Fairey Swordfish

When British naval intelligence determined that a large number of Italian warships lay at anchor in Taranto harbour in November 1940, an attack was organized, to be carried out by 21 single-engine carrier-based biplanes. The operation was a huge success — three battleships were severely damaged, a cruiser and two destroyers were hit, and two other vessels were sunk. In the space of one hour the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had been altered forever.

The unlikely cause of this destruction was one of the warplane legends of World War Two, the Fairey Swordfish Mk.1, first flown on 17 April 1934. It was a three-man torpedo-bomber and reconnaissance biplane with a basic structure of fabric-covered metal. The wings folded for storage on the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier. Armament included one forward-firing Vickers machine gun and one swivelling Vickers in the rear cockpit. Primary offensive power took the form of depth charges, mines, bombs or, especially, a torpedo.

Unfortunately, this outstanding plane was too slow to withstand the punishment of German anti-aircraft fire. Long, accurate approaches to the target made the Swordfish very vulnerable when delivering its torpedo. Thus came re-deployment in an anti-submarine warfare role, using depth charges and, later, rockets.

As with many wartime aircraft, Swordfish were produced by more than one manufacturer. Well over half (almost 1700) were built by the Blackburn company in Sherburn in Elmet, UK.

The Mk II model was introduced in 1943, and featured strengthened and metal-skinned lower wings to allow the firing of rockets from underneath. Later that year, the Mk III appeared, which featured a large ASV anti-submarine radar unit mounted between the landing gear legs which allowed detection of submarines up to 40 km away. For operation over the cold waters of Canada, the Swordfish Mk IV was fitted with an enclosed cabin.

When production ended in 1944, the Swordfish had had been introduced into a full range of duties for the fleet: Torpedo-bomber, minelayer, convoy escort, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft and training craft. Today, four Swordfish are airworthy — two in Britain and two in Canada. 

Taranto 1940

During the night of 11-12 November, two waves of Swordfish aircraft from the carrier Illustrious had the temerity to attack the Italian Fleet as it lay at anchor in harbour at Taranto, crippling three of its battleships while slightly damaging a heavy cruiser and a destroyer into the bargain. Everyone on the British side was delighted with the results of Operation Judgment, since it appeared to have eased the Allied naval position in the Central Mediterranean, by reducing the risks to their convoy traffic and boosting morale in their own ranks, while complicating the Italian strategic situation and deflating the enemy. Cunningham summed up the cost-benefit analysis of the entire operation perfectly by stating: `As an example of “economy of force” it is probably unsurpassed.’ He was not prone to exaggeration and his enthusiasm for taking the fight to the Italians was infectious.

The first carrier-based aircraft strike against a fleet of warships. Located on Italy’s eastern coast, Taranto was the main Italian naval base in early World War II. The excellent natural harbor comprised two anchorages-Mare Grande and Mare Piccolo. When Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, its sizeable Mediterranean fleet became a threat to the British, who were fighting alone following the fall of France that May.

The Axis envisioned this fleet controlling the Mediterranean shipping lanes and reducing supplies to British forces in North Africa. Concurrently, the Royal Navy sought to engage and destroy the Italian fleet to limit the resupply of Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps. To this end, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, commander in chief Mediterranean, sent British ships near the Italian coast to lure (without success) the Italians into a surface engagement.

British intelligence reported that increasing numbers of large ships were congregating at Taranto. Thus, Cunningham ordered his operational commander to plan an airborne carrier attack for 21 October 1940-Trafalgar Day.

Originally, the HMS Eagle and the new HMS Illustrious were to launch the attack. However, a fire aboard Illustrious delayed the operation until 11 November-Armistice Day. Additionally, Eagle suffered bomb damage and was removed from the operation. Some of its aircraft were transferred to Illustrious.

At 8:40 P. M. 11 November, Illustrious launched 12 old and slow Swordfish biplanes of the Nos. 813 and 815 Squadrons 170 miles southeast of Taranto. Fourteen Fulmer and four Sea Gladiator fighters of No. 806 Squadron flew air cover. Two Swordfish carried flares and four carried bombs. This first group arrived over the target at 11:00 P. M. and illuminated the harbor with the flares; the aircraft armed with bombs made a diversionary attack on the cruisers and destroyers.

The last six Swordfish in the first wave, armed with one torpedo each, attacked the six Italian battleships anchored at Mare Grande. A single torpedo put a hole in the Conte di Cavour, which began to sink. A second torpedo tore a hole in the Caio Duilio, which was run aground in shallow water. The first wave lost one plane; the crew survived.

Less than an hour later, as Italian crews were fighting fires and searching for shipmates, a second wave of nine Swordfish from Nos. 819 and 824 Squadrons struck. Five of the planes had torpedoes. This time the Littorio was heavily damaged and also run aground. A second torpedo hit the Cavour, sending it to the bottom in deep water. Numerous lesser ships were also damaged. The second wave lost one plane; both crew members were killed.

In one night, the British had taken a major step in wresting control of the Mediterranean from the Axis. The remainder of the Italian fleet soon withdrew to Naples on the western coast and out of range of British carrier planes. The Cavour took enormous resources to refloat and never returned to service. The other two were refloated in two months, but it took many more months to make them seaworthy. By that time the Italian navy was less of a factor. Cunningham noted that after Taranto the Italian fleet “was still a considerable force” but had been badly hurt.

Although some historians remain unconvinced, there is evidence that Britain’s Taranto air attack inspired Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to launch the 1941 carrier-based air attack on Pearl Harbor. Regardless, at Taranto a single British carrier and 21 antiquated biplanes crippled the Italian fleet in one nighttime raid, proving the vulnerability of surface vessels to aerial assault.

Stringbags versus Bismarck

Bismarck continued making for refuge at Brest, the only choice she now had with reduced speed and heavy fuel loss, but the Royal Navy wasted time searching in the opposite direction on the assumption that she had probably turned back. She was eventually sighted at 1030 on the 26th by a Coastal Command Catalina, which was driven away by heavy AA fire. However, two Swordfish of No. 810 Squadron had been sent up at 0840 by Ark Royal, which was now on the scene, and at 1114 the enemy was sighted again, ‘2H’, piloted by Sub-Lt(A) J. V. Hanley RN with Sub-Lt(A) P. R. Elias RNVR and L/ H. Huxley, being joined seven minutes later by ‘2F’, flown by Lt(A) J. R. . Callander RN with Lt P. E. Schonfeldt RN and L/ R. V. Baker. These two aircraft then maintained contact until relieved by another pair, landing aboard at 1324. This tactic continued until late that night, despite extremely severe weather.

In terrible conditions fourteen Swordfish took off from Ark Royal at 1450 with instructions to attack, though with some doubt at that time as to whether the enemy warship sighted was in fact Bismarck or Prinz Eugen. What occurred next is described in Ark Royal’s subsequent report

‘The weather conditions were particularly bad over the target area when the striking force took off … reliance was therefore placed in the ASV set carried in one of the aircraft which located a ship 20 miles from the position given the leader on taking off. This happened to be the Sheffield who had been sent to shadow the enemy from astern. On getting over the supposed target an attack through the clouds was ordered and before many of the pilots ‘knew what they had done. 11 torpedoes had been dropped at the Sheffield. Fortunately, in one sense, 50 per cent of the Duplex pistols fired prematurely, the remainder were dodged by the Sheffield who increased to high speed.’

The presence of Sheffield was unknown to Ark Royal owing to a delay in the deciphering of a signal, but fortunately the cruiser’s Captain had skilfully succeeded in evading the torpedoes launched by eleven of the aircraft. The mistake having been recognized, a second strike was launched at 1910 with fifteen aircraft comprising four each of Nos 810 and 818 Squadrons and seven of No 820, led by Lt Cdr T. P. Coode RN, the CO of No 818. They formed up in squadrons of two sub-flights each, in line astern, taking departure over the battlecruiser Renown at 1925. The weather had improved somewhat, and 1 1/2 hours later contact was made first with Sheffield to help locate the target, and also to ensure that she herself did not again become the target. The force then climbed to 6,000ft. Conditions near Sheffield were reported as ‘Seven-tenths cloud from 2,000 to 5,000 feet; conditions ideal for torpedo attack’. The force then climbed to 6,000ft but temporarily lost contact with Sheffield while in cloud. Regaining contact at 2035, the crew were told that the enemy was twelve miles away on bearing 110*. Five minutes later they headed for the target in sub-flights in line astern at a ground speed of 110kts, but while the cloudy conditions through which they then climbed greatly assisted surprise, they made it difficult for the sub-flights to keep in contact with each other. Heavy fire was now encountered, forcing some of the aircraft to turn away initially, but all succeeded in dropping their torpedoes.

The final dive and approach began at 2053, and No 1 Sub-Flight was shortly followed by an aircraft of No 3 Sub-Flight which joined them in an attack from the port beam. This aircraft observed a hit two-thirds of the way forward on the enemy vessel. All four aircraft came under intense and accurate AA fire from the moment of first sighting until making their getaway downwind. No 2 Sub-Flight climbed to 9,000ft in cloud but lost contact with No I. Ice began to form on the wings, but the dived down on an ASV bearing. The third aircraft of this sub-flight, ‘2P’, piloted by Sub-Lt(A) A. W. D. Beale RN, completely lost touch in the cloud but returned to Sheffield and obtained a fresh range and bearing, then carried out a solo attack from the port bow under very heavy fire, and he and his crew had the satisfaction of seeing their torpedo hit Bismarck amidships.

Meanwhile No 3 Sub-Flight of two aircraft had gone into cloud, closely followed by No 4. Again, however, contact was lost, but ‘2M’ of No 3 Sub-Flight somehow managed to join up with No 4 Sub-Flight as they dived into a clear patch at 2,000ft, and they circled the enemy astern before diving through a low piece of cloud for a simultaneous attack from the battleship’s port side. As with previous aircraft, they attracted very fierce fire, which continued until they were seven miles away. Aircraft ‘4C’ was hit 175 times, both the pilot and air gunner being wounded though the observer was unscathed.

No 5 Sub-Flight, of two aircraft (‘4K’ and ‘4L’), followed the others into cloud but soon lost them and each other. They continued climbing into cloud until ice started to form at 7,000ft, when they started to descend, but while still in cloud ‘4K’ encountered AA fire. He came out of cloud at 1,000ft, sighted the enemy downwind and went back into cloud to work round to a position on the starboard bow, seeing a torpedo hit the starboard side while doing so. After withdrawing to about five miles, he then came in and dropped his torpedo at a range of just over 1,000yds. Aircraft ‘4L’, having completely lost contact, dived through a gap in the clouds from 7,000ft and, seeing no other Swordfish, made two attempts to close, but he met such intense and concentrated fire that he had no choice but to withdraw, jettisoning his torpedo before returning to the carrier.

Similar conditions were met by No 6  Sub-Flight, which had also returned to Sheffield for a fresh range and bearing: ‘4G’ managed to drop at 2,000yds, but ‘4F’ also had to jettison. Despite damage to many of the aircraft, all returned to the carrier and only two air crew were wounded. Bismarck had been hit aft, and such severe damage was caused to her propellers and rudders that she could only maintain a slow speed and was almost unmanoeuvrable. At 2325 hadowing aircraft reported her turning lowly in circles and. he was subsequently reduced to a burning wreck by gunfire from Royal Navy capital ships. A third air strike took off at 0915 next morning in bad weather. The target was sighted at 1020, but before the crew could launch their missiles they saw torpedoes from the cruiser Dorsetshire hit her and then watched the battle hip capsize to port and founder. The Swordfish jettisoned their own torpedoes and returned to the carrier. Prinz Eugen managed to get through to Brest, where she joined Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and was subsequently subjected to the attentions of RAF Bomber Command.


On 26 May, Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the Ark Royal and Coastal Command’s patrol bomber (PBY) aircraft regained contact with the Bismarck. Late in the day, Swordfish from the Ark Royal attacked, and a lucky torpedo hit jammed the German battleship’s twin rudder system, making her unable to maneuver. With no air cover or help from the U-boats or other ships available, the fatalistic Fleet Commander Admiral Lütjens, remembering the reaction to the scuttling of the Graf Spee and Raeder’s orders to fight to the last shell, radioed the hopelessness of the situation.

At 8:45 A.M. on 27 May, the British battleships King George V and Rodney opened fire. By 10:00, although hit by hundreds of shells, the Bismarck remained afloat. As the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire closed to fire torpedoes, the Germans scuttled their ship. Three torpedoes then struck, and the Bismarck went down. Reports of German submarines in the area halted British efforts to rescue German survivors. Only 110 of the crew of 2,300 survived. Lütjens was not among them.

Nicknames: Stringbag; Blackfish (Blackburn-built Swordfish)

Specifications (Swordfish Mk II):

        Engine: One 750-hp Bristol Pegasus XXX 9-cylinder radial piston engine

        Weight: Empty 4,700 lbs., Max Takeoff 7,510 lbs.

        Wing Span: 45ft. 6in.

        Length: 35ft. 8in.

        Height: 12ft. 4in.


            Maximum Speed: 138 mph

            Ceiling: 10,700 ft.

            Range: 1,030 miles

        Armament: Two 7.7-mm (0.303-inch) Vickers machine guns (one forward-firing and one one in a Fairey High-Speed Mounting in rear cockpit); plus one 1,600-pound torpedo, or 1,500 pounds of depth charges, bombs or mines; or up to eight rockets on underwing racks.

Number Built: 2,391

CV IJN Shinano’s End…

On November 24 and 27 1944, over a hundred B-29 Superfortresses based at the newly completed airfield in the Marianas made their first two bombing runs over the Japanese mainland. Patrolling off Tokyo Bay, Frederick Gunn, commanding Scabbardfish, and Joseph Enright, commanding Archerfish, were ordered to lifeguard for these attacks. As it turned out, neither was called upon for rescues, and both boats were subsequently released to conduct regular antishipping patrols in the immediate area off Tokyo Bay. Gunn on Scabbardfish sank a Japanese submarine, I-365, 1,500 tons, almost immediately. For Enright there was bigger game.

It was Enright who had made the first patrol on Dace and then asked to be relieved because he had no confidence in himself. He had come to Archerfish after nearly a year of shore duty. Now, on the night of November 28, Enright made contact with Shinano, brand new sister ship of Yamato and Musashi, which had been converted to an aircraft carrier while still being built. Her conversion being almost finished, she had been hurriedly commissioned on November 18, with Captain Toshio Abe in command, and was getting her finishing touches in Tokyo Bay when the B-29 raids began. Though these initial raids did relatively little damage, they made the Japanese uneasy. On November 28 Shinano got under way under orders from Imperial Naval Headquarters that she be moved out of the bay to the relatively safer waters of the Inland Sea. Four destroyers escorted her.

Structurally, Shinano was finished, but many details, such as fire pumps, were not yet complete. There were 1,900 people on board, some of them crew, others yard workers who would finish the ship, which at 60,000 tons would be the largest warship in the world (slightly larger than Yamato). Many of the crew were green; they had never been to sea. There had been no training.

That night, Joe Enright in Archerfish patrolled the outer entrances to Tokyo Bay. At 8:48, his radar operator reported a pip at 24,700 yards. Fifty-two minutes later, Enright knew he had an aircraft carrier, headed south, speed 20 knots. He laid a course to intercept and called for flank speed. “From here on,” Enright wrote later, “it was a mad race for a possible firing position. His speed was about one knot in excess of our best, but his zig plan allowed us to pull ahead very slowly.”

Enright thought he was losing the race and sent off two contact reports to Lockwood, so that he could alert submarines to the south. But then at 3 A.M.-about six hours after the chase began-the carrier changed course and headed right for Archerfish. Enright submerged ahead. The huge ship came onward while Enright’s crew made everything ready.

