What If: Halsey and Kurita at Leyte Gulf? I

By the autumn of 1944 even the most dedicated Japanese naval officer could recognize that things were not going well in his country’s war with the United States and its allies. Beginning with their seizure of the Marshall Islands in February, the third year of the war had been marked by a string of Allied victories. Everywhere, it seemed the Americans were inexorably advancing in a vast and overwhelming tide that was seizing all of the territory the Japanese had gained during the heady days of 1941 and 1942.

In the summer of 1944 the situation took a further turn for the worse when, in response to efforts to defeat American forces fighting to secure the Marianas Islands—including the critical island of Saipan—Adm. Jisaburo Ozawa’s 1st Mobile Fleet had been decisively defeated at the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19-20, 1944. Known derisively by the Americans as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,” the disaster cost Ozawa all but forty-seven of his 473 operational aircraft, as well as two of the Emperor’s precious aircraft carriers. With the Marianas Islands in American hands, Japanese planners knew that the enemy was now within range of the home islands. Soon, waves of American B-29 bombers would be exacting revenge for the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by mercilessly bombing Japanese cities. In the wake of Ozawa’s defeat, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who had done so much to propel his nation into conflict with the United States, was forced to resign. After the fall of Saipan, one prescient Japanese observer was overheard to remark that, “Hell is on us.”

“Act Faithfully and Well”

To forestall this, Japanese planners met in July 1944 to try and determine what to expect next from the enemy and to prepare a course of action that could be followed in response to whatever direction the Americans struck. The resulting “Sho” (Victory) plan, which required that all available resources be carefully husbanded until needed, provided four alternative defensive operations that could be activated as soon as the Americans made their next move. Sho-1 would be activated in response to an attack on the Philippines, Sho-2 for the Kuriles and Ryukyus, Sho-3 for southern Japan, and Sho-4 for northern Japan. Each of these plans was considered an all or nothing operation intended to provide one last opportunity to secure a decisive victory over the Allies and forestall Japan’s total collapse. For any of these plans to be successful, however, the Japanese would need to achieve a level of cooperation among their forces that had heretofore been lacking. They would also need time to train pilots who could replace those lost in the Marianas Islands.

Time ran out in October 1944. In preparation for the upcoming American naval offensive, Rear Adm. William F. Halsey began a series of air attacks starting as far to the north as Okinawa and working southward to the Philippines. Intended to confuse the enemy as to the time and place of the next attack and to further weaken their defenses, the Japanese responded by sending out what available aircraft they had to drive off the American planes.

Adm. Soemu Toyoda, the commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, was in Formosa on October 12 when Halsey’s aircraft struck that island. Believing the attack heralded the start of the invasion of Formosa, Toyoda ordered a partial activation of Sho-2 and sent every available aircraft to attack the Americans. Unfortunately, the air battles in the first weeks of October were merely a repeat of what had happened four months before. Vice Adm. Shigeru Fukodome commented after the American raid that “our fighters were nothing but so many eggs thrown at the stone wall of the indomitable enemy formation.”

Although the Japanese achieved limited successes—sinking two Allied cruisers—the air battles of September and October were a serious setback to the possible success of the Sho plan. The poorly trained Japanese pilots were simply no match for the Americans; slightly more than half of the 1,000 aircraft the Japanese had gathered since June fell to Halsey’s planes. The battle over Formosa seriously diminished what little airpower the Japanese now had available to implement whichever of the Sho plans finally became necessary.

Meanwhile, as Halsey’s aircraft were clearing the skies of Japanese planes, the massive U.S. fleet began to assemble at Hollandia and elsewhere along the coast of New Guinea to begin its journey north. Although there had been a good deal of wrangling between Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who favored an American landing to liberate the Philippines, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, who favored bypassing the Philippines altogether in favor of an attack on Formosa, by September MacArthur’s appeals had their desired effect and President Franklin Roosevelt had made the decision to launch the next Allied attack on the Philippines. Scheduled to begin with an invasion of Leyte on December 20, 1944, the date of the invasion was advanced to October after Halsey excitedly reported that the island was poorly defended and could be taken with little effort.

Believing that the moment had arrived to return to the Philippines, the Americans prepared to launch a massive combined overall command of the operation. Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s 6th Army would land on the island, while Vice Adm. Thomas Kinkaid’s massive 700-ship 7th Fleet supported the operation from Leyte Gulf. Meanwhile, in the unlikely event that the Japanese fleet was able to sail south toward the invasion fleet, Halsey, operating under orders not from MacArthur but from Nimitz, was commanded to use his 3rd Fleet to “cover and support forces of [the] Southwest Pacific in order to assist the seizure and occupation objectives in the Central Philippines… and destroy enemy naval and air forces in or threatening the Philippines Area. . . In case opportunity for destruction of major portion of enemy fleet offers or can be created, such destruction becomes the primary task.”

Although the two principal fleets were operating under different commanders—Kinkaid under MacArthur and Halsey under Nimitz—it was believed that operations had been going smoothly up to this point, so a split command would not pose any major difficulties.

Despite the most powerful naval force ever known assembled against them, the Japanese remained unaware of exactly where the Americans would strike next—and therefore unable to activate the appropriate Sho plan—until the morning of October 17, when Japanese observers on the tiny Philippine island of Suluan reported that they spotted American ships. The men of the 6th Ranger Battalion had come ashore on Suluan, Dina-gat, and Homophon to secure these islands in preparation for the arrival of Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet. Reports of the American advance on the Philippines were received by Admiral Toyoda, who realized that the time had come to initiate Sho-1 and finally check the American advance. After further discussion among senior Japanese naval officers, at 1110 on the morning of October 18, 1944, Toyoda gave the order to execute Sho-1.

Although Toyoda was unhappy with the prospect of launching his fleet in the face of an enemy overwhelmingly superior in air and naval power, later commenting that making the decision, to activate Sho-1 was “ as difficult as swallowing molten iron, ” he knew that the loss of the Philippines would sever the home islands from their valuable oil supplies in the East Indies, which would have a catastrophic effect on the Japanese war effort. If Japan were to have any hope of survival, therefore, the Philippines must be retained.

Sho-1 called for the Japanese to order what remained of their widely scattered forces to converge at Brunei, where Adm. Takeo Kurita would lead them to attack the American fleet at Leyte Gulf. If he arrived quickly enough, it was hoped that Kurita could destroy Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet before the Americans became strong enough to secure total control of the archipelago. To prevent Halsey’s 3rd Fleet from coming to the aid of Kinkaid, the Japanese planned to use an additional force to entice the Americans northward.

Toyoda knew that in order to lure Halsey away from the landing area he would have to provide a target that was sufficiently tempting to ensure the Americans’ pursuit. Since the air battles in the Philippine Sea and at Formosa had destroyed what little remained of Japanese naval airpower, the decision was made to offer up the Empire’s remaining aircraft carriers as bait. This sacrificial force was commanded by Ozawa and consisted of four carriers, two battleships that had been converted to aircraft carriers by the addition of improvised flight decks, and eleven cruisers. As carriers had come to dominate naval operations by this point in the war, it was reasoned that the site of what remained of Japan’s carrier force would be too lucrative a target for the aggressive Admiral Halsey to pass up.

After arriving in Brunei on October 20, Kurita and his staff briefed the assembled officers aboard his flagship, the cruiser Atago. The plan called for Kurita to split his force into two wings that would travel to Leyte on two separate routes. To the north, the 1st Strike Force under the overall command of Kurita consisted of five battleships, including Yamato and Musashi, the largest and most powerful battleships ever built, seven cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. This force would travel across the Philippine archipelago via the Sibuyan Sea. After passing through the San Bernardino Strait, Kurita would travel around Samar and descend on Kinkaid from the north. Meanwhile, a smaller but still potent force of two battleships, one cruiser, and four destroyers, led by Vice Adm. Shoji Nishimura, would strike Leyte from the south after crossing the Sulu Sea, traveling past Mindanao through the Surigao Strait. As the two forces traversed the narrow passages toward Leyte, what little ground-based aircraft that remained to the Japanese would take to the sky and provide air cover. If everything went well, the two pincers would arrive almost simultaneously at Leyte on October 25.

Every one of the officers present for Kurita’s briefing knew that this was a desperate gamble likely to result in the sinking of many of the Emperor’s finest ships. They also knew they had no other option but to proceed. If they succeeded, they could save their embattled country. If they failed, they would at least ensure that the Imperial fleet met an honorable end. Before the briefing was adjourned, Kurita addressed his officers:

I know that many of you are strongly opposed to this assignment. But the war situation is far more critical than any of you can possibly know. Would it not be a shame to have the fleet remain intact while our nation perishes? I believe that Imperial General Headquarters is giving us a glorious opportunity. Because I realize how very serious the war situation actually is, I am willing to accept this ultimate assignment to storm into Leyte Gulf.

You must all remember that there are such things as miracles. What man can say that there is no chance for our fleet to turn the tide of war in a decisive battle? We shall have a chance to meet our enemies. We shall engage his task forces. I hope that you will not carry out your duties lightly. I know you will act faithfully and well.

On the same day Kurita briefed his officers, General MacArthur returned to the Philippines at the head of one of the most powerful armadas the world had ever seen. American forces were able to take advantage of the confusion among the Japanese defenders to quickly establish a beachhead on Leyte. While troops and supplies of the 6th Army stormed ashore, Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet pounded enemy positions with the guns of its battleships and cruisers.

When the meeting aboard Atago adjourned, the Japanese officers returned to their ships and began the preparations necessary to get Kurita’s force under way. Japanese sailors, inspired by the sight of the Combined Fleet anchored at Brunei and believing they had an opportunity to reverse the course of the war, worked diligently throughout October 21 to prepare their ships. By evening everything was ready. On the morning of October 22, Kurita’s 1st Strike Force sailed from Brunei toward Palawan, with his flagship in the van just behind a screen of destroyers. As they sailed toward their destination, Kurita was cheered to learn that three cruisers and four destroyers, commanded by Vice Adm. Kihohide Shima, were coming from Formosa to reinforce his southern wing. The latest additions to Kurita’s strike force were instructed to travel south and join Nishimura, who had left Brunei on October 23, before entering the Surigao Strait. So far, everything had gone as well as could be expected; the forces had joined and were now traveling rapidly toward the Philippines.

Strike for Leyte

Lying in the path of Kurita’s advancing ships were two submarines on patrol near the Palawan Passage, USS Darter, commanded by Cmdr. David McClintock, and USS Dace, commanded by Cmdr. Bladen D. Claggett. Just after midnight on October 23, Darter’s radar picked up signals indicating that an enemy convoy was approaching. Immediately, the two submarines submerged and positioned themselves to attack what they assumed was a relief convoy traveling toward the Philippines’ Japanese defenders. As their screens lit up with a number of blips, radar operators on the two submarines soon realized that this was no convoy.

Trained to attack regardless of the odds, the two U.S. submarine commanders positioned themselves immediately in front of the Japanese force and prepared to launch all of their torpedoes at the advancing ships. Both commanders hurriedly plotted targets at several of the larger blips on their radar operators’ screens. Soon, a volley of torpedoes shot out from the two submarines, quickly followed by another volley. Shortly after the second volley left their tubes, the crews of the two submarines could hear a series of explosions. Quickly raising their periscopes, the skippers saw two destroyers and a cruiser breaking up under the damage caused by multiple torpedo hits. McClintock later remembered that the cruiser was:

a mass of billowing smoke from the number one turret to the stem. No superstructure could be seen. Bright orange flames shot from the side along the main deck from the bow to the after turret. Cruiser was already down by the bow, which was dipping under. Number one turret was at water level. She was definitely finished. Five hits had her sinking and in flames. It is estimated that there were few if any survivors.

With his thoughts focused on the difficulties of bringing his force through the Sibuyan Sea without fighter cover, Kurita was startled by the explosions that erupted to his front and right as two of his destroyers and the heavy cruiser Myoko burst into flames and staggered under the blows of enemy torpedoes. The stunned admiral quickly regained his senses, however, and over the objections of some of his officers who wanted to look for survivors, ordered that the fleet continue toward the Philippines without delay. Aware of the long odds against success, Kurita accepted that his force would suffer casualties; what was most important was that he bring as much of his strength as possible to the north side of Leyte Gulf by October 25.

Soon after ordering his fleet to continue, Kurita contacted the commander of the 1st Air Fleet on Luzon, Vice Adm. Takajiro Onishi, and alerted him to the fact that his force had been attacked and that early the next day he could expect to be visited by aircraft of the now alerted American fleet. Onishi agreed and responded with a request to attack Halsey’s forces immediately. Even though they had been able to husband a fair number of aircraft throughout the Philippine Islands, Kurita knew that the numbers were insufficient, and the pilots too ill trained to launch an air attack on the massive American fleet with any hope of causing serious damage. Thus, Kurita denied Onishi’s request and instead ordered him to gather as many aircraft as possible to provide what air cover he could to Kurita’s force. As if to ensure that his orders would be carried out, Kurita concluded his last message to Onishi with a reminder that “the future of the nation rests with the fleet.”9

As the Japanese ships sailed on, hurriedly dropping a number of depth charges as they passed the crews of the two U.S. submarines congratulated themselves on what, by almost any reckoning, had been a tremendously successful evening. What was more important than the sinking of the heavy cruiser Myoko,however, was the information that the Combined Fleet had come out to do battle. While the crew of Darter began to celebrate, McClintock alerted Admiral Halsey that there was a large Japanese fleet headed toward Leyte Gulf.

Halsey Hits Back

Halsey, eager to come to grips with the Japanese, alerted Kinkaid of the approaching enemy force and spent the remainder of October 23 preparing for their arrival. As soon as it was light enough to launch aircraft, Halsey sent up pairs of Hellcats and Helldivers to search for Kurita’s fleet along the most likely approaches to Leyte. One of these search parties consisted of three planes launched from USS Intrepid at 0600 on the morning of October 24. At 0812, while flying over the Sibuyan Sea, one of these aircraft spotted Kurita’s fleet steaming along the western side of the Tablas Strait, headed for the San Bernardino Strait. Within ten minutes this information had been radioed back to Halsey on board USS New Jersey. Following quickly on the heels of the sighting of Kurita’s force was news that aircraft from USS Enterprise had located and attacked Nishimura’s force of two battleships, a cruiser, and several destroyers. Although he had yet to find the Japanese carriers, Halsey now knew where the bulk of the Japanese forces were located and he quickly devised his plan of attack. His available force was divided into three task groups: Task Group 38.4, commanded by Rear Adm. Ralph E. Davidson (off Leyte Gulf); 38.2, commanded by Rear Adm. Gerald F. Bogan (east of the San Bernardino Strait); and 38.3, commanded by Frederick C. Sherman (east of Luzon). A fourth, Task Force 38.1, commanded by Adm. John McCain, had been detached and sent to Ulithi for rest and resupply.

Seeking to come to blows with the enemy, while at the same time mindful of his order to support Kinkaid’s now alerted 7th Fleet and nervous that the report of Kurita’s sighting made no mention of aircraft carriers, Halsey ordered his three remaining task forces to concentrate. While Admiral Sherman was charged with patrolling the northern approaches to Leyte, Admirals Davidson and Bogan were immediately ordered to launch their aircraft against Kurita’s advancing forces. Aware of Nishimura’s approach, Kinkaid detached all of his larger ships to defend the Surigao Strait and to prepare for the Japanese southern strike force’s arrival. Although he cursed himself for the overconfidence that had permitted him to send McCain to Ulithi, Halsey believed, quite rightly, that he still possessed a force potent enough to cause serious damage to Kurita’s ships.

After quickly formulating a plan of attack, Halsey contacted his task force commanders, relayed the necessary information on the approaching Japanese formation, and ordered, “Strike! Repeat. Strike!” Hellcat and Helldiver pilots aboard the carriers of the 3rd Fleet quickly scrambled and were soon ready to launch attacks on Kurita’s fast approaching ships.

Since his radio messages with Kurita the night before, Onishi had been busy preparing to rush his aircraft to the support of the approaching Japanese ships. As soon as it was light, the first of Onishi’s planes were in the sky and headed to Kurita’s aid. Very early on the morning of October 24, the skies above the Sibuyan Sea was full of hundreds of Japanese and American aircraft all racing toward Kurita.

Fortunately for Kurita, Onishi’s planes won the race. A force of fifty planes had taken position above the Japanese fleet by 0958 and was waiting when the first of the American air attacks reached their target. At 1026 a force of twenty-one fighters, twelve dive-bombers, and twelve torpedo bombers from the aircraft carriers Intrepid and Cabot reached the Japanese fleet and were staggered by what they saw. Although the size of the enemy force had been reported earlier, actually seeing an armada of such power was truly awe-inspiring. The Americans did not have long to gawk before Japanese aircraft waiting overhead pounced.

Although the Japanese pilots were not as experienced as their American counterparts, they had the advantage of numbers, surprise, and the overwhelming number of antiaircraft guns of the ships below. A quick pass by Japanese aircraft downed two of the American fighters and three of the dive-bombers before they even had time to react. Soon, American fighter aircraft had engaged the Japanese, while the remaining dive-bombers regrouped and dove on the fleet, focusing on the huge battleships that lay in the center of Kurita’s force.

Despite their bravery, the American dive-bombers never had an opportunity to launch an effective attack. Six of the bombers were blown apart before they even had a chance to launch their weapons. A seventh, badly damaged by enemy fire, crashed into one of the Japanese destroyers in a final act of defiance. Of the remaining eleven aircraft that managed to escape the intense enemy flak, three were destroyed after releasing their torpedoes and the remainder managed to escape intact.

Everything had not gone in favor of the Japanese, however. Of the three torpedoes the Americans had been able to launch, two found their mark. One struck the battleship Nagato. In addition, seven Japanese aircraft had been destroyed. Damage reports from Nagato indicated that it could continue, but its speed would be reduced. Kurita knew that although he had driven off the first American force, others would quickly follow. Slowing the speed of his fleet to that of his slowest ship, Kurita awaited the next attack.

