The Battle of Suomenlinna (also known as the Battle of Viapori or the Bombardment of Sweaborg) was fought on 9–11 August 1855 between Russian defenders and a joint British/French fleet during the Åland War. It was a part of the Crimean War.
Gunboat Operations During the Crimean War, 1854–5
In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia used the excuse of a brawl between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox monks in Bethlehem to proclaim himself the guardian of the Ottoman Empire’s fourteen million Orthodox Christians. What he really wanted was Russian access to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and he was quite prepared to set about the virtual dismemberment of Turkey to achieve this. In his new-found capacity as religious champion, therefore, he demanded a number of concessions from the Sultan, knowing full well that their nature was such that no self-respecting sovereign could possibly grant them. Having, as anticipated, been rebuffed, in July he sent his troops to occupy Turkish provinces in Romania.
Unfortunately, he encountered unexpected opposition. France, now ruled by Napoleon III, regarded herself as the traditional protector of Roman Catholic interests in the Holy Land and was not prepared to have these ridden over by Russia. Simultaneously, Great Britain disliked the idea of the naval balance in the Mediterranean being disturbed by the intrusion of a Russian fleet. The despatch of British and French warships to Constantinople stiffened the Sultan’s resolve and on 4 November he declared war on Russia.
On land, the Turks did unexpectedly well, but on 30 November the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron in Sinope harbour. In January 1854 the Anglo-French fleet entered the Black Sea to protect the Turkish coastline and on 28 March the Allies declared war on Russia. At this juncture the Tsar’s adventure turned sour, for the following month Austria, with Prussian support, threatened to intervene unless he withdrew his troops from the Balkans. Reluctantly, he complied, but wrecked the ensuing peace talks by insisting on his right to pursue his bullying quarrel with Turkey. The Allies therefore decided to land an expeditionary force in the Crimea with the object of capturing and destroying the heavily fortified Russian naval base of Sevastopol.
The mismanagement of the British part of the land campaign, the blunderings of elderly or incompetent generals, the superlative courage of the troops and their terrible sufferings during the first winter of the war have all been so thoroughly covered elsewhere that there is no need to enlarge upon them here. Suffice it to say that while siege works were opened against the city and naval facilities of Sevastopol, lying on the southern side of a deep inlet, the term siege was not entirely appropriate as the inlet’s northern shore remained in Russian hands. Consequently, reinforcements and supplies continued to pour across the harbour by a bridge of boats while, to make matters yet more difficult for the Allies, a large Russian field army hovered in the Crimea’s hinterland.
The naval operations of what became known as the Crimean War were conducted in the Black Sea and the Baltic, with peripheral operations in the White Sea and the Far East. In some respects the Royal Navy was unprepared for a major war. Some of the admirals were as elderly and infirm of purpose as the generals, and so low were manning levels that ships of the Baltic Fleet were unable to complete their crews months after the war had begun. In the Black Sea, naval bombardment of Sevastopol’s coastal forts produced inconclusive results. In the Baltic the Russians declined to come out and fight, and ice put an early end to operations. Thus, beyond imposing a blockade on an essentially self-sufficient land power and disrupting such seaborne trade as it possessed, the naval operations of 1854 ended on a thoroughly unsatisfactory note.
The nub of the problem was that the line-of-battle ships, inhibited by large areas of shallow water in both the Black Sea and the Baltic, simply could not get close enough to do the enemy any real damage. What was needed were small, shallow-draught steam-propelled vessels with enough hitting power to hurt. As luck would have it, the Admiralty had already initiated a modest construction programme, intending to replace its sailing gun-brigs, the smallest ocean-going warships, with little screw steamers, and six such vessels, the Arrow class, were already in service. Recognising that these would be able to get within effective range of the Russian defences, the Admiralty also agreed that large numbers of such craft would be less vulnerable to return fire than larger ships. It was therefore decided to build four classes of what were called Crimean gunboats. The government, stung into action by press criticism of its handling of the war, willingly consented to a large construction programme; in fact, no less than 156 warships of this type were ordered, although some were completed too late to take part in the war and others, built hastily from green wood, were allowed to rot in an unfinished state.
The Crimean gunboats had a flat-bottomed hull and were powered by 20, 40 or 60 hp steam engines driving a single screw, giving a speed of between six and eight knots. The three gaff-rigged masts were stepped in tabernacles on the upper deck, through which protruded a tall, thin funnel. Armament consisted of two or three 68-pounder guns on slides, centrally mounted so that they could be moved over iron traversing rings to fire over either side. Later classes were armed with 32-pounder guns, also on slides, and 24-pounder howitzers on conventional trucks. Below decks, two-thirds of the available space was taken up by the engine, boiler, coal bunkers, water tanks, ration lockers and magazines. Fortunately, because of the simple sail plan and limited armament, only 35 men were required to handle the vessel. The men lived forward of the engine room and the two officers in a small space aft. Usually, a gunboat was a lieutenant’s command but such was the rate of expansion during the war that some were commanded by masters, i.e. senior warrant officers.
The Baltic Fleet which returned to its station under Rear Admiral the Hon. Richard Dundas in May 1855 was very different from that which had gone out the previous year in that it consisted entirely of steam-driven vessels and contained numerous small craft suited to operations in cramped or shallow waters. These included seventeen mortar vessels and the gunboats Gleaner, Pelter, Pincher, Ruby, Badger, Snapper, Biter, Dapper, Jackdaw, Magpie, Redwing, Skylark, Snap, Starling, Stork, Swinger, Thistle, Weazel and Lark. The nature of their operations, however, continued much as before. The Russian Navy remained safe behind its massive defences in Kronstadt harbour, which, it was discovered, had been further protected with moored contact mines. In other respects, the Allied effort produced only the occupation of several islands, the elimination of a few batteries and the capture of some small vessels which had risked the blockade. Dundas and his French colleague, Rear Admiral Penaud, both came under pressure from home to produce more tangible results, but as an attack on Kronstadt was out of the question, their difficulty lay in choosing a suitable objective. Some officers were for bombarding the prosperous city of Helsingfors (Helsinki), the destruction of which would have a profound effect on public opinion in Russia. This idea was rejected in favour of a bombardment of the neighbouring fortress of Sveaborg, which was built on several interconnected islands including Vargon, Gustafsvaard, East Svarto, West Svarto and Lilla Svarto.The fortifications were of modern design, were fully manned and mounted over 800 guns. Channels to the north and south of the islands were blocked by two ships of the line, moored broadside on.
On the morning of 9 August the British and French mortar vessels formed a line approximately 3300 yards from the fortifications, opening fire at 07:00. The gunboats Stork and Snapper, armed with the new Lancaster guns, circling to the right of the line, concentrated their fire on the Russian warship blocking the southern channel. To their left Starling, Thistle, Pelter, Biter and Badger circled as they fired at the western batteries, while to their left the rest of the defences were engaged by circles containing Vulture, Snap, Gleaner, Dapper and Redwing. To the north, two more gunboats, Magpie and Weazel, exchanged fire with a detached battery on the island of Stora Rantan, covering the channel in which the second Russian warship was moored. The course of the action is described by Admiral Dundas in his despatch.
A rapid fire of shot and shells was kept up from the fortress for the first few hours upon the gunboats, and the ranges of the heavy batteries extended completely beyond the mortar vessels; but the continued motion of the gunboats, and the able manner in which they were conducted by the officers who commanded them, enabled them to return the fire with great spirit, and almost with impunity throughout the day. About ten o’clock in the forenoon fires began first to be observed in the different buildings, and a heavy explosion took place on the island of Vargon, which was followed by a second about an hour afterwards on the island of Gustafsvaard, inflicting much damage upon the defences of the enemy, and tending greatly to slacken the fire from that direction. The advantage of the rapidity with which the fire from the mortars had been directed was apparent in the continued fresh conflagrations which spread extensively on the island of Vargon.
When the gunboats were recalled at sunset the fleet’s boats took over, firing rockets which spread the blaze from Vargon to East Svarto. Dundas continues:
At daylight on the morning of the 10th, the position of several mortar vessels had been advanced within easier range, and the gunboats were again directed to engage. The three-decked ship which had been moored by the enemy to block and defend the channel between Gustafsvaard and Bakholmen, had been withdrawn during the night to a more secure position; but the fire from the batteries was increased, and the engagement was renewed with activity on both sides. Fires continued to burn without intermission within the fortress, and about noon a column of smoke, heavier and darker than any which had yet been observed, gave signs that the shells had reached combustible materials in the direction of the arsenal.
The bombardment continued for much of the night. A spy later reported that the dockyard had been wrecked, all government stores destroyed, the powder magazines blown up, 23 vessels burned and a further 18 seriously damaged, and 2000 men killed. This may well be an exaggeration of the true position although it was clear that extensive damage had been done. It is possible that the attack would have continued, but by the morning of the 11th the British mortars had been shot out to the extent that some had even split. As replacements would not reach the Baltic before the onset of winter, the mortar vessels were therefore sent home a month before the rest of the fleet. The gunboats, on the other hand, had proved themselves equal to the task for which they had been built, to the extent that Allied casualties amounted to just one man killed and several wounded. Nevertheless, it was to be with the Black Sea Fleet that their true potential was demonstrated.
The Black Sea Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral James Dundas, was less troubled by winter than that commanded by his namesake in the Baltic, and in view of the stand-off at Sevastopol consideration had been given to ejecting the enemy by means of an indirect approach rather than head-on attack. Russian roads were primitive, difficult to use in winter and almost impossible during the rasputitsa, the spring thaw which turned them into mud wallows. Consequently, it was much easier for the Russians to supply their troops in the Crimea by means of water transport, using rivers and the Sea of Azov.
Disrupting this traffic had not been possible the previous year because the Allied navies lacked suitable warships capable of penetrating the shallow waters of the Azov. By the spring of 1855, however, this defect had been remedied, although before operations against the Russian supply line could commence it was necessary to secure control of the Straits of Kerch, which provided the only entrance to this otherwise landlocked sea. This was accomplished on 24 May by an Allied amphibious operation involving heavy and light squadrons plus landing forces consisting of 7000 French, 5000 Turkish and 3500 British troops as well as a Sardinian contingent. On both sides of the straits the enemy abandoned their positions with barely a token resistance, blew up their fortifications, abandoned about 100 guns, destroyed stores, provisions and ammunition, and burned such warships as were unable to make good their escape. In simply handing the Allies the keys of the Sea of Azov the Russians made their most critical mistake of the war.
The British light squadron, commanded by Captain Edmund Lyons, included several paddle-driven warships and the new screw gunboats Wrangler, Viper, Lynx, Arrow, Snake and Beagle. Even while operations were in progress to secure the straits, Lieutenant Henry McKillop, commanding the Snake, spotted a Russian warship of comparable size attempting to escape northwards. Ignoring the enemy fortifications, he promptly gave chase. No sooner had the two ships begun exchanging shots than two more Russian warships emerged to support their comrade, leaving Snake simultaneously engaged with three opponents. The gunboat, however, was extremely handy, and the Russians, no doubt expecting her to engage with conventionally mounted broadside guns, found themselves receiving fire from unexpected directions as the centrally mounted armament was heaved round to bear on each of them in turn. Several of their shots passed clean through Snake, fortunately without causing casualties or touching a vital area. On the other hand, taking a hit from one of the gunboat’s 68-pounder shells was a serious matter for a small warship, leaving the Russians horrified that their apparently puny opponent could hit quite so hard. They had probably had enough by the time the six-gun paddler Recruit, followed by others, came thrashing her way towards the engagement, for they deliberately ran themselves aground and later set fire to their ships. The action took place within view of the Allied fleet, the French in particular being generous with their praise. McKillop was promoted commander as soon as he had completed his necessary period of sea time, with seniority from the date of his exploit.
Having been reinforced with several French ships, Lyons took his light squadron into the Sea of Azov the following day. As one contemporary observer, Hamilton Williams, wrote:
It was like bursting into a vast treasure house, crammed with wealth of inestimable value. For miles along its shores stretched the countless storehouses packed with the accumulated harvests of the great corn provinces of Russia. From them the Russian armies in the field were fed; from them the beleaguered population of Sevastopol looked for preservation from the famine which already pressed hard upon them.
Furthermore, on the Kerch Straits themselves, the towns of Kerch and Yenikale contained coal stocks amounting to 12,000 tons, which would keep the Allied fleet going for a considerable period without recourse to its own colliers.
Lyons’s ships proceeded to raise hell across the widest possible area. One was sent to cruise off the mouth of the Don, while two more were detached to Genichesk at the entrance to the Swash or Putrid Sea, a stretch of water separating the north-eastern coast of the Crimea from the Sea of Azov proper by a thin 70-mile-long spit of land known as the Tongue of Arabat. On 28 May the rest of the squadron bombarded Fort Arabat, situated at the mainland end of the Tongue. The engagement lasted some 90 minutes, at the end of which the defence works were wrecked by an internal explosion. Next day the squadron moved to Genichesk, where a landing party under Lieutenant Campbell Mackenzie set fire to storehouses and numerous ships in the harbour. A sudden change of wind direction would have reduced the amount of damage caused had not two officers, Lieutenants Cecil Buckley and Hugh Burgoyne, and Gunner John Roberts, returned ashore and started fresh fires where they would do most good, despite the presence of enemy troops and being beyond the gunfire support of their ships; all three were awarded the Victoria Cross.
Many Russian ships had fled from the Black Sea to the imagined security of the Azov as soon as the war had begun, and consequently the harbours of the latter were crowded. Just four days into his mission, Lyons was able to report that the enemy’s losses thus far amounted to four naval steamers, no less than 246 merchant vessels of various types, plus supplies of corn and flour sufficient to feed 100,000 men for twelve weeks.
At the beginning of June the light squadron, reinforced with twelve launches armed with 24-pounder howitzers and rockets, began operating in the Gulf of Taganrog. When, on 3 June, the governor of Taganrog itself declined to surrender, some of the town’s storehouses were set ablaze by fire from the boats. As this did not produce quite the desired result, Lieutenant Cecil Buckley and Boatswain Henry Cooper braved the fire of the 3500-strong Russian garrison to make repeated landings from a four-oared gig and start fresh blazes. By 15:00 the storehouses and most of the town were burning fiercely and the force withdrew. Boatswain Cooper received the Victoria Cross for his part in the action. On the 5th it was the turn of Mariupol and on the 6th Yeysk, all government stores in both places being destroyed. The situation now was that sea power was not simply disrupting the supplies of the Russian forces in the Crimea, but also those of the army fighting the Turks in the Caucasus as well. Having completed the first phase of its operations, the light squadron returned to Kerch where Lyons handed over to Commander Sherard Osborn. Sadly, on 17 June, Lyons received a mortal wound while taking part in a further bombardment of Sevastopol’s sea forts.
Having replenished, the light squadron returned to its work of destruction. On 27 June a landing party destroyed a convoy of wagons near Genichesk, which was also the scene of a lively action on 3 July. On the latter occasion the gunboat Beagle, commanded by Lieutenant William Hewitt, attacked the floating bridge connecting the town with the northern extremity of the Tongue of Arabat, which provided a major supply route into the Crimea. While the gunboat gave covering fire, Hewitt sent two boats to cut the bridge’s hawsers. With the Russians lining the beach only 80 yards distant, as well as shooting from nearby houses, this was a desperate business. Despite this, although the boats were riddled, only two men were wounded. The hawsers were cut under heavy fire by Seaman Joseph Trewavas, who received a minor wound while hacking at them. Trewavas was awarded the Victoria Cross. Simultaneously, the last remaining floating bridge between the Tongue of Arabat and the Crimea was burned by the paddle gunboat Curlew.
It was now apparent that the light squadron, and the new gunboats in particular, could go wherever they wanted and the Russians were powerless to stop them. Some extracts from Osborn’s despatches convey the daily nature of operations.
Delayed by the weather, we did not reach Berdyansk until July 15th. I hoisted a flag of truce in order, if possible, to get the women and children removed from the town; but, as we met with no reply, and the surf rendered landing extremely hazardous, I hauled it down and the squadron commenced to fire over the town at the forage and corn-stacks behind it; and I soon had the satisfaction of seeing a fire break out exactly where it was wanted. It became necessary to move into deeper water for the night; and, from our distant anchorage, the fires were seen burning throughout the night.
On the 16th the Allied squadron proceeded to Fort Petrovski, between Berdyansk and Mariupol. At 9.30 a.m., all arrangements having been made, the squadron took up their positions, the light-draught gunboats taking up stations east and west of the fort, and enfilading the works front and rear, whilst the heavier vessels formed a semicircle round the fort. The heavy nature of our ordnance soon not only forced the garrison to retire from the trenches, but also kept at a respectable distance the reserve force, consisting of three strong battalions of infantry and two squadrons of cavalry. We then commenced to fire with carcasses (i.e. incendiary shells) but, although partially successful, I was obliged to send the light boats of the squadron to complete the destruction of the fort and batteries, a duty I entrusted to Lieutenant Hubert Campion. Although the enemy, from an earthwork to the rear, opened a sharp fire on our men, Lieutenant Campion completed this service in the most able manner. Leaving the Swallow to check any attempt of the enemy to reoccupy the fort, the rest of the squadron proceeded to destroy great quantities of forage, and some of the most extensive fisheries, situated upon the White House Spit.
On July 17th, in consequence of information received of extensive depots of corn and forage existing at a town called Glafirovka upon the Asiatic coast, near Yeysk, I proceeded there with the squadron. The Vesuvius and Swallow were obliged to anchor some distance offshore. I therefore sent Commander Rowley Lambert (Curlew) with the gunboats Fancy, Grinder, Boxer, Cracker, Jasper, Wrangler and the boats of Vesuvius and Swallow. He found Glafirovka and its neighbourhood swarming with cavalry and therefore very properly confined his operations to destroying some very extensive corn and fish stores.
I next proceeded to the Crooked Spit in the Gulf of Azov (Taganrog) on the 18th; and I immediately ordered Commander Craufurd, in the Swallow, supported by the gunboats Grinder, Boxer and Cracker, and the boats of Vesuvius, Fancy and Curlew, to clear the spit and destroy the great fishing establishments situated upon it. While this service was being executed, I reconnoitred the mouth of the river Mius, 15.miles west of Taganrog, in HMS Jasper. The shallow nature of the coast would not allow us to approach within a mile and three-quarters of Fort Temenos. I returned to the same place, accompanied by the boats of HMS Vesuvius and Curlew, and HM gunboats Cracker, Boxer and Jasper. When we got to Fort Temenos and the usual Cossack picket had been driven off, I and Commander Lambert proceeded at once with the light boats up the river. When immediately under Fort Temenos, which stands upon a steep escarp of 80 feet, we found ourselves looked down upon by a large body of both horse and foot, lining the ditch and parapet of the work. Landing on the opposite bank, at good rifle-shot distance, one boat’s crew under Lieutenant Rowley was sent to destroy a collection of launches and a fishery, whilst a careful and steady fire of Minie rifles kept the Russians from advancing on us. We returned to the vessels, passing within pistol-shot of the Russian ambuscade.
On July 19th I reconnoitred Taganrog in the Jasper gunboat. A new battery was being constructed on the heights near the hospital, but, although two shots were thrown into it, it did not reply. To put a stop to all traffic and to harass the enemy in this neighbourhood, I ordered Commander Craufurd to remain in the Gulf with two gunboats.
A few days later the light squadron sustained its only serious loss of the campaign. The Jasper, commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Hudson, had silenced a Russian field battery. In an excess of enthusiasm, Hudson took the captured guns aboard as trophies, forgetting that the additional weight would result in the gunboat drawing more water. The ship ran aground and, although the guns were thrown over the side, she could not be got off. She was, therefore, abandoned and blown up – prematurely, some thought, in view of the small threat presented by the supine Russians. Despite this, during the weeks that followed, the light squadron continued to raid at will, to the point that repetition would become tedious. No sooner had the Russians brought forward fresh stores than they were destroyed long before they could reach the Crimea, either by gunfire or landing parties. In this way Genichesk, Beryansk, Taganrog, Mariupol, Arabat and other places on the Azov coast were all attacked regularly, in spite of strenuous Russian attempts to strengthen their defences.
Although the Russians were having much the worst of things in the Azov, their defence of Sevastopol was conducted with characteristic stubbornness. On 17-18 June Allied attempts to storm the Malakoff and the Redan, the garrison’s two principal defence works, were repulsed with heavy loss. Nevertheless, the cutting of the Crimean supply route began to affect both Sevastopol’s defenders and the Russian field army. On 16 August the latter made one last desperate attempt to dislodge the besiegers but were decisively defeated by the French and Sardinians on Traktir Ridge. As the fortress was now clearly doomed, the Russians began burning their remaining warships and made preparations to withdraw the garrison across the harbour. These were hastened when the French stormed the Malakoff on 8 September. That night the garrison withdrew after blowing up the rest of its fortifications, and the following morning the Allies occupied the city.