At 3: 16 A.M. 29 November, Enright began firing his bow tubes from a range of about 1,500 yards. Sigmund Albert (“Bobo”) Bobczynski, his exec, was watching the TDC, holding his breath. After four torpedoes had left the tubes, he shouted, “Check fire! New setup. Switch to stem tubes.” Then Enright fired two stem tubes.

Forty-seven seconds after the first torpedo was fired, Enright, manning the periscope, saw and heard a hit in the carrier’s stern. “Large ball of fire climbed his side,” Enright noted. Ten seconds later, he saw a second hit, 50 yards forward of the first.

There was a destroyer only 500 yards on Archerfish’s quarter. Enright went deep. On the way down, he said later, he heard four more properly timed hits, indicating all six of his torpedoes had hit Shinano. Sonar reported breaking-up noises. The escorts dropped fourteen depth charges, the nearest, Enright reported, 300 yards distant. When that noise died away, the sonarman reported more breaking- up noises. The heavy screw noise of the carrier could not be heard.

At 6: 10, Enright returned to the surface for a look through the periscope. “Nothing in sight,” he reported. He was certain that the carrier went down on the spot.

After the war, the records revealed that Shinano took four hits. Captain Abe was not overly concerned; the sister ship, Musashi, had taken nineteen torpedoes and many bombs before sinking at Leyte. He continued on his course at 18 knots. His inexperienced damage control parties tried to stop the flow of water, but they fought a losing battle. It was discovered that Shinano did not have all her watertight doors, and some that were in place leaked. Captain Abe could have grounded Shinano in shallow water and saved her, but he continued on. By dawn, it was evident to all that she was sinking. At 10: 18, Abe ordered abandon ship. Half an hour later, the world’s largest warship slid beneath the waves, taking down Abe and 500 men.

Enright remained on station another two weeks, lifeguarding B-29 raids. He received two calls for help but could never find the downed pilots. On December 9, another off day, he fired four torpedoes at two small patrol boats and missed. He returned Archerfish to Guam December 15, claiming to have sunk a Hayatake-class carrier of 28,000 tons.

Some people were naturally skeptical. The codebreakers believed they had identified all the remaining Japanese carriers and knew where they were. But Enright’s division commander, Burt Klakring, submitted a drawing of the carrier composed by Enright, and Babe Brown, acting in Lockwood’s absence, credited him with sinking a 28,000-ton carrier. It was not until after the war that the whole story of Shinano, converted in secret and unknown to the codebreakers, came out. Then the tonnage was upped to 71,000 and Enright received a Navy Cross.

The unlikely Joe Enright, a cautious and uncertain skipper, had by the luck of the draw sunk the largest warship in history and the largest ship ever sunk by a submarine. Although in the postwar accounting the tonnage was reduced to 59,000, from a tonnage standpoint Enright’s first patrol on Archerfish was still the best of the war.

Nicopolis 25 September 1396 Part II

The Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396 was disorganised and badly led: the result was a catastrophic defeat. However, it was the aftermath of the battle which produced the greatest impact in Europe. Jean de Froissart described in Book 4 of his Chronicle how, after the battle, the Sultan ordered the execution of many of his noble prisoners, harsh recompense for the slaughter of Ottoman prisoners by the French. A miniature in one edition of Froissart shows the bodies of the decapitated men beginning to pile up before the Sultan, who wished to make an example that his enemies would not forget. The watercolour in Loqman’s sixteenth-century Ottoman court history, like Froissart, shows the Turk as a fearsome enemy. By the time the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople in 1453, the image of their implacable cruelty had been formed and reinforced over almost three generations.

Whilst besieging Nicopolis, the crusader army became aware of Bayezid’s advance. It was Sigismund’s intention to deploy his unreliable vassals, the voivodes of Wallachia and Transylvania, in -front of his main body in order to force them to fight. But the French demanded the honour of the van and charged directly at Bayezid’s position. Behind a screen of Akinji light cavalry, and invisible to the westerners, lay a belt of sharpened wooden stakes, at chest height to the horses, full of Janissary archers. As the Turkish light cavalry melted away to the flanks, the crusaders lost their horses to both the arrows and the obstacles. Undeterred, they abandoned their mounts and attacked on foot, routing the unarmoured bowmen. Unfortunately, when they saw the crusaders’ horses galloping back across the plain, the Wallachians and Transylvanians made off. Meanwhile, the French arrived at the top of the hill, exhausted by their efforts, to find the cream of Bayezid’s heavy cavalry – the Spahis – awaiting them. Surrounded and overwhelmed, they surrendered en masse. Sigismund’s Hungarians arrived too late, and were themselves driven off by the flanking attack of Bayezid’s Christian Serbian vassals. The outcome epitomized the difference between Bayezid’s well-balanced defence in depth and a headstrong western charge. Numbers on both sides are difficult to assess, but there is no reason to believe that the Turks greatly exceeded the crusaders. They were Simply better disciplined and better led.

The Battle

This was the battle that ended the ill-fated crusade, largely financed by the Duke of Burgundy, that had been organised in response to appeals for aid against the Ottoman Turks from the future emperor Sigismund, king of Hungary. Contemporary chroniclers claim that the combined Hungarian and crusader forces comprised 50-62,000 Hungarians (26,000 of them mercenaries), 10,000 Wallachians under Mircea the Old, 16,000 Transylvanians, 10-14,000 Frenchmen and Burgundians, 6,000 Germans, 1,000 Englishmen and 12-13,000 Poles, Bohemians and Italians. These figures, however, are fantastically high and can probably be largely discounted; in reality they may have totalled only 12-16,000 men (Schiltberger, an eyewitness, says 16,000, while Froissart puts the French crusader cavalry at no more than 700 men). Similarly, although another eye-witness (the author of the ‘Religieux de Saint-Denis’) reported the opposing Ottoman forces, commanded by Sultan Bayezid, as comprising a vanguard of 24,000, main battle of 30,000 and rearguard and household troops of 40,000, the Turks perhaps really numbered no more than 15-20,000 men, two Ottoman sources actually putting their own strength at just 10,000 men. Whereas the Christian forces were almost entirely cavalry, those of the Turks included a substantial number of infantry.

Marching to the relief of besieged Nicopolis, Bayezid chose a defensive position on a rise, straddling the road to the city with his flanks protected by ravines. His first line comprised irregular horse (i. e. akinjis, 8,000 of them according to Froissart), behind which infantry archers were drawn up in 2 large companies behind a line of stakes that was 16 feet deep. Behind these were his feudal cavalry, and behind these again, on his flanks, were two reserves, that on the left of Serbs under Stephen Lazarevic, that on the right being composed of the troops of the Porte under Bayezid himself, ‘hidden in a certain copse to avoid detection’ according to Doukas, the Religieux confirming that Bayezid’s division was hidden behind a bill.

Sigismund’s sound proposal that his own light troops should open the attack, to soften up the Ottomans for the decisive charge of the Western European heavy cavalry, was met with hostility by the haughty French and Burgundian crusaders, who regarded it as an insult to be put in what they deemed the rearguard position. Consequently, claiming that Sigismund wanted only to rob them of ‘the honour of striking the first blow’, they spurred ahead of their allies and approached the Ottoman position totally unsupported. As they came within range the Turkish light cavalry opened fire with their bows, then wheeled left and right (though not without casualties) to reveal the stakes and infantry archers, who outflanked the crusaders on both sides. These too now opened fue, upon which the crusaders charged uphill against them, negotiating the stakes with considerable losses, and many of them either dismounted or unhorsed, until they finally reached the Ottoman infantry, of whom they allegedly killed 10,000.

However, while thus disordered (as Bayezid had planned), the crusaders were counter-attacked by the Ottoman feudal cavalry. These too they managed to break through after a hard struggle in which 5,000 more Turks are claimed to have died, only to then be finally overwhelmed by Bayezid’s 10-40,000 men, who came in on one end of their line. Most of the understandably biased Western chroniclers claim that Sigismund’s Hungarians had fled by this time, but the eye-witness Schiltberger reports that a second battle now took place as the Hungarian and crusader main battle – although abandoned by its left flank (the Wallachians) and right flank (the Transylvanians) as it became apparent, from the riderless crusader horses stampeding past, that Bayezid was the victor up ahead- advanced in the wake of the French and Burgundians, cutting down the reformed Ottoman infantry, 12,000 in number, as they came. The feudal cavalry too were being pushed back when suddenly Bayezid’s Serbian vassals emerged from ambush and overthrew Sigismund’s banner, upon which the Hungarians broke and fled, to be pursued in rout to their ships anchored on the Danube.

In a battle that had lasted only 3 hours contemporaries estimated that the Christians had lost 8-100,000 men, the reality undoubtedly lying somewhere in between; Schiltberger says they lost 10,000. The Turks also suffered severe losses (Western contemporaries exaggeratedly claimed 6-30 were killed for every Christian), figures ranging from 16-60,000. Enraged by his heavy casualties, the next morning Bayezid executed the majority of his prisoners (300 according to Froissart, 3,000 according to the Religieux and 10,000 according to Schiltberger), the survivors being given to his army as slaves, except for a small handful of the very highest rank who were eventually ransomed.

Naval Crusade

The so-called “crusade of Nicopolis” started as a Burgundian and Hungarian affair. The chronology, the events and the outcome of the expedition are well known. Less clear are the actions of the fleet. In February 1396 four Venetian galleys were already in partibus Romanie but the captain of the Gulf was instructed to avoid any clash with the Ottoman ships. In April the Venetians expressed their concern about the slow preparations of the crusade and their impression that the expedition seemed to rely only on Hungarian forces. Even in these circumstances the Venetians assured King Sigismund that the Venetian fleet would wait for Christian forces from July until the middle of August. Sigismund was asked to keep the Venetian commander informed about the progress of the crusade and especially if the expedition was cancelled.

The naval strength of the crusade of Nicopolis seems to have been composed exclusively of Venetian and Hospitaller knights’ ships. Nevertheless, there was no joint action or coordination between the two squadrons and it seems that each fleet followed its own plan. This situation was caused by older disputes between the Order and the Republic, but also by the fact that Venice recognised the authority of the Roman pontif, Boniface IX, while the Hospitallers were faithful to the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII.

The Venetians were unable to break through the Straits because of defensive measures undertaken by Bayezid I at Gallipoli. For this reason, the Venetian galleys may have stopped at Tenedos. As a matter of fact, Francisc Pall suggested that the episode regarding the Venetian ships’ entrance on the Danube was just a tale of the Venetian chroniclers who were eager to underline, on the one hand, the Republic’s attachment to the crusade and, on the other, the ingratitude of the King of Hungary who, in 1396, owed his salvation to the Venetian galleys. The Hospitallers’ fleet headed from Rhodes towards Smyrna, but from this point on, the itinerary is very hard to know. Jean Christian Poutiers assumed that the ships commanded by Philibert of Naillac might have entered the Black Sea and the Danube. Should this scenario prove correct, it might explain the way in which Sigismund of Luxemburg reached Constantinople after the defeat.

The results of the naval expedition from 1396 are far from being spectacular. The fleet could not make the junction with the land forces and was not able to stop the disaster of September 25, 1396. The sultan’s victory compelled Venice to take defensive measures not only for its own territories, but also in Constantinople, which was in a dire situation. After the success of Nicopolis, Bayezid I was willing to grant the Venetians peace “on sea”, but not also on land, where he claimed the Venetian possessions Argos, Nauplion, Atena, Durazzo and Scutari. Venice, in turn, wished to get an agreement for its possessions in the Peloponnese and Albania, but refused to accept peace on sea because of increasing activity by Turkish pirates. Given these conditions, the last years of the fourteenth century were very difficult for Venetian possessions in Romania.

Composition of crusader forces

From France, it was said about 2,000 knights and squires joined, and were accompanied by 6,000 archers and foot soldiers drawn from the best volunteer and mercenary companies. Totaling some 10,000 men. Next in importance were the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, who were the standard bearers of Christianity in the Levant since the decline of Constantinople and Cyprus. Venice supplied a naval fleet for supporting action, while Hungarian envoys encouraged German princes of the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony and other parts of the empire to join. French heralds had proclaimed the crusade in Poland, Bohemia, Navarre and Spain, from which individuals came to join.

The Italian city-states were too much engaged in their customary violent rivalries to participate, and the widely reported and acclaimed English participation never actually occurred. The report of 1000 English knights comes from contemporary Antonio Fiorentino, and was taken as fact by historian Aziz S. Atiya and others following him. A thousand knights would have actually amounted to “four to six thousand men and at least twice as many horses”, counting foot-soldiers and other retainers. However, there are no records of financial arrangements being made in England to send a force abroad, nor of any royal preparation needed to organize and dispatch such a force. Reports of Henry of Bolingbroke or other “son of the Duke of Lancaster” leading an English contingent must be false since the presence of Henry and every other such son, as well as almost every other significant noble in the land, is recorded at the king’s wedding five months after the crusade’s departure. Atiya also thought that the invocation of St. George as a war cry at Nicopolis signified the presence of English soldiers, for whom George was a patron saint; but Froissart, who mentions this, claims that the cry was made by the French knight Philippe d’Eu. Furthermore, there was no collection of ransom money in England to pay for captives, as there was in every other country that had sent men to the battle. Sporadic mention in contemporary accounts of the presence of “English” may be attributed to Knights Hospitaller of the English tongue subgrouping, who joined their comrades for the crusade after leaving Rhodes (where the Hospitallers were based at the time) and sailing up the Danube. Possible reasons for the English absence include the increasing tension between the king and the Duke of Gloucester, which may have convinced the two that they had best keep their supporters close, and the antipathy caused by the long war between the English and French, resulting in the English refusing to consider putting themselves under a French-led crusade, regardless of the recently concluded peace.

Nevertheless, obviously inflated figures continue to be repeated. These include 6-8,000 Hungarians, ~ 10,000 French, English and Burgundian troops, ~ 10,000 Wallachians led by Mircea cel Batran (Mircea The elder) the prince of Wallachia, ~ 6,000 Germans and nearly 15,000 Dutch, Bohemian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Bulgarian, Scottish and Swiss troops on the land, with the naval support of Venice, Genoa and the Knights of St. John. These result in a figure of about 47,000 – 49,000 in total; possibly up to 120,000 or 130,000 according to numerous sources, including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah who gives the figure of the Crusader army as 130,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih.

Composition of Ottoman forces

Also estimated at about 20-25,000; but inflated figures continue to be repeated of up to 60,000 according to numerous sources including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah, who gives the figure of the Ottoman army as 60,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih; alternately described as roughly half of the Crusader army. The Ottoman force also included 1,500 Serbian heavy cavalry knights under the command of Prince Stefan Lazarević, who was Sultan Bayezid’s vassal since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, as well as his brother-in-law after the Sultan married Stefan’s sister, Princess Olivera Despina, the daughter of Prince Lazar of Serbia (Stefan’s father) who had perished at Kosovo.

Operation Praying Mantis I

In the Persian Gulf, a port quarter view of the guided missile frigate USS STARK (FFG-31) listing to port after being hit by two Iraqi Exocet missiles within 30 seconds. 37 sailors are killed.

The Persian Gulf

April 18, 1988

The Cold War was a period of putative world peace punctuated by countless small wars—and some that were not so small. From Berlin to Cuba, Korea to Vietnam, the two superpowers focused much of their national energy—and their national treasure—on an effort to gain an advantage over the other, or at least to prevent the other from gaining an advantage. The weapons grew increasingly sophisticated and terrible as both sides developed nuclear capability as well as ever-larger rocket engines to increase warhead “throw weight” in a grisly calculation of mutual deterrence.

