pacific, a lone US Army Air Corps A-29 bomber, on patrol from McChord Field at Tacoma, spotted the surfaced Japanese submarine and attacked. Completing recovery of the Glen as the American aircraft released its bombs, the I-25, with minor damage, dived to the bottom of the sea west of Port Orford.

A second sortie was planned and executed on the night of 29 September, the submarine surfacing just after midnight approximately 50 miles west of Cape Blanco. The American authorities along the Pacific coast enforced a strict blackout, but lighthouses remained in operation. Fujita took off and used the Cape Blanco lighthouse again as a navigation marker. He flew east for ninety minutes, released his two bombs, and then returned to the submarine. Fujita reported seeing flames on the ground, but the American authorities found no trace of the attack, although an unidentified aircraft was reported flying east of Port Orford.

The final two incendiary bombs were to remain on board the I-25, which reverted to attacking shipping along the American coast. On 4 October the I-25 sank the freighter Camden off Coos Bay in southern Oregon, killing one sailor. She struck again on 6 October, sinking the tanker Larry Doheny off Cape Sebastian. This success cost the lives of two sailors and four US Navy crewmen manning deck guns on the merchant ship. A few days later the I-25 departed the American coast for Japan, and on the way home sank the Soviet submarine L-16 off Alaska, the Soviet Union not being at war with Japan until 1945. The captain of the I-25 mistook the L-16 for an American boat.

 

Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse I

Admiral Sir Tom Phillips (centre)

William G. Tennant of Repulse, shown later as a Vice Admiral. (Imperial War Museum)

Three days after Rear-Admiral Sir Tom Phillips arrived in Singapore to begin talks with Air Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the C-in-C Far East, and the Army’s GOC, Lt-General Arthur Percival, the Prince of Wales and Repulse entered the Johore Strait and proceeded towards their berths in the new dockyard. The fact that the two capital ships had passed down the potentially dangerous Malacca Strait without fighter protection from shore-based squadrons in western Malaya did not appear to disturb the Admiral’s equanimity, although both Captain Tennant of Repulse and, somewhat surprisingly, the Army’s General Percival had some scathing remarks to make about the RAF’s failure to provide even routine air cover.

Phillips’ apparent lack of concern reflected his deeply held conviction that ships’ guns alone would defend the fleet from even the most determined air attack. In addition he shared Churchill’s low opinion of Japanese air power and had, some months earlier, expressed the view that ‘the Japanese air forces, both naval and military, were of much the same quality as the Italian and markedly inferior to the Luftwaffe’. For a man without first-hand experience of attack by either of the latter and who was, in common with everyone else, totally ignorant of the capabilitites of the former, it was a somewhat rash statement.

The arrival of the two capital ships meant that the Eastern Fleet – a grandiloquent mockery so far as the title was concerned – could now be constituted as planned. But even on paper it was a less than impressive force. Prince of Wales was not yet fully worked-up; Repulse, although a crack fighting ship in her own right, was, nevertheless, a First World War veteran and had only been partially modernized; the vintage cruisers Danae, Dragon and Durban were slow and woefully lacking in anti-aircraft defences, while the more recently built Mauritius was undergoing a refit; and of the Fleet’s eight destroyers: Vampire (RAN), Tenedos, Electra, Express, Encounter, Jupiter, Stronghold and Vendetta (RAN), the four last-named ships were out of service refitting or under repair. Simultaneously with the creation of the new fleet, and in accordance with the decision already made in London some months earlier, Phillips was promoted to the rank of Acting Admiral to give him the necessary precedence over Vice-Admiral Layton whose China Squadron headquarters had been transferred from Hong Kong to Singapore on 12 September.

At the opposite end of the social scale few of the sailors manning the Repulse showed any interest in the pecking order of their superiors. But they continued to be concerned by their own apparent anonymity. For, once again, the Repulse had not been named in the Admiralty’s latest communique and the announcement of the squadron’s arrival in Singapore referred only to ‘Prince of Wales and other heavy units’ – an unnecessary zeal for secrecy that could have easily affected morale aboard the battle-cruiser had she been commanded by a less understanding and persuasive officer than Captain William Tennant.

In the course of his whirlwind round of talks and conferences, and following a meeting with the AOC Malaya, Air Vice-Marshal Pulford, Phillips had discovered a number of disquieting and unpalatable facts about the Colony’s air defence. The RAF, he learned, had only forty-three Brewster Buffalo fighters – a machine obsolete by European standards – together with thirty-four obsolescent early marks of the Bristol Blenheim bomber, twenty-seven antiquated Vickers Vildebeeste torpedo-bombers, and a handful of Australian Lockheed Hudsons, with which to defend the whole of British Malaya. Of these a full squadron of Buffalo fighters was being held back for the specific defence of the island and city of Singapore, while most of the remainder had been dispersed up-country to recently constructed jungle airfields with few facilities and inadequate, often non-existent, ground defences.

Nevertheless at dinner that night Pulford assured Captain Tennant that he would be able to provide the Fleet with adequate air cover should a Japanese attack take place. Unfortunately he did not make use of the opportunity to correct Phillips’ mistaken view that, providing he kept his ships more than 200 miles from Japan’s newly-built airfields in Indo-China, his fleet would be safe from attack.

Rigged out in their regulation tropical uniforms with knee-length shorts and long white socks, Admiral Phillips and senior members of his Staff boarded an RAF Sunderland flying-boat in Johore Strait on Thursday, 4 December, to fly to Manila for a conference with General Douglas MacArthur and the C-in-C of America’s Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas Hart. Talks between Britain and the United States on the subject of naval co-operation in the Far East had been first held in January, 1938, when it was agreed that, in the event of war, the US Pacific Fleet would operate from Pearl Harbor while the British Eastern Fleet – that beloved myth of the politicians – would concentrate at Singapore.

In May, 1939, however, the Admiralty warned the Americans that Britain could no longer guarantee the despatch of a full-scale fleet to the Far East if hostilities broke out and suggested that the United States should assume responsibility for the sea-defence of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Although the Americans made no comment on this unsubtle piece of kite-flying, the Pentagon prudently began drawing up an entirely new war plan – Rainbow One – which was based on the assumption that there would be no Royal Navy battle-fleet in Asian waters. It proved to be a realistic forecast.

Further staff conversations took place in London 15 months later and these were followed, in January, 1941, by formal talks in Washington. It was at this meeting that Britain came out into the open and urged the United States to divide its fleet and take over the defence of Singapore – a proposal which held little appeal for the Americans who viewed the so-called ‘island fortress’ as an outmoded bastion of Colonial power which was, in any case, indefensible. In the end it was agreed that a joint Australian and New Zealand naval force would protect the vital Australasian trade routes and that Britain would send six battleships to Singapore if the United States would provide assistance in the Mediterranean – a highly unlikely scenario as America was still neutral and was showing a marked reluctance to become involved in a European war.

By contrast, Anglo-Dutch talks at local level proved to be decidedly more fruitful, particularly after Hitler’s occupation of the Low Countries in May, 1940. And by February, 1941, the Dutch had agreed that, in the event of a Japanese attack, they would provide naval forces to help hold Malaya until the Royal Navy could despatch reinforcements. Finally, and not before time, British, Dutch and American discussions – known as the ADB Conference – were held in Singapore from 21 to 27 April, 1941.

