Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, Third Baronet (1842-1921)

British admiral. Born on 4 March 1842 in Swaffham, Norfolk, Arthur Wilson entered the navy in 1855. He served as a midshipman on board the ship of the line Algiers in the Black Sea during the 1853-1856 Crimean War and again during the 1856-1860 Second Opium War with China. This early baptism of fire had a marked effect on his later style as a leader.

In 1870 Wilson was appointed to the committee set up to investigate the new torpedo invented by Robert Whitehead. This began a lifelong interest in underwater warfare. When a torpedo training school was established on board the HMS Vernon at Portsmouth in 1876, Wilson was put in charge of the instructors; he returned to command the school in 1889. In between these appointments, he commanded the experimental torpedo-boat carrier Hecla in the Mediterranean and participated in the 11 July 1882 bombardment of Alexandria. He fought ashore in the 1884-1885 campaign in the Sudan. At the 29 February 1884 Battle of El Teb, he rallied the troops when the British square broke under a determined attack. Subsequently he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Wilson’s interest in underwater warfare was practical as well as theoretical. He was responsible for a number of inventions, including a system for aiming torpedoes accurately and the submerged torpedo tube, a key element in the future design of the submarine. He also designed the first armored train, employed during the 1882 Egyptian campaign.

In 1901, by then a vice admiral, Wilson took command of the Channel Squadron, and was so successful that his tour of duty was extended until 1907. During this remarkable six-year period he raised the fighting efficiency of the fleet to an unprecedented level, with regular and realistic training, even in the most adverse conditions. He was a superb seaman, renowned for his physical and moral toughness-the sailors called him “Old `Ard `Art”-who drove his ships and men hard.

In 1907 Wilson was promoted to admiral of the fleet and appointed first sea lord. But it was not a happy time. Ill-suited to a desk job, he soon found himself at odds with the energetic young First Lord Winston S. Churchill and left after only two years. However, he returned to the Admiralty in 1914 and remained there throughout World War I, refusing any official post or even a salary. He finally retired in 1918 and died at his home in Swaffham on 25 May 1921.

A reserved, undemonstrative man, Wilson has been overshadowed by the more glamorous and self-publicizing Admiral Sir John Fisher. Certainly, in terms of matériel, the Grand Fleet of 1914-1918 was Fisher’s creation; but in terms of seamanship, tactics, and morale, it was Wilson’s baby.


French Naval Aviation 1940 I

From the very beginning of military aviation, the French navy considered using aircraft to further carry the missions it was assigned. In World War I, it used a number of planes for coastal patrol and convoy escorts. Pilot training initially took place at a naval base as well as the French army’s Istres airfield. Soon, however, a new naval air base was set up at Berre. Most machines were hydroplanes from the Georges Lévy factory, which were soon replaced by the float-modified Farman 60 “Goliath” and various other types.

In the interwar years, the navy’s air arm also played a role in enforcing French control over its colonies, for example, by setting up bases in Indochina.

By the mid-1930s, the navy used several squadrons of torpedo-bomber hydroplanes, among them the Levasseur PL 15 and Latécoere 290. These were then replaced by the Latécoere 298, a torpedo-bomber, which first flew in 1936, entered the service in 1939, and remained active until 1950. In the meantime, the navy placed into service the Commandant Teste, a hydroplane carrier, which launched machines from special catapults and collected them through an access hangar near the ship’s waterline. French naval aviation in 1939 consisted of approximately 350 combat planes, manned by picked personnel. At the same time large plane orders, some placed with American industry, were building up the air arm at a rapid rate. The squadrons underwent intensive training, especially in reconnaissance and search, illumination, sea patrol, and anti-submarine warfare.

In World War II, the navy also used the Béarn as an aircraft carrier. Bearn was the only aircraft carrier to be built in France and completed before 1960. She was originally laid down in 1914 as a Normandie-class battleship but suspended incomplete throughout the First World War. Work on her resumed in 1919 and she was launched in April 1920. A short flight deck was erected over the quarterdeck, upon which landing trials were carried out in 1920/21. After the Washington Treaty had been signed in 1922 the French elected to complete her as an aircraft carrier. Work started on her conversion in August 1923 and was helped by the British Admiralty, which made drawings of Eagle’s aviation and island arrangements available. The ship’s side aft was plated up to the flight deck, which was constructed of 1in armour and formed the upper strength deck of the hull. Horizontal armour 2.95in thick was fitted on the lower hangar deck, with 1in armour on the main deck over machinery and magazines. The machinery was unique, comprising two inner shafts driven by steam turbines and two outer shafts driven by steam reciprocating engines, in an attempt to combine the economy of the latter with the highspeed performance of the former. The arrangement was not a success and gave a maximum speed of only 21 knots, too slow for effective operation with the 29-knot battleships of the Force de Raid in 1939. Her gun armament was conventional for the time, comprising eight 6in guns in casemates and a number of smaller anti-aircraft weapons, but unconventionally she retained four underwater torpedo tubes from her original armament as a battleship.

Like British and Japanese carriers she had a double hangar arrangement, but the lower hangar was intended as a workshop area and stowage for reserve aircraft which were only partly assembled. The upper hangar was intended for operational aircraft, and although she was officially stated to be capable of carrying forty aircraft she could realistically operate only twenty-five. The flight deck ran the length of the hull, having pronounced taper and round-downs at either extremity. Fore and aft of the central hangar block it was supported by pillars over an open forecastle and quarterdeck, but the hangars were enclosed, following standard British practice. Another unique feature was the lift design, which connected the two hangars with the flight deck. The three lifts were electrically operated and had platforms which were normally kept at upper hangar level, leaving a lift well open under them at lower hangar level. In every other navy the lift platforms formed part of the flight deck when in the raised position, leaving a hole when it was lowered. In Béarn the apertures in the flight deck were closed by ‘clamshell’ doors which opened upwards to form fore and aft windbreaks when opened to allow the lift platforms to flight deck level. This cumbersome arrangement was no more successful than the unusual machinery installation.