U.S. aircraft carriers more than doubled in size, from 45,000 tons to 96,000 tons, and the planes they carried were supersonic jets capable of carrying nuclear payloads. Submarines, too, became bigger, much quieter, and much, much deadlier. The advent of nuclear propulsion made possible extended sea-keeping capability for the nation’s huge new carriers and especially for its ballistic-missile submarines—called boomers—which gave the Navy a role in strategic deterrence. By the 1960s a “triad” of Air Force bombers, land-based missiles in silos, and Polaris missiles housed in nuclear-powered submarines was supposed to provide a deterrent so convincing that the Soviets would fear to embark on the program of world conquest that most Americans believed was their ultimate goal.

Of all these technological changes, however, the one that marked the most dramatic milestone in the character of naval warfare was the revolution in electronic integration, communication, and missile capability developed toward the end of the twentieth century even as the Soviet Union was collapsing. That a revolution in warfare had taken place first became evident to the American public during the 1991 Gulf War when it watched with awe and admiration as U.S. ordnance fitted with television cameras took out Iraqi targets with astonishing precision. If subsequent investigation proved that not every strike was quite as precise as initially advertised, it was nevertheless a far cry from the gravity-guided bombs of World War II. Moreover, the integrated electronic infrastructure that made the delivery of these weapons possible marked a revolution as well. While a World War II naval aviator might nod in recognition at a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier even as he wondered at its size and puzzled over its propulsion plant, he would have been dumbfounded by his first look inside the combat information center on an AEGIS-equipped guided missile cruiser: a dark, air-conditioned room filled with banks of humming computers that linked air, surface, and even satellite assets together in a worldwide, real-time network.

For much of the Cold War, the important battlegrounds were in Europe (Berlin), Asia (Korea and Vietnam), and even Latin America (Cuba), but toward the end of the twentieth century the Middle East emerged as a region of special concern for the United States and for the U.S. Navy. Though the ancient empire of Persia officially changed its name to Iran in 1935, the body of water that marked its western boundary retained its former designation, and it was in the Persian Gulf that the post–Cold War U.S. Navy made its public debut.

The Persian Gulf is roughly twice the size of Lake Erie, and it washes the shores of eight countries: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. That, and the fact that it is the centerpiece of a region that possesses 80 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, made it one of the busiest waterways in the world by the 1980s. Every day dozens of tankers carrying millions of barrels of oil transited the length of the Gulf to pass into the Arabian Sea through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, heading for America, Europe, and especially Japan, which in the 1980s obtained nearly two-thirds of its oil from the Persian Gulf.

On April 18, 1988, in the last twilight days of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy provided a glimpse of the new template of naval warfare, and of America’s apparent willingness to act as a world policeman, when it fought the largest naval battle since World War II in what was known officially as Operation Praying Mantis.

On the evening of May 17, 1987, the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry–class frigate, was cruising in what was nearly the geographical center of the Persian Gulf, ninety miles northeast of Bahrain. Poking along at three knots, the Stark’s mission was vague at best. While it was supposed to demonstrate American interest and concern in a part of the world that supplied much of the world’s oil, it was also cruising through a war zone. For more than six years, ever since Iraq had invaded Iran in an attempt to expand its own tiny coastline at its neighbor’s expense, Iran and Iraq had been engaged in a vicious war that showed no sign of ending. By 1987 the war had settled into a bloody stalemate and had spilled over into the waters of the Gulf, where Iraqi warplanes attacked shipping headed for Iranian ports, and Iranian gunboats attacked vessels that traded with Iraq. Although no U.S. vessels had been targeted so far, the ships of several neutral countries were being assaulted by both sides. Just that week the United States had pledged itself to begin protecting oil tankers from Kuwait, but as of May 17 it had not yet begun active patrols, and the Stark’s role was essentially one of showing the flag.

The Stark was a relatively new ship, built less than five years before as part of a program to develop a “low-cost, no-frills warship.” At only 3,600 tons, it was no larger than the ABC cruisers that had heralded the “New Navy” back in 1883 and considerably smaller than Dewey’s Olympia. In theory a large number of such vessels would give the United States a greater worldwide presence than fewer larger (and therefore more expensive) warships. Because of the American concern with Soviet submarines, the Stark’s primary mission was antisubmarine warfare (ASW). It had a small landing deck and twin helicopter hangers aft, and its main battery consisted of a single seventy-six-millimeter (three-inch) rapid-fire gun amidships. It also had the ability to fire what the Navy called its standard missile (SM-1), which could be aimed at either surface or air targets and which had a range of some thirty miles. Most of the rest of the superstructure of the Stark was covered by an array of communications antenna and radar receivers: air search, surface search, and fire control systems. In conformance with its ASW mission, it also had a modern sonar system to detect and pursue Soviet submarines.

The Perry-class frigates had numerous critics, who derisively called them “Kmart ships,” noting that they had only one propeller, which made them both slower and less maneuverable than larger twin-screw warships. They were also relatively thin-skinned, having only five-eighths of an inch of aluminum alloy between the living spaces and the sea, and unlike Ericsson’s Monitor, they had almost no armor. When operating beyond the range of friendly air cover, they could be vulnerable to air attack. They were not defenseless, however. The Stark could fire off clouds of aluminized plastic confetti, known as chaff, to confuse the radar of inbound missiles. And atop the helicopter hanger at the stern was an odd-looking contraption: a radar dome shaped like a giant beehive with a bundle of six gun barrels poking out of it. It was a Phalanx close-in weapons system (the acronym was CIWS, but everyone pronounced it “C-WIZ”): a self-aiming, automated Gatling gun capable of throwing up a virtual wall of twenty-millimeter depleted-uranium rounds at the rate of three thousand per minute. Though useful only at short range, its purpose was to shoot down incoming missiles.

At a few minutes after 8:00 P.M. on that May 17, Lieutenant Basil Moncrief, who had the duty as tactical action officer (TAO) in the Stark’s combat information center (CIC), received a report from an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) airplane—essentially a flying radar station— that an Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter had departed Shaibah Military Airport in southern Iraq and was “feet wet” over the Gulf, flying southward toward the Stark’s position. By itself, the report did not set off any alarms. Ever since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war six years earlier, there had been a lot of air traffic over the Gulf, most of it Iraqi. Almost routinely, Iraqi fighters and attack planes flew southward down the center of the Gulf— which Americans had begun to call “Mirage Alley”—then turned east toward the coast of Iran to launch their missiles in the general direction of Iran, or at shipping that was headed for Iran, before streaking home again. Just that morning an Iraqi jet had fired missiles into a Cypriot tanker in an Iranian port. By itself, therefore, the information that an Iraqi Mirage jet was flying south down the Gulf was unremarkable.

The Stark’s air search radar picked up the Iraqi plane at two hundred miles; it was keeping to the western side of the Gulf, well out of Iranian air space, and it was closing on the American frigate. At about 9:00 the Stark’s captain, a forty-four-year-old, sandy-haired career officer named Glenn Brindel, asked Moncrief for an update. The plane was then about seventy miles out and still closing. The petty officer manning the radar system asked if he should generate a standard warning message, but Moncrief hesitated. “No,” he said. “Wait.” During the past few months the Stark had experienced a number of close fly-bys, and he suspected that this was simply one more. Five minutes later, with the Iraqi jet less than fifty miles out, it turned sharply toward the Stark. Moncrief alerted Brindel, who directed Moncrief to send out a message on the international air distress frequency demanding identification: “Unknown aircraft, this is U.S. Navy warship on your 078 for twelve miles. Request you identify yourself.”

Even as this message hit the airwaves, the Iraqi pilot fired an Exocet AM39 air-to-surface missile. Launched at two thousand feet, the missile dropped quickly to sea level and then began streaking toward the Stark, only eight feet above the surface, at five hundred miles an hour. Within seconds, the Iraqi pilot fired a second missile, then turned abruptly northward and headed for home. The SPS-49 radar on the Stark did not detect the separation of the Exocet from the Mirage. If it had, Brindel could have ordered the deployment of the chaff or CIWS systems. The first notice of approaching disaster came not from the sophisticated sensors but from a lookout on the bridge, who spotted the Exocet when it was only a mile away, which gave the ship about four seconds’ warning. A shout from the lookout led Brindel to order the Stark hard to starboard in order to unmask the CIWS system astern.

Too late. At 9:09 the first missile slammed into the Stark’s port side just below the bridge. The warhead did not detonate, but it tore a ten-by-fifteen-foot hole in the ship’s side, then disintegrated into a hundred pieces, the largest of which ripped through the crew’s quarters, the ship’s barber shop, and post office and lodged against the starboard side. The second missile struck thirty seconds later, and its warhead did explode, igniting fires that spread almost instantly through the crew’s quarters. Seven men were thrown into the sea by the impact. Resting in the crew’s quarters near where the first missile hit, Petty Officer Michael O’Keefe was thrown from his bunk onto the deck. Jumping to his feet, he dashed to the main hatch and pulled it open only to encounter a giant fireball. “That’s when I knew we were in real trouble,” he said later.

Brindel ordered counterflooding on the starboard side to avoid capsizing and to keep the huge hole on the ship’s port side above the waterline. The damage control teams performed heroically, fighting the fires all night, joined later by teams from the guided missile destroyers USS Wad-dell and USS Conyngham. The fires were so hot (eighteen hundred degrees) they melted the aluminum alloy of the ship’s superstructure; water sprayed onto the fires turned into superheated steam that scalded the firefighters. A shortage of oxygen canisters, which allowed firefighters to breathe amid the heavy smoke, also retarded the crew’s firefighting efforts. For several hours it was problematic whether they could keep the ship afloat. Not until the afternoon of the next day was it evident that the Stark would survive. The fire in the combat information center was not quenched until 5:00 P.M., nineteen hours after the attack. Assisted by a salvage tug, the Stark limped into Bahrain with thirty-seven dead on board.

In keeping with the traditions of the sea, Brindel lost his job. A Navy investigation concluded that he had “failed to provide combat oriented leadership,” and he was forced to resign. Many, both in and out of the Navy, acknowledged that the rules of engagement (ROE) under which Brindel had to operate had severely limited his options. Those rules authorized him to fight back “whenever hostile intent or a hostile act occurs.” But “hostile intent” is impossible to know, and due to the failure of the ship’s SPS-49 radar, it was not evident that a “hostile act” had occurred until four seconds before the missile struck, when the forward lookout shouted a warning. Brindel’s critics suggested that he should have put the chaff and CIWS systems into automatic mode, or at least challenged the approaching fighter sooner than he did. His defenders insisted that if he had shot down the Mirage before it launched the missiles, he would have been cashiered for being too quick on the trigger. Whatever the merits of either argument, it is the merciless law of the sea that a captain accept responsibility for his ship’s failure or success, and Brindel was no exception. Lieutenant Moncrief was also forced to resign.

The Iraqis explained away the incident as a matter of mistaken identity and pilot error, which it almost certainly was, for Iraq had nothing to gain by alienating the United States, which was supporting its war against Iran. If some Americans doubted the sincerity of Iraq’s apology, the Reagan administration accepted it because it wanted to maintain its pro-Iraqi stance. The disaster did provoke sharp questions from Congress and the press. The Senate voted ninety-one to five to delay the implementation of the American commitment to escort Kuwaiti tankers in the Gulf until the Reagan administration clarified its policy. In a rare criticism of his own party, Republican Senator Robert Dole of Kansas declared bluntly, “We need to rethink exactly what we are doing in the Persian Gulf.” More pointedly, the New York Times editorialized that “the Administration . . . had no business sending ships sailing into harm’s way without having thought [it] through.” And Newsweek chimed in with an article entitled “A Questionable Policy,” which asked, “What are the administration’s goals in the gulf?”

It was an important question, and over the next fourteen months it prompted a reevaluation of American foreign and defense policy. At the heart of the debate was a consideration of the readiness or willingness of the United States to accept the role of international peacekeeper in the Persian Gulf—or anywhere else, for that matter. The United States had played the role of peacekeeper before (President Truman had referred to the Korean War as a “police action”). But to some, American interests in the Persian Gulf were not clear, and many feared that the country was trying on the uniform of global policeman. Moreover, these considerations took place at a time when the first rumblings of an earthquake in the global balance of power were becoming evident. Within half a dozen years the Soviet Union—America’s rival for forty years—would begin to fall apart, leaving the United States as the sole remaining superpower on earth. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the willingness of the United States to take on the responsibilities of what amounted to a maritime constabulary force marked a shift not only in U.S. policy but also in America’s role in the world. It was, as one American sailor in the Persian Gulf declared, “a whole new ball game.”

The Persian Gulf became the focus of this policy reassessment because of two issues that, though technically unrelated, became entangled nonetheless, and drew the United States into the region with all the centripetal force of a whirlpool. One was America’s Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, and the other was oil.

The need for oil—the mother’s milk of modern industry—had led Japan to risk its empire in a war with the United States in 1941. In the United States, however, the availability of oil had never been a particular concern. Throughout the Second World War and into the early Cold War years, the United States had plenty of oil for its own use and even continued to export it abroad, selling it overseas as fast as it could be pumped out of the vast Spindletop oil fields in Texas. But in the winter of 1947–48 the expanding postwar economy—and the resulting spike in the domestic use of oil—led for the first time to shortages at home. The shortage was serious enough that for a while it seemed the United States might run out of heating oil just as winter set in. Newspapers recalled the coal strike of 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt had threatened to nationalize the mines to prevent families from freezing to death in their homes. In 1948 Truman was less draconian. He called for conservation, ordering the thermostats in government offices to be set back to sixty-eight degrees (as both Nixon and Carter would do during later energy scares), but he also released one million barrels of the U.S. Navy’s strategic oil reserves for domestic use. For the first time both the United States and the U.S. Navy confronted the reality of their dependence on oil.

That year also marked a turning point in the emerging relationship between the U.S. Navy and the countries bordering the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Even before the fuel crisis of 1948, the Navy had begun to buy oil from the Gulf region simply because it was cheaper there. Oil cost about $1.48 per barrel in the United States, but in the Persian Gulf it could be had for $1.05 a barrel from the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). The 1948 crisis increased U.S. Navy reliance on Persian Gulf oil, and Navy planners began to see the region as important to American interests. In consequence, they established Task Force 126 (U.S. Naval Forces, Persian Gulf), which initially consisted only of Navy oil tankers. Over time this force was augmented and renamed the Middle East Force, eventually becoming part of Central Command (CENTCOM) in 1983.

It was clear at once that operating in the Persian Gulf posed special problems for the U.S. Navy, both politically and operationally. Politically, the absence of American naval bases in the region required the United States to develop relationships with states that bordered the Gulf. Eventually the United States negotiated basing rights with the tiny sheikdom of Bahrain, taking over the former British base at Jufair, and tried repeatedly to gain similar rights in Saudi Arabia, though the Saudis proved to be reluctant partners at best.

Operationally, there were two problems. The first was the weather. When the United States sent its first task force into the Gulf in the summer of 1948, the officers and crew were entirely unprepared for the relentless heat. With daytime temperatures topping 120 degrees, it was too hot to eat in the galley, and the sailors took their trays topside to sit at tables on the fantail, where at least there was a little breeze; it was impossible to shower, as the water in the pipes was literally scalding; and even sleeping was difficult because the nighttime temperature in the berthing spaces sometimes topped 115 degrees.