This latter meeting was bedevilled by political uncertainties, for none of the participants knew the intentions of their respective governments should Japan assault only one of them in isolation. And while Churchill had pledged British support if the United States or its possessions were attacked by the Japanese there had been no reciprocal commitment from the American side. In fact many senior United States officers including Admiral Stark and General Marshall strenuously opposed the joint plan that emerged from the ABD Conference because its focal point was Singapore. And so great was American opposition that, at one point, the permission granted earlier to Admiral Hart to place his Asiatic Fleet under British strategic direction if the Philippines became untenable was withdrawn. Fortunately, the Dutch stuck loyally by their part of the bargain agreed in February and on 1 December, 1941, submarines of the Royal Netherlands Navy began operating under British control. It was a small but significant step towards the concept of a unified command structure. Nevertheless, such was the disarray of the three potential allies that they did not even share a common signal book – the first requirement for any successful joint operation.

The Manila talks opened on 5 December, 1941, and got off to a good start. The two Admirals quickly became friends and, somewhat to their surprise, found that they saw eye-to-eye on many aspects of Far Eastern strategy. Phillips, for example, agreed with Hart’s view that Singapore was indefensible and that Manila would be a more suitable base for fleet operations. Each, however, accepted that, as the British squadron had been sent to the Far East to protect Singapore, it must, for political reasons and at least for the time being, remain in Malayan waters. Both men also recognized that Manila could not be regarded as a viable alternative base until the air defences of Malaya were strengthened and the RAF could take over the Navy’s seaward defence role.

Admiral Hart entertained no illusions about the current situation in South-East Asia and, aware of the vulnerability of the Philippines, had already begun dispersing his forces. The destroyers Whipple, Alden, John D. Edwards and Edsall were despatched to Balikpapan on the east coast of British North Borneo on 24 November, while another group of four destroyers, led by the cruiser Marblehead, had been ordered even further south to Tarakan. During his talks with Phillips at Manila, Hart agreed to send the Balikpapan force to Singapore as a much-needed reinforcement for the British fleet, although he insisted, as a quid pro quo, that Phillips should recall the three old destroyers, Scout, Thanet and Thracian from Hong Kong – a bargain to which Phillips readily assented for the presence of American warships in Singapore would almost certainly lead to the involvement of the United States if the Japanese attacked. The years he had spent in the corridors of power at the Admiralty had made Tom Phillips very much aware of such political considerations and was, indeed, one of the more cogent reasons why he had been picked to command the Eastern Fleet.

The two Admirals also confirmed the decision taken at the ABD Conference eight months earlier that the defence of the antipodean trade routes should be left in the hands of a combined Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) squadron. This particular unit, under the command of the Australian Rear-Admiral John Crace, had been originally formed to combat German surface raiders and it was both suitably placed and adequately armed to protect the seaward frontiers of the Australian continent. It was a powerful force comprising the 8-inch gunned cruiser Canberra, acting as flagship, plus four 6-inch gunned ships – the New Zealand Navy’s Achilles and Leander and the Australian Perth and Adelaide – together with three destroyers: the Free French Le Triomphant and the Australian Stuart and Voyager, although these two latter ships were refitting and out of service. Three sloops, Swan, Warrego and the French Chevreuil, completed the squadron. Had these well-armed and modern vessels been sent to join Phillips at Singapore the Eastern Fleet, together with the four US destroyers from Balikpapan, would have been a formidable surface fighting force capable of smashing the Japanese invasion armada at sea although the absence of an aircraft carrier must cast considerable doubt on its ultimate effectiveness in the face of Japan’s air power.

But despite the spirit of friendly co-operation engendered at Manila the inability of the politicians to act in similar harmony meant that the uncertainties remained. And, unable to pledge themselves to support each other until such time as their respective governments undertook formal treaty obligations, it was impossible to appoint an overall commander capable of welding the three navies – British, American and Dutch – into a single cohesive unit. It was a failure that was to dog the Allies throughout the first six months of the Pacific war.

Even before Phillips had arrived in Manila the military situation in South-East Asia was a cause of increasing concern to the Western powers. The number of Japanese troops, ships and aircraft arriving in Indo-China had been building up steadily for several weeks and it was clear that some form of attack was imminent. The only element of doubt was its likely objective – the choice resting primarily between Siam, Malaya, or the islands of the Dutch East Indies. And even when the main landing force of 26,640 troops aboard eighteen transports and accompanied by Vice-Admiral Ozawa’s close escort of two cruisers and twelve destroyers left Hainan on the morning of 4 December its ultimate destination remained obscure.

The concentration of aircraft in Indo-China should have warned the authorities that Japan was contemplating something considerably more ambitious than the invasion of a ‘soft’ target such as Siam. Indeed all the evidence pointed to a major assault on a far more formidable objective. And the arrival in Saigon of Rear-Admiral Sadaichi Matsunaga’s 22nd Air Flotilla, or Koku Sentai, was clear confirmation that the Japanese were preparing for an important operation.

The 22nd Air Flotilla, as originally constituted, comprised the Genzan Kokutai with thirty-six twin-engined Mitsubishi Navy Type 96 G3M2 (Nell) bombers which had flown to Saigon from Formosa; the Mihoro Kokutai with a further thirty-six Mitsubishi Navy Type 96 machines, also from Formosa, and which was now based at Tu Duam, an airfield to the north of the capital; and a further thirty-six fighter aircraft and six reconnaissance machines at Soc Trang south of Saigon. The Japanese evaluation of the threat posed by the Prince of Wales and Repulse is apparent from the fact that the arrival of the two ships in Singapore led to the 22nd Air Flotilla being reinforced by twenty-seven Mitsubishi Navy Type 1 G4M1 (Betty) bombers from the Kanoya Kokutai – a unit forming part of the 21st Air Flotilla in Formosa previously ear-marked for operations in support of the invasion of the Philippines. Yamamoto thus contemptuously rated Britain’s two capital ships – Churchill’s much-vaunted deterrent – as being worth no more than twenty-seven extra aircraft – an increase of only 25% in the original number of machines allocated to the assault on Siam and Malaya. It was a piece of arithmetic that Phillips would have dismissed out of hand.

Before the Sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse II

As the Allied admirals and their advisers gathered in the US Navy’s air-conditioned conference rooms in Manila to discuss their strategic options on the morning of Friday, 5 December, the Japanese were already stepping-up their activities and, throughout the day, groups of transports together with covering forces of warships sailed from various secret anchorages in Indo-China in accordance with Japan’s master plan – possibly the most complex and ambitious series of landing operations ever undertaken in modern history, embracing, as it did, virtually simultaneous attacks by land, sea, and air, on objectives situated along a perimeter of some 6,500 miles.

Before flying to Manila, Phillips had come under pressure from the Admiralty to disperse his capital ships and move them away from Singapore – the War Staff in London apparently feeling jittery about reports of Japanese submarines converging on the base which they feared might presage an orchestrated submerged attack on the big ships if they tried to leave harbour after war had broken out.

In deference to the Admiralty’s fears, the Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, sailed from Singapore on 5 December with orders to proceed to Darwin – a trip which many on board hoped would lead to the ship continuing on to Sydney in time for Christmas. Although underwater ambushes rarely succeeded – Vice-Admiral Scheer’s U-boat dispositions before the Battle of Jutland and Japan’s cordon of submarines off Pearl Harbor being cases in point – the Admiralty’s concern at the possibility of a mass submarine attack was understandable. Phillips’ decision to send the battle-cruiser to Australia, however, seemed less explicable and appeared to be yet another example of a senior officer misjudging Japanese intentions. Bearing in mind the reason why the Repulse had been despatched to the Far East, it would have been more in keeping with her intended role as a visible deterrent to send the ship on a flag-showing tour of Sumatra, Java or perhaps Borneo – all of which would have kept her within steaming distance of Singapore in an emergency. But as usual the Admiral’s decisions and dispositions were subject to political considerations and his choice of Australia reflected a desire to impress the Dominion’s government with the Royal Navy’s on-the-spot presence and to persuade it to release the cruiser Hobart for service with the Eastern Fleet which, at that particular moment, possessed no operational modern cruisers whatsoever. The unfolding drama of the next 48 hours, however, was to prevent Phillips from putting his ploy into practice.