Meanwhile, the stunned survivors of the first American air strike warned their oncoming comrades of what they were about to face. Undaunted Halsey ordered additional air strikes. At 1245 a second strike force from Lexington and Essex reached Kurita. Unlike the first failed attack, additional Japanese aircraft sent by Onishi to relieve the initial flight did not surprise the Americans in this second wave. Nevertheless, after twenty minutes of intense aerial combat, Kurita drove off the attack, but at far greater cost. Faced by far more experienced pilots who were ready for them, twenty-three of Onishi’s airplanes were shot from the sky, at a cost of only three enemy fighters. American bombers had braved the intense antiaircraft fire and managed to successfully hit the giant Musashi with several torpedoes. Although their attack did not sink her, she was sufficiently damaged that she would be unable to keep up with the fleet. While some of the American pilots focused their attention on Musashi, others renewed their attacks on the already damaged Nagato. Unable to maneuver quickly because of damage suffered during the first strike, Nagato could not avoid a string of torpedoes that struck her port side. At 1259, just moments after she was hit, Nagato listed to port and sank.

As the second wave of American aircraft slipped back to their carriers in the east, Kurita surveyed the damage. He had already suffered the loss of two battleships, a cruiser, and two destroyers, losses that under normal circumstances would have sent most naval officers reeling. Several of his staff urged him to retire and save what remained of his fleet before additional American strikes came. Remembering the desperate nature of his mission, however, Kurita decided to continue.

No Matter the Cost

Despite the losses he had suffered, Kurita reasoned that he still possessed a powerful force that might inflict a crippling blow on the Americans if it could reach the transports at Leyte. Unwilling to delay any longer, he silenced critics on his staff, and his own fears, and forged on. For the next several hours the air attacks continued and Kurita’s force suffered additional damage. After a 1330 attack, the mighty Musashi was so severely damaged that her commander informed Kurita that the battleship was sinking and would have to be abandoned. The news of Musashi’s fate staggered Kurita, who wondered if perhaps they were hoping for too much.

Jubilant American aircrews reported back to Halsey that they had inflicted punishing blows on the Japanese. The commander of the 3rd Fleet was convinced that his airplanes had eliminated Kurita’s force as an effective threat. Now all he had to do was to find the enemy’s carrier forces and he could complete the destruction of the Japanese fleet. Unaware of exactly where Ozawa was, Halsey urged Sherman to step up his reconnaissance missions while he prepared to take the three task groups of the 3rd Fleet wherever was necessary. Aware that Kurita’s battered force remained afloat, he also decided to make arrangements to form another force from his larger ships that would be tasked with protecting the San Bernardino Strait. The new force, dubbed Task Force 34, would consist of four battleships, five cruisers, and nineteen destroyers, and, when organized would be commanded by Vice Adm. Willis A. Lee. In order to ensure that his ships were aware of his plans, at 1512 Halsey radioed all of the ships of the 3rd Fleet as well as Admirals Nimitz and King, describing the contingency force, which would be activated upon his command. Radio monitors from the 7th Fleet also picked up this message and relayed the information to Admiral Kinkaid.

As Halsey formulated his plans, Kurita contemplated his future. Overcome by the loss of so many men, the admiral ordered three of his destroyers to turn about and pick up any survivors while the crews of his remaining ships repaired some of the damage they had suffered. On board Atago, Kurita considered his next move. Having been badly battered by American aircraft throughout the day, and having heard little or nothing about the progress of the other Sho forces, at 1600 he wired Tokyo that despite the support of a limited number of Japanese aircraft:

the enemy made more than 250 sorties against us between 0830 and 1530, the number of planes involved and their fierceness mounting with every wave. Our air forces, on the other hand, were not able to obtain even expected results, causing our losses to mount steadily. Under these circumstances it was deemed that were we to force our way through, we would merely make ourselves meat for the enemy, with very little chance of success. It was therefore concluded that the best course open to us was temporarily to retire beyond the reach of enemy planes.

Surveying the remnants of his once powerful force, it was easy for Kurita to assume that the Sho plan had been a disaster. The intensity of the air strikes launched against him throughout the day indicated that Ozawa had failed to draw off the might of the 3rd Fleet. Having heard nothing further from Nishimura, he could only assume the worst there as well. Kurita’s fortunes, however, were soon to change.

After repeated efforts to locate Ozawa’s force, at 1640, bombers from Sherman’s task force spotted the carriers as they steamed south toward Luzon. Locating the Japanese carrier force was just what Halsey—and Ozawa—had been waiting for. Halsey immediately alerted his task group commanders to concentrate and soon had all three of them moving. He radioed McCain to cut short his leave from the 3rd Fleet and rejoin it as it headed north to destroy the Japanese carriers. With Halsey’s force now headed north, the danger of further aerial attack on Kurita’s ships had ended. Given a respite from the constant air attacks, Kurita began to recover some of his nerve. Remembering the “all or nothing” nature of the Sho plan, the admiral decided to continue his advance. Perhaps as confirmation of the correctness of this decision, at 1815 Admiral Toyoda responded to Kurita’s earlier message, informing him, “All forces will dash to the attack, trusting in divine guidance.” His orders now clear and his forces protected by darkness, Kurita proceeded toward San Bernardino Strait. If he experienced no further delays, he planned to pass through the strait at 0100 on October 25.

While Kurita had been battling for his life in the Sulu Sea, Nishimura’s force had proceeded with little interruption from the Americans. Although he endured one attack early on the morning of October 24, after he drove off the American planes he proceeded without difficulty. He also received word that the 2nd Force, commanded by Vice Adm. Kiyohide Shima, was approaching his fleet from the north and would soon be available to reinforce him as he passed through the strait. Although he had an intense dislike for Shima, Nishimura recognized that the seriousness of the situation demanded that every member of the fleet work together. There would be time enough for personal vendettas after the Americans had been destroyed.


What If: Halsey and Kurita at Leyte Gulf? II

Sailing towards Leyte Gulf from left to right CA Chikuma, BB Nagato, BC Haruna, BC Kongo and CA Tone.

Remember Pearl Harbor

But Nishimura had been spotted, and although no further attacks were launched against him for the remainder of the day, the Americans were not idle. Given ample warning of the Japanese approach, and confident that Halsey had seen to the defense of the San Bernardino Strait, Admiral Kinkaid took his time to prepare for his opponent’s arrival at the eastern side of the Surigao Strait. To counter such a move, Kinkaid ordered Rear Adm. Jesse B. Oldendorf to plug the twelve-mile-wide northern exit of the strait with a force of six battleships—five of which had been at Pearl Harbor in 1941—eight cruisers, and twenty-eight destroyers. Oldendorf decided to place his largest ships directly across the mouth of the strait with the destroyers divided and placed along each side. To add depth to the defense, he also placed thirty-nine of the diminutive patrol torpedo (PT) boats farther down the strait. Unlikely to be able to halt Nishimura’s advancing battleships, the PTs would serve as a trip wire to provide Oldendorf with important up-to-the-minute information about the opponent he was about to face. They would also be able to harass Nishimura as he advanced perhaps causing some confusion among the enemy.

The evening of October 24, the men of both navies were preparing for the next stage of the battle. While Kurita and Nishimura’s crews made final arrangements before their entrance into the Philippine Sea, Halsey’s sailors readied their planes for air strikes against Ozawa’s carriers, and Oldendorf’s crews made sure their guns were well sighted on the northern exit of Surigao Strait.

While aircrews scrambled around the decks of his carriers, Halsey thought it prudent to inform Kinkaid of his plans. At 2024, Halsey radioed Kinkaid that “strike reports indicate enemy heavily damaged. Am proceeding north with three groups to attack enemy carrier force at dawn.” Kinkaid was pleased with the news. He was ready for Nishimura’s force as it headed through Surigao Strait, and it appeared that Halsey was ready to knock out Ozawa’s force coming from the north with his three task forces. And although it was not a huge force, Kinkaid believed that Task Force 34 should be more than sufficient to halt Kurita’s badly damaged ships from emerging through the San Bernardino Strait. Everything seemed in place to deliver the Japanese a telling blow.

Just ten minutes after Halsey had radioed Kinkaid word was received that one of Oldendorf’s PT boats had spotted Nishimura’s advancing fleet. The tiny American boats charged ahead in a series of brave but disappointing attacks. Despite launching a number of torpedoes, little was accomplished other than disrupting the Japanese advance. Gunners aboard Nishimura’s destroyers were able to destroy a number of the PT boats. At 2136, Nishimura radioed Shima, who was following just behind him, that he was “advancing as scheduled while destroying enemy torpedo boats.”

Opposition to Nishimura’s advance, however, was soon to become more intense. Alerted to the advancing Japanese ships just after 0200 on the morning of October 25, Oldendorf’s destroyers steamed down Surigao Strait and prepared to deliver a series of torpedo attacks. An hour later the first American torpedoes were sent against the enemy ships. By the time these attacks were over, two destroyers had been sunk and a third badly damaged. Torpedoes had also damaged the battleships Fuso and Yamashiro. Perhaps most important, the PT and destroyer attacks had eliminated all semblance of order among the Japanese ships as they prepared to encounter Oldendorf’s waiting cruisers and battleships.

As the badly disorganized enemy force approached within range of his battleships and cruisers, Oldendorf could not believe his luck. The Japanese were approaching in a column dead ahead. For some reason, perhaps the disruptive effects of the earlier PT boat and destroyer attacks, or Nishimura’s obstinacy, the Japanese had neglected to maneuver and were now presenting a broad front to the enemy. This meant that Oldendorf was about to enjoy the advantage, dreamed of by all naval commanders but seldom experienced, of being able to bring all of his guns to bear at the lead Japanese ship.

At 0351, Oldendorf ordered his ships to open fire. Soon, shells from some of the largest guns in the navy were raining down on the unfortunate Japanese. For the next fifteen minutes salvos quickly shattered what remained of Nishimura’s ships. The flagship  Yamashiro had gone down, Mogami and Fuso were badly battered and left for dead, and although Shigure turned around and began to retreat, she was soon dead in the water as well.

Just as the final salvos of the American battleships began to find their targets, Shima, on board the cruiser Nachi, arrived at the scene. He had hoped to join Nishimura earlier, but American PT boat attacks slowed his advance. Viewing the wreckage of Fuso as he sailed northward, Shima soon realized there was nothing left of Nishimura’s force to join. A little after 0400, in a gesture of false bravado, Shima launched a series of ineffectual torpedo attacks at what he believed were American ships, and then turned and headed south. As he sailed away from the scene of Nishimura’s demise, he came upon the wreckage of Mogami, which he believed was lying dead in the water. Unfortunately he was wrong; Mogami was moving slowly, and at 0430 Nachi collided with the wounded vessel, causing further damage.

The southern arm of the Japanese advance toward Leyte Gulf had been a disaster. As the sun came up on October 25, Shima’s sailors anxiously awaited the inevitable attacks by pursuing American ships as they began to limp back to Brunei. While Shima was contemplating how to get his battered ships away from the enemy, Kinkaid was meeting with his staff. The Americans were discussing the recently concluded action and no doubt congratulating themselves on their stunning victory. Just before adjourning the meeting, Kinkaid turned to his chief of staff, Capt. Richard H. Cruzen, and asked, “Now, Dick, is there anything we haven’t done?” Cruzen responded that he could think of just “one thing. We have never directly asked Halsey if TF 34 is guarding San Bernardino Strait.” Just to be doubly sure, Kinkaid authorized Cruzen to send Halsey a message to confirm that TF 34 was indeed covering the strait.

Although much of the action on the evening of October 24 was in the south, Kurita had not been idle. At 0035, October 25, his fleet passed unmolested through the San Bernardino Strait and into the Philippine Sea. Kurita, still licking his wounds from the air battles the previous day, could not believe his good fortune. How could the Americans have left such a critical passage uncovered? Had Ozawa’s flotilla finally drawn off Halsey’s forces? If his luck continued to hold, in just over six hours he would be in a position to attack the American transports in Leyte Gulf. After convincing himself that, indeed, there were no Americans guarding the passage, Kurita radioed Onishi and requested that he have whatever air cover was available rendezvous with him as he rounded the eastern side of Samar. Onishi, who had suffered severe losses defending Kurita’s force, responded that he would provide what few aircraft remained.

“Where Is Task Force 34?”

Kurita’s passage had been unopposed because of a tragic miscommunication on the part of the Americans. Contrary to what Kinkaid, Nimitz, and King believed, there was no Task Force 34. Halsey’s earlier message had simply indicated that the task force would be formed if necessary. Believing that he had so damaged Kurita that he no longer posed a threat, Halsey elected to take all of his available strength with him, including the ships that would have composed TF 34. The misunderstanding was exacerbated by Halsey’s message the previous evening that declared that he was heading north with “three groups.” This second message seemed to confirm that Halsey had left San Bernardino protected.

The miscommunication between Halsey and Kinkaid might have been avoided had they been serving under a unified command, but that was not the case. Now, this string of errors meant that as Admiral Kurita sailed around the coast of Samar, all that was guarding the vital American landing beaches at Leyte were sixteen tiny escort carriers and a screen of destroyers divided into three groups—Taffy-1, commanded by Rear Adm. T. L. Sprague; Taffy-2, commanded by Rear Adm. F. B. Stump; and Taffy-3, commanded by Rear Adm. C. A. F. Sprague. The escort carriers, nicknamed “jeep” carriers, were intended to provide air support to forces operating ashore and to conduct antisubmarine patrols. They were armed with only one 5-inch gun and a few antiaircraft weapons. To make matters worse, most of the aircraft on board had been armed with ordnance more suitable to support operations against Japanese troop formations on Leyte than against enemy warships.

On the bridge of Atago, Kurita was still trying to figure out how, despite the battering he had taken the previous day and the silence from the other wings of the Sho force, he had been so fortunate. His thoughts were interrupted just before 0600 as he looked up to see thirty-five of Onishi’s aircraft overhead. Although he would have enjoyed greater air support, at this point in the operation he was happy with anything he could get. Soon afterward, he received a radio report from Yamato announcing that radar had spotted American aircraft. Cautious after the previous day’s beating, Kurita ordered his fleet to prepare for an aerial attack. Soon, however, reports were received that Onishi’s aircraft had downed an American reconnaissance plane. Sailors aboard Kurita’s ships were alert and at their positions when, just visible over the horizon, they saw the radar masts of Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague’s six escort carriers. The news electrified the Japanese crews, and Kurita’s chief of staff, Adm. Timiji Koyanagi, recalled that soon after sighting the masts “we could see planes being launched. This was indeed a miracle. Think of a surface fleet coming up on an enemy carrier group? Nothing is more vulnerable than an aircraft carrier in a surface engagement.”

Kurita was astonished. Although his force had suffered a good deal of damage it was still incredibly potent, especially against enemy carriers caught unprepared. He alerted all of the ships of the force to prepare for action and form a battle line. He then steamed toward the U.S. carriers, and at 0658 the massive 18-inch guns of the battleship Yamato fired on them. As they approached additional ships added their salvos to those of Yamato.

On board Fanshaw Bay, C. A. F. Sprague was horrified to see a huge red geyser of water rise up just off his port bow. The admiral knew that the Japanese often used dye to mark the fall of their incoming rounds. What were the Japanese doing there? he wondered. TF 34 was supposed to be guarding the San Bernardino Strait. He had little time to consider what had happened however, as the waters around Taffy-3 were soon alive with color as Japanese shells came closer and closer. Aware that time was of the essence, he immediately ordered his ships to generate smoke launching their aircraft and to retreat toward Taffy-2. He then radioed T. L. Sprague and Kinkaid the desperate message, “Where is Task Force 34?” Kinkaid was alarmed by the message. He was sure the strait had been covered. Then he remembered that he had never received a confirmation from Halsey that TF 34 was, in fact, off the San Bernardino Strait.

Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to buy time, the aircraft from Taffy-3 were throwing themselves at Kurita’s force. Untrained and unequipped for an aerial attack on Japanese ships bristling with antiaircraft guns and supported by circling land-based fighters, Taffy-3’s brave pilots were either shot from the sky or driven away before they could do much damage. Later, waves of fighters launched from Taffy-2 and Taffy-1 proved only slightly more successful, launching a torpedo attack that destroyed one of Kurita’s destroyers. The beleaguered American carriers of Taffy-3 received a brief respite when they were able to enter the protection offered by a nearby rainstorm. However, even that relief proved to be short-lived. Unable to keep pace with the fast-moving storm, the carriers were soon bracketed by renewed enemy shell fire. Aware that he was sending them to their deaths, but having little choice, C. A. F. Sprague ordered his destroyers to attack the Japanese. Given the circumstances, the Americans were incredibly successful, severely damaging the cruiser Kumano as well as two additional Japanese destroyers.

Even this effort, however, was futile. The overwhelming might of Kurita’s battleships and cruisers had soon dispatched the destroyers Johnston and Hoel and left Hermann dead in the water. With his destroyers now gone, Sprague waited for the inevitable, and at 0720, 18-inch shells from Yamato ripped into his flagship, USS Fanshaw Bay, and she quickly went down. White Plains and Gambler Bay soon followed Taffy-3’s flagship to the bottom. Kurita then dispatched a cruiser to deal with the remaining ships of Taffy-3 while the rest of his force continued on toward Leyte Gulf.

Before his ship went down, Sprague was able to alert Kinkaid that unless Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 could do something quickly, it seemed certain that Kurita would reach Leyte Gulf. In perhaps one of the bitterest ironies of the day, because of the inefficient radio link between the two fleets, at 0720 Kinkaid finally received a response to his message to Halsey of the previous evening. Halsey informed him that TF 34 was part of his attack on Ozawa.

Kinkaid now had some difficult decisions to make. He was painfully aware that Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 could do little against Kurita’s fleet, but he had to sacrifice them in order to buy time. The American battleships and cruisers that had been so successful at Surigao Strait were at least three hours away from Leyte, and though Halsey was reluctantly headed south after a good deal of haranguing and pleading from Kinkaid and an alerted Nimitz, it would still be several hours before the now formed TF 34 could reach the area. As expected, the desperate attacks of Taffy-1 and Taffy-2 did little more than cause Kurita to slow temporarily. Attacks by the aircraft and destroyers of the two groups managed to sink the cruiser Chikuma and damage Tone, but at the cost of five more of the tiny “jeep” carriers and most of the destroyer escorts.