The other operational problem was the peculiar geography of the Persian Gulf. It is so narrow, and large parts of it, especially on the eastern side, are so shallow, that it funnels all deep-draft ship traffic into a fairly narrow channel. Indeed, the geography of the Gulf region compelled the Navy’s “blue water” fleet to adjust to the requirements and limitations of littoral warfare. The Gulf was (and is) a particularly unsatisfactory place for aircraft carriers to operate. In order to provide air cover for U.S. Navy surface units operating in the Gulf, therefore, American carriers stationed themselves south of the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman—a location sailors immediately dubbed “Camel Station.”

Besides oil, the other factor in the American strategic equation in the early Cold War era was the constant, even obsessive, American concern about the Soviet Union. The overarching U.S. policy of containment, which required the United States to confront Soviet ambitions everywhere in the world, certainly included the Middle East, especially since that region’s volatile politics and proven oil reserves made it both vulnerable and desirable. After World War II, the United States sought to bolster the stability of the Gulf region by cultivating close relations with Saudi Arabia and by backing Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, in what amounted to a coup to overthrow Iran’s nationalist (and virulently anti-British) prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. In the early 1970s, in the wake of the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the British retreat from maintaining a military presence “east of Suez,” President Richard Nixon sought to formalize U.S. relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which he referred to as “the twin pillars” of stability in the Gulf region.

While American interest in the Persian Gulf was firmly grounded in the rivalry of the Cold War, other issues were percolating beneath the surface. Arabs had long resented America’s strong support for Israel, and during the 1970s anger at what some Arabs saw as American cultural imperialism contributed to a revival of Islamic fundamentalism. Unrest was particularly great in Iran because, even though he often proved resistant to American advice, the shah was nevertheless perceived as an American puppet. In addition, he squandered about a third of his country’s entire budget buying modern weaponry that was well beyond any realistic assessment of Iran’s defense needs. In early 1979 the country exploded in anger, and the shah and his wife were forced to flee. The government collapsed, and what eventually filled the vacuum was a regime grounded in Islamic religious law and dominated by the Shiite ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For the United States, the decisive event in this crisis was the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by student supporters of the new regime. For more than a year, some fifty-two Americans, including eight Marines, were held as hostages in Tehran. Televised images of blindfolded American hostages and their gleeful, unrepentant captors infuriated the American public.

President Jimmy Carter used a State of the Union address to warn the Soviet Union (which sent troops into Afghanistan that same year) not to try to take advantage of the chaos in Iran. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he warned, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States.” This statement, quickly labeled the Carter Doctrine, marked a revival of American commitment to international involvement that had waned significantly in the wake of the nation’s unhappy experience in Vietnam. More significantly, it was a policy that, under Carter’s successors, would go a long way toward establishing the United States as a kind of regional policeman.

For Iraq, the 1979 revolution in Iran was both bad news and good news. Iraq was a secular state with a Shiite Muslim majority, but its government was dominated by Sunni Muslims. The elevation of a Shiite ayatollah in Tehran was therefore of considerable concern, especially if it encouraged Iraqi Shiites to look to Tehran rather than to Baghdad for leadership and inspiration. On the other hand, the revolution had separated Iran from its rich and powerful American patron and dramatically weakened its military forces, which were in a shambles after being purged of those who were not loyal to the new regime. In such circumstances, the new president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, believed he saw an opportunity.

Since its creation as a British mandate after World War I, Iraq’s most significant geographical deficiency was that except for a tiny toehold on the northern end of the Persian Gulf, it was virtually landlocked. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers merged to flow into the Gulf in what was called the Shatt al-Arab (the Arab River), but Iraq had sovereignty over only the western bank of that river, for the Iran-Iraq boundary ran down the center of the ship channel. For years Iraq had made no secret of its ambition to obtain a real coastline, and with the collapse of the shah and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein believed that his moment had come. In September 1980, with America in the throes of anti-Iranian hysteria due to the ongoing hostage crisis, he launched a ground invasion of Iran.

Instead of the easy victory that almost everyone expected, the Iraqi army ran into fanatical resistance. The war lasted through the fall and winter, and then into the hot Gulf summer. And still it continued: into a second year, then a third, and a fourth. By the mid-1980s it had become one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century, with hundreds of thousands killed and no end in sight. Desperate to achieve a breakthrough, both sides adopted irregular tactics. The clerics who ruled Iran urged their poorly supplied soldiers to carry out human-wave attacks that, however costly, nevertheless won them some tactical victories. For his part, in addition to ordering Scud missile attacks on Tehran, Saddam Hussein authorized the use of poison gas on the battlefield as well as at home, where his regime was threatened by a Kurdish uprising.

Iraq began the naval war in the Persian Gulf barely two weeks into the fighting when, on October 7, 1980, it declared the waters off Iran a “prohibited war zone” and announced that any vessel inside that zone was subject to destruction—not just Iranian vessels but those of any nationality that visited an Iranian port. This was similar to Imperial Germany’s declaration of a “war zone” around the British Isles in 1914, but while Germany had relied on submarines to enforce its declaration, Iraq relied on the airplane. As the war began to turn against Iraq, Iraqi air attacks on Gulf shipping escalated and focused particularly on tankers in order to deprive Iran of the money it needed to continue the war. The goal was to frighten neutral shipping away from Iranian ports, and during 1982, Iraqi Mirage fighters conducted twenty-one attacks on tankers, most of them neutrals, in the Persian Gulf.

Iran countered with the declaration that it would “not allow any merchant ship to carry cargo to Iraqi ports.” There was an obvious threat in the announcement that “the Iranian government will not take responsibility for those vessels which do not pay consideration to this notice.”16 But despite that threat, the Iranians made no effort to interfere with maritime traffic in the Gulf during the first three years of the war. In part this was because it had its hands full fending off the Iraqi army and in part because it would have been a waste of resources since Iraq exported most of its oil overland by pipeline and was therefore less dependent on tanker traffic.

But in 1984, a year during which Iraqi planes made fifty-three attacks on neutral tankers in the Gulf, Iran at last retaliated. It had become clear that in addition to using the oil pipeline into Syria and Turkey, Iraq also relied on the tankers of both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to export its oil. More importantly, both of those countries acted as conduits to supply Iraq with war materials from abroad. The Saudis accepted shipments of tanks, artillery, and other war materials at its Red Sea port of Jidda, then shipped the material by truck through Kuwait to Iraq. If not quite Iraqi allies, neither country was genuinely “neutral.” That year, therefore, Iran began attacking the tankers of Saudi Arabia and especially Kuwait using small high-speed attack boats armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a particularly low-tech threat in an increasingly high-tech war.

Operation Praying Mantis II

An Iranian command and control platform is set afire after being shelled by four US Navy destroyers. The shelling is a response to a recent Iranian missile attack on a reflagged Kuwaiti super tanker.

This conflict had little direct connection to the Cold War, which was still America’s dominant concern, but historically the United States had always been a champion of freedom of the seas. Consequently, at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, President Carter had declared, “Freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf is of primary importance to the whole international community. It is imperative that there be no infringement of that freedom of passage of ships to and from the Persian Gulf region.” Similarly, Carter’s secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, declared to the United Nations that “the freedom of navigation to and from the Persian Gulf . . . must not be infringed upon in any way.” But despite these statements, the United States directed its principal efforts at halting Iranian seaborne attacks and ignored Iraq’s airstrikes on Iranian shipping.

In January 1981 Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House, and in a deliberate slap at the departing president, Iran released the American hostages the same day. Like his predecessors, Reagan focused most of his foreign policy attention on the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, which the new president called an “evil empire.” Indeed, efforts by the Reagan administration to strengthen the U.S. military—including a plan to increase the U.S. Navy to six hundred ships—were directed exclusively at the Soviets. Reagan’s secretary of defense, Casper Weinberger, was especially focused on the Soviet issue; one administration insider noted that Weinberger’s “whole world was Moscow.” Despite such single-minded focus, other issues intruded. In 1982 the United States sent eight hundred Marines into Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force, and in October of the following year 241 of them died when a terrorist drove a truck bomb into their barracks. In 1986, the United States executed an air raid against Libya in retaliation for a series of terrorist acts against Americans and others. That same year the number of attacks on tankers in the Gulf jumped to 111, and Reagan sounded very much like his predecessor in announcing that “the United States has a vital interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the gulf and stability in the region generally.”

In the midst of this sudden acceleration in the number of attacks, Kuwait sought protection for its tanker fleet by appealing first to the Gulf Cooperation Council and soon thereafter to the United States. At first the Reagan administration resisted entanglement in a lengthy and bloody war in the Persian Gulf, especially after the loss of the Marines in Lebanon. The United States was naturally and genuinely concerned by the menace to trade, but accepting responsibility for the security of the Gulf seemed to many to be a slippery slope and a distraction from the country’s focus on countering Soviet ambitions. Then the State Department learned that Kuwait had also appealed to the Soviet Union for help and that the Soviets were giving it serious consideration. In fact, the Soviets had already chartered three Kuwaiti tankers and re-flagged them as Soviet vessels. To the Reagan administration, the only scenario worse than putting U.S. forces in the middle of a shooting war halfway around the world was one that allowed the Soviet Union to become the patron of the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf. “Once we knew that the Kuwaitis were negotiating with the Soviets,” an American official admitted, “it sped up the process tremendously and we said ‘Let’s do it all!’” As a result, the United States advised the Kuwaiti government in March 1987 that it would accept responsibility for escorting Kuwaiti tankers in and out of the Persian Gulf.

To justify an American escort, the first step was to reflag the Kuwaiti tankers as American vessels. Only after the Reagan administration had committed itself did someone think to ask the Coast Guard about the legal ramifications of such a move. As the Coast Guard representative began to explain the rules at a meeting in the White House, Weinberger became visibly agitated, finally bursting out: “Are you telling me we can’t do this?” It could, in fact, be done, but it would require a lot of work. The ships would have to be refitted to meet U.S. standards, American skippers had to be found, and it all had to be accepted by the Kuwaitis. “We had to scurry around and get the Kuwaitis to agree,” recalled Admiral William J. Crowe Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “and they were very reluctant. . . . They were grumbling all the way.”

Nor was that the only complication. Revelations that the Reagan administration had been engaged in secretly (and illegally) selling arms to Iran in order to obtain funds that it funneled into Central America to support a revolution there not only triggered a political firestorm in the United States but dramatically weakened the administration’s Gulf policy as well, since it was at least possible to argue that some of the weapons Iran was using to attack neutral shipping had been provided by the United States. Indeed, the United States continued to deliver missiles clandestinely to Iran as late as October 1986.

Then on May 17, 1987, an Iraqi fighter jet put two Exocet missiles into the USS Stark, and an angry Congress voted to put the escort mission on hold. The nation found itself entangled in a policy web so complex that even experts had difficulty sorting it out. As policy makers wrestled with the alternatives, there seemed to be three options: (1) the United States could back away from its emerging role as the cop on the beat and pull its naval assets out of the Gulf, conceding the field to the Soviets; (2) it could invite other nations to join it in establishing a multinational maritime force to protect trade; or (3) it could aggressively reinforce its own position in the Gulf and attempt to do the job alone. The Reagan administration considered the first option completely unacceptable. The United States might have opted for a multinational approach if it had been able to convince other nations to participate, but America’s NATO partners did not see Gulf security as a NATO issue despite the fact that in 1986 Western European countries obtained 46 percent of their oil from the Gulf. In the end, therefore, the United States settled on option three.

The Reagan administration determined to proceed with the convoy program partly because any alternative suggested a kind of retreat and partly because the habit of standing up to the Soviets had become irresistible. It is unlikely that those who contributed to the decision had any intention of carving out a new foreign policy doctrine for the nation; Caspar Weinberger stated bluntly that “our ships are not there as referees.” That same week, however, a Newsweek article observed that the new challenge for the United States was “how to act as a neutral gendarme.” In any event, two days after the Stark disaster, Reagan declared, “We remain deeply committed to supporting the self-defense of our friends in the gulf and to insuring the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.”

To do that, of course, the United States would have to increase its naval presence dramatically and modify the rules of engagement to allow captains more leeway to defend their commands. Within days the United States sent additional surface forces into the Persian Gulf, and the carrier Constellation moved into Camel Station in the northern Arabian Sea. Altogether, the United States committed thirty warships to the operation, with more to follow. In addition, although the rules of engagement remained officially unchanged, Admiral Crowe made a visit to the Gulf to encourage commanders to interpret “hostile intent” more broadly. In particular, he told them that they did not have to be shot at first before they acted in self-defense. “If you are locked on, and you think you are under threat, you do what you need to do to protect your ship.” That included shooting first. “If you make a mistake,” he told them, “I’ll support you.”

More than a few in Congress and in uniform worried about the new policy. By acting to protect Kuwaiti tankers trading with Iraq, the United States appeared to be openly choosing sides in the war. Others wondered if by acting unilaterally, the United States was not assuming too high a profile. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, asked “if an international force would have been more appropriate,” and Admiral Wesley McDonald in the semiofficial U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings expressed a concern about America becoming the “policeman of the world.” Finally, of course, the decision would put U.S. ships and sailors in peril. The New York Times quoted one Iranian firebrand who declared, “Those who think that by flying the U.S. flag they can help the aggressor, are making a mistake and should know that we will set those flags on fire.” In spite of all these concerns, however, the U.S. Navy prepared to fulfill the mission it was assigned: to escort Kuwaiti tankers through the war zone of the Persian Gulf in what was officially code-named Operation Earnest Will.

The first convoy of Earnest Will got under way on July 22, 1987, in the middle of the searing Gulf summer. The escort was a strong one, consisting of three U.S. Navy warships: the guided missile cruiser Fox, the destroyer Kidd, and the frigate Crommelin (a sister ship of the Stark), under the overall command of Captain Dave Yonkers. Their assignment was to escort two vessels, the 400,000-ton supertanker Bridgeton (formerly the Al Rekkah) and the much smaller Gas Prince, a liquid petroleum gas transport ship, from the Gulf of Oman through the Strait of Hormuz to the Al Ahmadi oil terminal near Kuwait City at the head of the Persian Gulf, a two-day journey. The Bridgeton’s new American captain, Frank Seitz, assured his Kuwaiti crew that they had nothing to fear on the trip through the Gulf because they would be under the protection of the U.S. Navy, and when the American flag broke at the Bridgeton’s masthead, the crew offered a round of applause.

Yonkers had originally planned to take the convoy through the Strait at night. It was there, where the main ship channel was only twelve miles from Iranian territory, that the danger would be greatest. Yonkers knew that the Iranians had Chinese-made Silkworm missile batteries on the north side of the strait, and with their thousand-pound warheads, not only could those missiles cripple a tanker, they could very likely sink his warships. But Navy officials wanted to minimize the possibility of another error in identification such as the one that had nearly doomed the Stark and directed Yonkers to make the run in daylight. Consequently, the convoy got under way at 9:30 in the morning, with the temperature already topping a hundred degrees. Over the ship’s loudspeaker, Captain Bill Mathis of the Fox set the tone: “Remember—this is the real thing—this is not a drill. We are going to be ready—we will make sure that these ships get to Kuwait on time and unharmed.”

All three U.S. warships set Condition One Alpha, in which two-thirds of the crew remained at battle stations, and they stayed in that condition throughout the seven-hour transit through the Strait. The Fox led, with the two tankers next in line, and the small frigate Crommelin in the rear. The destroyer Kidd took the flank, alternating from one side to the other depending on where the danger seemed greatest. The crew was on high alert, the men in the air-conditioned CIC bent low over their radar repeaters, and the lookouts topside in the baking sun were more intent than usual as they searched the Iranian shoreline with their binoculars for any sign of approaching small craft. On the escorts, the chaff and Phalanx systems were set in automatic mode; in the air, AWACS planes kept the escorts apprised of air activity over the Gulf; at Camel Station in the Gulf of Oman, A-6 attack planes and F/A-18 fighters sat in launch positions on the deck of the Constellation. As the convoy passed into the Strait of Hormuz the warships detected Iranian missile-control radar tracking them. A petty officer on the Fox confided to an onboard journalist: “Everybody has the feeling that something is going to happen.”