The calm atmosphere of the Manila talks was rudely interrupted on Saturday (6th) when news arrived that an Australian reconnaissance aircraft from Kota Bharu – a Malayan airfield close to the Siam border – had sighted a Japanese convoy of twenty-five transports escorted by a battleship (it was, in fact, the heavy cruiser Chokai), five cruisers and seven destroyers, steaming westwards through the Gulf of Siam. Whether it was heading for Malaya or Siam was impossible to determine at this stage, but it was clear that trouble was brewing and Hart responded by ordering his destroyer division at Balikpapan to raise steam and make for Singapore as a matter of urgency. The Eastern Fleet’s Chief of Staff, Rear-Admiral Palliser, who had remained behind when Phillips flew to Manila, showed similar initiative by immediately signalling Repulse: Return with all despatch – his prompt action being confirmed by Phillips’ similar instruction which arrived from Manila an hour or so later. And as the British C-in-C hurriedly boarded his flying-boat for the return flight to Singapore further sighting reports of Japanese troop convoys came in from the search aircraft winging through the gathering dusk of the rain-swept Gulf of Siam.

Two thousand miles to the east another Japanese invasion force had just set out from Palau – the islands that had witnessed Drake’s first historic landfall in 1579 – for the initial assault on the Philippines. And with equal stealth Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force was approaching the unsuspecting Hawaiian Islands from the north with its torpedo-aircraft and dive-bombers ranged on the darkened flight-decks eagerly waiting to launch the attack on Pearl Harbor that would finally bring the United States into the war. That same night the submarines I-121 and I-122 laid a secret minefield off Singapore while two surface vessels, Tatsumiya Maru and Nagas, laid another across the entrance to the Gulf of Siam between Tioman and the Anambas Islands. This latter obstacle contained around 1,000 mines and was to claim the Dutch submarines 0-16 and K-XVII as its victims later in the month.

If the Eastern Fleet had been able to sail immediately the sighting reports were received and had successfully intercepted the Japanese invasion force at sea there is a good chance that the enemy might have been persuaded to turn back, for the stakes were high and the Japanese had not anticipated being discovered quite so early in the game. Had such a gambit succeeded, Churchill’s concept of deterrence would have been justified. But it was not to be. Phillips was in Manila and the fleet remained leaderless until he returned to Singapore during the early hours of Sunday, 7 December. Moreover, 50% of the fleet’s main fighting strength, the battle-cruiser Repulse, was absent from its war station and en route to Australia. On this particular occasion the disarray was really nobody’s fault. But it was to have disastrous consequences over the course of the next few days.

Bad weather had curtailed air search activities during this critical period and although Japanese ships had been sighted for brief intervals such fleeting contacts in poor visibility made it impossible to determine their courses and probable destinations with any degree of accuracy. In growing desperation the RAF despatched two Catalina flying-boats to extend the search area further north towards the Indo-China coast. One machine returned empty-handed. The other was sighted by a Japanese fighter and shot down at midday on the 7th (0430 GMT) before it could transmit any signals. The RAF had suffered its first casualties of the Pacific war – nearly 14 hours before the first American serviceman was killed at Pearl Harbor!

But the situation was still uncertain and, despite a prodding request from the Admiralty asking‘… what action would be possible …’ if the Japanese landed in Malaya, there was little Phillips could do. He had already considered and ruled out the politically dangerous option of intercepting the invasion force before positive evidence of its destination was available. Now all he could do was to wait for events to unfold.

It is not generally realized that the Japanese landed in Malaya a clear ninety minutes before Nagumo’s dive-bombers swooped down on the anchored US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Based on Greenwich Mean Time the landings at Kota Bharu began at 1655 on 7 December (0025 on 8 December local time) while the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor at 1825 on 7 December (0755 on 7 December local time).

In addition to carrying out a number of landings in Siam the Japanese intended to occupy Kota Bharu, where the RAF had recently constructed an airfield, during the first wave of attacks. Another objective was the Kra Isthmus which General Yamashita was anxious to seize at an early stage of the campaign in order to prevent British military reinforcements coming overland into Malaya from Burma via Siam. The Malayan operation was therefore planned as a series of separate assaults and, to this end, the invasion armada divided up into its component units at midday on the 7th. One transport proceeded to Prachuap, another to Bandon, two more to Jumbhorn and another three to Nakhon – Siamese harbours which it was necessary to seize if the Kra Isthmus was to be secured. The main force of seventeen transports, supported by minesweepers, assault ships and submarine-chasers, continued towards Singora and Pattani in southern Siam while the remaining three transports with the cruiser Sendai and the 19th Destroyer Division steered for Kota Bharu.

The Siamese offered no resistance at either Singora or Pattani and the Japanese troops disembarked in parade order with bands playing and flags flying. By contrast the Siamese army strongly resisted British attempts to cross their frontier and gain control of the strategically important north-south highway. Although caught by surprise when the Japanese landed, the Indian troops of the 3/17th Dogra Regiment who were defending Kota Bharu fought back fiercely, heavy casualties being sustained by both sides. And, hitting back with commendable speed, a group of Royal Australian Air Force Hudson bombers took off from the airfield in bright moonlight and attacked the Japanese invasion force as it lay off-shore – sinking a 9,749-ton transport and damaging two others. But the enemy soon gained a foothold and the vital airfield fell within hours when the demoralized RAF ground staff set fire to buildings and equipment and then, climbing aboard their lorries, evacuated the base without orders.

It was an equally hectic night in Singapore and, while senior officers tried to make sense of the garbled reports filtering into the capital from up-country, a stream of radio signals and news broadcasts from around the world revealed the extent of the Japanese offensive. Pearl Harbor had been bombed at 0155 Singapore time and the entire US Pacific Fleet incapacitated – some reports said annihilated – and at 0430 came news that the British Concession in Shanghai had been occupied. Then, at 0800, came the first reports of air raids on Hong Kong and, an hour and a half later, the bemused staff officers learned that the Japanese had attacked the Philippines. It was like some horrendous nightmare. And the pressures on the harassed Singapore Staffs were not made easier when seventeen bombers of the Mihoro Air Corps raided the city soon after 0400 in an attack that destroyed three Blenheim aircraft on the ground, caused considerable structural damage to buildings, and inflicted some 200 civilian casualties. The raid, however, gave the Prince of Wales her first taste of action against the new enemy when her high-angle 5.25-inch guns were used to strengthen the dockyard’s anti-aircraft batteries. But the Japanese suffered no losses and the Mihoro Air Corps machines returned to their Indo-China bases unharmed.

In addition to the Main Fleet at Singapore the Royal Navy had another small group of ships, the East Indies Squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral G.S. Arbuthnot at Ceylon. This force, which included the carrier Hermes refitting at Durban, was mainly engaged on trade protection duties in the Indian Ocean. Although the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire were left on station to cover the transit of troop reinforcement convoys from Colombo to Singapore the Admiralty decided to transfer the third cruiser, the 8-inch gunned Exeter, to the Eastern Fleet and in the early hours of 8 December, Captain Gordon was ordered to leave the convoy he was escorting and to make post-haste for Singapore where he was to join Sir Tom Phillips’ flag. Gordon obeyed the order with alacrity and, leaving the convoy to make for Rangoon, he headed towards the Malacca Straits at 26 knots. He was, however, already too late to save Phillips and the two big ships of the Eastern Fleet.