The fall of Sevastopol did not mean that the little ships’ work had ended. On the eastern side of the Kerch Straits the enemy had begun assembling a small army at Taman and Fanagorinsk and it was thought that when the winter ice closed the straits, this might be used to cross it and recapture Kerch. On 24 September an Allied force including the gunboats Lynx, Arrow and Snake, plus eight French gunboats, ferried nine infantry companies to Taman and provided covering fire while the troops disembarked. Taman was hastily abandoned, as was Fanogorinsk, where the fort and barracks were occupied and 62 guns rendered unserviceable. While this was taking place some 600 Cossacks appeared, only to be dispersed by the gunboats’ fire. The force then burned the buildings and retired to Kerch with a quantity of useful stores.
In the Sea of Azov the light squadron continued its depredations. On 4 November it was the turn of Glafirovka, the defences of which had been considerably strengthened since the last visit in July. Recruit, Grinder, Boxer and Cracker first engaged the enemy trenches with shrapnel while Clinker was towing in the boats of the landing party, then set the corn stores ablaze with carcasses. The fight ended with a charge by Marines and cutlass-wielding seamen, led by Lieutenants Day and Campion, which drove the Russians out of their positions. Simultaneously, other ships raided Yeysk so that the day’s operations left a two-mile stretch of coastline in flames. The last foray carried out by the gunboats and their landing parties penetrated the river Liman on 6 November, destroying stores piled along a four-mile frontage.
In the Caucasus, the Russians captured the Turkish fortress of Kars on 26 November, enabling the ministers of the new Tsar, Alexander II, to request peace negotiations with one success to their credit. The war had cost each side about a quarter of a million deaths, the majority caused by disease. Its results included the preservation of the Ottoman Empire’s integrity and the Tsar’s loss of his role as protector of the Sultan’s Orthodox Christian subjects.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the light squadron’s operations in the Sea of Azov were entirely responsible for the fall of Sevastopol. They did, however, make a considerable contribution to that end, and as far as resources and manpower were concerned, the light squadron was the most profit-bearing formation the Allies possessed. As Osborn commented in his despatch to his Commander-in-Chief:
I despair of being able to convey to you any idea of the extraordinary quantity of corn, rye, hay, wood and other supplies so necessary for the existence of the Russian armies, both in the Caucasus and the Crimea. During these proceedings we never had more than 200 men engaged.
Furthermore, at a trivial cost to itself, the squadron tied down tens of thousands of Russian troops across a wide area in an ineffective defence when they could have been more profitably employed elsewhere. In the subsequent honours and promotions Osborn became a Companion of the Bath and was promoted to captain; the rest of the squadron’s commanders also received promotion to captain, and the majority of its lieutenants became commanders. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Kerch/Sea of Azov operations. To our eyes, used to the strict application of the modern regulations governing the supreme award for valour, this may seem a surprisingly high number. It must, however, be remembered that at the time the newly instituted Victoria Cross was the only medal that could be awarded to officers and men of both British armed services for acts of exceptional gallantry; again, few would be so mean-spirited as to argue that the instances quoted above were unworthy of recognition.
The operations in the Sea of Azov also convinced the Royal Navy that, with the bulk of the Fleet retained in home waters for the defence of the United Kingdom, the so-called Crimean gunboats provided an ideal and inexpensive means of policing the often troubled waters of a global empire that was still expanding.
Taranto, an ancient town of something like 150,000 inhabitants, had so far been troubled less by war than by foul weather. During the first days of November heavy storms had damaged or destroyed many of its protective ring of balloons and it had not been possible to repair or replace them to anything near the usual numbers. Such as were still serviceable, twenty-seven in all, were kept permanently aloft at a uniform height of about 1,000 feet. The Mar Grande, anchorage for many merchant ships in addition to its naval facilities, is roughly circular with a diameter of something over 3 miles and carefully contrived means of entrance. The western, seaward, entrance is blocked at its middle by the large island called San Pietro; from it extend submerged breakwaters in both north-east and south-east directions; at the extreme south-east of the harbour entrance, beyond the gap where three AA gun batteries were moored, a mole named Diga di San Vito connects with the mainland. Entry points for surface vessels of all kinds were narrow and commanded by fire.
Around the circumference of the Mar Grande or mounted on pontoons within it stood twenty-one batteries of 4-inch guns, eighty-four heavy and 109 light machine guns and twenty-two searchlights, ‘mostly modern type, long range, placed on shore and on pontoons’, as the Italian Commander-in-Chief’s report on the defences puts it. These, of course, were merely the fixed defences. The ships had guns and lights of their own, at least doubling the volume of fire that could be turned on any visiting aircraft. The heavy cruisers mounted eighteen large-calibre machine guns apiece, the Cavour class battleships twice as many and the Littorios both carried a dozen medium-sized AA guns along with forty heavy automatics, all specifically designed and placed to take on enemy aircraft. On a cold calculation of probabilities it did not seem very likely that machines as slow and vulnerable as the Swordfish could hope to escape destruction when plunging into such a concentration of bullets and shells in so small a space. Nor was there any real hope, however pleasant it might be to imagine it, that the Italian Navy might be caught napping. The report mentioned before by the Italian Commander-in-Chief afloat, which fell into British hands later on, is quite clear about it: ‘AA artillery. All in working order in accordance with plans which had been prepared for some time, with the addition of numerous machine guns recently arranged to deal with torpedo aircraft’. All ships were, so it said, in a state of complete readiness, with watchfulness at night and at dawn being intensified. ‘Ships’ main armaments were half-manned; AA guns fully so.’ The orders to ships were clear enough: ‘No barrage fire at the same time as that of shore batteries. Machine guns to be manned and fired with the main armament against aircraft visible to the naked eye or illuminated by searchlight.’ The gunners were experienced and their weapons good.
Diving into this lethal goldfish bowl was going to be a desperately dangerous business and with nothing like certainty of success. All the same, the sudden eruption of noise as a dozen Pegasus engines roared into their dives could be expected to unsteady the strongest of nerves. It was the only factor to be counted upon apart from the skill and dexterity of the pilots. Knowing nearly all about this as they did, it was still a prospect regarded by the aircrews and their acolytes with the highest of spirits.
The Royal Navy was, so far, the only one to have used aircraft carriers in war and, though more than a year had passed, save in Norway, they had done nothing spectacular. Keeping roofs over convoys did not amount to anything exciting to people not concerned with seafaring matters. In addition, war with Italy was not the same as the fight to the death with Germany. It could almost have been said that Italy’s war was of Italy’s life a thing apart but it was Germany’s whole existence. Young English gentlemen, as a matter of course, learnt Latin; few of them learned German. Italy, never an enemy since the Legions had left Britannia, posed no threat to the homeland. It was the purest coincidence that Mussolini, that same night, was planning to send his bombers to help out the Luftwaffe over London. They did not come well out of it since the RAF shot them all down, and the gesture was not repeated. Nevertheless it was known that the Italians were housetrained, in spite of all the Fascist windbaggery, and when not up against such as the Abyssinians, would fight clean. Those unlucky enough to fall into their hands as prisoners could count on civilized treatment. To bomb Berlin would have been a pleasure, especially to those who had seen London, Coventry, Liverpool and a score of other such places as the Luftwaffe had visited. Nobody wanted to bomb Rome.
The RAF alone had earned all the glory going so far by thrashing the German Air Force in English skies. The Army, neglected until the last minute as always, was still waiting for an opportunity to fight its battles with something better than the equivalent of a sharpened stick. Now it was the turn of the Senior Service to put on a performance more effective than that of Keyes at Zeebrugge and give the country a demonstrable victory. It needed one very badly. November is a horrible month at the best of times and during this one the war could hardly have been going worse.
In accordance with Rear-Admiral Lyster’s orders, Illustrious ‘adjusted course and speed to pass through “Position X”, [270° and 40 miles from Kabbo Point], at 20.00, when course will be altered into wind and speed adjusted to give a speed of 30 knots.’ Four cruisers and the same number of destroyers mounted guard over her. It was a fine night, with a bright three-quarter moon but a lot of low cloud at about 8,000 feet.
By the prescribed time all the dozen Swordfishes, extra tanks crammed in (or, with the bombers, fastened between the wheels) so that their usual range might be doubled, were drawn up on the flight deck. By 20.40 all of them were airborne; by 20.57 they had formed up in ‘Vics’ as a squadron 8 miles from the ship and set a course for Taranto Bay, Williamson and Scarlett leading the torpedo-droppers in L4A. At best they had a flight of five or six hours, broken by a battle, to look forward to. Should any Italian aircraft of almost any fighting capacity put in an appearance the Stringbags, lacking their gunners, would have been cold meat. There was too much to do in plotting and keeping a course of 170 miles to worry about such things. By 21.15 the formation had become ragged with at least one aircraft gone adrift in the clouds. All, listening keenly to the notes of their Pegasus engines, pressed steadily on. Taranto Bay was not hard to find. An American Professor with the US Geological Survey has recently produced a paper asserting its regular shape to be the work of a meteorite 35 million years ago. It was about to experience a night probably the most animating since that event; certainly, with Sword-fishes dancing like mosquitoes round a pressure lamp, the most spectacular.
The RAF had been a good friend to the Navy by making constant visits to the neighbourhood in order to take photographs and generally see what was going on. It had indeed suggested that the entire job might be done by Wellingtons from Malta; as Wellingtons knew nothing of torpedoes the idea did not catch on. What actually took place on the night of the raid was not wholly according to plan. It appears that a Sunderland flying-boat, unconscious of what the Navy was doing, had blundered across the sky half an hour before the arrival of Williamson’s raiders and had triggered off the Italian sound detectors. So began the most important naval engagement in the Mediterranean for a very long time.
Charles Lamb flatly denied the official version of the Italian awakening by a peccant Sunderland. He had come to the FAA as mentioned earlier, by devious ways, first from the Merchant Navy and then, unable to find a sea-going berth, by way of the RAF. By the time of the Taranto strike he was 26 years old and a highly experienced practitioner. Because he had been given one of the less important tasks, second flare-dropper, he had a grandstand view of the first strike. His account of the matter is that ‘Almost as soon as we were airborne we had to climb through heavy cumulus cloud, and when we emerged into the moonlight at 7,500 feet only nine of the twelve aircrafts’ lights were in sight. When the others were unable to find their leader they flew direct to Taranto. One of them was Ian Swayne, who flew at sea level and reached the target area fifteen minutes before anyone else. He had no wish to be the first uninvited guest of the Italian Navy in Taranto, and for a quarter of an hour he flew to and fro, keeping the harbour in sight waiting for the main strike. There was nothing else he could do but, of course, his presence had been detected by the Italian listening devices, and as a result all the harbour defences and the ships had been alerted.’
Whichever plane had been the marplot, the damage was done. For Lyster’s plan to have any chance of success surprise was absolutely necessary and now this essential was gone. No participant, of course, seriously expected to swoop down upon a sleeping ship, release his torpedo and disappear into the night listening for the sound of a satisfactory explosion. The complicated web of agents built up by Italy over many years around the whole Mediterranean littoral meant that their Intelligence must have a pretty good idea of the Navy’s plans and of its capability. It is more than likely that the 1935 plan, even in its improved form, existed in copy somewhere in Mussolini’s Admiralty. The best that could be hoped for, and it was enormously important, was the gift of the first couple of minutes in which to get the work done before the anchored ships and their crews realized what was afoot. It would have been beyond anticipation that the countrymen of Rizzo and Rossetti would be caught off guard simply by a form of attack never tried before. As matters stood the Stringbag torpedo pilots had no choice but to dive into the maelstrom, pick out their targets as best they could, go through the drills they had practised so often and hope for the best.
The bombers, now without the slightest chance of catching the smaller ships, the seaplane base or the oil installations in unguarded postures, must set about them quickly before making themselves scarce. Once Taranto was in sight everything depended upon the skill and determination of each individual pilot. The observer had his work cut out in navigating the machine to the target and, with luck, in navigating it back to the carrier. During the attack his only function was to cling grimly on in his gyrating canvas box, making quite sure of being properly strapped in, watching and, if he felt like it, praying. Nobody envied the observer, for he could see everything and do nothing. It was the quality of the men at the controls that would settle the business and determine whether the Mar Grande was to be decorated with sunken battleships or wrecked Swordfishes. In a cramped area littered with wide-awake gunners manning pieces of every size and half-dazzled by the flashes they must somehow combine perfection of delivery of their weapons with the avoidance of destruction until at least that had been accomplished.
The official account remarks, on the subject of considerations in the minds of the planners, that ‘The AA fire likely to be encountered at Taranto was not considered a serious deterrent’.* It certainly did not deter but it was not a factor to be lightly dismissed. Again it is the official version which asserts that ‘Not until the flares had been dropped to the East of the MAR GRANDE at 2300 did the batteries open a barrage fire against the strike, the light AA weapons on the ships joining in as the torpedo attack was delivered some minutes later’. Lamb remarked something different: ‘For the last 15 minutes of our passage across the Ionian Sea Scarlett had no navigational problems, for Taranto could be seen from a distance of 50 miles or more, because of the welcome awaiting us. The sky over the harbour looked as it sometimes does over Mount Etna, in Sicily, when the great volcano erupts. The darkness was being torn apart by a firework display which spat flame into the night to a height of nearly 5,000 feet. “They don’t seem very pleased to see us,” said Grieve. As he spoke “Blood” Scarlett’s dimmed Aldis light flashed the breakaway signal to Kiggell and me, telling us to start adding to the illuminations over the crowded harbour.’ It seems hard to contradict the man who writes that ‘for an unforgettable half hour I had a bird’s eye view of history in the making’. For that Charles Lamb certainly had.
This appears to have been the sequence of events. The Italian gunners in the San Vito area, away to the south-east, opened barrage first at about 22.50 as the first aircraft arrived. Fortunately it was aimed in the wrong direction, away from Williamson and the rest. Two minutes later the flare-droppers were detached and made their way eastward, either through or over the balloon barrage. By 13.02 Kiggell and Janvrin in L4P had laid their line of parachute flares, 4,500 feet up and half a mile apart, neatly silhouetting the battleships for the torpedo-droppers. Each flare had a delay action of 1,000 feet before it ignited and the high-angle guns, more interested in bagging these than in anything else, hit nothing. Their tracer shells, known still by the First War name of ‘flaming onions’, gave fair warning of approach to anything as agile as a Swordfish.
From his position of advantage Lamb saw the entire performance by the first strike, and a fearsome sight it was. ‘Before the first Swordfish had dived to the attack, the full-throated roar from the guns of six battleships and the blast from the cruisers and destroyers made the harbour defences seem like a side-show.’ Into this volcanic eruption of flame and steel the Fleet Air Arm had to descend. It seemed to the observers above beyond belief that anything could not be ripped to shreds by the sheer volume of the fire, however ill-directed it might be.
The leader arrived at the harbour entrance precisely as Kiggell’s first flare burst into a cloud of yellow light, so brilliant that it turned the blue-grey camouflage of Williamson’s aircraft into a shining white. Lamb watched it dive from 5,000 feet to sea level, below the flak, and quickly lost sight of what came next. Along with Sparke and Neale in L4C and Macaulay and Wray in L4R Williamson and Scarlett came in over the batteries at 4,000 feet and instantly went into a dive. Their target was Cavour and to come within torpedo range of her it would have been necessary to fly between the cables of the balloons to the south-west of the battleship anchorage, over the mole named Diga di Tarantola followed immediately by releasing. Then their luck ran out. In the words of the official report, after explaining how they had flown to the centre of the Mar Grande, ‘This was the last seen of L4A by the British. The aircraft was sighted in the path of the moon diving at high speed with the engine cut out at 23.14 by the destroyer Fulmine, which at once opened fire at about 1,000 yards range. L4A’s torpedo, dropped from a height of about 30 feet, narrowly missed the Fulmine and hit the Cavour. The aircraft then crashed near the floating dock. Both officers were rescued by the Italians and made prisoners of war.’
That is the official version. Scarlett did not put it in quite the same way. He was not wholly convinced that whilst turning in the middle of the harbour in order to make their getaway they had been shot down at all. ‘We put a wing-tip in the water. I couldn’t tell. I just fell out of the back into the sea. We were only about 20 feet up. It wasn’t very far to drop. I never tie myself in on these occasions. Then old Williamson came up a bit later on and we hung about by the aircraft which still had its tail sticking out of the water. Chaps ashore were shooting at it. The water was boiling so I swam off to a floating dock and climbed on board that. We didn’t know we’d done any good with our torpedoes. Thought we might have, because they all looked a bit long in the face, the Wops.’
They had, indeed, hit Cavour fair and square, the only aircraft in the strike to achieve a result so lethal. Cavour died of wounds. A hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow was fatal. Though beached and abandoned immediately, she was firmly on the bottom by breakfast time on the following day. One has to hope that Scarlett was satisfied. He was a reluctant aviator, press-ganged in 1937 as an observer when, as he said, ‘I wanted to be in destroyers, not bloody aeroplanes’. By the time approval came through for his transfer back to general service, following an application made in the old Glorious days, ‘Blood’ Scarlett was busily engaged in being a model prisoner of war. He developed such a talent for infuriating guards that he was turned over to the Germans. In 1945 he was the instigator of an attempt to escape from a camp at Lübeck for which he was Mentioned in Despatches. The ducking probably saved his life; few of the forty who flew to Taranto lived for long afterwards.
The two other aircraft in the sub-flight could not be expected to repeat such a success. L4C, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant (A) P.J.D. Sparke, and L4R with Sub-Lieutenant A.S.D. Macaulay at the controls both crossed the Diga di Tarantola at about the same 30 feet as their leader had done and looked for victims. This was not as easy as it may sound. Sparke was after the flagship Vittorio Veneto, moored a little to the north of the point at which the two survivors of Williamson’s sub-flight loosed their torpedoes and swung 180 degrees round to return by the same way that they had come. Much nearer, almost underneath them as they made the turn and firing with every machine gun she possessed, was the recently arrived and not yet hit Cavour. Sparke, under the impression that he was aiming for the flagship, let slip his torpedo at Cavour from a range of about 700 yards. Macaulay followed suit. Neither torpedo found a mark. The watch aboard Andrea Doria, a little to Cavour’s north-east, reported two bombs as having exploded near her at 2,3.15. Since no bombs were dropped at or near that time and place it seems a safe assumption that the noises came from the wasted torpedoes of L4C and L4R. Both crews were back on the flight deck of Illustrious a little before 01.30, touching down within five minutes of each other. Only three torpedoes remained of the six with which the First Striking Force had set off.
The other flight of torpedo-bombers occupied themselves with ships in the northern half of the Mar Grande. Swayne’s L4M, as you know, had been hanging about the harbour mouth for a quarter of an hour waiting for their turn. On seeing Kiggell’s flares beginning to light the place up at 23.02, Swayne and Buscall crossed the submerged breakwater at 1,000 feet and streaked across the centre of the Mar Grande losing height all the time. At 23.15 they made out the shape of a large battleship, Littorio, and turned sharply to port, bringing her into the torpedo sight. L4M’s missile needed no Duplex pistol. It struck Littorio on the port quarter and exploded satisfactorily. This was not Littorio’s only misfortune, for she was as unlucky as her sister Vittorio Veneto had been the reverse. Almost at the same moment as Swayne struck her aft another torpedo hit the starboard bow. This came from L4K, the Swordfish of Lieutenant Kemp. He had steered a course well to the north of the others, following the coastline of the Mar Grande to the entrance to the inner harbour; there he had made his swing southwards, under intense AA fire of all kinds, and let drive at a range of about 1,000 yards.
Eagle’s aircraft, E4F, Lieutenants Maund and Bull, came in from an even further northerly direction but soon picked up and followed Kemp. E4F was the unlucky one. Her torpedo, dropped very near to Kemp’s ‘grounded short and exploded harmlessly’. Thus were all six torpedoes of the First Striking Force accounted for. All the Swordfishes made their ways safely home, Bailey noting carefully that he had seen several shells from the anchored cruisers hitting their own merchantmen.
These aircraft had survived not merely a very heavy bombardment by AA guns of all shapes and sizes but they had run the risk, by no means negligible, of entangling themselves in the forests of balloon cables. A conversation, possibly apocryphal but still credible, has passed into folklore. Pilot to observer: ‘Where’s that bloody balloon barrage?’ Observer to pilot: ‘We’ve been through it once and we’re just going through it again.’ Another conversation, firmly attributable, survives also. Charles Lamb and his observer, Lieutenant K.C. Grieve, were making their way back each seriously believing that their L5B might well be the only Swordfish to have come through. Lamb, having said through the Gosport Tube what they were both thinking, added that ‘All the top brass will want to know exactly what happened and whether the attack was a success and how many hits were scored and so on, and if we are the only survivors they will expect us to know. Frankly, I saw nothing, apart from the flak which covered the whole harbour. I couldn’t see beyond it. Did you see whether Neil Kemp and company got any hits?’ Grieve, plainly not a great talker, answered, ‘You were throwing the aircraft about like a madman half the time, and every time I tried to look over the side the slipstream nearly whipped off my goggles! The harbour was blanked out by ack-ack and I had to check with the compass to see which way we were facing.’ In all probability every observer might have said something like it.