But it didn’t. Despite all the threats made by the Iranians that they would not tolerate American interference in the Gulf War, the convoy passed through the strait not only unscathed but largely ignored. Once into the southern Gulf, two Iranian F-4 aircraft approached the convoy at 5,000 feet, but when warned off by the Kidd, they disengaged and departed the area. With a straight run to the oil-loading pier off Kuwait City, it seemed that the United States had successfully called Iran’s bluff. Then on July 24, with the convoy just 120 miles from its destination, Captain Seitz, on the Bridgeton, felt a sudden jarring blow. He recalled later, “It felt like a 500-ton hammer hit us up forward.” A shock wave rippled down the twelve-hundred-foot length of the giant ship, and when it reached the bridge near the stern, it snapped the guy wires on the ship’s radar mast and nearly knocked Seitz off his feet. The Bridgeton had struck a Soviet-made M-08 mine, an old-fashioned contact mine: a bottom-moored sphere with projecting horns not significantly different from the mines that the Spanish had dumped in Manila Bay in the hope of deterring Dewey. Although it was a particularly low-tech weapon in this new age of electronic warfare, it had blown a thirty-by-fifteen-foot hole in the forward hull of the Bridgeton.

Seitz ordered all stop, but a 400,000-ton tanker steaming at sixteen knots cannot stop in a hurry. Even ordering full astern had a minimal effect in halting the ship’s inertia. As far as Seitz knew, there were more mines ahead, but if so, there was nothing he could do about it as the Bridgeton continued forward for another three miles before it slowed, finally, to a halt. Seitz ordered an inspection of the damage. The giant hole in the forward hull was less critical than it first appeared. Because the tanker’s storage tanks were compartmented, the structural damage was limited to one section, and the Bridgeton was in no danger of sinking. Moreover, because it was traveling north, it was unburdened—that is, empty—though in fact crude oil is remarkably stable, and in most attacks on tankers the cargo failed to ignite. Seitz recalled later, “After about five minutes, we knew the ship was in no real danger.” After hearing Seitz’s report, Yonkers decided to continue the voyage, though at reduced speed.

It was now evident, however, that in addition to Iranian speedboats, Silkworm missiles, and Iraqi fighter jets, there was a new peril in the Persian Gulf. Mines—silent and impersonal—could be lurking anywhere in its narrow, crowded confines. The mine threat caught the United States by surprise. It was not that Americans had failed to imagine it; instead policy makers had doubted Iran’s willingness to employ mines, expecting (actually hoping) that the large U.S. naval presence would deter Iran’s rulers from escalating the naval conflict. As a result, the U.S. Navy was simply unprepared for mine warfare, and its impressive fleet seemed suddenly very vulnerable. The Bridgeton had demonstrated that it could survive contact with a mine, but the same explosion that tore a thirty-by-fifteen-foot hole in the bottom of the 400,000-ton Bridgeton would very likely be fatal to the 3,600-ton Crommelin or even the 6,500-ton Fox.

Quickly appraising the new circumstances, and aware that where there was one such mine there were almost certainly others, Seitz recommended to Yonkers that each of the escorts “get in behind the Bridgeton.” Yonkers agreed, and in that moment the protectors suddenly became the protected. As the convoy proceeded north at a reduced speed of eight knots with the American escorts trailing the giant Bridgeton like so many ducklings, Seitz took a good deal of ribbing from his crew for his earlier assurance that the voyage would be a safe one because they were being escorted by the U.S. Navy.

The United States took steps to dramatically improve its minesweeping capability. Giant Air Force C-5 transport planes flew eight RH-53D Sea Stallion minesweeping helicopters from the United States to the tiny island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, and from there the helicopters flew under their own power to the deck of the helicopter carrier Guadalcanal. In addition, the United States anchored two enormous barges (named Hercules and Winbrown) in the Gulf and used them as immobile helicopter carriers. Leased from the Houston, Texas, firm of Brown & Root, these heavy-lift barges essentially fulfilled the role that many felt should have been assumed by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both of which refused to allow the United States to use its bases for minesweeping helicopters. Later, the United States added half a dozen old minesweepers built in the 1950s and called into service from the reserve fleet.

Eventually these Gulf convoys became more or less routine. Two or three American destroyers or frigates would rendezvous with between two and four tankers at one end or the other of the Persian Gulf and escort them through the combat zone. During the passage it was not uncommon for other ships of any nationality to join the convoy, though they did so without authorization, shouldering their way into the formation and causing headaches for the convoy commander. One convoy ended up with a total of twenty-one ships, most of which were uninvited hangers-on. As one convoy commander recalled, they barged into the formation “like Mama Cass at an all-you-can-eat buffet . . . there was nothing we could do about it.”

Eventually U.S. naval forces conducted a total of 136 convoys in the Persian Gulf, escorting 270 ships through the war zone. Of those, 188 (70 percent) were reflagged Kuwaiti tankers. In the end, only the unlucky Bridgeton suffered any damage. America’s debut as the policeman of the Persian Gulf in Operation Earnest Will was a success. In a larger sense, however, what was important in all this was the nation’s initial decision to accept responsibility for the control and direction of Gulf traffic. The convoys themselves, as Michael Palmer has pointed out, were largely symbolic. What was historically significant was America’s willingness, and the Navy’s ability, to turn the Persian Gulf into a kind of American lake.

To this point, American involvement in the Iran-Iraq War was peripheral, but it nevertheless caused the Iranians serious concern, for if it chose to do so, the U.S. Navy could easily dominate the naval war. Iran did have a substantial surface navy: it was essentially the navy that the Khomeini regime had inherited from the shah, much of it supplied by Britain and the United States.* But the Iranian navy, like the Iranian army, had suffered greatly in the wake of the 1979 revolution, and in any case it could not come close to matching up to the U.S. Navy. Whenever Iranian warships ventured out of port, the U.S. Navy made it clear that they were to keep their distance. “We would just illuminate them with our fire control radar,” one officer recalled, “and that would be enough to keep them outside the range of our missiles.”

Iran’s most sophisticated antiship weapon was the Chinese-made Silk-worm missile, which had a range of eighty miles. But using a Silkworm against tankers turned out to be like shooting elephants with a .22 rifle. They could punch a hole in a tanker, but they seldom proved fatal or even particularly serious. Moreover, Silkworm missiles were expensive. As defense analyst Norman Friedman noted at the time, “It cost less to repair a tanker than to buy another anti-ship missile on the international market.” In short, firing Silkworm missiles at tankers was a losing proposition.

A more unpredictable element of Iran’s naval capability was the seagoing arm of what was called the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (or just the Guard), a semiautonomous cadre of religious fanatics who were not only self-appointed guardians of Iran’s internal morals and religious purity but also virtual free agents in the war with Iraq. The Guard’s “navy” consisted of a score or so of small rubber Zodiac boats armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. Just as the Iranians embraced low-technology warfare on land—launching human-wave attacks against the Iraqi army—so, too, did the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps adopt a low-technology naval effort in the Gulf. These dedicated fanatics put to sea in vessels so tiny they could hide behind navigational buoys; even in the open sea they didn’t show up on radar. The notion of attacking a 400,000-ton tanker in a rubber boat may have looked like a mosquito assaulting a rhinoceros, but these vessels could still do damage. Their usual procedure was to approach a tanker and politely ask its nationality and port of embarkation. Receiving the information, they would then leave, only to return at night and shoot up the bridge and living quarters with small-arms fire. They couldn’t sink ships, but they could kill people, and their presence created anxiety for U.S. warship commanders. “A lot of the time there’d be small boats, whether they were smuggling, fishermen, or whatever,” one U.S. officer recalled. “They’d come by and we’d man the .50-caliber and 25 mm guns. . . . It was very unsettling. There’s a war going on with people shooting and killing each other on land and air and sea. We’re not an active belligerent in that war, but at the same time there are commercial airliners, merchant shipping, fishermen, and others, and it was stressful to distinguish among all these. It was very nerve wracking.”

But Iran’s most dangerous low-technology weapon was mines. Iran turned to mine warfare because it simply lacked the assets to fight a traditional naval war against the U.S. Navy. Just as the Confederacy turned to ironclads in 1862 and Germany to submarines in 1914, so in 1987 did Iran seek an alternative to the conventional weapons of naval warfare. Cheap and easy to put in place, mines caused the U.S. Navy special problems in the confined and crowded waters of the Persian Gulf because they did not distinguish among targets and were difficult to remove and destroy.

From the moment of impact, the Americans had assumed that the mine that damaged the Bridgeton had been laid by Iranian forces. Iran’s government made no secret of its determination to target the shipping of both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Iranians contended that both countries, though officially neutral, were effectively supporting Iraq in what was, after all, an unprovoked war of aggression. As far as Iran was concerned, that made Saudi and Kuwaiti vessels fair game, and if the United States chose to put itself in harm’s way by escorting them through a war zone, the United States, too, was fair game, though Iran was reluctant to challenge the United States directly. For that reason, Iran did not publicly claim credit for damaging the Bridgeton, instead attributing the incident to “invisible hands.” Nevertheless, the location of the mine, only eighteen miles from Iranian-controlled Farsi Island, was suspicious, and most Americans assumed that Iran was the culprit. Still, it was hard to prove who was responsible for sowing any particular mine, and to hold Iran accountable, it would be necessary to catch them in the act.

Americans found the smoking gun in September. As one example of an emerging tendency toward interservice cooperation (or jointness), Admiral Crowe arranged for a few U.S. Navy frigates in the Gulf to carry U.S. Army Special Forces MH-6 helicopters, which fit easily into the hangers that had been designed for the Navy’s ASW helicopters. Despite initial resistance by Navy personnel to the whole idea of hosting Army Rangers on Navy ships, the small, two-seater Army helicopters soon proved their value. What made them especially desirable was that they were remarkably quiet and were equipped with the latest in night-vision technology. Because they flew only at night, the Navy crews called them “Sea Bats.” The pilots, Army Special Forces warrant officers, stayed aboard the ships during the day in quarters that the Navy men quickly labeled the “Bat Cave” and ventured out at night when the Iranians believed they were protected by the veil of darkness. On the night of September 21, two of these small but lethal helicopters from the USS Jarrett spotted a vessel in a ship channel northeast of Bahrain. Through their night-vision goggles, they could clearly see sailors on the fantail dropping mines over the side.

Prior to their deployment to the Gulf, the Army pilots had been briefed personally by Admiral Crowe, himself a former commander of the Middle East Forces, who had emphasized that laying mines was “a hostile act” and told them that if they observed any vessel so engaged, they could open fire without warning. Consequently, the Sea Bats immediately swooped down and laced the stern of the vessel with their 7.62-millimeter Gatling guns. The crew members threw themselves to the deck, but when the helicopters flew past, they resumed dropping mines in the water. The Army helicopters came around for another run, and this time they fired 3.75-inch rocket pods filled with fléchette rounds—hundreds of tiny nails. The ship’s crew jumped over the side, and the vessel caught fire. The next morning a Navy SEAL team boarded the abandoned vessel, which proved to be the Iranian transport vessel Iran Ajr, and found ten mines still on board along with their fuses and timers.

Dead and living Iranians were plucked from the water nearby and taken aboard the U.S. command ship LaSalle, a converted transport dock that was serving as the flagship of the Commander Middle East Force. The dead were stored rather awkwardly in the ship’s freezer, those who needed hospital attention were flown to the Guadalcanal, and the rest were bound with plastic handcuffs and detained aboard the LaSalle. Their legal status was a bit murky. “We’re not at war,” a U.S. Defense Department spokesman declared, “so they really couldn’t be called prisoners. For now they’re being called detainees.” It was a new term for a new kind of conflict, and it would not be the last time the United States would find occasion to use it.

The Sea Bats soon made nighttime mine laying a dangerous business for the Iranians. On October 8 a night-flying MH-6 helicopter sank an Iranian Boghammer gunboat and damaged two other craft. Iran protested these attacks and called for a mutual withdrawal of forces from the Gulf. Instead, the United States warned Iran that continued mine laying would provoke even harsher responses. In a press interview, Secretary of the Navy James Webb declared, “There comes a time when a different sort of reaction could be necessary in order to make it clear what our objectives are.”

With the night-flying Sea Bats interrupting their mine-laying efforts, and Sea Stallions sweeping the mines ahead of the convoys, the Iranians tried a new tactic. Their reconquest of the Faw Peninsula, just east of the Shatt-al-Arab, put them within missile range of Kuwait, and on October 15, 1987, they fired a Silkworm missile at a Liberian-registered tanker near the Al Ahmadi oil terminal. The next day they fired another into the bridge of the reflagged supertanker Sea Isle City. Technically, because the oil terminal was in Kuwaiti waters, the Sea Isle City was no longer under American protection, but because it had been previously reflagged as an American vessel, the Reagan administration decided that some kind of retaliation was needed. Despite the administration’s public disdain for the kind of incremental escalation that had drawn the United States into Vietnam, Reagan sought a measured response. The key word in the administration was “proportionality.” What would constitute a proportional response for a missile attack on the Sea Isle City?

Rather than sink an Iranian warship, which some in the administration feared would provoke a dangerous escalation, administration planners decided instead to target an Iranian oil platform. The justification for this was that the Iranians used these platforms to monitor maritime trade in the Gulf and to conduct surveillance of U.S. warships. The particular platform selected was the Rashadat platform in the southern Gulf, from which the Iranians had fired (though unsuccessfully) at a U.S. helicopter the year before.

To ensure overwhelming firepower superiority, the United States assigned no fewer than six warships to the mission: one cruiser, four destroyers, and the small frigate Thach, named in honor of Jimmy Thach, who had commanded VF-3 in the Battle of Midway. Their orders were to steam up to the Rashadat platform, warn the Iranians to evacuate, and then destroy it with gunfire. To ensure that the rest of the world (including the American public) witnessed this expression of American displeasure, a film crew also came on board with orders to photograph the entire operation.

The attack took place on October 19, 1987. One of the two platforms caught fire almost immediately, but the other proved remarkably resilient; it was like trying to destroy a spiderweb with rifle fire. After an hour and a half, although the U.S. ships had fired more than a thousand rounds of high-explosive ordnance into its skeleton, the second platform stubbornly refused to collapse. Finally, the Thach sent an ordnance disposal team over to it; the team planted munitions and returned. When the ordnance was detonated, “the platform disappeared.”

The purpose of the raid was to make a clear statement not only to the Iranian government but also to the international community. The commanding officer of the Thach recalled, “The real payoff . . . was the film of the U.S. ships firing as a demonstration of U.S. power and resolve, not the actual destruction of an oil platform.” Without a doubt, it got the Iranians’ attention. The Iranian ambassador to the United Nations wailed that the United States “has opened an all-out war against my country.” But there was concern within the U.S. Navy, too. A relatively large U.S. naval squadron had expended more than a thousand rounds of high explosive and fragmentation shells to cripple an oil platform. A cartoon that was reprinted in the Navy Times depicted a Navy gunner reporting to his superiors: “That’s ONE THOUSAND high-explosive five inch rounds fired at close range, target sort of destroyed, sir!” To which the officer replied: “Dam’ fine shooting, gunner. Good thing that oil platform wasn’t moving!” And another officer added: “Or firing back!” One critic calculated the cost of a thousand shells and concluded that the operation had cost the United States more than it had the Iranians.