French naval aviation was inadequately funded between the wars, and by 1939 her operational capability was further limited by obsolescent aircraft such as the Levasseur torpedo bomber and Dewoitine D.37 fighter. After a brief spell of operational duty she was used to ferry aircraft between the USA and France until the Franco/German armistice in June 1940, after which she lay inactive in Martinique for three years. When the island changed its allegiance from Vichy to the Free French Government she was refitted in the USA and used again as a ferry carrier for a number of years before becoming an accommodation ship. She was broken up for scrap in 1967.

French Naval Aviation 1940 II

Development of carrier fighters for the French Navy followed a very distinctive course. The first type embarked on the Béarn in early 1928 was the Lévy-Biche LB2. This wooden biplane had a detachable undercarriage, a boat-shaped lower fuselage, and small floats under the lower wings to allow it safely to alight on water in an emergency. Its 300-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 8Se engine gave it a top speed of 135 miles per hour. It was replaced late in 1928 by the Dewoitine D. 1, a parasol-winged monoplane with an all-metal structure and a monocoque fuselage. With an engine similar to that powering the LB2, it attained 140 miles per hour and had a range of 250 miles. In 1931 another parasol-winged all-metal monoplane replaced the D. 1. The Wibault 74’s corrugated metal stressed skin produced a strong, light, and relatively durable structure. Using a 420- horsepower Gnome-Rhone 9Ady radial engine, its performance was almost identical to its precursor’s, but had the advantage of a much superior rate of climb and greater structural strength. The final French carrier fighter to enter service before World War II was yet another parasol-winged design. L’Aeronavale accepted two versions of Dewoitine’s D. 37 fighter, the D. 373 with fixed wings and the D. 376 with folding wings, in 1938. These aircraft were of all-metal stressed-skin construction, and their powerful 930-horsepower Gnome-Rhone 14Kfs radial engines gave them a top speed of 255 miles per hour and a range of 560 miles. Their engines, however, were unreliable and low-wing monoplanes clearly offered greater performance potential. Consequently, the French Navy ordered an export version of Grumman’s F4F-3 to replace its Dewoitines, but these Grumman Model G-36A aircraft were not delivered before France fell in June 1940 and instead served with the Royal Navy.

The French Navy also came to appreciate the potential of dive bombing. Unsuccessful trials of the prototype Loire-Nieuport LN. 140 in 1936 delayed adoption of dive bombers until just after war had begun in Europe, when the same firm’s LN. 40 entered service, albeit operating from land bases as the Béarn was occupied in transporting aircraft from the United States. It had a 690-horsepower Hispano-Suiza 12Xcrs liquid-cooled engine, giving it a top speed of 238 miles per hour and a range of 750 miles with a 550-pound bomb. As a stopgap the French Navy turned to Vought’s successful SB2U instead. The Vought V-156-F, differentiated mainly from United States Navy equivalent models by its dive brakes, was just entering service as World War II began.

The French Navy after World War I maintained a dozen or more front-line land-based aviation units in metropolitan France and North Africa, seaplane units spread throughout the French Empire, and embarked aircraft aboard battleships, cruisers, seaplane carriers, and its sole aircraft carrier, the Béarn. The majority of its pilots and observers were commissioned officers, graduates of the Naval Academy at Brest, who received flight training and anticipated professional naval careers. Aspiring enlisted aircrew also received specialized training. In general, aircrew tended to remain within their specialized fields (fighters, reconnaissance, etc.) throughout their flying careers. There were some uncertainties, since naval aviation was a relatively small part of the navy and its survival was always subject to political influences.

Naval aviators, both officers and enlisted men, underwent initial flying orientation prior to beginning specialized training at the base d’aéronautique navale (BAN) Rochefort. Successful graduates then proceeded to basic flying training, officers to BAN Fréjus-Saint Raphael (1919-1922), then to BAN Istres or BAN Rochefort (1923-1930), and enlisted pilots to BAN Istres. All those who successfully completed basic flying training and who opted for carrier service then completed advanced training at BAN Fréjus-SaintRaphael. Other aircrew (non-pilots) underwent training at BAN Hourtin as observers, bombardiers, or air-gunners. In 1931 the navy merged its training system with that of l’Aviation Militaire (which became l’Armée de l’Air in 1933). Basic flying orientation took place at Versailles, with flying training at either Villacoublay or Avord, though non-pilots continued to train at BAN Hourtin. In 1933 the government transferred the bulk of the navy’s land-based units, both aircraft and personnel, to l’Armée de l’Air. Consequently, these units retained a strong naval flavor for some years afterwards and some of their members reverted to naval service when the navy was able to reestablish shore-based units in 1938. Furthermore, the French Navy never established a clear career path for its aviation officers.

Fire on Water I

Sandwiched between the mighty Ming and Qing empires is perhaps the most ephemeral, obscure and equivocal of all Chinese dynasties. For the single ‘emperor’ of the so-called Shun dynasty, a rebel commander named Li Zicheng, never meaningfully ruled China at all.

In the mid-seventeenth century a series of drought-induced crop failures and an outbreak of plague stirred up social unrest, and disenchanted peasants began to band together to contest Ming rule. These rebels coalesced into two great armies, and Li Zicheng led one of them. Even as he besieged and captured the ancient capital of Xi’an, he maintained the pretense that he was a loyal subject trying to liberate the Ming Chongzhen Emperor from the malign influence of officials. That fiction became harder to sustain once Li took Luoyang and then Kaifeng, at which point his victory seemed assured.

Now styling himself the ‘Prince of Shun’, in 1644 Li advanced on the capital of Beijing. Recognizing that defeat was inevitable, the Chongzhen Emperor committed suicide and the glorious Ming dynasty was brought to a close. Yet Li occupied Beijing for barely a month before his army was defeated by the former Ming general Wu Sangui and his allies, the Qing from Manchuria. The rebel chief only just had time to proclaim himself the first Shun Emperor before fleeing to the west and disappearing from history, presumed dead by 1645. A humble peasant of Sha’anxi who proved to be a skilful military strategist, Li learnt that it is easier to end a dynasty than to found one.