Lamb, the excitement over, meditated for a moment. ‘On the way back from these parties I always breathed a small prayer of thanks that I was not an observer,’ he wrote many years later. ‘Their responsibilities ended at the target until it was time to go home again, and then they had to be very cool-headed and accurate and do difficult sums. When the excitement was at its height all they could do was sit tight and pray.’ There can hardly be room for two opinions about that; but observers might well have had something much the same, though with obvious variations, to say about their pilots.
Time was soon to show that the understandable feelings of gloom were based on no foundation. The first striking force was not doing at all badly. The torpedo carriers were, of course, the heavy cavalry but there was work enough for the others. The bombers were badly let down by their equipment, but that they had as yet no reason to know.
Three aircraft, E5A, E5Q and L4H, had been given the secondary task of bombing such ships as they could find and, for good measure, the unmissable oil fuel depot. There was no shortage of targets. On the Italian Navy’s own official figures, the Mar Grande housed six battleships, three heavy cruisers and eight destroyers; in the Mar Piccolo there were two more heavy cruisers moored to buoys, two more along with two smaller ones lying bow and stern to the wharf like yachts on the riviera; twenty-one more destroyers, five torpedo boats, sixteen submarines, nine tankers and a good many smaller fry shared what should have been the safety of this enclosed basin. The Italian fleet in Taranto was far from negligible.
The most experienced pilot was Captain ‘Ollie’ Patch of the Royal Marines. At 26 and already with a DSO for his part in the Bomba Bay affair, he was one of the senior men and his observer, Lieutenant Goodwin, was even older. E5A arrived over San Pietro island a couple of minutes after the flare-droppers, having become separated on the way. On arrival Patch was conscious of some disappointment, for ‘there was nothing much happening’. Such account as he gave to posterity, in the same way as Scarlett, was preserved in his obituary. Before very long he was ‘diving down through a hail of anti-aircraft fire and a wonderful Brock’s benefit of tracer and searchlights’. These last probably came from the ships in the Mar Piccolo in which he was interesting himself. The multiplicity of targets was confusing, a confusion not helped by the volume of fire from heavy machine guns that all seemed to be directed at him as the Swordfish crossed the inner harbour from north-west to south-east. The two heavy cruisers at buoys – they would have been Trieste and Bolzano – looked the most deserving and Patch set about dive-bombing them. It does not seem that any of the bombs connected with their targets; probably this was no great matter for, according to the Italians, few of the bombs dropped that night exploded anyway. Once they had been dropped, however, Patch and Goodwin had to make their escape from the furthest point reached by anybody. The evasive action needed was violent, so much so that ‘his observer sitting behind him was thrown out of his seat and but for the “monkey’s tail” wire that secured him to the aircraft, would have gone straight overboard’. Patch, having evaded one battery by dodging behind a hill, rather cleverly took his machine low down over the roofs of the citizens of Taranto, ‘unmolested except for one horrid little man firing at us’. E5A then steered a highly individual course eight miles to the east of the town and arrived safely home at 01.35.
As the other two bomber crews were less fortunate in their obituarists they have less corroborative detail. Their bravery went unrewarded. Consider L4H, the Swordfish of the young Sub-Lieutenants Forde and Mardel-Ferreira, one of the four RNVR officers there. They too attacked heavy cruisers in the Mar Piccolo and hit nothing; but read slowly this bald statement: ‘First bomb fell in water short of the two 8-inch cruisers. During the dive intense AA fire was suffered. The pilot was not sure that his bombs had dropped, so turned round in the western part of the Mar Piccolo and repeated the attack’. ‘Best traditions of the Navy’ can be a joke expression; not always.
The last bomber, Eagle’s E5Q, had good cause to grumble. The aircraft, manned by Lieutenant Murray and Sub-Lieutenant Paine, arrived to the eastward of Cape San Vito just as the flares were beginning to burn. Then they carried out a systematic attack with their four bombs along the line of moored ships at the wharf-side, maintaining a steady height of 3,000 feet. By good luck, excellent judgment or both they dropped one of their 250-lb semi-armour piercing bombs squarely on the destroyer Libeccio. The next sentence almost writes itself. The bomb failed to go off and two disgusted naval officers flew back to their carrier.
Kemp’s observer, Bailey, had mentioned seeing a fire burning in ‘the vicinity of the seaplane base’. This would have been the work of the most junior combatants of all, Sub-Lieutenant Sarra and Mr Midshipman Bowker in L4L. Their approach had been made at a much higher level, for they were bombers not torpedo-launchers. L4L came in over Cape Rondinella – it means ‘little swallow’ – at about 8,000 feet, dived over the Mar Grande down to 1500, hotly pursued by every sort of gunfire, and looked to see what they could most profitably bomb. Hardly surprisingly Bowker found himself unable to choose between such a multiplicity of targets and, being a sensible young man, he directed his driver to the seaplane base. The result was more satisfactory than with most of the bombings. All of them exploded and the hangar and slipway were hit as well as ‘a storehouse which blew up with a loud explosion’. These were, presumably, the buildings and installations so carefully put up by the RNAS in 1917. The young men had more than their share of luck. On landing, they counted seventeen bullet holes in their Stringbag, more than any other had suffered save only for Wellham, whose turn was yet to come.
The second pair of flare-droppers were amongst the last away. Lamb, astern of Kiggell and Janvrin and with little to do, persuaded himself that he was in no danger but that every one of the torpedo-droppers must have been smashed to pieces. Having obediently bombed the oil installations, with about as much success as the others, he defiantly and rudely excreted his flares one by one in order to give the Italians something more upon which to waste ammunition. He and Grieve flew unhappily back to Illustrious firmly convinced, as has been already told, that they were the only survivors.
So ended the foray of the First Striking Force. All save the leader were back on board by 02.00 with not so much as a burst tyre between them. The damage inflicted consisted of two torpedo hits on Littorio, one on Cavour and a heavy piece of pig-iron and explosive dropped on Libeccio. The cost was one Swordfish and two officers, missing believed killed.
After the various mishaps to aircraft already related, it can hardly come as a surprise that the Second Striking Force was smaller than originally planned. It came close to being smaller still. L5F had very nearly lost her observer before the operation began. Early on the morning of the nth, when on a routine patrol, the Swordfish then carrying him had force landed in the sea some 20 miles distant from Illustrious. Going and his telegraphist-airgunner had been shot over the nose, head-first into the water, picked up by the cruiser Gloucester and flown home in her ‘Shagbat’ – Walrus amphibian. The ducking was no deterrent, though it did once more make the point that open-cockpit aircraft still had their advantages. Going remarked that ‘it was a most comfortable way to ditch, no pain being suffered by anyone’. The observation suggests meiosis. Going had no intention of being left out of the main business, as later events were to show.
The second flight began to take off at 21.23, as Williamson’s squadron was somewhere near the half-way mark. All that could be mustered was five machines carrying torpedoes, two bombers and two more doubling as bombers and flare-droppers. As the Swordfish’s bomb load counted six apiece for the bombers proper and two for the flare-droppers they did not add up to anything very formidable on that score. Once more the torpedo launchers were the grandees of the operation. There could be no question of a second surprise attack. Even if the defenders were not expecting to be hit a second time they would have recovered from the first shock and been very ready to open up with every weapon they had. No member of the second strike crews could have thought otherwise. It was not a deterrent.
The nine aircraft detailed for the task looked like being reduced to eight even before becoming airborne. Lieutenant Going, you will remember, had already had one watery experience that day. When he and his pilot, Lieutenant Clifford, were told that something had gone amiss with one of the 250-lb bombs their Swordfish was carrying they could quite honourably have taken no part in the operation. They took another view of the matter. Speaking, one may fairly infer, unkindly to those whose fault it had been, Clifford and Going insisted on the damage being put to rights even if it would mean their being late for the fair. Work was instantly put in hand. Hardly believably it was all finished within 25 minutes.
The remaining eight took off at 23.50, almost exactly a quarter of an hour after the last machine of the first strike had left the scene of action. The outward-bound adventures were not over yet. A short distance from Illustrious, while still jilling about awaiting the march off in formation, L5Q, the aircraft of Lieutenant Morford and Sub-Lieutenant Green, met with misfortune. The external overload petrol tank, badly secured in some fashion, fell off. The fittings began to bang against the fuselage. With fuel only for half the journey and unknown damage done the crew had no choice but to return. It was not a contingency for which plans had been made. On approaching Illustrious Green fired a red Very light. Those on board plainly regarded this as a hostile act; Illustrious opened fire, soon to be joined by Berwick. It was no more effective than usual. A two-star identification light made all things clear, the firing stopped and two crestfallen young officers climbed down on to the carrier’s deck. To compensate for their loss, for L5Q had also been a bomber, Clifford and Going, faint but pursuing, caught up with the others after a loss of 24 minutes’ flying time just as the battle was beginning.
The torpedo-carriers flew in to the north of cape Rondinella, keeping well away from the batteries on San Pietro island. The design was for each to cross the Mar Grande along its northern shore diving sharply from 5,000 feet to about 30, loosing the torpedoes at the battleships and returning to sea on a parallel course to the south. The flare-droppers would have arrived from a diametrically opposite position, over Cape San Vito and once more coming between the battleships and the moon. The two Swordfishes involved, L5B (Lieutenant Hamilton and Sub-Lieutenant Weekes) and L4F, (Lieutenant Skelton and Sub-Lieutenant Perkins) experienced no great difficulty in carrying out their share. That done, with lines of brightness burning along the east and south-east of the Mar Grande, they followed the examples of their precursors and set about the oil installations with bombs; ‘it was thought unsuccessfully,’ Perkins honestly reported. They could, however, stake a claim to a small fire.
Moments later the torpedo launchers swept over Cape Rondinella and dived over the merchant ship harbour under an intense barrage. The leader, Hale and Carline in L5A, in close company with L5H, (Lieutenant Lea and Sub-Lieutenant Jones) and E4H (Lieutenants Bayly and Slaughter), all went for the Littorio, still suffering from the first strike’s attentions. E4H suddenly veered to starboard, across the path of the other two, and either exploded in mid-air or crashed into the sea. It is the general belief based on the official Italian account that the aircraft was attempting to hit not the battleship but the cruiser Gorizia; a torpedo was later found floating in the outer harbour with its striking head crushed but the warhead undetonated. It can hardly have come from anywhere else. Slaughter and Bayly were never seen alive again.
Hale and the team led by his L5K enjoyed better fortune. Michael Torrens-Spence had been described by a brother officer as one of the Navy’s most accomplished aviators. ‘Tiffy’, as his friends called him, was an Ulsterman, a maintenance test pilot and second in command of 819 Squadron. Charles Lamb had written that, during the Greek campaign, he was to bring the Italian cruiser Pola to a standstill with his single torpedo. When the Italian captain was rescued from his sinking ship by the destroyer Jervis he observed, with emotion, that ‘Either that pilot is mad or he is the bravest man in the world’. It was well known in the wardroom, says Lamb, that Torrens-Spence, by reason of an innate nervousness, would push home any attack almost to the point of suicide. On the night of Taranto he and his leader swooped down together round the northern line of the balloons and inside the nets. Their torpedoes dropped almost simultaneously from a point about 700 yards north of the anchored and already wounded Littorio. Both observers told of intense AA fire of all kinds from battleships, cruisers and the shore batteries. One torpedo scored a palpable hit on Littorio’s starboard bow, the time of the explosion being exactly logged as 00.01. Nobody will ever know, nor probably now care very much, whether this one or another torpedo found stuck in the mud under the battleship’s keel came from the leader. Just this once the Duplex pistol seems to have failed.
The Italian flagship Vittorio Veneto came through the whole affair without a scratch. It seems, though certainty is not possible, that the torpedo released during the First Strike by Williamson’s wingman, Lieutenant Sparke in L4C, was intended for her even though it is recorded simply as having missed Cavour. The flagship’s luck held out through the Second Strike even when she became the target of one of Eagle’s best pilots, Lieutenant (A) J.W.G. Wellham, DSC, in E5H. Like the others, he flew in over Cape Rondinella at about 8,000 feet and followed his leader down through the flak. As he did so the first of the flares burst out to the eastward and the fire from the ground grew even more fierce. Wellham, having lost sight of the other aircraft, chose what seemed a hole in the pattern of red, yellow and green tracer that streamed around his aircraft and dived steeply with speed building up to 170 knots. Then E5H met with misfortune. Having escaped damage from every sort of gunfire she collided with a masterless barrage balloon that had been cut adrift by some means or other. As E5H began to plunge down into the middle of Taranto city, almost unmanageable from the damage she had taken, Wellham fought with the controls in order to make sure that his machine would survive and his torpedo would do something useful. Over his right shoulder loomed the bulk of a great ship – Vittorio Veneto herself – and she in turn had seen E5H. Through fire even greater than anything before, since the battleship’s guns of all kinds were setting about him, Wellham managed to make a turn of 180 degrees and, with one wing dragging, let drive with his torpedo, made a vertical turn to starboard, and sped off almost across the water.* Later investigation showed that the rod connecting the ailerons on the port side upper and lower wings had been smashed and the jagged ends were grinding together, leaving one aileron up and the other down. Add a large hole in the lower main plane on the same side and one may understand why the Fleet Air Arm insists so firmly that no other aircraft could stand such knocking about. Nor was the quality of pilots behind; only men of Wellham’s skill, experience and doggedness could have brought his Stringbag home in such a state. If any aircraft deserved to have scored a torpedo hit it was E5H. But none was recorded. Pat Humphreys, the observer, exhibited a sang-froid worthy of the occasion and of himself, bringing them home to a spectacular landing on Illustrious at a few minutes before 3 a.m.
There were to be further victims to the second striking force. Lieutenant Lea and Sub-Lieutenant Jones, the last of the torpedo men, brought L5H over Cape Rondinella between the two aircraft which were to go for Vittorio Veneto. Peeling off at about the same spot, hard by the Mar Piccolo entrance, they launched their torpedo at the battleship Duilio from about 600 yards. It struck her on the starboard side, abreast No 2 turret, at a depth of 29½ feet. It was not the moment to enquire further about the damage caused. Lea and Jones were off across San Pietro pursued by ‘violent fire from cruisers, destroyers and shore batteries’. They, too, were untouched.
Lastly came the laggard L5F of Clifford and Going. They had set a slightly different course and arrived from the far, or eastern, side of the harbour. After circling around the Mar Piccolo entrance they were rewarded with the sight of all the neatly parked cruisers and destroyers lined up against the wharf like cigarettes in a case. Their gunners in turn had seen L5F and set about making life difficult for her. It does not appear that they hit anything; the British armament factories saved them. A bomb hit the cruiser Trento very satisfactorily. It failed to explode. Other bombs narrowly missed destroyers, near enough to have damaged their thin plating had they gone off. The official account observes it to have been ‘a poor reward for his [Clifford’s] bravery’. Possibly he and Going put it in other words. By about 3 o’clock in the morning all but the two casualties were home, unscathed but very tired. They had little enough idea of what they had achieved and were not able to give any detailed account of the damage done. Until fresh photographs came in from the RAF it was possible only to wonder whether or not the whole business had been as Lamb said on the way to the briefing room: ‘It looks as though we made a complete cock of it tonight, which is why we’ve got to go back again. But I don’t see how it can be any better on a second attempt. Rather the reverse.’
Certainly it looked as if Admiral Cunningham was going to insist upon another try. Orders had been given for the fitters and riggers to have their machines ready for a second assault and it all sounded deadly serious. One officer was heard to remark that even the Light Brigade hadn’t been told to do it again. This may well have been near the mark. How could anything worth while be done without a large butcher’s bill? The Light Brigade had been almost wiped out; the Fleet Air Arm had had no more casualties than were sustained on a Bank Holiday Monday on the Brighton road. The weather scotched any attempt at repetition.
There are confused signals about the proposed second run-in. Admiral Cunningham in his Memoirs asserts that ‘The aircrews were in a state of great jubilation. They clamoured to repeat the operation the same night. I agreed at first when Rear-Admiral Lyster made the suggestion, though I rather felt that when the excitement wore off and the strain of their ordeal began to tell upon the aircrews it would be unfair to send them in again. I therefore felt somewhat relieved when a bad weather report automatically put a stop to a second venture.’ Lieutenant Lamb and his brother officers would have found this surprising. When he made his remark about not seeing how it could be done better at a second attempt, ‘Grieve answered my words with a look of sickened dismay’.
The Paymaster Commander, having fortified Lamb with an enormous whisky and soda and asked what he thought of the ‘Welcome Home’ sign put up by the stewards, received the answer, ‘I shall be more pleased to see it this time tomorrow’. The Paymaster Commander, plainly a man of excellent judgment, replied, ‘Drink that and you’ll feel better. Then have another. I’ve got a feeling in my water that none of you will be going back. Want to take a bet on it?’ Lamb took it. ‘That was one bet I was very relieved to lose.’ Sir Andrew did acknowledge the bravery, skill and determination by a signal to Illustrious that has become history: ‘Manoeuvre well executed’. One can not avoid the feeling that Admiral Riccardi would have phrased it better.
The photographs taken by the faithful RAF as soon as the light thinned brought strong evidence that no second attack would have been needed. The results of the first looked very satisfactory indeed.
Consider for a moment the gauntlet that the aircrews had had to run. Taranto was a naval base of the first order, equivalent in its own way to Portsmouth or Wilhelmshaven. Naturally enough it was furnished with guns of all shapes and sizes in profusion. There were batteries on San Pietro island, where the harbour entrance was partially blocked, floating batteries along the submerged breakwaters on either side of the island, at intervals around the harbour perimeter and, just to make sure no gaps had been left, on pontoons moored at four points in the Mar Grande. The returns of ammunition expended on this November night fell into the hands of the Royal Navy after the Italian surrender. They give a total figure of 13,489 rounds, roughly two-thirds being shells from cannon of more than 3” calibre and the remainder dispensed by machine guns of all sizes.
The Italian records are confined to shore batteries alone but contain the remark that ‘Ships’ gunfire was confined to machine guns; expenditure is unknown’. This sounds less than likely. The battleships and cruisers alone carried many heavy weapons – the Cavours carried eighteen AA guns of more than 3″ calibre and the Littorios a dozen each – and Charles Lamb was quite firm that it was the ships’ guns that contributed most to the volume. It is improbable that any exact figure of rounds blazed away will ever be put together now, certainly in the tally of small arms ammunition; nor does it greatly matter. There were enough projectiles covering the harbour to have shredded every Swordfish had they been better directed. Not unreasonably the heavier pieces were turned on the flares. Bring them down and the aircraft would be blinded. The time lag between the dropping and the ignition was, however, too great for artillery successes. Neither flare nor dropper was touched.
Other guns began by firing lines of shells so low that they seemed to be hitting each other. That discovered, they lifted their sights and provided an umbrella of flame and steel under which the Swordfishes flew unscathed. Had the gunners continued to fire low, at water level, they could hardly have failed to hit some or all of the torpedo-droppers. All of these, save of course Williamson and Bayly, made their way back scarcely at all above the level of the sea; Michael Torrens-Spence actually bounced off the water as he came through the harbour entrance with wheels partly submerged. The reason for firing barrages at that altitude was obvious. At any other, many shells would have hit the town and probably as many would have found their targets on Italian ships. Kemp, of L4K, says firmly that ‘Several shells from the cruisers were seen to hit merchant ships in harbour’.
It would have required something exceptional in the way of gunnery procedures to have achieved much against the torpedo-droppers once each had finished its run-in. The lower a ‘fish’ can be dropped the better, and performance is much improved once the weight of nearly 2,000 lbs has gone. The attacks made by Williamson’s flight lasted only five minutes from arrival to departure, except only for Williamson’s L4A. The bombers, higher up and there for longer, would have made more rewarding targets.
Then comes the matter of searchlights. No pilot reported having encountered any. The concensus of opinion on their return was that the Italians had thus deprived themselves of a possibly good bag. Ian Swayne is quoted by Lamb as having expressed the opinion that, had they used their lights, they would have shot down every single aircraft. Lamb, from his position of advantage, disagreed vehemently: ‘From above I could see that the opposite was the case; because the aircraft were only a few feet above sea level, the use of searchlights would have floodlit the six battleships and the harbour defences, and greatly assisted the attacking aircraft in selecting their target.’ He adds that ‘From my position astern of Kiggell and Janvrin I was in no danger whatever and could watch proceedings at leisure. I have never been in less danger in any attack than I was that night, when the rest of the squadron were flying into the jaws of hell. I was convinced that none of the torpedoing aircraft could have survived.’
Whatever the benefits or otherwise of searchlight activity for the defenders, it seems that the failure to use them was caused by consternation rather than fire plan. The report of the Italian Commander-in-Chief Afloat to the Chief of Naval Staff, compiled after the attack, is specific enough. Under the heading ‘Defence of Anchorage’, it reads:- ‘Defence of outer anchorage from air attack was arranged as follows:-
Shore batteries (4.09-inch, 4.02-inch and 3.05-inch).
Stations ashore and afloat, of machine guns (0.8-inch and 1.6-inch) were specially detailed to engage torpedo aircraft. ‘Photo-electrics’, ashore and on pontoons, could intercept on moonlight nights either bombers or torpedo aircraft, according to arrangements made by Central Control.
The part to be played by ships at anchor was as follows:- No barrage fire at the same time as the shore batteries.