Operation Praying Mantis III

The U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Wainwright (CG-28) underway.

In February 1988 U.S. Naval forces in the Gulf got a new commander. He was Rear Admiral Anthony “Tony” Less, a fifty-year-old, blond, blue-eyed naval aviator with more than six thousand flight hours under his belt, including several combat tours in Vietnam and a stint as flight leader of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron. He had also commanded a carrier battle group. Now in his new job he would wear two hats: he was commander of the Middle East Force, but he was also commander of the Joint Task Force Middle East. Reflecting a new concern for effective inter-service cooperation, the United States for the first time would have one person who was responsible for all military operations in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf. Before he left Washington, Less met personally with Admiral Crowe, who emphasized to him the importance of effective joint operations. It was clear that, in Crowe’s view at least, success in the complex environment of the Persian Gulf meant that the U.S. Navy had to act in close coordination with the other services.

And indeed, the Gulf was a complex environment that winter. With Iran in control of the Faw Peninsula, Saddam Hussein began to fear that he might actually lose the war he had started. He therefore ordered a renewal of the airstrikes against tankers in the Gulf. To prevent another Stark disaster, U.S. and Iraqi officials worked out a series of procedures, but Iraqi pilots did not always observe the protocols. “Those Iraqi cowboys in F-4s just turned, closed their eyes, and fired,” one officer recalled. “Then they turned north to go home.” In any given watch period it was more than likely that at least one Iraqi jet would fly through Gulf airspace en route to targets off Iran. “Because of the AWACS, we would know as soon as they lifted off,” recalled Lieutenant James Smith, the weapons officer on the Thach, whom everyone called “Red” because of his hair. “We were really prepared because nobody wanted a repeat of the Stark event. Our air controllers used certain code words to talk to these aircraft as they were inbound. If we asked them to adjust their course, they did.” In spite of these protocols, however, several times in early 1988 Iraqi planes flew dangerously close to U.S. Navy ships. The closest call took place on February 12 when an Iraqi jet actually fired two missiles at the American destroyer Chandler but missed.

Despite the renewed threat from the air, it was the mine threat that provoked the next crisis. On April 14 the Samuel B. Roberts, a sister ship of the unlucky Stark, was heading southward. As always, AWACS planes as well as the Roberts’s own air search radar kept a wary electronic eye on the air traffic, while topside lookouts scanned the sea with binoculars for Iranian speedboats or mines. No new mines had been discovered for a week, however, and when a few floating objects off the bow caught the lookouts’ attention, at least one of them thought they might be sheep carcasses. In addition to tankers, other vessels routinely plied the shipping lanes, including giant Australian cargo ships that carried thousands of live sheep. Whenever one or two of the sheep died, as inevitably happened, they were tossed unceremoniously over the side. American sailors had gotten used to seeing their bloated carcasses float past with the legs sticking up out of the water. But a second look showed that these were no sheep carcasses—they were the real thing. Quickly the lookouts reported the sighting to the bridge. The skipper of the Samuel B. Roberts, Paul Rinn, ordered all stop. Finding himself in the middle of a new minefield, Rinn decided to reverse engines and back out slowly the way he had come. Relatively rough seas made this difficult, and the Roberts was suddenly rocked by a huge underwater explosion directly beneath the engine room that lifted the ship’s stern completely out of the water.

The blast opened a twenty-five-foot hole in the bottom of the Roberts, jarred the ship’s two gas turbine engines off their mounting blocks, bent the main shaft, and ignited a fire that fed on the spilled fuel oil and started spreading through the ship. But as on the Stark, heroic damage control saved the ship. Indeed, lessons learned from the Stark disaster meant that the Roberts’s damage control teams were better supplied with oxygen masks and canisters for firefighting. The crew showed remarkable inventiveness. The mine had nearly broken the Roberts in half, and to prevent the ship from literally breaking apart, the crew used wire cables to effectively tie it back together.50 Eventually the Roberts made it into port using its auxiliary engines.

Unlike the Stark disaster, the mining of the Roberts did not produce banner headlines in the United States. One reason was that on the same day the Roberts hit the mine, the Soviet Union, after a decade of futility, signed an agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, an event that pushed the Roberts disaster off the front page. In addition, and rather remarkably, no Americans had died on the Roberts, though ten were wounded, including seven who had to be treated for second-degree burns. Still, the event was a turning point. A search of the area afterward led to the discovery of several more mines. U.S. teams secured them and flew photographers from the press out to take pictures before the mines were destroyed. These images proved beyond any doubt that the mines were Iranian in origin.

What no one in the American camp knew at the time was that although the mines were indeed Iranian, they had been sown by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and almost immediately afterward the regular Iranian navy had put to sea in an effort to sweep them up, thus demonstrating the wide gulf between the goals of the Guard fanatics and Iran’s more pragmatic government leaders who sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the American superpower. But U.S. policy makers either failed to make the distinction or were unsure how to respond to challenges from an enemy operating outside government sanction. If Iranians had laid the mines, then Iran must pay the consequences.

At a meeting held on Friday afternoon, April 15, the day after the Roberts was damaged, the President ordered his Department of Defense team to compile a list of possible targets, then he left for Camp David for the weekend. While he was gone, Defense Department personnel put together a plan. Crowe, the only uniformed member of the team, wanted to sink a ship. “My general theory was that if we were going to take any retaliatory measures at all, we should destroy targets that would reduce the Iranians’ ability to harm us.” “I pushed hard,” he wrote later, “for hitting a warship.” In particular, Crowe wanted to sink the Iranian frigate Sabalan, whose captain had built a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness and was known throughout the Gulf as “Captain Nasty.” His modus operandi was to stop a tanker or cargo vessel, query its captain and crew, then shoot up the bridge and living spaces. Afterward he would call out “Have a nice day!” before steaming off. Frank Carlucci, the new secretary of defense, “kind of liked the idea” of hitting a warship, but almost everyone else in the room was opposed, fearing that such an act would escalate the conflict; they argued instead that the United States should target another oil platform.

In the end, Reagan opted for a compromise: U.S. Navy forces would strike at several Iranian oil platforms—larger and more important platforms known as gas and oil separation platforms (GOSPs). But, the president said, if the Iranian navy ventured out in an attempt to defend them, the Navy “could engage and sink them.” Crowe interpreted this to mean that if the Sabalan came out of port, the U.S. Navy could send it to the bottom. This time Reagan made a special effort to inform congressional leaders of the plan. Robert Dole of Kansas reported to his colleagues that “the President . . . intends to keep us fully informed and involved as this action evolves,” and Lee Hamilton declared, “I do not see a renewed debate on Persian Gulf policy.” Having lined up the political support and selected the targets, Reagan gave the “go” order on April 16 to execute what was code-named Operation Praying Mantis.

On the receiving end of that order, Tony Less organized his forces into three strike teams called surface action groups, or SAGs, and assigned each of them a specific target. SAG Bravo was to destroy the Sassan platform and SAG Charlie the Sirri platform, and SAG Delta was to be ready to intercept any attempt by the Iranians to interfere. In addition, the planes of the Enterprise, which had replaced the Constellation on Camel Station, stood ready to join in the fight if an opportunity presented itself. Altogether, more than a dozen warships were committed to the operation. Less himself remained aboard the command ship Coronado at Bahrain to direct the overall operation from a distance. The three SAG groups would attack simultaneously but independently.

SAG Bravo was led by Captain James B. Perkins, and it was his job to destroy the Sassan GOSP. His orders required him to warn the Iranian crew of the GOSP before he fired, which made him uncomfortable because the Sassan platform was not merely an oil and gas separation plant but a well-armed outpost of the Iranian military, armed with .20- and .50-caliber machine guns as well as larger guns, and intelligence sources indicated that it was manned in part by elements of the fanatical Republican Guard. Perkins later argued that “warning an armed GOSP . . . prior to opening fire may register high on the humane scale, but it clearly ranks low in terms of relative tactical advantage.” Still, orders were orders.

Just past dawn on April 18, at about 6:00 A.M., the ships of SAG Bravo steamed up to the Sassan platform. It was an enormous structure—over an acre in size and with several levels, appearing to some rather like a Hollywood version of a futuristic city. While the two sides studied one another, a Farsi linguist on the USS Merrill broke the silence to announce over the radio in both Farsi and English: “You have thirty minutes to get everybody off; we are going to destroy this platform.”

Watchers on the U.S. Navy ships then saw a lot of activity. Men ran about from place to place; some seemed to be getting ready to leave, while others just seemed to be “running around.” Listeners on the radio net heard the GOSP occupants frantically ask their bosses in Tehran for orders, then radio to the Americans to beg for more time. Perkins and his staff denied all requests for an extension, and at 8:04 A.M. the designated deadline expired. With a last look at his watch, Perkins ordered, “Weapons free,” and a five-inch high-explosive shell flew toward the Sassan platform.

It was a curious form of naval combat in the age of electronic warfare. Normally in a confrontation with an armed combatant, the captain of the ship would occupy the padded chair in the combat information center. From that darkened room deep in the ship, where the monitors and TV screens reported all the relevant information from a variety of sensors, he would direct both the ship’s movements and its weapons systems, using radar directors to aim his weaponry. But on this day the captain of the Merrill and the task group commodore both stood on the bridge wing to watch the fall of shot. Lieutenant Commander Henry “Hank” Sanford, the Merrill’s executive officer, actually manned the ship’s “big eyes,” the oversize binoculars on the bridge, so that he could assess the impact of the gunfire more accurately. “Everything,” he said later, “was done visually.”

Almost everything. A second-class petty officer sitting at the gun console in the Merrill’s CIC used a joy stick and a tiny TV screen, just like a video game, to aim the ship’s five-inch guns. He managed to put an air-burst round directly above the gun mount, and it virtually wiped out the Iranian gun crew. That proved to be decisive. After a few more air-burst rounds, the Iranians came on the radio and announced that they had decided to evacuate. Perkins ordered his ships to cease fire. Again the platform resembled an ant farm that had been prodded with a stick as men ran, seemingly randomly, over the platform. Soon, however, they made for the ladders and began to climb down into a few boats that were tied up at the base. Sanford counted them off as they departed, losing count after thirty. He was glad to see them go: “We didn’t want any prisoners.” A few of the men were carrying some wounded and had trouble making the climb, but eventually they all got into the boats and left.

After the Iranians cleared the area, helicopters from the Trenton hovered over the target, and Marines fast-roped down onto the platform. In thirty minutes the Marines recovered whatever papers might be of value and planted their charges. The ships of SAG Bravo moved away from the platform, and the Americans “pulled the trigger.” Those standing on the bridge of the Merrill felt the air concussion from five miles away. It was, one recalled, “the most powerful explosion I’ve ever seen.”

The attack on the Sirri platform by SAG Charlie unfolded similarly. This task group was headed by the Belknap-class cruiser Wainwright, a sister ship of the Fox, which had participated in the first Earnest Will convoy. The Wainwright, a guided-missile cruiser with a two-armed missile firing system forward and a five-inch gun aft, was a handsome vessel with a bluff-faced superstructure. Unlike the Spruance-class destroyers, the Wainwright had not been designed for ASW. Its basic mission was antiair warfare, but its triple-ring missile battery and Mark 76 control system could also fire the Navy’s standard missile (SM-1 or SM-2) at surface targets, which made it a ship-killer. SAG Charlie also had the small frigates Simpson (a sister ship of both the Stark and the Roberts) and Bagley, a slightly larger vessel with similar armament. The senior officer of SAG Charlie was Captain James Chandler, a career Navy officer who had spent nearly all his professional life in cruisers and destroyers. In war gaming exercises at both Newport and Norfolk, Chandler had specialized in missile warfare.

The sailors on the Wainwright had heard rumors for days of a forthcoming mission, and they looked forward to it. “We knew something was going to happen,” recalled a first-class petty officer. “There was a lot of tension. . . . The crew all around the ship were all pretty, you know . . ., well, they were mad actually. Because of what happened to the Roberts. And we hadn’t done nothing about it.” Then on the afternoon of April 17 Chandler held a “captain’s call” on the helicopter deck of the Wainwright. With the crew gathered around him, he explained the coming operation, telling his men exactly what their jobs would be and how he intended to execute his orders. Then he invited questions. At the end of it, he told them to “make sure your battle stations are ready to go to war in the morning.” He told them he was confident in them, that he was sure they would “carry the day.” Then he asked the ship’s chaplain to lead a prayer.

Reveille on April 18 was at 5:30, and when general quarters sounded at 7:00, one officer recalled that “it was the fastest muster we ever had.” Chandler himself went down into the darkened CIC, where more than sixty people crowded around the various screens and monitors. During combat operations, it was Chandler’s policy to turn the bridge over to his executive officer, while he took the chair of the tactical action officer in CIC. To his right was Lieutenant Marty Drake, the ship’s weapons officer. In front of him, sitting at an elaborate panel of screens and switches, including the launch key for the ship’s Harpoon missile system, were the senior enlisted men who operated the electronics. That morning, the petty officers on duty were Operations Specialist Chief Paul McCullough and thirty-two-year-old Operations Specialist First Class Reuben Vargas, who had enlisted in the Navy as a teenager in Puerto Rico. Now Vargas sat with his fingers literally on the trigger, so close to Chandler that, as he recalled later, “his hand was actually on my shoulder.”

The Wainwright and its consorts slowly circled the Sirri platform. At precisely 7:55 a U.S. intelligence officer on board radioed the first warning to the Iranians: “Gas and oil separation platform, this is U.S. Navy warship. You have five minutes to evacuate your platform. Any actions other than evacuation will result in immediate destruction.” This announcement was duplicated in Farsi, and repeated. Then, in mocking imitation of the Iranian captain of the Sabalan, he intoned: “Have a nice day.” The Iranians on the platform radioed back excitedly that five minutes was not enough time, but they began to evacuate at once. Three American helicopters were aloft, and the pilots reported that they could see men making their way down the ladders onto a small tug. “It was clear they were abandoning the GOSP,” Chandler said later, “but they just needed more time. I called the Bagley and the Simpson and told them to hold fire.”

The tug pulled away from the GOSP at about 8:15, but not everyone had evacuated; the helicopter pilots reported that there were uniformed men manning the guns. Some of the Iranians, at least, intended to fight it out. The three ships of SAG Charlie opened a coordinated fire just after 8:30 with five-inch and seventy-six-millimeter guns. The Iranians returned small-arms fire for a few minutes until one U.S. shell hit a compressed gas tank, which ignited a secondary explosion that incinerated the gun crew and set the whole platform ablaze. After that, the Iranians lost the will to fight and agreed to leave. The ships of SAG Charlie held their fire while the Iranian tug returned to pick up the survivors. By now the platform was burning so ferociously it was impossible (and unnecessary) to insert the SEAL team.

So far the mission had been a success: both of the targeted platforms had been completely destroyed, U.S. forces had suffered no casualties, and the earlier embarrassment of expending a thousand rounds to destroy an immobile target had been expunged. But the operation was not yet complete. From the beginning, the senior American officers had hoped that the attacks on the oil platforms would incite the Iranian navy to sortie. It had been almost half a century since U.S. surface combatants had tangled with warships from another navy, and almost to a man, the Americans hoped they would have a chance to retaliate for the Roberts by sinking an Iranian frigate. As one sailor expressed it, “We wanted to kick ass.” On the other hand, few imagined that it would happen, for surely the Iranians were aware that their tiny navy was no match for the U.S. squadron.

Then at 11:30, the signals exploitation team reported to Chandler in CIC that an Iranian surface combatant was closing the formation.