Further to the south, and despite the earlier decision to give the ANZAC Squadron responsibility for protecting the Australasian trade routes, only two of the ships, Canberra and Perth, were sailing in company. The light cruiser Achilles – which had fought alongside Exeter during the Battle of the River Plate in December, 1939 – was at Auckland when news of the Japanese landings came through and although she was promptly ordered to join the Eastern Fleet at Singapore she was first given the task of escorting a contingent of New Zealand troops to Suva in the Fiji Islands. These islands of Melanesia formed part of Australia’s defensive perimeter the northern segment of which – New Guinea and the Solomons – was to become a fiercely contested battle-gound when Japan later tried to gain control of the Coral Sea and sever sea communications between the United States and the Australasian continent. Achilles’ departure and her unexpected allocation to the Eastern Fleet hardly augured well for the continued cohesion of the ANZAC squadron.

Phillips summoned a conference of staff officers and senior captains aboard the Prince of Wales on the morning of 8 December and, as bad news continued to flood in from all quarters of the Far East, they began to discuss how the Eastern Fleet should react to the events of the previous night. At an early stage in the proceedings the Admiral sent a written request to Pulford asking him to make reconnaissance machines available on the 9th and 10th and, most importantly, to provide fighter cover for the fleet off Singora at daylight on the 10th. Pulford did not reply until the late afternoon by which time he knew that the airfield at Kota Bharu was likely to be abandoned within hours and although he promised Phillips that air reconnaissance units could be provided as requested he was unable to guarantee fighter cover for the 10th.

It was cold comfort for the Admiral, but, still convinced that the Fleet’s guns could ward off an air attack and satisfied that if he remained more than 200 miles from the coast of Indo-China he would be beyond range of Japanese aircraft, Phillips went ahead. According to one officer, Phillips told the assembled meeting: ‘I feel we have got to do something.’ Another recalled: ‘Admiral Phillips summed up in words something like this – “We can stay in Singapore. We can sail away to the East – Australia. Or we can go out and fight. Gentlemen, we sail at five o’clock.”’

The Prince of Wales and Repulse, escorted by the destroyers Express, Electra, Vampire (RAN) and Tenedos, cleared the dockyard boom at 1735 that evening and slowly increased speed to a steady 17 knots. Now identified by the code-name Force Z the squadron was headed by the flagship with the Repulse following 4 cables astern, and the ruddy glow of a spectacular tropical sunset painted a lurid backcloth above the port horizon as the ships altered course north-eastwards.

The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918 Part II


There is substance in Lieutenant-Commander D. W. Waters’s assertion that ‘virtually every surface and air anti-submarine lesson of the first submarine war had to be, and ultimately was, re-learnt in the second at immense cost in blood, tears and treasure’. One would have thought that the entire Service knew that the most important lesson of the First War was that the U-boat attack on the merchant fleet was Britain’s most serious danger, and that it was only the introduction of convoy in 1917 that had saved the day. But the anti-submarine lessons of the war, which had never been fully understood anyway, were quickly forgotten after the war because there was no serious attempt to study the larger meaning of the U-boat campaign of 1917–18. During the interwar years, consequently, the convoy system was understood imperfectly at best. Although Captain Roskill was off the mark in stating that in 1919–39 there was not a single exercise in the protection of a mercantile convoy against air or submarine attack, the fact is that the Navy paid all too little attention to convoy work between the wars.

Ignorance was doubtless the chief explanation of the indifferent attitude towards convoy during much of the interwar period. The Admiralty’s German Navy expert, who was in charge of the captured German naval archives, has written:

A point that has emerged with startling clarity from all our researches into British and German records since the end of the Second World War is that no historian writing between the two wars (either British or German) drew the full and accurate conclusions from U-boat operations of 1917–18. The principal reason for this omission was that in those between-war years the full records of both sides were never available to any one historian, as they are available today. In this country the fact that we had eventually defeated the U-boats, and the advent of asdics shortly after the end of the First World War combined to produce in many officers an attitude of overconfidence in regard to any resurgence of the U-boat menace. In Germany, on the other hand, the researches of Admiral Spindler (the historian of the 1914–18 U-boat operations) were never completed. His work only went as far as 1917, and therefore did not include many of the lessons of U-boat operations against convoys.

Contributory causes of the failure to profit fully from war experience were (1) the old obsession with the battleship and fleet actions, which will be dealt with below; (2) an over-confidence, particularly in the 1930s, in asdic, the device that had been developed since 1917 as the answer to the problem of locating submarines; (3) the antipathy of many senior officers to what was falsely regarded as a defensive, to say nothing of a generally dull and monotonous, measure. Concerning the last, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John (among many others) bears out my contention: ‘You are very correct in writing that Convoy protection was regarded with martial antipathy by the Navy-it was too defensive in outlook for peacetime training–and, anyway, unlike battleships, there was never a visible convoy to “protect”.’ This attitude is borne out by the fact that in general the commands of fleet destroyers rather than of convoy escorts were regarded as the plums. Consequently, although, of course, there were some brilliant exceptions, the best officers were with the Fleet and the second team with the convoy escorts. Nor did it help that until the last prewar years it was the assumption that Japan would be Britain’s principal enemy in a war, not Germany, and the problem here was how to get at Japan across the world, not how to escort merchant ships across the Atlantic.

I do not want to leave the impression that progressive thought on convoy was entirely absent. The President of the Naval War College at Greenwich during 1934–7, when over a hundred officers went through the war course, recalled that ‘neither staff nor courses had any doubt on this subject. It was in fact Common Doctrine that convoy had rescued us in the first war and that it would be necessary in the future. So I cannot understand the Financial Secretary’s speech. It certainly had no effect on our teaching and as we were in close touch with the Admiralty we should have known if they thought differently.’ All that I maintain is that there was always a body of naval opinion which, through a failure to analyse the U-boat war of 1914–18, or for one or more of the other reasons mentioned above, preserved an anti-convoy outlook. The remarks of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary of the Admiralty, Lord Stanley, speaking in the House of Commons on 14 March 1935, sum up the views of the Board and the Naval Staff at that date and are a reiteration of all the standard objections of the anti-convoy school of thought (or prejudice):

I can assure the House that the convoy system would not be introduced at once on the outbreak of war. Even the right hon. member for Swindon [Dr. Addison] would admit that the convoy system has very great disadvantages, and it certainly would not be welcomed by the trading community until conditions had become so intolerable that they were prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. In the first place, you would get delay at each end. You would get delay while the ships assembled at the starting point to be taken up by their convoy. You would get delay by the ships arriving at the same port at the same time. You would also have the difficulty of the faster ship having to go at the same pace as the slower one. Therefore, the convoy system will only be introduced when the balance of advantage is in its favour and when sinkings are so great that the country no longer feels justified in allowing ships to sail by themselves but feels that for the protection of their crews the convoy system is necessary.

(Dr. Addison:) Am I to understand the Noble Lord to suggest that the Admiralty would wait before instituting the convoy system until so many ships had been sunk that the country would not stand it any longer? Surely, they are not going to wait until such conditions arise as occurred on 17th April, 1917, when 34 ships were sunk one night. Are they going to let us get to that pitch before they start the convoy system?