Li’s campaign saw one of the most devastating uses of water as a military weapon. In 1642 his forces surrounded Kaifeng (then known as Bianjing) and laid siege for many months. Li tried everything. He built a great tower higher than the city wall, armed with cannons, but his opponents responded by building an even taller one overnight to return the fire. He tried tunnelling through the 35-metre-thick walls, but was repelled. He filled the excavations with gunpowder to blast down the walls, but the explosions blew outwards, killing his troops as they rushed forward in anticipation of a breach.

Although these assaults were repulsed, the Ming governor of Kaifeng was getting desperate, and in the summer of 1642 he issued a fateful command. The dykes of the Yellow River, which was swollen and raging in the flood season, were to be broken down so that the deluge would disperse the rebel troops. Having run out of other ideas, Li had already hatched the same scheme: he planned to flood Kaifeng to end the resistance. Neither side seemed to consider that the floodwaters would harm them too, believing that only their opponents would be damaged.

Kaifeng had been the capital of the Song dynasty, and its proximity to the Yellow River had made it a major centre of commerce; in the eleventh century it may have been the largest city in the world. But the Mongol invaders had besieged it and destroyed the hydraulic network that sustained it, and then the Yellow River itself had shifted course, leaving Kaifeng stranded and marginal on the floodplain. Repeated flooding had gradually raised the level of the surrounding land above that inside the city walls, so that Kaifeng was a basin ready to be filled if the river broke its banks.

It was the citizens of Kaifeng who came off worse from the governor’s plans to use the river as a weapon against Li Zicheng. The city was drowned to its rooftops. The waters rampaged through the walls and into the streets, destroying homes and sweeping people to their death. The death toll seems hardly credible: allegedly, around 300,000 of the 378,000 inhabitants of Kaifeng perished in this human-made catastrophe. The once great city was reduced to ruins, making Li’s victory a hollow one. Devastating famine and pestilence followed the 1642 flood, which has been ranked as the seventh greatest ‘natural’ disaster in history. Kaifeng was abandoned until it was rebuilt by the Qing Emperor twenty years later, and it never recovered its former glory.

In war, water is a dangerous and unreliable ally. That has rarely deterred Chinese leaders from thinking that they can command its power: a belief all too often proved delusive.

The famous sixth-century-BC martial strategist Sun Tzu (Sunzi), whose treatise Sunzi bingfa (The Art of War) was allegedly an influence on leaders ranging from Mao Zedong to Norman Schwarzkopf, regarded water’s military significance to be primarily metaphorical. ‘Military tactics’, he wrote,

are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

Sun Tzu was rather wary of real water, however (‘After crossing a river, you should get far away from it’, he advised), and the image of warfare generally presented in The Art of War – great armies manoeuvring over open tracts of land – gives a very incomplete view of how military affairs were conducted in China. Very often the key conflicts involved rivers, lakes and marshes. They were about dominating the water routes, and often took place on the water itself. Great fleets clashed on lakes and rivers in naval engagements comparable in size and significance to any taking place in the seas of Western Europe, or later in the open Atlantic and Pacific. China was a kingdom contested on water, with water, and for water.

For the issues haven’t changed through the ages; the strategic importance of waterways was as great for the Qin conquering Wei and Shu as it was for the Communists and Nationalists fighting the Japanese. (Only with the coming of the railways was their role for military transportation rivalled.) The decisive power of the Tang ‘tower ships’ and Song paddleboats was not so different from that of the imperial British gunships conquering the Yangtze in the nineteenth century. And attempting to harness water itself in battle was no less hazardous for Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s than it was for Li Zicheng and the Ming in the 1640s. Aquatic warfare has been a constant determinant of China’s fate.

According to Niccolò Machiavelli, ‘The main foundations of every state . . . are good laws and good arms . . . you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow.’ Few nations were as ready to face up to the realities of power and governance as Machiavelli would have had them do, which was of course why his unflinching view of political power won him many enemies. China is no exception. The Confucian political philosophy stressed that stability depended on the virtue of the emperor; if he was virtuous, ‘good laws’ would follow and the population would be content without coercion. But in fact the state was often created and maintained by military force: by organized violence and war. With a nation this vast, this vulnerable to uprising, rebellion and invasion, it is hard to see how it could have been otherwise. Time and again, discord and disobedience began far from the centres of power – if an emperor let down his guard or let himself be distracted in one quarter of the empire, trouble brewed in another. While some dynasties did fall through foreign invasion, such as the incursions of the Jurchens (Jin), Mongols (Yuan) and Manchurians (Qing), others failed because of poor leadership and bad policy decisions: the collapse came from within. That is really what the Communist Party of China fears today.

Leaders from the Han to the Maoist eras could affect an attitude of wu wei, of remote benevolence, only if in reality they possessed a formidable apparatus of state control. And to control China, you must control its rivers – whether that means recognizing their strategic military and economic importance, or literally restraining them as if nature itself were the enemy.

Waterways served two primary strategic functions. The first was as transportation conduits. The first Qin Emperor, Shi Huangdi, could not have contemplated conquest of Sichuan without relying on the Min, Yangtze and Han rivers to take his troops deep into the kingdom of Shu. The Han and Yangtze were also essential to the Qin campaign against the kingdom of Chu downstream to the east, prompting the Qin general Bai Qi to create amphibious military units around 280 BC. Military goals initially motivated the great Dujiangyan hydraulic waterworks masterminded by Li Bing (see here): the crops that it irrigated were needed to feed the troops in Sichuan.

The second strategic role of rivers was as natural barriers to conquest. When the Southern Song rulers in Hangzhou called the Yangtze its ‘Great Wall’, they were alluding to the obstacle it – and the other rivers in the perpetually contested region between the Yangtze and the Huai – presented to the equestrian forces of invaders such as the Jurchens and Mongols, who were all but invincible on the grassy plains of the north. As the Jurchens descended to create the Great Jin dynasty, pushing the Song into southern China in 1127, it was the Huai River that marked the boundary between them.