The Iranian decision to sortie its surface navy on April 18 is inexplicable. It is possible that the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Reza’i, demanded that Iran’s navy respond to the American attacks. If so, it suggests, as one authority has posited, “that the Guard was in de-facto command of the regular Navy.” Another possibility is that the Iranians concluded that the United States had finally decided to ally itself openly with Iraq, for, as it happened, Iraqi ground forces had launched a massive counterattack that same morning, and the Iranians likely believed this simultaneous assault was not a coincidence—that the United States had at last sided openly with the Iraqis. Whatever factors contributed to the Iranian decision, it was a horrible miscalculation.

Chandler radioed Admiral Less to apprise him of the situation. Less ordered him to get a positive identification on the approaching vessel, and Chandler ordered the Simpson to send its Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopter up for a visual ID. The LAMPS pilot radioed back that the surface contact was “a frigate-sized Iranian warship with a mast and radar amidships and two missiles astern of the mast.” It was, in fact, the Joshan, a 154-foot Iranian gunboat. But small as it was, the Joshan packed a punch, for it carried a seventy-six-millimeter gun amidships (the same size gun as on the American frigates), as well as a forty-millimeter machine gun. More importantly, it could fire both surface-to-air missiles and the deadly surface-to-surface American-made Harpoon missile. Chandler knew this because, as at Midway, the United States had superior intelligence about the enemy. In fact, the intelligence team that had been put on board for this operation had a complete file on every Iranian ship. Chandler recalled, “The officer in charge of the signal intercept group came down with his book and showed me just what the Joshan was—gave me a short bio of the commanding officer, and showed me his picture.”

Before challenging the contact, Chandler ordered the Wainwright’s weapons officer to put an SM-1 on the rail and advised the ships in his command “to prepare for an SM-1 engagement.” Then he sent the Joshan a radio message: “Iranian patrol frigate, this is United States Navy warship. Do not interfere with my actions. Remain clear or you will be destroyed. Over.” When the Joshan did not respond to that challenge and continued to close, Chandler tried again, demanding that the Joshan send its hull number. This time the Joshan replied, giving its hull number (255) and declaring that it would “commit no provocative acts.”

To Chandler, however, actions were louder than words, and the Joshan continued to close at high speed. Chandler radioed the Joshan twice more, ordering it to stop its engines. There was no response either time. Chandler then notified the other ships in the task group: “He has not stopped his engines. And those canisters [on the stern] are probably Harpoon canisters, and I believe that there is one Harpoon remaining that is operational. He has it on board.”

He warned the Joshan again: “Heed my warning. Stop your engines. If you do not stop, I will take you under fire.” Receiving no reply, he tried again: “If you do not stop, I will take you under fire.” Chandler’s next message was terse: “Iranian patrol ship, this is U.S. Navy warship. Stop and abandon ship. I intend to sink you.”

At that moment, Chief McCullough, sitting just in front of Chandler in the CIC, announced, “Captain, I have separation!” Simultaneously, the electronic warfare specialist announced, “I have an emitter!” A homing device had locked onto the Wainwright. “After that,” Vargas recalled, “all hell broke loose.” Marty Drake, the TAO, called out, “Launch chaff!” though the electronics warfare technician, Petty Officer Third Class Hall, had already anticipated the order, punching the button that fired a cloud of aluminized plastic confetti off to the starboard side. Chandler ordered the task group to open fire: “This is Wainwright. I am launching chaff. I am being locked on. Batteries released! Batteries released! Fire!” The weapons officer ordered: “Let’s go. Launch ’em.”

Then every man on board heard what one called “this big whoosh going down the starboard side from forward to aft.” The Harpoon missile from the Joshan flew so close to the Wainwright that the men on the bridge could feel the heat of the propellant as it passed. It missed the Wainwright by a matter of feet before splashing harmlessly into the sea some seventy-five yards astern. Down in the CIC, the weapons controller turned the key on the ship’s weapons console. “Birds free,” he reported.

The Wainwright’s first missile blew the mast off the Joshan, while the Simpson’s smashed into its superstructure. On the radar screen, however, the Joshan still appeared to be moving. “I think I’m gonna have the Simpson feed him another,” Chandler announced.

“Simpson, this is Wainwright. Are you prepared for another attack?”

“That’s affirmative.”

“Birds free.”

“Roger out.”

“This is Simpson. Evaluate a hit.”

Altogether, SAG Charlie fired four missiles into the Joshan, and all four were hits. By then the Joshan was on fire from stem to stern and sinking.

For Tony Less on the Coronado it was both electrifying and frustrating. Like Nimitz at Pearl Harbor during the Battle of Midway, he had to monitor unfolding events by interpreting the calls he overheard on the radio. “The most tense moment of my tour,” he recalled later, was “when I received the transmission . . . that the Joshan had fired a Harpoon missile.” All he could do was wait for the next transmission that told him “the Harpoon had missed.” Then Less contacted Chandler again:

“Did you sink him?” he asked.

“Negative,” Chandler replied. “He’s dead in the water and on fire.”

Less switched phones and spoke briefly to Admiral Crowe in Washington. Then he got back on the phone to Chandler to order him to sink the Joshan—it had not been the original target of the operation, but a ship was a ship.

Crowe had been monitoring the radio chatter himself from the basement Navy Command Center at the Pentagon along with Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. They heard Chandler’s report that the Joshan had fired a Harpoon and the report that SAG Charlie was engaging. “We heard the message traffic all day,” Crowe recalled. “But we didn’t interfere much.” As he put it, “I’ve always had an aversion to the Pentagon giving orders to operational commanders.”

With orders to finish off the Joshan, Chandler closed to within gun range of the smoking hulk and ordered each of the ships under his command to open fire. With Marine spotters in helicopters to report the fall of the shot, the Wainwright fired one round long, one short, and landed the third on target. Then the ships of SAG Charlie fired for effect. The Wainwright aimed six rapid-fire five-inch rounds into the burning hulk. After the sixth round, the spotter in the helicopter radioed for the task group to cease fire. When Chandler asked him why, the spotter reported that the Joshan had disappeared. “There were bodies everywhere,” Vargas recalled. “The hardest thing was shutting it off.”

On the bridge of the Wainwright, someone asked Chandler if they should sweep the area for survivors. Chandler was quiet for a moment, then replied: “No.” There were a number of Iranian fishing dhows in the area that could pick up any survivors, and Chandler feared that if he closed the wreckage, the Iranians might later claim that it was for the purpose of killing the survivors. As it happened, they made this claim anyway, reporting that American ships had machine-gunned survivors in the water. “It certainly wasn’t a brilliant move on my part,” Chandler said later, “but I still think it was the smart thing to do.”

In response to the panicked calls from the two GOSPs and the sinking Joshan, the Iranians had scrambled a few F-4 fighter aircraft from the airfield near Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz. In midafternoon, as the one-sided fight with the Joshan was winding down, the Wainwright got a report that an F-4 was approaching at high altitude. Chandler warned the F-4 to stay clear; getting no response, he fired two standard missiles in air mode and scored at least one hit, though the crippled F-4 managed to make it back to its base, missing part of its wing.

That proved to be the last encounter of the day for SAG Charlie. After ten hours of combat, the men could finally stand down. They had been at general quarters since seven that morning; some had been at their posts since midnight the night before. “It was pretty tense to be sitting in that seat for seventeen hours,” Vargas recalled later. “It was something you don’t ever forget.” Almost as soon as it was over, the men on the Wainwright began to appreciate how close they had come to being on the receiving end of a Harpoon missile. “The chaplain was very busy that night,” one officer recalled. “We had a lot of scared young sailors who [realized that] they’d almost bought it.”

The reality of that came home to the crew of the Wainwright when they learned that a Cobra helicopter gunship that had refueled on their after deck that afternoon was overdue—long overdue, and presumed missing. Much later, long after the fighting was over, the Navy employed sonar technology to find the wreck of the missing bird, resting on the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Navy divers sent to explore the site discovered the pilot and copilot still strapped into their seats, victims, apparently, of vertigo: a sense of dizziness and loss of balance that occasionally strikes helicopter pilots. Though not the consequence of hostile action, they were the only American casualties of Praying Mantis.

Operation Praying Mantis IV

Sahand burns after strikes by U.S. Navy ships and aircraft on 18 April 1988.

All this time, the men of the first group—SAG Bravo—were listening in on the radio net but also keeping a close watch on their own electronic sensors. In the middle of the battle between SAG Charlie and the Joshan, the surface search radar on the Merrill identified a high-speed surface contact with the signature of a large surface combatant. It had a profile similar to the Iranian frigate Sabalan and was approaching at twenty-five knots. Perkins decided to send up a helicopter and “get a visual.”

The morning had been clear and sunny, but by midafternoon the weather had turned hazy over the Gulf as the heat mounted. The Marine helicopter pilot from the Merrill could not positively identify the contact. It was a warship and had the general size and configuration of a destroyer or frigate, but in the thick haze he could not see more than that. Perkins tried raising the contact on the radio, but for whatever reason it did not respond. After that, while Perkins stayed on the bridge, the Merrill’s captain went down to the CIC to take the chair of the tactical action officer. “Now we were getting excited,” the Merrill’s executive officer remembered. “We needed to prep the Harpoon, because if this is what we think it is, we don’t know if he had a Harpoon or not.” Perkins, however, still wanted a positive identification, and he ordered the Marine helicopter to move in closer. At this, Colonel Bill Rakow, the senior Marine officer, expressed his concern that the men in the helicopter might be sacrificed. “We had a kind of discussion,” Sanford recalled. “The captain is down in combat plotting Harpoon solutions. He had the key around his neck, and was getting ready to go.” But the Marine colonel did not want his pilots to be placed in more danger than necessary.

Sanford got on the radio to the helicopter pilot and asked him if he could see a hull number.

“Well,” came the reply, “it’s three numbers, but it’s back a little bit.”

American warships carried their hull numbers on the bow, so this was clearly not an American vessel. The bridge team pulled out a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships and quickly thumbed through it looking at the Iranian order of battle. The Iranians didn’t have any ships with a three-digit hull number either.

Then Sanford recalled that on the way into the Gulf some months back, the Merrill had passed a Soviet warship heading out of the Gulf whose hull number was 767. He told Perkins that this was probably a Soviet vessel. “The ship was in close, the captain in Combat had a Harpoon solution and the key was in the lock,” he recalled later. “It was just a matter of turning the key.” But Perkins held his fire, and eventually a Soviet Sovremenny-class guided-missile destroyer steamed past within three thousand yards, apparently oblivious. Perkins pointedly asked him his intentions, and the Soviet captain radioed back, speaking in heavily accented English: “I vant to take peectures for heestory.”

For the ships and men of the third combat group—SAG Delta—it had been a frustrating day. Since dawn they had listened in on the radio traffic while SAG Bravo and SAG Charlie had fulfilled their missions, and they had cheered when they heard that the Joshan had been sunk. But there was disappointment mixed with their celebration, for they had hoped to find and sink the Iranian frigate Sabalan, and instead it was SAG Charlie that had an opportunity to engage an Iranian warship. In fact, SAG Delta had yet to locate the Sabalan, though it was not for lack of trying. All day the three ships of SAG Delta had pursued electronic leads looking for Iran’s premier combat vessel; at the same time a squadron composed of one A-6E Intruder and two F-14 Tomcats from the Enterprise searched the periphery of the Gulf. The pilots thought the Sabalan might be hiding among the merchant shipping that crowded the Strait of Hormuz; other reports indicated it was in port at Bandar Abbas with engine trouble. Indeed, there was little evidence that suggested the Iranians were even paying much attention to the American attacks.

But the Iranians were paying attention. Late in the morning a small squadron of Iranian Boghammer gunboats attacked an oil platform and several merchant vessels near the Mubarek oil fields off Sharjah in the southern Gulf. The attack may have been a coincidence, or the Iranians may have decided to attack an oil platform in an effort to respond “proportionately” to the American attacks on Sassan and Sirri. Whatever their motives, the Boghammers were out in international waters, and two A-6 Intruders from the Enterprise requested permission to hit them. Admiral Less was willing enough, but the ships were near Iranian territorial waters and they might simply dart back across that invisible line. He sought guidance up the chain of command. Could U.S. forces “chase Iranian forces out of international waters and hot pursue them into territorial waters?” His request was flashed by satellite to General Crist in Tampa, and from there to the Pentagon, and finally to the desk of Lieutenant General Colin Powell at the White House. Powell took the request personally to President Reagan, who responded, “Do it!” and the attack order was delivered back down the chain of command to the pilots in the A-6s. The whole circuit took “less than three minutes.” The Intruders attacked, sinking one Boghammer and driving the rest aground on nearby Abu Musa Island.

Soon afterward American sensors detected an Iranian Saam-class frigate—the same class as the Sabalan—heading for the area. An A-6 sought to identify the contact using its forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR), while an accompanying F-14 Tomcat employed its onboard TV camera. Aware of the close call that SAG Bravo had had with the Soviet destroyer that afternoon, Less wanted a positive visual identification. The A-6 therefore swooped in low to eyeball the vessel, which turned out to be not the Sabalan but its sister ship, the Sahand. As the Intruder passed low over the Sahand, the Iranian ship opened fire with both triple-A and surface-to-air missiles. The A-6 dropped flares to confuse the tracking radar of the Sahand’s missiles, then counterattacked, firing a Harpoon, several rockets, and a Mark 82 laser-guided bomb that tracked along the laser beam to hit the Sahand precisely on target. By the time SAG Delta arrived on the scene, the Sahand was dead in the water and on fire.

SAG Delta consisted of the Adams-class guided-missile destroyer Joseph Strauss, the Spruance-class destroyer O’Brien, and the Perry-class frigate Jack Williams. In addition to these surface assets, the air boss on the Enterprise had launched a strike force as soon as he heard that the Sahand had fired on an American aircraft. Even as the ships of SAG Delta closed on the crippled and burning Sahand, six A-7 attack planes and another A-6 were also streaking toward the target. The Straus fired a surface-to-surface Harpoon at almost the same time that an A-6 fired an air-to-surface Harpoon, and both missiles smashed into the Sahand, exploding nearly simultaneously. Altogether more than a dozen warheads struck the burning vessel, including several thousand-pound laser-guided bombs. By then the Sahand was already sinking. Within minutes its magazine exploded and it disappeared.

The Iranian Saam-class frigate Sahand on fire from stem to stern as a result of multiple hits by both surface- and air-launched missiles. (U.S. Navy)

It had been a spectacular day for American arms. Granted, the United States had overwhelming superiority in both numbers and technology, but the American strike force had destroyed three armed oil platforms and sunk two warships while suffering only the loss of the two men on the missing Cobra helicopter.

Then, late in the afternoon, American forces found the Sabalan. An A-6 investigating a suspicious contact in the Strait of Hormuz near Bandar Abbas identified what appeared to be a Saam-class frigate that subsequently proved to be the much-despised Sabalan. As the American Intruder approached, the ship sent up a stream of antiaircraft fire; having been fired on, the pilot immediately counterattacked, dropping a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb right down the stack. It exploded inside the Sabalan’s engine room. The ship seemed to expand like a balloon from the internal explosion, then the hull relapsed and the ship went dead in the water. At last U.S. naval forces had the Sabalan right where they wanted it: exposed and immobile—a sitting duck for more airstrikes or surface-launched Harpoons. SAG Delta and a fresh squadron of attack planes were already en route. By now, of course, the whole notion of “proportionality” had been blown to bits, and back in the Navy Command Center in Washington, Secretary of Defense Carlucci turned to Admiral Crowe to ask, “What should we do?” Crowe shook his head: “We’ve killed enough people.” With Carlucci’s approval, Crowe issued orders to call off the hunt and allow the Sabalan to limp back into port. Operation Praying Mantis was over.