(Lord Stanley:) Certainly not, but it will not be introduced in the first place. You will not know in the first place whether the ships are going to be in any great danger. It may be that it will be safer for them to sail by themselves. They will be a smaller target. The enemy ships would not know where they were to be found. If raiders were about we should have to institute the convoy system at once. It is simply a matter of expediency. We should be ready to put the scheme into operation but we should wait until we thought that the proper moment had arrived. Having got to the point when it is considered that the ships ought not to sail by themselves but should be protected by an escort, we have to decide what is the best form of protection for the convoys, and I think it is agreed by everybody that what is known as the general convoy is the best system. That is the convoy which has an escort ready to protect its ships from surface attack, from submarines and possibly from the air….

Therefore, we must put the provision of sloops into its proper order of priority. In doing that, I would ask the House to remember two things, first, that our anti-submarine defences and devices for finding out exactly where submarines are are so very much better than they were during the War that we should want fewer protective vessels in the convoy. Secondly, that as convoys will not be needed immediately on the outbreak of war it will give us time to improvise protection by destroyers and trawlers whilst orders are given to build the sloops which we shall eventually require.

The Naval Staff did not realize that, due to the closure of dangerous routes for days at a time, independent sailings had entailed even longer delays in 1917–18, while convoys guarded by escorts steamed directly to their destinations. Although it is true that Naval Staff officers had by 1935 come to favour convoy in principle, they did not think that it would be needed, at first, anyway, since the enemy, afraid to alienate neutral opinion as in 1917, would not launch unrestricted air or U-boat attacks on shipping. I should also mention that Germany was a signatory to the Submarine Agreement of 1936, which prohibited unrestricted submarine attack. Of course, we now know that Hitler’s word was worth nothing, but that could not be assumed at the time, at least openly. To proclaim a convoy system would have been to imply that the treaty was being, or would be, deliberately broken! The Air Staff, on the other hand, opposed convoy, using the discredited argument of 1917 that the massing of ships in convoy would only invite air attack and heavy losses. Criticism forced a modification of policy. In 1937 the Naval and Air staffs came to an agreement that convoy should be instituted at the outbreak of war. In March 1938, to satisfy naval opinion, the Admiralty undertook to make all preparations for convoy (for instance, Naval Control Service Officers were dispatched to all shipping ports), but not necessarily to institute it in the event of restricted submarine warfare. As the Deputy Director of Plans observed early in the war: ‘Our pre-war A/S plan was to attack U-boats with hunting groups until it became necessary to go into convoy …’ Ships were to continue to sail independently, if the enemy confined himself to restricted warfare -that is, stopping prospective victims and giving them time to evacuate passengers and crew. Having made this decision, the Admiralty neglected to provide the necessary convoy escorts for unrestricted warfare, under which ships were sunk without warning. All doubts were cleared up almost immediately upon the outbreak of war: Athenia torpedoed (against Hitler’s orders) on the first day, 3 September 1939; first convoy sailing, 6 September.

However, despite Britain’s stronger navy, assisted by Canada and the United States, it took nearly four years (i.e. not until May 1943) to overcome the German submarine menace. There was an insufficiency of escorts, unsuitable types, and inadequately trained groups, a diversion of anti-submarine vessels in the early part of the war from escorting convoys to futile offensive action by ‘hunting groups’, and a lack of air power on the convoy routes, particularly very long-range aircraft and escort carriers. (It was 3½ years after the outbreak of war before there was a single true escort carrier on the North Atlantic convoy route.) All this was in part a reflection of the low esteem in which convoy was generally held between the wars and indeed into the early stages of the Second War. It should be pointed out that Western Approaches Command did a great job with the materiel and personnel available, and that its C-in-C (1941–2), Sir Percy Noble, was against the ‘hunting group’ concept.

As regards air power, forgotten in the interwar years was the highly successful role of naval aircraft as a convoy escort in 1917–18, when a mere five ships were sunk in convoys with a surface and air escort. There were virtually no aircraft available for convoy when war came, since the responsibilities of naval aircraft did not include the protection of merchant shipping. One cause of this deplorable state of affairs was the fact that the last volume of the official history of British airpower in World War I (The War in the Air), which clearly showed the importance of aircraft in commerce protection, only came out in 1937, much too late to influence policy. Similar results to the First War were obtained in the Second War once suitable aircraft were made available for use as convoy escorts and supports, but this was not until 1943. It can be argued, and has indeed been vociferously argued by the Navy ever since, that the RAF’s obsession with the ‘wasteful and largely discredited’ policy of bombing Germany indiscriminately deprived the Fleet of the aircraft required for convoy and other sea work, while achieving no significant reduction in Germany’s war potential. The issue is not of a black-and-white sort, however. The bomber offensive, the airmen have replied, was not always what it should have been (this was the first real air war and much had to be learned), yet, in the words of the Official Air Historians, ‘both cumulatively in largely indirect ways and eventually in a more immediate and direct manner, strategic bombing and, also in other roles strategic bombers, made a contribution to victory which was decisive’.

Valuable experience of 1914–18 was disregarded in other respects as concerns convoy. Until 1943, when Professor P. M. S. Blackett produced some interesting statistics about ocean convoys and changed the staff view on convoy escort, it was Admiralty gospel that ‘the larger the convoy the greater the risk’. Had the convoy statistics of 1917–18 been analysed after the war, and the printed results of the mathematical research on comparative escort strength by an acting commander, RNVR (Rollo Appleyard) early in 1918 been studied, the Admiralty would have been aware of ‘the law of convoy size’: ‘The escort strength requires to be measured, not in terms of the number of vessels in convoy, but in terms of the total area comprised within the boundary formed by lines connecting all outer vessels.’ Appleyard went on to prove mathematically that the ratio of the torpedo attack area around the convoy perimeter to the number of escorts directly watching it is ‘a more correct numerical measure of the escort strength of a convoy than is the ratio of the number of ships in convoy to the number of close escorts’. It is sad that operational research was not understood in the interwar years; it needed someone of the standing of Blackett to show what could be done in this field.

Another instance of how the postwar failure to study with care the U-boat campaign of 1917–18 exacted a heavy penalty was the refusal of the Admiralty in the interwar period to believe the U-boats would make surface night attacks. Although by the end of the First War nearly two-thirds of all submarine attacks were being made at night and on the surface–to be sure, they proved unrewarding–the Second War found the Navy unprepared for a repetition of these tactics, this time successfully. The evidence was available, but it took the Admiralty a year (August 1940) to realize that the majority of the ships sunk by U-boats since the start of the war had been sunk at night–by, of course, surfaced U-boats. When, in 1940, the U-boats in the Atlantic, organized in ‘wolf packs’, attacked convoys at night while on the surface, the Admiralty had no immediate answer. It was, as a joint Admiralty-Air Ministry statement of 1946 misleadingly claimed, ‘a new and unheard of German tactic’. The problem was not mastered until 10-centimetre radar was fitted generally to convoy escorts. The turning of night into day with ‘snowflake’ flares and other pyrotechnics also played an important role in the defeat of surface attacks. There is no excuse for the Admiralty not having learned by 1939 that U-boats might attack on the surface at night. Whether the use of ‘wolf packs’ could have been foreseen from a study of the First War is another matter.

LCT 614 on Dog Red – Omaha Part I

The H+60 wave arrived in the transport area in much better order. At about 5:30 a.m. on June 6, the 614’s crew started going to their battle stations. Because half the crew were already at their underway watch stations, which were also sometimes their battle stations, there was no sounding of the klaxon or running about. The men on watch below simply came up when they were ready and relieved the men at their stations.