The Price of Imprudence

Kurita now ordered another cruiser and a destroyer to join his trailing cruiser in finishing off any remnants of Sprague’s three carrier groups. Just as Yamato’s guns were finishing off the last of Taffy-1, Kurita was informed by an excited Koyanagi that his guns were now within range of the enemy anchorage at Leyte Gulf. Kurita could scarcely contain himself. He immediately ordered that word of this stunning accomplishment be flashed to Tokyo, the troops fighting for their lives around Leyte, and to every ship remaining in the fleet. Elated by what they had accomplished, the Japanese sailors worked relentlessly as the guns of the mighty Yamato and the surviving cruisers raked Kinkaid’s transports trapped within the confines of Leyte Gulf. What few aircraft remained to Kinkaid could do little against the massive barrage of heavy caliber naval shells that came hurtling into the gulf. The slaughter was on a scale that exceeded what had occurred at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait, Japan’s greatest naval victory. So tightly packed were the transports inside the gulf that Kurita’s gunners barely had to aim their weapons.

Nimitz was startled when he received Kinkaid’s desperate message for help. He, too, believed that Halsey had left TF 34 guarding San Bernardino Strait. Aware of the magnitude of what this could mean, Nimitz immediately radioed Halsey with the question, “Where is Task Force 34? The world wonders.” Although the second sentence of the message was meant merely to confuse the enemy, Halsey, perhaps now aware of the tragic mistake he had made, was enraged. In response, he ignored the pleadings of Kinkaid and the questions of Nimitz for another hour before reluctantly making the decision to form TF 34 and head it south ahead of the rest of his force. He was far too late to rescue the situation in the south and his momentary confusion meant that Ozawa was able to quickly turn about and escape as well.

Aware that the remaining U.S. ships would soon be rushing to the relief of Leyte Gulf, after little more than an hour of blasting away at the American anchorage Kurita headed back toward San Bernardino Strait. He knew his battle-scarred ships and exhausted men would have an all but impossible time avoiding Halsey’s force, but as had just been demonstrated, there were such things as miracles.

As a final bitter end to the rapidly unfolding American disaster, Halsey’s delay in forming Task Force 34 meant that Kurita was able to escape from the gulf and limp back to Brunei. On the beaches of Leyte, Krueger’s 6th Army was driven back to the water’s edge before the guns of the now combined 3rd and 7th fleets provided sufficient firepower to halt the Japanese attacks. Although the 6th Army was able to hold on, the men endured privation exceeding what the Marines had experienced on Guadalcanal in 1942. Soon, the fighting on Leyte reached a stalemate, with the Americans unable to advance farther inland and the Japanese unable to push the Americans into the gulf. Kurita’s stunning victory had set back the timetable for Allied victory in the Pacific by years.

When word of the disaster at Leyte Gulf reached Washington on October 27, President Franklin Roosevelt and his principal military advisors could scarcely believe it. The impetuous Halsey was immediately, and publicly, sacked and replaced by the victor of Midway, the somewhat more prudent Raymond A. Spruance. And although he escaped the fate of his subordinate, Nimitz’s strategic plans, much to MacArthur’s immense satisfaction, were no longer given much consideration by either King or Roosevelt. After Halsey’s removal, there was simply no way to conceal such a disaster from the American public. Mindful of the fact that the election for his unprecedented fourth term as president was just weeks away, aware that many pundits were calling for his removal, and unwilling to see if the public was prepared to continue to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to subdue Imperial Japan, Roosevelt made plans for peace.

The U.S. president offered the Japanese a means of escaping from the rain of American B-29 bombers that would soon be unleashed. Roosevelt would agree to a conditional surrender that called for a withdrawal from all those possessions the Japanese had taken after December 7, 1941.

Since Tojo’s removal after the Saipan disaster, Japanese peace advocates within Emperor Hirohito’s government had sought a means of saving the country and the Emperor’s dynasty while preserving their country’s honor. Kurita’s victory had provided them with that opportunity. Not only was the Emperor allowed to retain his throne, but Japan was able to retain control of its possessions in Indochina, Manchuria, and most of China.

On November 2, 1944, Roosevelt announced to a jubilant American public that the Japanese had agreed to surrender all of the territory conquered after the attack on Pearl Harbor. After giving his unprecedented fourth inaugural speech on Saturday, January 20, 1945, Roosevelt returned to the Oval Office to celebrate. Piled upon his desk was a stack of the customary congratulatory telegrams from governments across the globe. He thought it particularly ironic that at the bottom of the stack was a letter of congratulations from Emperor Hirohito.

The four main actions in the battle of Leyte Gulf: 1 Battle of the Sibuyan Sea 2 Battle of Surigao Strait 3 Battle of (or ‘off’) Cape Engaño 4 Battle off Samar. Leyte Gulf is north of 2 and west of 4. The island of Leyte is west of the gulf.

The Reality

Soon after departing Brunei, the Japanese plans began to come apart. On October 23, Admiral Kurita’s flagship was sunk as it was steaming past the Palawan passage, and throughout October 24 his ships, lacking any air cover, were battered by Halsey’s airplanes. Meanwhile, as described previously, Kinkaid destroyed Nishimura’s force on the evening of October 24—25.

Believing that he had sufficiently damaged Kurita’s force on October 24, Halsey steamed northward against Ozawa, leaving the San Bernardino Strait unprotected. Despite the battering the Japanese received on their way to the strait, the absence of Task Force 34 meant that only Sprague’s escort carriers remained between Kurita and Leyte Gulf. In one of the finest displays of courage in the history of the U.S. Navy, the sailors and airmen of Taffy-3 put up a desperate defense against Kurita. Despite the odds against them, Taffy-3’s planes—joined later by the pilots of Taffy-1 and Taffy-2—were able to launch a series of desperate attacks against Kurita. Lacking torpedoes, some planes made dummy bombing runs while others dropped bombs meant for Japanese army units on Leyte. Meanwhile, the destroyer escorts of Taffy-3 launched determined torpedo attacks against Kurita, sank Chokai and Chikuma, and drove off Yamato. So determined were the American attacks that at 0915 Kurita called off his own attack and, at 1236, on the verge of scoring a great victory, turned his ships around and headed back through the San Bernardino Strait. Despite all the damage he had suffered, if Kurita had kept his nerve for just a little while longer, there is every reason to believe he could have sailed into Leyte Gulf and inflicted the damage described previously.

As Taffy-3 fought for its life, Halsey began a series of attacks against Ozawa. By the end of the day the 3rd Fleet had sunk all of the Japanese carriers. By every estimate, the Battle of Leyte Gulf had been a total disaster for the Japanese. While the Americans escaped with the loss of only three light carriers and three destroyer escorts, the Japanese lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers. They also lost any chance of stopping the relentless Allied advance on the home islands.


Cannon, M. Hamlin, Leyte: The Return to the Philippines (Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1993).

Cutler, Thomas X, The Battle of Leyte Gulf: 23-26 October 1944 (Harper, New York, 1994).

Humble, Richard, Japanese High Seas Fleet (Ballantine, New York, 1973).

Morgan, Ted FDR: A Biography (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985).

Morison, Samuel Eliot, Leyte, June 1944-January 1945 (Little, Brown, Boston, 1971).

Nalty, Bernard (ed.), War in the Pacific: Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1991).

Spector, Ronald H., Eagle Against the Sun: The American War Against Japan (Free Press, New York, 1985).

Steinberg, Rafael, Return to the Philippines (Time Life, Alexandria, 1980).

The English Armada: Battles at Sea I

Engraving of the galley of the Adelantado of Castile, Royal Palace (Palacio Real), Madrid.

A gentle breeze was blowing as dawn broke on Monday, 19 June, and so the Adelantado of Castile ‘set out that morning with nine ships in pursuit of the enemy fleet, which was coming round Cape Saint Vincent’. As the ships sailed out, ‘they encountered a French vessel that was fleeing from the Armada with seventy Englishmen on board; the French were allowed to take everything off them, which they did in such a way that they almost skinned them alive’. That is how the tragic withdrawal of the English Armada began, and as we shall see, their losses were just as great as during the Spanish Armada. Stripped and with their bodies lacerated by their French captors, these Englishmen were the first of what was to become an almost unmanageable number of prisoners that soon gave the Spaniards some serious logistical problems.

Later that same day, ‘a Flemish store ship appeared out at sea and the Adelantado sent across Don Francisco Coloma and Don Juan Puertocarrero with their galleys. They found about fifty Englishmen who were readily handed over by the Flemish without a struggle. Both this ship and the French vessel were allowed to sail for Lisbon.’ Not a great deal was gleaned from interrogating the Englishmen. ‘It was understood from the English that the fleet was heading for Cádiz, and in view of that the Adelantado asked permission from the Cardinal Archduke to take all his galleys to stop the enemy. His Highness granted the request provided that he did not take more than nine of his galleys.’ And so as night fell on Monday, 19 June 1589, the fearless Padilla stayed on course with his nine galleys in pursuit of the English. At the same time, in Lisbon, fifteen caravels with extra men and munitions were being made ready in order to reinforce the strategically important Azores. It is clear that day by day the Spanish recovery was taking shape at the same time that the defeat of the English was being planned, although, as will be seen, adverse winds prevented the reinforcement flotilla for the Azores from setting sail immediately.

The oars of the galley slaves followed the unvarying rhythm set by the overseer. Stroke after stroke the blades of the oars emerged from the water, were turned in the air and then thrust in the water once more. For its part, the gentle northerly breeze helped the galleys’ oarsmen along as they blindly pursued their objective through the darkness of the night. There were only two cannons mounted at the prow and two at the stern on these ships, as there was no room at the sides because of the oars and the low clearance above the level of the sea. However, these cannons had been carefully chosen from among the reinforced culverins of the period. They were long-range cannons and, when fired from under five hundred metres, were very accurate, effective and had great destructive force. In addition, over short distances the power of the muskets and harquebuses could wipe out the decks, topsails, upper decks and embrasures of enemy ships. In this way,

with these nine galleys he [Padilla] went in pursuit of the enemy but without any sight of him, and three hours before daybreak he found himself in the middle of the Armada. To confirm that was where he was, he sent an Englishman, Captain Eduardo Grecio, in a skiff to talk to the nearest ship, where they told him that they were not following the Admiral. From this conversation it was clear that this was the whole fleet and they had been among them without the enemy realizing it until dawn.

So dawn on 20 June found the nine galleys in the middle of the scattered English Armada. It was time to intercept the stragglers, and so Padilla placed his ship like a wedge between them and the rest of the fleet. Sure enough, ‘the Adelantado endeavoured to position himself on the right side of the wind and once he had done so he captured all the ships that were out of position. With his galley he attacked three large supply ships, a tender and a barge and other galleys came to his assistance, especially that of Don Juan Puertocarrero.’ For its part ‘La Patrona, with Don Andrés de Atienza on board, took a supply ship together with La Peregrina, Serena, Leona, Palma, and Florida, and these two stayed with it until it was set alight.’ And so, one by one, the ships that had become separated from the fleet fell into Padilla’a hands.

For his part, Alonso de Bazán ‘attacked a ship from Plymouth which had fallen behind and in the boarding of the ship that followed its Captain Caverley was killed with most of his men. Two other straggling ships were attacked and sunk by the galleys. In one of them Captain Minshaw and his crew fought heroically until they disappeared engulfed in flames.’ There is a different report concerning the fate of Captain Caverley, which gives him as a prisoner, for ‘having abandoned his ship, he escaped in a small boat and was then captured’. Several documents record Bazán’s attack. This is how John Evesham describes it:

On the morning of the 20th and with the sea in a state of calm eight galleys headed in a windward direction towards us and attacked two of our small ships that were said not to have been able to defend themselves due to a lack of gunpowder and munitions. However, as far as I know and thanks to God’s assistance these two escaped. Then the galleys attacked two other small ships head on and upwind and they were caught and set alight and the survivors taken prisoner. In addition, I was told that the William, commanded by Mr Hawkins of Plymouth, whose men, so I heard, sailed off in a small boat, was set fire to two or three times, although the fire went out. Then the Admiral arrived and with one cannon shot ensured that the galleys left him alone. But they pursued the small boat in order to capture the men and although they failed to do so they sank it and all the men drowned. And the (the word ‘burnt’ is struck out) boat was sunk by our own men because there were not enough men to sail it.

Other documents and writers recorded these attacks by the galleys. For example, the Spanish press described it thus:

And so on the morning of the nineteenth of June [the Adelantado] sailed out with nine ships in pursuit of the enemy fleet, which was coming round Cape St. Vincent, and before any encounter they met up with a further six galleys that joined forces with them, and when they came across the enemy fleet they used their cannons against them on the twentieth and the twenty-fifth of June, for there was little wind and they were able to do a great deal of damage. They set fire to three ships, while others said five, they sank two others and took prisoners from them all, causing a lot of damage to the remainder but without the galleys incurring any serious damage in return.

The Portuguese press referred to three sunk and two set on fire. Cabrera de Córdoba wrote of four sunk and an unspecified number of ships burnt. Juan de Arquellada mentions seven sunk or set ablaze, while Duro had four sunk by the Adelantado and three set on fire by Alonso de Bazán. Hume wrote of three sunk or captured and one burnt. More recently, Kelsey wrote of five or six ships lost. However, apart from González-Arnao, no attention was paid to the fate of the ships captured earlier by the English Armada in Cascais, which had come to form part of the fleet. In summary, on 19 June, two of the merchant vessels seized by Drake and manned by captured crewmen were released. One of them, the French one, made its own way to join the galleys. On 20 June, another four supply ships, also with English crewmen, were captured, and in addition most probably a tender and a barge from among the vessels seized by Drake. Between three and five English ships of low-tonnage – the most numerous by far in the English fleet – were also destroyed and others were damaged, a total of between nine and eleven ships and two smaller craft. About seven hundred Englishmen were taken out of action, of whom one hundred and thirty survived the attacks and were taken prisoner.

On 20 June 1589, the Spanish finally achieved what had been denied them ten months earlier: boarding English ships. The galleys, old-world Mediterranean vessels, had as their main weapon a sharp ram which punched into the hull of enemy ships and acted as a boarding bridge. Galleys were attack ships driven by the strength of the galley slaves or oarsmen and the courage of the soldiers on board. The galley slaves were prisoners of war, men sentenced by law or volunteers called buenas bollas (‘good loaves’) because they were better fed. Artillery was mounted on the bow and aimed by steering the whole ship. Propelled by oar and sail, they were more mobile than the heavy galleons, and if there was no wind they could get behind them and bombard them or board them, as happened at Cape Espichel.

While the rearguard was under attack, the rest of the fleet, far from coming to their aid, took advantage of the fact that the Spanish were distracted by their prey and they made their getaway. The English and the Spanish were unanimous in their contempt for Drake’s extremely unhappy position at this time. In a letter on 20 July, the Adelantado explained:

Even though there was little wind, it helped them to crowd together and take refuge, and the cowardice shown by the whole fleet was a sight to see. And it is clear that in this and in what the prisoners say about the hail of bullets that rained down upon them, this was the work of God to rid these heretics of their pride.

Fenner would not have disagreed with this description by Padilla, for he called the resistance which they met as ‘shameful’.

Padilla treated the crew of the support ships well, as indicated in his letter: ‘Some of the officers and sailors of the Flemish and German ships that were seized will be set free because they were taken by the enemy by force and brought to Spain. I do so without expecting anything in return and I will give them payment because it is desirable to have them willingly serve Your Majesty.’ Returning to the naval operations, ‘the two largest supply ships were set on fire within range of Drake’s cannons and the same action was taken with the other ships, but it wasn’t as effective and one was sunk by the artillery of the flagship’. Meanwhile,

Drake’s flagship and another large flagship carrying the infantry general, together with some other large ships, were trying to regroup their fleet, which they were all so eager to do that it required little effort. All five ships mentioned took part in the fighting, and the remaining vessels nearby assisted them with artillery, especially the flagship, which was being towed by two well-armed barges.

Losses in the galleys were surprisingly few, for ‘in all the galleys there were no more than two dead and up to seventy wounded, the best known of these a son of Juan Ruiz de Velasco’. The explanation for the satisfactory part played by the galleys is explained as follows: ‘The speed with which our harquebuses and artillery operated was of great importance and did not allow the enemy to get into the fight. The enemy’s artillery caused no damage to the galleys, although some bullets did reach the flagship and other vessels.’ That campaign of attrition against the defeated English Armada ended in the early afternoon, for ‘the fighting lasted from dawn until two hours after midday, when the galleys withdrew to rest a while in view of the fact that the enemy had regrouped’.

It was fear of the galleys that led to the dispersal of the fleet. Evesham wrote of this fear in his account: ‘So we two did bear in as near Bayona as we durst for fear of the galleys.’ Later the wind allowed the English to move away from the coast:

At five in the afternoon the enemy sailed so far from the coast that scarcely a ship could be seen, and at this the Adelantado went round Cape St. Vincent to take on water because the galleys were in need of it, and there he waited until the enemy went past, as it would have to do if it was heading for Cádiz.

It was impossible to discover the intentions of the English Armada from the nine prisoners taken during that morning. In fact,

Captains, Sub-lieutenants, English gentlemen and an engineer were taken. They were asked many questions about the destination of the fleet and they all said different things and they all agreed that no-one knows but they suspect that it is heading for Cádiz. Others said that the Infantry General will be returning to England with the whole fleet, and Drake, with Dom António on board, is going with forty of the best ships to the Islands and the Indies. On the one hand they are on the right track to go to the Islands and for the fleet to go to England, and on the other hand it seems that if they had to go (to England) they should have gone from Cascais when the Dutch and Zealand and La Rochelle ships were allowed to go.

In any event, Padilla was not far off the mark when he gave his opinion on the matter: ‘I also believe that their lack of personnel, due to the number they have lost and those who have died and are dying from disease, means that it is quite likely that they have to return.’