The events of April 18 did not end hostilities in the Gulf—there was one more scene in the drama. Ten weeks later, in early July, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Vincennes escorted the crippled Samuel B. Roberts through the Strait of Hormuz on the first leg of its long trip home. The Vincennes was one of the newest ships in the Navy and was equipped with the AEGIS fire control system, a cutting-edge integrated computer system that allowed a single ship to monitor and engage multiple surface and air targets simultaneously. Not entirely in admiration, the men of more conventional cruisers called it “Robocruiser.” In its darkened CIC, the computers projected illuminated maps of the region on four giant screens, allowing the decision makers to monitor virtually all air and surface traffic in the area, each contact indicated on the screen by a tiny symbol showing the contact’s course and speed. The computers also fed targeting information directly to the guns and missile systems so that it was no longer necessary to compute a target solution before engaging.

The Vincennes replaced the Wainwright in May. Its skipper was a Texas-born career officer with the all-American name of Will Rogers, though, as he often had to tell people, he was not related to the famous humorist. Returning back through the strait that evening after seeing the Roberts on its way, the Vincennes picked up a distress call from a Danish tanker that was under attack by Iranian Boghammers. Heading back into the Gulf, Rogers ordered the U.S. frigate Elmer Montgomery to lob a star shell at the Boghammers, chasing them back into Iranian waters.

The combat information center (CIC) on board the USS Vincennes. (U.S. Navy)

Rogers then shaped a course for Bahrain, but before the Vincennes was more than halfway there he received another distress call. The Boghammers were at it again. Racing back to the scene of the trouble, Rogers sent a helicopter aloft to get a clear view of what was going on. As the helicopter approached the Boghammers, they opened fire on it. Rogers immediately ordered flank speed and closed on the offending gunboats in order to put them inside the envelope of his weapons. Rogers showed remarkable restraint in not opening fire at once. One Iranian Boghammer passed between the Vincennes and the Elmer Montgomery; the guns of the Vincennes tracked it as it passed, but because “it didn’t show hostile intent,” Rogers allowed the little open motorboat to pass unmolested. Not long afterward, however, seven of the small gunboats gathered for what looked like a “swarm attack,” where the enemy presented so many high-speed targets that the object of the assault could not respond effectively. Rogers requested permission to open fire, and Less radioed him to “take with guns.” The AEGIS system allowed the men in the Vincennes’s CIC to aim the ship’s guns at multiple targets, even after the forward gun slipped a pawl and became inoperative. At 10:42 A.M., as the officers and men in the crowded CIC concentrated on the multiple pips on their radar repeaters, they also picked up an air contact.

The plane that appeared on the large air-search display in the CIC had flown out of the Iranian airport at Bandar Abbas and was approaching at high speed. Rogers knew there was a squadron of Iranian attack planes at Bandar Abbas, and he immediately sent out a challenge on the emergency frequency ordering the contact to turn away from the combat area. There was no response. Nor was there a clear signal from the plane’s transponder—the electronic device designed to indicate whether it was a civilian or a military aircraft. The contact was assigned a tracking number, and with the fate of the Stark in the back of his mind, at 10:51 Rogers declared the contact “presumed hostile.”

Meanwhile the fight with the Boghammers was intensifying; small-arms ammunition struck the bridge of the Vincennes as it maneuvered to unmask its five-inch gun astern. The air contact was still closing, and the officer reading the air plot screen reported that it appeared to be descending as well, as if preparing to launch a missile. In his mind, Rogers had decided to fire if the contact came within twenty miles (the Iraqi F-1 that had nearly sunk the Stark had fired from twelve miles). But when the contact crossed that twenty-mile limit, Rogers still hesitated. He tried the radio one more time. Receiving no reply, at 10:54 A.M. he ordered the weapons officer to fire two standard missiles in air mode. By then the contact was only nine miles away.

Nine thousand feet above the Gulf, Iran Airlines flight 655, a commercial airliner with 290 people on board, was heading for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on a scheduled flight. The pilot, Captain Mohsen Reza’i, was monitoring flight information from both Bandar Abbas and Dubai and was not tuned in to the emergency radio circuit. He never heard any of Captain Rogers’ seven warnings. When two U.S. Navy Standard missiles struck the fuselage, the plane broke apart at once. There were no survivors.

The events of April 18 were decisive in the Iran-Iraq War. This was not so much because of Operation Praying Mantis as because of Iraq’s massive ground attack on the Faw Peninsula that same day. Of course, the U.S. Navy’s near destruction of the Iranian navy played its own role in convincing Tehran that it was time to accept an end to hostilities. On July 18— three months to the day after Praying Mantis (and fifteen days after the loss of Iran Airlines 655)—Iran accepted the terms of United Nations Resolution 598. Three weeks after that, a cease-fire went into effect only weeks before what would have been the eighth anniversary of the third bloodiest war of the twentieth century.

The events of April 18, 1988, were decisive for the United States, too, for they illuminated not only the dramatic changes that had taken place in the nature of naval warfare since World War II but also the front edge of what would become a new philosophy about the role that the United States and the U.S. Navy should play in the world. Several aspects of those changes are evident in hindsight.

First there was the American decision to act as an armed enforcer in a war between two nations (neither of which was a particular friend) halfway around the globe. After some ambivalence, the Reagan administration accepted the responsibility to act as a kind of regional policeman in the Persian Gulf even though, in the end, it found impartiality impossible. Convinced that U.S. interests were tied up in protecting the export of oil shipments from the Gulf and preventing the expansion of Soviet influence in the region, the United States put itself in the middle of the conflict.

That decision created a difficult environment for Navy commanders. They could defend themselves if fired upon, but much of the time they were never sure who the enemy was or what they were allowed to do. Ambiguity in war was not new, of course. As far back as the American Revolution or as recently as Vietnam, ambiguity and uncertainty were central elements in many of America’s wars. What was new in the Persian Gulf was that the latest generation of electronic weapons so compressed the decision making process that commanders had only minutes, and sometimes seconds, to make life-and-death decisions. Brindel, in the Stark, erred in demonstrating too much restraint; Rogers, in the Vincennes, was determined not to make the same mistake.

Indeed, those weapons systems constituted the most dramatic aspect of this changed paradigm of war. Praying Mantis was the first large-scale surface action involving U.S. naval forces since the end of World War II. In those four-plus decades, several generations of weapons systems had come and gone. The sophisticated, electronically based weapons systems used in Praying Mantis, though they had been tested in development and in training, had never been used in combat with a hostile force. The Wainwright was the first U.S. warship ever to fire missiles at both surface and air targets in the same engagement and also the first to fire an SM-2 missile in combat; the Joseph Strauss and an A-6 from the Enterprise participated in the first ever coordinated surface/air attack in sinking the Sahand. In that sense, Praying Mantis was a testing ground. The U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Carlisle Trost, remarked, “We spent a lot of effort and taxpayer’s dollars . . . to achieve the level of readiness that we enjoy today. What our people saw was an opportunity for the first time under hostile conditions to use both their sensors and weapons; and they worked as advertised.”

Equally dramatic was the changed environment in military communications. It took weeks for Oliver Hazard Perry to communicate with his superior at Sackett’s Harbor, and once George Dewey left Hong Kong, he was out of touch with his superiors altogether. At Midway, Jack Waldron and Wade McClusky made decisions on the spur of the moment while operating under radio silence. But the chain of command during Praying Mantis extended from the bridge of a warship (or the cockpit of an A-6) all the way to the White House. Twice on that April 18, operational commanders received instructions from literally the highest level. To many Navy people this was both good news and bad news. It was great to have globe-circling, real-time communications. But it also meant that a president, a defense secretary, or a chief of naval operations in Washington might become the tactical decision maker in a battle taking place six thousand miles away, and not every U.S. Navy officer was comfortable with that. One hundred years earlier a senior American naval officer had complained that the telegraph cable had reduced him to “a damned errand boy at the end of a telegraph wire.” One can only imagine his reaction to the communications network of the late twentieth century.

Praying Mantis was also a model of what defense policy analysts were calling “jointness.” Powerful as the U.S. Navy was in 1988, it was even more powerful when linked to Air Force and Army assets as well as its Marine Corps partners. Air Force AWACS airplanes maintained an intelligence picture for Navy surface assets; Army Sea Bats helicopters, flying off Navy frigates, identified and attacked Iranian mine layers; Marines, SEALs, and Army Rangers all participated in the carefully selected proportional responses chosen for them by their civilian masters. Presiding over all of it was a marine general in Florida, who gave orders to a Navy admiral in the Persian Gulf, who then gave orders to what was called the Joint Task Force Middle East.

Moreover, Operation Praying Mantis demonstrated rather dramatically how impersonal naval warfare had become in the electronic age. The men manning the guns on Perry’s Lawrence could see into the faces of their foes; Dewey’s gunners could at least see the ships of their opponents; if Spruance never saw the carriers his pilots attacked, the pilots themselves confronted the enemy in a very personal way. But in the Persian Gulf, dangerous as it was, the enemy was always faceless. Those who “turned the key” on their weapons consoles to fire the missiles that sank the Joshan never left the air-conditioned environment of the CIC. The only time Chandler saw the face of his enemy was when intelligence specialists opened a classified folder and showed him a photograph.

And finally, Praying Mantis demonstrated the extent to which America’s technological and operational superiority had outpaced the rest of the world. As subsequent events in the Persian Gulf would demonstrate, the events of April 18, 1988, offered only the first glimpse of the stunning technological revolution, already under way, that over the next decade and a half would make the United States not merely a “superpower,” not merely the greatest military power on earth, but the greatest military power the world had ever seen. Ironically, this new capability did not just evoke awe from America’s partners (and its adversaries); it also contributed to a new sense of wariness. In the absence of the Soviet rivalry after 1989, the United States represented such a dominant military force, possessed of such a futuristic technology, that its actions took on a new, and to some very frightening, significance. The very success of that new technology fed an assumption among many that American weapons were infallible and that the shooting down of the Iran Airlines Airbus must therefore have been a deliberate act. A decade later, when three U.S. missiles fired at Bosnian assets in the former Yugoslavia instead hit the Chinese embassy, U.S. diplomats found it impossible to convince the Chinese that it had been a genuine mistake. The very technical dominance that was supposed to undergird American policy goals also provoked fear, skepticism, and even hatred in certain quarters.

The United States would discover that there would be little gratitude, even from its traditional allies, for its new assumption of authority as the world’s cop.

Balkan Wars, 1912-1913, Naval Campaigns

Naval Battle of Elli

The naval campaigns of the Balkan Wars were of secondary importance to the land fighting. Of the Balkan allies, only Greece had a significant navy. The pride of the Greek fleet was the armored cruiser Georgios Averof. In addition the Greeks had 16 modern destroyers, 19 old torpedo boats, and a small submarine, the Delphin. The Bulgarians had only six torpedo boats and a gunboat, the Nadezhda. All of the Bulgarian vessels operated only in the Black Sea. The Serbs and Montenegrins had no navies. The Ottomans had a number of older warships, including two armored cruisers, six armored ships, 11 torpedo destroyers, and 30 torpedo ships. Its modern vessels were the light cruiser Hamidiye and the armored cruiser Mecidiye.

The Greek navy assumed two main objectives. The first was to blockade the Ottoman coast and to contain the Ottoman navy in the Dardanelles and thus prevent the transport of Ottoman reinforcements from Anatolia to the Balkan Fronts. This was a major factor in Bulgarian calculations for an alliance with the Greeks. The second Greek naval objective was the seizure of the Aegean Islands from the Ottomans. In these two tasks, the Greeks succeeded. By the end of 1912, the Greeks had taken all of the Aegean Islands except Samos, which they occupied in March 1913. The Greeks also used their navy and merchant marine to transport Bulgarian troops to Dedeagach and Serbian troops to San Giovanni di Medua, (Albanian: Shengjin) Albania.

The largest naval engagement of the Balkan Wars occurred on December 16, 1912, at the Dardanelles. At that time Greeks defeated an Ottoman attempt to break out into the Aegean. A second attempt two days later also failed. Neither fleet suffered extensive damage, but the Greeks managed to contain the Ottomans in the Dardanelles.

Georgios Averof as a floating museum in Palaio Faliro, Athens

Ottoman defeats in the Italo-Turkish War and the First Balkan War prompted a coup d’état in the Ottoman Empire on January 23, 1913 by the leading members of the CUP [Committee of Union and Progress] movement, ending four years of political stalemate following the exile of Abdülhamid II. This consolidation of power created a more efficient environment for naval expansion, which was a matter that the leaders of the CUP energetically pursued, especially due to the poor performance of the Ottoman fleet in the First Balkan War. At the Battle of Elli on December 16, 1912, the Greek armored cruiser Averof alone outfought the battleships Barbaros Hayreddin, Torgut Reis, Mesudiye, and Asar-i Tevfik and, using superior tactics and speed, crossed the Ottoman “T” and forced them to disengage.

Despite the overall Greek success, the Ottomans did enjoy some successes with their navy. Naval fire from Ottoman warships in both the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara helped to thwart the Bulgarian attack on the Chataldzha lines on November 17, 1912, and thus prevent the Bulgarian occupation of Constantinople.

The British-built protected cruiser Hamidiye.

Also the Ottoman cruiser Hamidiye managed to elude the Greek blockade of the Dardanelles on December 22, 1912. It proceeded to cruise the Mediterranean. It sunk the Greek auxiliary cruiser Makedonia in Syra harbor in the Cyclades on January 15 and attacked a Greek transport ship carrying Serbian troops at San Giovanni di Medua, Albania, on March 18, 1913, causing heavy casualties.

Some warships acquired by Abdülhamid II’s contract-as-compensation program proved to be modern and useful units that saw service in World War I. One of these was the protected cruiser Hamidiye (originally named Abdülhamid II), ordered from Armstrong Whitworth & Co. in Newcastle upon Tyne in the spring of 1900. Great Britain was another nation owed money due to the late 19th century uprisings (for the technical specifications of Hamidiye, see Plate A). Hamidiye was originally part of a modernization plan developed by Ottoman admirals in 1897 that envisioned the modernization of several old ironclads and the acquisition of two new battleships, two armored cruisers, two protected cruisers, and two light cruisers. The modernized Mesudiye,  Asar-i Tevfik, a few other reconstructed older vessels, and Hamidiye were the only ships of this plan that Abdülhamid II approved funding for with the exception of a second protected cruiser.

While the Hamidiye’s exploits heartened the Ottomans, they had little effect on the outcome of the war.

Hamidiye was laid down in the Elswick yard of Armstrong Whitworth in April 1902, launched on September 25, 1903, and commissioned on April 27, 1904. She was typical of British protected cruisers of the time and was the first useful modern unit acquired by the Ottoman Navy in the 20th century. Hamidiye and her dynamic commander, Captain Rauf Orbay, gained international attention during the First Balkan War when they undertook a four-month raid throughout the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Red Seas, bombarding Greek and Serbian ground installations and sinking seven Greek merchantmen. Hamidiye was a relatively well-maintained warship but age and heavy use had taken its toll on her machinery and by fall 1914 she could make only 16 knots. Nevertheless, she served as an effective convoy escort, sailing alongside Yavuz and Midilli during the early months of the war until her low speed made her too vulnerable to the new Russian destroyers and dreadnoughts entering service in 1915. She was brought back into service in the spring of 1918, after a lengthy refit, and conducted several operations with Yavuz along the Russian coast.