Since about 3:45 a.m., Carter had been on watch at the wheel. Peering through the little slits that served as windows or out the door, latched open to provide air, he had seen the invasion begin to shape up. At first he saw nothing at all; the blacked-out ships revealed nothing of their presence that he could see. After a few moments, though, he began to see a few tiny blinking lights on buoys left by the minesweepers as they cleared a channel to the beach and then red, green, and white flares from the control craft marking the beach landing zones. Shoreward, over the horizon, bombs flashed like summer lightning. By about 4:30 a.m. a gray light let him see the other LCTs, but they soon dispersed so that the 614 had only three companions. LCT 613 had the lead, LCT 536 was the wave guide in second position, and then LCT 612 followed by 614.

As Pequigney came up to take the wheel, the battleships and cruisers began opening up with their big guns at targets ashore. Because of the narrow channels that the minesweepers had hurriedly cleared, the LCTs had to chug past the gunfire support ships, and the concussion from the 8-inch guns of the Augusta felt worse than the bombs that had fallen around them in Portland. Carter stood for a moment to watch the shooting; the smoke drifting away from the ships struck him as nonchalant. He then went below to get into his battle clothing of a blue coverall treated with a sticky substance that was supposed to protect him from the flash of a nearby explosion or from poison gas if the Germans decided to use it. He then picked up his helmet, life jacket, and gas mask. Before going up, he rummaged through C and K ration boxes in the compartment, looking for snacks, and ended up stuffing his pockets with chocolate bars.

Topside, Carlson was standing watch in the gun tub, and Sparky was already there, eating crackers and orange marmalade. As Carlson went below, Carter and Sparky began getting the gun ready. “How do you feel, Sparky?” Carter asked.

“Kinda shaky,” he replied. “How about you?”

“The same,” Carter agreed.

About the time the gun was ready, Carlson came back, his pockets bulging with cigarette packs. Carlson noticed that the shoreline had finally become visible.

“Mornin’,” he said. “So this is France, huh? Take me back to Oregon.”

With his bulky life jacket on, Carter needed the help of both Sparky and Carlson to strap himself into the mount. Once in, he told Sparky to go ahead and put tension on the magazines in the ready service locker in case they needed to reload quickly. As Sparky worked on that, Irwin shouted down at him from the conning tower: “Sparky! Put on your life jacket.”

“I can’t load with the thing on,” Sparky replied.

But Irwin insisted. “Put one on. You might get blown into the water.”

To Irwin, standing on the conning position on top of the pilothouse, things on the beach seemed to be going fairly well. All the shooting he could see came from Allied ships; no shooting seemed to be coming from the beach. As Irwin conned the ship, keeping an eye on LCT 536, the wave leader, Pillmore scanned the shore with binoculars, trying to find their landing area. Since they were supposed to beach just to the right of the Les Moulins draw, exit D-3, he thought it would be easy to identify. But now, in the gloom and smoke and distance, he had trouble picking it out. But there was still time.

To get to the line of departure, the 614 and other landing craft had to sail around the Augusta, past the French light cruisers, and then form up in front of the battleship Arkansas. The blast from Augusta’s 8-inch guns jarred the LCT, and the sharp reports of the light cruisers’ 6-inch guns hurt the ears of the men on deck. But just as they rounded the Arkansas, the battleship loosed a broadside from its 12-inch guns. The blast and noise rattled the little LCT and hurt the men on deck. Carter thought that, had they been any closer, the concussion from the big guns could have easily flipped the little craft over. Irwin, perhaps even more exposed on the conn, turned around at the painfully horrendous sound and thought he was looking straight down the muzzles of the battleship’s guns. From his vantage point atop the wheelhouse, Kleen could easily see the big shells arching over them on their way to the shore.

About 6:30 a.m. they received the word to head to the line of departure. With the incoming tide, the LCTs made good time down the line of ships and reached the position sixteen minutes early. They milled around, watching the firing, until finally Leide radioed the order to beach. Irwin ordered Kleen to sound the beaching signal—five short blasts on the horn—and shouted down the voice tube to Pequigney to come about on a southerly heading. The three LCTs to starboard—703, 622, and 704—continued west and headed for Dog Green at the very end of the beach. LCT 569 held back, ready to go in on Easy Green to the east of the Les Moulins draw. The 614 was then exposed on the right side of the wave; suddenly Carter thought they were a much better target.

At first, the hour-long trip to the beach was quiet. Pillmore located the correct area of the beach and pointed it out to Irwin. He then left the conn to supervise getting the vehicles ready for landing. Irwin thought that Captain Wright had been correct when he said that the bombers and battleships would clear the Germans from the beaches. When shells started exploding in the water ahead of them, Irwin’s first thought was that the ships behind them were shooting short. He needed a moment to realize the 614 had finally come under mortar and artillery fire. He also began to see that the promised gaps in the obstacles had not been blown. He ordered reduced speed and began looking for a way through.

With Irwin stuck on the conn piloting the ship, Pillmore roamed the deck, making sure everything went according to plan. When they turned to head for the beach, they exposed themselves to a quartering sea that made the ride all the more uncomfortable for the crew and the soldiers. Many soldiers stood in the jeeps and bulldozers to see where they were headed, and Pillmore saw Andin, Gudger, and Cromer clearing the tie-downs and chocks from the vehicles. Since they were about finished, he told Cromer to loosen dogs on the ramp and take his position on the port bow locker. Resembling a Wild West hero hitching up his gun belt, Cromer tucked his hammer into his belt and headed forward. Andin worked his way aft to loosen the anchor in its bracket, and Gudger grabbed a Thompson sub-machine gun from the compartment and went to the ramp to direct the traffic off.

Pillmore climbed back up to the pilothouse. By now the LCT was drawing some rifle and machine-gun fire. He stayed near the door to the pilothouse and called up to Irwin that the ship was ready to beach. Irwin had finally picked out what seemed to be a path through the obstacles, ordered full speed ahead, and then told Carlson to drop the anchor. Carlson released the catch, but nothing happened. “I said drop the anchor,” Irwin shouted.

“It’s stuck!” Carlson called back. Pillmore ran across the catwalk to see what the problem was. “I dunno,” Carlson said. “We’ve never dropped the anchor before.” Pillmore was taken aback a moment.

“You mean you have never dropped this anchor the whole time you’ve been on the ship?” Pillmore asked.

“No, sir,” Carlson replied. “As far as I know, this anchor hasn’t been dropped since this boat was built.”

Pillmore bit off a curse. He was going to need some help, and fortunately the giant Stefanowicz was at hand. “Sparky, get back here,” Pillmore ordered. He and Sparky began pulling the cable from the reel hand over hand while Carlson manually kept the reel rolling. Several tense moments passed under fire in the exposed area around the anchor winch before the anchor bit into the sandy bottom and enough cable came off that its weight took over and the drum began paying out freely. Pillmore ran back to the cover of the pilothouse, and Carlson and Sparky jumped back in the gun tub with Carter. Only later did Pillmore realize that those men probably saved the ship, but of course, it was still early in the day.

The 614 neared the obstacles, catching up to a line of LCVPs carrying the bulk of the 116th RCT’s Company M, which was also trying to find a way through. The congestion of men and equipment drew increased mortar and machine-gun fire plus aimed artillery fire. The distinctive rip of an 88mm gun firing from the Vierville draw occasionally punctuated the hiss of the antitank rounds.

“God, look at those shells,” Sparky said.

The soldiers on deck began to move toward the ramp, ready to move off. The soldier Carlson had befriended the day before came up to the gun tub and sat down facing Carlson. But before he said anything, a chunk of shrapnel banged against the back of his helmet, saving Carlson’s face. Without saying anything, he climbed back down on deck.