Machine guns to be manned and fired with the main armament against aircraft visible to the naked eye or illuminated by searchlight.
On moonlight nights two searchlights a ship to work with those of the shore batteries in previously defined sectors, for defence against torpedo aircraft. These had to be integrated with the searchlights worked by the base.’
Nobody could accuse the Italian authorities of not trying. The plan did not work out as had been hoped. Such has happened to nations other than Italy at most times throughout recorded history. The report ends, a touch plaintively, with an assertion that recent enemy air activity had ‘served as a warning of heavy air attacks’. Against aircraft less acrobatic than the Stringbag and pilots of lesser quality than these the Italians might have enjoyed better fortune.
Mr Churchill, in accordance with his nature, expressed a view rather more generous than that of the Admiral. On the day after the Stringbags, less two, had returned to the nest he stood up in Parliament and spoke with feeling. The Prime Minister deserved his opportunity after months and months of nothing but failure and defeat to report. He took it. ‘I have some news for the House. It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow at the Italian fleet. The total strength of the Italian battle fleet was six battleships, two of them of the “Littorio” class, which have just been put into service and are, of course, among the most powerful vessels in the world and four of the recently reconstructed “Cavour” class. This fleet was, to be sure, considerably more powerful on paper than our Mediterranean Fleet, but it had consistently refused to accept battle. On the night of the 11th–12th November, when the main units of the Italian fleet were lying behind their shore defences in their naval base at Taranto, our aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm attacked them in their stronghold.’
He went on, not without relish, to set out in some detail all that the photographs rushed to him by the RAF had depicted. His exposition was as accurate as it could be from photographs alone. ‘It is now established that one battleship of the “Littorio” class was badly down by the bows and that her forecastle is under water and she has a heavy list to starboard. One battleship of the “Cavour” class has been beached, and her stern, up to and including the turret, is under water. This ship is also heavily listed to starboard. It has not yet been possible to establish the fact with certainty, but it appears that a second battleship of the “Cavour” class has also been severely damaged and beached. In the inner harbour of Taranto two Italian cruisers are listed to starboard and are surrounded with oil fuel, and two fleet auxiliaries are lying with their sterns under water. The Italian communique of 12th November, in admitting that one warship had been severely damaged, claimed that six of our aircraft had been shot down and three more probably. In fact only two of our aircraft are missing, and it is noted that the enemy claimed that part of the crews had been taken prisoner. I felt it my duty to bring this glorious episode to the immediate notice of the House. As the result of a determined and highly successful attack, which reflects the greatest honour on the Fleet Air Arm, only three Italian battleships remain effective.’
The Prime Minister went on to speak of heroism of a more customary kind, the loss of the Jervis Bay along with Captain Fogarty Fegen and his entire ship’s company, sunk by the German battleship she had taken on in a hopeless, valiant, attack in order to give her convoy some chance to get away. It was the first time since the purely defensive Battle of Britain that Mr Churchill had been able to speak of hitting back, and hitting back hard. Along with the entire nation, he made the most of it.
It took some days before a proper assessment of the damage could be made. Littorio, though looking dramatic with two naval auxiliaries, a large submarine, a tanker and several smaller craft close alongside, was not desperately hurt, certainly not for a ship fairly struck by three torpedoes. The two hits scored by the first strike had holed her. Neil Kemp’s hit on the starboard bow had blown an opening 49 by 32 feet in the bulge abreast No 1 6-inch turret; that from Ian Swayne in L4M had opened up another on the port quarter, 23 feet by 5, abreast the tiller flat. The second strike, that of Torrens-Spence in L5K, had been the most damaging. The torpedo had struck home at a very low level on the starboard side, forward of Kemp’s hit, blowing a hole 40 feet by 30. Less importantly, the fourth torpedo was found in the mud under Littorio’s stern – there was an unaccountable dent in her starboard quarter – with its striking cap damaged by impact after passing the target. Praise is due to Engineer Inspector-General Umberto Pugliese and the Ansaldo company for designing and building a ship strong enough to survive such punishment. Littorio, down by the bows and with her forecastle awash, retired hurt. She was, however, capable of repair and was back at sea by the end of the following March. Perhaps the 18″ torpedo, even with the Duplex fuse, was not the ultimate weapon for use against battleships and their like.
The older ships, Cavour and Duilio, were in a worse plight. Williamson’s torpedo had made the biggest impression of them all, leaving a hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow under the foremost turret. Two oil fuel tanks were flooded, and only with difficulty were the adjacent compartments prevented from flooding as well. L4A, whatever the fate of its occupants, had delivered a knock-out punch. At 05.45 Cavour was towed inshore and abandoned, settling comfortably down with her stern on the bottom. Almost all her decks were under water, the after turret submerged entirely. She was refloated in July, 1941, and towed to Trieste but for the Conte di Cavour the war was over. She never came back.
Duilio was the victim of L5H in the second striking force. ‘Sprog’ Lea’s torpedo had made a clean hit on the starboard side at a depth of 29 ft 6 in and blown a gap 36 feet by 23 between Nos 1 and 2 magazines. Both were completely flooded. Like her sister, Caio Duilio was beached, patched up and towed to Genoa. Repairs took until the end of May, 1941.
The Official Report rounds it off: ‘The results of the bombing attacks were not noticeable at the time. It is now known that the Trento and Libeccio received direct hits from bombs which failed to explode, and other ships were narrowly missed; according to the Italians, few of these bombs exploded.’ This was a disappointment of some order. Ranged alongside at the destroyer/cruiser quay complex had been twenty-one destroyers and large torpedo boats with four cruisers berthed bow and stern along a frontage of no more than 1,000 yards. Had that not been target enough there were three more destroyers and two more heavy cruisers just offshore. The two bombs out of two dozen that hit but failed to explode caused a small amount of damage – the RAF photographs show a quantity of leaked oil on the surface of the Mar Piccolo – but it was a disproportionate reward for so much skill, determination and plain old-fashioned courage. The lesson it was supposed to have taught, but which was shown a couple of months later to have been dreadfully wrong, was that the bomb was almost worthless as a means of sinking ships even at anchor. In all forty-two of them, of the standard 250-lb SAP pattern, fused nose and tail, were dropped.
The oil tanks suffered some damage, judging from the fires seen to start, but it can not have amounted to much. More important was the attack on the seaplane base. This was home to the spotters which plagued Cunningham’s fleet and radioed back every move made by every ship. It took six bombs, direct hits on hangar and slipway, with a satisfactorily large fire caused in the adjacent building. Wellham knew it to be still smouldering on the following day. The result would not, of course, have been to put the spotters out of business but it can not have been helpful to them.
Far and away the most important consequence was the moral effect. Taranto raised the hearts of everybody on the allied side, as a demonstration that we had moved on from the ‘Britain Can Take It’ slogans and posters of some months earlier. At last it was plain that Britain was beginning to acquire the ability to dish it out. The Italian navy had not seemed exactly avid to come to hand-grips with Cunningham’s ships even when they outnumbered and outgunned them handsomely. Now that the strength of the Italian battlefleet had been halved and the Royal Navy strengthened by another battleship, three cruisers and two destroyers, the light of battle in the eyes of the Duce’s sailors grew no fiercer. Small blame to them.
That the episode had been glorious was beyond question and it had come at a moment when glorious episodes were a little scarce. Even making all allowances for the general mood towards the end of a year not notable for victories, it may have been that the results were not entirely what they ought to have been. Had surprise been achieved there might have been some chance of sinking the prime targets. Vittorio Veneto and Littorio, roughly equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Duke of York, got off lightly. Littorio was removed from the scene for a matter of months only; two torpedoes were aimed at Vittorio Veneto, one grounding harmlessly and the other missing altogether. Of the two older ships, comparable with Royal Oak and Royal Sovereign, Cavour had been eliminated from the war and Duilio taken out of it for half a year. Fortune had not favoured Operation Judgment, but it would have been worthwhile for the moral effect alone. ‘Glorious Episode’ was not mere hyperbole.
Fraternal greetings came from a namesake to HMS Eagle: ‘The American Eagle Club of London expresses hearty admiration of your gallant work at Taranto. Americans abroad and at home will be proud of you. Congratulations. Robert H. Hutchinson, chairman.’ No message came from another navy whose creation had been largely the work of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Admiral Yamamoto doubtless studied the operation in detail, for it contained practical experience that would come in useful a little over a year later. Nobody expected praise from that quarter.
Captain Boyd of Illustrious addressed his ship’s company, pointing out that ‘in one night the ship’s aircraft had achieved a greater amount of damage to the enemy than Nelson had achieved in the Battle of Trafalgar, and nearly twice the amount that the entire British fleet achieved in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War’. Had he felt so inclined, Captain Boyd might have parodied Admiral Beatty’s much-quoted remark on that occasion: ‘There’s something wrong with our bloody bombs today, Chatfield.’
And so from Italian casualties to our own. The body of Lieutenant Slaughter was never found; that of his pilot, Lieutenant Gerald Wentworth Loscombe Abingdon Bayly, was accorded the honourable treatment that one may expect from a civilized enemy. He lies now in the Military Cemetery at Bari. The other victim, L4A, was more fortunate. You will remember that we left Lieutenant-Commander Williamson in the water by the floating dock and Lieutenant Scarlett sitting there waiting upon events. Their captors behaved admirably towards their prey. ‘In fact,’ said Williamson, ‘we were almost popular heroes. Two nights after our raid the RAF came over and we were put into an air-raid shelter full of seamen. They all pressed cigarettes on us and towards the end of the raid about twenty of them sang “Tipperary” for our benefit.’ Scarlett was a more abrasive character. His obituarist observes that he ‘was an excellent prisoner from the Allied point of view. He did much to annoy his captors and keep up the morale of his fellow POWs. In 1945 he was mentioned in despatches for organizing an attempt to escape from a camp near Lübeck.’
Everybody who had had any part in the business, fitter, rigger, aircrew and indeed all hands on both carriers, knew for certain that they had won a great and famous victory. Only one man seemed less persuaded. You will remember how, after Albuhera in 1811, Wellington came across General Beresford as he wrote ‘a whining report that would have driven England mad’. The Duke found it necessary to explain to the other that he had won a great victory. Sir Andrew wrote no whining report but he never seemed quite to have taken in what his newest arm had achieved. The ‘Manoeuvre well executed’ signal may have been an ironic pleasantry, for the Navy well understands the value of meiosis.
But it was within the Admiral’s power to mark the fact that it had been uncommonly well done by a fairly generous giving of decorations. When the immediate awards were announced the heavy displeasure of everybody concerned was soon made manifest. DSOs to the two flight leaders were natural enough, even though the absent Williamson would have to wait for his. The four DSCs went to Scarlett, to two other observers and to a pilot from Eagle. The entire company of Illustrious rose up in wrath at such a niggardly grant, the more so because not a single pilot from their ship, squadron commanders apart, received anything. Some unidentifiable sailor tore down the notice from the board. Being the honest man he was, Sir Andrew admitted years afterwards that he had undervalued both the feat itself and those who had performed it. Very possibly, with his traditional background, he shared the opinion of the great Duke that a man ought not to be especially rewarded for doing what he ought to have done.* The simmering anger boiled when the awards for Matapan – ‘many DSOs and scores of DSCs’, Charles Lamb called them – were announced. In May, 1941, Captain Boyd, late of Illustrious, found a well-disposed MP who was willing to ask a Question. Two more DSOs, fourteen more DSCs and Mentions in Despatches for all those left out were added. By then twenty of the forty who had flown to Taranto were dead.
Others less intimately concerned seemed to have a better understanding of what had been achieved. Admiral Pound wrote of it to Admiral Cunningham: ‘Just before the news of Taranto the Cabinet were rather down in the dumps; but Taranto had a most amazing effect on them.’ One has to sympathize. There can have been little joy around the Downing Street table towards the end of 1940. For a time there were beaming smiles and mutual congratulations.
It was not quite the same in the opposing camp. Count Ciano, Mussolini’s unfortunate son-in-law, left a diary, written up in his prison cell at Verona shortly before his relation by marriage had him shot. Ciano tells, under ‘12 November 1940’, of ‘a black day. The British, without warning, have attacked the Italian fleet at anchor in Taranto, and have sunk the dreadnought Cavour and seriously damaged the battleships Littorio and Duilio. These ships will remain out of the fight for many months. I thought I would find the Duce downhearted. Instead he took the blow quite well and does not, at the moment, seem to have fully realized its gravity.’ In this, at least, he made common cause with Admiral Cunningham. The stiff upper lip phase did not endure; rage took its place.
The Regia Aeronautica (which Ciano says was always poking fun at the navy)* tended to avoid Alexandria whilst the Fleet was in residence. It was now ordered to seek instant vengeance. During the absence of Cunningham’s ships the Italian pilots flew in during daylight hours, hit a destroyer without doing her much harm and scattered time bombs around the anchorage near to the floating dock. This could have been serious but it was no sort of spectacular revenge. On the morning of 12 November three of the big CANT flying-boats were sent in to do all the damage they could. It did not amount to much and all of them were shot down by Fulmars from Illustrious as she returned to port. From Mussolini’s point of view there was only one thing to be done and he turned to his master. Hitler and Goering had a score of their own to settle with the British after the thrashing their Luftwaffe had received from the RAFs Fighter Command. Once they had grasped the fact that the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean turned almost wholly upon the existence of a single ship the word went out from Berlin.
The Naval Battle of Navarino, Ambroise Louis Garneray
Unlike the Spartans, the Ottomans only had to guard the southern entrance. Almost daily reconnaissance reports meant that Codrington was aware that their fleet numbered just over a hundred ships, forty of which were non-combatant. Letellier had positioned the warships at anchor in order of battle; a horseshoe facing the entrance to the bay with the island of Sphakteria on the right, the tiny island of Chelonisi behind the centre of the crescent and Neokastro at the left. It had taken over three days for the French naval advisors to get the fleet into position and as they were no longer present, matters were left in the less experienced hands of the Ottoman captains. To break the formation would be difficult, and with Ibrahim away the responsibility of taking decisive action, either to withdraw or to embark on an offensive course, possibly for Hydra, would be beyond the safe remit of the admirals. Their only course was to wait.
The exact number and size of the combined Ottoman warships is a matter of some debate, ranging from sixty-five to an effective strength of around thirty-six. According to the anonymous Précis de la Bataille Navale de Navarin (Paris, 1829) compiled from the recollections of the French officers present, the Turco-Egyptian fleet consisted of three 74-gun ships-of-the-line, twenty frigates, thirty-two corvettes, seven brigs or sloops and five fireships, drawn up in three lines, the ships-of-the-line and the more powerful frigates at the front about two cables apart (about 600ft/183m), with the frigates and corvettes in the second line placed so as they could fire between the gaps, reinforced at the rear by a last line of smaller ships. The horseshoe was protected at the flanks by the fireships, three to the right and two to the left. For further protection, the left flank was overlooked by the fortress of Neokastro, while the right flank was within range of a gun battery on Sphakteria. The secretary to the Kapudan Bey, the Ottoman Vice-Admiral, assessed the size of the Turco-Egyptian force differently: two Turkish 84-gun battleships, one 76-gun ship, fifteen 48-gun frigates, eighteen corvettes, and four brigs, supported by the Egyptians’ four double-banked 64-gun frigates, eight corvettes of between 18 and 24 guns, eight brigs, and five fire-vessels; sixty-five vessels in total under sail.
In the absence of Ibrahim, the left wing of the horseshoe was under the command of Moharrem Bey in the French-built 60-gun frigate, Guerrière, renamed Murchid-i-Djihad (Warrior). Heading the line to the fore of Guerrière were the frigates, Hassan Bey’s 64-gun Ibsana (Ihsanya), followed by the 56-gun Souria and two 44-gunners. Behind Guerrière to the north came the two battleships, the 84-gun Ghiuh Rewan, flagship of the Imperial Admiral Tahir Pasha, and the 74-gun Fahti Bahri, which was said to be in poor condition and not well manned, but surprisingly this was the ship chosen to carry the flag of the Kapudan Bey. These were followed by the 64-gun double-decked frigate Leone (Lion), another 74-gunner Burj Zafer, and another double-decked frigate.
Heading the weaker right wing sheltering in the lee of Sphakteria were two 56-gun frigates, one of which was referred to in Western sources as the powerful Beautiful Sultana, followed by two Tunisian frigates, two 56-gun Turkish frigates and a smaller Tunisian frigate. Then came another Turkish frigate, commonly reported to be carrying the flag of Tahir Bey, but as the naval historian Roger Anderson argued it is more likely that Tahir was aboard the battleship Ghiuh Rewan, as he was able to see Codrigton during the encounter that was to follow. It is probable that the flag was mistaken for that of the Padrona Bey, the Vice-Admiral of the squadron. Two more Turkish 54-gun frigates completed the array. In the centre of the crescent sheltering behind Chelonisi were a number of brigs and sloops guarding thirty armed transport vessels.
The weather during the night of 19 October was poor, so any decisive activity by the Allies was on hold until conditions improved, but by morning the clouds had dispersed and Saturday 20 October dawned fine with a light breeze. By 4.00am the crews were already employed in last minute feverish preparation as the squadrons manoeuvred into formation. The British ships were in the vanguard near the bay’s entrance, waiting for the French and Russians to make up ground to join them. The operation took some time. It was 11.35 when the fleet was brought up to number with the addition of some latecomers, the brig Mastiff, the cutter Hind and the frigate Glasgow, which had been sent to hasten the return of the Cambrian and the Constantine from Kalamata. The allied squadrons were made up of twelve British ships (total 456 guns), eight Russian (490 guns) and seven French (352 guns). The British squadron included Codrington’s 84-gun flagship Asia, launched in 1824 and captained by another Napoleonic War veteran Edward Curzon, the 76-gun Genoa (which had been captured from the French) under Walter Bathurst, and the 74-gun Albion under John Acworth Omnanney, supported by the frigates Glasgow, Cambrian (launched in 1797), Dartmouth and the more modern small 28-gun Talbot. In addition, there were the sloops Rose, Mosquito, Brisk and Philomel, with between eighteen and ten guns each, and the Hind. The French were led by Admiral de Rigny’s 60-gun Sirène, the most modern of their ships commissioned in 1823, followed by the 74-gun Scipion, Trident and Breslau, which had all seen action in the Napoleonic Wars, supported by the 44-gun frigate Armide and the schooners Alcyon and Daphné. In the rear came the Russian squadron, which though fewer in number than the British possessed newer ships with more firepower, that included the one year-old 74-gun flagship Asov under Rear-Admiral Heiden, supported by the still-new 74-gun Gangout, Ezekiel and Alexander Nevsky, plus the frigates Constantine, Povernoy, Elena and Castor. With twenty-seven ships in all, whatever the reckoning, the Allies were considerably outnumbered by the Ottoman ships, but what was to their advantage was the superior seamanship of their crews.
Once the fleet had been mustered, it set its sails and led by the Asia made its way toward the bay’s entrance in two lines, with the French to starboard of the British and closest to the town, followed by the Russians to port abreast but slightly behind. They were embarking on a risky strategy, because, with the wind at their backs, retreat would be difficult. At mid-day the crews took one last dinner together and at 1.30 were ordered to prepare for action. Half an hour later the flagship entered the bay to a greeting blank round fired from one of the forts. The ships were passing within easy range of the Turkish gun-batteries and there was every expectation on the British crews’ part that they could soon be on the receiving end of a heavy barrage. As the men were drummed to quarters and the guns hurriedly manned and primed with double-shot, such fears were put to rest when they noticed that most of the Turks appeared unperturbed. They seemed to be happily watching the ships enter in a relaxed attitude, leaning on their guns or sitting on the battlements smoking their pipes. At the same moment, according to Codrington’s friend and apologist, Sir John Gore, a small boat appeared, dispatched from the Guerrière, with a message from Moharrem Bey requesting that the Allied fleet stop its progress. Codrington replied that he came to give the orders not receive them, and proceeded to take the Asia close up to the Guerrière and the Fahti Bahri and dropped anchor. The Asia was followed by the Genoa and Albion, which took up similar positions in line to the north, each within range of a principal enemy warship to starboard, and the Dartmouth took up its planned position covering the fireships nearest to the shore. They were all at anchor within five minutes of the Asia, by 2.15pm. In the meantime, the Turkish messenger had not returned to Moharrem Bey but had made for the shore, where he conferred with a number of chiefs and ran swiftly to a tent. After a short delay a red flag was raised and another blank fired, a signal for a boat to be sent from the Kapudan Bey south to the next in line, the Guerrière, and on to the fireship next to the Dartmouth. Charles McPherson on the Genoa saw events slightly differently. The messenger, an officer, came from the fortress shore, not from Moharrem Bey, and after barely two minutes’ parley aboard the Asia returned to shore, threw down his turban and ran to the fortress gate where he was met and immediately the red flag was waved and a gun fired. The British gunners straight away made ready and awaited the order to fire.
Codrington always insisted that his intentions were not hostile; he had even mustered a marine band on the poop deck of the Asia. In his communication to the Admiralty written the next day he stated:
I gave orders that no guns should be fired unless guns were first fired by the Turks; and those orders were strictly observed. The three English ships were accordingly permitted to pass the batteries and to moor, as they did with great rapidity, without any act of open hostility, although there was evident preparation for it in all the Turkish ships . . .