What was learned from these prisoners was the fleet’s total lack of provisions:

They said that if they hadn’t seized the wheat-carrying ships that were heading for Lisbon, they would have left their men in Portugal without letting them on board, because they had nothing to give them. Now they have to manage with gruel made from flour and boiled wheat, and more of them fall ill every day. But the ones who get this to eat are the soldiers; the sailors are much better fed.

We do not know how much in these statements is accurate, but they are symptomatic of the malaise and demoralization that had passed through the fleet from one ship to the next. It has already been mentioned that the little food there was, was kept for Drake’s sailors. This fact is significant. The proportion of sailors was already low when the English set sail, but now, after so many setbacks and so much time at sea, packed together without even basic conditions of hygiene and with disease rife on the ships’ decks, the scarcity of sailors began to be a determining factor, as will later become quite clear.

Moreover the prisoners were also aware of the desperate attempts by Drake to secure assistance from the Muslims as promised: ‘They said that Drake sent eight ships to Barbary with an ambassador of the Sharif who came while the fleet was in Cascais.’ This information was corroborated in part, for ‘the three galleys that had just arrived from Cádiz brought news that they went round Cape St. Vincent’. Padilla independently drew his own conclusions: ‘The Sharif will deceive him, as he does with all those who have dealings with him.’ But what really moved the Adelantado of Castile was the sight of the state to which the monastery of Santo Antonio had been reduced after the English had passed through: ‘Next to Cascais there is a monastery of discalced monks called Santo Antonio and its heartless neighbours broke up the altar and the choir and did some further minor damage, and it grieved me greatly to see it.’ Padilla was so affected by the sight of it that in his letter to the King, he added:

And I vowed to God and to the Saint that if I am successful against those heretics, I would endeavour to persuade Your Majesty to restore it to its previous state, and if not, I would pay for it myself. May it please Your Majesty to perform this kind act, because I feel that it would be most pleasing to Our Lord.

However, the destruction of the monastery was but a prior warning of the state in which the Iberians would find Cascais.

The military operations on 20 June exacerbated a problem that would get even worse days later and that was the matter of the growing number of prisoners:

Since I have been in charge of these galleys some prominent captains have been taken and held on board, in addition to some important French corsairs, and amongst the English that were taken on the 20th there are also, as I have indicated, some men of standing, so that all told there is a significant number of them and we have to keep a constant eye on them. I ask Your Majesty to command that we be given assurances that they will be placed somewhere where they are no longer our concern, and to determine the treatment that shall be given to the English. They will be given rations like the sailors, whether they are rowers or not. In my opinion this could be justified for those who have been captured since the war started and they can be given these rations for as long as they remain on the galleys, and unless Your Majesty orders otherwise, they will be given volunteer rations. They are dying off quite quickly, thereby leaving fewer of them for us to deal with.

This terrible commentary indicates the virulence of the disease that took hold among the English expedition.

The action on the morning of 20 June brought about the dispersal of the English Armada with a good number of ships going off course. Thereafter it became difficult to continue to follow the path taken by the fleet which was now largely broken up and dispersed. This situation has been attributed to Drake’s inexperience or ineptitude in managing large fleets, for due to the way he acted he exacerbated the damage inflicted by the galleys on the English Armada, even though initially it was limited because the Spanish galleys were few in number. Drake did not give sufficient priority to ordering the fleet to divide into five squadrons, as had been agreed in Plymouth. On the contrary, the pirate-cum-admiral, possibly unduly influenced by the laxity of piracy when commanding his ships, allowed the Spanish attack to create widespread chaos among the considerable number of English vessels because of his neglect. That is when he lost track of many of them and they were lost forever. One of these was the Gregory from London. On 20 June, this ship was fired on by the galleys and could no longer keep up with the fleet. Or the case of William Fenner, with his flagship of the recently arrived reinforcement squadron, which became detached from the fleet after the attack by the galleys and, in desperation, had to head to Madeira where it would later meet up with other ships.38 In any event, the first squadron of the fleet to set sail, which included Essex, the Dutch and the sick among others, gained the open sea before the attack by the galleys and managed to head north. They were sighted a few days later off the coast of Galicia.

In spite of everything, following the attack by the galleys the majority of the fleet gradually managed to reassemble and so ‘on Tuesday the 20th, at three in the afternoon, they reappeared above Cape Espichel and the town of Sesimbra, whereupon the Duke of Aveiro took up arms in Setúbal, where Your Highness had ordered him, and very bravely and diligently prepared to resist’. All that Drake could do with the calm waters and the westerly breezes was to bring his ships together and wait for favourable winds. The English Armada could no longer undertake any action of significance and their situation grew worse by the day. Moreover, they could no longer land on that coast due to the maximum alert ordered by the Duke of Aveiro, ‘with most captains having arms at the ready for any surprise attack’.

But with the English fleet now at sea, the Iberians focused on Peniche, where five hundred men of the garrison that Norris had assigned on 28 May to provide cover if required were still waiting, with growing unease, for a rescue flotilla to enable them to get away. But amid the chaos and dispersion caused by the galleys and the sea conditions, the rescue ships did not appear. Hence, ‘so that they could attack the enemy in Peniche and take their artillery and prevent them from doing further damage … Dom Martinho quickly wrote to His Highness and to the Counts Fuentes and Vila de Orta’. In this way, ‘that same day (20th) Don Pedro de Guzmán and Don Sancho Bravo set out with their mounted harquebusiers and horsemen under Gaspar de Alarcón, and four hundred harquebusiers with Captains Castillo and Ocampo, heading for Peniche where the enemy had left five hundred men’. That march from Lisbon had to proceed at the pace of the infantry, so that it inevitably took them some time to reach Peniche.

The English Armada: Battles at Sea II

Map: 25 May–20 June, Lisbon.

1.25 May. A council of war held off Peniche where it is decided to undertake an expedition on land, ruling out a naval attack on Lisbon on 26 May. Difficult disembarkation on Consolaçao beach; of the thirty-two landing craft, fourteen went under with over eighty men drowned. First skirmish on the beach: two hours and three charges with 250 Spanish and 150 Portuguese under Captain Alarcón and Juan González de Ateide. Death of Captains Robert Piew and Jackson plus other men. Death of a standard-bearer and fifteen Spaniards. 12,000 soldiers are landed.

2.27 May. Contact with the Portuguese at Peniche and Atouguia. Preparations for the march. Attack by the cavalry of Captain Gaspar de Alarcón: five dead plus one French prisoner who speaks Spanish: he reports that the English Armada is bringing 20,000 men. Surrender of the fortress to Dom António.

3.28 May. The English army reaches Lourinha, where it has proved impossible to raise a Spanish–Portuguese army. Start of the Spanish tactics to cut off supplies and communications. The army begins to starve.

4.28 May. Drake sets sail from Peniche to Cascais with the whole fleet and 3,200 men. A further five hundred, left as a garrison in Peniche, will be killed or captured.

5.28 May. Movement of Spanish troops transported in galleys from Lisbon to São Julião and Oeiras to strengthen the naval front.

6.29 May. The English army reaches Torres Vedras. Nobles in the area take flight. Fear in Lisbon. Locals who live outside the walls take refuge in the city.

7.30 May. Iberian military parade in Queluz, where the new headquarters has been set up.

8.30 May. Drake drops anchor between Cascais and São Julião, adopting a crescent shape.

9.30–31 May. The English enter Loures. Dom António announces that he will enter Lisbon on 1 June, the feast of Corpus Christi, but on the night of 31 May there is a surprise Spanish attack with more than two hundred dead.

10.1 June. The English reach Alvalade. Arms are distributed to the Portuguese infantry.

11.2–4 June. The English army reaches Lisbon. They are bombarded from the Saint George castle. Billeting in Lisbon. On 3 June there is a great attack of the besieged against the English barracks.

12.5 June. Night-time withdrawal by the army to Cascais, pursued by Spanish detachments. More than five hundred dead.

13.15 June. Arrival of the Adelantado of Castile with fifteen galleys and six fireships.

14.19–20 June. The English Armada sails on a westerly wind, the galleys set off in pursuit and sink or capture nine ships, a tender and a barge. The fleet is dispersed.

As dawn broke on Wednesday, 21 June 1589, it was clear that the English Armada was still in sight of land. While the first detachment of the fleet continued its slow voyage northwards, Drake was to spend that day sailing into the light onshore wind and tacking off the coast before reaching Cascais. For its part, the damaged Gregory, which was lost out at sea, struggled to sail northwards, while Fenner, who was even more lost and who had to endure a storm in the night, headed off to the islands of Madeira, which were relatively close by. These names make up for the anonymity of many other lost ships of which we know nothing further. Meanwhile, the fifteen caravels that had been made ready in Lisbon to come to the aid of the Azores were unable to set sail due to the calm seas and westerly winds. While all this was happening at sea, with the Duke of Aveiro remaining on full alert on land, the detachment of Guzmán and Bravo reached Torres Vedras, where they learned of the situation at Peniche from Martinho Soares.

Westerly winds continued to blow on 22 June, and nothing of significance changed at sea, although it did at Peniche. In fact, as Guzmán and Bravo’s detachment reached Lourinhã on their way there, they received

a report from a spy at Peniche that the enemy were trying to embark and take the artillery from the Tower. They all set off in haste towards Peniche, where they discovered some of the enemy already embarked on a small ship and a barge which were already in the water (and) about 40 of them got on board, while of those still on land they killed or captured almost 300.

Although English sources do not appear to confirm that there were any survivors apart from Captain Barton, there must have been some, for ‘although they were making haste, before they arrived they received news of the embarkation, and so spurring on their horses as much as they could they arrived with some two hundred yet to board and killed them or took them prisoner’. About two hundred, therefore, remained on land, and they were killed or captured together with others who were already on board. It is not known how many others managed to escape, but if disease had not taken too great a toll in the English garrison at Peniche, it could have been a sizeable number. What is clear is that, given the great urgency to prevent the men from getting on board, the only ones to arrive in time to prevent it were the cavalry. In any event, the haste to embark was such that ‘a chest full of papers belonging to Dom António was found, and amongst some important ones there was one written in his own hand that described everything that had happened to him from the time he had declared himself king to the day he arrived in this kingdom’. These papers would help to thwart Dom António’s plans once and for all.

Following this bloody encounter, the Iberians reclaimed the castle and its artillery. ‘In case any ships arrived, Pedro García’s company of Maestre de Campo Francisco de Toledo’s regiment, remained in the castle.’ With this new victory, ‘Don Pedro de Guzmán and Don Sancho Bravo, with their infantry and cavalry, returned to Lisbon with about 60 prisoners.’ The failure of the English expedition and the subsequent feeling of relief on the Iberian side loomed larger by the day.

As he had on previous days, Drake continued to sail close to the Portuguese coast during the morning of Friday, 23 June in order to make progress northwards and that is how the English Armada found itself off the coast at Peniche. He then sent in the rescue boats but, as fate would have it, the men who had been looking for such a sign of deliverance from the battlements of Peniche were no longer there. The ships – there were nine or ten of them – were kept at bay from Peniche by cannon fire and they returned to the fleet. Meanwhile, the English Armada was stretched out along the coast like the net of a fishing trawler or the Santa Compaña that by night seizes anyone that looks at it. Yet another merchant ship – a Hanseatic supply ship from Lübeck – fell into their clutches that day. But the extraordinary thing was that its captain was held on Drake’s Revenge until they reached Plymouth – perhaps because it was a ship captured at sea and to prevent any attempt to escape. Once he was back on the Peninsula, the captain, whose name was Juan Antonio Bigbaque, wrote a very interesting account of what happened.

That day a north-east wind got up after all the calms and westerlies and Drake set off for the open sea. That is when the fleet appeared to head for the Azores; as Hume put it: ‘After sailing ostensibly for the Azores, Drake turned back.’ But given the state of the fleet and the diverse nature of its composition, to attempt such a voyage of conquest seemed like an act of recklessness. Bigbaque, who witnessed the events, reported: ‘(Drake’s) principal objective was to end up in the Cíes Islands, but because the weather was so changeable from one day to the next, he decided to head for the island of Madeira. He sent barges to inform all the ships of the fleet, but later when the wind turned, he set course for Bayona and the Cíes Islands.’ With adverse winds for the return to England, with the coast on a war footing and swarming with galleys, with the great prize of merchant ships, and above all with the state of the fleet worsening rapidly and making it increasingly necessary to stop in order to recuperate, the Madeira Islands could be seen as an appropriate place for a stopover after six perilous and pointless days at sea. In any event, 23 June was the last day that the fleet was sighted from the vicinity of Lisbon and Peniche.

With the English Armada out to sea, the Spanish were suffering the same degree of uncertainty on Saturday, 24 June, as they had at the beginning of May: not knowing where a new landing by the English might take place. However, the situation was not the same, both on account of the drastic reduction in the power of the English fleet and the arrival of Philip’s troops in Portugal, including Juan del Águila’s infantry and Luis de Toledo’s cavalry. Hence Fuentes ordered that

as an attempt could be made between the Douro and Minho or in Galicia, it seemed advisable that the infantry and cavalry under Don Juan del Águila and Don Luis de Toledo should be accommodated in Coimbra and the surrounding area, for it is situated at the centre of the region and should the need arise they can reach any part of the area.

The Count also ordered that ‘in order for the billeting to be acceptable and convenient for the locals,’ everything should be done under the supervision of the Count of Portoalegre, and ‘they should be given excellent treatment there’.

On the same day, Fuentes sent two more caravels with men and supplies to reinforce the two that were tailing the English Armada. In addition, he began the recruitment of sailors for the new Armada that was being prepared for the following year. For his part, Alonso de Bazán, who had been called upon by the King for this new Armada, wrote to him on that day to say that with the invaders now definitely gone from Lisbon, he would travel to the Court immediately.

As for the English, it was on the Saturday that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, more or less unwittingly rendered one last service to the expedition by providing Cerralbo with the same major headaches as he had suffered in May and in the process making the Vigo estuary more vulnerable. In fact, the first sighting of the first squadron of the English Armada occurred on that day in the Rías Altas, off the Costa de la Muerte. It included the favourite Devereux with many other nobles, a good number of English ships carrying the sick and the discharged Dutch vessels. This sighting created a counterproductive movement of Galician troops, for when Cerralbo thought that the English Armada was going to attack Corunna again, he ordered the three companies that were stationed in Pontevedra as reinforcements for Vigo and the Rías Bajas to return at once to Corunna. It would have been far better in this game of cat and mouse for these veteran soldiers to have remained in Pontevedra, for this would have spared them gruelling and futile marches across the Galician countryside that took them away from the place where the final attack by the English Armada would be unleashed shortly afterwards.

On Sunday, 25 June, the northerly winds and rough weather intensified. As night fell, Drake, who had sailed out to sea on 23 June, was sighted off Oporto. These facts suggest that Drake took advantage of the north-easterly wind on 23 June, sailed west-northwest at the start of what was to be a long tacking movement (that led some to think that he was heading for the Azores). At some point on 24 June, now at some distance from the coast and with the wind from the north, the tacking took them several miles out to sea. Following the change in direction and sailing into the wind as much as possible in order to get as far north as he could, he started a new tack, this time back towards the Portuguese coast. Finally, on 25 June, with the ships leaning hard to starboard, he completed the tack which took him to within five miles of Oporto. As far as the first squadron of the English Armada was concerned, it tacked using the northerly wind to reach Finisterre, while trying not to lose too much of the northern advance already made.

The northerly wind was still blowing on Monday, 26 June, and Drake was tacking gently off the north coast of Portugal between Vila do Conde and Esposende under the watchful eye of Pedro Bermúdez, commander of the military garrison in that sector. The first squadron of the fleet was doing the same off the Galician coast and was seen again that day from Finisterre. On the Spanish side, that was the day that the fifteen caravels at last set sail to reinforce the Azores. Meanwhile, the Gregory from London which, as mentioned earlier, had been hit by the guns from the galleys days before, ‘was not sailing as well as the rest’ and had got detached from the fleet, managed to join up with them again. According to Evesham’s account that was also the night when, in addition to the gradual dispersal of individual ships, the second squadron of the English Armada was in turn split in two. Evesham described how during the night Drake lit a beacon on the Revenge, which by daybreak had disappeared along with sixty ships.

On Tuesday, 27 June, the wind continued to blow, resulting in the virtual standstill of the English ships, which were becoming more and more spread out as they tried to sail into the wind off the Portuguese and Galician coasts. Tragically, they were being held back, with the vessels beginning to look more like mortuaries owing to the relentless increase in hunger, thirst, sickness and death.

By 28 June, most of the second squadron of the English Armada was close to the Portuguese–Galician border between Viana and Caminha. In fact, a number of ships showed signs of attempting to land on Ancora beach next to the river. But the same day the wind veered to the south, and so they were able to sail towards the estuaries which offered unparalleled respite for any ship exhausted from being at sea. However, they did not all anchor in Vigo as a number of them headed straight off to England. One of these was the Gregory, which headed north after abandoning a lost supply ship that it had come across and which decided to stay. Shortly afterwards, the Gregory came across another ship on its own, the Bark Bonner from Plymouth, and they decided to keep each other company on the tough voyage that awaited them on their homeward journey.

But on 29 June Drake finally managed to drop anchor off Vigo and, throughout that day, a large number of ships came to join him there. In conclusion, Drake had the wind in his favour to head for the Azores and against him to return to England. But what he wanted was to go home and, from setting sail from Cascais on 18 June until a southerly wind got up on 28 June, he had tacked against the wind in order to make some headway north. And during that time, disease and hunger began to seriously ravage the fleet.

Soviet Naval Air in the Black Sea 1943

Il-4T 5th GMTAP, Black Sea Fleet

Pe-2 (205th series) 40th BAP, Black Sea Fleet

A-20DO 30 RAP, VVS Black Sea

Though varying in intensity, air activity was more effective and dangerous than submarine activity all through the year. Off the part of the coast held by the Soviets (with the naval bases of Poti and Batumi) it made operating increasingly difficult for the German submarines. Their main task was attacking the Soviet coastal traffic, especially that carrying supplies to the forces at Novorossiysk and Mount Myshako. When the submarines attempted to move close in- shore by night, they were picked up by intersecting searchlights stationed on the coast, and then attacked from the air, after the plane had illuminated them with a kind of star shell. They attributed their detection to the noise of their diesel engines, which must have been picked up with listening gear on the shore. By switching over to electric drive, they sometimes escaped the searchlights, but as soon as planes came they had to dive.