For these reasons, China’s wars were often waged on and around the rivers. They were the arteries of military conquest, the fluid arenas of dynastic change. Battles fought on rivers and lakes became the stuff of legend. The most famous of them is surely the Battle of the Red Cliff, the engagement in AD 208 that sealed the dissolution of the Han and marks the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period. This was possibly the largest naval conflict in history in terms of numbers of vessels, although the battle has been so romanticized – most famously in the early Ming classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms – that it is hard to distinguish fact from fantasy. Poets from Li Bai to Su Shi have composed odes in its memory; it is, in the historian Lyman van Slyke’s estimation, China’s Trojan War or Arthurian legend, a pageant of drama, pathos, comedy, loyalty and deceit. Everyone in the Yangtze valley will tell you these stories, which they know better than their own recent history.

Fire on Water II

Battle of Red Cliffs, and Cao Cao’s retreat (also shown: Battle of Changban). Note that the battlefield location is marked at the site near Chibi City.

The demise of the Han dynasty was messy. Like many other dynastic declines, it began as a peasant revolt incited by dissatisfaction at the oppressive conduct of a corrupt ruling class, and was exacerbated by flood and famine – in this case caused by breaches of the lower Yellow River. Those latter events were interpreted as a withdrawal of heaven’s mandate, and from around AD 170 peasants displaced from their homes by floodwaters and penury, along with unemployed soldiers, formed into bands that swelled to ramshackle armies. In 184 a Daoist rebel sect called the Yellow Turbans began to wrest territories north of the Yellow River from the command of the emperor Lingdi.

The Yellow Turban uprising lasted for twenty years, and by the end of it the Han empire had been brought to its knees. After Lingdi died in 189, rule was shared between his consort Empress He and her half-brother He Jin, general of the Han army. But He Jin was hostile to the powerful clique of court eunuchs, and later that same year he was assassinated. A warlord named Dong Zhuo then seized the throne, ruling through the puppet emperor Xiandi, Lingdi’s son. When his harsh and despotic rule ended with his death in 192, another ambitious warlord – Cao Cao of Wei, who had acted as a Han military commander during the Yellow Turban revolt – made Xiandi his own puppet and effectively ran what remained of the empire.

Cao Cao’s authority was challenged by the leaders of other states: by Sun Quan, Marquis of Eastern Wu, south of the Yangtze in modern Zhejiang, and by Liu Bei, a warlord who set himself up as ruler of the state of Shu. Faced with Cao Cao’s overwhelming forces, Sun and Liu agreed to an alliance, and they met Cao Cao’s troops at Chibi (Red Cliff) on the Yangtze in Hubei. Some records claim that Cao Cao had over 800,000 men, his opponents just 30,000. The outcome of the battle would decide the future of China: would it be unified by Cao Cao, masquerading as a servant of the hapless Xiandi, or splinter into rival states?

As the Shu and Wu forces confronted Cao Cao’s massively superior army, the Wu commander Zhou Yu played an old trick. To plant an alleged defector in the enemy midst to lead them astray – compare the ploy of the king of Qin against ancient Shu (see here) – seems to assume an optimistic degree of credulity. But it perhaps speaks of the fissiparous nature of warlord-era China that such defections were common enough to make the scheme believable. In any event, Zhou Yu sent his military strategist Pang Tong to join Cao Cao. When Pang Tong heard that Cao Cao’s army, unused to river combat, was becoming seasick on the ships, he proposed that the vessels be chained and bolted together to stop them from rolling with the waves. ‘The river is wide, and the tides ebb and flow’, he says to Cao Cao in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms:

The winds and waves are never at rest. Your troops from the north are unused to ships, and the motion makes them ill. If your ships, large and small, were classed and divided into thirties, or fifties, and joined up stem to stem by iron chains and boards spread across them, to say nothing of soldiers being able to pass from one to the next, even horses could move about on them. If this were done, then there would be no fear of the wind and the waves and the rising and falling tides.

Then Pang Tong volunteered to return to the Wu troops, assuring Cao Cao that he could arrange for more defections. Sure enough, in due course Cao Cao received a letter from one of the Wu generals, Huang Gai, saying that he was going to change sides and bring with him boats loaded with grain.

The day after the full moon in the eleventh month of 208, Cao Cao’s fleet set out to attack. Chained together, it moved as a solid mass. ‘When [the boats] got among the waves, they were found to be as steady and immovable as the dry land itself. The northern soldiers showed their delight at the absence of motion by capering and flourishing their weapons.’ But what if they were attacked with fire, and needed to scatter, one of Cao Cao’s advisers asked anxiously? The leader laughed. The wind is in the wrong direction, he said – if the enemy tried to use fire, it would be blown back onto them.

Seeing the vast armada approach, Zhou Yu was overtaken by a sickness and confined to his bed – an ill omen for the approaching battle. But Liu Bei’s military adviser Zhuge Liang came to his bedside and offered a solution. ‘To defeat Cao Cao’, he said, ‘you have to use fire.’ But how could that work, the general wondered, knowing what Cao Cao too knew of the wind? Then Zhuge Liang revealed that he had magical knowledge: ‘I can call the winds and summon the rains.’ He explained that, with a Daoist spell, he could conjure the south-east breeze that was needed to make fire work against Cao Cao.

Meanwhile, the Wu general Huang Gai completed the plan by readying his fireships:

The fore parts of the ships were thickly studded with large nails, and they were loaded with dry reeds, wood soaked in fish oil, and covered with sulfur, saltpetre, and other inflammables. The ships were covered with black oiled cloth. In the prow of each was a black dragon flag with indentations. A fighting ship was attached to the stern of each to propel it forward. All were ready and awaited orders to move.

Confident of Huang Gai’s defection, Cao Cao was unconcerned as the twenty Wu ships approached, despite the south-easterly wind that Zhuge Liang’s ritual had awakened. The latter was nothing to worry about, he told his anxious ministers – of course the wind direction might change from time to time. ‘That is my friend, the deserter!’ laughed Cao Cao as the vessels drew close. ‘Heaven is on my side today.’