As he said afterwards, if he had intended to take on the enemy he would not have sailed into the centre of the horseshoe but have gone around to take them from behind. He had made the assumption from previous experience that a show of force would be enough. In addition, the fleet had not fully entered into the bay – the Russians in fact were still outside – when a disastrous event took place that would precipitate the battle. Who was to blame for the spark that caused the bloody encounter that followed became a matter of grave diplomatic concern. Although many logs were kept at the time, much of the evidence relied on reports written after the event. According to Captain Fellows aboard the Dartmouth, whose report was written nearly two months later, he had just taken up position between the fireship and the first frigate when a messenger, presumably the one dispatched from the Kapudan Bey, boarded and apparently began to prepare to set the fireship alight. In response to what he perceived as an immediate threat to the fleet, Captain Fellows sent First Lieutenant Smyth in the Dartmouth’s pinnace (a small rowing boat with a sail) to instruct the Turks to desist and leave the boat or move further away towards the shore, promising if they did so no harm would come to them.
As the pinnace made off Fellows called out to Lieutenant Smyth that ‘no act of hostility’ should be attempted by them ‘on any account’. Despite Smyth’s attempts to indicate that their intentions were peaceful, as the pinnace came alongside the fireship the coxswain was killed by a musket shot. Smyth repeated that they intended no harm, but more shots rang out, killing or wounding other members of the crew, and it could be seen that the fires were already being lit. Captain Fellows then dispatched Lieutenant Fitzroy in the cutter to tow the pinnace to safety. The cutter itself came under heavy musket fire from a boat carrying the Turks from the burning ship, and Fitzroy was killed. In response, Fellows ordered the marines to lay down covering fire for the retreating vessels.
It was now 2.25 and events were escalating rapidly. An Egyptian corvette, inshore, fired two shots, one of which passed over the Dartmouth. The other hit Admiral de Rigny’s Sirène just as it was in the act of laying anchor nearby, at the eastern point of the Ottoman horseshoe. This was perhaps the decisive act; for now, even if it was not the intention of the Turkish or Egyptian commanders to precipitate some form of aggressive action (in fact Tahir Pasha’s orders for the day said that he would ‘never raise the signal for combat, but . . . in case of attack each ship should defend itself individually’) there was no turning back from all-out conflict. In turn Codrington felt that if the Ottomans had intended to take on the allies, they would have waited until all the ships were at anchor, engaged in lengthy discussion throughout the day, and then attack at night with fireships. The way events unfolded instead bore all the hallmarks of an accident or misjudgement, and one with dire consequences. As a result, the battle unfolded with no plan or strategy as a chain reaction, individual ships taking on one another as an act of self-preservation or to aid their comrades. Any sense of how the engagement unfolded had to be reconstructed by the protagonists afterwards.
First, the Dartmouth returned the enemy fire, but initially de Rigny held back from fear of hitting his British ally. Opposite de Rigny was the Egyptian frigate Ibsania. Taking a speaking trumpet, de Rigny hailed the Egyptian saying that if she did not fire he would not, but to no avail. The Ibsania replied immediately by firing on both the Dartmouth and the Sirène. De Rigny now had no choice but to engage, upon which the shore batteries opened up on the Trident, the third of the French ships just entering the harbour. A general mêlée ensued on all sides with the Sirène the main target. The Scipion, the second French ship, had become vulnerable having reduced sail too quickly, and was also soon under fire from the shore as well as from Egyptian frigates on both sides, added to which a fireship quickly attached itself to its bow. As the flames from the fireship, urged on by a strong breeze, spread towards the gun batteries, sailors scorched themselves plunging into the flames in a frantic effort to put them out, or were wounded as the powder kegs went up. To avert disaster, Captain Milius took the drastic action of letting out the anchor-chain holding the ship, and setting the main-sail and top-sail to turn before the wind in an attempt to divert the flames from reaching the forward powder magazine.
The blazing Scipion was impeding the passage of the Trident and Breslau, and although Milius praised the immense bravery of the crew, their salvation came at the hands of a small boat sent out from the Trident that managed to tow the fireship away just as he was attempting his manoeuvre. The small boat, not large enough in itself to complete the task, was aided by the Dartmouth, the Rose and the Philomel, who attached tow-ropes to bring the fireship clear, after which it was destroyed by the French schooners Aleyone and Daphné. That it took so much effort to take care of one fireship was a mark of how dangerous a weapon it could be.
Once it was clear, the Scipion and the Trident made to lend their support to the Sirène, still bludgeoning it out with the Ibsania. After an hour and a half of punishment from the combined French guns the Ibsania, by now a total wreck, exploded into flames, leaving the French to turn their attention to the fort.
Towards the centre of the eastern wing, the Kapudan Bey aboard the Fahti Bahri took the exchange of fire between the Turks and the Dartmouth as his immediate cue to open fire on the Asia, a response not matched by the Guerrière. In fact, despite the battle having begun, Moharrem Bey sent an officer with a message to Codrington saying that he would hold fire and, in reply, Codrington assured him that he would not open fire first. This left the Asia free to divert all his attention onto the Fahti Bahri, which it had little difficulty in destroying. The lack of unanimity of purpose on the part of the Ottoman commanders was something that would cost the Turco-Egyptian fleet dear. After around three-quarters of an hour, Codrington felt obliged to make sure of the Egyptian commander’s continued neutrality. He sent an officer under a flag of truce with a young Greek interpreter, Petros Mikelis, known as Peter Mitchell to his British shipmates, to board the Guerrière. Unfortunately for Mikelis, an enemy officer looking out from a porthole for some reason, who may have recognised him, shot him dead. Codrington’s report leaves the motive in doubt. As he put it, the deed was done ‘with or without his [Moharrem’s] orders, I know not’. Although there were other Greeks employed by the allies, like Petros Mikelis particularly as pilots, he achieved the honour of being the only named Greek who died in the decisive battle for Greek liberty. There were Greeks serving on the Ottoman side too, but these were manacled hand and foot, their nameless bodies washed ashore in the days after the battle. The foolhardy shooting of Mikelis had the unfortunate repercussion of precipitating a general outburst of gunfire that brought the Guerrière into the battle. Codrington, who had until then been wary that with the ships in such close proximity the allies might be in danger of harming one another, saw any further attempt to broker a ceasefire as futile.
To the fore of the Asia, the Genoa had drawn up alongside the Ghiuh Rewan, where Captain Bathurst had followed Codrington’s command to only open fire when fired upon: but to no avail, for now his ship was under a heavy barrage from the Turkish flagship, another ship-of-the-line, and a 60-gun frigate. From the Ghiuh Rewan, the tall Codrington was clearly visible in his Admiral’s uniform, and Tahir Pasha ordered his snipers to target him. They were successful, and he was wounded several times, but they failed to remove him from his position on deck. His son Henry, who was serving with him as a Midshipman, was severely wounded in the leg by a fragment of iron railing and a musket ball; he only just avoided having it amputated. The Asia and the Genoa were outnumbered, and the Genoa in particular took a pounding. It suffered more fatalities than any other allied ship (26), including Captain Bathurst.
Despite their problems, when a fireship approached the Asia’s stern members of the Genoa’s crew manned one of the ship’s boats and dragged it out of the way, and then on their way back they still found time to pick up enemy sailors clinging to the wreckage of their destroyed ships. The men may have shown outstanding bravery, but Codrington was not happy with the conduct of Captain Bathurst or his replacement Captain Dickinson after Bathurst was killed. He complained that the Genoa had been incorrectly anchored, meaning that it presented its broadside guns to its own ships rather than to the enemy, which it could only fire upon successfully from the stern. Codrington’s accusations of misconduct against Captain Dickinson were quashed in a court-marshal two years later.
Of the British ships, the Albion had penetrated furthest into the bay, where it was attacked by a Turkish frigate, which it swiftly dealt with, only to be confronted by the three ships-of-the-line. Luckily for the Albion, the Breslau was near at hand. On his own initiative, Captain de la Bretonnière had taken the Breslau, the fourth French ship, into the centre of the enemy horseshoe, beyond the hard-pressed British ships, to fill the gap between the Albion and the newly arrived Russian flagship, the Azov, which was still manoeuvring into position. Bretonnière’s move was recognized by both his allies as decisive and courageous. The Breslau went on to help destroy the Ghiuh Rewan, three other frigates, and a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, an action acknowledged as playing a vital role in saving the Asov and the Albion from destruction. Together they completely destroyed the three battleships before the Breslau turned its attention to helping the arriving Russian squadron.
The Russians carried out their orders to the letter, taking up their positions with exemplary skill while under fire from the shore battery on Sphakteria and the ships on the Ottoman right flank. The Asov, Heiden’s flagship, was at the apex of the horseshoe near the Breslau and opposite the Tunisian squadron, who at first were reluctant to engage in the fighting. When battle did commence, the Asov found itself taking on five opposing battleships, and as a result suffered more casualties than any other allied ship; twenty-four dead and sixty-seven wounded. With the Breslau on hand to even up the odds, Heiden saw an opportunity to assist the Asia by transferring some of his guns to fire on the Guerrière, with the result that the Guerrière became a blazing wreck under the combined fire of the Russian and British ships. It had only taken twenty minutes for the Egyptian flag-ship to be driven ashore in flames, where Moharrem Bey managed to escape unharmed, before it exploded. As the larger enemy ships were put out of action, the allies became painfully aware of the skilful formation designed by Letellier when the smaller ships of the second line were able to open-up through the gaps in the front line, causing great damage, especially to the flagships of the allied admirals.
The Asov continued to take the fight to the enemy, dismasting a 60-gun ship, which then ran aground and blew up, and sinking two large frigates and a corvette. It was involved with the burning of the double-decked frigate said to be flying the flag of Tahir Pasha: the loss of life was severe, with 500 of its 600 crew being killed or wounded. On the left flank, to the southwest of the Russian ships, the frigates Cambrian, Glasgow and Talbot and the French frigate Armide had been given the task of dealing with the Ottoman right flank and the Sphakteria shore battery. As the Glasgow and Cambrian were late arrivals, the burden fell on the Talbot and Armide until they were supported by the Russian frigates. The smaller ships, Dartmouth, Rose and Brisk, with the French schooners Daphné and Aleyone on the east flank and Philomel and Mosquito on the west, had been given the job of destroying the fireships. They were so successful in carrying out their instructions that no fireship attack succeeded. Despite its size, the cutter Hind took up position with distinction alongside the Asia, right under the guns of the Guerrière, while in the midst of the mayhem on board the Mosquito a young artist named G.P. Reingle painted and illustrated the battle from first-hand observation.
The battle was over by nightfall, around 6.00pm, and throughout the night the sky was illumined by the explosions of the Turkish ships, some fired deliberately as an act of honour, even if there were men still aboard. It was an Ottoman defeat, but none of their ships struck their colours in surrender. The next day, Tahir Pasha boarded the Asia, where he received a tirade from Codrington accusing Ibrahim of a breach of faith and the advice to desist from hostilities or else the remaining ships and the fort would be destroyed. Afterwards it became clear that Tahir was in no way sympathetic towards the Egyptian Pasha and years later, as governor of Aidin, the district in which Smyrna was then situated, Tahir befriended Codrington’s son and expressed to him his warmest admiration of his father. The battle had been such a one-sided affair that it left the Ottomans totally defeated. The allies lost no ships, although several suffered significant damage, and suffered relatively few casualties: 174 killed and 475 wounded (the British 75 and 197, the French 40 and 141 and the Russians 59 and 137). As at the Battle of the Nile, there were wives aboard the British ships. Charles McPherson tells us that nine petty officers’ wives tended the wounded in the ‘cockpit’ (the area in the aft lower deck where the wounded were taken) of the Genoa. On the other hand, the Turco-Egyptian fleet was decimated; sixty ships destroyed with heavy losses, exacerbated by their poor facilities for treating the wounded, many of whom were chained to their posts. The battle was such a mortal blow to Turkish pride that, during the night or the day after, they fatalistically destroyed even those ships not beyond repair. According to Letellier the only fighting ships left afloat the day after were a dismasted frigate, four corvettes, six brigs and four schooners. Codrington estimated that there were 6,000 killed and 4,000 wounded, many of whom were not Turks or Egyptians but impressed Arabs, Greeks, North Africans, Slavs and even some captured British and American sailors.
The battle was fought while the enemy fleet and the larger part of allied ships were at anchor, leaving little room for manoeuvre. This reduced the contest to a slugging match. Only by hauling on the springs attached to the anchors could a ship adjust its position to get out of the line of fire or bring its guns to bear on the enemy. With the ships so close together, the orders given were for the use of double-shot, when two cannon balls were fired from the same gun; less accurate but more destructive at close range. This was sometimes ignored, as the sailors took to throwing everything at the Turks, including grape-shot and canister, even all piled in together. Heiden alone amongst the allied admirals was able to keep his ships together in a compact group, allowing him more control over his command, and with the frigates staying close to their ships-of-the-line they suffered fewer casualties as a result. Codrington had feared there might be animosity between the Russian and French ships, and it is possible that Codrington kept Heiden and de Rigny, who had only recently met, on opposite wings for that reason. There was talk of Russian ships firing on their own side, but with the difficulties of recognition and communication between foreign navies fighting together amid the general confusion it was inevitable that some shots would go astray. Codrington even blamed the Genoa for carelessly firing on the Asia. In no time the smoke from cannon fire and burning ships had become so thick that, despite the noise of battle, he had to resort to bellowing his orders through a loud hailer because his signals could not be seen. Even at close quarters the opposing ships were barely visible and the gunners on the Asia at one point took aim at the masthead of the Fahti Bahri as the only discernible target. In the event each squadron did its duty, and in addition to their superior skill and experience, displayed complete togetherness in their actions, coming to one another’s aid without hesitation. After the battle, there was agreement between the allied leaders that, unlike the enemy, their men had acted as one, eagerly defending one another against the common enemy. The display of naval virtues and the bravery of the men impressed de Rigny so much that when he wrote to his sister afterwards he wondered at the effect of an ‘English squadron and a French squadron side by side firing on the same target – poor target!’ He further went on to say that the victory was due to the plan agreed between the three commanders being well executed. In truth, Navarino was one of the least planned battles. The British admired the Russians’ precision and discipline, arriving as they did late to the action but to considerable effect, like the Prussian General Blücher at Waterloo. For his part Heiden thought the allied squadrons acted in such harmony that it was as though they came from one nation.
Ibrahim Pasha returned to Navarino on the afternoon of 21 October to witness what was left of his fleet, and the Allies remained for a further four days. He still held most of the Peloponnese but he was cut off from his supply routes, and when 13,000 French veterans landed at Navarino in 1828 Mehmed Ali’s enthusiasm for the venture waned. The victory at Navarino signalled the end of the Turkish re-conquest of Greece. The initial reaction within the government circles of Britain, France and Russia was one of delight and Codrington was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath by the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Clarence. But as is often the way with politics, the change of administration that followed the death of Canning in August brought in a new Foreign Secretary, Lord Dudley, and a month after the battle Codrington found he had some questions to answer to the politicians back home in regard to his conduct. At first it was felt that he had overstepped the mark, and then that he had done too little. Codrington was forced to answer his critics in a lengthy report; to explain why he had not remained neutral and then when he stated that the retreating Ibrahim had taken Greek women and children to be sold as slaves in Alexandria, he was castigated for not intervening, even though this would have been against his orders and may have precipitated further hostilities. The next summer, the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, relieved him of his command. Codrington entered parliament himself as member for Devonport, using his position to fight for compensation from the Admiralty for the losses incurred by his men at their own expense. The Admiralty argued that as the nation was not at war, such expenses did not count. Codrington eventually won his case in 1834.
By then Greece, or at least a part of it, was free. Although Navarino did not bring about an immediate capitulation by the Turkish government, it was a turning point in the war, bringing European forces into play on the ground. With the Ottomans’ Albanian and Egyptian mercenaries putting up little resistance to the battle hardened French veterans of Napoleon’s army, Mehmed ordered his son to return home, leaving the Greeks and their allies to push the remaining Turks out of the peninsula. Sultan Mahmud’s provocation of war with Russia in retaliation to Navarino only brought the Tsar’s army across the Danube towards Constantinople and Ottoman capitulation. The 1829 Treaty of Adrianople recognized Greek autonomy, followed in 1830 by the Porte’s acceptance of an independent Greek state in the Protocol of London. The Kingdom of Greece was established in 1832. Ibrahim Pasha, for his part, suffered no lasting damage. He succeeded his father in Egypt and took on the Ottomans, as was always their intention, leading his country to independence.
4th June 1919 – British submarine ‘L.55’ (1918, 960t, 6-21in tt, 2-4in). With the British Baltic Squadron blockading the Bolshevik naval base of Kronstadt on Kotlin Island laying off Petrograd, warships on both sides were lost. On the 4th (some accounts say the 9th) ‘L-55’ was in action with Russian patrols and sunk by the gunfire of destroyers ‘Azard’ and ‘Gavriil’. She is later raised and commissioned into the Soviet Navy as ‘L-55’
At the outset of war in 1914 the Baltic Sea was effectively closed to the Royal Navy, with its only presence being affected by a British submarine flotilla of initially six E class boats that entered the Baltic covertly to co-operate with the Russian Baltic Fleet based at Kronstadt. The Russian Baltic Fleet at the beginning of the war was greatly inferior to the German High Seas Fleet, where the German commander Admiral Erhard Schmidt could call on modern dreadnought battleships and battle-cruisers that could be quickly transferred from their bases on the North Sea coast to the Baltic via the Kiel Canal, which could just as easily be returned to the North Sea should the tactical situation demand it.
In August 1915 the Russian fleet commander Admiral Vasily Kanin had at his disposal in the Gulf of Riga the 14,450 ton pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, with a main armament of only two 12in and twelve 6in guns – a Borodino class ship similar to the four battleships that had been sunk by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima in 1904. Also available to him were four small 1,700-ton gunboats, a minelayer and a flotilla of sixteen destroyers.
Early in August 1915, powerful units of the High Seas Fleet entered the Baltic with the intention of conducting a foray into the Gulf of Riga in support of German troops advancing from the south through Courland and to destroy the Russian naval forces stationed in the Gulf, including the Slava, and to capture the port of Riga.
On 8 August the German force comprising two dreadnoughts Nassau and SMS Posen of 18,600 tons, armed with twelve 11in guns and two pre-dreadnoughts, SMS Braunschweig and Elsass, mounting four 11in guns apiece and supported by four light cruisers and no less than fifty-six torpedo boats, attempted to break through the extensive minefields that protected the entrance to the Gulf.
At the same time the German fleet was further reinforced by the battle-cruisers Moltke, Von der Tann and Seydlitz commanded by Vice-Admiral von Hipper, who temporarily took over the command of the operation.
The two German pre-dreadnoughts engaged the Russian battleship Slava to allow the minesweepers to clear safe channels into the Gulf while the minelayer Deutschland was sent to mine Moon Sound to the north between the mainland and the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa.
Despite their overwhelming superiority, the German forces were unable to clear the minefields and retired, making a second attempt on 16 August, when they lost the minesweeper T46 and the torpedo boat V99. But in return they managed to damage the Slava and successfully cleared the minefields by 19 August, which allowed the German ships into the Gulf to attack the shore installations.
However, before this could be accomplished, reports of British and Allied submarines operating in the restricted waters of the Gulf caused the German ships to withdraw, which demonstrates the influence a handful of British submarines could exert on naval operations in such enclosed waters.
Vice-Admiral von Hipper’s battle-cruisers continued to operate in support of the army assault on Riga, when early on the morning of 20 August the Seydlitz was struck by a torpedo fired from the British submarine E1 commanded by Lieutenant Noel Laurence.
The torpedo struck the forward torpedo flat at the bow, but failed to detonate the stored torpedoes. However, the ship was sufficiently badly damaged to need repair at the Blohm & Voss yards in Hamburg, lasting until the end of September.
The E1 together with E9, commanded by Max Horton, had entered the Baltic on 15 October 1914 and based at Reval (modern Tallinn) in Estonia. The six E class submarines were joined by five of the earlier and smaller C class which had been shipped to the White Sea and transported by canal to Kronstadt where, as described earlier, they severely curtailed the iron ore trade between Sweden and Germany, as well as restricting German naval operations and training in the Baltic, which previously had been a German lake.
On the night of 18 October 1914 the E1 penetrated Kiel Bay and attacked the armoured cruiser SMS Victoria Louise, firing a single torpedo, which ran too deep, passing under the ship’s keel. This demonstration of British sea power reaching into the home of the German fleet in the Baltic caused the Kaiserliche Marine to be ever more cautious.
The E13, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, was accompanied by the E8, which safely made the passage, while E13 transiting the Danish Straits on 13 August 1915 became stranded on Saltholm Island south of Copenhagen.
At first light, the stranded submarine was spotted by Danish naval forces, who sent torpedo boats to investigate; these were later reinforced by the coast defence ship Peder Skram to ascertain the nationality of the vessel.
At the same time German torpedo boats also had the E13 under observation, as orders from the Danish naval Chief of Staff were received by the captain of the Peder Skram that he was to forestall any attempts by the Germans to seize or attack the British submarine. At 6.00 a.m. the Danish torpedo boat Storen reported two German torpedo boats passing close to the scene, followed by extensive wireless traffic.
Later, at 10.28 a.m., two German torpedo boats, G132 and G134, approached at high speed while flying the international abandon ship flag signals, and when within range, the G132 fired a single torpedo, which missed and exploded on the sea bed.
The Danish warships made no move to interfere and both German ships opened a rapid fire with deck guns on the helpless submarine that lasted less than 5 minutes, leaving the E13 on fire, with poisonous chlorine gas spreading through the hull. Lieutenant Commander Layton ordered abandon ship and fourteen crew members including the commander were taken off by the torpedo boat Storen, leaving fifteen dead, whose bodies were later recovered and returned to England.
The failure of the Danish ships to protect the E13 despite being ordered to protect her with all means at their disposal had allowed the Germans to carry out this attack.
The surviving crew were taken into internment for the duration, but Lieutenant Commander Layton and his first officer escaped to rejoin the fleet and the wreckage of E13 was later raised and scrapped.
The E18 and E19 arrived safely at Reval on 15 September 1915. On 10 October the E19 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Francis Cromie, patrolling south of the Swedish island of Oland in the early hours of the morning, spotted a German steamer, the SS Walther Leonhardt, carrying iron ore which, after being ordered to heave to and the crew taking to the boats, was sunk by an explosive charge.
Later that morning a second steamer, the SS Germania, also carrying iron ore, was sighted and attempted to escape, being pursued by E19 on the surface at 15 knots while firing her deck gun. The German ship eventually ran aground and a dynamite charge was laid which, although damaging the vessel, failed to sink it, and it was subsequently repaired.
After midday a third ship, the SS Guntrune, was boarded and, after the crew were in lifeboats, she was sunk by opening the seacocks. Immediately following this, another ship, the SS Director Repperhagen, was also sunk and finally at 5.30 p.m. the same day a fifth victim, the SS Nicomedia – whose crew, as they took to the boats, presented the British submariners with a barrel of beer – was sent to the bottom.
In a single day E9 had sunk four ore carriers and wrecked another ashore without the expenditure of a single torpedo.
Later, on 7 November 1915, the E19 patrolling off Cape Arkona on the Baltic island of Rugen fired two torpedoes at the light cruiser HMS Undine of 3,110 tons, causing her magazine to explode, but fortunately with the loss of only fourteen crew members.
This loss came only two weeks after the sinking of the 9,800-ton armoured cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert off Libau on 23 October by the E8, resulting in a heavy loss of life. This, together with the loss of the 3,750 ton light cruiser SMS Bremen to a Russian mine in February 1915, served as a further demonstration of the positive effect the British submarine flotilla was having on the German ability to operate safely within the Baltic.
The E18 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander R. Halahan, which had arrived at Reval on 18 June after being fired on by German cruisers during her passage, conducted four patrols, before being lost in June 1916, presumably to a mine in the eastern Baltic.
Much later in 1918 the E1, E8, E9 and E19 were scuttled outside Helsingfors in the civil war between the Bolsheviks and White Russian forces.
The four earlier C class submarines C26, C27, C32 and C35 of 290-ton surface displacement due to their short range were towed from Britain via the North Cape to Archangelsk in the White Sea. From there they were transported on barges through the White Sea canal, reaching St Petersburg in September 1916. But due to the lateness of the season and heavy ice they were not able to operate until the Spring of 1917.
The C32 became stranded in the Gulf of Riga and had to be abandoned, while the remaining three C class boats were blown up at Helsingfors to avoid capture in 1918.
An incident of the greatest significance to the conduct of the war took place on 25 August 1914 when the German light cruiser SMS Magdeburg of 4,500 tons ran aground on the island of Oldensholm off the Estonian coast while conducting a sweep with other ships in the Gulf of Finland. This ship had previously fired the first shots of the Great War when on 2 August 1914 the Magdeburg shelled Russian positions in the port of Libau. Two Russian cruisers opened fire on the stranded ship, which was badly damaged, causing the crew to be evacuated, after giving up attempts to re-float the ship.
Subsequently, after the German forces had been driven off, Russian divers were able to recover German naval and merchant code books then in use, which also revealed the methods employed for constructing future codes, which once delivered to the Admiralty cryptographers in London enabled the Admiralty to decipher almost all of the German wireless traffic for the remainder of the war.
In the land war, unlike the trench warfare that had prevailed in the west from Nieuport on the coast of Belgium to the Swiss border for the past four years, on the Eastern Front the war was a more mobile affair.
Initially, the Russian troops enjoyed brief success, advancing into Austrian territory, but were heavily defeated by the Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg in late August 1914.
In early 1915 the Allies attempted to relive the pressure on the Russians by attacking Turkey with a landing at Gallipoli, which as we have seen was a costly failure, and did little to help the situation on the Eastern Front.
The strain on Russia, a poorly governed and bankrupt country, was made worse by further defeats in the field, mutinies in the army and strikes and food riots in a civilian population living on the verge of starvation.
Political agitators of all colours appealed to the masses and a disaffected army to withdraw from the crippling war – a situation that led to further mutinies, civil unrest and finally the revolution of February 1917, which forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate in March, allowing for the formation of a democratic provisional government.
This was a coalition under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, who represented the moderate socialists, working together with the Soviet workers’ councils or Bolsheviks. Once installed, the Duma or parliament, assured the Allied powers that it intended to continue to prosecute the war against Imperial Germany on the Eastern Front.
In return for this promise, the Allies, including the United States, which had just entered the war in April 1917, increased proportionally the supply of war materials and economic aid, with large convoys of merchant ships carrying thousands of tons of military supplies and munitions to the vast warehouses in Archangel and the ice-free port of Murmansk, where due to the complicated bureaucracy of army it piled up largely unused. Plagued by further mutinies and mass desertions, the major Russian offensive of June 1918 was a failure and was in turn crushed by the German counter-offensive.
Finally, in October 1917, following food riots in St Petersburg, the Kerensky Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, establishing a Communist government determined to end their part in the war. This was followed 5 months later in March 1918 by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was signed with Germany, formally ending the war on the Eastern Front.
With the treaty the Russians temporarily surrendered a vast swathe of territory, including the Crimea to the Germans.
The signing of the treaty allowed the Germans to withdraw a large number of troops and re-deploy them on the Western Front, where they launched their last great offensive, which was doomed to failure as the Allies strengthened by fresh American troops counter-attacked in July 1918, throwing the Germans back, breaking their line in September 1918. While in the south the Italian Army defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto and the war was almost at an end.
At home the civilian population were suffering terrible privation as a result of the British economic blockade and, following mutinies in the High Sea Fleet in October 1918 when they refused orders to put to sea to engage the Grand Fleet, hoping for a victory that would put Germany in a better negotiating position at the now inevitable cessation of hostilities, the German general Staff sued for peace, obtaining an armistice on 11 November 1918.
Before this, however, and worryingly for the Allies, in April 1918 a division of German troops had landed in southern Finland, this being part of the territories ceded to Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, creating the fear that the Germans might seize the important railway between Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed) and the strategic seaport of Murmansk, threatening the vast stores of stockpiled war materials.
Coincidently, a civil war had broken out in Russia between the Bolsheviks (the Reds) and those still loyal to the Tsar and the monarchy (the White Russian forces or the Whites).
Into this confused situation the leaders of the British and French governments concluded that the western Allies should conduct a military intervention in north Russia with the three following objectives:
1. To prevent the large stockpile of Allied military materials from falling into the hands of either Bolshevik or German forces.
2. To rescue the Allied Czechoslovak Legion stranded along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, after being promised safe passage to the west from Vladivostok and later rescinded by the Bolsheviks.
3. To defeat the Bolshevik Army with the aid of the Czechoslovak Legion and thereafter with the assistance of White Russian forces continue the war against Germany on the Eastern Front.
Other Allied objectives included to contain and defeat the rise of Bolshevism and to encourage the independence of the Baltic states from Russia.
The North Russian Expeditionary Force constituted in July 1918 consisted of some 15,000 British, French, American and Canadian soldiers and artillery. They were landed at Archangelsk, with the Allied forces occupying the port supported by a Royal Naval flotilla of more than twenty ships, which included the seaplane carriers HMS Pegasus and HMS Nairana.
The Allied troops, including Polish and White guard units, advanced down the Vaga and northern Dvina rivers into territory held by Red forces, capturing key points up to 150 miles south of Archangel. In this offensive they were supported by a force of eleven river monitors, minesweepers and White Russian gunboats.
These ships varied in size and armament but were generally of 540 tons’ displacement and mounted a single 9.2in and a 3in gun, performing valuable service on the navigable sections of the rivers. Nonetheless, Bolshevik gunboats, torpedo armed launches and mines took a steady toll on the Royal Naval flotilla.
On 18 September 1918, Bolshevik troops attacked the British Embassy in St Petersburg, sacking the building and killing the staff, including British Naval Attaché Captain Frances Crombie, whose body was mutilated by the attackers.
The initial Allied gains along the northern rivers and around Lake Onega were short-lived as the Bolsheviks gradually gained the upper hand, with more heavy artillery being used against Allied forces in the fierce fighting that caused the Allies to retreat from the Varga River during September, with the monitors making their final attack on the Red gunboats that month before withdrawing.
The final battles of the northern campaign were fought between March and April 1919 when, due to the inability of the Allies to hold the line and mutinies in the White Russian forces, the Allies withdrew from the northern theatre.
The last Royal Naval losses on the Dvina River was that of the monitors M25 and M27, each of 540 tons. On 16 September, due to a fall in the river level, the two monitors were trapped, unable to join other ships of the Northern force, and they had to be blown up to avoid them falling into the hands of the Reds.
Earlier, in June and July 1919 respectively, the armed trawlers HMS Sword Dance and Fandango were lost to mines on the Dvina River.
In the south the Allied intervention commenced immediately following the armistice and now that the Royal Navy had access to the Baltic. A powerful squadron of C class cruisers, V and W class destroyers and seaplane carriers was dispatched, initially under the command of Rear Admiral Alexander-Sinclair, but replaced in January 1919 by Rear-Admiral Walter Cowan, with Tallinn as their base.
The British squadron used their guns to bombard Bolshevik positions while supporting Latvian and Estonian forces, who had declared their independence from Russia along with Lithuania in November 1918.
The British ships had also severely curtailed the activities of the Russian Bolshevik fleet, effectively trapping them in their base at Kronstadt. During the course of these actions the 4,100 ton cruiser HMS Cassandra, armed with five 6in guns, while on operations against enemy positions, was mined and lost in the Gulf of Finland, fortunately with a minimum loss of life.
On 26 December 1918 the cruisers HMS Caradoc and HMS Calypso and four destroyers were supporting Estonian troops off Tallinn when they fired on two Bolshevik destroyers, the Avtroil and the Spartak, that had been shelling the port, with the Russian ships surrendering without reply to the British salvoes. The two captured ships were handed over to the Estonian Provisional Government where they were incorporated into the nascent Estonian Navy.
The situation in the eastern Baltic following the armistice of 11 November 1918 was a confused one. German troops had earlier in 1917 taken Riga after much fierce fighting, and the German Freikorps, together with the ethnic Baltic German Landeswehr troops, were still fighting against the Russians and newly established local Estonian National Army units, who in turn were fighting against the Red Army, and, as mentioned earlier, German troops had occupied southern Finland in April 1918.
Throughout the summer of 1919, while the Royal Navy kept the Bolshevik fleet largely contained in Kronstadt harbour, occasional sallies were made by the Reds. One such attack was when the battleship Petropavlovsk (not to be confused with an earlier ship of the same name that was lost at Tsushima in 1904), a modern dreadnought of 24,000 tons mounting twelve 12in guns, probed the British base at Tallinn on 31 May, scoring a hit on the destroyer Walker, which perversely persuaded Admiral Cowan to move his base closer to Kronstadt.
From their new base at Vantaa on the coast of southern Finland on 17 June, a flotilla of fast Coastal Motor Boats (CMB) attacked the harbour of Kronstadt, where, for the loss of three CMBs, the flotilla sank the light cruiser Oleg and an accommodation ship, as well as damaging two battleships with torpedoes.
One of the battleships damaged was the dreadnought Petropavlovsk, which was struck by two torpedoes, causing her to sink. Due to the shallow water, she was later raised and repaired.
The British CMBs were in action both in the Baltic and in the northern Russian river systems and the Caspian, where they took a steady toll on Bolshevik shipping. They had originally been designed in secret with stepped hydroplane hulls, incorporating chine to reduce and deflect bow spray, and were to be employed in attacking enemy ships at anchor in their harbours, where their small size, speed and shallow draft would in turn make them difficult targets to hit and allow them to pass over defensive minefields to press home their attacks.
Of the four CMBs that took part in the action on Kronstadt naval base, the CMB 88 is typical of the type. Built in the Thornycroft yard on the River Thames, she was 60ft overall, with a beam of 11ft, and displaced 11 tons. She was powered by two petrol engines with a combined 900hp on two screws, giving a speed of 40 to 42 knots.
She carried a complement of five and was armed with four Lewis machine guns and two 18in torpedoes. Once the CMB was heading at speed directly towards the target, the torpedo was launched with the engine running from a trough at the stern. As soon as the torpedo was running on course the CMB would turn aside to get out of its way.
Other Royal Naval ships were sent to the Baltic, including the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. This was a converted heavy cruiser of 9,340 tons’ displacement, with a flying-off deck forward of the funnel superstructure and landing-on deck aft, similar to the much larger Furious.
She was equipped to carry six aircraft that were employed to carry out bombing and strafing attacks on gun and searchlight emplacements on the Kronstadt naval base. Also, in the Autumn, the force was further strengthened by the arrival of the monitor HMS Erebus, a powerful vessel of 8,000 tons’ displacement and armed with two 15in guns that were used to effect in support of the White Russian Northern army’s offensive against Petrograd.
On 16 July two British minesweepers, HMS Myrtle and HMS Gentian, were lost off the island of Saaremaa to mines. These two ships were Flower class sloops, of which seventy-two were built. Designed on merchant ship lines with no frills, they were completed within a six-month building period.
Initially designed as minesweepers, these handy vessels performed other duties, with thirty-nine being completed as Q ships. They were also employed on convoy protection and anti-submarine work, armed with depth charges.
The typical Flower class sloop was of 1,200 tons’ displacement, with a length of 262ft on a beam of 33ft. Engine power was provided by a four cylinder triple expansion steam engine of 2,400hp on a single shaft, giving a speed of 15 to 17 knots.
Two other losses were those of the destroyer HMS Verulam, mined in the Gulf of Finland on 1 September 1919, and the destroyer HMS Vittoria, which was torpedoed by the Bolshevik submarine Pantera off the island of Seiskarin, this being the only success achieved by a Russian submarine in the conflict.
The Tsarist Russian Navy also conducted operations in the Black Sea against the Bolsheviks, without British assistance, while an even smaller group of British ships, supported with supplies and ammunition through Persia, operated on the land-locked Caspian Sea.
The Royal Navy put together an improvised flotilla of gunboats from commandeered local craft mounting 4in and 6in guns, which were active against the Red forces consisting of four old destroyers that had been sent from the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea via the Volga River into the Caspian, together with the fairly modern (1906) destroyer Moskvitann of 510 tons that carried two 12pdr guns and three torpedo tubes.
In an action between the Royal Navy scratch flotilla and the Bolshevik destroyers off Alexandrovsk, all the Russian Bolshevik ships and the Moskvitann were sunk or severely damaged.
At the beginning of the intervention in July 1918 some fourteen Allied countries including Japan, Italy and Portugal were involved. Britain and France, desperately short of soldiers for the Western Front, asked the United States to supply troops, which President Woodrow Wilson acceded to despite the misgivings of the State Department, who were very much against using American troops to support a despotic and undemocratic country such as Tsarist Russia, although at the same time they were alarmed by the equally ruthless alternative represented by the Bolsheviks, who threatened the capitalistic democracies through world revolution.
The long campaign was brought to an end by the White Russian forces being unable to contain or defeat the growing Bolshevik armies, who were gaining territory and forcing the White Russian armies to retreat into an ever smaller area of Russia that was under their control. Further defections and mutinies hastened the process and there were even minor incidences of refusal to obey orders on Royal Naval ships, including HMS Vindictive and the cruiser HMS Delhi. Here, poor conditions and war weariness amongst British sailors who had endured four years of war and were now involved in a seemingly unwinable war that lacked public support at home and was plagued by divided objectives and a positive plan to achieve a successful outcome, together with the imminent collapse of the White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks, caused the final withdrawal of the western interventionist forces in early 1920.
The Royal Navy’s losses in the Baltic campaign amounted to the Light cruiser Cassandra, the destroyers Verulam and Vittoria, the submarine L55 and the sloops Gentain and Myrtle, plus the loss of four CMBs. Four E class and three C class submarines at Helsingfors were blown up to avoid capture. The operations led to the deaths of 107 Royal Navy personnel.
In the North Russian campaign on the Dvina and Vaga rivers, British losses amounted to two monitors, M25 and M27, and also the minesweepers Sword Dance and Fandango.
The monitor type of the Great War was a reworking of the coast defence ship, which it was realised could be effectively used for the bombardment of enemy shore positions. This type of ship being of shallow draught meant they were particularly useful on the Russian river systems. They could be built quickly and armed with whatever spare guns that were available, with the largest group of twenty-five or so built mounting either old 6in or 9.2in guns that gave sterling service not only in the Baltic but in the North Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Other larger monitors carried 12in and 15in guns and although, for reasons of economy after the war, the majority were scrapped, two of the largest – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, each of 8,000 tons, both mounting two 15 guns – survived to serve in the Second World War.
The Allied intervention was an expensive operation that achieved little of any consequence and failed in its original purpose to crush the Bolshevik revolution and restore the Tsar, but was instrumental in allowing the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to achieve independence.
The main island of Malta in the middle of the Mediterranean, 60 miles south of Sicily, is only 95 square miles. It is just 17 miles long by 9 miles wide. The landscape of this rocky island is almost Biblical with flat-topped houses in honey-coloured limestone set against stony hills. Contrasting with this is the brilliant blue sea and sky. Malta’s strategic position has made it attractive to traders, colonisers and invaders dating back to the Phoenicians. For 200 years, the Arabs ruled until ousted by Norman colonisers from Sicily. Spanish rule succeeded Sicily’s and it remained so until the sixteenth century in spite of persistent attacks from Berbers, Turks and Saracens. In 1530, Charles V of Spain granted the Knights of St John, ejected from Rhodes by the Turks, the islands as their new home. This move led ultimately to the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 when the Knights and the Maltese withstood and eventually defeated the huge Turkish invasion fleet of Suleiman the Magnificent. More than two centuries of peace and prosperity followed until the unwanted arrival of Napoleon’s revolutionary French Army, who had ambitions in Egypt. French rule lasted only two years. Blockaded by the Royal Navy commanded by Admiral Lord Nelson and harried by the Maltese, the French occupying troops were forced to capitulate. Thus began the long association with Britain.
The Mediterranean island’s most climactic episode was the second Great Siege of Malta during 1941-42 when Malta endured incessant air attacks from both the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica. Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, declared war against Britain and France on 10 June 1940, and the following morning, ten Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero (sparrowhawk) tri-motored bombers attacked Valletta and surrounding districts. The first casualties were six Maltese gunners of the Royal Malta Artillery who were killed outright by a high-explosive bomb as they manned their guns at Valletta’s Fort St Elmo at the entrance to Grand Harbour. Malta’s only aerial defence at this time was a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters. The islanders now rallied to the Allied cause, promptly gathered their resources of fortitude and courage and immediately prepared themselves for a long and painful siege. Much would have to be done, since Malta was clearly defenceless at this stage. The immediate priority was to provide shelter for the civilian population. A gigantic programme to excavate underground shelters in all towns and villages was quickly mounted. Old railway tunnels and historic catacombs were soon converted for this purpose. With the help of experienced miners from South Wales and Yorkshire, serving with the Royal Engineers in Malta, the authorities were successful in providing adequate protection for the population within a year. The early completion of this crash ‘building’ programme greatly contributed to the relatively low figure of civilian casualties registered in Malta during the war. However, with some foresight, more lives would have been saved.
The Regia Aeronautica continued their bombing raids over Malta. Initially, only four Gloster Gladiators opposed the 200-plus aircraft. Legend has it that these were soon reduced to three. Nicknamed Faith, Hope and Charity, they battled alone, day and night, for three weeks. On 28 June 1940, four Hurricanes en route to the Middle East were kept in Malta to help the stalwart defenders. On 13 July, only one Gladiator and one Hurricane were serviceable, but by the end of the month, twelve more Hurricanes arrived. The Italian raids became noticeably less effective at a time when their supply lines from Sicily were assuming more importance for the build-up of Axis forces in North Africa. The singular failure of the Italians to silence Malta and effectively blockade her supply lines despite little or no opposition proved to be of great concern to the German High Command. Clearly, Malta-based aircraft, shipping and submarines had to be prevented from ever taking to the offensive since the Axis lifeline from Sicily to North Africa would otherwise be jeopardised. For this reason, it was decided that the Luftwaffe should move in, take over from the Italians and ‘finish’ the job in Malta once and for all.
With the Luftwaffe based on Sicilian airfields by December 1940, the siege of Malta commenced in earnest. On 9 January 1941, when nine Ju 87 Stukas of the Regia Aeronautica bombed shipping in Marsa Scirocco Bay, Malta, the forces of Fliegerkorps X on Sicily totalled sixty-one Stukas, seventy-seven long-range bombers, twelve long-range reconnaissance aircraft and twenty-two Bf 110 fighters. In a sustained attack on the British Fleet, which was escorting a convoy to Malta and Greece, the Luftwaffe badly damaged the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. On fire and crippled, Illustrious limped into Grand Harbour for repairs, but the Luftwaffe soon struck again. Over seventy dive bombers appeared over Malta and Illustrious bore the brunt of their bombs as she lay in dock. The dockyards and the Three Cities were also badly hit. Soon, the Axis had gained air supremacy over most of the Mediterranean. Enemy bombing raids on Malta intensified and ‘box barrages’ of the Maltese artillery could not deter them. The high-level aerial bombardment techniques, which the Italians had previously adopted, were immediately discarded by the Luftwaffe, which preferred to swoop down onto their targets.
With Rommel now preparing to redress Italian reverses in North Africa, German raids on Malta were intensified. This greatly assisted the Afrika Korps to win control of Cyrenaica and Rommel was looking to invade Egypt. By spring 1941, Greece and Crete had also fallen. These gains now posed a serious threat to Malta’s supply line from Alexandria. German strategy to strangle Malta to submission was clearly succeeding, but in June 1941, Hitler attacked Russia and strikes on Malta from Sicily became fewer. Malta’s strategic role in the battle for the control of supply lines in the Mediterranean now became vital. Rommel’s victories in North Africa had been largely due to his relatively secure supply links with Italy and Sicily and these depended on the Luftwaffe’s air superiority over Malta. Now, for the first time, the British in Malta went over to the offensive. Enemy shipping was attacked, Blenheims and Wellington bombers raided Naples and other Italian ports, and Hurricanes and Beaufighters systematically attacked targets in Sicily and Sardinia, while Tripoli in Libya was raided repeatedly and the Axis powers in North Africa were blockaded and deprived of supplies. By the autumn of 1941, the Allies had made sweeping gains in North Africa.
Almost too late, the Germans realised that Malta was the chief obstacle to progress in North Africa and the airfields on the island fortress would have to be put out of action permanently. By December 1941, the Luftwaffe in Sicily was back to full strength and the bombing of Malta recommenced with a vengeance. Plans were also laid for a German invasion. That December, the Luftwaffe made 169 air raids on Malta and the trickle of supplies to Rommel began to turn to a flood. By January 1942, he was able to re-take Cyrenaica and Malta’s supply route from Alexandria was now in jeopardy. Malta became isolated and on the defensive once more. From now on, the defence of Malta was crucial to the Allies. In a message to Malta, Winston Churchill tried to raise the island’s morale. ‘The eyes of all Britain and, indeed, of the British Empire are watching Malta in her struggle day by day and we are sure that her success as well as glory will reward your efforts.’
In early 1942, Malta was blitzed daily by the Luftwaffe, and in January, the Luftwaffe made 263 raids on targets in Malta. In February, 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped, and in March, the raids intensified. On 7 March, fifteen Spitfire Vbs were flown off the deck of the carrier Eagle and they landed at Ta’Qali. On 20 March, 143 Ju 88s and Bf 109s made a massed attack on the islands and heavy raids continued for two more days before the Luftwaffe switched to bombing a convoy of merchant ships heading for Valletta. Airfields came under constant attack and soon the blockade of Malta began to have a telling effect on the island’s reserves of stores, munitions and fuel. Food was in very short supply and ‘Victory Kitchens’ were introduced to feed the starving population. Sugar was unobtainable and even soap and matches had to be rationed. Many towns and cities were reduced to rubble. In April 1942 alone, more than 11,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Because of their proximity to the Naval Dockyards, the Three Cities were particularly badly hit. In Valletta too, many historic buildings were hit. The Royal Opera House, the Law Courts and some of the old auberges were totally destroyed. On 15 April, the morale of the Maltese people received a welcome boost. The following message arrived from King George VI: ‘To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’
That same month, in Operation Calendar, which resulted by personal arrangement between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt, the American carrier Wasp sailed from the Clyde for the Mediterranean with forty-seven Spitfires. On 20 April, when within range of Malta, the carrier flew off a combat air patrol of Grumman F4F Wildcats and then launched the forty-seven Spitfires of 601 and 603 Squadrons.
The Malta Convoys are as famous as those are to Murmansk and one convoy to the beleaguered island stands above all others. Because of Allied pressure on Rommel’s forces in North Africa, the planned German invasion of Malta scheduled for June 1942 had to be abandoned. Troops were diverted to strengthen the Afrika Korps, now halted at El Alamein. Part of the German bomber force based on Sicily was also withdrawn. Even so, the situation in Malta remained desperate. Just two supply ships, out of a total of six reached the island in July 1942 and barely a fortnight’s supply of vital provisions and fuel remained for survival. Operation Pedestal, therefore, was mounted to force a convoy through to Malta. A fleet of thirteen merchantmen plus the American-built and British-manned tanker Ohio with 11,500 tons of kerosene and fuel oil was gathered off Gibraltar. It was vital that the Ohio’s cargo reach Malta if the islands were to survive. Petrol was desperately needed for fighters and bombers and motor transport. Fuel oil was for shipping, the kerosene for cooking and lighting and the diesel oil for well-head pumping, without which there would be no drinking water. The merchantmen’s escort consisted of three aircraft carriers – Eagle, Victorious and Indomitable – with a total of seventy-two aircraft – two battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-four destroyers.
Pedestal entered the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of 10/11 August as eighteen Italian and three German submarines lay in wait. Also ranged against the convoy were 784 German and Italian aircraft, twenty-three Axis motor torpedo boats and the Italian fleet. On 11 August, U-73 hit the Eagle with four torpedoes, and the carrier capsized and sank within minutes. Of the 1,100 men on board, 900 survived. At sunset, thirty-six Luftwaffe aircraft mounted the first Axis air attack on the convoy. Next day, south of Sardinia, seventy Axis bombers escorted by fighters made their attacks. A bomb hit the Victorious flight-deck but it broke up and failed to do any damage. At nightfall the enemy bombers disabled the carrier HMS Indomitable when a bomb exploded on the flight-deck and her aircraft that were already airborne had to land on board Victorious, now the only carrier still operational. The intense U-boat and air attacks by the Axis threw the convoy into confusion. The cruiser Cairo and Clan Ferguson and Empire Hope were sunk, while the cruisers Nigeria and Kenya and the Brisbane Star were damaged. Ohio was set on fire but the vital tanker was able to continue after the flames had been put out. At midnight on 12/13 August, as the convoy rounded Cape Bon, eight Italian and two German motor torpedo boats attacked. They disabled the cruiser Manchester (which was later scuttled) and sank four of the merchantmen – the American-built merchant ships Santa Elisa and Almeria Lykes and the freighter Wairangi and Glenorchy.
As planned, Force Z had withdrawn from the convoy on the evening of the 12th. On the 13th, Pedestal was reduced to just three ships. In the morning, Waimarama, which was carrying petrol stored on deck and fuel and ammunition below, was hit and blew up. Ohio was badly damaged again when first a downed Ju 88 and shortly afterwards a disabled Stuka both crashed into her superstructure. The tanker remained afloat – just – but when the engines finally stopped shortly after, she lay dead in the water. In the afternoon, Dorset and one other ship was sunk. Brisbane Star, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and the MV Melbourne Star, which was loaded with 1,350 tons of high-octane petrol, 700 tons of kerosene, 1,450 tons of high explosive and several thousand tons of heavy oil, reached Valletta the following day. The events of the voyage are mainly described by D. R. Macfarlane DSO OBE, captain of the Melbourne Star.
Enemy reconnaissance aircraft had shadowed the convoy for several days before they entered the Mediterranean, but nothing of note happened until two days past Gibraltar when, a few minutes after 1 p.m. on 11 August, three or four explosions were felt, and looking westward, Macfarlane saw the aircraft carrier Eagle heeling over and her own planes slipping off her decks into the sea. A pilot bravely tried to take his aircraft off the sloping deck but it was heeling so fast that he could not do it. Later in the afternoon, the first air attacks began and went on until after dark. Quiet fell until daylight next morning, when bombing attacks were renewed and continued throughout the day. About noon, the merchantman Deucalion was hit by bombs and left behind with a destroyer guarding her, but unhappily, the Deucalion was sunk later that day.
The air attack grew in intensity about 7 p.m., just before the battleships and carriers were due to leave, and it was then that the carrier Indomitable was hit. ‘It was a most impressive sight to see her anti-aircraft guns firing away through the flames as she steamed towards the setting sun.’ The Indomitable’s aircraft had done very fine work. Two hours later, the convoy was changing formation when U-boats added their attack to that of dive-torpedo and high-level bombers. In the ensuing battle, two warships were hit, the tanker Ohio was torpedoed but far from sunk, a merchant vessel was hit and blew up and another was bombed and set on fire so that she had later to be abandoned.
Ohio ultimately reached Malta two days after the Melbourne Star. The chief officer, Mr Douglas H. Gray, had just finished his watch and was still on the bridge. ‘When the torpedo struck, the ship shook violently, steering gear broke, and all communication with the engine-room and after-end of the ship was cut off, with the exception of the telephone, which was still working. Fire broke out in the pump-room.’ He made an attempt to get the compressor started forward. The engineers were all down below … About an hour later, the vessel was under way and Mr Gray remained on the poop deck throughout the night carrying out the captain’s orders and steering the ship from that position. At 6 a.m. next day, they rejoined the convoy. The respite was brief. Two hours later, their guns were in action again. During that morning a Stuka which had dropped several near misses had its tail shot off; the tail landed on the Ohio’s poop. ‘In the same forenoon,’ says Mr Gray, ‘the second boiler blew out and the engines stopped. I was still steering from aft and the captain gave me instructions to come forward and make fast the tow to a destroyer which had offered to assist us. After I had made fast the tow, I came aft and disconnected the steam steering gear and connected up chain blocks to move the rudder, as the destroyer hadn’t enough weigh to tow us and the Ohio was going round in circles … We proceeded in this manner for about an hour, when the tow rope parted.’ A destroyer took them off but put them aboard again at 6 p.m. and they were towed by the destroyer Penn and the minesweeper Rye. They were again steering with chain blocks and had let go the paravane gear. Half an hour later, another air raid occurred; the Ohio was hit in the engine-room, and the boiler-room was wrecked. Orders were given to abandon ship, and Mr Gray along with others was picked up by a motor launch. Darkness was falling and a heavy raid was still centred upon the ship.
The Melbourne Star had continued to be in the thick of it. She had had to put her helm hard a-port and increase speed to avoid a collision just after the heavy fight in which the Ohio was first disabled, and she later found herself proceeding towards Malta, with two other ships following but, for the moment, unable to see any escort. However, as she neared Cape Bon lighthouse, a destroyer overtook her. They followed the destroyer inside the minefields but eventually lost her on account of her speed while, on the other hand, the Melbourne Star outdistanced the two ships following behind. She observed great activity ahead in the shape of tracer shells and bullets, which suggested E-boat attacks, but fortunately, when she reached that spot, all was quiet again. Captain Macfarlane adds, ‘We were giving a wonderful fireworks display from our exhaust and I was very perturbed about it. Everything possible had been done to stop it, without success.’ Soon afterwards, two things happened – they came up to a destroyer escort, and they received an SOS by wireless that a merchantman was torpedoed and stopped. The Melbourne Star zigzagged to the south of the destroyers, trying at intervals to drop in astern of one of them; during this period, she observed a very heavy explosion to the northward. Some time later, she was able to rejoin the main body of the convoy coming up astern and took up her station behind the Waiwarama.
‘At 8.10 a.m.,’ reports Captain Macfarlane, ‘dive bombers suddenly came out of the sun and a stick of bombs fell on the Waiwarama, which blew up and disappeared in a few seconds. We were showered with debris from this ship. A piece of plating five feet long fell on board. The base of a steel ventilator, half an inch thick and two feet six inches high, partly demolished one of our machine-gun posts. At the same time, a piece of angle iron narrowly missed a cadet. The sea was one sheet of fire, and as we were so close, we had to steam through it. I put the helm hard a-port and had to come down from where I was on monkey island to the bridge to save myself from being burned. It seemed as though we had been enveloped in flame and smoke for years, although it was only a matter of minutes, otherwise the ship could never have survived. The flames were leaping mast high – indeed, air pilots reported that at times they reached 2,000 feet. The heat was terrific. The air was becoming drier every minute, as though the oxygen was being sucked out of it, as, in fact, it was. When we inspected the damage afterwards, we found that nearly all the paint on the ship’s sides had been burnt away, and the bottoms of the lifeboats reduced to charcoal.’
Unable to see how they could avoid being blown up as they sailed through the flames, Captain Macfarlane had ordered everybody forward; however, they cleared the fire safely and he thereupon ordered everybody back to stations. It was now reported to him that thirty-six men were missing. ‘These men, thinking that the for’ard end of the ship had been struck and being quite certain that if they stayed aboard they would be blown up, jumped over the side. All our defences had now to be reorganised. Throughout the action, my men behaved splendidly; the team spirit was perfect, but after the loss of their comrades, they were keener than ever and we could not hold them back.’
Further air attacks occurred in which a merchantman was lost and the Ohio again damaged, but from the time the escort from Malta met them, the voyage was without further excitement. They reached Malta in company with two other merchantmen; a fourth arrived on the next day and the Ohio in tow the day after. The Melbourne Star had been in Malta over twelve hours before it was discovered that a 6-inch shell had landed during the voyage on top of the master’s dayroom, smashing deck planking and setting in but not penetrating the steel deck – all this without exploding.
On 15 August – the Feast of the Assumption – huge crowds in Grand Harbour witnessed an astounding sight. Incredibly, the stricken Ohio, which though disabled and sinking, had nevertheless remained afloat and was heading for Grand Harbour. Seventy miles out and unable to move under her own steam, she was lashed between two destroyers, Penn and Ledbury, and for forty-eight hours, Rye, a minesweeper painstakingly towed her to Valletta. Her precious cargo was discharged and the gallant tanker then left, for it was unable to put to sea ever again.
This epic convoy passed into legend and to this day is known as the ‘Santa Maria convoy’. Its safe arrival marked a turning point in Malta’s fortunes. Although still under siege, Malta was now in a better position to hit back. With a stronger fighting force, which soon included 100 Spitfires, air superiority was achieved by October 1942. By now, Malta had endured 1,660 air attacks and 1,386 people killed. October also coincided with General Montgomery’s 8th Army victory over Rommel at El Alamein. With North Africa in Allied hands, the siege of Malta was finally lifted. Soon after the islands became the operational launching pad for Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The fighter pilots that defended Malta arrived from all parts of the British Empire, Europe and the USA and Canada. On the night of 26 April 1943, Flight Lieutenant A. J. Hodgkinson DFC* of 23 Squadron shot down two Ju 88s which brought Malta’s defences score to 999 ‘kills’. But Hodgkinson was beaten in the Maltese sweepstake by Squadron Leader John Joseph Lynch, OC 249 Squadron at Qrendi, who was awarded the 1,000th Malta-victory when he shot down a Ju 52/3m 5 miles north of Cap Cafafu. An American citizen from Alhambra, California, Lynch joined the RAF in 1941, completing his training at OTU in September 1941 and being posted to 232 Squadron. The following month, he joined 121 ‘Eagle’ Squadron and later 71 ‘Eagle’ Squadron.43 Another American Malta ‘ace’ was Reade Franklin Tilley. Born in Clearwater, Florida, Tilley joined the RCAF on 10 June 1940, arriving in the UK early in 1941. Upon completion of training, he joined 121 ‘Eagle’ Squadron in May as a sergeant, subsequently receiving his commission in August. He claimed a probable on 24 March 1942, and in April, he was posted to 601 Squadron preparing to sail for Malta aboard the US carrier Wasp as part of Operation Calendar. Tilley damaged a Bf 109 on 28 April before transferring to 126 Squadron. His first victory came on 8 May, and on the 20th, he was awarded the DFC. Early in June he was one of several pilots flown to Gibraltar, where he re-embarked HMS Eagle to lead a new batch of Spitfire Vs and their pilots to Malta as part of Operation Salient. By 23 July, Tilley had destroyed seven enemy aircraft, plus damaging five. On 16 August, he left Malta and returned to Britain, where he later transferred to 8th Fighter Command in London where his first assignment was to carry orders for the invasion of North-West Africa to American fighter units in Britain.
In October 1942, the Mediterranean was the scene of yet another huge build up of forces when the Torch invasion with landings on the coast of French Morocco went ahead. Confusion in the Axis command was such that, even up until 7 November, the German Naval High Command still believed that the armada was a Malta-bound convoy. The Ranger and the escort carriers Suwannee (ACV-27), Sangamon (ACV-26) and Santee (ACV-29) were included in the three Naval Task Forces, which were under the direct command of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham. The carriers’ combined strength numbered sixty-two Douglas SBD-3 and Grumman TBF-1 bombers, plus 109 F4F Wildcats. ‘Fighting Four’ (VF-4) in Ranger had been the original Wildcat unit and Lieutenant Commander Tommy Booth’s pilots generally had 500 hours or more in Wildcats alone. Opposing them were about 200 French naval and air force planes including many Martin- and Douglas-built bombers and Curtiss fighters. (Ironically, one of the French fighter units traced its ancestry to the Escadrille Lafayette, the squadron of American volunteer aviators in the First World War!) Many of the Vichy French pilots had fought in the Battle of France. American aviators were specifically forbidden to fire at the French aircraft unless fired upon.
Western Naval Task Force commanded by Rear Admiral H. Kent Hewitt consisted of 102 American vessels, of which twenty-nine were transports and they all sailed directly from the United States. The entirely British Centre Naval Task Force under Commodore Thomas H. Troubridge sailed from the Clyde with 18,500 American troops (building up to 39,000) who had been brought over to Scotland and Northern Ireland early in August. Eastern Task Force commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough was also entirely British50 but the assault force consisted of 23,000 British and 10,000 American troops commanded by Major General Charles Ryder, an American, whose objective was Algiers. All the Assault Force commanders reported directly to Lieutenant General Eisenhower.
Final operational orders were issued between 3 and 20 October 1942 in eight parts for the naval operation. The first convoys left the Clyde on 2 October. The first troop convoy left on 22 October with others following on 26 October and 1 November. The last convoy was due in Gibraltar on 4 November. The covering warships left their respective bases between 20 and 30 October. The concern over U-boat attacks did not materialise since their command in Germany failed to realise the significance of the convoys, despite spotting two leaving their bases. At this critical time in the Mediterranean, U-boats were engaging a convoy en route from Sierra Leone to Britain, so they too missed the naval build-up. As 340 ships converged on Gibraltar, the Allies had one last vain attempt to persuade the Vichy French to join the Allies or at least not to interfere with the landings. On 5 November, the whole operation hung in the balance as the entire force passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in just thirty-three hours. This involved the smaller vessels diverting to Gibraltar and refuelling, which demanded a flexible and fast refuelling programme. The Allied convoys came together at prearranged locations guided by infrared signal beams from Royal Navy submarines. On 7 November, RAF reconnaissance patrols commenced along a line between the east coast of Spain and the Bonifacio Strait (between Sardinia and Corsica) in order to detect any threatening moves by the Italian fleet; and north and west of Dakar in French West Africa to give early warning of any northward move towards Admiral Hewitt’s task force by French warships. All the while, Coastal Command aircraft were flying anti-U-boat operations and reconnaissance sorties over Italian and French naval bases.
On 8 November, Ranger and Suwannee steamed off Casablanca and Sangamon and Santee operated off the northern and southern areas respectively as the troops went ashore. A flight of seven F4Fs from the Santee became disorientated and ran low on fuel. One ditched in the sea and five crash-landed ashore. All six pilots were unhurt but a seventh was later reported killed. ‘Fighting Four’ and VF-9 from the Ranger lost six F4Fs in its first combat mission but VF-26 from Sangamon claimed three Vichy bombers and a fighter without loss. Eighteen of Ranger’s SBDs attacked naval facilities in Casablanca harbour where the French battleship Jean Bart added her 15-inch firepower to the shore batteries’ guns. The battleship was hit and one submarine was sunk. When a Vichy light cruiser and destroyer force threatened to intervene, Dauntlesses and Wildcats dropped to bomb and strafe and the cruiser and two destroyers were beached to prevent their sinking. SBDs and TBFs flew anti-submarine patrol and attacked Vichy airfields and strong points. Casablanca’s batteries continued to operate on 9 November until nine of Ranger’s SBDs silenced them with 1,000-lb bombs, scoring two direct hits on the Jean Bart. Suwannee’s TBF Avengers sank at least one Vichy vessel at sea, and in air combat, F4F pilots claimed about five enemy aircraft destroyed.