Despite the intensifying small arms fire and mortar explosions, the men stood at their battle stations, ready to get the soldiers and vehicles off the ship as quickly as possible once the ramp dropped. Johnson, manning the starboard 20mm, glanced over at Carter from time to time and wondered whether they were going to shoot even without orders. Neither Carter nor Johnson thought that standing while strapped to their guns and drawing fire was the way to go to war. Jarvis, Johnson’s loader, had even less to do with the guns not in action. He stood beside Johnson, crouched behind the tub’s shield, scanning for targets. A tracer round zipped through his life jacket, puffing out a small cloud of the filler material. He jumped and shouted, “Jesus Christ!” In the tension, Carter and the others found themselves laughing at Jarvis.

The ship pushed through the obstacles, scraping against the hedgehogs and knocked a Teller mine off one of the posts. Irwin shouted course changes to Pequigney in such rapid succession that the quartermaster could do nothing but spin the wheel around. About 7:20 a.m., actually some ten minutes early, the LCT grounded a hundred yards away from the beach. Irwin thought they were still too far out, so he delayed ordering the ramp dropped. That left Cromer, lying on top of the starboard bow locker with his hammer, fully exposed to small arms fire and shrapnel from the shells. From his vantage point he could clearly see the wreckage of men, vehicles, and landing craft on the beach

LCT 614 on Dog Red – Omaha Part II

An LCVP coming in between the 614 and the 612 took a mortar or antitank round directly on its ramp. As the craft sank, the survivors jumped overboard and screamed toward the 614 for help. Machine guns opened up on the men in the water, and Carter and Carlson saw several of them roll over slowly. Other men scrambled for what safety they could find. Carlson saw several men gather behind a floating post that had broken off an obstacle. A shell hit the post, and when the spray and smoke cleared Carlson saw nothing there. Other men found cover behind the intact obstacles, many of them mined. Some of them were so close that Carlson could see the details of the large Teller mines with their pins slanted seaward, waiting for a bump.

Irwin’s ability to maneuver to avoid the obstacles and get around the sandbar was severely restricted by the anchor cable payed out behind them. All four craft had landed just to the east of their assigned positions, with the 613 and 536 landing in front or just to the east of the draw and the 612 and 614 coming ashore at its western edge. Because the Germans had positioned their guns to fire along the beach rather than out to sea, the 612 and 614 were in a more direct line of fire than the other two craft. The 612, in fact, was between the guns and the 614. When the 612 slowed to thread through the obstacles and sandbars, it caught at least three shells. One exploded in the galley, but the others knocked out all three engines and the two generators. The 612 was totally dead in the water, but fortunately only one man was wounded. They hoisted the breakdown flag, began fighting their fires, and waited, under fire, for help. Carter watched the smoke rising from the 612 and began to wonder whether the fire from the gun that got them would shift to the 614. He hoped the 612 and the smoke rising from her would shield them.

Apparently the sandbar was not as much of a problem farther to the left. Irwin noticed, with a mixture of envy and frustration, that the two craft on the far left of their section were having an apparently easier time than the 614 and 612 were. The wave leader, LCT 536, was able to land its load and retract after only a few minutes. Once that craft regained the rendezvous area, Leide assigned it to take the place of LCT 590, one of Rockwell’s LCTs carrying DD tanks that had taken a hit and was not available for a second load as planned. LCT 613, on the far left of the wave, retracted a short time later and came over to tow the 612 to safety. This left the 614 temporarily the only LCT on the Dog Red sector. Irwin knew his only two choices were either to retract and beach again farther to the left or to wait for the rising tide to lift him over the sandbar. He could see that the tide now was coming in fast, and knowing that the troops had been told to come in on a particular beach for a reason, he decided to wait for the tide.

Soon, though, the H+70 and H+90 waves began coming in on top of them. The craft in these waves had not been dispatched in an orderly fashion, and several craft from the H+60 wave, such as the 614, had not been able to retract. As a result, the craft began to crowd along the beach, making navigation inshore almost impossible. The larger LCTs and LCMs could only slowly work through the obstacles, and many waited just off the obstacles looking for a way in. By the time these craft began picking their way through the obstacles, the next wave of landing craft came in. Only the little LCVPs had the maneuverability to wend through the obstacles, but many of these plywood craft suffered damage from rifle and machine-gun fire and sank or broached, adding to the congestion.

Into all this came the first wave of four of the even larger LCI(L)s, two off to port and two immediately to starboard. The big guns shifted their fire to them, but machine guns kept up a steady fire at the 614, keeping the men pinned down wherever they could find cover. Mortar rounds continued to land all around them. The lead LCI(L) off to starboard, the 91, slowed at the line of obstacles and began taking hits. It backed off a bit and began nosing through again, only to begin burning and then to explode so violently that Carter and the others felt the blast. “My God,” Carter said. “They took it in the magazine.” The second craft, LCI(L) 92, rammed through the obstacles farther to the right, struck mines, broached, and began burning.

After several minutes, Irwin knew he wasn’t going to get closer to the beach anytime soon, and the fate of the two LCIs made him realize staying on the beach was suicidal. He could see men wading ashore from the craft around them, and even some craft behind them were letting their men out. He decided to risk it. Irwin ordered the ramp dropped, and Cromer whapped the last dog with his hammer. The ramp splashed down, and Cromer lost no time rolling off the locker and ducking into the winch compartment with Clark. Yelling, “Let’s go!” the lieutenant in charge of the men ran off the ramp and dropped into water up to his armpits. His second in command and several of the men followed. Carlson saw the soldier he had befriended looking up at him, crying, and repeating, “Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.”

The appearance of infantry drew the attention of at least one machine gun. A few quick bursts zeroed in on the ramp and hit several of the soldiers, two of whom fell on the ramp. The other troops stopped their advance and pulled the wounded men back on deck. One of them had been shot squarely in the stomach, the round just missing a rifle grenade. The other apparently suffered a painful but shallow wound to the back. With both of their officers now off the ship, the men showed no particular desire to move out. Irwin signaled to Pillmore to get the vehicles moving. The soldiers pressed themselves against the steel bulwarks to get out of their way.

The bulldozers rumbled off first, and some of the infantry followed behind them for protection. Other soldiers already in the water also bunched up behind the vehicles, not realizing that they were not only putting the steel of the dozers between them and the guns but also the dozers’ load of TNT. The dozers made it almost to the water’s edge before a large shell exploded between them and set them both ablaze. Fortunately the near miss did not provide the shock necessary to set off the TNT.

Next, two of the jeeps tried to land, but the driver of one was hit and the other jeep apparently swamped in a shell hole and drowned out quickly. The second jeep’s driver struggled through the water for cover behind an obstacle. Irwin realized he would need to get the LCT even closer to the beach if the remaining jeeps were to get ashore successfully, so he sent Pillmore down to tell the remaining drivers and soldiers to wait a bit before heading to the beach. That was one order they had no trouble obeying.

The men on deck could see dead soldiers everywhere. A row of them lay in the surf, washing ashore with the rising tide. Others lay scattered on the beach, especially along the line of shingle. Still others floated in the water around them, some with only their legs in the air. When these men hit the water, they had inflated their life belts, but their heavy packs had flipped them over, drowning them. Carter stared, fixated on a dead soldier rolling with the waves just in front of the open ramp. They could see very little activity on the beach besides burning vehicles. One man caught their eye, who was walking calmly along the beach as if on a holiday stroll. They all thought he was shell-shocked. This could have been Col. Charles Canham, commander of the 116th RCT. He and others of the headquarters staff landed in an LCVP on Dog White about the same time as the 614. He and Brig. Gen. Norman Cota, the deputy commander of the Twenty-ninth Infantry Division, walked along the beach in opposite directions—Cota westward and Canham east—urging the men to move inland and looking for opportune spots to scale the bluffs. Cota’s efforts at the D-1 exit are now legendary in Twenty-ninth Division histories.