But then the trap was sprung:

When the ships were about a mile distant, Huang Gaifn waved his sword and the leading ships broke forth into fire, which, under the force of the strong wind, soon gained strength and the ships became as fiery arrows. Soon the whole twenty dashed into the naval camp. All Cao Cao’s ships were gathered there, and as they were firmly chained together not one could escape from the others and flee. There was a roar of bombs and fireships came on from all sides at once. The face of the water was speedily covered with fire which flew before the wind from one ship to another. It seemed as if the universe was filled with flame.

The inferno consumed Cao Cao’s fleet. The flames leapt so high, it was said, that they scorched the cliffs red.

The famous victory of Shu and Wu over Cao Cao is far from the end of the tale. The two allies always knew that one day they were likely to face each other in the battle for supremacy; and so it transpired. Zhuge Liang built a fortress at Fengjie to ward off the Wu army, but to no avail. Wu triumphed, and Liu Bei fled to Baidicheng above the Yangtze gorges, where he died. The Three Kingdoms then dissolved into a patchwork of states and would-be minor dynasties, all overlapping and squabbling, until the Jurchen invaders from the north overran Wei in AD 265 and then Wu in 280, forming the precarious (and soon fragmented) first Jin dynasty.

China didn’t truly become one empire again until 581, when Yang Jian, Duke of Sui in the Northern Zhou dynasty, seized power and declared the Sui dynasty (see here). The duke, now Sui Emperor Wendi, then needed to conquer a southern dynasty called the Chen. In the 580s, the immense Sui warships defeated the Chen navy on the Yangtze. These five-storey ships were then the largest in the world, holding 800 men and equipped with great spiked balls swinging from derricks. Against this terrifying armada the Chen could do nothing, and for a brief but energetic period the Sui ruled from Guangdong and Hainan to Hebei.

Tall ‘tower ships’ became a stock feature of the Sui and Tang navies. They are described in the gloriously named manual Tai bai yin jing (Canon of the White and Gloomy Planet of War), written in 759 by the Tang Daoist and military strategist Li Quan:

These ships have three decks equipped with bulwarks for the fighting-lines, and flags and pennants flying from the masts. There are ports and openings for crossbows and lances, while [on the top deck] there are trebuchets for hurling stones . . . [The whole broadside] gives the appearance of a city wall. In the Jin period the Prancing Dragon Admiral Wang Jun, invading Wu, built a ship 200 paces in length, and on it set flying rafters and hanging galleries on which chariots and horses could go.

With multiple decks rising to as much as thirty metres, these ships might be armed with ‘fending irons’: long arms pivoted on jibs and ending in iron spikes, which could be sent smashing down from an upright position to wreak havoc on enemy craft. Meanwhile, swift-moving attack ships known as meng chong were used at least since the Han era; the Tang armoured them with plates or sheets of leather, wood, rhinoceros hide or iron, both to give cover from arrows and stones and to repel boarders.

Innovation in naval military technology was one of the most belligerent facets of the inventive ‘genius of China’ expounded by Joseph Needham in his encyclopaedic examination of how the country’s science and civilization co-evolved. A great fleet of warships enabled the Southern Song to fend off Yangtze pirates in the twelfth century, and around the early 1130s a Song official hit on the notion of building ships powered by hand-driven paddle wheels, so that they could be manoeuvred even on windless days. Because their wheels were hidden beneath protective coverings, the ships, called ‘flying tiger warships’, seemed to the enemies to move by supernatural power, filling them with fear. These vessels had up to twenty-four paddle wheels, but usually just two or four, powered by several dozen crew members. They carried trebuchets that flung gunpowder-filled grenades, and wielded great wrecking balls suspended by chains, or systems of pulleys and booms that allowed rocks to be dropped onto enemy ships from a great height. ‘No other civilization produced anything like them’, Needham claimed.

Unfortunately for the Song, the bandit leader Yang Yao captured the carpenter who designed the mighty paddle-driven war vessels and forced him to build some for him. By 1135 Yang had a fleet of several hundred with which to defend his piratical activities on the Yangtze. But when, that year, the Song commander Yue Fei fought Yang Yao on Dongting Lake, he devised a strategy to disable the paddle fighters. His troops spread grass and logs on the lake surface, clogging and breaking the wheels. Yang Yao was defeated and beheaded.

That victory did Yue Fei little good in the end. When his heroic achievements began to make him too popular in the eyes of the Song leaders, the general was imprisoned and poisoned. But thanks to a hagiography written by his grandson, Yue Fei became celebrated during the Ming era as the model of a (wronged but) virtuous servant of the state. There is still a temple dedicated to him today near the West Lake of the former Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, and his slogan ‘Recover our Rivers and Mountains’ was turned into a patriotic song during the war with the Japanese in the twentieth century.

It’s not clear why word of Yue Fei’s rather simple strategy didn’t get out, but the Southern Song were able to continue using their paddle-wheel ships to good effect in their campaign against the Jurchen invaders – the Great Jin dynasty – in the north. When the two powers clashed in 1161 in the battles of Tangdao (in the East China Sea) and Caishi (on the Yangtze), the technical ingenuity of the Song carried the day. At Caishi the Song commander Yu Yunwen, allegedly leading a force of just 3,000 troops and 120 warships powered by paddle wheels, defeated a Jin navy of 70,000 men and 600 vessels. (The imbalance was almost certainly inflated by the victors’ scribes to magnify the achievement.) The Song ships showered the Jin navy with incendiary bombs, a tactic described in ‘Hai qiu fu’ (‘Rhapsodic Ode on the Sea-Eel Paddle-Wheel Warships’) by the Southern Song poet Yang Wanli:

Our ships rushed forth from behind [the island] on both sides. The men inside them paddled fast on the treadmills, and the ships glided forwards as though they were flying, yet no one was visible on board. The enemy thought that they were made of paper. Then all of a sudden a thunderclap bomb was let off. It was made with paper and filled with lime and sulphur. These thunderclap bombs came dropping down from the air, and upon meeting the water exploded with a noise like thunder, the sulphur bursting into flames. The carton [paper] case rebounded and broke, scattering the lime to form a smoky fog, which blinded the eyes of men and horses so that they could see nothing. Our ships then went forward to attack theirs, and their men and horses were all drowned, so that they were utterly defeated.