In this context, it should be mentioned that contrary to Soviet assertions, not a single one of the six German submarines was lost at sea to enemy action. When the Germans retreated from the coast of the Black Sea in August 1944, one submarine was put out of action by bombs dropped from the air on the naval base at Constanta. Two were scuttled by their crews at Constanta; the last three operated until their fuel was exhausted. Then their crews scuttled them off the Turkish coast.

Soviet air attacks on warships, convoys, and ports were frequent all through the year. The planes used bombs, torpedoes, and often their guns at close range. The impression on the German side was that the Russians carried out naval reconnaissance with torpedo planes for the double purpose of reconnoitering and also attacking when suitable targets were sighted. The convoys had to watch constantly for attacks by single planes with torpedoes. They generally came from the direction of the sun. In most cases, the torpedoes missed, but now and then they hit a target. A war diary (probably Admiral Black Sea) said on 22 January: “The vigorous employment of the Air Force, and particularly of aerial torpedoes, represents a substantial threat to the still inadequately protected convoys.”

Besides reconnaissance and torpedo attacks, the third task of the Soviet planes was to drop magnetic mines into the shipping channels. The results of these various activities are illustrated by the events of a few days in January 1943:

20 January: Repeated torpedo attacks by single planes on convoys along the Rumanian and Bessarabian coast. No success reported.

21 January: Air attack on Anapa with 88 bombs (war diary: “The importance of that port for our supplies is recognized”).

22 January: Attack by several torpedo planes on a convoy assembling off Sulina. Steamer Kolosvar (1,200 GRT) takes one bomb hit on her stern, is towed to the beach, and later towed into Sulina. Planes flew out of the sun, in misty weather, and launched torpedoes at an altitude of 40 meters, distance 400 meters. One plane fired its guns shortly before dropping false recognition signal (war diary, Naval Special Duty Detachment).

Verkehr mit Kleinfahrzeugen (MFP) in the Black Sea

24 January: MFP-323 [Marinefährprahm (MFP)], en route to Feodosiya towing a minesweeping coil (for magnetic mines) struck an ELM (Englische Luft-Mine, a magnetic mine dropped by plane) and sank. Only two men were rescued. In February 1943, the Soviet landing forces at Novorossiysk were strongly supported from the air. When the bridgehead near the town was cut off from the beach, planes attempted to supply it, but could not save it.

The Kerch area and the German warships there, whether carrying supplies or laying mines, were often attacked from the air. On 25 February, naval ferry barges laying protective minefields south of the entrance to the Kerch Strait were repeatedly bombed and gunned. On the same day, bomb attacks in several waves hit the town and port of Kerch. Two days later near Kerch, MFP-353 was severely damaged by bomb hits. Ten men were killed, five wounded.

Other regions were not neglected. On the same day, Italian MTBs returning from a night operation against the traffic under the coast between Tuapse and Gelendzhik were repeatedly attacked by planes, but suffered no damage. Off the southern tip of the Crimea, a single plane attacked a convoy of towed barges with bombs and guns, but the gunfire of the escorting MFPs prevented it from doing serious damage. On 1 March, the supply traffic across the Kerch Strait was again the target of several attacks. After a direct bomb hit on her stern MFP-176 was a total loss. MFP-273 was severely damaged. On 9 March, MFP-371 (without cargo) struck a mine near Kerch and sank with her entire crew. The necessary minesweeping operations hindered the ferry traffic across the Strait. In the foIIowing weeks, bomb attacks and minelaying in the Kerch Strait were continuous. On 22 March, a motor barge carrying ammunition blew up after a bomb hit; MFP-331 and a tug were damaged.

In themselves and in comparison with what was going on in other theaters of war, these events seem no more than mere incidents. However, they added up, and the scale of operations was· different here. Except for the few Rumanian destroyers, which never undertook offensive operations, there were no large warships at the disposal of the Axis powers, and very often, no planes for reconnaissance and protection. The Soviet Navy was fully aware of this situation and did its best to damage the supply traffic and the German-held ports. Submarines and particularly airplanes were its weapons.

In the following months, Sevastopol was bombed many times. Some ships were damaged; one used as accommodation for the crews of the MFPs was sunk (not three transports, as the Soviets claimed). At sea, there were so many attacks that only a few examples can be given. Apparently, the tactics differed considerably in quality. On 31 -March, in an attack on the escorted minelayer Grafenau (a converted steamer), two torpedoes were dropped from a height of 80 to 100 meters, but they expended themselves on the surface. Then in a second pass, two more were dropped, this time from a height of 20 to 30 meters. The torpedoes were outmaneuvered and one plane was shot down. On 10 April a war diary observed: “The fact that no losses occurred in most of the aerial and bombing attacks on supply steamers is to be attributed to the circumstance that those attacks were not carried out vigorously enough, and that the relatively heavy antiaircraft fire forced the attacking planes to turn away too soon.”

This was noted after an unsuccessful attack on a convoy with towed barges west of Feodosiya. But it was also noticed that combined attacks of the Soviet planes improved. On the same day an attack of this kind on the tanker Prodromos (800 GRT) was carried out with unusual tactical skill. While two bombers came in at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 meters, two others attacked from the direction of the sun at a height of only 100 meters. At first, they dropped bombs on an escorting gunboat but missed; then they dropped five bombs close to the bow of the tanker. Just when the ship turned to port to avoid the bombs two torpedo planes made a surprise attack from starboard and dropped three torpedoes at a distance of about 500 meters. All the torpedoes jumped high out of the water: one was a surface runner. Only by skillful maneuvering did the tanker escape bombs and torpedoes. Then the planes attacked again with their guns, in three waves closely following each other.

The German Air Force was very interested in the cargo of the tanker. As a consequence, on her next trip three days later, the Prodromos was escorted for the first time not only by gunboats, but also by fighter planes.

All through April attacks continued, most of them unsuccessful. In the first half of May, very low visibility protected the convoys. On 18 May, the 88th Anapa convoy was first attacked near Anapa by a submarine with two torpedoes, which expended themselves on the surface, then three hours later by four bombers and four fighters with bombs and guns. The convoy suffered no serious damage.

On 19 May, the 89th Anapa convoy of four MFPs was attacked by seven or eight planes with bombs and guns when it approached its destination. MFP-309 and MFP-367 with cargoes of ammunition and guns took a number of bomb hits and sank when the ammunition exploded. The survivors were picked up by MFP-126, which was also damaged, and MFP-144, which escaped unhurt. Two of the attacking planes were shot down. But half the convoy was wiped out! This showed clearly how dangerous attacks on this vital supply line could be.

Little is known about the situation of the Soviet Naval Air Arm regarding material and supplies, or personnel, training, and losses. It can be assumed that the number of planes increased considerably in the course of the year, as it did in the Baltic. According to a report of the 1st German MTB [Motor Torpedo Boat] Flotilla, new types of planes and equipment were being used by the Russians. From the late fall of 1942 on, Anglo-American convoys traversed the Barents Sea almost without loss and carried great amounts of war material to Murmansk. After the Axis powers lost North Africa in the spring of 1943, the passage through the Mediterranean was free, and supplies went to the Persian Gulf and from there unhampered to the Soviet forces.

1st MTB Flotilla reported:

20 May 1943. Moonlit night. Very fast planes, apparently Mosquitos, attack the flotilla returning from the Caucasus coast (where the MTBs had operated against the coastal traffic), followed by 8-10 bombers. Attack tactics: In the approach the planes, firing 2 guns, come to within 25 meters of the boats and drop 15 to 20 fragmentation bombs when pulling up. They also drop 4 to 6 light bombs (about 30 kg) which are suspended under the wings. When withdrawing they fire with 3 or 4 machine guns rigidly mounted in the tail, or in some cases with movable machine guns. MTB 8-72 received 15 hits, all of them 20-mm armor-piercing shells. 8-49 also hit, developed a big cloud of smoke. Two men slightly wounded, both 20-mm AA guns hit; but remained serviceable. The radio operated only on emergency power. Hits in 2 tanks in compartment No. 6 and- holes below the waterline, repaired by damage control group. A two-engined plane is hit several times by shells from the 20-mm guns of 8-72 while making its approach. One landing gear is extended, parts of the other fall into the water beside the MTB. The plane steadily loses altitude and plunges into the water about 1,000 meters away. Fighter protection is requested. One ME-110 (German fighter) does not manage to find the flotilla until the afternoon. 8-49 is brought in despite severe damage.

The same unit reported on a day attack:

4 June 1943. No casualties or damage by dive attack out of the sun by 3 YAK-4s, 12 bombs dropped. When defensive fire is opened, one man parachutes out of a plane and is taken prisoner. One hour later two Douglas Bostons drop bombs from an altitude of about 1,500 meters and fire their guns when withdrawing. MTB 8-26 damaged by bomb fragments, 2 men seriously wounded, 3 slightly. One plane shot down. One hour later another attack by 3 Douglas Bostons, which dropped 18 bombs but missed. Aircraft fire again as planes withdrew.

The attacks on the convoys to the port of Anapa continued. On 27 May, the 97th convoy was attacked. MFP-328 was sunk. In the immediate vicinity of the port, MFP-332 with a cargo of 80 tons of gasoline for the Air Force was attacked by 16 bombers. and fighters and caught fire. She was beached and burned out; her crew was saved. Six of the attacking planes were shot down by antiaircraft fire and fighters. Three days later, all nine bombers attacking an Anapa convoy were shot down by antiaircraft guns of the ships and by fighters. During the month of May 1943, the Soviet Naval Air Arm undertook about 120 attacks on ships at sea and on ports and unloading places.

On 3 June, a convoy entering Akmechet was attacked by bombers, whose target was evidently the tug Hamburg. The ship was damaged and had to be beached, but was able to leave after five days. Immediately afterwards, the port was heavily attacked. According to the war diary of the Naval Special Duty Detachment the reason probably was that the tug looked similar to “Ship 19,” a ship specially equipped for submarine hunting, which had had a brush with a sub- marine a few days earlier.

During the air attacks on the convoys a new kind of aerial torpedo was observed that ran on the surface and detonated after a certain distance. It was supposed that these torpedoes were meant to damage shallow-draft vessels like the MFPs, which were difficult to hit with normal torpedoes (war diary of the 3rd Flotilla of motor minesweepers). There is no proof, however, that they were not simply defective.

Attacks continued all through the summer against the same targets. On 5 June, the MTB base at Ivan Baba suffered heavy casualties and considerable destruction when hit by bombs. On 12 June off Feodosiya five bombers attacked a convoy composed of two steamers protected by two Rumanian gunboats and two MFPs. The planes flew out of the sun and were discovered too late. Three bombs hit the steamer Birgit (1,970 GRT) forward-she sank slowly, bow first.

On 17 June, 18 planes attacked a convoy of towed barges near Kerch. One barge was hit and sank after its cargo of ammunition exploded. As it drifted burning, six planes attacked it with 30 bombs. On 19 June, a group of German artillery carriers and RA-motor minesweepers bombarded the port of Yeysk on the Sea of Azov. Six Russian planes attacked them repeatedly at low altitude. They opened fire at a distance of about 1,000 meters; the motor minesweepers answered with all their guns at 500 meters. According to the Ger- mans’ observation the Russian pilots had not the nerve to fly into that hail of fire. Their own gunfire, which at first was well aimed, became inaccurate. One of the Russian planes was shot down.

On 25 June, the 123rd Anapa convoy was attacked just outside the port by twelve bombers covered by six fighters. The defense was prepared: German fighters were in the air and shot down six of the attacking planes. The convoy did not suffer any damage. On its way back, it was attacked again. This time there were no fighters present. MFP-142 was hit and her cargo of old uniforms caught fire. She was towed back and the fire was extinguished.

During June 1943, Soviet planes repeatedly mined the shipping channel at the mouth of the Danube.

On 7 July, Feodosiya and Yalta were attacked from the air. At Feodosiya fourteen planes dropped 50 to 60 bombs. One harbor defense boat was sunk; a slip with a Rumanian gunboat on it was damaged; beyond this only some buildings were hit. Yalta was bombed by five planes. MFP-144 was damaged and had to be beached; a fishing cutter sank. Yalta was attacked again on 19 July – motor minesweeper R-33 sank.

On 13 July, the 140th Anapa convoy was attacked by seven bombers with bombs and guns. The planes evidently were armored, for the 20-mm. antiaircraft shells were deflected. The bombers came in twice, at an altitude of no more than 300 to 400 meters. Nevertheless, they damaged only one MFP slightly. One bomber was shot down.

Three days later, the 142nd Anapa convoy was attacked by nine bombers and three fighters. They came in very low, only 100 to 150 meters high, dropped 80 to 100 small and medium bombs and fired their guns during the approach and the retreat. Some men were killed or wounded by fragments. The only direct hit sank an unmanned landing boat towed by a steamer. The antiaircraft guns of the escorting MFPs brought down two planes; German fighters accounted for another six.

On 26 July, the 152nd Anapa convoy was attacked by 15 bombers with about 80 bombs and the usual gunfire. None of the ships was damaged; one man was killed, one wounded. Then the planes were intercepted by German fighters, which brought down ten of them. This was probably the reason why another group of 21 planes sighted to seaward of the convoy did not attack.

The war diary of the Sea Commandant Caucasus for July 1943 remarked:

The steadily increasing bomb attacks in the last three months on naval ferry barges (MFP) and convoys with tows, bound for Anapa and Temryuk, and in the Kerch Strait, were mainly carried out by armored ground attack planes, against which the 20-mm AA guns were able to score successes only when the planes were in a favorable position and when armor-piercing ammunition was used. The MFPs scored 6 kills, mostly with their 75-mm guns. The fighter cover now available in this area brought down 28 of the attacking planes in July.

In August, there were several attacks on Anapa convoys (Nos. 163, 166, and 167), but they caused only minor damage, and no losses.

S-Boot S-47 [sister ship of S-46]

S-Boot S-28

On 24 August, 1st MTB Flotilla reported:

Attack by 4 bombers and 6 fighter-bombers in continuous independent passes with aircraft weapons, rocket bombs and fragmentation bombs. One plane fires a type of rocket which explodes at an altitude of 100 to 150 meters and scatters an incendiary composition (not phosphorus), which started some fires on the forecastle of MTB S-46, but they could be extinguished with water.

On the same day, the senior officer of the flotilla reported an un- successful night attack on his unit:

Star shells over the boats. One plane fires a green flare, then aircraft weapons. Ten minutes later attack with bombs, at least 10 to 15 drop among the boats. After another ten minutes renewed bombing, 5 hits on MTB S-28. Only the insufficiently shielded exhaust of the airplanes can be made out, at first with the night glass, then with the naked eye against a cloudless starry sky. Estimated altitude between 500 and 800 meters. Half an hour later, again bombs and aircraft weapons fire.

The Russians apparently employ sea reconnaissance planes with locating gear (radar). They fire green flares after identifying the MTBs. These flares home in the bombers, and they maintain contact even after the bombing attack is ended.

On 29 August 1943, the same unit reported:

First wave of planes replaced by new ones so that on an average 10 to 12 planes participate in the attack, which they carry out in close order. Getting in position at an altitude of about 1,000 meters, the enemy dives to about 50 meters over the water. Armament: 20-mm guns, 27-mm guns, and slow-firing 37-mm gun. Result: Maximum speed of the MTBs reduced to 20 knots by hits mostly of 20-mm guns. More or less severe damage on boats. Request for fighter protection, especially urgent since 4 boats are to be employed again on the same day.

These detailed reports are cited to give a picture of Soviet air activity in this theater of war. In the beginning of September 1943, its tempo changed as the over-all situation on the Russian fronts compelled the German armies to fall back here, too. At the same time, the Russians felt strong enough to take the offensive. The German decision to retreat across the Kerch Strait and the Soviet decision to attack along the Black Sea coast coincided.

The Red Sea 1940–41

The Red Sea, 1940–1941

Long months of torture in the blazing heat and incredible humidity of Massawa had left us apathetic and drained of hope of escape.

—Edward Ellsberg, No Banners No Bugles

Italy’s East African possessions, particularly its Red Sea base at Massawa, were situated strategically astride the sea route to Suez. With the Sicilian Channel closed to normal transit, Italy theoretically possessed the ability to block maritime access to Egypt.

Between 1935 and 1940 Italy’s planners envisioned the construction of an oceanic fleet that, in its most realistic version, would have consisted of two cruisers, eight destroyers, and twelve submarines, all fitted for tropical service and supported by a network of bases along Italian Somaliland’s Indian Ocean coast. However, this Flotta d’evasione proved more than Rome could afford. Thus, Rear Admiral Carlo Balsamo, who commanded Italy’s East African naval squadron, deployed eight modern submarines, seven middle-aged destroyers, two old torpedo boats, five World War I–era MAS boats, and a large colonial sloop, all concentrated at Massawa. In Supermarina’s view, the squadron’s limited stocks of fuel and ammunition restricted its role to one of survival and sea denial, relying mainly upon the submarines, for the duration of a six-month war.

Great Britain intercepted Italy’s 19 May orders for the “immediate and secret mobilization of the army and air force in east Africa,” whereupon the Royal Navy reinforced its Rea Sea Squadron, which consisted of the Dominion light cruisers Leander and Hobart, the old antiaircraft cruiser Carlisle, three sloops, and four ships of the 28th Destroyer Flotilla. This force was tasked with preventing Italian reinforcements, engaging the Massawa squadron, blockading the coast of Italian Somaliland, and protecting the shipping lanes to Suez and Aden.