Again Irwin started shouting a flurry of engine orders and heading changes, trying to work the little craft through the obstacles and sandbars to the beach itself. If anything, the mortar and machine-gun fire grew even more intense. To Carlson, the shrapnel and bullet splashes looked as thick as raindrops on the water; instead of keeping tension on the anchor cable as the craft backed and twisted, he stayed in the gun tub. The starboard gun tub, perhaps because of its closeness to the pilothouse and conn, took more than its share of fire. Jarvis had already narrowly dodged one bullet, so he and Johnson pulled back to the cover of the pilothouse. Even Irwin, up on the conn, realized that his position was untenable, with the bullets zipping past and shrapnel buzzing around his head like angry bees. He and Kleen climbed down from the conn, and Irwin latched open the door to shout orders into the wheelhouse.

By this time, Carter realized he wasn’t going to get an order to shoot. He wiggled out of the gun’s straps in a Houdini-like accomplishment, considering that earlier both Carlson and Sparky had to strap him in around his life jacket.

“Sorry you couldn’t shoot,” Carlson said.

“That’s OK,” Carter replied. “I’m kinda glad to sit down a bit.” The short conversation drew Sparky’s attention to Carlson.

“Are you pulling in that anchor yet?”

Carlson thought the answer was obvious, but he managed a simple no.

Carter wasn’t the only one who was frustrated at not fighting back. Gudger, who had no traffic to direct off the ramp, picked up a Garand rifle from one of the wounded soldiers and walked aft. “Skipper, I can see Germans up on the bluff. I can get them with this rifle. Let me shoot.”

“Hell, no,” Irwin said. “You start shooting that thing and you’ll just draw more fire down on us.”

Wajda, who had been on deck with Gudger directing traffic, climbed into the gun tub with Carter, Sparky, and Carlson. “Hell, I’m not staying up there. I’m staying here.” Just as he climbed in, a shell exploded nearby and shrapnel from it clinked against their helmets. Carlson thought that for the second time that morning, his face had been saved by someone else’s helmet. The four of them, basically a third of the ship’s crew, lay as flat on the deck as they could manage inside the gun tub that was only seven feet in diameter. They stared at each other wordlessly, their eyes round and bloodshot, their lips white and tense. Carter thought of those carefree days with the Boy Scouts on the bank of the Hiawassie River in Etowah. Another third of the crew—Irwin, Pillmore, Kleen, Jarvis, and Johnson—clustered in the scant cover behind the pilothouse.

Another shell exploded off the starboard quarter. Jarvis, who was standing next to Irwin, suddenly spun around and began to crumple onto the deck. Irwin caught him and lowered him. Jarvis’s face was already covered in blood, and Irwin was sure that he was killed. But as soon as he and Johnson got Jarvis straightened out, he regained consciousness. A piece of shrapnel had caught him just below the eye and cut him as cleanly as a knife. Johnson took him below to bandage the wound. Soon the word spread around the little ship: Jarvis got it. No one knew how bad the wound was, and all wondered who would be next.

The LCTs of this wave, going in after the German defenses were fully active but before naval gunfire had begun to take effect, suffered the highest number of casualties among the LCT sailors. In the 614’s group, only the 612 suffered disabling damage, although all the craft had taken hits of various calibers. Three LCTs had gone off to the Dog Green sector, immediately in front of the D-1 draw at Vierville (the beach sector where Company A of the 116th—the Bedford Boys—suffered so badly when they landed at H-Hour). Two of those three LCTs took severe hits. LCT 703 struck mines that knocked out her engines, and before other LCTs could pull her off, several shells struck her, setting her afire and swamping her. She lay off the beach burning for the rest of the morning. LCT 622 also took several hits and casualties, but she was able to remain in operation. The 622’s skipper suffered shock as a result of the hits, and Leide later sent him back to England. The second officer, Ensign W. H. Nordstrom, took command. Like the 614’s Ensign Pillmore, Nordstrom had been aboard less than two weeks.

By now, LCT 614 had been on the beach not the three minutes as expected but almost an hour. The mortar and small arms fire had not let up in the least, and the water around them was filled with landing craft and men. Irwin knew that the tide was coming in because he had been watching the progress of two men holding on to the wooden post of an obstacle. One man had his arms around the post, the other held onto the first, and all the while bullets splashed around them and splintered the wood. Between the bullets chewing up the post and the tide pushing them toward the top, they would soon run out of cover. All this time, Irwin was ordering the craft backward and forward, letting the tide wash them to the left and testing whether the tide had come in enough so they could get over the sandbar.

At that point help arrived in the guise of a destroyer that ran in just a few hundred yards offshore and began an old-fashioned shoot-out with the guns on the beach. With the destroyer drawing the fire of the guns, the smoke from the burning LCIs and LCTs to starboard masking the fire of the mortars and small arms, and the fact that no men or vehicles were leaving the 614, the fire directed at the ship slackened slightly. The men could do a bit more than simply press themselves against the deck.

The screams of the men in the water had become intolerable. Pequigney could hear them clearly through the open door, and through the slit windows in the wheelhouse he could see how crowded the water was off to starboard. With the ship maneuvering back and forth and edging its way to port, Pequigney knew its propellers had to be chopping up many men in the water.

What he could not see was that Kleen, who had a good vantage point from behind the wheelhouse and who had little to do since Irwin was handling most of the radio traffic, had also spotted many men in the water around them and had called out to Carlson, Carter, Sparky, and other men topside. They clambered out of the gun tubs and threw lines to the men to bring them alongside the ship. There, Gudger, Cromer, Andin, and others on deck pulled them aboard. Soon they had rescued quite a number of men, some wounded and others simply stranded when their craft sank out from under them. Two of the men were the crew of an LCVP from the transport Charles Carroll. When they were dragged aboard, Irwin could see they were absolutely blue from their exposure to the cold channel waters. These men were so grateful for being rescued that they started emptying their pockets and giving everything they had, including their .45s, to their rescuers.

As proud as Irwin was that his men were risking themselves to save others, he also knew that they were exacerbating a problem he was growing more worried about. They had been on the beach for well over an hour now and landed essentially nothing. He knew he was doing his best to work in so that he could get the rest of the jeeps and the infantrymen ashore safely, but he also knew that he was disobeying orders by risking his ship and by not forcing the men off. Now he had even more men aboard that he was not forcing off. As an officer, he knew he was to display initiative, but what did that mean? Was he to force the army men off the ship to keep up the pressure of the attack even for the few minutes it would take to get them killed? Or did it mean he was to think of the men’s safety, so that when they landed they could do some good? Of course, the longer he kept the soldiers in safety meant the longer he kept his own men and his craft in danger. But officer or not, he knew he couldn’t force the men off the ship into the face of that withering fire.

The situation had grown frustrating to everyone. They couldn’t land their troops and vehicles, they couldn’t shoot back, and now they had rescued everyone within a line’s throw of the ship. There was nothing left to do but provide target practice for the German gunners. Finally Sparky yelled, “Skipper, let’s get the hell out of here!” Others took up the shout, and now Irwin wondered if, on top of his other worries, he was going to have to quell a mutiny or join it for he was as ready to leave as they were.

Finally, Pequigney yelled out of the wheelhouse door, “Skipper, listen to this.” Over the radio, Leide and Captain Wright were ordering all landing craft to stop beaching operations and to return to the transport area to await further orders.