For all its might and ingenuity, the Song fleet couldn’t protect the empire from the Mongol invaders when, after defeating the Jin, they turned on their Song allies. Khubilai Khan’s cavalry were invincible on the northern plains, but in the south the Mongols needed to fight with ships. They assembled a navy with extraordinary speed, importing sailors and shipwrights from Korea as well as conscripting locals in Shandong. The troops learnt the skills of water combat quickly, and in 1267 they faced the Song fleet at the twin cities of Xiangyang and Fancheng on the Han River – a strategic gateway to the confluence of the Han and the Yangtze – in one of the most celebrated battles in Chinese history. It was certainly one of the most protracted, allegedly lasting for six years, and was fought both on land and on water. The Mongols used their fleet of 5,000 ships to blockade the Han and prevent supplies from reaching the besieged cities, while their cavalry saw off the Song troops attempting to provide reinforcements. Powerful new siege machines such as counterweight trebuchets (a design imported from the Middle East) beat down the city defences. When the Southern Song commander Lü Wenhuan finally surrendered in 1273, the Mongol conquest of China was inevitable. The general Bayan (called Hundred Eyes by Marco Polo, a colourful mistranslation of his Mongolian name) battled his way down the Yangtze to the Southern Song capital of Hangzhou, which fell in 1276.

The conquerors were more generous in victory than they were in the winning of it. The Song Emperor Gongdi was a six-year-old boy, and the court was effectively led by his mother, Empress Dowager Quan, and grandmother, Grand Empress Dowager Xie. After the capitulation, mother and son were taken to the northern capital of Khanbaliq, where Gongdi was given the title Duke of Ying. He later moved to the former Mongol capital of Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, and finally to Tibet (then known as Tubo), where he entered a monastery in 1296.

That wasn’t quite the end of the Song. A defiant faction of the court escaped with Gongdi’s two brothers, and the eldest was declared emperor in Fuzhou, Fujian, in 1276. The entourage was soon forced to flee to Lantau Island, today a part of Hong Kong, where the eldest brother died and the younger, aged seven, was declared Emperor Huaizong. The remains of the Song navy – still a mighty fleet – harboured at Yamen in Guangdong province. In 1279 the Mongol (now Yuan) force, although fewer in number than its opponent, closed in for the endgame, and once again proved its naval supremacy. At the Battle of Yamen the young Huaizong perished along with thousands of officials as they leapt into the sea during that final conflict.

A naval battle ended the Yuan dynasty too: the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, who became the first Ming Emperor (see here), crushed the imperial forces, also at Caishi, in 1355. Before he could become emperor, Zhu then had to overcome his rival Chen Youliang, a leader of the Red Turban rebels. The two navies met on Poyang Lake in 1363 in what has sometimes been called ‘the largest naval battle in history’ (a contested accolade, as you can see). Zhu’s ships faced a force three times as great, but he won the battle with his incendiary firepower. Vessels loaded with combustibles, and sometimes with gunpowder, were sent crashing into Chen’s triple-decked warships. Chen was eventually killed after breaking out from the lake and being pursued along the Long River.

The Chinese perfected the use of incendiary devices for water warfare, constructing boats that were divided in the middle so that the rowers aft could detach the incendiary fore section and retreat to literally watch the fireworks. Fire was one of the most devastating weapons for river combat, and was developed to a versatile art as naval warfare became ever less a matter of hand-to-hand engagement and more about flinging projectiles. ‘Sky-flying tubes’ would set fire to enemy sails; ‘gunpowder buckets’ and ‘fire bricks’ scarcely need their destructive potential to be spelled out.

The Saipan Mission – Plan for a “Special Attack of IJN Battleships”

The disastrous Philippine Sea battle left the Imperial Navy in the position of having important forces in a combat zone completely dominated by the Allies. Not only were more than 15,000 sailors caught in the trap, but also those endangered included skilled ship artificers and aircraft mechanics, Japanese communications intelligence experts, naval infantry, and the staffs and commanders of the Central Pacific Area Fleet, First Air Fleet, and Sixth Fleet.

For days, talk of rescue expeditions roiled across Tokyo. Navy staff officials promised salvation. Junior naval officers clamored for action, accusing the Japanese Army command of obstructing a rescue. Many others thought the whole idea ludicrous. The scheme might have had some chance while Ozawa’s Mobile Fleet monopolized Allied attention, but the day after Prime Minister Tojo approved the mission the Mobile Fleet went down in defeat at the Turkey Shoot.

Combined Fleet chief of staff Kusaka Ryunosuke, anxious to succor his old boss Nagumo, dreamed up the first scheme for the Saipan mission, revolving around two old battleships. Staffers thought Kusaka’s idea silly, but he was determined to go ahead. Captain Yamamoto Chikao (no relation to the great admiral), who led the operations section of the NGS, completed the plan on June 21.

The next day Admiral Ozawa’s vanquished Mobile Fleet anchored at Okinawa on its way home. As the fleet neared Japan, C-in-C Toyoda Soemu held the options open by ordering Ozawa to concentrate in the Inland Sea and prepare for an immediate mission. Under a revised rescue plan, the one available fleet carrier, Zuikaku, and every other two-bit aviation ship the Navy could scrape up would be loaded with whatever planes could fly, scrounged from both the Army and the Navy. The planes would have to take off only once. They would be expended in the fight.

