The battle for the Paracel Islands, 19 January 1974

Although China may not have been a direct participant in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, Beijing’s economic and material support for Vietnam played a crucial role. Not only did China send troops to Vietnam to help maintain supply lines, but Beijing estimated its support for Hanoi between 1950-1978 exceeded $20 billion. Therefore, Beijing was understandably upset about improving relations between Moscow and Hanoi. In an action that closely paralleled the USSR’s land grabs near the end of the Chinese Civil War, the PRC decided to take possession of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam immediately prior to the North Vietnamese reunification of the country.

On 19 January 1974, the PLAN gained new visibility when it seized from South Vietnam the Paracel Islands. According to the Chinese version of these events, the conflict originated when the Vietnamese illegally arrested Chinese fishermen during November 1973. This prompted the PRC foreign ministry to announce on 11 January 1974 that Vietnam had invaded its sovereign territory, which is why the operation was labeled a “counter-attack”.

The main battle occurred during the morning of 19 January, when four Vietnamese vessels encountered an equal number of Chinese ships. The battle lasted less than an hour, but resulted in the sinking of one Vietnamese ship, and damage to the other three. While the Chinese ships also sustained damage, none of them sank. Vietnam sustained 53 dead and 16 injured, while the PRC only admitted to 18 dead. In addition to the naval actions, Chinese aircraft from Hainan Island supported marine landings.

Deng Xiaoping was chief of the PLA general staff at the time and oversaw the operation. Considering the distances involved and the time it took to deploy the PLAN ships to the area, the date of the battle-19 January, exactly the twenty-fourth anniversary of the PRC’s recognition of the North Vietnamese government-was clearly not a coincidence, but was intended to send a political signal to North Vietnam, showing Beijing’s displeasure with Hanoi’s close relations with Moscow. On 20 January, these islands were officially annexed by the PRC, and were made an integral part of Guangdong province.

By the end of January 1974, therefore, the PLAN had consolidated control over the Paracel Islands. During February 1974, Mao Zedong tried to use this success to pressure North Vietnam to turn against the Soviet Union, publicly calling for a “third world” coalition against the so-called “first world,” in this case meaning the USSR. Instead, the Vietnamese government criticized China’s presence on these islands and sought even closer relations with Moscow. The USSR also dramatically increased its troop strength along the Sino-Soviet border to more than a million men, and armed these troops with both conventional weapons, including T-72 tanks, and nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, over 70 Soviet ships and some 75 submarines were now stationed in the Pacific. According to one Vietnamese official: “There is a tangibly strong Soviet interest coinciding with Vietnamese interests-to reduce Chinese influence in this part of the world.”

Following the formal reunification of Vietnam, the Communist government in Hanoi openly split with Beijing. On 1 July 1976, Vietnam stated that the Paracel Islands were Vietnamese territory. In response, “China recalled several groups of specialists from Vietnam and delayed work on a number of projects being built with Chinese aid.” Thus, Beijing essentially repeated the Soviet Union’s 1960 mistreatment of China, by attempting to undermine Vietnam’s economic development.

The PRC also pointed to Premier Pham Van Dong’s September 1958 recognition of China’s maritime borders as proof that the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had acknowledged China’s sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. While not denying the letter’s existence, the Vietnamese Government issued a statement in August 1979, clarifying that, “the spirit and letter of the note were strictly confined to recognition of China’s 12-mile territorial waters.” Under international law, however, once a country recognizes another country’s sovereignty over territory, it cannot rescind that recognition.

Ever since China’s 1974 naval expedition to take control of the Paracel Islands, Sino-Vietnamese tensions over the islands have persisted. As one Vietnamese scholar has clarified, the Paracels remain “strategically important” to Vietnam, since they are “located on one of the world’s most important sea-lanes.”

On 15 February 1979, Deng declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. To prevent Soviet intervention, China put its troops along the Sino-Soviet border-estimated at one-and-a-half-million-on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from their homes immediately along the Sino-Soviet border.

Meanwhile, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet deployed two missile destroyers, four missile escort destroyers, 27 patrol boats, 20 submarines, and 604 other vessels. In addition to stationing patrol boats around the Paracels, the 1,000-man garrison manned anti-aircraft guns. The Paracels served both as a buffer area between the PRC and Vietnam, and also potentially as a strategic “area to stage punitive naval strikes against the Vietnamese.” Chinese land and naval forces in the Paracels further provided an important forward “outpost” to observe the Soviet Navy.

But, the PLAN was clearly no match for the Soviet Navy. On 22 February 1979, Colonel N. A. Trarkov, the Soviet military attaché in Hanoi, threatened that the USSR might feel obliged to “carry out its obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty.” Elsewhere, however, Soviet diplomats made it clear that the USSR would not intervene as long as the conflict remained limited. Soviet ships were actively cruising in the South China Sea, under the constant watch of the U. S. aircraft carriers Midway and Constellation. By mutual decision, however, neither China nor the Soviet Union authorized their naval forces to attack.

Most studies of the Chinese naval expedition to the Paracel Islands minimize or overlook completely that it was, in fact, a peripheral campaign in China’s larger conflict with North Vietnam, and by extension with Hanoi’s main ally, the USSR. This peripheral campaign included an attempt by China to assert a measure of sea control, or at the least “sea denial,” by retaining control over the Paracel Islands. Although this Chinese naval threat from the Paracels remained passive, its strategic impact was potent. One result of this naval threat was to convince the Soviet Navy not to lend its support to Vietnam during the Sino- Vietnamese war.

When peace talks opened during April 1979, China immediately demanded that Vietnam recognize PRC sovereignty in the South China Sea, and in particular over the Paracel Islands, but Hanoi rejected this pro- posal. Tensions remained high and, in 1988, a second conflict broke out in the Spratly Islands, as Chinese naval forces drove Vietnamese troops from Johnson Reef.






Exercise Tiger

Painting by Ted Archer of the attack on US LSTs during Exercise Tiger, 27/28 April 1944

Force ‘U’, for Utah Beach, was under the command of Rear Admiral Don P Moon, US Navy, and his troops and equipment were to be embarked in the same ships and for the most part in the same ports whence it was planned that they would leave for France a few months later. During the night of 26/27 April they proceeded through Lyme Bay and out on a long, looping course, to give the impression of the time it would take actually to travel over to France. There were minecraft sweeping ahead of them as if crossing the Channel. As German E-boats sometimes prowled the Channel on favourable nights, the commander in chief in Plymouth, who was responsible for protecting the rehearsal, placed extra patrols across the mouth of Lyme Bay, consisting of two destroyers, three MTB – motor torpedo boats – and two motor gunboats. Another MTB patrol was laid on to watch Cherbourg.

Following the ‘bombardment’ on Slapton Sands, the first landings were made during the morning of 27 April and unloading continued throughout that day and the next, when the follow-up convoy of another eight LSTs – or Landing Ship Tanks – was expected. It would be this follow-up convoy which would meet with death and destruction on a scale they could not have imagined as they set out from port.

Although there were a number of British ships stationed off the south coast, including those facing Cherbourg, only two vessels were assigned to accompany the followup convoy – a corvette, HMS Azalea, and a World War I destroyer, HMS Scimitar. But after being damaged in a minor collision, the destroyer put into port and a replacement vessel came to the scene too late. This was one of the most critical errors of Exercise Tiger.

But that was not the only mistake. Because of a typographical error in orders, the US LSTs were on a radio frequency different from the corvette and the British naval headquarters ashore. When one of the British ships spotted some German torpedo boats soon after midnight, a report quickly reached the British corvette but not the LSTs. Assuming that the US vessels had received the same report as he had, the commander of the corvette made no effort to alert them. So it was that the German E-boats had a clear run to attack the lightly defended convoy. The military details of the night are documented in the Action Reports of the various LST commanders. From a source inside the Pentagon, I have obtained a complete set of the Action Reports, from which it is possible to make a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the part played in Exercise Tiger by the follow-up convoy, codenamed ‘T-4’.

In overall charge of the LST Group was Commander B J Skahill, in the lead ship, the LST 515. It was on 3 May 1944 that he submitted his report of what happened during Exercise Tiger, along with separate reports from each of the commanders of the other LSTs. It is worth remembering that an LST was an ocean-going vessel, capable of carrying several hundred men, lorries and tanks. It was not just a flat-bottomed landing craft to bring a few men onto a beach, but a major assault ship weighing some four and a half thousand tons. To manoeuvre one at night under attack from much smaller and lighter craft, would have been no easy task.

LST Group 32 left Plymouth at 9:45 am on 27 April with the Plymouth section of Convoy T-4 composed of the LSTs 515, 496, 531, and 58 (the LST 58 was towing two pontoon causeways). The Plymouth section proceeded almost due south to a point near the Eddystone Rocks, where it was joined by the escort vessel, HMS Azalea, and then tracked east and northeast along the coast to a point off Brixham where it was joined by the Brixham section of Convoy T-4 composed of the LSTs 499, 289 and 507.

The convoy was proceeding in one column at a speed of five knots and stayed in the order 515, 496, 511, 531, 58, 499, 289, and 507, with each LST about 400 yards behind the next.

During the night, wrote Commander Skahill, commencing about half an hour after midnight, they saw various white and yellow flares of undetermined origin and significance. The number they observed at any one time, in any one locality, varied from one to five. Some appeared to be a rocket-type flare, others parachute-flares with elevations from 10 degrees to 25 degrees and separated by periods of 5 seconds to 30 seconds. At no time during the night did they hear or see any aircraft – friendly or otherwise.

Then, at about 1:30 am on 28 April, gunfire broke out astern. Everyone went to their stations. They did not realise it at the time, but they were being attacked by a formation of nine German E-boats from Cherbourg, which had slipped past the patrols without being recognised. These were a formidable foe.

A German E-boat was a fast moving hunter-killer. By the Allies, they were called ‘E’ for enemy, by the Germans ‘S-boote’, ‘schnell’ or fast boats. Each was armed with either two torpedo tubes and four torpedoes or two torpedoes and up to five mines. In addition they carried three 20mm guns and one 40mm gun. The E-boats were about 35 metres long, grey and slim. They could travel at speeds of up to 40 knots, and had a range of some 700 miles.

Crew quarters on E-boats were very limited in space. Everything was stripped down to make them fast and light. Total crew at the beginning of the war was about 28, but this was later increased due to extra armament to between 32 and 34. Only about half the men actually had bunks to sleep in, the others used hammocks, or slept on or under tables in the wireless room, as well as among the torpedo tubes. A very small galley allowed them to prepare hot meals and coffee. Indeed so tight was space that normally they had quarters ashore and went on board only for maintenance work and operations at sea.

On the night of Exercise Tiger, Oberleutnant zur See Günther Rabe was commanding officer in S-130, which belonged to the 9th Flotilla and had been based at Cherbourg since the middle of February 1944 in order to reinforce the German anti-invasion forces. Rabe was 26 years old at the time, and has since passed on to me his memories of that engagement.

During the night of 27/28 April the 5th and 9th E-boat-Flotilla were ordered by the Führer der Schnellboote (officer in charge of E-boats) to carry out a normal reconnaissance mission from their base at Cherbourg into the Lyme Bay area. Rabe does not remember if they had any particular information about ship movements in the area. They knew, however, that during April 1944 there was constant traffic on the coastal route off the south coast of England, as they met with increasing resistance from a rapidly growing number of gunboats, launches and other escorts. Despite the British defenders, however, they were building up a high score of ‘kills’ among the transports rehearsing for D-day, although the Germans of course had no idea from where or when the invasion was actually to come.

That night, after leaving the port of Cherbourg at a few minutes past 10 pm, they turned west, passed the island of Alderney and the rocks of the Casquets, and then turned up to the northwest and made a course towards Lyme Bay. They encountered no British destroyers or gunboats off Cherbourg, which they might have expected to do, since the British had a defensive screen around the area to cover just this sort of eventuality. The 9th flotilla with four boats held the westerly positions, whilst the 5th flotilla with five boats was to head for the eastern part of the Bay. They reached the usual Channel convoy route without any sign of a convoy or ship, nor any contact with covering forces. They crossed the route and set off for the inner part of Lyme Bay, later on turning northeast to east on a nearly parallel course to continue their search. Rabe remembers that there were flares in a southeasterly direction, which he assumed were fired from escorts to illuminate the boats from the 5th flotilla.

Then suddenly they found themselves in visual contact with the convoy of LSTs, lined up, they thought, in a rather long formation. From their position to the south and east of the LSTs, they could not see any escorts, so they approached to a good range at comparatively high speed in order to come to a favourable position for torpedo attack.

From his notes, Rabe knows that his boat fired two torpedoes at about 2:15. As he later found out, S-143 launched her torpedoes against the same LST a few seconds later. A definite hit was observed. Shortly after they saw fire on board the LST and a dense cloud of smoke rose from the ship. The actual sinking was not seen, as by then the S-130 had turned away for a short leg towards the west and thereafter to the south. Conscious of the fact that there were many more ships in the area they felt they could not attempt to close in to look for survivors.

Let us take up the story now from the American point of view. The LST 496 was second in line in the convoy, immediately behind the ship with the commander on board. Shortly after 1:30, LST 507 was observed firing anti-surface from her starboard battery. ‘Action stations’ was called but the ship was unable to pick up any target on radar. At just before 2 am they changed course to come round in a loop and head back in towards the shore. It was here that the E-boats made their visual contact. The 496 was simply following in the wake of the 515. Then LST 507 was torpedoed. The front part of the convoy maintained course and speed. A few minutes later the men on the 496 saw an unidentified LST behind them open fire with her starboard battery at a target about 90-degrees from her. Fire was returned from low in the water with blue tracer. As the convoy continued on course, LSTs 289 and 531 were torpedoed within a few seconds of each other. Now the 496 broke formation. They made a 90 degree turn to port, went ahead at flank speed and gave the order to open fire with their after battery on a radar target that had been picked up at a distance of about one and one-quarter miles. But they hit nothing. The commander gave the order to cease fire and commenced zigzagging, endeavouring to present the ship’s stern to the radar targets. But the attackers by that time had moved on.

LST 511 had what was probably the best view of the attacking boats of any of the Americans, though they had little more success in defending the convoy. They were third in line behind the leader, and when LSTs 515 and 496 commenced firing on their unidentified target three of the 511’s 20mm guns and one 40mm commenced firing on the same target. They were immediately silenced by the order ‘cease firing’, as the target had disappeared as quickly as it had come. The guns on the 511 did not fire again during the action, but that was far from the end of the matter for the men on board. As soon as they commenced firing, the after-port guns on LST 496 strafed their decks wounding numerous navy personnel. Their range was no more than the 400 yards separation between the ships. In a fairly charitable comment, the action report of the 511 notes that the 496 ‘may have been trying to fire at an E-boat reported by four witnesses to have passed.’ Certainly the 511 was also hit by German fire, a fact verified by several bullet holes which slanted upward, and could be explained in no other manner. Although it seemed like longer to many of those on board, the entire firing of all ships concerned in this part of the action lasted no more than about two minutes.

The E-boat passed at approximately 40 knots according to American calculations, which meant that it was travelling at full speed. It passed close in, right below their bows. The first they heard was the noise of the motors, which was initially reported to be an aeroplane, as it sounded much like one. The sound, though loud, had a muffled quality. The boat approached on a course heading from port to starboard, passing directly in front of the ship by no more than 15 yards, but at this point none of the guns on the 511 was able to depress sufficiently to fire on it. The boat then made two sharp turns, first 90 degrees to starboard, then back to its original course to port. It then disappeared from view. No reliable description of the craft could be given due to the darkness of the night and its colouring – only the wake end and its gunfire were seen. It had commenced firing when slightly off the 511’s port bow and continued until lost from sight to starboard.

The men on the 511 may have been strafed by their own comrades, and by an E-boat, but in relative terms they were lucky. While the ships at the front of the convoy were observing what was happening, and for quite some time keeping in formation, those further back were under much heavier attack. On board LST 499, the first sign of anything unusual was at about 1:20, when they felt a vibration like that of a nearby depth charge. A few seconds later the same sensation repeated itself. Just prior to the second vibration LST 507, the last in line, was seen to veer to port.

Then an unidentified craft opened fire on the convoy from astern and action stations was sounded. Red and green tracers passed overhead at about mast height, landing all around the ship. The gunfire seemed to originate from an invisible craft on their starboard quarter. The tracers seemed to be spent because of their ‘dropping off’ effect or trajectory, indicating to the men on the 499 that the invisible craft was firing from some distance. This gunfire lasted for about four minutes, and after it ceased the LST 289 moved up to within 300 yards of the stern of the 499 and the LST 507 returned to station. Twenty minutes passed without further disturbance and, because they received no instructions, they assumed the gunfire to have been a part of the exercise. They could not have been more wrong.

At a few minutes past two, a terrific explosion was heard from astern and the LST 507 burst into flames. About the same time they saw the wake of a torpedo abeam the 499 to starboard, and about 100 to 150 feet distant. The wake made about a 45 degree angle with their heading. They immediately gave full left rudder and all engines ahead full. The bow lookout reported that the torpedo wake cleared the bow by no more than 20 feet. They turned on their radar immediately after the LST 507 was torpedoed, but were unable to pick up any suspicious vessels.

There were now a series of confused course changes. At the same time that the 499 gave full left rudder the LST 289 also veered to port. They steered various courses until they were parallel with the LST 58. In other words, the convoy was bunching up at the centre. At just after 2:10, they throttled back to standard speed and then to one-third speed. During all this time they were expecting instructions from the convoy leader or from the escort ship, but they received none. They did not know whether to stay in formation, scatter, or make for shore.

At 2:20, there was another explosion and the LST 531 burst into flames, taking an immediate list to starboard. About a minute before this torpedoing, the LST 531 had been fired upon and she immediately returned the fire and firing between both the LST 531 and the invisible craft continued for a few seconds after the torpedoing. Then a second explosion was heard during this exchange of gunfire and the stern of the LST 531 burst into flames. The 499 again veered sharply to port and changed to full speed ahead. At the same time all the ships scattered.

Just after the second explosion a long, slender, light grey craft, moving at high speed, was seen to the starboard of the LST 531 at an estimated distance of two miles by the officer in charge of the bow guns, the bow lookout, and the No. 3 gun crew. It might have been the convoy escort, they thought. More likely what they saw was an E-boat.

At 2:25 the LST 499 radioed a distress message on the 490 kilocycle wavelength. It was, ‘SSSS SSSS SSSS 3 WYX V 3PQP 2800240 BT SUBMARINE ATTACK BT 2800240’. The signal would be picked up, and relief ships sent out, but they would arrive too late to do anything other than pick up those few survivors still alive after a long night in the water.

The 499 was not directly attacked, but further along the line of the convoy, other LSTs were clearly being hit. It was at 2:40 that LST 507 was struck. All electric power failed, the craft burst into flames, the fire got out of control and the survivors were forced to abandon ship. One of those on board LST 507 was Lieutenant J S Murdock. He reported afterwards that at approximately 1:45 they had heard gunfire and observed tracers apparently coming from their port quarter.

‘Action stations’ was sounded, but they could not work out the source of the firing. They heard intermittent firing between the time of the first shots and the moment when the ship was torpedoed on the starboard side. The torpedo actually struck the auxiliary engine room and all electric power failed immediately. The main engines stopped and the ship burst into flames. Fire-fighting was attempted by the crew but nearly all of their equipment was either inoperative, due to power failure, or inaccessible due to fire. What fire-fighting equipment was available was used, but it was inadequate. The fire gained headway relentlessly.

At some time around 2:45 on the morning of 28 April, Lieutenant Murdock abandoned ship with the then commanding officer, Lieutenant J S Swarts. They had given the order to abandon ship 10 minutes previously and stayed on board to ensure an orderly evacuation. As Murdock put it later: ‘As far as could be observed the abandoning of the ship was orderly. The opportunity was afforded only to launch two lifeboats and at least two life rafts.’ Survivors of the LST 507 have related the grim events of abandoning ship and struggling in the water in some detail.

It was not until almost 5 am that the LST 515 arrived on the scene, lowered boats and engaged in picking up survivors. Murdock was on a raft which went alongside the LST 515 and he was hoisted aboard. The official statistics for the LST 507 were as follows. Originally aboard, Navy – 165; Army – 282. Navy: 47 dead and 24 missing. Army: 131 dead and missing.

A few minutes after the 507 came under attack, LST 531 was hit by two torpedoes, burst into flames, and within six minutes had rolled over and sunk.

Ensign Douglas Harlander was the senior survivor on LST 531, and he compiled the report of what happened. ‘Action stations’ was sounded shortly after 1:30, as elsewhere in the convoy. When Harlander got to the bridge he was informed that gunfire was heard and tracers had been seen, though he himself did not see the tracers nor hear any gunfire. He was told that the gunfire was from the direction of their stern but was not directed at his ship and that the firing had not lasted over one minute. Then a ship was reported on fire in the distance off their starboard quarter. Ensign Cantrell, who saw the ship, and Ensign Harlander both observed the fire and were puzzled as to its identity. It was in fact the burning 507. Just about the time they realised it was an LST, their own ship was torpedoed on the starboard side by two torpedoes separated by about one minute. The first torpedo hit squarely amidships, the second in the vicinity of number three lifeboat. The ship immediately burst into flames and their 40mm gun commenced firing to starboard. All electric power failed, the telephones were inoperative, and the engines stopped. Fire-fighting was attempted but was futile, as all the apparatus they tried to use failed to function. It was quickly apparent to those on board that the fire could not be controlled and they tried to release one of the remaining lifeboats. These efforts were no more successful than the fire-fighting, due to the intense heat, while two further lifeboats had been demolished by the initial explosions.

Shortly afterwards, the ship rolled over and Harlander gave the command to abandon ship; he estimated that not more than 15 men were in his vicinity at the time; many of the soldiers and sailors had already jumped overboard. There were 142 Navy and 354 Army personnel on board the LST 531 when she set out. Totals of dead and missing were 114 Navy and 310 Army. It was not until 7 am that morning that the Navy survivors were picked up.

The last ship to come under attack that night was the LST 289. She had sighted an E-boat at just before 2:30 and opened fire. The E-boat retaliated with a torpedo hit. A number of men were killed, but the LST managed to make port under her own power.

Harry Mettler was commanding officer of LST 289. Like many of the others he had experienced ‘bumps’ or shocks near the boat, but the first clear indication of an enemy attack was when he saw the tracer being fired at the 507 about 600 yards astern of them. He was in the super con – or control room – at the time. In the opinion of Mettler and his gunnery officer it appeared to be 40mm gunfire from 2,500 to 4,000 yards distance, and coming from almost due west, but at no time did anyone see the craft firing, even though the fire came almost directly down the path of the moon, which was then very low in the sky. The 507 sheered to their port and came ahead nearly abeam of them. The enemy fire was then diverted to the 289 from dead astern, most of it being well over the ship. But at no time were any flashes observed, making it futile for them to return the fire, and only serving to give away their own position.

The 289’s gun stations were put on local control with instructions to open fire only if an enemy craft was in view. When they were attacked, they were manning one bow and one stern 40mm gun, after which they immediately went on action stations. The firing lasted about 10 minutes and they received no hits out of 200 to 300 rounds fired. Shortly after the firing ceased, the 507 came back into formation about 700 yards astern of them. Like those on the LST 499, they started to wonder whether the firing might after all have just been a part of the exercise. Then there was an explosion amidships on the starboard side of the 507, with a great flash of flames which seemed to spread instantly from stem to stern. The middle part of the convoy broke formation. The 499 pulled up on the port side of the 58 and the 289 sheered to port.

Aware both of the full load of Army personnel for whom they were primarily responsible and of their own vulnerability, the officers on the 289 considered it unwise to go to the assistance of the 507.

By this time, the entire convoy was out of formation and when the next ship exploded they were unable to identify it. They were by then running at almost full speed using right and left full rudder at 4- or 5-minute intervals to make an evasive pattern. It was later reported by several gun crews that a torpedo wake passed astern off their starboard quarter and another across their port bow. Their erratic course had clearly achieved its goal. Just before 2:30, four port 40mm guns and three 20mm guns opened fire at what some gun crews described as a fast white boat similar to the British M1 series, while others were firing at a torpedo wake which was headed for a point one fourth of the way forward of the stern. The torpedo was approximately 100 yards away from the ship when the officers in the super con saw it. They had to move very quickly. The order had just been given for left full rudder, but as the ship was still swinging fast to the right the prior order was belayed and the rudder returned to full right. The torpedo appeared to be going at not more than 15 or 20 knots and from the super con it seemed at first that it was going to miss. But it hit the ship near the stern. It exploded with considerable flash and roar, but did not shake the ship noticeably – only a few light bulbs had broken filaments and there were no injuries. Fortunately, it struck sufficiently high that the screws themselves were not damaged.

Fire broke out in the crew quarters and on the navigation bridge, but the fire hoses were brought from amidships and the fire was put out before gaining any headway. With their electrics still intact they were in a much better position to fight the fire than those on the other two crippled ships. One steward’s mate carried a blazing mattress up the ladder and threw it over the side. Their fire-fighting was providential, as there was dripping fog oil all over the decks and wreckage.

When they started their engines they found they could go ahead, but only to port, even when backing down on the starboard engines, so they had to make a circle in towards the two blazing LSTs before heading away from them. They had ungripped their six lifeboats at the beginning of the action, so they immediately lowered the five undamaged boats and powered them up, to aid in heading the ship.

Some while later they received a signal to proceed to Brixham. They protested, believing there were no adequate medical facilities at Brixham, and were given leave to proceed to Dartmouth where they arrived early in the afternoon of the 28th. There were just four men killed during the action, eight missing and eighteen wounded, one of whom died at the base hospital. All those were Navy men. Army casualties were four wounded. The commander of the LST 289 was both lucky and skilful that night, and many of his crew undoubtedly owed their lives to him. He later wrote:

It will be observed that at no time were we given any apparent support from our escort or any other source, even though 33 minutes elapsed between the surface fire and the torpedo attack. It is to be hoped that future operations will avoid such futile sacrifices.

The comments of the commander of the LST 499 were in the same vein. The speed of advance of the convoy had been set too slow, he felt. Lack of information led them to believe that flares and gunfire were part of the exercise instead of enemy action. There was clearly an insufficient number of escorts. After the attack was made no orders or instructions were received and no rendezvous was given in case of scattering if attacked. In a nutshell, they had absolutely no idea what tactics to adopt if they came under attack, and they were almost without defence. Yet this was in waters which were regularly patrolled by German E-boats. The official loss of life in this brief action – 197 sailors and 441 soldiers – was actually much greater than the invasion forces suffered on D-day at Utah Beach.

For their part, the Germans had a successful night. On their way southwards, back to base, the E-boats reported that they were involved in several actions with escorts – Günther Rabe thought with gunboats as well as destroyers. They managed however to return to Cherbourg without any losses. At that time and for many years afterwards, Rabe was of the opinion that they had hit an empty LST heading towards a port of embarkation for the expected invasion. The commander of the 9th Flotilla, Kapitan Zur See Rudolf Peterson was awarded Oakleaves to his Knights Cross for the most successful killing of World War II, on 28 April 1944 in the English Channel. The 9th flotilla’s total was: S-130, 1/2 Kill (shared with S-150), sunk LST 507; S-145, 1 Kill, sunk LST 531; S-150, 1/2 Kill (shared with S-130), sunk LST 507 and 1 Kill, damaged LST 289.


This class was designed to be a slightly cheaper alternative to the Seawolf type, whose cost overruns had caused consternation within the navy and Congress. Principal savings were expected to arise from the greatest possible use of ‘off- the- shelf’ electronics, but the type still proved more expensive than the Seawolf class. Congressional and naval concern that the United States might soon be reduced to a single yard capable of constructing submarines led to the decision to build these boats at both the Newport News and Electric Boat yards. The Newport News facility builds the stern, habitability and machinery spaces, torpedo room, sail, and bow, while Electric Boat builds the engine room and control room. The two yards alternate work on the reactor plant as well as the final assembly, test, outfit and delivery. Contracts have been let for eight boats so far, with orders anticipated for one additional boat in 2007 and 2008, and ultimate plans for building 24 submarines of this type with delivery on an annual basis.

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, and the Navy’s changing emphasis to littoral (shallow water) operations, came the development of the new Virginia class fast attack boat, a smaller and less expensive replacement for the aging Los Angeles class attack subs. A redefined requirement called for an advanced, multi-mission nuclear-powered submarine highly capable in both deep ocean anti-submarine warfare and littoral operational environments.

To reduce the acquisition and life-cycle costs of the Virginia class design and engineering process, a whole range of state-of-the-art methods are being employed. These include concurrent engineering design/build teams, computer-aided design and electronic visualization tools, system simplification, parts standardization and component elimination. These innovations help to keep the new submarine affordable in sufficient numbers to meet the Navy’s future nuclear attack submarine force level need.

Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Connecticut is the lead design authority for the Virginia class and is the builder of the first boat of the class, the Virginia, SSN 774, at Newport News, Virginia, and commissioned in 2004. The Navy’s total requirement for the Virginia class is thirty submarines.

The Virginia class submarine is similar in size to her Los Angeles class predecessor, at 377 feet long and a thirty-four-foot beam, but her submerged displacement is greater at 7,800 tons. She is fast (twenty-eight knots submerged) and has a published depth of 800+ feet. She comes with four twenty-one-inch torpedo tubes and twelve vertical launch system tubes for Tomahawk cruise missiles. She can also deliver advanced mobile mines and unmanned undersea vehicles. Her command center is installed as one single unit which rests on cushioned mounting points. Her control suite is equipped with computer touch screens and her steering and diving control is via a four-button two-axis joystick.

The Virginia class sub features an Advanced Swimmer Delivery Vehicle which is a mini-submarine atop the hull for delivering special warfare forces such as SEAL teams or Marine reconnaissance units for counter-terrorism or localized conflict operations. At sixty-five feet in length, the ASDV is nearly twelve feet longer than the Holland, the U.S. Navy’s first submarine.

Acoustically, Virginia has a lower noise level than that of the Russian Improved Akula class and fourth-generation attack submarines. This is achieved through the use of a newly designed anechoic coating, isolated deck structures, and a new-design propulsor. Without a traditional bladed propeller, the Virginias use pump-jet propulsors, originally developed for the Royal Navy’s Swiftsure submarines. Propulsors significantly reduce the risks of cavitation and allow quieter operation.

The Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence system of the Virginia integrates all of the boat systems (sensors, navigation, weapon control and counter-measures). The vertical launch system is capable of firing sixteen Tomahawk cruise missiles in a single salvo. A 3,500-pound Tomahawk can deliver 1,000 pounds of high explosive within inches of its target over a distance of 1,500 miles. Capacity for twenty-six Mk 48 heavyweight ADCAP torpedoes and Sub Harpoon anti-ship missiles is provided. The Mk 48 can bring 650 pounds of high explosive a distance of more than five miles. Mk 60 CAPTOR mines may also be carried.

Virginia class sensors include bow-mounted active and passive array, wide aperture passive array on flank, high-frequency active arrays on keel and fin, and towed arrays. Her propulsion unit is the General Electric Pressure Water Reactor S9G which is designed to last as long as the submarine itself, two turbine engines with one shaft and a pump-jet propulsor. The reactor will not need refuelling during the entire lifetime of the boat.

Operated by a crew of 113 officers and men, according to the U.S. Navy Virginia’s performance surpasses that of any current projected threat submarine, ensuring U.S. undersea dominance well into the century.

Focus NNS: Update on the Virginia-Class Submarine Program

Virginia Pivot: The USA’s Multi-Year Block IV Sub Deal

The Black Sea: The Naval War in the South 1942–43 III

U-18 being re-assembled at Galați, Romania

Six U-boats were transported overland from Kiel on the Baltic to the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta in 1942 to raid Russian shipping. Three were lost or scuttled in mid-1944, while the remainder were cut off from escape when Romania declared war on Germany in August 1944. They were scuttled in secret by their crews.

It was not until the middle of June that the 30th U-boat Flotilla was able to claim another confirmed success. Petersen’s U24 had sailed from Constanta to the waters between Tuapse and Cape Idokopas. There Petersen was ordered to attempt surprise attacks on towed convoys and coastal vessels proceeding under the lee of the coast, the aim being to force Soviet convoys to operate at night thereby restricting the effectiveness of escort vessels. Unsuccessfully bombed by two Soviet aircraft outbound, U24 reached its target area and attacked coastal freighters lying moored alongside jetties in the Mesib estuary, though the single G7e fired failed to detonate. Petersen opted to move on rather than potentially waste a second valuable torpedo. A pair of Il-2 ground-attack aircraft and an MBR-2 seaplane sighted U24 and attacked with nine bombs as U24 submerged – Soviet motor torpedo boats TK12 and TK32 and the patrol boat SKA062 later also detecting the boat on sonar and inflicted minor damage with twenty-eight depth charges. Finally, after avoiding what he believed to be a Q-ship, and missing an opportunity to attack a high-speed destroyer, Petersen torpedoed 441-ton minesweeper BTSC-411 Zashchitnik (No. 26), hitting the stern and sending the small ship under in ninety seconds after the hull fractured in two.

Two days later Petersen’s lookouts sighted what they believed to be U20, later discovering the boat to have been Russian as U20 was confirmed elsewhere. Determined not to make the same mistake again, U24 reported another submarine encounter to headquarters by short signal 28 miles south-west of Sukhum, shadowing while transmitting signals to U19, though the latter was too distant to attack. At 8.04 a.m. Petersen fired a single torpedo, but missed as he had underestimated the target speed: losing contact shortly thereafter. With a single torpedo left Petersen was ordered to close the Soviet coast and use it before returning to Constanta. Depth charged once again on 25 June off Tuapse, U24 reached Feodosia the following day to refuel before returning to Constanta without encountering any further enemy vessels.

U18 and U19 had both departed Constanta on 16 June, the former proceeding to the area north of Tuapse via the northern route that skirted the Crimean peninsula – the latter taking the southern route near Turkey to reach Batum. Fliege’s U18 sighted a surfaced Soviet submarine at 0.30 a.m. on 19 June, but struggled to obtain a firing position, dangerously silhouetted by the setting moon behind the boat. As the Russian submerged, Fliege was ordered to make a hydrophone search until 6.60 a.m., but could not regain contact.

On 20 June Luftwaffe reconnaissance reported a tanker convoy headed to Tuapse. U18 was ordered to engage but the message reached Fliege too late as he cruised submerged near the Soviet coastline during daylight. Three days later he sighted a convoy of two steamers, one motor minesweeper and an escort vessel, 20 miles south-east of Tuapse sailing south-east at moderate speed. Fliege fired two magnetic torpedoes but was unable to observe the result as retaliatory depth charges forced the boat deep. Two torpedo detonations were heard through the water as U18 slipped away. Two days later V.A. Gustav Kieseritzky (Admiral Black Sea since 28 February 1943) recorded that:

We have still not been able to establish the whereabouts of the steamer which U18 torpedoed on 23 June. At 0455hrs Luftwaffe reconnaissance sighted a convoy of two small freighters 5 miles west of Gagri and at 0529hrs another convoy consisting of a freighter of 1,000 tons, one motor minesweeper and one escort vessel between Ochomchiri and Poti; both course, southeast. According to dead reckoning, either convoy might be the one which had been attacked by U18. In the first case, the convoy would have sailed at a speed of 4.3 knots, allowing the torpedoed steamer to proceed at slow speed or in tow. In the latter case, the torpedoed steamer must have sunk and the remaining convoy’ would then have proceeded at 7.8 knots. At 0812hrs U18 contacted the first convoy again and reported the position to U24, However, either U24 did not receive the radiogram or defences prevented her from gaining an attacking position before the convoy put in to port, U18 was also unable to take the offensive, probably on account of the strong air patrols. At the end of the pursuit, both U-boats were ordered to new operational areas.

Fliege was credited by the Kriegsmarine for hitting and sinking the 1,783-ton steamer Leningrad, although this ship was still under repair in Batumi at that time after damage by the Luftwaffe. It is probable that the ship attacked was the steam tug Petrash which escaped unscathed, the torpedo detonation possible ‘end of run’ explosions.

Fliege moved on and attempted to torpedo a large tanker moored alongside the sunken floating dock at Sokhumi but was prevented by strong defences: U18 detected and subjected to four hours of depth charges. Fliege again managed to extricate his boat from the area and attempted to shadow tanker traffic heading south but lost contact. Finally, on 28 June, U18 reported sinking an unidentified lighter estimated at 1,000 tons with a spread of two torpedoes near Cape Pitsunda. Despite depth charge pursuit, Fliege escaped again. Low on diesel and ammunition he was ordered to the battered city of Sevastopol to take on fuel and torpedoes. It was the first time that the port was utilised by U-boats carrying out small repairs and replenishment rather than the trek back to Constanta, allowing the boat to return to the operational area for a further ten days.

Following a machinery overhaul, U18 was back at sea, escorted from harbour by R33 and R166 and bound once again for Tuapse. On 17 July U18 reported that it had torpedoed and sunk the 3,908-ton steamer Voroshilov travelling in convoy with two minesweepers, although it now appears that the target ship was actually Traktorist, missed by the attack. Depth charged as he slowly slipped away, Fliege first put into Feodosia to refuel before heading to Constanta, arriving on 20 July. In the shipyard a new Wintergarten was installed behind the conning tower with twin 20mm flak weapons. The increase in Soviet air activity was tangible and U-boats were increasingly attacked by heavily armoured fighter-bombers: aircraft becoming the primary threat as in the Atlantic battle itself thousands of miles away.

Although Fliege’s patrol had appeared the most effective thus far of the 30th U-boat Flotilla, he had sunk only a single patrol ship. The newly promoted Petersen’s U24 had achieved the most notable victory thus far on 30 July. After sailing on 24 July, Petersen had headed for the southern route to the coast off Sokhumi. U24 (Kaptlt Petersen) reported by radiogram at 8.40 p.m.:

Fired two torpedoes at a damaged tanker in Sokhumi. Depth charges. Tanker was 7,000 GRT, loaded or flooded, sea force 1, depth-setting 5.5 meters with magnetic firing pistol. Two hits were scored and the target broke apart. Three torpedoes left, 18m³ fuel, position air grid square 0326.

The third U-boat attempt to sink 7,886-ton Emba had been successful. The tanker had already absorbed much punishment: bombed and heavily damaged by Luftwaffe attack off Kamysh-Burun during January – the engine room was beyond repair. Towed to Sokhumi, and further damaged by mine while en route, she was anchored 300m from the coast and served as a fuel store. Emba was finally destroyed by Petersen after both U18 and U23 had failed in their attempts.

The redeployment of U24 that followed marked a shift in tactics used within the Black Sea. With little success enjoyed thus far, the tactical method of the U-boat group (famously called Wolfpacks) had been proposed by Admiral Kurt Fricke, (MGK Süd), although Kieseritzky (Admiral Black Sea) and Rosenbaum objected. A compromise was finally reached with attempts to form patrol lines rather than relying on lone-wolf sailings:

Appendix to War Diary of 6 August, 1943.

Copy: Admiral, Black Sea

To: Naval Group South, Sofia.

Copy to 30th U-Boat Flotilla, Constanta.

Subject ; U-boat pack tactics in the Black Sea

The suggestions made by Group South … for a new form of U-boat operations in the Black Sea have already been thoroughly examined here, but the attempt to develop pack tactics has been abandoned as a result of the commanders’ experiences in such operations.

Further considerations are as follows:

  1. Pack tactics were developed by the U-boat command in the Atlantic as an answer to the increased defences of the convoys there, when it became impossible for a single boat to attack. The idea was to dispose a concentration of boats against concentrated escort forces and massed targets. Half the boats would engage the escort forces and keep them busy, while the other half was able to attack.
  2. Conditions in the Black Sea area are totally different from the Atlantic. Here, there is no question of U-boat warfare in free sea areas against concentrated, strongly escorted targets. In the Black Sea we have a purely coastal war against coastal vessels which sail very close to the coast or against single, escorted freighters which are only encountered occasionally – at irregular intervals. In the Mediterranean where conditions have hitherto been similar, we do not use pack tactics. Admiral, Black Sea is planning a special form of joint operation, whereby several boats will form a mobile reconnaissance line with position lines parallel to the coast. Depending on the operational numbers, the boats will cover an area up to 12 miles from the coast. Thus they will harass stationary anti-submarine patrols by continuously altering position and at the same time will be free to operate against any targets within range reported by reconnaissance.

The three boats coordinated into Rosenbaum’s first attempt at a patrol line were U19, U23 and U24.

On the night of 6 August U19 began shadowing an escorted enemy tanker headed south-east near Sokhumi. In pursuit, the boat periodically lost contact, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft detailed to help regain the small convoy. Gaude was ordered to report the convoy’s presumed position so as to bring U24 into action. Petersen, having lost his Obersteuermann who had been taken ill aboard and transferred to a homebound U20, joined the hunt and shadowed the ships, unable to reach an attacking position before they disappeared, presumably into Sokhumi harbour. He received orders to penetrate the harbour and attack, the Luftwaffe once again involved in an effort to confirm the tanker’s presence. Shortly afterward Petersen spotted the tanker headed south once more towards Poti. With constant air cover, and lying too far astern of the ships, there was no chance for Petersen to haul ahead of the tanker and lie in wait – the chase abandoned and U24 returning to the patrol line near Tapir. By 11 August, U24 had sighted another Soviet convoy of towed lighters, but was sighted in turn, Russian patrol boat SKA0111 launching twenty-three depth charges that damaged U24. U19 was ordered to close the enemy ships but was unable to make contact. Shortly afterward Gaude reported that owing to a lack of potash cartridges and oxygen, U19 could only remain in the operational area until 14 August and Rosenbaum ordered the boat to Feodosia that evening, the patrol line held solely by U23 and U24:

It is regrettable that the effectiveness of this first attempt at a joint operation by three U-boats along the Caucasus coast should be reduced by this unexpected event, which leaves only two boats for the task. According to the last reports from these boats, they have enough fuel and ammunition and there was no mention of any scarcity of potash cartridges or oxygen. Both Command and the boats will have to learn from this experience.

The next day U24 also reported her oxygen supply depleted, compelled to head to Feodosia and leaving only U23 patrolling off Cape Pitsunda. The first joint U-boat operation within the Black Sea was officially abandoned while S-boat S26 sailed from Constanta carrying potash cartridges and oxygen bottles for the two U-boats.

A second attempt at combining the three was undertaken after U19 and U24 had resupplied. Starting at 3 a.m. on 20 August U19, U23 and U24 were to patrol for seventy-two hours in a single reconnaissance line close to the Caucasus coast between Lasarevskaya and Sochi. U19 and U23 were then ordered, on 25 August, to commence their return passages to Constanta in a reconnaissance line via the northern route to search for enemy submarines close to the Crimean coast and in the Cape Sarich/Constanta area.

Finally the tactic worked when Petersen intercepted and began shadowing two small 7-ton landing craft – DB36 and DB37, both empty apart from three-man crews – towed by patrol boat SKA0188. The landing craft’s shallow draught made them impractical to torpedo and so U24 surfaced at 1.24 a.m. and attacked the convoy with machine-gun and cannon fire. SKA0188 was claimed sunk by Petersen though the patrol boat returned fire, dropped the tow lines and escaped undamaged. Both landing craft were then left to U24, which approached them and attacked with gunfire and ten hand grenades after the 20mm jammed. DB36 was soon sinking in flames, all three crew captured, whereupon U24 concentrated on DB37, her crew surrendering. The vessel was sunk with demolition charges laid by two U-boat men that leapt aboard the damaged craft as the three prisoners were taken below decks on U24. Four of the six Russians had been wounded and Petersen sailed for Feodosia where they were put ashore as prisoners of war. Their interrogation revealed that the small convoy had been proceeding from Poti to Gholonjik in stages. Each landing craft – made from 5mm thick steel with a closed foredeck – was capable of carrying fifty men in full assault gear, reaching a speed of 6 knots under its own petrol-engine power. At least ten such vessels were known to have been shipped to Poti by railroad and planned for use in supplying the Myshako beachhead. From Feodosia, U24 then returned to Constanta.

Kapitänleutnant Wahlen’s U23 also sank an enemy vessel, the boat’s first Black Sea success. On 24 August at 8 p.m. Wahlen engaged the 35-ton former pilot boat and hydrographic vessel Shkval with gunfire, attempting to ram the Soviet ship as crewmen fired machine guns, cannon and threw hand grenades. With three Soviet crewmen killed the remaining seven abandoned ship in a lifeboat as Shkval sank in flames, helped on its way by demolition charges thrown aboard.

Wahlen could not repeat his success when ordered to join U18 in contact with a Soviet convoy near Pitsunda Point. Fliege had been driven away by searchlights and artillery fire as a Luftwaffe aircraft equipped with Lichtenstein radar on patrol near Kerch was diverted to help regain contact. Despite the electronic assistance, the enemy was not found. Wahlen sighted what he believed to be a 500-ton Soviet Q-ship at 1.50 p.m. on 25 August, stalking the target before firing three torpedoes, all of which missed as the U-boat was detected and attacked with seven depth charges. Wahlen later radioed his report to 30th U-boat Flotilla headquarters:

Presumably the Q-ship was the same ship as was encountered on the first enemy operation … stopped, now and then zigzagging to make smoke. Firing range 800 meters, angle of spread 4°, angle on the bow 90°, length of target 60 metres, torpedo ran 20 meters ahead of the bow. Clear location. Diesel engines. Accurate depth charges.

Following a rendezvous with U18 two days later, Wahlen observed three fast-moving minesweepers but was again unable to attack. On 2 September the boat docked at Feodosia, refuelling as Rosenbaum came aboard to greet the crew and talk with the young skipper. A week later, U23 was back in Constanta.

Fliege in U18 achieved some success during his patrol that had begun on 21 August: attacking what he recorded as an 800-ton Q-ship with a single torpedo on 29 August; the 400-ton minesweeping trawler TSC-11 Dzhalita hit under the aft mast and sinking within two minutes, stored depth charges detonating as she went down with fifteen out of the thirty-eight crew killed. The following day U18 attacked and damaged the 56-ton patrol boat SKA-0132 with gunfire near the coast at Ochamchire, forced to break off the attack when searchlights from shore dazzled the U-boat crew. The patrol boat was left burning as Fliege retreated to open water.

The U-boat was forced to make a detour to Feodosia to disembark an ill crewman – MaschMt Rolke – returning to action after also refuelling and reprovisioning. A final success was the reported torpedoing of an unidentified 800-ton vessel with one of two shots fired. Fliege observed the ship sinking through his periscope until depth charges from accompanying minesweepers forced Fliege to dive deeper.

Luftwaffe reconnaissance detected a destroyer with steam up, a 7,000-ton tanker, torpedo boat and several merchants in Tuapse harbour, drawing U18 to a position south of Tuapse boom to lie in wait for the tanker. At 9 a.m. Fliege attacked her as she sailed accompanied by a freighter, five torpedo boats and minesweepers with five circling aircraft overhead. Two TIII torpedoes were fired which missed all targets after which U18 was sighted, shelled and attacked with numerous depth charges: an ignominious end to the patrol that terminated at Constanta on 24 September. Nevertheless, on 8 October 1943, Fliege was awarded the German Cross in Gold.

Before Fliege reached the Romanian port he also discharged a single EMS mine into the water near Tuapse to counter the expected ASW hunt for him. The Einheitsmine Seehrohr Treibmine (EMS) ‘periscope drift mine’ was designed to resemble the periscope of a submerged U-boat. Laid from the deck of a surfaced boat, it floated for fifteen minutes before arming and automatically sank seventy-two hours later if unsuccessful. Allied escort vessels had a propensity for ramming submerged U-boats in an effort to destroy them and the 14kg warhead of the EMS mine would be triggered by contact with a ship’s hull and detonate. Later a different version of the EMS mine was developed that had no periscope but instead was topped by a plexiglass dome such as that used on the Neger and Marder human torpedoes. Marinegruppenkommando Süd had suggested that the mines be laid as U-boats departed their operational zones in the south-eastern Black Sea. The aim was twofold: to disable or destroy ASW ships and also to give the appearance of greater U-boat numbers. Soviet ASW forces would be divided as they hunted phantom boats that were in fact EMS mines, possibly even relaxing their search for genuine U-boats after the mines were discovered.

Kapitänleutnant Schmidt-Weichert’s U9 had also returned to action after repairs in Galati. Originally earmarked for minelaying operation, the unexpected breakdown of both U19 and U24 necessitated U9 mounting another torpedo patrol. Rosenbaum received instructions to instead prepare the next available boat, U20, for minelaying, a second special mission, the landing of agents behind enemy lines, also postponed due to a hold-up in the production of forged papers for the agents. Carrying a full torpedo load, and a single EMS mine, Schmidt-Weichert slipped from Constanta on 26 August at 1.38 p.m. under minesweeper escort, headed for the southern route towards Batum. Two days later U9 hunted three Soviet destroyers reported by a Bv138 flying boat, but failed to reach attack position, the submerged boat repeatedly ‘cutting under’, obscuring the periscope view. For this mission U9 had taken aboard a new LI as well as nine inexperienced new crewmen. Loaded with enough provisions to last thirty days, rather than the standard twenty-four, as well as carrying new equipment installations, U9 was heavier than normal and difficult to control for the new LI. At 1.50 p.m. Schmidt-Weichert attempted to attack a zigzagging destroyer but the boat dipped at the moment of firing, using an incorrect gyro-angle setting. The torpedo missed and the target was lost as it made off at high speed. Abandoning the pursuit, U9 resumed her march toward its operational zone. There, sailing between Batum, Poti and Sokhumi, U9 found nothing except air patrols which dropped bombs and brought ASW ships to the area to subject the submerged boat to depth charges, damaging hydrophones and the air search periscope. U9 managed to shake off its pursuit, later leaving behind an EMS mine with a two-day fuse running.

The boat suffered continual serious mechanical malfunctions, which forced a breakaway toward Sevastopol. By 4 September the hydrophones, navigation periscope and both compasses had broken down, the magnetic compass already malfunctioning after only two days at sea. Navigating by the stars, U9 sailed for the Crimean peninsula making accurate landfall on 6 September and escorted into Sevastopol by two Kriegsmarine artillery barges. Refuelling from the tanker Shell, U9 returned to Constanta in convoy with other ships, arriving as the Romanian harbour came under attack by Soviet torpedo aircraft. Four aerial torpedoes were launched, one of which hit the main mole causing damage and another fired at U9, but a ground runner that missed. The U-boat was hit by machine-gun fire and buffeted by bombing near misses, but suffered no appreciable damage as the U-boat crew returned fire with all available weapons. Four of the six attacking aircraft were brought down by the combined anti-aircraft defences within Constanta.

It was the end of Schmidt-Weichert’s tenure as part of the 30th U-boat Flotilla. He was transferred back to Germany for unspecified health reasons to take command of a company of the 1st UAA training unit, later posted to the staff of the 22nd U-boat Flotilla. In his stead as commander of U9 was ObltzS Heinrich Klapdor, previously IWO aboard U9 while it was still a training boat. The boat did not sail again until October, by which time the war in Russia had deteriorated once more.

On land, German forces were in retreat. February had seen the defeat at Stalingrad. During July and August the ambitious German offensive code-named Zitadelle, centred on cutting off and destroying huge Soviet forces in the Kursk salient, had failed. The last great strategic offensive that the Germans were capable of mounting on the Eastern Front ended following a titanic armoured battle that ultimately destroyed the backbone of the panzer forces. The military impetus now lay squarely with the Soviets who launched their own summer counter offensives.

As the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS was pushed west, the German foothold on the north-eastern Black Sea coast came under increasing pressure. On 5 May Soviet troops captured Krymsk, north-east of Novorossiysk, weeks later beginning an offensive against German units isolated between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. By 7 September the battered 17th Army finally began to evacuate the Kuban bridgehead; on 27 September Temryuk fell to the Soviets and by 9 October the Kuban bridgehead had been destroyed. The final German and Romanian units evacuated to Crimea left the small island of Kosa Tuzla in the Kerch Strait at dawn that day. Although it could not be claimed a victory, the Kriegsmarine had successfully evacuated 97,941 tons of war material, 12,437 wounded, 6,329 soldiers, 12,383 civilians, 1,195 horses, 2,265 head of livestock, 260 motor vehicles, 770 horse-drawn vehicles and 82 guns between 7 September and the end of the withdrawal. Before long the Axis forces on the Crimean peninsula would be isolated as Soviet advances to the north cut off land access: now more than ever the land battles dependent on Kriegsmarine supply capabilities.

Indian Navy

The Indian Navy Project 17 frigate Sahyadri operating with the Project 28 corvette Kamorta in May 2017. Both ships are amongst the newest of their types in the Indian Navy but new designs are in preparation.

The last year has continued to see the Indian Navy’s ambitious plans for enhancement and expansion held back by a number of familiar problems. These have included an inadequate – and declining – budget for naval modernisation; a strong emphasis on local shipbuilding in spite of a poor track record of executing programmes on time and to budget; an over-reliance on defective Russian-supplied equipment; and ongoing mishaps attributable to human error.

India’s 2017–18 defence budget estimate amounted to INR262,390 crore (US$41bn) excluding pensions, a year-on-year increase of 5.3 percent. This rate of growth is slower than in recent years. One consequence has been a rise in the proportion of the budget allocated to revenue expenditure to the obvious detriment of modernisation accounts. With much capital consumed by Indian Air Force requirements, the navy has been suffering. The 2017–18 naval modernisation account was INR18,750 crore (US$2.9bn), a twelve percent reduction on the previous year and totally inadequate to support expansion efforts.

A further problem relates to the wisdom with which money is being spent. With the exception of the strategic missile submarine Arihant, only one major warship has been commissioned into Indian Navy service in the last twelve months. This is largely a reflection of local industry’s inability to deliver new ships in accordance with the navy’s expectation. The extent of the problem was revealed in a ‘Performance Audit on Construction of Indigenous Aircraft Carrier’ published by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in July 2016. This revealed there was complete disagreement between the navy and builders’ Cochin Shipyard as to when the new carrier, Vikrant, was likely to be delivered. Whilst the Indian Navy is holding to a schedule requiring delivery of the ship by December 2018, the shipyard now believes that 2023 is a more likely estimate. The end result is likely to be India having to rely on just one operational aircraft carrier for an extended period in spite of a long-stated aim to have three in commission.

Whilst the performance of the Indian shipbuilding sector has been far from stellar, reliance on Russian industry has also proved problematic. The CAG report referred to above makes frequent references to delays in the receipt of Russian design documentation and equipment. It also highlighted a host of problems with respect to the Russian MiG-29K/KUB strike fighters acquired for both Vikrant and the existing Vikramaditya. These were riddled with defects relating to their airframe, engine and fly-by-wire system, resulting in serviceability as low as sixteen percent.

Meanwhile, on 5 December 2016, the navy suffered the latest in a series of mishaps to impact the fleet when the frigate Betwa fell over onto her side whilst the cruiser graving dock in Mumbai Dockyard was being flooded-up. Two sailors were killed in an incident that left the ship with significant damage. Betwa was subsequently righted in February 2017. Repairs are expected to take around twelve months to complete.

The table below suggests that there has been very little change in the overall structure of the Indian Navy year-on-year. The formal decommissioning of Viraat (the former HMS Hermes) on 6 March 2017 – she had already effectively been out of service for around a year – leaves Vikramaditya as the navy’s sole aircraft carrier. The surface fleet welcomed the final Project 15A Kolkata class destroyer, Chennai, which commissioned on 21 November 2016. Her arrival was balanced by the withdrawal from active service of the Project 16 Godavari class frigate Ganga, which undertook her last operational voyage on 27 May 2017. She will be formally decommissioned later in the year. Godavari ended her service life in December 2015 and Gomati, the third member of the class, is also expected to leave the fleet soon.

Construction of major surface combatants encompasses three programmes. The most advanced is that for four Project 15B Visakhapatnam class destroyers, which are based on the previous Project 15A design. Builders Mazagon Dock Ltd launched Mormugao, second of the class, on 17 September 2016. Deliveries are scheduled to take place every two years from 2018, although this seems ambitious on past performance. Mazagon will also undertake construction of four of the seven Project 17A stealth frigates derived from the Shivalik class. The joint programme shared with Kolkata’s Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) should enter the production stage in the next twelve months. A third programme involves the licence-built construction of Russian-designed Project 1135. Talwar class frigates. This project – which was initially reported to include transfer of some of the similar Russian Admiral Grigorovich class frigates currently laid up in a half-completed state at the Yantar yard due to nondelivery of their Ukrainian gas turbines – has seemingly been allocated to Goa Shipyard. It seems that the plan is to acquire four frigates, taking the complete class up to ten ships.

There has been little material change to the composition of the balance of the surface fleet. Two Project 28 Kamorta class corvettes remain under construction following a decision to redesign their superstructures around a carbon-fibre composite structure to mitigate top-weight issues found with the earlier pair. It was originally envisaged that more ships of the type would be built to a slightly improved Project 28A design. However, this plan appears to have been overtaken by the issue of a request for information in October for seven ‘Next Generation Corvettes’. The 120m ships will be larger and more heavily armed than the Kamorta class and have a more general-purpose orientation than the anti-submarine focused Project 28 design. There is also a requirement to replace the smaller corvette/fast attack type vessels of the Soviet-designed Veer and Abhay classes, which are starting to decommission. Discussions have been held with industry around next generation missile ships and smaller shallow water anti-submarine vessels but there has been no confirmation of any orders to date.

There is also an urgent requirement to recapitalise the mine-countermeasures fleet. This has now been reduced to just four vessels following the decommissioning of two of the remaining Pondicherry class minesweepers on 5 May 2017. The remaining ships – all around thirty years old – are also expected to retire shortly. They will be replaced by a new class of mine countermeasures vessels being licence-built by Goa Shipyard under a controversial deal with South Korea’s Kangnam Corporation. However, construction has yet to begin and there will therefore be a considerable gap before the new ships are delivered. Progress has also been slow with plans to order four new LPD-type amphibious transport docks under a programme estimated to amount to around US$3bn. Two shortlisted local private-sector yards – allied with DCNS and Navantia – have been asked to resubmit bids for the project after plans to involve state-owned Hindustan Shipyard in construction were reversed.

Developments with respect to the submarine force have been somewhat more positive. The unconfirmed entry of Arihant into service is a major step forward for the navy’s strategic ambitions whilst good progress with trials of the lead Project 75 ‘Scorpène’ type boat Kalvari has been followed by the maiden voyage of the second member of the class, Khanderi, on 1 June 2017. It has now been decided not to fit an indigenously-developed air-independent propulsion (AIP) system on the last two members of the class, potentially speeding their completion. Current plans envisage submarine production switching to a new Project 75I class boat when the six ‘Scorpènes’ have been completed. However, a builder has yet to be selected. The ‘Scorpène’s’ designer DCNS had hopes that the delay might result in an interim order for a further batch of boats but the leak of over 22,000 pages of technical information on the design to The Australian newspaper has considerably reduced this prospect. The Indian Navy hopes to transition to constructing a class of nuclear-powered attack submarines after the Project 75I boats but this is some distance in the future. In the interim, it appears that a second Russian ‘Akula II’ type boat will be acquired on lease once the current arrangement with respect to Chakra expires. The agreement could see Indian technical experts involved with completing the boat, therefore helping pave the way for its own programme.

CHINA – Naval Strength

Twenty-five Type 054A frigates have now entered service with the PLAN and a further two have been launched. Representing an intermediate level of capability between the fleet’s larger Type 052 series destroyers and the littoral warfare-orientated Type 056 corvettes, these frigates are the workhorses of the blue water fleet. These pictures show Huangshan, one of the earlier members of the class, on exercises off the Chinese coast in April 2017.

The PLAN Type 054A frigate Hengshui pictured operating with the US Navy destroyer Stockdale (DDG-106) during the RIMPAC 2016 exercise on 28 July 2016. In spite of occasional collaboration, countering Chinese ‘expansionism’ in the Pacific is one of the main strategic challenges facing the United States and its allies.

China’s maritime ambitions continue to be supported by an ongoing construction programme that is unequalled globally in terms of quantity and surpassed in scope only by that of the United States. One measure of the speed with which new vessels are entering service is the estimate that a new Type 956 corvette was commissioned, on average, once every six weeks during 2016. An interesting status check on China’s maritime ambitions was provided by the American CNA research centre in a report entitled Becoming A Great ‘Maritime Power’: A Chinese Dream published in mid-2016. The report confirmed previous analysis that suggested the People’s Liberal Army Navy (PLAN) is steadily transitioning from a single-minded focus on offshore waters defence (otherwise known as an anti-access/area denial or A2/AD strategy). Instead, the continued importance placed on defending the near seas will be balanced by a greater emphasis on blue water power projection. As part of this trend, the PLAN will complete a process of overhauling other major ‘blue water’ navies such as those fielded by France, Russia and the United Kingdom to become the second largest ocean-going fleet by 2020.

This trend is supported by table below, which highlights the PLAN’s most important warship classes. Additional detail on recent developments with respect to key types is provided below.

Aircraft Carriers and Amphibious Ships: A highlight of the last year was China’s launch of its first indigenously-constructed Type 001A aircraft carrier from the Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Company’s yard on 26 April 2017. The new ship’s design is based closely on that of the existing Soviet-origin, Project 1143.5/6 Kuznetsov class carrier Liaoning (ex Varyag). However, reports suggest that she will incorporate a number of detailed improvements. Completion of fitting out is likely to take two–three years and it therefore seems it will not be until the 2020s that she will join Liaoning in operational service. In the meantime, China is said to be working on a follow-on Type 002 carrier design that will incorporate a conventional catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery arrangement.

Renewed construction of amphibious ships also reflects an expeditionary focus. A fifth Type 071 amphibious transport dock was launched from Shanghai’s Hudong-Zhongua yard in June 2017and a sixth vessel is said to be under construction. There have also been reports that work has begun on a long-awaited Type 075 of broadly similar size to the US Navy’s LHA/LHD types.

Surface Combatants: PLAN surface combatant construction continues to encompass three major elements. The most potent of these is a series of general-purpose destroyers, of which the Type 052D variant is the latest to enter service. Six of the class have been commissioned since 2014, with another seven launched to date by the Jiangnan-Changxing yard in Shanghai and by Dalian Shipbuilding. The 7,500-ton ships are now being followed into production by a new class of 10,000-ton Type 055 ‘Renhai’ destroyers. The first of these was launched from Jiangnan-Changxing on 28 June 2017. Although official details are sparse, it appears that the new ships will be equipped with similar sensors and weapons to those found on previous Chinese destroyers. However, their missile capacity may be expanded from sixty-four to as many as 128 vertical launch cells. To date, two pairs of Type 055s have been observed under construction at Jiangnan-Changxing and Dalian Shipbuilding but it would seem likely that many more will be ordered in due course.

The second strand of construction relates to the intermediate frigate-sized vessels of the Type 054A ‘Jiangkai II’ class. Twenty-five of these have entered service since 2008, with the most recent, Wuhu, commissioning on 29 June 2017. As for the destroyers, construction has been split between two yards: the Hudong-Zhongua facility in Shanghai and the Huangpu Shipyard in Guangzhou (Canton). Both of these have each launched a further vessel of the class. Like the destroyers, the Type 054A frigates have a blue water, general-purpose orientation, albeit their diesel propulsion may limit their effectiveness in an anti-submarine role. Development of a more silent diesel-electric or integrated electrical propulsion variant has been rumoured for some time but, if correct, this has yet to produce a tangible result. Some commentators have suggested that the PLAN is waiting for domestically-produced technology to reach sufficient maturity before switching to construction of a new class.

The final class of surface combatant under assembly is the Type 056/Type 056A ‘Jiangdao’ corvette, the latter being distinguished by a modification of the ship’s stern to accommodate a towed array. Over thirty of these diminutive littoral warfare vessels have been delivered from four shipyards since 2013 and some analysts believe that as many as sixty may ultimately be completed.

Submarines: Tangible information on the development of the PLAN’s submarine force remains difficult to obtain. This is particularly the case with respect to the nuclear-powered force of strategic and attack submarines, about which only vague details exist. Most commentators believe that four or five Type 094 ‘Jin’ class strategic submarines were completed in the first decade of the millennium and all these are now regarded as being operational. They are reported to be noisier even than the oldest Russian strategic submarines remaining in service, negating much of their second-strike potential. A follow-on Type 096 ‘Tang’ class, armed with an improved JL-3 ballistic missile and presumably equipped with better noise-reduction technology, has been reported as being under development for some time. However, American intelligence assessments suggest that construction will only begin in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, the two initial Type 093 ‘Shang’ class attack submarines delivered in 2006–7 have recently been joined by a quartet of improved Type 093A/Type 093G ‘Shang II’ variants. These are believed to have been lengthened to incorporate vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles. As for the strategic submarines, it appears experience gained from operating these boats will be used to inform the design of a further class – variously reported as the Type 093B or Type 095 – that will probably also not be built until the 2020s. A number of older nuclear-powered submarines of the 091 and 092 types remain in commission. Their operational status and utility must be regarded as being marginal.

There is slightly greater clarity around the flotilla of conventional submarines, which form one of the most potent weapons in the PLAN’s A2/AD arsenal. Three main classes of submarine – the domestic Type 039 ‘Song’ and Type 039A/B ‘Yuan’ series and the Russian-built ‘Kilos’ – form the operational force. These are backed by a steadily diminishing force of Type 035/035G ‘Ming’ submarines based on the 1950s-era Russian ‘Romeo’, which are now used largely for training. Recent reports suggest that construction of ‘Yuan’ class boats has now resumed after a considerable gap. At least three new submarines are expected to join the existing thirteen members of the class. The reason for the hiatus in production since the end of 2013 is not known for certain but may relate to the development of improved AIP technology for this latest batch.

Other Vessels: The construction of warfighting vessels is being supplemented by a wide range of minor warships and auxiliaries. These range from a sail training ship – the PLAN’s first – to a new 50,000-ton semi-submersible vessel broadly similar to the US Navy’s Montford Point (T-ESD-1). Making good the previous deficiency in replenishment vessels remains an area of focus. With the eight-strong Type 903/903A class now completed, attention has turned to the new Type 901 ‘comprehensive supply ship’. The 45,000-ton design is reportedly powered by gas turbines to keep pace with a carrier task force. It has multiple fuel hoses to allow simultaneous provision of both marine and aviation fuel as well as a significant dry stores transfer capability. The first member of the class commenced an extensive period of sea trials in December 2016. A second member of the class will also soon be ready for launch.

China Defense Blog

United States Navy Carrier Air Groups

Snub-nosed with a rotund fuselage and plank-like wings it was never going to win any beauty awards, but the Grumman F4F Wildcat proved there was more to an effective fighter than svelte looks. In fact, it is hard to see how Allied navies, particularly that of the USA, could have managed without the sturdy, pugnacious Wildcat. A typical product of the Grumman `Iron Works,’ the F4F could also hand out punishment as well as take it. Its battle honours were as good as they come: the Battle of the Atlantic, the heroic defence of Wake Island, Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway.

The United States Navy began deploying Grumman F4F-3 fighters aboard its carriers in January 1941. Powered by a 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder radial engine, it could reach 328 miles per hour at 21,000 feet, cruise at 155 miles per hour, had a range of 845 miles, and was armed with four 0.5-inch wing machine guns. Pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and robust construction made the F4F a tough opponent. A version with folding wings and six machine guns entered service in mid- 1942. Speed fell to 315 miles per hour and range dropped to 770 miles. The Royal Navy acquired large numbers of F4Fs as Grumman Martlets and made extensive use of the type.

The F4F’s successor was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, designed as a private initiative in response to feedback from fleet aviators, which entered front-line service in mid-1943. Although over 8,000 Wildcats were built, 6,000 were manufactured by General Motors, leaving the Grumman factory free to concentrate on the F4F’s successor, the F6F Hellcat. It was powered by a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 376 miles per hour, a cruising speed of 168 miles per hour, and a range of 1,090 miles on internal fuel or 1,590 miles with a 150-gallon drop tank. The F6F was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and also could carry rockets or bombs. The Royal Navy also operated substantial numbers of F6Fs as the Grumman Hellcat.

The United States Navy’s chosen successor to the Grumman F4F was the Vought F4U Corsair. With a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder radial engine, it reached 417 miles per hour at 19,000 feet, cruised at 182 miles per hour, and had a maximum range of 1,015 miles. It was armed with six 0.5-inch machine guns and most versions also could carry rockets or bombs. The F4U’s deck landing characteristics, however, were judged unsatisfactory. So, from February 1943, it was issued for front-line service only with shore-based United States Navy and Marine Corps squadrons. The Royal Navy also received large numbers which, since it needed every modern carrier fighter possible, successfully undertook an urgent modification and trials program to suit the Corsair for carrier operation. Corsairs began front-line operations aboard British carriers in the spring of 1944 and were in action by the beginning of April. As a result, the United States Navy conducted new carrier trials the same month and Corsair began operations from American carriers in the late summer of 1944, going on to become probably the most successful carrier fighter of the entire war.


The basic curriculum established in October 1939 served the United States Navy well throughout World War II. Aspiring aviators first spent one month at a naval reserve air base for elimination flying training, by the end of which they made their first solo flights. Those who successfully completed this indoctrination period became aviation cadets and proceeded to one of several training bases. Primary training required three months flying biplane trainers, combined with ground school. Successful cadets then moved onto intermediate training, learning basic formation flying and instrument and blind flying using obsolete front-line types and monoplane advanced trainers. Finally, cadets went to advanced training, where they practiced formation flying, aerobatics, night flying, gunnery and dive bombing, and simulated carrier landings. The total training period, including indoctrination, was seven months, after which graduates received commissions as reserve ensigns with about 200 hours of flying time in their log books. Between 1941 and 1945 the United States Navy trained over 65,000 pilots.

Until mid-1941 newly commissioned ensigns completed their operational training with front-line fleet squadrons that were shore based for routine refresher training. This was very inefficient and, as a result, the navy created advanced carrier training groups, initially one for each coast, that could undertake this task. The curriculum for newly-minted aviators devoted seventy-five hours to teaching navigation, advanced gunnery, dive and torpedo bombing, and night and instrument flying, culminating in carrier landing qualification (eight successful landings) after extensive practice on dummy flight decks ashore. From mid-1942 further advanced carrier training groups were created to accommodate the rapidly growing number of new aviators. Several escort carriers spent much of their careers serving as deck landing training vessels and two Great Lakes paddle steamers were fitted with flight decks for the same purpose.

As the United States Navy’s ambitious program of carrier construction hit its stride, it needed to create new air groups for the new carriers. The navy also adopted a policy of withdrawing existing air groups from carriers and replacing them with new groups rather than allowing them to be ground down completely in combat. These new groups coalesced around a core of combat-experienced squadron and flight leaders with the balance of their complements made up of new graduates from the advanced carrier training groups. Before embarking on their first cruise, these new groups spent several weeks “working up,” so that the novices could start to learn all they could from the veterans.


From early 1943, the Royal Navy also began forming new squadrons that were to equip with Lend-Lease aircraft in the United States itself. These squadrons completed all their operational training in the United States before moving to the operational zones in Europe or, later, the Far East and Pacific.

A fundamental organizational difference between the American and British naval air services, on the one hand, and that of Japan, on the other, had a major impact on aircrews’ operational experience and wartime careers. Both the United States and Royal navies adhered to a squadron-based organizational pattern. The overwhelming majority of squadrons were established to operate a single aircraft type, usually between 12 and 24 machines but sometimes, especially late in the war among fighter units, with as many as 30 or more. Squadron rosters often included more aircrews than aircraft, and also included the all-important maintenance personnel: mechanics, airframe repairmen, electricians, armorers, and so on. Essentially, each squadron was self-sufficient from an operational perspective. Almost invariably, new squadrons formed or older units returning from combat re-formed around a nucleus of combat-experienced aircrew amidst a larger number of freshly-trained personnel, so that the veterans could impart their hard-won skills to the new crews.

Each British or American carrier embarked a number of squadrons to endow it with an air group made up of the appropriate mix of aircraft types to suit operational requirements. By the later stages of the war, most air groups undertook some coordinated training prior to embarking on their carriers, but the bulk of such training still took place afterwards. After an extended period of combat or heavy losses, it was straightforward to replace a carrier’s air group without withdrawing the ship itself from operations, thus maintaining a high level of operational tempo and also ensuring that the aviators could recuperate from combat stress and also prepare for a return to action as the core leadership of fresh squadrons and air groups. Furthermore, an individual squadron that suffered disproportionately high losses could be replaced very simply by an available fresh unit.

During the course of World War II the aircraft carrier demonstrated its unrivalled flexibility and effectiveness in combat. In addition to engaging other carriers and major fleet units in full scale naval battles, aircraft carriers supported major landing operations; raided and interdicted warship and shipping movement on the high seas and in the littoral; attacked and destroyed shore installations and facilities; protected merchant shipping against submarine, surface, and air attack; and hunted submarine and surface raiders. This great flexibility sprang from the relative ease with which carriers could both upgrade their capabilities through embarking superior aircraft and change missions by taking aboard air groups with varying compositions of aircraft types. Carriers attained capital ship status not only because of their flexibility but also because, especially from 1941 onward, they could deploy both long-range power and overwhelming local force. This combination of capabilities reduced battleships, previously the arbiters of naval power, to a subsidiary role.

The wartime combat experience of the United States and Royal navies, the only fleets still operating carriers by the end of the war, profoundly influenced their approaches to carrier aviation in the postwar era. The dominant mission of carriers during the war, combat against their cohorts, became irrelevant with the dominance of the United States Navy and the disappearance of carrier-operating potential enemies. In its place, the projection of power from the sea against an enemy homeland and the protection of naval and mercantile assets, mainly against submarine and air attack, took center stage. As carrier-operating navies and those with ambitions to join their ranks entered this new environment, the role of carriers shifted subtly away from the traditional mission of capital ships, like on like combat, into this less clear-cut realm.

World War II dramatically altered the world’s naval situation. Thanks to the realization of its immediate prewar building plans and an additional massive wartime construction program, the United States Navy’s fleet enjoyed an overwhelming preponderance in both numbers and overall quality relative to any other individual navy or combination, either friendly or potentially hostile. Nowhere was this more apparent than in comparing strengths of carrier fleets: by December 1945 the United States Navy possessed twentyone modern fleet carriers and eight light carriers, while the Royal Navy, the only other carrier operator, had but six fleet carriers and six light carriers.

The first US Navy ace of World War II, Lt Edward Butch O’Hare seated in the cockpit of his Wildcat circa spring 1942. The aircraft is marked with five Japanese flags, representing the five enemy bombers he was credited with shooting down. He was killed in November 1943 when he was shot down by friendly fire.


Given the relatively small number of pilots involved and the intensity of the fighting in the first 12 months of the war in the Pacific, there was no shortage of Wildcat aces.

A total of 25 US Navy and 34 USMC F4F pilots were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft and therefore became aces. The first of them was Lt (jg) Edward `Butch’ O’Hare of VF-3 who was credited with shooting down five Mitsubishi G4M `Betty’ bombers in a single engagement in February 1942.

During the Battle of Midway three further F4F pilots became aces. Lt Cdr John S. Hatch CO of VF-3 took his total score to 6.5 as did the battle’s top-scorer, VF-3’s Lt (jg) Scott `Doc’ McCuskey. The Navy’s top-scoring F4F pilot was Donald E. Runyon of VF-6 who shot down eight enemy aircraft during three engagements in August 1942.

The Guadalcanal fighting resulted in 30 USMC aces including the war’s top three Wildcat pilots. Between them VMF-223, VMF-121 and VMF-224 claimed to have downed 315 Japanese aircraft. Maj Joseph J. Foss had 26 victories, Maj John L. Smith 19 and Maj Marion E. Carl 16.5. All three survived the war.

`I noticed one Zero skirting in and out of clouds and as I made pass at him, he promptly ducked back into them. I played cat and mouse with him for several minutes until I climbed into the sun to let him think I had retreated. When I came down on him for the last time, he never knew what hit him as his wing tanks and cockpit exploded. I ended up splashing four Zeros that day to bring my total aerial victories up to nine kills. Little did I know that within six months I would more than double that score.’

Lt Alex Vraciu recalling one of his victories that made him the US Navy’s fourth highest ranking ace.


A total of 307 F6F pilots were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft to make them aces and the Hellcat the most successful US fighter ever. Not for nothing was the Hellcat also known as the `ace maker’. Hellcat pilots claimed three-quarters of the aerial victories attributed to the US Navy in the Pacific. Navy and Marine F6Fs flew 66,530 combat sorties (45 per cent of the total) of which 62,386 were flown from aircraft carriers. Against its principal adversary, the Mitsubishi Zero, which it had been intended to counter, it achieved a 13:1 kill-to-loss ratio. David McCampbell was the top USN ace, but three other Hellcat pilots scored 20 or more victories against the Japanese.


US Marine Corps squadron VMF-124 was the first Marine squadron to take the F4U into combat. One of its pilots, Lt Kenneth A. Walsh, proved to be amongst the top scoring Marine Corsair aces in the war with 21 confirmed kills. The unit arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal on the morning of 12 February 1943 with 12 F4Us, and by the middle of August Walsh had already become a double ace with 10 kills. Later in the month he was involved in one of the most exciting dogfights to take place in the Pacific theatre, for which he would receive the Medal of Honor for his fighting prowess.