On 10 June Italy’s Red Sea submarines occupied, or were on their way to, their patrol stations, but their forewarned enemy had already halted all mercantile shipping to the Red Sea on 24 May. They enjoyed only one success, when Galilei sank the Norwegian tanker James Stove (8,215 GRT) on 16 June. In exchange the Italians lost four boats. Crew poisoning caused by the release of methyl chloride, used as a cheap substitute for freon in the air-conditioning system (a defect that inadequate testing and training under realistic battle conditions failed to reveal), led to the stranding and wrecking of Macallé on 15 June. Galilei attempted to fight it out on the surface with the 650-ton trawler Moonstone on 19 June, but two well-aimed shells from the auxiliary’s 4-inch gun killed Galilei’s captain and all the officers except a midshipman. A British boarding party captured the submarine and a set of operational orders. These enabled the sloop Falmouth to track down and sink Galvani in the Persian Gulf on 24 June. The same intelligence led to the interception of Torricelli, the fourth Red Sea submarine lost in the war’s first fortnight.

Destroyers Kandahar, Kingston, and Khartoum, along with sloops Shoreham and Indus, intercepted Torricelli north of Perim Island, at the entrance to the Red Sea, at 0418 on 23 June. The Italian submarine, initially seeing only one sloop, and considering her damage and the clear waters that made a submerged boat easy to track, elected to run on the surface for the Italian shore batteries at Assab. In the ensuring fight, Torricelli, firing her deck gun, almost hit Shoreham, which reported “two shells falling close ahead.” Then the three destroyers appeared and closed rapidly.

Kingston opened fire with her forward guns at 0536. Torricelli, trailing a wide ribbon of oil, launched four torpedoes back at the destroyer, but their wakes were clearly visible in the calm sea and Kingston easily evaded. At first the British tried to clear the submarine’s decks, to permit a boarding attempt. However, Kingston’s 40-mm shells struck one of her own antennas and wounded eight crewmen. After that the destroyers shot to sink, but they had to expend nearly seven hundred 4.7-inch rounds before a shell finally wrecked Torricelli’s forward bow planes at 0605 and flooded the torpedo room. The submarine sank at 0624.

After rescue operations Khartoum, with prisoners embarked, set course for Perim while the other ships headed for Aden to refuel. At 1150 a torpedo in Khartoum’s aft quintuple mount suddenly exploded, igniting a huge fire in the after lobby. The crew could not control the conflagration, and Khartoum ran for Perim Harbor, seven miles distant. There her men (and the prisoners) abandoned ship, swimming for their lives. At 1245, no. 3 magazine blew up, rendering the destroyer a total loss.

Red Sea Convoys

The first of the Red Sea convoys, collectively the BN/BS series, consisting of nine ships including six tankers, gathered in the Gulf of Aden on 2 July. Thereafter these convoys sailed up and down the Red Sea on a regular schedule. Admiral Balsamo attempted to attack this traffic, but the war’s opening months held little but frustration for his destroyers. On six occasions in July, August, and September, they sortied at night in response to aerial reports of Allied vessels but in every case failed to make contact. Aircraft and the surviving submarines did little better. Guglielomotti torpedoed the Greek tanker Atlas (4,008 GRT) from Convoy BN4 on 6 September 1940, while high-level bombing attacks damaged the steamship Bhima (5,280 GRT) from BN5, which four Italian destroyers had failed to locate, on 20 September.

As Italian warships burned their oil reserves on unsuccessful sorties, the Allied Red Sea Squadron grew stronger, deploying by the end of August four light cruisers, three destroyers, and eight sloops. Other warships passed through on their way to and from the Mediterranean. In September, as traffic volume swelled, the Mediterranean Fleet lent the newly arrived antiaircraft cruiser Coventry, which alternated with Carlisle along the Aden–Suez route to provide extra protection against air attacks.

By October the Italian ships faced mechanical breakdowns, the increasing exhaustion of crews by the extreme climate, and a growing shortage of fuel. Nonetheless, they continued to sail. On the evening of 20 October, four destroyers weighed anchor to search for BN7, which aerial reconnaissance had spotted sailing north. The plan called for the slower and more heavily armed Pantera and Leone to distract the escort while Sauro and Nullo slipped in to send a spread of torpedoes toward the merchant ships.

Australian sloop HMAS Yarra

Italian destroyer Pantera

Attack on Convoy BN7 and Battle of Harmil Island, 20–21 October 1940, 2320–0640

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

BN7 Escort (Captain H. E. Horan): CL: Leander (NZ) (F); DD: KimberleyD2; DS: Auckland (NZ), Indus (IN), Yarra (AU); MS: Derby, Huntley

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

Section I (Commander Moretti degli Adimari): DD: Sauro (F), Nullo Sunk

Section II (Commander Paolo Aloisi): DD: Pantera (F), Leone

The convoy timed its progress to pass Massawa around midnight. The moon was bright, but haze reduced visibility toward the African coast. At 2115 the Italian sections separated, and at 2321 Pantera detected smoke off her starboard bow. She reported the contact to Sauro and began maneuvering at twenty-two knots to position the low-hanging moon behind the contact.

BN7 was thirty-five miles north-northwest of Jabal-al-Tair Island (itself 110 miles east-northeast of Massawa) when Yarra, zigzagging in company with Auckland, sighted Captain Aloisi’s ships ahead. Yarra challenged and Pantera replied with a pair of torpedoes at 2331 and then another pair at 2334, at ranges fifty-five and sixty-five hundred yards, respectively. Shooting over Yarra, she “lobbed a few shells” into the convoy. According to a wartime British account, “a lifeboat in the commodore’s ship was damaged by splinters, but otherwise no harm was done.” Leone, which trailed Pantera by 875 yards, never fixed a target and thus did not fire torpedoes.

Yarra saw the torpedo flashes from broad on her port bow and turned toward the enemy. Both sloops opened fire as torpedoes boiled past, narrowly missing. The Italian ships altered away, shooting with their aft mounts. Aloisi reported explosions and claimed two torpedo hits, but in fact, his weapons missed. Kimberley was trailing the convoy. She rang up thirty knots and steered northwest to close the action. Leander, sailing on the convoy’s port beam, headed southwest, while the sloops and minesweepers stayed with the merchantmen. Pantera and Leone, considering their mission successfully accomplished, continued west-southwest and broke contact. They eventually returned to Massawa via the south channel.

After the gunfire died away, Captain Horan steered Leander northwest to cover Harmil Channel believing the enemy ships had retired in that direction.

Upon receiving Pantera’s report, Sauro and Nullo had turned to clear the area while the first group attacked and to put themselves in a favorable position relative to the moon. This involved a ninety-degree port turn at 0016 on 21 October and another at 0050. The section then headed southeast, but for nearly an hour it encountered nothing. Finally, at 0148, Leander and another ship hove into view. Sauro snapped off a single torpedo at the cruiser (another misfired). In response Leander lofted star shell, and then ten broadsides flashed from her main batteries in two minutes before she lost sight of the target. Italian accounts say this engagement occurred at sixteen hundred yards, while Leander’s report stated the enemy was more than eight thousand yards away.

Sauro turned south by southwest and at 0207 attempted another torpedo attack against the convoy. One weapon misfired, and although Sauro claimed a hit with the other, it missed. At the same time Nullo detected flashes that she believed came from an enemy torpedo launch, and within minutes a lookout shouted that wakes were streaking toward the Italian destroyer’s bow. At 0212 Sauro turned north and disengaged, eventually circling behind the British and taking the south channel to Massawa. Nullo’s captain, however, put his helm over even harder, “because it was [his] intention to attack, being still in an opportune position to launch against the convoy, before taking station in formation.” However, the rudder jammed for several minutes, causing Nullo to circle and lose contact with Sauro.

At 0220 Leander’s spotlights fastened onto “a vessel painted light grey proceeding from left to right”—in fact, Nullo steaming north. The cruiser engaged from forty-six hundred yards off the Italian’s starboard bow. Nullo returned fire, first against “destroyers” spotted astern (probably Auckland) and then at Leander. The ships dueled for about ten minutes. The Italian enjoyed one advantage: she employed flashless powder (the British noted only two enemy salvos), whereas British muzzles flared brightly with each discharge. Leander fired eight blind salvos (“little could be seen of their effect”), but several rounds nonetheless hit home, damaging Nullo’s gyrocompass and gunnery director. With this the Italian destroyer abandoned her attack attempt and turned west-northwest running for Harmil Channel at thirty knots. In the two actions Leander fired 129 6-inch rounds.

Guessing Nullo’s intention, the cruiser pursued in the correct direction. At 0300 Kimberley joined, and at 0305 Leander turned back, “appreciating that the enemy was drawing away from her at the rate of seven knots and that the convoy might be attacked.” Kimberley continued, hoping to intercept.

The British destroyer arrived off Harmil Island before dawn. At 0540 her lookouts reported a shape to the south-southeast, and she closed to investigate. Nullo’s lookouts likewise reported a contact. The sharp angle of approach made it impossible to be certain, but the Italian captain assumed it was Sauro, especially when it seemed to signal the Harmil Island station. He was more “worried about the shallows scattered around the mouth of the northeast passage and above all of the 3.7 meter sandbank immediately north of his estimated 0500 position.”

At 0553 the British destroyer opened fire from 12,400 yards. Surprised, Nullo took four minutes to reply and at 0605 swung sharply from a northwest heading to a south-by-southwest course. By 0611 the range was down to 10,300 yards. Due to her prior damage, Nullo’s gunners fired over open sights, while human chains passed shells up from the magazine. Harmil Island’s battery of four 4.7-inch guns joined the action at 0615 from eighteen thousand yards. At the same time, with the range now eighty-five hundred yards, Kimberley turned south, emitting black funnel smoke, causing Nullo’s gunners to think they had scored a hit.

At 0620 Nullo scraped a reef, opening her hull to flooding and damaging a screw. Then, while the ship was setting course to round Harmil Island, a shell exploded in the forward engine room and a second slammed into the aft engine room. Nullo skewed sharply to the left and lost all power; splinters swept the upper works. The captain ordered his men to prepare to abandon ship while he angled the ship toward Harmil in an attempt to run it aground. The aft mount continued in action until the heel became excessive.

Having expended 115 salvoes, Kimberley launched a torpedo to dispatch her adversary; it missed, so she closed range and uncorked another. The second torpedo slammed into Nullo at 0635 and blasted her in two. Meanwhile, the Harmil battery finally found the range, and a shell struck Kimberley’s engine room, wounding three men. Splinters cut the steam pipes; the British destroyer lost power and came to a halt.

Kimberley’s men frantically patched the damage while the drifting ship’s guns remained in action, shooting forty-five rounds of HE from no. 3 mount, and achieving some hits that wounded four of the shore battery’s crew. After a few long minutes, the destroyer restored partial power and pulled away at fifteen knots. The shore battery fired its final shots at 0645, when the range had opened to nineteen thousand yards. During the battle Kimberley expended 596 SAP and 97 HE rounds.

After she was clear the destroyer lost steam pressure again. Finally Leander arrived and towed Kimberley to Port Sudan. Nullo remained above water; her guns ended up equipping a shore battery. On 21 October three Blenheims reported destroying a wreck east of Harmil Island. This led the British to conclude two enemy ships had been involved in the action.

The Aden command faulted the escort (except for Kimberley) for demonstrating a lack of aggressiveness, although deserting the convoy to chase unknown numbers of enemy destroyers through a murky night does not in retrospect seem the best course of action either. The Italian ships, although outnumbered, delivered two hit-and-run torpedo attacks, according to their plan. However, while using widely separated divisions increased the probability of finding the enemy, a natural consideration given the history of failed interception attempts, it also guaranteed that the Italian forces would lack the punch to take on the escort and deliver a meaningful attack. In fact, the first Italian attack seemed more formulaic than a serious attempt to cause damage.

The Italian East African squadron conducted another (fruitless) sortie on 3 December 1940. It aborted a mission planned for early January after British aircraft damaged Manin, one of the participants, and on 24 January it sortied again, without results. On the night of 2 February 1941, however, three destroyers departed Massawa and deployed in a rake formation to search for a large convoy known to be at sea.

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

Convoy Escort: CL: Caledon; DD: Kingston; DS: Indus (IN), Shoreham

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

Sauro spotted the enemy, made a sighting report, and immediately maneuvered to attack. She launched three torpedoes at a group of steamships and then, a minute later, at another dimly seen target marked by a large cloud of smoke. She then turned away at speed. Her two sisters did not receive the report, but ten minutes later Pantera stumbled across the enemy and also fired torpedoes. The Italians heard explosions and later claimed “probable” hits on two freighters. Tigre never made contact.

On her way to Massawa’s south channel, Sauro encountered Kingston. Out of torpedoes, the Italian retreated at full speed. Concerned that the British were attempting another ambush, the squadron concentrated on Sauro and radioed for air support at dawn. In the event, the three destroyers safely made port. The Italian East African press reported two freighters as probably hit, but despite this claim, all torpedoes missed.

By April 1941 Imperial spearheads were probing Massawa’s defensive perimeter. With Supermarina’s approval, Rear Admiral Mario Bonetti, Balsamo’s replacement from December 1940, ordered a last grand gesture—an attack by the three largest destroyers (Leone, Pantera, and Tigre) against Port Suez, five hundred miles north, and a concurrent raid by the smaller destroyers Battisti, Manin, and Sauro against Port Sudan. The British Middle Eastern command had considered such an attack possible and had reinforced Port Suez with two J-class destroyers and sent Eagle’s experienced air group south to Port Sudan, while the carrier waited for mines to be swept from the Suez Canal so she could proceed south.

The Italian venture ran into problems early when Leone struck an uncharted rock forty-five miles out of Massawa. Flooding and fires in her engine room forced her crew to abandon ship. Her two companions returned to port, as the rescue operation left insufficient time for them to continue the mission.

On the afternoon of 2 April the remaining Italian destroyers sailed once again, this time against Port Sudan, 265 miles north. British aircraft attacked them about two hours out of port but caused no damage. Then Battisti suffered engine problems and scuttled herself on the Arabian coast. The other four continued at top speed through the night and by dawn were thirty miles short of their objective. However, Eagle’s Swordfish squadrons intervened, sinking Sauro at 0715. The other ships headed for the opposite shore, under attack as they went. Bombs crippled Manin at 0845. She eventually capsized and sank about a hundred miles northeast of Port Sudan. Pantera and Tigre made it to the Arabian coast and were scuttled there.

Caught off guard by the Italian sortie, British warships rushed north. At 1700 Kingston found Pantera’s and Tigre’s wrecks. The two ships had already been worked over by Wellesley bombers, but Kingston shelled Pantera’s hulk and then torpedoed it, just to be sure.

The biggest Italian naval success in the Red Sea was a Parthian shot that occurred on 8 April, with Massawa’s defenses breached and ships scuttling themselves on all sides. MAS213, a World War I relic no longer capable of even fifteen knots, ambushed the old light cruiser Capetown, which was escorting minesweepers north of the port, and scored a torpedo hit from just over three hundred yards. After spending a year in repair, the cruiser sat out the rest of the war as an accommodation ship.

This was the Italian navy’s final blow in East Africa. The capture of Massawa relieved Great Britain of the need to convoy the entire length of the Red Sea and released valuable escorts for other duties. On 10 June an Indian battalion captured Assab, Italy’s last Red Sea outpost, eliminating a pair of improvised torpedo boats. After that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the narrow sea a nonwar zone, permitting the entry of American shipping.

However, German aircraft continued to exert a distant influence over the Red Sea, by mining the Suez Canal and attacking shipping that accumulated to the south of the canal. As late at 18 September Admiral Cunningham complained to Admiral Pound that “the Red Sea position is unsatisfactory . . . about 5 of 6 ships attacked, one sunk [Steel Seafarer (6,000 GRT)] and two damaged. . . . The imminent arrival at Suez of the monster liners is giving me much anxiety. They are crammed with men and we can’t afford to have them hit up.” In October 1941 the Suez Escort Force still tied up four light cruisers, two fleet destroyers, two Hunt-class destroyers, and two sloops. The British maintained a blockade off French Somaliland until December 1942.

Hit and Run in the Aegean

With the ‘D’ type Fairmiles and new American-built Vospers coming into operation in increasing numbers, the older Elco boats continued to give good service, although armed with nothing heavier than Oerlikons. They were formed into the 10th MTB Flotilla, under Lieutenant Commander Peter Evensen. In September 1943, while Allan took his boats to begin operations off the west coast of Italy and the Commander (later Captain) of Coastal Forces in the Western Mediterranean, Commander A.E.P. Welman DSO DSC, began investigating the possibility of establishing bases in the Adriatic, Evensen was ordered to take his flotilla east. This meant a 1,000-mile passage from Messina to Alexandria, which was covered without mishap, and in October they moved up to operate in the Aegean from the island of Casteloriso.

The key to the situation in the Aegean was Turkey. If the Allies could hold the islands and establish control of the Aegean shipping routes, it was hoped that Turkey might be brought into the war on the Allied side. Small British garrisons were established on some of the islands in September, including Leros, Kos, Kalimno, Symi, Naxos, Levitha and Stampalia, and it was hoped after the Italy landings to capture Rhodes, the gateway to the Dodecanese.

But the Germans were equally determined not to risk the effect it might have on Turkey and the other neutrals by letting go of the Aegean. Large numbers of forces, including troops, vessels for seaborne operations, and in particular fighters and bombers, were moved to Greece, and the Germans forestalled the Allies by themselves capturing Rhodes. They quickly followed this by taking other Ionian Sea islands, including Corfu, and then moved against those held by the British. With the Luftwaffe dominant in the skies, these islands fell one by one in October until only the main garrison on Leros remained. With insufficient forces available, the Allies had to give up their plan for Operation Accolade, the opening of the Aegean, and operations for the next six months were confined to small-scale Commando raids and sabotage, and guerrilla warfare by resistance groups, in all of which Coastal Forces played an important part.

Many of the smaller islands were not garrisoned by either side and could be used by the small boats for hiding up in by day. Other lightly garrisoned islands changed hands several times as they were raided first by one side, then the other.