This improvised carrier fleet would sail several days behind a convoy escorted by the Fifth Fleet, Japan’s northeast sea frontier protection force, expected to leave the port of Yokosuka carrying an Army infantry regiment. The carrier force would cover its approach with a one-way air attack. The next day Japan’s Second Fleet, the Navy’s big-gun unit, would steam in and crush the Allied fleets off the Marianas. The Fifth Fleet would then arrive with the Army’s regiment, and a day after that would be another convoy with a full Army division.

The rescue, still merely on paper, already looked shaky. The Ozawa fleet had been smashed in a full-scale battle and could hardly be ready for another. That went for the Second Fleet as well—it had been part of Ozawa’s force. Admiral Ozawa himself estimated he needed two months to get the ships back in fighting trim. About the only naval units really at hand were the Fifth Fleet and the old battleships. The aged Yamashiro of Battleship Division 2, and a pair of converted battleship–aircraft carriers, the Ise and Hyuga, were just completing modification to this hybrid status. There was also the Fuso, then in the southern Philippines after participating in a similar—but abortive—sortie to aid the Japanese defenders of Biak Island. The two hybrid ships, still working up, were ultimately left out of the plan.

Operations officers wanted to send at least the Yamashiro. She could dash to Saipan, deliver the regiment to stiffen the defenses, and then ground herself to serve as an artillery battery. The Army might contribute one of its own transport ships. Cruisers of the Fifth Fleet could carry more troops as well as the landing barges to put them ashore. With a handful of escorts these warships could become a relief mission. The Fuso, sailing independently, would shoot up Allied convoys headed to the battle areas. Combined Fleet alerted her for that mission on June 17. But the battleship-only rescue was a nonstarter. Three days later the Navy scrubbed the Fuso raiding mission. Combined Fleet commander in chief Toyoda Soemu thought the entire concept reckless and rejected chief of staff Kusaka’s proposals. According to Kusaka this was among the few times Toyoda ever did that.

Historian Anthony Tully attributes the rescue to Captain Kami Shigenori. A notorious hothead in the Imperial Navy, Kami might well have dreamed up this kind of scheme. Tully reports that Captain Kami, ready to accept any risk, volunteered to skipper the Yamashiro to her destiny. Contrary to some claims, however, at that time Kami was no operations specialist with either the fleets or the NGS. He was captain of the light cruiser Tama. That vessel at least belonged to the Fifth Fleet and could have participated, but it leaves the captain as just another advocate, not the planner of this extravaganza. It is true that Kami had spent much of his career in staff billets, but by the same token he had minimal command experience. The Tama had been his first ship in many years. Why the Navy should put Kami in charge of a battlewagon goes unexplained. In November 1966, Admiral Kusaka personally claimed credit, regretting the rescue had not been carried out, claiming that with the right timing it could have worked.

Meanwhile the plan had also envisioned that a long-range air unit (the “Hachiman Force”) would cooperate with the surface fleet, flying out to strike the Allied armada and paving the way for the surface ships. Cobbled together ad hoc, and composed of crews picked from the Yokosuka Air Group and Twelfth Air Fleet, the Hachiman Force actually deployed to Iwo Jima, but it never comprised more than sixty aircraft, and half those were lost in June and July.

Serious fliers thought this enterprise could only be a death ride. How a small air unit would penetrate the dense Allied umbrella, where the entire Mobile Fleet had failed, remained a mystery. Similarly, an ancient battleship was supposed to sink the mighty Blue Fleet, and another would get through to Saipan and reverse the strategic balance. The rescue plan had no substance. Admiral Toyoda stuck to his guns, and the Army high command dismissed the idea out of hand. The Army had spent six months reinforcing the Marianas with really significant forces—more than a few of which had been sunk en route by Allied subs. A single regiment sent now would achieve nothing, a regiment plus a division not much more.

But these plans, empty as they were, are important for other reasons. Such a degree of desperation now prevailed in Tokyo that the most extreme alternatives suddenly appealed. There is an argument from cultural history that the Japanese held special esteem for showing nobility even in failure. In the Pacific war in late 1944, Japan stood at the brink of that very deep chasm.

A more mundane reason would turn out to be a distraction in the next real battle. That is, the rescue plan envisioned taking the Fifth Fleet away from its geographic mission, employing it instead as an integral element in a battle concept. Once the Imperial Navy finally finished reconfiguring the force for the next battle, that element stuck—the old northern force would morph into the anticipated vanguard for the Ozawa fleet.

Emperor Hirohito sided with the young Navy officers. He demanded action. He had told Admiral Shimada on the eve of the Philippine Sea battle that with sufficient determination Japan might achieve a success like Tsushima, the glorious 1905 victory against the Russian fleet in the Sea of Japan. Hirohito warned Prime Minister Tojo of air raids on Tokyo if the Marianas were lost. They had to be held. IGHQ chiefs kept bringing him bad news. The emperor ordered Navy minister Shimada to craft a rescue. On June 24 Tojo and Shimada united to tell the emperor the bad news that Combined Fleet now felt the plan unworkable. Hirohito countered, demanding a second opinion from the Board of Field Marshals and Fleet Admirals, a military appendage of the jushin, or senior statesmen, who had a behind-the-scenes role in Tokyo. When the board also nixed a rescue, the emperor ordered them to put that judgment on paper, turned on his heel, and stalked off. The Yamashiro mission evaporated.

One jushin with whom diplomat Kase Toshikazu discussed Japan’s situation was Admiral Okada Keisuke. Okada had been Navy minister and prime minister in the 1930s. Now he told Kase that a rescue operation would only deepen the disaster, though perhaps that was a good idea—“he thought it advisable to let the ‘young fellows’ have their own way once in order to reconcile them ultimately to their inevitable fate—defeat.” Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, another jushin, agreed the loss of Saipan would be a calamity, but he refused a useless gesture.

On June 29 Prince Takamatsu conceded to associates that the recent defeat had stymied the Imperial Navy for the present. The Navy captain’s remark, coming from the second brother of Hirohito, suggested the emperor had accepted reality.