Finally, on 10 November, when Oran fell to General Fredendall’s forces, Admiral Jean Darlan, the Vichy Naval commander, issued an order for a cease-fire. After pressure from the Germans, the Vichy government in France countermanded this order, but the French forces in North Africa obeyed. Early in the morning of 11 November, Vichy forces in French West Africa surrendered. German forces then overran the unoccupied part of France. They also began pouring into Tunisia, but British forces eventually defeated them. The Allied push that followed into Tunisia on 15 November culminated in the defeat of the Axis forces, and in mid-May, German forces in northern Tunisia surrendered.
Throughout the winter of 1951/52, the war in Korea reached stalemate on the ground. In the air, the navy and USMC squadrons continued their interdiction and close air support strikes against North Korean targets. At sea, eight carriers took their turn in the Sea of Japan and normally four US carriers were on station at any one time. In March 1952, Operation Saturate, a sustained offensive aimed at short sections of railway line to deny their use to the enemy, was launched and TF 77 and its aircraft groups were part of this offensive. By April, Task Force 77 comprised Valley Forge with Air Task Group 1 (ATG-1) embarked; Philippine Sea with Air Group 11; Boxer, with Air Group 2 and Princeton, with Air Group 19.104 (At the end of the war, Lake Champlain was on station in place of Valley Forge.)
25 April 1952 was a grey, windy, rainy and violent day in the North Pacific. The Princeton was moving at about 20 knots with a wind of about 30, so it was fairly calm air, to those on board, but to Ensign Owen W. Dykema, a twenty-three-year-old F4U-4 Corsair pilot in VF-192 ‘Golden Dragons’ from Villa Park, Illinois, the sea “was being all tore up”. The waves were twenty to thirty feet high and breaking into white caps that were picked up by the wind and whipped across the surface like drifting snow. The young pilot thought, ‘Very impressive – especially when we could stand there in the warmth and calm and watch the forces of nature at work. Merle Wicker said that they were in a storm so big the waves, not just spray, came over the flight-deck, which was 60 feet up! A guy said one wave came up higher than the door and that was 40 feet. It sure was an impressive sight to watch. They just secured the deck just forward of their door because they took a couple of waves over the bow. The poor old destroyer out front was rolling all over the place. I tried to get a picture of the waves and the destroyer but it was pretty foggy and grey out.’
On 2 May, Owen W. Dykema flew his first combat mission of the war, in the third division of the ‘Golden Dragons’. He wrote a letterhome to his young wife Enid describing the day’s mission.
‘Speak to me softly, gal and watch what you say, I’m a ruff, tuff Korean veteran now. I had my first hop over war-torn Korea today. What a farce. There wasn’t a thing moving, anywhere. Not a soul in sight, even in the villages. We peacefully went in, dropped our bombs around a railroad – probably didn’t hit it – flew all over looking for targets, shot up some ox carts and small boats and left. In all that time we didn’t see a single return shot and only one person.
‘Some guy was running with his ox cart down a street of a town. So, Dineen made a run at him, to warn him away from his cart. But he kept going, so we all strafed him, except Strucel and I. Nobody hit him and the last we saw he was still going. A couple other ox carts that were sitting along a road we did hit, though. I got a long burst right into one of them. I probably used a hundred dollars worth of ammo to destroy a ten-dollar cart. Well, that’s this war. We also sank a sampan that was floating in a little bay. I put about fifty rounds right through the bottom.
‘If this hop is any indication of how this war is going to be, it’ll be long, dull and hard work. My bombing is lousy, now. I only saw one of my drops hit and it made a big blast in the middle of an empty field, about a hundred yards from the railroad! My butt was so sore when I got back I could hardly walk and my head feels like it is overloaded, or something. There’s no relaxing on these flights, you’re constantly in a deceptive weave.’
‘Nobody was in sight, of course, because they saw us coming and sounded the air raid warnings. Almost everybody, except the one crazy ox cart driver, was in some kind of underground bomb shelter. The ‘deceptive weave’ was based on the observation that it would take an AA round about 8 seconds to rise from the ground to our normal cruising altitude of about 8,000 feet. No matter how accurate their fire control system, in tracking us and anticipating where we would be in the next 8 seconds, if we kept up a random weaving motion (right and left and up and down), they could never really know where we would be when the round arrived at our altitude. If we held a steady course and altitude for 8 seconds, though, they could put a first round right into our cockpit. So, our division leader kept constantly banking, turning, climbing, diving and we poor followers were constantly working to stay with him. It was not too violent a weave, just enough to put us about 100 feet away from where we would have been had we flow straight and level for those 8 seconds. We couldn’t complain though; the alternative was less than attractive.
‘This was my first flight over enemy territory. We more or less followed a group from the Valley Forge on the rail strike, so they could show us how it was done. We circled and observed. Along-side the track there was a small hill and on that hill was a relatively heavy AA installation. One of the Valley’s divisions went after the hill, to silence the gun. They strafed and dropped what we called ‘grass cutters’. These were bombs with a radar fuse, set to explode just a few feet off the ground. The bombs were specially constructed to shatter into zillions of little, bullet-sized fragments, to sweep the surrounding area. They literally ‘mowed the grass’.
‘I was amazed at the change in appearance of the hill. When we had arrived it was a pleasant-looking, small green hill with a few small trees and this tiny, brown AA installation on top. Every now and then an unpleasant-looking stream of yellow-red fireballs would squirt out and then just drift on up toward the Valley’s planes. After they had dropped the grass cutters on the hill the whole top half was denuded and brown, with just bare stumps of trees left. I thought I had gotten disoriented, I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same hill!
‘Of course, the AA crew had reinforced tunnels to hide in. As soon as the bombs stopped going off they leaped out and fired at the planes going away. In the midst of all this one of the Valley’s pilots came on the air and matter-of-factly announced: “Red One, this is Red Four, Red Three was hit on that last run and went straight in. No chance of survival”. Despite all the destruction on the hill the AA team got him. A healthy, reasonably happy naval aviator, probably with a wife and kids, just like my own. And there he was just smashed into small pieces on the side of a little hill halfway around the world from his family. What a way to start an eight month tour of such nonsense.
‘Just a little west of that scene was a place that I located on my map as the limits of air rescue. If I was shot down to the east of that line and there was a “chance of survival”; a helicopter might make a trip in, protected by attack planes and try to pull me out. However, the helo pilots were loath to go further west than that and told us so (ergo, the stated line). I couldn’t blame them. Nevertheless, there it was – go down out there and I’d be on my own.’
‘Sunday 4 May was a cold, windy, foggy day,’ Dykema noted and he was not on the schedule at all. One ‘hop’ was launched at 0500 but the weather closed in and they were forced to land ashore, at a field behind the lines. On board the Princeton Dykema declared that the chow at noon was ‘lousy’ – ‘it was rice and some sort of yellow guck that looked like pressed scrambled eggs.’ Personally, Dykema would have gone for steak about twice a month, if they had ‘fair chow’ in between. There was nothing doing the next day either. Dykema didn’t get to fly his hop, which in a ‘funny way’ he missed. ‘It was a lot of hard work and I usually felt scared and uncomfortable when I did fly, yet I felt sad and fidgety if I didn’t. I really got a kick out of throwing the power to the plane and roaring off the deck, diving down on some ox cart and shooting it up. I guessed I’d really miss it when I got out of the navy.
‘Putting the power to it and roaring off the deck was in fact pretty exciting. We did what we called a deck launch, not using the catapults. It went something like this: I would line up at a starting point about 600 feet back from the bow. All take-off settings were ‘full’ – the cockpit would be full open, flaps full down, prop in full flat pitch, mixture full rich, cowl flaps full open and stick full back in my lap. Inside the cockpit were all the dials, gauges, levers and switches with which I had become so familiar over a few hundred hours of flying this bird. A last-minute check to be sure that the wings were filly locked in the extended position – okay. The launch director stood on the flight-deck out to the right and forward, in front of the wing. He would point at me with a closed fist (lock the brakes) and start twirling his signal flag over his head (turn up the engine to about half power). For a few seconds he would listen, to make sure it was running smoothly and sounded ready to go. He was standing in a 30 knot (about 35mph) wind coming down the deck with a Pratt and Whitney engine bellowing out about 1,000 horsepower and a 12½ foot diameter prop spinning at 1,800 rpm just 20 feet or so away. Further down the deck were a dozen or so similar whirling death traps, the props of the other planes on this strike. When he was satisfied he would sweep his flag down and forward, signalling me to “GO”.
‘I would then release the brakes, press on full power and full right rudder to counter the enormous torque of that huge engine and prop and start moving up the deck. The deep-throated roar of 2,200 horsepower just seemed to penetrate and vibrate ever fibre of my body. As soon as I could I would push the stick well forward, to raise the tail and get the nose down. Not only would this finally let me see where I was going (remember, this was the ‘hose-nose’ we were flying) but it was the “least drag configuration”, helping me accelerate faster. There ahead lay the few remaining feet of deck, with a six-storey drop to the ocean just beyond. A few people usually lined the deck edges, watching as I went by, but nobody waved good-bye.
‘About the time it looked like I might fall off the bow, the plane would start to feel light. It would bounce a little and stay airborne for brief periods. About then I would ease in some gentle back pressure on the stick and, if all was right in the world, the plane would fall off the deck, some 50 feet or so before the bow. Reaching down and left, a quick flip up on a lever would start the landing gear up. In most cases one of the wheels would come up well before the other, putting an unbalanced aerodynamic force on the plane. If the right gear came up first, the left gear still hanging down would slew me further to the left. Since I already had in full right rudder I would have to endure a short uncomfortable period of flying in a small left skid. After both gears were up and things smoothed out I could raise the flaps and be off separated from the humdrum world of heaving seas and gray metal walls and into the world of sunshine and fluffy clouds.
‘I got off that day but came right back. I flew the old plane that had a hydraulic failure every time it went out. When the hydraulic pressure (on a gauge in the cockpit) started hopping around just after take-off I wheeled it right around and landed back aboard. Too bad I did, too, because without me on his wing I guess old Struce just couldn’t fly. His engine caught fire just off the beach and he had to bail out. (Of course, Struce’s engine didn’t just catch fire; he was hit by AA over the beach. Normally I would have been flying his wing, just 30 or so feet away). They told me that the smoke and oil was pouring back over the cockpit and Struce calmly said, “Well, I guess this is a real emergency.” The skipper told him to bail out and he just said, “Well … okay.” He took his good old time about getting squared away and even after he jumped he was in no hurry to open his chute. While Ferguson circled over him old Struce was having a gay time in the water, splashing and waving. (I bet Struce was sure glad he was wearing his exposure suit (herein often referred to as ‘poopy suit’).) A destroyer picked him up right quick. It’d probably be a while until he flew again – he had to reassemble all his survival gear. It was customary that the captain of the rescue ship got his pistol and the crew whatever else of his gear they wanted. It was a small price to pay for rescue. He’d been riding Red and me because between us we’d damaged seven planes; now we’d get him because he was the only one in our division to completely lose one.
‘I had sort of a time coming aboard after I left the flight. The ship told me to jettison my external fuel tank but bring my bombs back aboard. Well, I thought I did, but I didn’t, so I came aboard with 1,100lbs of bombs and about 1,000 extra pounds of gas. It took a lot of power and speed to stay in the air on approach, but I got it all aboard. New experience anyway. The F4U-4 had four wing stations, to hang bombs, rockets, etc., under the outboard wings, beyond the fold hinges and two center stations under the inboard wings near the fuselage. Normally we carried about 2,000lbs of ordnance, say eight 250lb bombs or four 500 pounders on the wing stations or two 1,000 pounders on the center stations. Another typical load might have been two 500lb bombs on the center stations and eight 5-inch HVARS. So, I could have been even more overloaded. But this was another example of how the LSOB was apparently still trying to kill me. It was his responsibility, his job to signal a pilot or call him on the radio if he was not properly configured for landing, such as gear or hook not down or unauthorized external stores (bombs) still hanging under the plane. However, my friend the LSOB gave me no inkling that I still had everything attached. How could he have ‘overlooked’ 1,100lbs of bombs under the wings? That was definitely unsafe for me to have landed aboard with all that extra stuff still hanging underneath the plane. Not knowing I still had all that extra weight, I could easily have been reluctant to put on the required power on the approach, gotten too slow and stalled and spun in. As it turned out, without really being aware of it, I just kept adding the power necessary to hold my altitude marker (that spot on the ship’s mast) right on the horizon. Part way around the approach I realized I must be carrying a lot of power and was amazed to see about 60 inches showing on the engine man fold pressure gauge (practically full power). I thought that was just due to the extra weight of the bombs, which the ship had told me to bring back. Of course, once again, he gave me no corrective signals at all; just a perfect ‘Roger’ pass all the way.
‘On landing I could have: (1) broken the back of the plane, ending in some sort of strike damage (totalled); (2) knocked off and exploded my external (belly) fuel tank; (3) knocked off and exploded one or more of my bombs; or (4) all of the above. After the cut I had barely dropped my nose when I realized I was already sinking to the deck fast enough, so I immediately hauled back on the stick and eased it on to a relatively soft landing. Fortunately none of the bombs or the belly tank tore loose in the subsequent jerk to a stop. Also fortunately, my new, patented carrier approach left me in control almost all the way, very little dependent on the LSOB [Landing Signals Officer Boss]. I just had to make sure that I flew my own approach and knew where and how I was at all times. Despite all of LT LSOB’s efforts I intended to survive the whole cruise.’
On 6 May, Ensign Owen Dykema flew on an early morning strike from Princeton. ‘The skipper went on the pre-dawn ‘heckler’ hop with VC-3 (the night fighters) and we launched just after dawn. When we reached the coast the skipper and the three VC boys had a convoy of 17 trucks cornered on a winding mountain road. We asked permission from the strike controller to direct our strike to the trucks. There we were, only 10-15 miles from the first really worthwhile targets we’ve seen since we got here, loaded down with a couple tons of high explosives and ammo apiece. We could have spent a couple hours destroying 20-30,000 dollars worth of vehicles and supplies. But the controller said nix, bomb rails and sent three miserable jets over there with 200lbs of bombs apiece. They only got one truck and a bulldozer. By the time we bombed the tracks and hustled over there to strafe, there wasn’t a truck or person in sight, except the one the jets hit. It was sitting off the road covered with green foliage for camouflage. We strafed it like mad but couldn’t set it afire. The skipper had hit near one, knocked it off the road and rolled it down into the valley. Actually (of course) the strike controller’s decision was probably correct. The best weapon against trucks on a winding road was strafing with explosive (20mm) ammo, which the jets had and we didn’t. We just had solid .50-calibre chunks of metal. As we saw, we could pour those rounds into the trucks forever, and perhaps damage them severely (we had a hard time telling), but usually we couldn’t set them afire like the exploding 20mm could. Once on fire, the whole truck would go – cargo and all.
‘Two days later, on May 8, back off a hop, I landed aboard in semi-darkness. We had our usual rail strike, again. Carl was flying behind me and he said I got two good hits on the tracks, one with a 500-pounder. I was pulling out very sharply and turning so I could see my bombs hit and I saw the 500 and a pair of 100s hit right in there. They credited me with two cuts, anyway. The rest of the hop was too fouled up to mention, though. Normally we dropped our bombs out of about a 450-degree dive. Our (safe) tactics called for us to release at about 2,500 feet above the terrain. That means we were about 2/3 of a mile away from our target when we released. How’s that for accuracy – we were supposed to hit a railroad track about five feet wide from 3,500 feet away and we did! Then we would recover by pulling through and climbing out straight ahead, using about a 4G pullout. Under those conditions your bombs would hit just about the time you were back to a 45-degree climb out, wings level and Gs off. On this flight I was pulling about 6Gs and a little beyond level flight I rolled it hard to one side and squirmed around in my seat enough to be able to look back over my shoulder and see my bombs hit. Sometimes it was a pretty dramatic scene, because you were fairly low and the explosions could be pretty large. Otherwise, it was just a lot of hard work, lots of grunting against the Gs to keep from blacking out, lots of twisting around and not a whole lot of jinking to avoid the AA fire. The two tough times for AA fire were when you were diving on the target, because you had to fly steady for a few seconds to line up on the target and just after recovering from the dive, when everyone popped out of their trenches and fired at you going away. I got aboard on my first pass again – still haven’t had a wave-off since that very first pass in Hawaii.
‘On 10 May, I had the watch till four in the morning and then I ‘hit the pad’ and woke up at noon. Usually we got dressed two hours before launch so we could get into all our gear and get briefed on our strike, reconnaissance and other important information. Well two hours before launch time we were casually getting undressed to get into our poopy suits, when the squawk box blared, “Prop pilots man your planes.” We thought it was a joke. The skipper was there and he got on the intercom and told them we couldn’t possibly man planes right then because the pilots weren’t dressed, briefed or anything. The guy comes back, “This is a direct order from Captain Stroop,” the Captain of the ship. What else but to leap into what survival gear we could, man the planes and launch. There we were in the air a half-hour later, barely knowing where we were going and no idea of the reconnaissance routes, weather at the target or anything. So we just hit the beach, split up into divisions, bombed any rails we wanted, looked over the beach for ‘recco’ and came back. They say the order came directly from the Admiral on the Valley Forge, who was running our show. As it turned out, though, it was a pretty good hop, for me, all around. I got three and possibly four direct hits on the rails out of five drops, shot up a railroad car and some boats pretty well and got back aboard on a Roger pass! I enjoyed the hop a lot, until we got back around the ship. My butt was so sore I almost got sick in the cockpit. Had to open the canopy and get a blast of fresh air in my face. At the same time I got a crick in my neck from staring at the plane ahead of me. Oh woes! That’s what took all the joy out of this flying. I could hardly walk away from the plane when I shut down.
‘The hop on 12 May was ‘Special’. It seemed that our intelligence guys had a direct observer of some sort involved in a big meeting of all the North Korean and Chinese intelligence community. It was being held in a small town well up the coast from the bomb line (the front), in a big building like a resort hotel in this small town. They even professed to know the exact rooms where the intelligence big wigs were billeted and the exact schedule for breakfast. Our job was to surprise them just after first light and before they got up to go to breakfast, probably just when they were in the head for their morning ‘ablutions’ and blast them all. In the briefing for the strike, we were shown good pictures of the building, a large two-storey job and each of us was assigned a window. We were supposed to throw our napalm right in our assigned window. We didn’t think it would make much difference if we hit the window or not because at 250-300 knots that napalm was going to go through the wall no matter where it hit.
‘We took just two divisions (8) and we launched in the darkness just before dawn. We flew in to the beach right on the water, at 50 feet altitude or so, to avoid radar detection. Navigation was tricky because we were supposed to aim right at the beach, pull up at the coast, pop over the mountain range and find ourselves boring right down on the building. Any mistakes and we would give them time to get out of the building and into the bomb shelters.
‘In the event, our navigation was flawless. We did the pull up and pop over thing and there was the building! The sun was just up and shining from behind us on the side of the building. I could easily identify my personal window and it looked exactly as briefed. We strung out a little bit to avoid conflicting with one another and went straight on in. I was number six in and I could see the leader’s napalm going right into and directly around those windows. By the time I got up close, I had just about lost sight of my window in the smoke and flames from the earlier hits. Nevertheless, I think I got mine right in there. I cleared the roof of the building by only about 20 feet and got a clear, close-up view of the whole thing.
‘Our surprise was apparently complete. Nothing was stirring in the town and no AA responded. On circling back, we could see that the building was totally engulfed in flames. If all of our info was as correct as it seemed to be, the North Korean and Chinese intelligence community probably suffered its largest single loss in history. From the time we cleared the mountaintops and headed in until the first napalm hit was probably less than one minute. One pass, surprise was gone, so back home we went. On May 13, we unloaded about twelve tons of bombs on a long train sitting on a siding, left it burning and saw no return fire.’
Next day, Princeton headed for Yokosuka in heavy seas for Rest and Recreation ashore for a few days. On the first clear day, the huge, snow-covered Mount Fuji could be seen rising through layers of clouds just over the Naval Station. At sea again on May 22 and 23, Princeton had two launches each day before heading back into Yokosuka for a few more days. It was back to the war on June 2, and three days later, Owen Dykema flew the early hop that morning. In fact, they woke him at 0400 for a 0730 launch. ‘The skipper’s division and ours went down near Wonsan and hit the rails again. We sent the division of 193 and the one from 195 further South so our two divisions worked alone. We got twelve cuts for the eight of us. I only saw my first one and it landed about 50 feet to the right. I corrected after that, for the wind, but didn’t see if I hit. After we dropped our bombs, we went on recco and Struce and I left the others and cruised way inland to where there were just gravel roads and small villages and the heavily wooded mountains rise 6,000-7,000 feet in the air. It was a beautiful sunshiny morning, with little fleecy clouds hanging on the peaks – the war seemed far, far away. When we got back, Struce and I were #1 and 2 aboard. I even got an “OK” pass. Not bad after 23 days of no combat flying. I had seven combat missions now.’