The first successful action by the 10th MTB Flotilla came during the early hours of 19 October when three boats, 315 (Lieutenant Leonard Newall DSC RNZNR, with Evensen on board as Senior Officer), 309 (Lieutenant R. Campbell RCNVR) and 307 (Lieutenant John Muir), while on patrol between the islands of Kos and Kalimno, which the month before had fallen to the Germans, torpedoed and sank a 600-ton coaster and an F-Lighter. But overall, things had continued to go badly for British forces in the Aegean. Leros surrendered on 16 November, then Samos was evacuated, and the garrison on Casteloriso was reduced to just sufficient men to keep it operating as an advanced MTB base. From then on, operations in the Aegean became a matter of harassing the enemy in order to keep as many German troops tied up in the area as possible.

Typical of this period and the problems that the small boat crews had to cope with was an operation during the period 7-26 December by MTBs 315 (Lieutenant Newall) and 266 (Lieutenant J. Breed RNZNVR). It was Newall’s first operation as Senior Officer. Having been in Alexandria for repairs, the two craft set out for Casteloriso on the evening of the 7th, arriving the following morning. During the passage 266 had lost her starboard rudder (this was later found to be due to negligence on the part of the Coastal Forces base at Alexandria and the subject of disciplinary action), but the crew managed to plug the exposed rudder gland on arrival at Port Vathi and for the remainder of the period operated on two rudders. After refuelling, the boats left Port Vathi on the evening of the 8th and sailed westwards on silent engines to patrol between enemy-occupied Rhodes and the Turkish mainland, retiring to Arabah Island before daybreak.

Owing to the swell caused by a force 4 wind and the poor shelter that the island provided, it was decided the following night to investigate Port Sertchech, some 7 miles down the coast, as a possible laying-up place during the day. This was found to be ideal in every way: good shelter in most weathers, deep water close to the shore, and commanding a good view of Rhodes from a nearby hilltop. It was arranged for a fuelling caique to be moved down to Port Sertchech from Arabah Island.

As Lieutenant Newall wrote:

For the following four nights, patrols were carried out in the vicinity of Rhodes harbour and Symi, and the north and western coasts of Rhodes Island were closely investigated. But there wasn’t the slightest sign of activity anywhere, except for a regular hourly searchlight sweep to seawards by a light near Tholo on the northern coast. During the day, periodic visits were made to the look-out position at Sertchech but no sea or air traffic was observed. On the morning of the third patrol, when about to return to our hideout position, it was discovered that 266 ’s centre shaft had become uncoupled from the engine while she had been running on the wing engines. This was rectified after securing at Port Sertchech.

At 10.30 on the 11th, an enemy report of a 3,000-ton merchant vessel proceeding from Cape Krio towards Rhodes was received and we proceeded to a position just to the east of Cape Alupo in order to intercept if she passed outside Turkish territorial waters. At 13.00 she appeared in sight about half-a-mile offshore and was identified as the Turkish vessel Dumpulinar. She proceeded eastwards, keeping well inside territorial waters.

In the early hours of the 13th, when returning from a sweep down to the south-western point of Rhodes, 315 ran her port Vee-drive and it was decided to return to Port Vathi the following night for repairs.

Just as they were about to leave for Port Vathi, however, the Greek secret agent in the neighbouring island of Loryma arrived. Newall had come across him the night before while the man was on his way to Rhodes to see what information he could pick up. Now he told Newall that a tug towing two caiques had left Symi forty minutes earlier, heading for Rhodes. The two MTBs set out at once and intercepted the vessels 4½ miles off Kum Burne. The tug was 80 tons, the caiques about 100 tons each. Newall continued:

We attacked with depth charges and guns. Although well armed, the tug put up no resistance and was soon left in a sinking condition. Gunfire, including mortar bombs, was then concentrated on the caiques but since they did not appear to be sinking very rapidly, each boat went alongside one of the caiques and placed a demolition charge aboard. During this manoeuvre, 266 took on board one prisoner.

For some time we had been held in the searchlights from Rhodes, and since the shore batteries were warming up to their task and 315 was definitely reduced to two engines, I decided to retire and proceed to Port Vathi, eventually arriving at 01.00 the following morning.

During the 14th and 15th, the boats were refuelled and a new Vee-drive fitted to MTB 315. Then they set out to return to Port Sertchech, but the weather was rapidly worsening and MTB 266 began to have more trouble with her defective centre engine stern gland. The boats returned to Vathi, but the gland could not be repaired. The only solution was to jam the centre shaft in such a way that it would not trail when running on the wing engines, the idea being to patrol on the wing engines and use the centre only in an emergency.

At 17.00 on the 17th we again sailed for Sertchech but the contrivance used for jamming the centre engine of 266 carried away and we returned to Vathi intending to try a different method the next day. However, at 01.15 on the 18th a signal was received from the Commander-in-Chief, Levant, to examine Symi Harbour, and considering this to be an emergency I decided to proceed there at 30 knots with both boats, and after the operation to use the remaining stern gland packing to stop 266’s leak.

The two boats returned to Vathi on the 24th, then, acting on orders, took several Army officers from the Casteloriso garrison to Limassol, remained there during the daylight hours of the 25th, and eventually returned to Alexandria early on the 26th.

The Commander of Coastal Forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, Commander R.E. Courage, commenting on the breakdowns to 266, wrote: ‘It is remarkable that commanding officers and crews of Coastal Force craft do put so much faith in the work done on their boats by base repair staffs, when the latter are often no more skilled than themselves. No larger ship with more experienced personnel would be so trusting.’

In his report, Newall drew attention to the difficulties caused by the weather:

Camouflage was not always possible owing to the wind, and at night, patrols had to be confined largely to the sheltered waters between Rhodes and Turkey. Neither of the two enemy reconnaissance planes which passed overhead during the first week there appeared to notice us, and it was not until our return to Sertchech on December 18 that the enemy seemed to have any idea that we were in the vicinity. On that day, two more planes passed overhead and may very easily have seen the boats since they were not under camouflage. During the afternoon of the 18th, the agent came round from Loryma and arrangements were made for a report of any further enemy movements to be passed on to the MTBs. From that point of view, Sertchech is admirably handy.

Newall’s examination of the harbour at Symi helped to lay the groundwork for an audacious Combined Operations raid on the island in July of the following year. It was typical of such raids during this period. The object was to liquidate or capture the enemy garrison, destroy the military installations, capture or destroy any enemy shipping found, and then leave the island within twenty-four hours. The landing and evacuation of the 224-man force was to be carried out by eight ‘B’ Type MLs, four HDMLs, two schooners and MTB 309.

As Symi was beyond striking distance from the nearest Coastal Force base at Casteloriso, it was necessary to concentrate the whole force at an advanced base without the enemy’s knowledge. The Gulf of Dorio on the Turkish coast was chosen, and the coastal craft adopted the method of lying-up under camouflage that had already become such a feature of Aegean operations. The raid, known as Operation Tenement, had been under consideration for some time, but it was not practical as long as the enemy had destroyers in the Aegean. However, of the four known to be in the area, one had been damaged by a submarine, another by the RAF and the remaining two by a Royal Marine raiding force; all were docked in Piraeus for repairs. The raid was planned to take place between 13 and 15 July 1944.

Even with the destroyers out of the way, there were still difficulties. First of all the force had to concentrate without the enemy knowing; then the concentration had to be made in Turkish waters, close enough to the objective for the return journey to be made under cover of darkness; and finally the troops had to be collected from such widely dispersed areas as Palestine, Alexandria, Cairo and parts of the Aegean. The detailed plan was not made until 6 July, when RAF reconnaissance had been completed and the Force Commander, Brigadier D.J.T. Turnbull DSO, had arrived in the forward area. Intelligence had reported that the garrison was manned by between 195 and 200 enemy troops. They appeared to be in a high state of tension, firing spasmodically day and night as if to keep up their spirits. But expecting that any attack, if made, would be carried out during the hours of darkness, they had adopted a system of standing to by night and standing down by day. It was decided therefore to make the raid in daylight, and to select the beaches so that even if the enemy became warned of the landing, they could not send troops to oppose it in under two hours. The time chosen for the attack on the garrison was 07.00 on the morning of 14 July (06.00 by the enemy’s time, as they were one hour behind).

The Senior Officer of the coastal craft was Lieutenant Commander D.M. Russell. He was on board HDML 1386, one of three boats which landed an advance party on the north-western side of the island the night before the raid.

The military force was divided into three groups, all of which included Greek troops of the Sacred Squadrons as well as Commandos and demolition experts. They were to concentrate at different points on the Turkish coast on the evening of the 13th – the main force under Brigadier Turnbull in Losta Bay, the west force under Captain C.M. Clynes at Dersek, and the south force under Captain J.S.F. Macbeth at Sertchech – and then make three separate landings on Symi. When the boats had completed the disembarkation, five of the MLs were to sail round to the harbour and at 07.00, zero hour, commence a bombardment of the castle in which the garrison was housed. Another three MLs and the MTB were to stand guard offshore and intercept any attempt that the enemy might make to send reinforcements to the island.

At five minutes before midnight, the first boats of the main force arrived at Marina Bay and were met by the advance party. Although it was completely dark as the moon was not due to come up until 01.00, the landing proceeded smoothly. Then it was discovered that the last boat, ML 349, was missing. As this contained all the mortars and machine-guns, there were some anxious moments until it was discovered she had put into the adjoining bay by mistake. ‘This caused a 45-minute delay which could be ill afforded in view of the extremely difficult and steep approach march to our position,’ Turnbull wrote later.

Another mishap occurred to this last party during the hurried disembarkation when two of the Greek officers fell out of a rubber raft bringing them ashore and were drowned – they had little chance as they were fully equipped with heavy packs and had disappeared before anyone could get to them. One of the Vickers machine-guns was also lost, which seriously weakened the force’s firepower. But the landing of all stores and personnel was completed by 01.50.

The west force landed without incident east of Fanouri, but the south force, landing at midnight in Fanoremini Bay, encountered some resistance from an enemy patrol while going ashore on the rocky beach and it was 02.00 before the operation was completed.

Describing the approach marches to the enemy garrison, Turnbull wrote: ‘These were over very difficult terrain, with big rocks and boulders and no paths. Owing to the impossibility of landing large carrying-parties, all ranks had to carry extremely heavy loads in addition to their equipment. Conditions were of a kind to test the best mountain-trained troops.’

But the positions from where the attacks would be made were all occupied by 05.00. From his command post, Turnbull could see down into the harbour , and noticed two Italian motor torpedo boats and three barges just leaving. At 06.40, firing was heard at sea as the Italian craft were sighted and attacked by the covering force of MLs and MTB 309. Shortly afterwards the two MS boats returned to the harbour. One of them was on fire and was abandoned by her crew, while the other tied up at the jetty.

By this time, the main force had begun to attack the castle with mortar fire while the MLs commenced a bombardment from the sea. This was the signal for the west force to attack Fanouri; the enemy there soon surrendered and all their defences and ammunition dumps were destroyed. Meanwhile the south force had already attacked and captured the monastery at 06.30 and was now moving towards the harbour. At 07.30 they captured Molo Point. Greek troops with the main force advanced towards the harbour and boatyard, met up with the south force and the port was soon cleared. The MS boat at the jetty was attacked with grenades, boarded and captured. Then the second MS boat, which had been reboarded by her crew after the fire had gone out, came into the harbour and surrendered after a short fight.

At this stage it was a three-hour journey to get ammunition up from Marina Beach and patrols were pinned down by accurate fire from the castle. An attempt to bring supplies round to the harbour in dories failed when two of the small craft were hit and sunk by 20mm fire. The castle was now the only point of opposition on the island. It was surrounded on three sides, but the attackers had run short of ammunition and were unable to get supplies from the landing area. A state of deadlock had been reached so Turnbull decided to try to bluff the enemy into surrendering.

The German petty officer who had been in command of one of the MS boats was sent to the castle under escort to inform the defenders that they were completely surrounded and that as the rest of the island was in Allied hands it was useless to continue resistance. After an hour he returned with the news that the enemy were prepared to talk, so Lieutenant Fox was sent back with him. Nothing happened for another hour, but then a party of Carabinieri from buildings adjacent to the castle surrendered under a Red Cross flag. This party was sent to the castle with Lieutenant Commander Ramseyer to continue the negotiations. Eventually, at 15.00, the enemy garrison surrendered and came marching down into the town. Ten minutes later, a German air attack was made which, as Turnbull commented, might well have influenced the garrison not to surrender. But it was too late.

The Commandos proceeded to demolish the enemy’s installations, including two 15-ton ammunition dumps, an explosive dump, the wireless station and telephone exchange, fuel dumps, the boatyard and nineteen caiques that were in it at the time. The arms captured included one 77mm gun, seven 20mm Breda guns and a large number of machine-guns, mortars, rifles and pistols. Also, of course, the two MS boats were captured complete and found to be serviceable.

Allied casualties, apart from the two Greek officers who had been drowned, were six wounded. The Germans had five killed, five wounded and forty-one taken prisoner; ten Italian fascists were killed, ten wounded and ninety-one taken prisoner; three Quislings were also taken prisoner. Only a few of the enemy had managed to escape into the hills, from where there was desultory firing during the afternoon.

Owing to a breakdown of the naval party’s W/T receiving apparatus, it was not known whether the message requesting the Coastal Forces craft to return as soon as possible after dark to evacuate the island had been received. The MLs did return, however, and at 23.00 the force began to evacuate from Symi harbour, with the prisoners under escort in the two MS boats. One patrol was left on the island to continue demolitions and also to distribute food to the civilian population. But the following day, the enemy carried out a heavy aerial bombardment and landed a reconnaissance party to report on what had taken place. The British patrol was successfully withdrawn during the evening and several hours later the Germans landed a force of 300 men, escorted by five ships and a dozen aircraft, to reoccupy the island.

The MLs which had taken part in the raid were amongst a number assigned to the Aegean earlier in the year from Alexandria. The first to see service with Aegean Raiding Operations, as they were called, was ML 1226, commanded by Sub Lieutenant J.E. Hickford, which had landed a party of Commandos under Major Patterson on the island of Niseros on the night of 6/7 March. After picking up equipment from another island, the ML returned to Niseros on the 7th to find that Major Patterson had captured two German lighters and set sail in them with the rest of his party for Deremen. Hickford was to embark the Commando interpreter, together with the Mayor of Niseros, his family and five wounded Germans.

The Mayor’s party – three men, three women and a child – came on board while the boat lay anchored off the island’s monastery and were put in the wireless room. The Germans were too badly wounded to go below and were laid on the deck. Hickford weighed anchor soon after midnight and set course for Deremen. He wrote:

At 01.46, a schooner under full sail and burning navigation lights was sighted off Cape Krio. Action stations was sounded and I proceeded to close and board her. The boarding party under Sub Lieutenant Newman were satisfied she was a Turkish vessel with correct papers, and after an exchange of food and cigarettes we parted amicably.

The ML resumed her original course, then at 02.45 another schooner and three lighters in line ahead were sighted close inshore to Kuchi Island.

I closed to investigate and the leading lighter attempted to escape inshore at maximum speed. I increased and closed her and boarded her. The crew of eight Germans and a naval officer immediately surrendered. The boarding party searched them for weapons. They had none and were forced into the bows and covered by Able Seaman Flewin with a 9mm Lanchester and a Greek from the Niseros party with a stripped Lewis. Stoker Challis investigated the engines and reported he could control the lighter from the wheelhouse. I then left the three of them on board and told them to follow us.

The remaining lighters were coming up astern at high speed, so Hickford left the boarded vessel and turned to intercept them. The schooner meanwhile had been lying off at about 300 yards and although the ML had kept her covered with the 3-pounder, it was thought she might not be armed. Suddenly, the two lighters opened fire with light automatics, and immediately the schooner also opened fire with a heavy gun, thought later by Hickford to be an 88mm, and a cannon aft.

This fire was returned and the schooner and one of the lighters hit. But then a shell from the schooner’s heavy gun hit the ML on the starboard side of the wheelhouse where ammunition was stored, there was an explosion and a sheet of flame flared up. The 3-pounder ceased firing. Hickford took evasive action towards Mordala Island, followed by the schooner which continued to fire until she had fallen back out of range. When the damage and casualties were checked, it was found that one of the crew was dead and another severely wounded, with his left leg severed at the thigh, and also his right wrist. He was given morphine and a tourniquet applied to his right arm, but it was impossible to apply one to his left side. He later died. The nearest German prisoner to the 3-pounder was also dead. The starboard side forward of the wheelhouse was completely wrecked and there were holes along the hull. When a strong smell of carbide was noticed, Hickford discovered that a shell had penetrated the transom and caused calcium flares to ignite. The fire was brought under control with Foamite and Pyrene extinguishers.

Further boats were sighted during the passage to Deremen, but with his guns out of action, Hickford took avoiding action by keeping down moon of them and remained unseen. The ML entered harbour as the dawn rose.

Meanwhile, the three men who had been left on the boarded lighter found themselves in a difficult situation when the ML left. As soon as the battle began, one of the German prisoners had dived for a concealed gun and started firing. The two seamen and the Greek civilian had been forced to take shelter behind the wheelhouse. A gunfight developed, then, as the other vessels approached, the three men dived into the water and swam for the island. They were machine-gunned from the lighters. Only Flewin managed to reach the shore, to be picked up later by a Greek caique and eventually returned to the Coastal Forces base. Nothing more was seen of the other two and they were presumed dead.

This was the kind of operation conducted in the Aegean during the spring and summer of 1944 – continual harassment of the enemy, quick raids on islands then away again, small boats that sheltered amongst friendly islands by day to slip out at night when the moon was high to hunt the enemy on Homer’s ancient seas, fighting hand-to-hand battles like the buccaneers of old. It was the most that could be done since, with the loss of Crete, the Allies could not base air and coastal forces close enough to the Aegean to be able seriously to challenge the enemy’s control of that sea.

Although the main objectives were not achieved – those of inducing Turkey to enter the war and establishing a supply route through the Aegean for armaments going to Russia, thus saving many of the Arctic convoys that took such a heavy toll of men and ships – these operations did keep large numbers of the enemy occupied in defending their island bases. It was a war of nerves, guerrilla warfare by sea, in which the Germans never knew when or where the Allies would strike next.

Eventually, after the landings in Normandy and Southern France, the Germans were compelled in August 1944 to begin evacuating the Aegean. British forces landed on Kithera on 16 September, the first Greek territory to be liberated. A Coastal Forces base was established on the island and more craft arrived from other Mediterranean areas. Many of their activities from then on until the liberation of Athens were concerned with cloak-and-dagger missions to aid the partisans, as well as raiding parties to speed up the enemy’s withdrawal.

Tallinn disaster

Soviet cruiser Kirov protected by smoke during evacuation of Tallinn in August 1941.

Bombs start to fall near ships moored in Tallinn for the evacuation.

Reval Hafen 1.9.1941 (Tag der Eroberung)

The Port of Tallinn on 1 September 1941 after having been seized by the Germans.

Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs.

Soviet Convoy Tallinn to Kronstadt: Night of 27/28  August 1941

The major Soviet warship and transport losses came in August in one of the least known, although the worst, convoy actions of the entire war. The Soviets sought to relocate smaller warships from Tallinn to Kronstadt and to evacuate as many personnel by ship as they could before the Panzers arrived in the Estonian capital. In the German attack on the hastily formed Soviet convoy the Soviet Navy lost 18 small warships and 42 merchantmen and troopships, most to a night encounter with a dense minefield. The following day, as all major warships fled the convoy, Luftwaffe dive bombers struck floundering and exposed troopships and transports. Only two survived. Total loss of life was at least 12,000.

The evacuation of Soviet troops from the Estonian capital Tallinn is probably the largest destruction caused by sea mines in a single operation. Soviet minesweeper force was too weak and managed to clear only a narrow channel through the “Juminda” barrage. In the zone between Point Juminda and Kalbådagrund were 3 000 mines. To prevent minesweepers from sweeping channels in this barrage there was also a 150 mm battery on Point Juminda. Light forces threatened the evacuation convoys from the north. The Germans had also total air supremacy. The Baltic Red Fleet had earlier during the Summer used a route close to Estonian coast, but now it was forced to the middle of Gulf of Finland. Navy ships and transport vessels were to travel through a single narrow 150-mile channel.

Three large convoys carried most of the troops. A fourth convoy was made of smaller vessels. Many smaller vessels sailed alone. The total number of naval ships and small vessels was 153 and the number of transports and other vessels was 75. The ships and vessels were to be ready for departure on the roads off Tallinn between the net barrage and boom defence by 22.00 hours on 27 August. A force seven north-east wind delayed the beginning of the operation for more than 12 hours. The submarine chasers, launches, minesweepers and other small vessels could not sail in such weather. As a result, the evacuation fleet had to make its way through the mine barrages in darkness. The Baltic Red Fleets ships formed three task forces; the main force, covering force and rear guard. The main force was to protect the first and second transport convoys in the most dangerous section of the route, from Point Juminda to Suursaari island. The covering force was to protect second and third convoys between the islands of Keri and Vaindlo. The rear guard was to protect the third and fourth convoys from the rear. The small submarines M 98 and M 102 were sent to patrol areas south from Helsinki.

The first convoy had been planned to depart on 27 August at 22.00 hours. A convoy plan in shows three pairs of minesweepers in front, followed by a minesweeper and the merchantmen in a single line, three submarines followed the merchantmen and the two destroyers were the last ones. The flanks were covered by coastal patrol ships, MO-type patrol boats and a tug.

Minesweeper       Nr. 71, Krab                            First sweeper pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 72, Dzherzhinski                              First sweeper pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 57, Viesturs (former Latvian)                      Second pair, also T 298

Minesweeper       Nr. 91, Lyapidevskiy                              Second pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 52, Buyok                         Third pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 56, Barometr                  Third pair

Mobile base          Leningradsoviet                    

Headquarters ship               Vironia, former Estonian merchantman       2026 brt                 

Transport                VT-524 (former Latvian merchantman Kalpaks)         2190 brt                 

Transport                VT-547 (former Estonian merchantman Järvamaa)  1363 brt                 

Icebreaker             Kristjanis Voldemars           1932 brt                 

Floating workshop               Serp-i-molot                          

Transport                VT-511 (former Estonian merchantman Alev)            1446 brt                 

Transport                VT-530 (former Estonian merchantman Ella)              1523 brt                 

Transport                VT-563 (former Latvian merchantman Atis Kronvaldis)            1423 brt                 

Submarine             Щ 307                      

Submarine             Щ 308                      

Submarine             M 79                        

Destroyer               Svirjepyi                                   

Destroyer               Surovyi                   

Coastal patrol ship              Bayan                       Left flank, minesweeper without sweeping gear

Patrol boat            MO-507                   Left flank

Coastal patrol ship              Ametist (former Estonian Sulev)                      Left flank

Tug          OLS-7                        Right flank

Patrol boat            MO-208                   Right flank

Coastal patrol ship              Kasatka                    Right flank

The submarine Щ 301, motor mine sweepers KTЩ-1201, KTЩ-1206, KTЩ-1208, KTЩ-1209, KTЩ-1210 and KTЩ-1211, transport VT-505 (Ivan Papanin), salvage vessel Neptun, schooner Urme (in tow) were also included in the first convoy, total 36 vessels. One reference list only 32 vessels, he has not listed Щ 301, Ivan Papanin and Urme. Instead of Neptun he lists salvage vessel Saturn. One reference differs in the list of motor mine sweepers, KTЩ-1201, -1203, -1204, -1205, -1206 and list of patrol boats, MO-204, MO-207.

The plan of the second convoy in shows three pairs of minesweepers in front, followed by Azimuth, Moskva and merchantmen in a single line and the Tshapaev as last one. The flanks were covered by MO-type patrol boats and motor mine sweepers.

Minesweeper       No. 43 LVP-12                        First sweeper pair

Minesweeper       No. 44 Izhorets-38                                 First sweeper pair

Minesweeper       No. 42                     Second pair

Minesweeper       No. 47 Izhorets-69                                 Second pair

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1510                                 Third pair

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1511                                 Third pair

Netlayer                  Azimuth                 

Gunboat                 Moskva                  

Transport                VT-523 (Kazhakhstan)                         

Transport                VT-584 (former Estonian merchantman Naissaar)    1892 brt                 

Motor schooner  Atta (former Estonian)                       

Transport                VT-505 (Ivan Papanin)       3374 brt                 

Transport                VT-537 (former Latvian merchantman Ergonautis)                   

Netlayer                  Vjatka                     

Transport                VT-550 (former Lithuanian merchantman Shauliai)                  

Netlayer                  Onega                     

Transport                Everita                    

Coastal patrol ship              Tshapaev                                 

Patrol boat            MO-214                   Left flank

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1512                                 Left flank

Patrol boat            MO-200                   Right flank

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1514                                 Right flank

The transport VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka), tug KP-12 towing TK-121 and tug Tasuja towing sweeper No. 86 (Izhorets-33), patrol ship Shors, sweepers No. 84 (Izhorets-28), No. 88 (Izhorets-31) and No. 121 (Izhorets-71), motor mine sweepers KTЩ-1203, KTЩ-1204, KTЩ-1205 and KTЩ-1509 were also included in the second convoy. Transport VT-505 (Ivan Papanin) is included in the convoy plan but it is listed in the first convoy. Minesweeper No. 42 is included in the convoy plan, but it is not listed. The second convoy had according to and 34 vessels, but one reference lists only 21. Two references lists agree with the larger vessels, but some smaller vessels are not listed.

The plan of the third convoy was two pairs of minesweepers in front, followed by Amgun, the merchantmen in a single line and Kolyvan as last one. The flanks were covered by MO-type patrol boats and motor mine sweepers.

Minesweeper       Nr. 58, Osetr                          First sweeper pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 33, Olonka                       First sweeper pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 35, Shuya                         Second pair

Minesweeper       Nr. 83                       Second pair

Gunboat                 Amgun                    

Transport                VT-518 (Luga)                       

Transport                VT-512 (Tobol)     2758 brt                 

Transport                VT-581 (former Estonian merchantman Lake Lucerne)            2317 brt                 

Tanker                   TN-12                      

Transport                VT-581 (Balhash)                                   

Transport                VT-546 (former Estonian merchantman Ausma)       1791 brt                 

Transport                VT-574 (former Estonian merchantman Kumari)       237 brt  

Transport                VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka)              3974 brt                 

Transport                VT-529 (Skrunda)                                  

Salvage vessel      Kolyvan                  

Patrol boat            MO-501                   Left flank

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1104                                 Left flank

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1109                                 Left flank

Patrol boat            MO-502                   Right flank

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1101                                 Right flank

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1106                                 Right flank

The third convoy included also minesweeper Jastreb. The transport VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka) in the convoy plan is listed in the ships of the second convoy. According to, and the third convoy had 21 vessels, inluding the Vtoraya Pyatiletka. Minesweeper Jastreb is not in one reference’s list, but there is sailing ship Hiiusaar.

The fourth convoy was made of 11 smaller vessels. It had.

Coastal patrol ship              Ost                           

Coastal patrol ship              Razhvedtshik                         

Gunboat          I-8 armed tug           

Minesweeper       5M2 (Piksha)                         

Minesweeper       8M1 (Povodetsh)                                  

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1503                                

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1504                                

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1505                                

Motor minesweeper          KTЩ-1506                                

Salvage vessel      Saturn                     

Tug          LP-5                          

Barge      TT-1         Torpedo transport              

One reference adds to this list a large number of vessels: Submarine Щ 301, mine sweepers Izhorets-12, Izhorets-17 and TЩ-86, motor mine sweepers Jastreb, Vaindlo, Voronin, KTЩ-1208, -1209, -1210, -1211, motor torpedo boat TKA-121, survey ships Sekstant and Vostok, tugs Esro, Kaja, Paldiski, Venta, Vilma, KP-6, KP-17 and S-101, sailing ship Atta, VR-6, coastal ships Vaindlo and Vormsi, transport Everita and ice breaker Tasuja. There were 38 vessels.

The main Soviet battlefleet under the command of Vice-Admiral V. Tributs, departed Tallinn harbor at 14.52 hours. The cruiser Kirov was Tributs’ flagship.

Cruiser   Kirov                        

Flotilla leader       Leningrad                                

Destroyer               Gordyi                     

Destroyer               Jakov Sverdlov                      

Destroyer               Smetlivyi                                  

Submarine             Kalev (former Estonian)                     

Submarine             Lembit (former Estonian)                  

Submarine             S 4                            

Submarine             S 5                            

Icebreaker             Suur Tõll (former Estonian)               2417 brt                 

Mine sweeper     T-204 (Fugas)                        

Mine sweeper     T-205 (Gafel)                         

Mine sweeper     T-206 (Verp)                          

Mine sweeper     T-207 (Shpil)                          

Mine sweeper     T-217                       

The small vessels in the main force were motor torpedo boats No. 37, 73, 74, 84, 103, 113 and 114, MO-class patrol boats No. 112, 131, 133, 142, 202 and 204. The submarine Щ 405 may have been in the main force.

The covering force sailed under command of rear admiral Pantelejev.

Flotilla leader       Minsk                      

Destroyer               Skoryi                      

Destroyer               Slavnyi                    

Submarine             Щ 322                      

Submarine             M 95                        

Mine sweeper     T-203 (Patron)                      

Mine sweeper     T-210 (Gak)                            

Mine sweeper     T-211 (Rym)                           

Mine sweeper     T-215                       

Mine sweeper     T-218                       

The small vessels in the covering force were motor torpedo boats No. 33, 53, 91, and 101, MO-class patrol boats No. 207, 212, 213 and 510. The submarines M 98 and M 102 were in the covering force, but they were sent to patrol south from Helsinki.

The rear group was made of old destroyers and small patrol ships. The rear group was under command of rear admiral Rall.

Destroyer               Artyom                   

Destroyer               Volodarskiy                            

Destroyer               Kalinin                     

Coastal patrol ship              Burja                        

Coastal patrol ship              Sneg                        

Coastal patrol ship              Tsiklon                    

The small vessels in the rear group were motor torpedo boats No. 51 and 61, MO-class patrol boats No. 5, 195, 197, 204, 210, 211 and 232.

The first transport convoy sailed between islands Naissaar and Aegna at 12.15. A mine exploded in the sweeping gear of the first sweeper pair at 13.09 hours, four miles NW Aegna island. The second convoy passed Naissaar and Aegna at 15 hours and the third convoy 20 minutes later. The fourth convoy sailed at 14:15. The main force of Baltic Red Fleet weighed anchor and departed Tallinn harbor at 14.52 hours. It took the lead with the cruiser Kirov as flagship.

The Navy ships and convoys formed a line 15 miles long. The first convoy passed Keri island at 16 hours and was off Juminda peninsula at 1800 hours. Soon thereafter the ships sailed directly to the mines. The steamer Ella was first to sink. Then began German air attacks, artillery fire from Finnish coastal batteries and later in the evening torpedo attacks by German Schnellboots and Finnish patrol boats. All this caused confusion, the train of ships stretched and sailing through the 200 m wide swept channel became impossible. The sweeping equipment of many sweeper were damaged by explosions and drifting mines cut loose from moorings were great danger. The sunset was at 20.40 hours and at 22 hours the visibility was only a cable length. Warships were not giving much protection to merchant ships, as they were fully occupied with drifting mines.

On the evening of 28. August following ships were lost:

    At 18.05 VT-530 (Ella) from the first convoy hit a mine and sank.

    At 18.20 tug LP-5 (S-101) from the fourth convoy that tried to rescue people from Ella hit a mine and sank.

    At 18.30 icebreaker Kristjanis Voldemars from the first convoy was sunk by bombs.

    At 19.40 the minesweeper Nr. 71 (Krab) sailing in the first sweeper pair of the first convoy hit a mine and sank.

    At 20.11 submarine S 5 hit a mine and sank in 40 seconds.

    At 20.20 rescue vessel Saturn towing Vironia hit a mine and sank.

    At 21.45 Vironia hit a mine and sank. Vironia from the first convoy was damaged by air attack 18.30 and taken to tow by Saturn from the fourth convoy.

    At 20.30 gunboat I-8 hit a mine and sank.

    At 20.48 submarine Щ 301 hit a mine and sank.

    At 20.50 destroyer Jakov Sverdlov hit a mine and sank after 5-6 minutes.

    At 21.57 transport Everita from the second convoy hit a mine and sank. The ship had drifted slightly too much south from the sweeped lane.

    At 22.05 the minesweeper Nr. 56 (Barometr) sailing in the third sweeper pair of the first convoy hit a mine and sank.

    At 22.15 coastal patrol ship Tsiklon from the rear group hit a mine and sank.

    At 22.30 destroyer Skoryj from the covering force hit a mine and sank while towing the damaged flotilla leader Minsk.

    At 22.45 destroyer Kalinin from the rear group hit a mine and sank.

    At 23.00 destroyer Volodarskiy from the rear group hit a mine and sank.

    At 23.05 destroyer Artyom from the rear group hit a mine and sank.

    At 23.00 VT-518 (Luga) from the third convoy hit a mine. As no towing was possible, the master decided to scuttle the ship.

    Barge TT-1 hit a mine and sank.

    The armed tug OLS-7 disappeared during the night.

Other ships lost on 28.8. are:

    VT-547 (Järvamaa) hit a mine and sank at 21.00 near Suursaari, or was mined and sank 29.8. at 17 hours west from Suursaari.

    Hiiusaar was bombed.

    Schooner Atta was torpedoed by Finnish VMV-17.

Before midnight the four convoys had to anchor in the middle of the barrage. The main force had sailed through the mine barrage and anchored north from Vaindlo. Flotilla leaders, four destroyers and few transports from I, II and IV convoys were north of Mohni lighthouse and the bulk of transports from the II and III convoys north from Juminda. On the morning of 29. August the ships continued their way. Bombers attacked again and sank several transport ships. Without air cover and anti-aircraft guns and their possibility to manoeuvre limited by mines, they were easy targets. During that day following ships were lost:

    At 05.30 tug I-18 was captured by Finnish patrol boats.

    At 05.30 tug Paldiski was captured by Finnish patrol boats.

    At 06.51 a vessel sank in mine explosion, it might have been the salvage vessel of the third convoy, Kolyvan.

    At 07.43 coastal patrol ship Sneg hit a mine and sank 30 minutes later.

    At 08.39 a ship was sunk by mine.

    At 08.41 another ship was sunk by mine. These two ships may have been transports Naissaar and Ergonautis from the second convoy.

    At 09.06 VT-501 (Balkhash) from the third convoy hit a mine and sank.

    At 12.30 VT-512 (Tobol) was sunk by bombs.

    At 13.00 VT-546 (Ausma) was sunk by bombs.

    At 15.00 VT-524 (Kalpaks) was sunk by bombs.

    at 15.07 VT-520 (Evald) was sunk by bombs.

    At 17.40 VT-563 (Atis Kronvaldis) was sunk by bombs.

    At 18.10 tanker No 12 was sunk by bombs 5 miles east of Suursaari.

    VT-529 (Skrunda) was hit 5 miles NW Vaindlo and the ship was scuttled 30.08.

    VT-511 (Alev) was damaged by bombs and sank few miles west from Lavansaari.

    VT-543 (Vtoraya Pyatiletka) was sunk by bombs.

A number of ships were beached at Suursaari during 29.8.:

    The floating workshop Serp-i-molot was damaged by bombs and beached on southern end.

    VT-505 (Ivan Papanin) was hit by bombs and the ship was run aground on west coast of Suursaari.

    VT-581 (Lake Lucerne) run aground on south end of Suursaari after bomb damage.

    VT-550 (Shauliai) was hit by bomb and towed to Suurkylä harbour on Suursaari.

The main naval forces arrived to Kronstadt in the afternoon of 29.8. The only transport that survived was Kazakhstan. The ship was damaged by bomb 29.8. at 07:15 near Vaindlo and it arrived to Kronstadt 2.9.

Zubkov summarizes the losses during Tallinn evacuation as:

    22 navy vessels, these were 5 destroyers, 3 coast guard ships, 2 minesweepers, 2 submarines, one gunboat, one motor torpedo boat and 8 patrol boats.

    43 other vessels, including 19 transports, one tanker, one ice breaker, a floating workshop, 7 tugs and two rescue vessels.

by Jari Aromaa.