The only efforts to rescue the Japanese in the Marianas would be by submarine. The big fleet submarines, I-boats, and smaller medium-range craft, RO-boats, were used in these operations. Two subs went down in futile missions to Saipan to recover Sixth Fleet commander Vice Admiral Takagi Takao. Thirteen Japanese submarines were lost in the Marianas, nearly half in rescue attempts. The sole success came to Lieutenant Commander Itakura Mitsuma’s I-41. Itakura managed to get his boat into Apra Harbor on Guam and spirit away more than 100 airmen.

Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon

The MH-53E Sea Dragon mine countermeasures helicopter was developed for the US Navy to replace RH-53Ds. Identifiable by their extra large composite construction sponsons which house extra fuel, the MH-53Es tow a hydrofoil sledge carrying mechanical, acoustic and magnetic sensors for mine detection.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force retired the Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon (export designation S-80M-1) on March 3, 2017. On February 20, 111 Kokutai carried out its last training flight on aircraft serial number 8625 from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. Japan is the sole export customer for the Sea Dragon, operating 11 airframes since 1989. In May 2015, the US Navy signed a contract to purchase two decommissioned MH-53Es from Japan for parts, including 12 engines and two tow booms. Agusta-Westland MCM-101 Merlins now conduct the duties once performed by the Sea Dragon using the AQS-24A airborne mine hunting system: the AES-1 airborne laser mine detection system and the Mk104 acoustic mine-sweeping device.

On December 23, 1981, Sikorsky produced the latest in the CH- 53 series, the MH-53E Sea Dragon, Airborne Mine Counter Measure (AMCM) helicopter. Sikorsky engineers provided the Sea Dragon with an additional 1,000 gallons of fuel, along with a modified electrical and hydraulic system to accommodate the mine-sweeping equipment towed behind the aircraft on a floating sled. Additional Sea Dragon duties include shipboard replenishment with both internal and external cargo and SAR missions.

The MH-53E is based on aircraft carriers and other warships and is an upgrade modification of the CH-53E Super Stallion, offering more power and endurance than the Super Stallion. The MH-53E can carry 55 troops. It can carry a 16-ton payload for a distance of 50 nautical miles or a 10-ton payload for a distance of 500 nautical miles. Additionally, the aircraft can tow a variety of mine-sweeping countermeasures systems.

The MH-53E Sea Dragon first flew in 1982 and is the largest helicopter in the West. It is propelled by three General Electric T64-GE-416 turboshaft engines and has a range of 1,120 nautical miles. Ceiling is 27,900 feet, top speed, 172 miles per hour. It is crewed by two pilots and one to six crewmen, depending on mission.


The Sikorsky-built MH-53E Sea Dragon, a mine countermeasures derivative of the CH-53E Super Stallion, is heavier and has a greater fuel capacity and range. Capable of transporting up to 55 troops, the MH-53E can carry a 16-ton payload 50 nautical miles or a 10-ton payload 300 nautical miles. In its primary mission, the MH-53E is capable of towing a variety of mine countermeasures systems, including the MK-105 magnetic mine-sweeping sled, the AQS-24A side-scan sonar and the MK-103 mechanical mine-sweeping system. Mission duration can exceed four hours. All MH-53E aircraft employ the T64-GE-419 engines. The fleet of MH-53Es is being modifed with crash-attenuating crew and troop seats, Helicopter Emergency Egress Lighting Systems and Blue Force Tracker for situational awareness.

MH-53Es provide mine-sweeping and strike group logistics support for worldwide military operations and humanitarian assistance. The Navy operates 28 MH-53Es in two helicopter mine countermeasures squadrons, HM-14 and HM-15, and one fleet replacement squadron, HM-12. Two retired MH-53Es were acquired from Japan in 2015 for spare parts. The operational squadrons are manned by an 80/20 mix of active and Reserve personnel.

FUSELAGE LENGTH: . . . . . 73.3 feet

OVERALL LENGTH:. . . . . . . 99 feet

HEIGHT: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28.3 feet

WEIGHT: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . empty, 36,745 pounds; maximum gross, 69,750 pounds

MAX SPEED: . . . . . . . . . . . . .172 miles/hour (150 knots)

MAX MISSION RADIUS: . . . …272 statute miles (237 nautical miles) with 32 troops at 3,000 feet

POWER PLANT: . . . . . . . . . . .3 General Electric T64-GE-419 turboshaft engines (4,750 shp each)

CREW: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2 pilots, 1-6 aircrew, depending on mission

ARMAMENT:. . . . . . . . . . . . . ..1 GAU-21, 2 XM-218 .50-caliber machine guns

CONTRACTOR: . . . . . . . . . . .Sikorsky Aircraf Corp.

AN/AQS-14 and AN/AQS-14A (Aviation Systems) – The AN/AQS-14, an active-controlled, helicopter-towed mine-hunting sonar, is currently used in MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters. It is a multi-beam, side-looking sonar with electronic beam forming, all-range focusing, and an adaptive processor. The system consists of three parts: a stabilized underwater vehicle, electro-mechanical tow cable, and airborne electronic console. The 10.7-foot long underwater vehicle can be maintained at a fixed depth above the seafloor or below the surface, and the thin, coaxial cable is armored and nonmagnetic. Sonar information is presented on two continuous waterfall displays. An upgrade to the AN/AQS-14 system, the AN/AQS-14A, modifies the airborne electronics from an analog to a digital system and increases the size of the operator’s monitor. A Post Mission Analysis (PMA) station has been incorporated into the system for use with the contact tapes after the mission is complete to identify and classify mine-like contacts.

AN/AQS-20 – The AN/AQS-20 is a helicopter-towed mine-hunting sonar consisting of a Mission Control Display Subsystem, an AMCM Console Subsystem located in the helicopter, and a Towed Body Subsystem. The towed body includes side-looking, gap-filling, volume-searching, and forward-looking sonars. The AQS-20 will be effective against bottom and moored mines in both deep and shallow waters. It will provide an increase in area coverage rate in comparison to the current AQS-14 system and can provide single-pass detection of both bottom and moored mines. Six of these systems were fitted to MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters.