Ordnance experiments in the 1870s involving testing pressures in gun bores revealed that performance could be significantly enhanced by utilizing slower-burning gunpowder and longer barrels. Slow-burning large-grain powder, known as prismatic powder, prolonged the length of time that the charge acted on the projectile and thus increased both muzzle velocity and range. The problem with this was that the projectile left the barrel before all the powder was consumed. This could be solved by longer barrels, but that made muzzle-loading next to impossible. The slower-burning powders also required a powder chamber of diameter larger than that of the bore. All these factors, and the need to protect gun crews during the loading process, prompted a renewed search for an effective breech-loading gun.
Although breechloaders had been tried at sea in the modern era, beginning in 1858 in the French Gloire and later in the British Warrior, problems led to them being discarded. In 1864 the Royal Navy reverted definitively to muzzle-loading ordnance, but other nations, especially the French, moved ahead with breechloaders.
The old problem of ineffective sealing at the breech was only slowly overcome. In 1872 a French Army captain named de Bange came up with a “plastic gas check” that helped prevent escape of gases at the breech, and in 1875 France adopted the breechloader. At the same time brass cartridge cases, already used for small arms, came into use for the smaller breech-loading guns.
An accident aboard HMS Thunderer in the Sea of Marmora in January 1879 helped prompt the Royal Navy’s return to breechloaders. Simultaneous firing was under way, with the main guns fired in salvo; during this, one of the battleship’s 12-inch muzzle-loading guns misfired. This was not detected from the force of the discharge of the one gun, and both guns were run back in hydraulically to be reloaded. When they were again fired the double-charged gun blew up, killing 11 men and injuring 35 others. This could not have happened with a breech-loading gun, and in May the Admiralty set up a committee to investigate the merits of breech-loading versus muzzle-loading guns. In August 1879 after a committee of officers examined new breechloaders built by Armstrong in Britain and Krupp in Germany, the Royal Navy decided to utilize the breechloader in three battleships entering service in 1881-1882.
Another change in the period was to guns of steel, which accompanied enormous increases in gun size. Krupp in Germany began producing cast steel rifled guns in 1860. The change to steel guns was made possible by the production of higher-quality steel. At the same time that the Royal Navy went to the breechloader it adopted the all-steel gun, in which a steel jacket was shrunk over a steel tube and layers of steel hoops were then shrunk over this. The system of jackets and hoops over an inner steel tube was followed by one in which steel wire was spun on under tension varying with the distance from the bore. This helped eliminate barrel droop. Such “wire guns” continued in British service until the 1930s. Bore lengths of the guns increased from 35 to 45 calibers and even from 40 to 45 calibers.
The larger guns of the period required mechanized ammunition hoists and complex breech-loading gear. Their metal carriages recoiled on inclined metal slides that pivoted under the gun port. The slides were trained laterally by means of transverse truck wheels moving on racers, iron paths set into the ship’s deck.
Naval Gun Turret
Following the decision to arm ships with a few large-bore pivot-mounted guns as their principal armament, the next step was an armored turret to protect the guns and their crews, especially during the lengthy reloading process. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), Royal Navy captain Cowper Coles designed two floating batteries to engage Russian shore batteries at close range. The second of these mounted a 68-pounder protected by a hemispheric iron shield, which during action proved largely impervious to hostile fire.
In March 1859 Coles patented the idea of turrets aboard ship. He advocated guns mounted on the centerline of the vessel so as to have wide arcs of fire on either side of the ship and halving the number of guns previously required for broadsides fire. Coles’s persistence, coupled with the powerful support of Prince Albert, led the Admiralty in March 1861 to install an experimental armored turret on the floating battery Trusty. The test was a success, for 33 hits from 68-pounder and 100-pounder guns failed to disable it.
The Coles turret turned on a circumferential roller path set in the lower deck, operated by two men with a hand crank. Its upper 4.5 feet of armor came up through the main or upper deck and formed an armored glacis to protect the lower part. The crew and ammunition entered the turret from below through a hollow central cylinder.
The first British seagoing turreted ship was the Coles-inspired Prince Albert of 1864. It mounted four 9-inch muzzle-loading rifles, one each in four centerline circular turrets, turned by hand; 18 men could complete a revolution in one minute. The problem of centerline turrets in a ship of high superstructure and sail rig and very low freeboard (the latter the result of a design error) contributed to the disastrous loss at sea of the Coles-designed HMS Captain in 1870. Most of its crew drowned, Coles among them.
In the United States, John Ericsson’s single revolving turret the Monitor entered service in March 1862. The Monitor and many follow-on types all had very low freeboard. This lessened the amount of armor required to protect the ship, allowing it to be concentrated in the turret. Unlike the Captain, however, the Monitor had no high superstructure or sail rig.
Ericsson’s turret was all above the upper deck, on which it rested. Before the turret could be turned, it had to be lifted by rack and pinion from contact with the deck. A steam engine operating through gearing turned the turret around a central spindle. The Monitor was the first time that a revolving turret had actually been employed in battle, in its March 9, 1862, engagement with CSS Virginia.
Sharp disagreement continued between those who favored the revolving turret and supporters of broadside armament. Renewed interest in the ram-in consequence of the 1866 Battle of Lissa-and larger, more powerful guns helped decide this in favor of the turret. The ram meant that ships had to fire ahead as they prepared to attack an opposing vessel; heavier guns meant that ships needed fewer of them and that these should have the widest possible arc of fire. The elimination of sail rigs and improved ship designs heightened the stability of turreted warships.
Turrets continued to undergo design refinement and received new breech-loading guns as well as heavier armor, indeed the thickest aboard ship. Relatively thin top-of-turret armor on British battle cruisers, however, led to the loss of three of them to German armor-piercing shells in the Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916). The battle cruiser turrets also lacked flash-protection doors and the means of preventing a shell burst inside the turret from reaching the magazines. The largest battleship ever built, the Japanese Yamato had 25.6 inches of steel armor protection on its turrets.
Hogg, Ivan, and John Batchelor. Naval Gun. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford, 1978.
Lambert, Andrew, ed. Steam, Steel & Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
Padfield, Peter. Guns at Sea. New York: St. Martin’s, 1974.
Tucker, Spencer C. Handbook of 19th Century Naval Warfare. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2000.
Hawkey, Arthur. Black Night off Finisterre: The Tragic Tale of an Early British Ironclad. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
Hough, Richard. Fighting Ships. New York: Putnam, 1969.
Four months before the Battle of the Barges on Lake Borgne, a British force, including the 74-gun Ramillies, the 44-gun Pactobus, the bomb-ship Terror, and the brig Dispatch, appeared off Stonington, Connecticut, the bustling shipbuilding, shipping, and fishing town on Long Island Sound. The British Commodore was Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who, as flag-captain on the Victory at Trafalgar had responded to Horatio Nelson’s dying whisper, “Kiss me, Hardy.”
Carrying out Admiral Cochrane’s grim order to destroy the coast towns and ravage the country, Hardy gave the town inhabitants one hour to leave. Through their magistrates, Stonington’s sea-people and farmers told Hardy to do his worst; should their town be destroyed, they vowed, “we will perish in its ruins.”
Hardy’s worst, it would soon develop, was among the worst examples of Royal Navy gunnery ever recorded. During the three-day siege, more than 50 tons of His Majesty’s hot lead, fire, and iron rained on or near Stonington; but, incredibly, almost no damage was done. Not a single American life was lost in the bombardments, although one of the half-dozen wounded later succumbed.
Lord Nelson, dead those nine years, must have been spinning in his grave as the round shot, bomb, and rocket bombardment plowed the local fields, aerated the lawns, pruned the orchards, and ventilated about 40 buildings—without destroying any.
Word of the siege of Stonington was to delight Americans up and down the seaboard. It would unite in mirth all those who read the advertisement in the New York newspaper: “Just received, and offered for sale, about three tons of round shot . . . very handsome, being a small proportion of those which were fired from His Britannic Majesty’s ships on the un-offending inhabitants of Stonington, in the recent brilliant attack on that place.”
When, at last, the mauled and mortified British slipped away, bearing the 20 British tars who had been killed and the 50 who were wounded by Stonington’s two 18-pounders, Royal Navy gunnery was being immortalized:
They killed a goose, they killed a hen,
Three hogs they wounded in a pen;
They dashed away—and pray what then?
That was not taking Stonington.
But, to the townspeople, it had not really been comical at all. While all could breathe easily as each new Congreve rocket or shell exploded harmlessly, none could be sure that the next round would. Nor could any of the besieged be sure that the ordeal would not continue for three weeks or three months. There were black hours of depression, too, when it seemed that the many fires could not possibly be kept under control; yet, somehow, they were.
Seen in its true perspective, Stonington was not a place where a funny thing happened. It was, rather, the site of one of the most gallant affairs of the war. The courage of its people enheartened their countrymen. Moreover, it disheartened an enemy that had been emboldened by its recent easy possession of Eastport, Maine; and it dissuaded Hardy from more attempts to capture or destroy any of Connecticut’s seaports.
This was the town, these were the people, and these were the times that spawned Nat Palmer.
Commodore Hardy had appeared off Stonington two days before the 15th birthday of Nathaniel Brown Palmer. Born on 7 August 1799, the son of a lawyer, Nat had grown up amid the sights, sounds, and smell of the sea, wistfully watching the last long pulls on sheets and halliards as ships departed from Stonington and nearby Mystic to all parts of the world. At 14, he had gone to sea.
Over the next 36 years, “Captain Nat” became known and respected throughout the port cities of the world, first as a captain of the Western Ocean packet ships Siddons, Garrick, Huntsville, and Hibernia, then as the epitome of clipper ship captains in the Houqua, Samuel Russell, Paul Jones, and Oriental.
Sailor/author Captain Arthur H. Clark revered Palmer because “Probably no one ever brought up so many young men who afterward became successful shipmasters, while his character and example were an inspiration to many who never sailed with him.” One who sailed with him for the first time was Nat’s wife Eliza’s 16-year-old brother, David Sherman Babcock, who afterward became renowned as the captain of the clipper ships Sword Fish and Young America.
To Clark and his The Clipper Ship Era, published in 1910, we are indebted for a description of the breed of captain Nat Palmer exemplified:
Above all things it was necessary that the captains should be thorough seamen and navigators; also that they should be men of robust health and great physical endurance. . . There were frequently desperate characters among the crew and steerage passengers, who required to be handled with moral courage and physical force, while the cabin passengers were usually gentlemen and gentlewomen of good breeding, accustomed to courtesy and politeness, which they expected to find in the captains with whom they sailed. These requirements evolved a remarkable type of men, hearty, bluff, and jovial, without coarseness, who would never be mistaken for anything but gentlemen.
This, then, is what Nat Palmer became. Let us look now at an incident in the Antarctic that helped to shape his life.
At the beginning of February 1821, two ships of Imperial Russia, the Vostok and the Mirnyi, rounded Cape Horn and cruised south into the ice-choked Weddell Sea searching for uncharted land that might prove the existence of the legendary Antarctic continent. Twelve months before, this small squadron, under command of Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, had explored the islands east of the Cape and was now, a year and a half out of Kronstadt, completing a circumnavigation of the world in the south polar latitudes.
On 31 October, they had weighed anchor out of Port Jackson at Sydney, Australia, and for more than 80 days had been laboring through unknown seas, far to the south of any previous voyagers.
Nine days out of Sydney, the flagship had sprung a leak, and the water pumped out over the lower deck kept the crew’s quarters continually damp and chill. During frequent fierce gales the ships struggled under shortened sail through mountainous waves, sliding down the steep leeward slopes to wallow heavily in the troughs, often heeling over and shipping drenching seas. On Christmas Day, while Orthodox services were being held and the Russians were thanking God for the redemption of mankind and the deliverance of their blessed land from armies of the French invaders, the Vostok rammed over a block of submerged ice that broke the anchor bed, raised the anchor block and spindle, ripped away some of the ship’s protective sheathing, and almost breached the hull. That day the watch sighted almost 250 icebergs before night closed in.
For the next month, only a few patches of fine weather broke an uninterrupted season of snow and mist; and the Russians were ready to alter course for warmer latitudes, lay in at a hospitable harbor for repairs, and set sail for home. Their voyage was already a notable one; they had sighted and surveyed dozens of unknown islands, two of them the first discovered below the Antarctic circle. But they had not yet succeeded in their principal objective: to determine the existence of a continental land mass.
Thus, as they steered southward from the Horn, they were making their last thrust for Antarctica, whose secret had remained hidden behind barriers of offshore ice and the great fogs that drift in from the south. On 5 February, the Vostok and Mirnyi sighted the high cliffs of the recently discovered South Shetlands, their ghostly, snow-clad shores but dimly visible. The wind blew SW by S, and the sea ran a strong swell from the west. The summer temperature stood at 34 degrees Fahrenheit. During the early hours of the night, stars shone faintly overhead through thin clouds, while blacker clouds to the east hid the land. As the heavy dew thickened to a fog, the Russians lay to, to avoid running on the reefs and breakers around the islands. The ships’ bells sounded across to each other throughout the night.
On the morning of the sixth, the Russians prepared to continue cruising to the south. The sun had not yet burned off the fog from the ice-choked straits and, in this desolate sea, there was only the sound of waves slapping against the grinding ice and the cries of sea fowl. Captain von Bellingshausen recalled that, “Round about us birds were diving, penguins were calling, albatrosses, gulls, pintades, blue petrels, and cormorants were flying about in all directions.” As the weather showed signs of clearing, the ships started through a channel between rocky headlands.
Suddenly, the fog lifted to reveal a small sloop in the straits ahead. The stranger sent up the American flag, and the Russian commander, replying with the black and gold imperial eagle, sent over a boat to invite the captain on board. After a brief interval, the deputation returned; and a young man in sealskins climbed over the rail and announced himself as, “Captain Nathaniel Palmer, of the sloop Hero, fleet tender to the sealing expedition from Stonington, Connecticut.”
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free.
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
The man who stood before the Russian commander was only 21 years old, but he was already hardened by seven years at sea. Nat Palmer was used to sailing at night and in fog, for he had learned his trade as a blockade runner along the coast of Long Island. Born on 7 August in the last year of the eighteenth century, he was only 12 when war broke out with England, and hostile ships blockaded Stonington and its neighboring ports. Mr. Madison’s war was highly unpopular among many of the New England coastal towns, whose trade and revenues were now threatened more by war than they had been by an occasional British impressment. Many of the ports remained neutral, welcomed British frigates, or even paid ransom without protest, while angry talk of secession sounded in the chambers of council and assembly.
The Stonington men were made of sterner stuff. When the British bombarded their town in August 1814, they had manned the shore batteries and had driven off the fleet. Meanwhile there was profit and adventure to be had for a little danger, and damn the British gunboats! So, in 1813, Nat Palmer went to sea; and if his sloop hugged the coast, there were special skills that one could learn better here than out in the mid-Atlantic. Dodging British warships in the dark, navigating by nose and nerves around shoal waters and enemy interceptors, were to prove good preparation for the Antarctic ice. Detection could mean death by broadside or boarding party, or capture and confinement in rotting prison hulks. Palmer soon became a pilot, and after the war, captained a small coasting sloop. Then, when he was but 19, he was invited to sail as second mate under Captain James Sheffield on a sealing expedition to the south polar seas.
American seamen had gone a-whaling since the earliest days of the colonies; but it was not unitl the late eighteenth century, after Captain Cook had discovered that the pelts of fur seals and sea otters brought high prices in Canton, that Yankee crews made sealing a major industry.
The Russians held an exclusive control on the rookeries in their northern Pacific territories, particularly the Pribilofs; but the islands off the southern tip and western shores of South America were the home of millions of seals waiting for those bold enough to take them. The islands were ostensibly owned by Spain, but Argentina and Chile were too feeble to make effective protest against the British and American marauders, although the latter sometimes threatened each other.
Among the Yankees, by far the greatest number of sealers came from Stonington, whose hardy and venturesome captains made many voyages to the South Atlantic and ranged out into the South Pacific. By Palmer’s time, they had been active in this trade for over twenty years, with such success that the familiar rookeries were almost depleted, and new ones had to be found. Profits were so great and plunder so ruthless that over three million seals were exterminated in Alexander Selkirk’s lonely Juan Fernandez islands, while they were slaughtered in the Falklands as spectacularly as the bison were to be seventy years later in the American West.
For over two hundred years, no significant new discoveries had been made of land below Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, aside from Captain Cook’s sighting the snow-capped peaks of South Georgia Island and Southern Tule (Sandwich Land) in 1775. But there were legends of lands lost below the horizon, of the elusive Auroras, thought to have been discovered in 1600, when a Dutch ship commanded by Dirck Gherritz was blown off course to 64 degrees south latitude. Perhaps these were rediscovered in February 1819, when the British brig Williams, under Captain William Smith, came across a chain of subpolar islands running west to northeast, some 400 miles south of Cape Horn. This accidental encounter occurred only because the Williams, en route to the Pacific and Peru, had beaten far south of the usual sea lanes to avoid rough weather. Smith reported his discovery to British agents in Valparaiso and again at Buenos Aires but refused bribes offered by American sealers to disclose the location of the new islands.
It was at this time that Edmund Fanning of Stonington promoted a voyage to find new sealing grounds in the South Atlantic. A successful veteran of 22 years in the sealing industry, a man who had three times circumnavigated the world, Fanning had heard of Gherritz’ voyage and of the Auroras and dispatched a ship to rediscover them. This was the Hersilia. Just built at Mystic seaport, of 130 tons burthen, with special copper sheathing as protection from submerged ice, it was the Hersilia on which Nat Palmer signed as second mate.
Almost three months out of Stonington, the Hersilia put in at the Falklands for water and fresh food. Leaving Palmer and another sailor on one of the islands to procure provisions, Captain Sheffield sailed off in search of the legendary lands to the south. The bleak Falklands were hardly a very hospitable place to be left, but they were visited often enough that Palmer and his companion would soon be rescued if the Hersilia should founder. They had a ship’s boat, their skinning knives, tinder boxes, a couple of muskets, and some of the ship’s supply of firewood. It was common practice for sealing vessels to leave a crew for as long as six or nine months on some island where they would make their kills, salt down the seals, and cure the skins, while the ship explored for other rookeries, leaving additional seamen at likely locations. After a suitable interval, the sailors and sealskins would be picked up.
Many expeditions brought along women to stay at the shore camps, help with the sealing and cooking, and provide companionship when required. Usually there was only one woman per camp, and they were sufficiently in demand that they became well-known at the sealers’ ports of call. While freed from the hazards of stormy sailing, the crews had no easy time of it ashore, with primitive shelter against wind and weather and scanty supplies of food. For the most part they had to forage for themselves and survive on seal meat, penguin eggs, and the flippers of young sea elephants. As a mate, Palmer received some of the ship’s supplies for his brief stint ashore—navy bread and mess beef, with some rum to improve the circulation and warm the blood.
He and his companion set to work gathering vegetables and butchering some of the animals that ran wild on the island. But they were not alone for long, for a few days after the Hersilia’s departure, another ship stood off the island, the Espirito Santo from Buenos Aires, with British papers. When Palmer piloted her into safe anchorage, the crew revealed that they were bound for rich but secret new sealing grounds. Three days later, when the Hersilia returned, Palmer told Captain Sheffield his news and persuaded him to pursue the course taken by the British.
Laying on all sail, the Hersilia came upon the uncharted South Shetlands four days later, where the Espirito Santo was anchored in a natural harbor while its crew were ashore slaughtering seals. The Stonington men needed no invitation to join in the hunt and stopped only because they had insufficient salt to cure a full cargo of sealskins. With 8,868 pelts, the Hersilia reluctantly returned home bearing news of vast numbers of seals remaining on the islands. Her cargo, though only half of capacity, brought an impressive $22,000, for the pelts turned out to be of much finer quality than those of Cape Horn seals.
As the first Americans to visit the South Shetlands, the Stonington men did not intend to sit idly ashore while others profited by their discovery. Promptly on their return, they prepared a full scale expedition of five ships. This time Nat Palmer had his own command, the Hero, fitted out as fleet tender. The Hero hardly seemed the ship to make history, for it was a small coasting sloop similar to those Palmer had sailed through British blockades. The vessel was less than twice the length of a ship’s launch, but her size served well for exploration in shoal and shallow waters, where she could run close inshore. Built 19 years earlier at nearby Groton, the Hero was 47 feet long, 17 feet wide, and six feet nine inches deep for shoal draft. Her burthen was a mere 44 tons. Yet, Yankee privateers smaller than Palmer’s sloop had taken British prizes over ten times their tonnage. For this voyage to the Antarctic, the Hero carried a crew of only five men. Besides the captain, there were the mate, Phineas Wilcox, 28; second-mate Richard Fanning Loper, 21, who later was to become a famous shipbuilder; 16-year-old seaman Stanton L. Burdick; and seaman Peter Harvey, a 31-year-old Negro.
Three of the Stonington fleet sailed in the spring of 1820, but it was not until the end of July that the Hero, in company with Captain Ephraim Williams’ Express, set her sails for the south. Leaving the Spanish Main and summer seas far behind them, they arrived at the Falklands in late October and then set course for Staten Island and Cape Horn. The 45-mile-long Staten Island, off the east tip of Tierra del Fuego, seemed to a later voyager, Herman Melville, “like a pile of glaciers in Switzerland . . . gleaming in snow-white barrenness and solitude.”
In these latitudes summer was but a whisper of wet wind in the long winter whiteness. Here squalls came screaming out of the southwest, spearing seamen with sleet and hail and smothering the decks with snow.
I wish to God I’d never been born
To go a-ramblin ’round Cape Horn.
And many a ship attempting to round the Horn had been chased by howling west winds clear across the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope and had chosen to continue sailing east to seek the South Pacific by way of the Indian Ocean.
In what passed for summer below the Horn, navigation was obstructed by the polar ice pack that broke off from the continental shelf and floated northward into the sea lanes. To find open water and steer a sailing ship through the ice was a difficult and dangerous maneuver, especially in a strong wind, which kept the floes in movement and could block passages or open long leads through the loose ice. Many of these floes were formidable islands, miles in extent and high enough to break the force of Antarctic gales. As the packs ground together, they could trap a sailing ship, crushing its keel or heeling it over so that it jammed, unable to extricate itself.
Less dangerous than the pack ice were the massive bergs rolling in the swell. A ship might pass as many as two hundred bergs a day, of all sizes and shapes, from tables to towering sentinels. Some were like stately galleons, moving majestically through the icy waters. Others were grotesque and misshapen, hollowed with arches and caves into which the surf slammed and roared. Often the ice split with a crack like a cannon, sending large splinters sliding and crashing into the sea. Sometimes hundreds of tons broke off, imperiling ships not only by the danger of their fall but by the immense waves churned in their wake. As they rose and fell, tilted and turned by the tides, the icebergs might be worn away on one side until they capsized and rolled up greenish-blue. Some were covered with bird guano, while others hosted hundreds of penguins flapping their wings or waddling and diving after the ships.
There was abundant life in this wild waste of waters, as ships cruised through schools of blowing porpoises and grampus or killer whales, while overhead wheeled giant fulmars, white-rumped terns, whale-birds, mollymauks, cape pigeons, and light-brown, white-patched Egmont hens. Most majestic was the albatross, “that white phantom [which] sails in all imaginations,” that Melville hailed as “a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime,” and that duller mariners would call a gooney.
In these latitudes, weather was utterly unpredictable, with violent gales followed by dead calm. Often the wind increased so rapidly that it was difficult to shorten sail. There could be simultaneous fog and wind; and even in calms, the currents were strong and the seas ran high. Sometimes the surface was glazed or slick and sluggish as oil, but lifted occasionally by long, slow swells. The skies were usually dismal, with sun and stars rarely visible through a rift in the clouds.
From December to March, conditions were bad enough, with the temperature hovering around freezing; but in the southern winters, the seas south of the Horn were the wildest in the world. Life aboard sailing ships was appalling. There was no escape from the intense, penetrating cold. The wind cut like a blade and sent stinging spray to freeze on the lower rigging and the sailors’ ice-crusted beards. Battering waves broke over the bows and swirled waist-deep into the scuppers, while the driving damp veered drunkenly from rain to sleet or snow or hail. Furling the jib required a certain skill, as the bows plunged under, submerging the clinging seamen and then see-sawing them high into the air and under again, like a ducking stool driving at six knots. Decks had to be shoveled free of snow or covered recurrently with ashes lest their ice-slick surfaces, helped by the abrupt heaving of the ship, send the crew sprawling with broken limbs and cracked heads. With the decks continually awash or frozen over, the crew were at least spared the ritual of scrubbing and swabbing.
But there was no relief from the damp and cold. The pale, infrequent appearance of the sun was too weak to thaw or dry wood, canvas, or men. Despite tarred boots, socks were always sufficiently water-logged to cause frostbite or trenchfoot. Worse than the large, wet flakes of snow was the freezing rain that drenched a man through. Weather seldom permitted clothes to be dried against bulkheads or on lines strung topside, and there was no fire below except for cooking. The only chance for some warmth was to huddle in bed, in dark quarters cramped as a coffin, wrapped in wet underwear and damp blankets.
There was no doctor aboard, no adequate medicine, no way to treat colds or to dry cuts, which would fester in the lingering moisture. Melville recorded that for warmth, “This is the time for oil-skin suits, dreadnaughts, tarred trowsers and overalls, sea-boots, comforters, mittens, woolen socks, Guernsey frocks, Havre shirts, buffalo-robe shirts, and mooseskin drawers. . . . Whatever they can rake and scrape together they put on—swaddling themselves in old sails, and drawing old socks over their heads for night-caps.”
To keep out rain, scupper water, and heavy seas, the forecastle was sealed up like a tomb, where the close air added to claustrophobia. Aside from the strenuous activity of manning the ship, there was no room for exercise, let alone privacy, especially on a sloop as small as the Hero. The only recreation was spinning yarns to while away the watches. There were no facilities for bathing or shaving, unless one desired to douse himself with cold sea water and scrape the brine through his beard.
Cramped and numbed as they were, the crews would stumble about at their work in a semi-conscious stupor, like mechanical toys with disjointed limbs. Their breath was a frosty vapor, and they had to beat their hands together constantly to restore the circulation. Aloft, seamen could not wear gloves; it was impossible to reef the canvas with them or grip the ropes without slipping. Squalls and spray iced the shrouds and yards and made the lines as rigid as strands of cable. Nets and rigging were so slick with snow that top-men sometimes slipped off to be lost overboard or crash to the deck. Often the frozen canvas was almost too stiff to be furled, a job that was even more perilous for men aloft, sometimes at night, in tempests of near-hurricane strength, leaning over the icy yards and supported by only a strand of rope, as they precariously tilted like inverse pendulums over the ship lurching far below. To descend, they must slide down ice-glazed ropes. In less desperate moments, they could shake the snow out of the sheets and chip or scrape the ice, being careful not to slash rigging or canvas. Always the lookouts must keep watch for ice in the offing, and their cries of warning were a restless alarm.
That night off Cape Horn I won’t soon forget,
It gives me the horrors to think of it yet.
We were diving bows under and all of us wet,
A-making twelve knots with the skysails all set.
Why, then, should men repeatedly venture into this white wasteland? These were not Odysseus’ warm, wine-dark seas of the middle world, tempting with sirens and sorceresses, but rather the bitter brine of the Viking and ancient Anglo-Saxon seafarer. To be sure, there were profits: for the owners, perhaps seven times their initial investment, with sizeable shares for the men. But there were other, safer ways to wealth, while many a seaman’s body vanished without even a winding sheet, and old age found few sailors secure.
Yet, neighbors on land might never see more of the world than the adjoining acreage or town market, while New England mariners were at home in exotic ports and used distant seas as their highways. Despite the confinement and discipline of shipboard, there was a wild freedom here and a sense of endurance, of personal, physical accomplishment against the elements that was denied to shopkeepers ashore. The youthful Melville, not yet bound by the badge of a customs inspector, found that “in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns.”
But Palmer was hardly thinking of all this as he secured wood and water at Staten Island. The Hero arrived in the South Shetlands on 10 November 1820, and was soon set to work ferrying sealskins from shore to ship. Hunting was good and the fleet took over 60,000 pelts between November and February. The Hero also acted as commissary vessel to the fleet and shore crews, carrying supplies of navy bread, beans, peas, mess beef, prime pork, codfish, dried corn meal, rice, flour, coffee, molasses, butter, potatoes, four and one-half barrels of rum, four barrels of gin, and two and one-half barrels of Teneriffe wine. Clearly, the Stonington men fared better than the usual sealers.
Having seen to the well-being of the squadron, Palmer sailed off alone to chart the islands and explore for better harbors. Rounding the high cliffs of Deception Island, he found entrance on the south to a sizeable inlet formed by the broken mouth of a volcanic crater. Here was a deep harbor kept free from ice by thermal activity in its waters. This was to become the main anchorage for sealers and whalers in the Shetlands. In later years, supplies were stored here for shipwrecked seamen, and a small church was built. When, almost a century later, Shackleton and his crew were adrift on an ice pack in the Weddell Sea, they thought of making a landfall here and tearing down the church to get timbers for a new ship and to convert its pews into planking for the decks.
The volcanic vapors often created mists, but when weather was clear, lookouts from the Hero’s masthead sighted land a great distance to the south, and Palmer set out to survey it. Between Deception Island and the mainland was a 50-mile strait jammed with drifting ice. Luckily, the usual fog had been blown away by freshening winds. For three days, Palmer cruised along the coast of the Antarctic continent to prove that it was not an island. His log for the third day, Friday, 17 November reads:
This 24 hours commences with fresh Breeses from SWest and Pleasant at 8 P.M. got over under the land found the sea filled with immense Ice Bergs at 12 hove Too under the Jib Laid off & on until morning—at 4 A.M. made sail in shore and discovered—a strait—Trending SSW & NNE—it was Literally filled with Ice and the shore inaccessible we thought it not Prudent to Venture in ice Bore away to the Northered & saw 2 small islands and the shore everywhere Perpendicular we stood across towards friesland Course NNW—the Latitude of the mouth of the strait was 63-45 S Ends with fine weather at SSW.
Prevented from landing by masses of pack ice, Palmer turned his helm north and made a reconnaissance of other islands in the volcanic South Shetland chain. In clear waters, their white pinnacles could be seen from a great distance, standing sheer up from the sea to towering summits as high as 6,600 feet. But they were often enclosed in great fields and floes of ice and by mountainous drifting bergs so that they were concealed from the view of lookouts on the tilting surface of the sea. Some of these islands thrust up a solitary spire, while others presented a range of jagged ridges. When the fogs rolled away, their tops were still lost in the perpetual overcast of clouds.
Even after the islands were sighted, Palmer had to pick his way carefully to find channels not choked with ice. Close inshore the foaming surf broke over low barrier reefs to seethe onto narrow beaches strewn with great rocks from the overhanging cliffs. On some of the shores, innumerable seals were swarming, while thousands of penguins stood by in formal ranks and ponderous sea elephants lay, sluggishly respiring through their eight-inch trunks.
Discovering a strait between Livingston (Friesland) and Greenwich Islands, Palmer ventured in and located on the latter a sheltering anchorage, which became known as Yankee Harbor. On the opposite slopes of Livingston Island was a populous and as yet unspoiled rookery. When he reported this news, the Stonington fleet left its unsheltered cove and shifted its base to Yankee Harbor. Palmer returned to fleet-tending duty.
In the middle of January, he was again released to go exploring and once more coasted southward, crossing the straits to the Antarctic highlands. Here, 500 miles below Cape Horn, Nat Palmer came upon the northernmost tip of the polar continent, a spike of precipitous mountains broken off from the Andes, a narrow peninsula projecting hundreds of miles out from the main land mass. Behind the barrier of ice, strange peaks rose in serried ranks, ridge behind ridge mounting up to a high plateau that led off beyond the southern horizon into an unknown void. Here was a lifeless wilderness of terrifying whitness, the haunt perhaps of some vengeful spirit beckoning the reckless mariner into a vast emptiness, a frozen hell. Astern was 7,000 miles of homeless ocean.
Palmer headed southwest and explored the edge of the peninsula as far as 68°, some 330 miles south of Yankee Harbor.
As the weather closed in, he cruised north again, under light sail and laying to at night, since, as he recalled, “most of the time the mist was so dense I could not see the lookout on the forecastle.” At midnight, between 5 and 6 February, Palmer came on deck to take the watch, and struck one bell. To his surprise, he got an unexpected response. Perhaps it was an echo from the ice. But, at one o’clock:
I struck the two bells that were answered by a human hand; though I could not credit my ears, and thought I was dreaming; excepting for the screeching of the penguins, albatross, pigeons, and mother carys, I was sure no living object was within leagues of the sloop, but the sound of bells continued until the sun lifted the fog. My chief officer, who laughed at the idea of a human soul being close at hand, insisting that the sound was “tricky” called me at seven bells during his watch, saying that voices were heard, and before the trencher board was laid, the fog lifted, presenting to our view a frigate on the starboard bow, and a sloop of war on the lee quarter, with Russian colors flying.
For the earliest and probably best account of this dramatic and unexpected encounter, we turn to Edmund Fanning, who had organized the expedition which was Palmer’s first voyage to Antarctica. In Voyages Round the World (1833), Fanning wrote:
On the Hero’s return passage to Yankee Harbor, she got becalmed in a thick fog between the South Shetlands and the newly discovered continent, but nearest the former. When this began to clear away, Captain Palmer was surprised to find his little barque between a frigate and a sloop of war, and instantly ran up the United States’ flag; the frigate and sloop of war then set the Russian colors. Soon after this a boat was seen pulling from the commodore’s ship for the Hero, and when alongside, the lieutenant presented an invitation from his commodore for Captain P. to go on board; this of course was accepted. These ships he then found were the two discovery ships sent out by the Emperor Alexander of Russia, on a voyage around the world. To the commodore’s interrogatory if he had any knowledge of these islands then in sight, and what they were, Captain P. replied, he was well acquainted with them, and that they were the South Shetlands, at the same time making a tender of his services to pilot the ships into a good harbour at Deception Island, the nearest by, where water and refreshments such as the island afforded could be obtained; he also informed the Russian Officer that his vessel belonged to a fleet of five sail, out of Stonington, under command of Captain B. Pendleton, and then at anchor in Yankee Harbour, who would most cheerfully render any assistance in his power. The commodore thanked him kindly, “but previous to our being enveloped in the fog,” said he, “we had sight of these islands, and concluded we had made a discovery, but behold, when the fog lifts, to my great surprise, here is an American vessel apparently in as fine order as if it were but yesterday she had left the United States; not only this, but her master is ready to pilot my vessels into port; we must surrender the palm to you Americans,” continued he, very flatteringly. His astonishment was yet more increased when Captain Palmer informed him of the existence of an immense extent of land to the south, whose mountains might be seen from the masthead when the fog should clear away entirely. Captain Palmer, while on board the frigate, was entertained in the most friendly manner, and the commodore was so forcibly struck with the circumstances of the case, that he named the coast then to the south, Palmer’s Land; by this name it is recorded on the recent Russian and English charts and maps.
When the fog lifted, the commander of the two Russian ships beheld the tiny America sloop Hero, whose captain, Nat Palmer, pointed to the trio of towering peaks, background, on what is today known as the Palmer Peninsula.
Possibly Fanning overdramatized the Russian’s reaction. In a later, questionable account that Palmer is supposed to have told the American consul in Hong Kong, von Bellingshausen paced the cabin in considerable agitation, asking what his imperial master would think at his having lost the discovery to a boy scarcely out of his teens in a ship little larger than the Vostok’s launch. This version attributes to him a melodramatic and undoubtedly spurious speech in which he places his hand on the American’s head, exclaiming, “. . . my grief is your joy. Wear your laurels. With my sincere prayers for your welfare, I name the land you discovered in honor of yourself, noble boy, Palmer’s Land.”
There was no need for such heroics, for the contrast was sufficiently striking without them. On the one hand was the 41-year-old senior Russian commander, with his staff, in full uniform. A portrait of him done not much later shows him to have aristocratic features, a thin, slightly drooping guardsman’s moustache, flowing sideburns, and dark hair slightly receded from a high forehead. A later portrait of his second in command, Lt. Lazarev, shows a stocky, thin-lipped man with heavy jowls and thick eyebrows, a fleshy Roman nose, and the air of a bantam rooster. Confronting them was the 21-year-old Connecticut captain in a sou-wester and sealskin coat and boots, his thickly-matted beard matching his tangled, unwashed brown hair. He was an impressive six feet tall, and a contemporary described him as being kindly, but having a gruff exterior and appearance “much like that of a shaggy bear.”
The contrast between the ships was equally striking. Dwarfing the 47-foot sloop, with her five-man crew, the Vostok was 129 feet 10 inches long and 32 feet 8 inches in the beam. She carried a total crew of 117, including 15 officers, an astronomer from Kazan University, an artist from the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and two surgeons. The Mirnyi was of 230 tons, 120 feet length, and 30 feet beam, carrying a complement of 72 men, including another surgeon and an Orthodox priest. Both ships were extremely well equipped and victualed.
Von Bellingshausen spoke little English, but Lazarev had served four years in the British Navy and acted as interpreter. Palmer let the Russians copy his charts and told them his was the first ship to circumnavigate the South Shetlands. Von Bellingshausen was quite struck with the size of the Hero; and Palmer recalled that, “It was with great difficulty that I could make the old admiral believe I had come from U [sic] States in so small a vessel.” The interview lasted about an hour, during which lunch was served, probably the cabbage soup, fresh pork, pickled cabbage, lemon juice, and rum punch that was provided on feast days. Then Palmer returned to his ship, rejoined the Stonington fleet, and two weeks later, sailed for home.
But Palmer was not yet through with the polar seas. Now that the Antarctic continent was discovered, the question still remained: What lay beyond? Did the continent cover the pole, or was it, like Australia, simply an immense island with more seas to the south? No traveler had visited the ends of the earth, and who knew what mysteries were hidden behind the mountainous coast, still waiting to be revealed. The unknown still beckoned with an icy hand.
Late in 1821, he sailed again to the South Shetlands. Commanding the 80-ton sloop James Monroe, he went exploring to the northeast, in company with the British sloop Dove, under Captain George Powell. Seals had been all but exterminated, and the frustrated hunters encountered mostly sea leopards. Their main accomplishment was the discovery of the South Orkney Islands.
Two years later, Palmer transported Simon Bolivar’s army from Cartagena to Chagres in Panama and carried back Spanish prisoners from Chagres to St. Iago. On his return home, his ship Cadet ran aground and foundered off the New Jersey coast. Perhaps Nat Palmer had enough of the sea for the moment, for, in 1826, he married Eliza Thompson Babcock; but he was soon sailing again, taking his wife along.
Eliza would stay at home when, in 1829, Palmer commanded an ambitious venture to sail beyond the ice barrier into supposedly warm waters which, some suspected, were open all the way to the South Pole. The guiding spirit in this undertaking was Jeremiah N. Reynolds, an indefatigable propagandist for American exploration in the South Atlantic.
Aided by a wealthy New Yorker, Reynolds outfitted three ships for the Antarctic. Palmer commanded the flagship Annawan, supported by Benjamin Pendleton in the Seraph, both brigs of 200 tons. The third vessel was the 84-ton schooner Penguin, captained by Palmer’s younger brother Alexander.
In the middle of October 1829, they weighed anchor from New York harbor and set course for the south, “expecting to have the pleasure of entering into the South Pole.” But it was also intended that this pleasure would be mixed with business. The three ships were to rendezvous near the Horn at Staten Island and then search southeast for seals before exploring the unknown. The Penguin arrived first; and Alexander Palmer was already busy sealing when his brother anchored alongside at Port Hatches on 5 January. Without waiting for Pendleton, they cruised among the South Shetlands, hunting seals as far east as Elephant and Clarence Islands. For over a month, miserable weather kept them from having much success. On Sunday, 21 February, Nat Palmer stepped from the jib-boom of the Annawan to the taffrail of the Penguin, and spent the day consulting with his brother. They decided to abandon sealing and to sail westward in search of lost islands reported a generation earlier by other navigators on their return from the Pacific.
The voyage was dogged by misfortune from the outset. When the Palmers turned from sealing to exploring, the southern summer was almost spent, and snowstorm followed snowstorm. The shrouds and halliards were encased in ice; and the crew, the blood almost frozen in their hands, often had to spend all night throwing snow overboard to prevent foundering. Every time the ship lurched violently, masses of ice would shake down from aloft. Foul weather reduced visibility to about 100 feet, and the water looked black and thick in the night fog. Often the vessels were trapped in an enclosure of grinding ice in the dark. Shaking out their topsails again, they would pass under the lee of towering icebergs and navigate through loose drifts or around the solid icefields that repeatedly barred their way. Sometimes they struck with glancing blows that damaged the hull. Winds of hurricane strength whipped the seas to fury, sucking away the water beneath one side of the ship and rearing immense perpendicular waves on the other quarter to crash down and drown the decks beneath their deluge. The Annawan and Penguin reeled under such hammering blows. Seething water carried away the taffrail and stove in the boats. And always there was the massive menace of the ice. Many of the crew were disabled; and after weeks of danger in this terrifying, lifeless desloation, the men began to turn mutinous.
In the Antarctic, even the best of navigators needs luck to avoid disaster; the right combination of fog, storm, and ice can make escape impossible. Despite incredible hardships, the Palmers explored the seas between the latitudes of 50 to 63 degrees south and the meridians of 61 to 103 degrees west, yet failed to discover new lands.
To calm his rebellious crew, Palmer abandoned the search at the end of March and bore up the west coast of Chile, looking for seals and taking a number of sea elephants for their tongues and flippers. At the island of Mocha they found droves of wild horses; and here Jeremiah Reynolds learned from a New York whaler the legend of Mocha Dick, the white whale. On his return home, he wrote the story for the Knickerbocker Magazine, where it came to the attention of young Herman Melville, who would transform it into Moby-Dick.
Meanwhile, Palmer’s crew were rebellious again. He put in at Valparaiso and left the more mutinous seamen ashore in care of the American consul. Then he turned for home to salvage what profit he could from the voyage. Pendleton managed to obtain a government indemnity for the expenses of the Seraph.
Palmer made another trip on the Annawan and subsequently left the Antarctic. He thereafter became a captain on the Collins packet line and later a distinguished designer and captain of clipper ships. He died at San Francisco in 1877 on a return trip from the Orient.
It is debatable whether there is any political significance to the Russians’ losing to America the credit for discovering Antarctica. Had the Russians attempted to establish bases there, the Monroe Doctrine might indeed have been invoked, since it was formulated in part because of Russian expansion in the Pacific Northwest. Von Bellingshausen’s expedition, however, was a purely scientific venture, while it was the Yankee sealers who were out for cash and possible overseas bases.
Yet, Palmer had other than material motivations; his venturesome and inquiring mind was never content with the commercial aspects of his voyages but drove him into perilous explorations of the unknown. It is fitting that the beckoning finger of Antarctica is called the Palmer Peninsula.
Captain Semmes and First Lieutenant Kell on the Alabama, 1863
Vegetius, writing in the fourth century AD, describes how Roman skiffs used for reconnaissance had their sails and rigging dyed Venetian blue
which resembles the ocean waves; the wax used to pay ships’ sides is also dyed. The sailors and marines put on Venetian blue uniforms also, so as to lie hidden with greater ease when scouting by day as by night.
Warfare at sea has obviously been subject to bluff and deception for as long as warfare on land. In 1264, during the long wars with Venice, the Genoese decided to intercept the ‘caravan of the Levant’, an annual convoy that the Venetians sailed to Egypt and Asia. The caravan was an event of great moment. Its dates of departure and return were fixed by strict laws, as were the numbers of men on each vessel and the conduct of the convoy itself. The commanders and captains were chosen by the Great Council and in times of war the Senate pronounced the chiusura del Mare (‘closing of the sea’), a decree that forbade any vessel from leaving the convoy, while arrangements would be made to escort it with war galleys. The Genoese well understood the importance of this convoy to Venice and decided to send Simone Grillo with twenty galleys, two large vessels and a contingent of 3,500 men to intercept it. In reply, the Venetians assembled a force of no fewer than forty-seven galleys under ‘a brave man and wise, and sprung of high lineage’, Andrea Barozzi. This ‘noble captain’ set out for Sicily expecting to intercept the Genoese before they in turn could attack the caravan.
Alas for Barozzi, on this occasion his wisdom failed him. The Genoese were indeed there, but all he found was ‘a boat in which there were men who told him on inquiry that the Genoese galleys had passed four days previously, bound for Syria’. After a hastily assembled council of war, Barozzi set off in a fruitless pursuit and as soon as the news reached Venice orders were given for the immediate departure of the caravan, which had been delayed owing to the supposed presence of the enemy in the Adriatic. Grillo now emerged and put his fleet into position at Durazzo to await the arrival of the caravan, the movements of which he was kept fully informed of by an underwriter of the Great Council (who, the chronicles note with barbed acidity, came from Treviso). When in due course the caravan was intercepted, its commander, Michele Duaro, tried bravado, throwing some chicken coops in front of the Genoese line and bidding them fight the chickens. However, this served no purpose and with no escort of warships the caravan was soon destroyed, as grievous a blow to Venetian prestige as to her material well-being.
Not only does this episode illustrate an early example of deception in naval warfare, but it also shows the importance of commerce to naval strategy. While the principles of warfare and of deception apply equally on land and at sea, there are obviously fundamental differences. While land warfare is fought with units containing thousands of men and hundreds of pieces of equipment, naval warfare is conducted with dozens of units or (more usually) fewer, each of relatively great value. More importantly, it is fought over a vast area, with no natural cover. The size of the ships also makes it hard to conceal or disguise them and their shapes make identification of their nationality and class quite simple, so that deception is difficult – but not impossible. Since it was common in the days of sail to capture enemy shipping rather than to destroy it, it was equally common for foreign-built ships to serve with the navies that had captured them, and therefore not unusual to see them bearing different colours from their country of origin. Over the years many other measures have been adopted to suggest that a ship is not what it appears, giving plenty of scope for tactical deception.
Thomas Cochrane, tenth Earl of Dundonald, was a daring and inspirational leader who was always prepared to use guile combined with forethought and audacity to overcome large odds, in other words a master of deception. He was convinced (and proved) that a single ship correctly handled, preying on coastal shipping and coast defences, could cause the enemy loss and distress out of all proportion to the effort expended. He took great pains over the training and welfare of his men and this paid dividends in their performance. His first command was the 168-ton brig HMS Speedy, which he operated off the Spanish coast in 1800. Knowing the Spaniards would soon come to recognize his vessel for an enemy, he repainted it to resemble the neutral Dutch ship Clomer, which had been trading in the area for some time. He also recruited a Danish speaker whom he provided with a Danish uniform. Towards the end of December he gave chase to what appeared to be a heavily laden, unarmed merchantman, only to discover as he drew near that he too had been duped. It was a Spanish frigate with some 200 men and heavy guns, which now put down a boat. He ordered below everyone who looked British, and set his ‘Dane’ to tell the Spaniards they were neutrals. When this failed to put them off, one of his men hoisted a yellow flag (quarantine) to the foretop and the ‘Dane’ said they were just out of Algiers. The Spanish knew that Algiers was suffering from an outbreak of bubonic plague and quickly returned whence they had come.
Three months later Cochrane was chased by an enemy frigate, which gained on him throughout the day and was guided at night by the faint glimmer of light from the little brig. But as they drew near towards daybreak, the enemy frigate found it had been chasing a tub with a lantern in it and the brig was nowhere to be seen. Cochrane later used the same ruse again. Commanding the frigate HMS Pallas in March 1805, he was chased by three French 74-gun ships of the line off the Azores. After conducting a brilliant manœuvre to run back on them, he was pursued for the rest of the day and all night, but when they closed in for the kill all they found was a ballasted cask with a lantern made fast to it.
Captain Raphael Semmes and the Confederate cruiser CSS Alabama forged a formidable reputation as a commerce raider. The Alabama sank no fewer than eighty-three US merchantmen as well as the heavier gunboat USS Hatteras (which she lured to her doom by pretending to be a merchant blockade runner), and was probably the most famous ship in the world at the time. The USS Kearsarge had been pursuing the Alabama for a year in European waters when, as she lay at anchor in the Scheldt estuary near Vlissingen on Sunday 12 June 1864, her captain, John A. Winslow, received word from the US minister in Paris that his elusive quarry had steamed into Cherbourg the day before. Winslow wasted no time and two days later found his prey still in Cherbourg roads, where he stopped engines and lay to. Unable to engage within the confines of a neutral port, Winslow retired beyond the three-mile limit required by international law, intending to intercept Alabama when she emerged He took precautions against a surprise night attack but was most worried that Alabama might try to slip away. The following day, however, he received a note from Semmes via the American vice-consul that indicated his intention to fight at the earliest opportunity and begging Winslow not to depart.
The two ships were evenly matched. Both were three-masted and steam-propelled, and if the Kearsarge mounted a combined broadside firing 365 pounds to the Alabama’s total broadside of 264 pounds, the latter’s Blakely guns outranged and were more accurate than the Dahlgrens of the Kearsarge. However, the speed and manœuvrability of the Alabama were declining and Semmes had intended to put her into dry dock for two months and thoroughly clean the keel and overhaul the boilers. Nevertheless, he wrote in his journal that ‘the combat will no doubt be contested and obstinate, but the two ships are so evenly matched that I do not feel at liberty to decline it.’ He had confidence in the ‘precious set of rascals’ that was his crew. Besides, his luck had never yet failed him and he busied the crew preparing the ship, waiting for Sunday, which he deemed his lucky day.
Sunday dawned bright, clear and cool and after a leisurely breakfast the Alabama was cheered out to sea by crowds along the mole and in the upper windows of the buildings, where a fine view could be had of the forthcoming action. Excursion trains had brought sightseers from Paris, and Cherbourg was packed with excited crowds shouting ‘Vivent les Confedérés!’ In a new dress uniform Semmes delivered a stirring oratory to his men before taking station on the horseblock just before the mizzen mast. Then at 1057 hours, with watch in hand, at a range of about a mile, he asked his executive officer if he was ready: ‘Then you may fire at once, sir.’
No hits were scored as the range closed to half a mile, when Winslow returned the fire and the two ships began to circle to starboard, firing furiously at each other. A Blakely round scored a direct hit on the sternpost of the Kearsarge but fortunately for Winslow it was a dud. A three-knot current bore the ships westward and as it did so so their circles became tighter until the range dropped to about a quarter of a mile by the seventh and final revolution. Once they were on target, the US guns inflicted tremendous damage. At the same time, Semmes watched in horror as everything his own guns fired at the Kearsarge bounced harmlessly off the sides, including solid shot. Realizing the desperate state of his old vessel, Semmes ordered full sail for the coast but Kearsarge was not to be denied. When Semmes saw the wreckage to which the lower decks had been reduced, he ordered the colours to be struck saying: ‘It will never do in this nineteenth century for us to go down, and the decks covered with our gallant wounded.’ Captain and crew abandoned the rapidly sinking ship, which went down at 1224 hours, just ninety minutes after she had opened the action.
Only after the battle did Semmes discover that the Kearsarge had 120 fathoms of sheet chain suspended from scuppers to waterline, bolted down and concealed behind an inch of planking: he had been fighting an ironclad! Semmes protested this was unfair. ‘It was the same thing’, he said, ‘as if two men were to go out and fight a duel, and one of them, unknown to the other, were to put on a suit of mail under his outer garment.’ Perhaps, but Commodore David Farragut had employed the same stratagem two years previously, when he ran past the forts into New Orleans.
The development of the ironclad increased the size and cost of ships. At the same time, improved armaments increased the range at which actions were fought and reduced the scope for capture, making sinking a more likely outcome of an action and thus making it increasingly difficult and expensive to replace losses. But losses must be accepted if control of the seas is to be gained and maintained, as it must be if commerce is to flow unhindered. However, the official history of the First World War describes how
by a strange misreading of history, an idea had grown up that [a fleet’s] primary function is to seek out and destroy the enemy’s main fleet. This view, being literary rather than historical, was nowhere adopted with more unction than in Germany, where there was no naval tradition to test its accuracy.
On the one occasion the German Battle Fleet did enter the North Sea to fulfil its aim, it achieved a marginal tactical victory over the British (in simple terms of losses) at the Battle of Jutland, but there can be no doubt as to the strategic result of the battle. The British did not deceive the Germans but simply faced them down, and the German Battle Fleet spent the remainder of the war sitting idly in port while the British naval blockade helped squeeze Germany to ultimate defeat. However, British nervousness of the German Battle Fleet forced her to denude some other vital positions of destroyers, such as Dover. Thus the Dover patrol had to rely on bluff to prevent German naval forces operating from the Belgian ports from interfering with the vital cross-Channel traffic.
Meanwhile, Britain herself came perilously close to being squeezed to defeat by Germany’s commerce raiders and U-boats during both world wars. An early effort to counter this threat was camouflage paint schemes. Transport and cargo ships were painted neutral blue, grey or sea-green in the hope of avoiding detection for as long as possible. Warships, on the other hand, are not looking to avoid contact but instead require every fighting advantage they can muster, particularly in the early stages of an action. One result was a proposal by an eminent Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr, whose study of marine vertebrates suggested that odd patterns of white and grey might help make ships harder to identify. Although the Admiralty circulated his suggestions as early as October 1914, it left responsibility to individual captains and was later shelved. It took further prompting from another painter, P. Tudor Hart, and an RNVR lieutenant, Norman Wilkinson (a marine painter and poster designer who had served in the Dardanelles campaign) who wrote to the Admiralty on 27 April 1917, to create what was known as ‘dazzle’ camouflage. In poor visibility, at long range or at high speed, this served to hinder an observer’s ability to identify a vessel accurately, perhaps long enough to give it a precious advantage. It also made judging the vessel’s speed more difficult – very important when trying to fire at long range. Gunnery officers and submarine captains had to ‘track’ moving ships on calibrated range-finders and periscopes, but the pattern distorted the image and made it harder to secure a hit. Refinements of the same technique included false bow waves to give the impression of greater speed, false waterlines which were designed to inhibit accurate estimation of range, and painting the upper works a lighter colour to blend them with the sky. The effectiveness of the technique was questionable but it raised morale and was therefore retained, mainly for merchant shipping. Nevertheless, during the Second World War the Admiralty Research and Development Section employed the naturalist and artist Peter Scott to develop further patterns.
The vulnerability of shipping to aircraft, demonstrated among other instances by the destruction of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales by the Japanese on 11 December 1941, made it essential to camouflage ships from the air. On the open ocean, ships could not avoid being spotted by aircraft in the vicinity. For example, a US aircraft north of Guadalcanal flying at 18,000 feet spotted five destroyers belonging to Rear-Admiral Tanaka’s ‘Tokyo Express’ at a distance of eight to ten miles, and sighting fast-moving warships at greater ranges was not unheard of in good conditions. Attempts were made to design patterns that gave some protection from aerial attack, but these were seldom effective, at least while a ship was at sea. Eventually, technical developments such as radar and acoustic torpedoes made dazzle patterns largely redundant, but they continued in use throughout the Second World War.
If a ship was inshore, by its very nature it might be found if aircraft looked in the bays, rivers and ports. Paint might go some way to protect it in such circumstances, blending it with its surroundings just long enough to put a bomb aimer off, but a photo interpreter could probably identify its class precisely and thus reveal its speed, firepower and cargo capacity. Nets and, where appropriate, cut vegetation might help to make the tell-tale shape of a ship blend in with the shoreline and barges and floating material could be used to break up the characteristic shape of bow and stern.
Another early measure adopted to counter U-boats was the arming of merchant ships in 1915, which was followed by the creation of Q-ships. These were merchant ships armed with concealed guns and torpedoes manned by naval crews, designed to lure the U-boats – which preferred to destroy merchant vessels by gunfire – to a position where they themselves could be destroyed. The Q-ships were eventually credited with eleven U-boat kills out of a total for the First World War of 192. During both wars the Germans operated similar ships as merchant raiders. Perhaps the most famous example was the Atlantis, commanded by Kapitän zur See Bernard Rogge during the Second World War, one of nine such ships which sank 850,000 tons of Allied shipping and kept the Allies busy for three and a half years. The Atlantis logged over 100,000 miles in 622 days at sea and accounted for twenty-two Allied freighters, making her the most successful surface raider of the war. In the course of her wanderings she pretended variously to be the Krim (Russian), the Kasii Maru (Japanese), the Abbekerk (Dutch) and the Antenor (British).
Carrying huge stocks of fuel and food, Atlantis mounted behind collapsable bulkheads an armament of one 75mm and six 150mm guns and six light anti-aircraft guns, plus four torpedo tubes, mines and a Heinkel He-114 seaplane for reconnaissance. She had a dummy stack and cargo booms and carried a variety of fake foreign uniforms and clothing, male and female, which the crew could use as appropriate. In addition, there was a large supply of paint to change her name and the colour of the superstructure. It is perfectly legal for a ship to operate in this fashion, providing it displays the correct national flag before opening fire, and Rogge adhered strictly to this law, as well as endeavouring whenever possible to pick up survivors, who were treated graciously.
Rogge trained his gunners to shoot out a victim’s radio equipment first, which would allow the remainder of his operation to take place in slow time. None the less, a stream of QQQ messages (‘I am being attacked by a disguised merchant ship’) eventually helped the Admiralty to track him down. The final clue to Atlantis’s whereabouts in November 1941 was provided by ULTRA intercepts ordering her to resupply submarines south of the Equator. On 22 November a seaplane from HMS Devonshire (sent to nearby Freetown to look for her) sighted a suspicious merchant ship and opened fire while Atlantis was in the process of replenishing U-126. Rogge tried one last desperate trick. He signalled urgently (and indignantly) that he was the Polyphemus, a Dutch ship, then gave the signal RRR: an Allied cipher that an enemy warship was close by. Unbeknown to Rogge, this cipher had recently been changed to four Rs. A new precautionary system introduced by the Admiralty to plot the whereabouts of every single known ocean-going merchantman confirmed Devonshire’s suspicions and when word came from Freetown that this ship could not possibly be Polyphemus, Rogge and his crew were forced to take to the boats. Afraid of lurking U-boats, Devonshire made off, and after a series of extraordinary adventures Rogge and the survivors were eventually picked up by U-boats and returned to Germany.
It was on St Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August 1217, that a French fleet of around eighty vessels sailed before southerly winds ‘in a formation so tight and orderly’ up the Kentish coast towards the Isle of Thanet and the Thames estuary. It was bound for London, held by the Dauphin Louis of France. ‘That day was a very fine and clear one and it was possible to see far out to sea,’ said the poem dedicated to the deeds of William the Marshal. So there can be little doubt that the French flotilla was observed from the White Cliffs north of Dover – perhaps not by William himself, as the thirteenth-century English chronicler Matthew Paris suggests, but certainly by someone. According to the poem, William had made sure of it as soon as he had learned of the convoy’s imminent departure from Calais a few days before, ‘for he knew beyond any doubt that, if that French fleet out there was able to put to shore, then the game would have disastrous results and England would be lost’.
The outcome of the First Barons’ War and the concomitant invasion of England by Louis, heir to the throne of France, was very much in the balance. While Louis had suffered a devastating setback when his forces lost Lincoln in May, he remained entrenched in London with his army still intact, including ‘the majority of the barons’. Moreover, King John’s heir, Henry III, was only nine. William, his protector, needed time to garner support and shore up the young king’s grip on government – something that significant reinforcements from France would likely curtail. The northern nobility and the so-called ‘Barons of the Cinque Ports’ had already demonstrated a dismaying propensity to support whichever side seemed to be winning – and, with reinforcements, that could be Louis and the rebel lords. William understood that the best chance for the royalist cause was to preclude the French fleet from ever reaching its destination. To that end, he had beckoned the ‘Barons of the Cinque Ports’ to Romney on 19 August and bade them face the French fleet in return for the restoration of their privileged status and all the plunder they could win. Although still bitter over King John’s overbearing treatment in the past, they agreed, and a watch was set.
That said, when the French armada first appeared, the sailors of the Cinque Ports were daunted. The Dauphin’s wife, Blanche of Castile, had gathered a formidable fleet. The History of William Marshal estimated it at 300 vessels, but the figure of eighty given by both Roger of Wendover, a contemporary English chronicler, and the anonymous thirteenth-century Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre (‘History of the Dukes of Normandy and of the Kings of England’) is probably closer to the truth. Of these, ten were great ships, containing most of the knights (around 125, estimates English historian Henry Cannon) and men-at-arms. The remainder were smaller transports, carrying equipment and provisions. ‘Their pilot and commander’ was the almost mythical mercenary mariner Eustace the Monk. A former friar at the Benedictine Abbey of St Vulmer at Samer near Boulogne, he had renounced his vows in order to fend for his family when his father was murdered. He served as seneschal for Count Reynaud of Boulogne until false accusations from his father’s murderer prompted him to flee, eventually reaching England, where he took up employment with King John. For a number of years, basically between 1205 and 1212, he commanded a small flotilla which ravaged French interests in the English Channel, ultimately setting himself up in the Channel Islands. He switched allegiance to King Philip II Augustus over John’s alliance with Reynaud of Boulogne just before the First Barons’ War broke out. He then raided the south and east coasts of England, including the Cinque Ports, earning the reputation cited by Roger of Wendover as ‘a most disgraceful man and a wicked pirate’. He was also a highly competent commander, for which the sailors of the Cinque Ports realized they had no counterpart – that is, at least until Hubert de Burgh showed up at Sandwich with ships from Dover to stiffen their resolve.
William had wanted to assume command of the English fleet himself, but he must have been nearly seventy at the time and his entourage convinced him that the king would be better served if he remained ashore to direct the overall defence of the realm. Thus, it fell to Hubert de Burgh as Justiciar of the kingdom to command the fleet which comprised ‘sixteen well-armed ships, not including some small ones which accompanied them to the number of twenty’, reported Matthew Paris, to whom Hubert provided an eye-witness account many years later. With him were two prominent knights from the garrison at Dover: Henry de Turville and Richard Suard. They embarked upon what the History of William Marshal described as ‘a magnificent ship equipped with a fine crew’, which must have included sailors from the Cinque Ports. Richard FitzJohn, the bastard son of King John, took charge of another. Philip d’Aubigny apparently assumed command of one as well, while William had his own men-at-arms crew what his History specifically called a ‘cog’, probably fitted with at least a sterncastle. This may, in fact, have been Hubert’s ship, but the various accounts are confused in this regard. Both Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris claim the English also had galleys with ‘iron rostra’ or rams, but this surely was an imaginative invention based upon classical precedents.
The flagship of the French fleet was designated ‘the great ship of Bayonne’ by William’s History, which also said that ‘it housed the king’s treasury’. On board with Eustace were thirty-six highly placed knights; the most exalted was Robert de Courtenay, uncle to the queen of France. He actually held precedence over Eustace. In addition, there were Ralph de la Tourniele and William des Barres, two of Philip’s finest. Three other great ships carried the rest of the knights and the remaining six transported most of the men-at-arms. The History claims that the vessel from Bayonne was in the van, but this would have been highly unlikely. The History of William Marshal itself explained why: ‘the monk’s ship was greatly overloaded and could only sit so deep down in the waves that the water almost washed over her, the reason being that it carried the siege engine (a trebuchet) and a very heavy load besides, including the fine horses shipped for Louis’. In all probability, Eustace’s ship lagged last, a circumstance which would go a long way towards illuminating why the battle unfolded as it did.
As the French fleet streamed northwards with a following wind through the Downs past Sandwich, Hubert de Burgh led his squadron out luffing into the wind, seemingly to intercept it. Instead, he merely feigned an attack and continued due southeast towards Calais, passing astern of the French flagship. Eustace then assumed that Calais was the objective and dismissed it as a foolish assault on a well fortified port. By this time the French fleet, sailing in close order, had covered much of the distance to the Isle of Thanet and Eustace was inclined to simply stay the course. Unfortunately for the French cause, he was not in charge. Robert de Courtenay, believing the outnumbered and outmanned English vessels which had approached so slowly as they close-hauled into the wind were easy prey, ordered the ship to turn and engage. While Eustace’s morality and loyalty could be questioned, his seamanship could not. He must surely have sensed that his fate had been sealed the second his ship came about. What Hubert de Burgh was actually doing was acquiring the ‘weather gage’: the upwind position. Moreover, since it was morning, the sun must have been shining out of the east. Hubert now turned to put both the wind and the sun at his back. The crew of ‘the great ship of Bayonne’, on the other hand, found themselves in a ponderous, overburdened vessel stalled to windward with the sun in their eyes facing a line of English ships bent upon their destruction.
The first of the English great ships to reach the slow, barely manoeuvrable French flagship was evidently that of Richard FitzJohn. The French resisted desperately but three other English ships soon joined the fray, one of which was the cog containing William Marshal’s men-at-arms. Meanwhile, the rest of the French fleet, pushed by the southerly winds, must have continued on course to the north for some time before realizing that their flagship was engaged. The English cog, lightly loaded and high in the water, quickly turned the tide of battle. The usual fusillade of missiles included pots of quicklime hurled from the castle of the cog down onto the deck of ‘the great ship of Bayonne’. Several of the contemporary sources testified to the tactic, which makes perfect sense, given the wind and height advantage. Its crew blinded, the French flagship was easily boarded by William’s men, who jumped from the cog down onto the deck, scattering the now hapless and helpless French knights. It was probably all over quite quickly. All thirty-six French knights were taken prisoner.
Campaigns of Russian army and fleet led by Peter I during the Russian-Turkish war of 1686-1700 with a view to protecting Russia’s southern lands against the attack of the Turkish and Tatar troops and occupying the Turkish fortress Azov that closed Russia’s access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Early in April of 1695, the Russian forces (around 31,000 warriors) that consisted of Streltsy (soldiers), regiments of a new “fighting formation” and manorial noblemen’s cavalry set out from Moscow to Azov. To divert enemy attention from the fortress, troops headed by B. P. Sheremetev were sent to the lower reaches of the Dnieper River. On July 5 (15), Russian troops concentrated around Azov which was defended by a garrison of 7,000 soldiers. The enemy repelled two assaults causing heavy casualties to the attackers. Therefore, Peter I lifted the siege and on November 22 (December 2) Russian troops returned to Valuiki and Voronezh. As peparations for a new campaign under the guidance of Peter I were being made, the Azov fleet was established. A. Ya. Lefort was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Azov Fleet. A. S. Shein was the Commander of the Azov Army. Peter I was in charge of overall leadership of the second campaign. On April 23-26 (May 3-6), 1696 the army set out on the campaign from the districts of Voronezh, Tambov, and Valuiki overland and by ships down the Voronezh and Don rivers. Sheremetev’s cavalry again headed for the Dnieper lower reaches, but stopped at the Kolomak River. On May 27 (June 6), the main forces of the Russian fleet set out on the Sea of Azov in the Azov area and by June 12 (22) isolated the city, while the Russian army lay a siege from the land. The Turkish fleet tried to rescue Azov but failed. On June 14(24) the Turkish fleet emerged opposite the Don River mouth (6 corvettes, 17 galleys with a landing party of around 4,000 men), but having seen the Russian galleys, the fleet left for the sea. On July 17 (27), after heavy artillery fire, assault of the fortress began simultaneously from land and sea. On July 19 (29), the garrison surrendered. As a result of successful termination of the second Azov campaign, Russia attained access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, made provisions for the security of the country’s southern frontiers. Because under the Constatinople Peace Treaty of 1700, fortresses in the circum-Dnestr area were to be demolished, Russia’s international standing was enhanced, Turkish neutrality on the eve of the Northern War was secured. The seizure of Azov was the first major victory of the Russian army and fleet in the struggle for access to the sea.
First regular formation of the Russian Navy instituted by Peter I in order to fight Turkey for access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. In 1694, there began the construction of large ships and assembly of galleys and fire ships, using parts made in Bryansk, Preobrazhenskoe Village (near Moscow) and at other locations. By the spring of 1696, three 36-cannon ships, 23 galleys, 1,300 sailrow boats and 4 fire ships were built. The fleet, under the command of F. Ya. Lefort left Voronezh and on May 27 (June 6) entered the Sea of Azov. On June 12 (22), the Russian ships blocked the Azov Fortress in the mouth of the Don River, while the ground troops did the same from land. On July 19 (29), the fortress garrison surrendered. At the insistence of Peter I, the Boyar Duma decreed: “Let there be sea vessels”. This date is regarded the official birthday of regular Russian fleet. The admiralty was transferred from Voronezh to Tavrov on the coast of the Sea of Azov, a sea port comes into being in Taganrog. During the period from 1696 to 1711, 215 ships of diverse classes were built for the Azov fleet. In the spring of 1699, Peter I for the first time in the history of Russian Navy held sea maneuvers in the vicinity of Taganrog. In August, the largest 46-cannon ship “Krepost” (`Fortress’) sailed in the Black Sea and visited Constantinople with a diplomatic mission. After the Prut Treaty of 1711 and return of Azov and Taganrog to Turkey, the Azov fleet ceased to exist, its ships were disassembled or sold to Turkey.
Azov Military Flotilla
(1) A formation of Russian fleet established at the beginning of the Russian-Turkish War of 1768-1774. Under the command of the Vice-Admiral D. N. Senyavin, AMF performed successful military operations against the Turkish fleet on the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, cooperated with ground troops, when seizing Kerch and Yenikale, repelled enemy attempts to land amphibious parties in the Crimea. In 1783, AMF was disbanded, yet its ships were included in the Black Sea fleet that was established in May of the same year.
(2) Russian flotilla with a base facility at Yeisk was configured to fight against German invaders and the White Guard. When the enemy seized the coast at the end of June of 1918, the ships were disarmed, and their personnel joined the Red Army units. In March of 1920, after Denikin’s army was defeated and the Red Army reached the Azov Sea coast, the flotilla was reestablished by the staff of the South-Eastern Front (the base at Mariupol-currently, Zhdanov; from September- Taganrog; from November-Mariupol again). The flotilla included ships that were in the ports of the Sea of Azov. Flat-bottomed fishing boats and barges were reequipped as battle-boats and floating batteries, tug boats were reequipped as escort ships, fighter boats were delivered by railway. The armament, supplies and personnel came from the Baltic Fleet, Don-Azov, Volga-Caspian and other flotillas that terminated combat activity. From May 25 to September of 1920, the Don River division (former Don Flotilla of the Caucasus front) was subordinated to AMF. In May of 1920, AMF became part of the Marine Forces of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. There were about 70 ships and vessels (9 gun-boats, 4 floating bases, 3 mine layers, 6 escort vessels, 22 chaser cutters, 25 auxiliary vessels), 18 aircraft, for amphibian operations, a marine expeditionary division was detailed (up to 4,600 men). AMF provided fire support to troops, set up a mine-artillery position in Taganrog, placed mine barriers in Kerch Strait, dropped tactical landing parties with a view to eliminating, in association with the 9th Army, the Wrangel landing party Ulagaya; on July 9, 1920, AMF destroyed a White Guard landing party near Krivaya Kosa (`Crooked Spit’), on September 15 in combat near Obitochnaya Kosa, AMF destroyed a group of enemy ships that were transporting troops and armament. After the defeat of Wrangel in April of 1291, the ships and personnel were handed over to the Black Sea Fleet.
(3) During the Great Patriotic War (WWII), on July 22, 1941, AMF was re-established for combat actions against German Nazi invaders (main base at Mariupol; from October 9, 1941-Primorsko-Akhtarsk, at present-Primorsko-Akhtarsk; from August 3 to August 24, 1942-Novorossiisk). AMF comprised the ships of the Danube Military Flotilla, that, the Danube battles over, moved eastward across the Black Sea. AMF included squadrons of escort vessels, mining boats, airborne tactical formation, coastal defense squadrons and marine units. The separate Kuban detachment (from May 3 to August 30, 1942) as well as the separate Don Detachment (from October 5, 1941 to July 28, 1942) based in Rostov-on-Don. The flotilla fought against German-Nazi invaders in liaison with the troops of the South and North-Caucasus Fronts, supported defense actions of the 9th and 51st Armies, took part in the Kerch-Feodosiya landing operation of 1941-1942, evacuated troops of the Crimean Front, assisted ferrying troops of the 56th Army across the Don River. For a long time, marines contained the enemy assault on Taman Peninsula. On September 5, 1942, the flotilla forces were included in Novorossiisk Defense Area (NDA) for marine operations. On February 3, 1943, AMF was reconstituted again (main base Yeisk; from September of 1943-PrimorskoAkhtarsk; from April of 1944-Temryuk). The flotilla ships took part in action on sea lines of communications, dropped tactical landing parties in Taganrog, Mariupol, Osipenko (Berdyansk). In the course of the Kerch-Eltingen Amphibian Operation, AMF dropped units of the 56th Army north of Kerch, and in January of 1944-two tactical landing parties on the coast of Kerch Peninsula. On April 20, 1944 the flotilla was disbanded, its ships handed over to the newly-established Danube Military Flotilla.
The long-awaited Allied hammer-blow fell on Normandy’s sweeping coastline on 6 June 1944. There the ‘second front’ – a somewhat ironic term considering the bloody battles in Italy that had been raging since 1943 – was opened against the Atlantic Wall and Germany’s days as master of Europe were numbered.
All of the K-Verbände units to be deployed to France came under the jurisdiction of K.z.S. Friedrich Böhme who had been designated as Chief of Kommando Stab West during June. Böhme had had an interesting career, volunteering for the navy in 1916 and holding the appointment of instructor of heavy anti-aircraft weaponry at the Kriegsmarine artillery school in Swinemünde when war with Poland broke out on 1 September 1939. Given command of the destroyer Anton Schmidt that same month, he took part in the invasion of Norway in April 1940. In the course of the battle for Narvik his destroyer was torpedoed and sunk and Böhme, like hundreds of his comrades, found themselves ashore taking part in the fierce battle on land, Böhme acting as supply officer. After the German triumph in the Arctic port he was appointed Seekommandant Narvik, before reverting to command of the destroyer Z23 in August 1940. In May 1942 he served a year as naval liaison to Luftflotte 5 in Oslo, then transferring back to Swinemünde as commander of the artillery school at which he had been during 1939.
On 2 June 1944 Böhme was posted to Timmendorfer Strand to join the K-Verbände, appointed director of operations for 361, 362 and 363 K-Flotillas. As such he became operational commander of the K-Verbände in the Seine Bay, his headquarters situated in Villers-sur-Mer, 10km west of Trouville. The first units of the K-Verbände began arriving on the French Channel coast during the latter half of June as fighting raged amongst the bocage of Normandy. Attempted intervention by conventional U-boats of the Allied invasion fleet had resulted in spectacular failure as the near-obsolete Type VIICs succumbed to the saturating effect of Allied naval and air power. With his S-boats, torpedo boats and destroyers similarly doomed Dönitz turned to the only other weapons in his dwindling arsenal that may be able to have an effect, though he appeared to not have the same dubious faith that his commander in chief possessed:
‘Admiral Dönitz mentioned… difficulties when reporting to Hitler on 29 June 1944. At that time the Negers … were due shortly to begin operations on the invasion front.
‘We shall be able to start operations with the first explosive motor-boats soon as well,’ Dönitz said. ‘But all these weapons are naturally very dependent on the weather.’
Hitler was obviously unperturbed by this reservation. His hopes were high. ‘Of course,’ he declared, ‘the enemy warships – particularly the battleships – must be attacked, just as the merchant ships are. Just imagine it: if England were to lose six to eight battleships in the Seine estuary, the strategic consequences would be enormous.’
Dönitz looked at Hitler, aghast. Did he really believe you could sink battleships with one-man torpedoes? And six or eight of them!
The arrival in Normandy of the sixty Negers that comprised 361 K-Flotilla was accomplished by transport on an increasingly beleaguered railway system. With frequent targeting by Allied bombers much of the journey was made by road in ninety-two trucks from Rudolstadt in Thüringen, via Paris, and finally reaching Normandy where the first thirty Negers arrived at Trouville on the early afternoon of 28 June. From there they were moved to their operational base at Villers, the cumbersome trailers and their cargo hidden amidst the trees of Favrol Wood while the pilots were accommodated in a nearby Norman chateau. During transit by road the trailers and trucks had their naval licence plates blacked out, the carried equipment covered and camouflaged. Any identifying flotilla emblems were removed and the Kriegsmarine men exchanged their uniforms for standard Wehrmacht army uniforms.
A second batch of Negers arrived at the forest on 6 July after reaching their temporary base at Pont l’Eveque the previous day. However, their journey – like their predecessors’ – had been frequently disrupted by Allied fighter-bombers who exercised almost complete dominance of the skies over France. Little movement could be attempted by daylight lest the swarms of sharp-eyed pilots discovered them and strafed the convoy below. It was during one such attack on 30 June that Krieg himself was seriously wounded, his place taken as flotilla leader by Fähnrich Potthast who compensated for his lack of rank with experience aboard the Negers. Twelve Waffen SS volunteers also augmented the unit; men from Otto Skorzeny’s newly formed SS-Jagdverbände of hardened adventurers.
Indeed the K-Verbände remains the only Kriegsmarine unit to have admitted SS members knowingly into its ranks. However, this knowledge was not open to all. In June 1944 Böhme discovered this for the first time as is evidenced in his POW interrogation after the war’s end:
The presence of SS men amongst the fighting personnel of K-Verbände units first came to light in June 1944 when Böhme accompanied a party of eight men to Berlin to receive decorations. During the proceedings Skorzeny appeared and admitted that four of the men were members of the SS.
Böhme was subsequently informed by Admiral Heye that an arrangement had been made between himself and Skorzeny in May 1944 whereby K-Verbände would absorb SS men under sentence who would be willing to undertake suicidal actions (Totaleinsatz) on a voluntary basis as a form of probation.
The flotillas in KdK subsequently received a number of SS men from the Lehrkommandos without knowing their real origin
It is unclear how many SS men served in the K-Verbände and to which units they were definitely attached. At least twelve Waffen SS men are known to have joined 361 K-Flotilla, eight each in 362 and 363, six in 611, eight in MEK 80 and ten in Lehrkommando 700. Whether the SS volunteers were truly of a probationary nature or rather motivated by the high esprit de corps that marked Skorzeny’s unit can only be surmised, certainly the above text suggests the former, while knowledge of the SS commando unit’s actions during the war reflects the latter.
However, the Neger was not the only part of the K-Verbände to be deployed. A single Biber had also been shipped from Kiel via Aachen, Paris and Rouen for an attack against British-held bridges on the Caen Canal and Orne River. As we shall see later the proposed mission was aborted before the Biber could be deployed. As in Italy, it was the Linsen that would be first deployed in action.
After the absorption of the Brandenburg Regiment’s Küstenjäger battalion into the Kriegsmarine following their disappointing performance in explosive motorboats off Anzio, the initial cadre of the K-Verbände’s Lehrkommando 200 had been established in June 1944 on the south bank of the River Trave between Lübeck and Travemünde. Named ‘Blaukoppel’ the base hosted Kaptlt. Kolbe who commanded the training unit for the prospective Linsen pilots and crew. Among the fifty permanent staff of the Lehrkommando (at least twenty of them ex-Brandenburgers) was Obit. Taddey, a wireless expert, his experience crucial for the operation of the remote-controlled explosive Linsen. A small ancillary Linsen training centre was also established on Lake Müritz, named ‘Grünkoppel’ and comprising around 100 men and six Linsens.
While the initial batch of Linsens used by the K-Verbände was of Brandenburger origin, the Kriegsmarine had swiftly set about designing and constructing their own boats in a crash-building programme. The theory behind the units’ structure and operation was simple. Each Linsen combat unit (called a Rotte) would comprise a control vessel and two explosive craft (the group controlled by the group leader, or Rottenführer). The control boat carried three men, a pilot and two radiomen, one each to control the remotely-operated explosive boats. These carried a single pilot who would bail out of the craft when it was set on the correct path and be (hopefully) picked up by the control boat afterward.
The Linsens built for the K-Verbände measured 5.75m in length (25cm longer than the Brandenburg design) with a beam of 1.75m (5cm slimmer). The height of the craft measured only 80cm making it a small radar profile at best. The total displacement was a maximum of 1.85 tons. Beneath the engine cover amidships was a 3.6-litre, 95-horsepower Ford V8 ‘Otto’ engine that could push the boat at a speed up to a maximum rated 33 knots, though the 100 nautical mile radius of action was calculated for 15 knots. Two 5-litre containers held enough fluid to lay a smokescreen in action as the explosive boats hurtled towards their enemy carrying a charge of 300–400kg of explosives in the stern. Fitted around the bow of each explosive boat was a metal framework that was held 15cm away from the gunwale by spiral springs. If a pressure exceeding 80kg was exerted on these springs the metal framework would be forced against the gunwale closing a circuit that ignited a small charge in the bow. Blowing the bow off, this would enable the craft to sink while also starting a delay fuse to the main charge in the stern that was preset to between two and seven seconds. In theory this allowed the remains of the boat to sink beside the target ship where its subsequent detonation would cause the maximum damage.
In practice the three-boat unit would approach the enemy using stealth, until the explosive boats were close enough to begin their attack run. At the appropriate moment the two explosive boats would be accelerated to maximum speed and begin their attack. The pilots would make whatever adjustments were necessary before turning on two navigation lights visible only from astern, switching the controls to radio-control and throwing themselves overboard. In the control boat the radio operator used a small box that he cradled on his knee to control the now-pilotless explosive craft. There were six settings for the lever: starboard, port, stop engine, start engine, slow ahead and accelerate. The final control was a firing switch. The radio control equipment was much the same as that which had been developed by the Army for use in the ‘Goliath’ remote-control demolition charge carrier. By keeping the two navigation lights – one green towards the bow and a red stern light – in a vertical column, the operator knew that the boat was heading in a straight line towards the intended target. Production of the improved Linsen began at the end of May 1944 in Königsberg’s Empacher & Kalisch boat builders, soon farmed out to firms throughout Germany.
Kaptlt. Ulrich Kolbe’s Lehrkommando 200 despatched Linsens of Obit. Helmut Plikat’s 211 K-Flotilla from Germany on the day of the invasion, the unit arriving at Bolbec east of Le Havre on 19 June accompanied on their maiden posting by Kolbe himself. The entire flotilla numbered around 250 men, including the support staff commanded by flotilla engineer Lt (Ing.) Max Becker. The pilots were quartered in a luxurious villa that belonged to the Rothschild family at Molitor. The cutting edge of the unit numbered twenty-four Linsens, though the accompanying communications, armaments, transport and other logistical units (including a small flak detachment) considerably swelled its ranks. From Molitor they moved during the ensuing two days forward to Honfleur, which would be their operational base and from where they initiated operations.
The German K-Verbände faced a well-prepared and dauntingly massive enemy that was ready to face the novel German weapons all across the invasion front, as evidenced in this US Navy appreciation of Allied naval dispositions and the foe they faced:
Enemy naval forces within the Channel consisted of an indeterminate number of human torpedoes, self-exploding pilotless surface craft, sea mines to be laid by aircraft, and … 195 miscellaneous vessels.
To repel these enemy forces, the Task Force Commanders established an area screen … Manning the area screen required a careful phasing in the use of vessels. Until Allied forces arrived in the assault area, there was no screen. On arrival, a proportion of the escorts and patrol vessels took up screening patrols. Still later, other vessels, which had completed their initial tasks of boat control, close fire support, or some other job, took over patrol duties, while a proportion of the escorts returned to the UK in company with the convoys.
B. Eastern Task Force … [that bore the brunt of K-Verbände attacks]. The system of defence employed in the eastern area was the following: constant patrols to seaward by corvettes, trawlers and sometimes destroyers were carried out.
Every 24 hours one division of four destroyers was detailed as duty division for the entire area while two other destroyers were detailed as guard for areas O and J. By day, these destroyers performed such other tasks as were assigned, but they were subject to call in case an attack threatened. By night they were posted as directed by Captain (Patrols). In neither case did they actively patrol up and down the defence line. The plan was that Captain Patrols would vector them against enemy forces, whose presence was discovered by radar or other means.
During the hours of darkness or low visibility, this defence was augmented by a line of minesweepers anchored 5 cables apart along a defence line parallel to the shore and six miles to seaward.
This defence line was continued down the eastern flank by a line called the ‘Trout’ line, composed of LCGs and LCFs, anchored 1 cable apart. The duty of the minesweepers and Landing Craft on this defence line was to prevent all enemy ships and craft from entering the British Assault Area, to illuminate the outer areas when ordered and to counter attack any submarine detected.
Two or three divisions of MTBs were stationed, stopped but under way, to the Northeastward of the N.E. portion of the defence line; two or three sub-divisions of destroyers were stationed on patrol, to the north of the western half of the area, and sometimes to the northward of the MTBs; other light forces were stationed close inside the defence line, to act as reinforcements or as ‘pouncers’. BYMS and MMS were anchored as mine spotters, originally in the approach channels, but later in the lateral swept channel established within the area.
These defences were augmented by a smoke screen laid by specially fitted craft at dawn, dusk, and as required.
The enemy’s day activity was limited to one long-range torpedo attack, by torpedo boats from Le Havre, at 04.50 on D-Day … By night the enemy’s attack was more determined. On four occasions he operated torpedo boats, and on eight occasions E and R-boats, in the eastern Task Force area. On every occasion except one these forces were intercepted and forced to retire. In no case was any success obtained by enemy. The line LCG and LCF, anchored on the eastern flank took a heavy toll of the human torpedoes which attacked in July …
The Allies had also gained a huge advantage over the K-Verbände when during May 1944 they had penetrated the Enigma code net in use by Heye’s service. Named Eichendorff, and codenamed ‘Bonito’ by the Allies, the Enigma net had been instigated in March 1944 and was used until the end of the war. Though first broken by the Allies during May it was not until July 1944 that it was considered mastered by Allied cryptanalysts. The sole saving grace for Heye was that he and his commanders rarely mentioned specific areas or timings in their reports. Nonetheless it was a severe handicap, though one of which they were oblivious.
On the evening of 25 June the Linsens were readied for their first mission. Eight control and nine explosive boats were towed to sea by R-Boote of the 4. R-Flotilla (2. Sicherungsdivision). These motor minesweepers had been based in Boulogne-sur-Mer since the fall of France in 1940, their strength gradually eroded by years of insidious mine warfare and the sudden onslaught of Allied power in the prelude to D-Day. However, the remaining captains and crew were familiar with the local waters and several were pressed into service as towing vessels for the small Linsens. Unfortunately for German plans, the pilots of the explosive boats were not so skilled and as R46 eased from port with its tow, bad handling by the Linsen operator caused the little craft to veer wildly while running alongside the minesweeper, nudging the large craft’s hull with enough force to close the detonation circuit and explode it. Both were lost in the blast as well as a further two control Linsens and one explosive Linsen. As the explosions buffeted the remainder many fouled their towlines and in the increasing confusion the operation was scrubbed, the R-Boote and their charges returning to Honfleur the following morning. Two further attempted attacks were launched during June though they too ended in confused failure. Accidental rammings by the inexperienced Linsen operators – resulting in several sinkings and much damage, as well as defective weaponry saw both attempts turn into fiascos until on 30 June Böhme reported to Dönitz that the remaining Linsens of 211 K-Flotilla were no longer serviceable. Their planned deployment was postponed and instead the human torpedoes brought forward into action.
This time there was to be no repeat of the problematic launching suffered at Anzio. Two companies of Wehrmacht pioneers were commandeered and they prepared the landing site by first of all clearing a wide strip of the tangled coastal defences erected by the Germans and clearing a track along two sandspits that were almost completely dry at low water. From these promontories two wooden slipways were also prepared to provide a firm base on which to wheel the human torpedoes into the water. To avoid the unwelcome attention of the RAF the runways were covered in camouflage netting.
The German radio listening service (B-Dienst) had detected news of Allied convoys headed to Sword Beach, protected by the so-called ‘Trout Line’ of modified landing craft on 5 July and the Neger pilots launched their weapons into the English Channel for the first time that night, twenty-six of them were wheeled along the prepared tracks and into the cold water of the English Channel under Bohme’s watchful eye. Conditions were ideal after days of squalls; the night was clear and an ebb tide took the Negers out to sea heading into Seine Bay in search of targets, while hours later the flood tide should aid their return. Though two of the torpedoes aborted their mission due to trouble with their motors the remaining Negers pressed home their attack, resulting in wildly enthusiastic success reports. Walter Gerhold – a former clerk – was among the wave of attacking Negers.
I saw the first ship shortly before two and I made it out to be a destroyer. So I estimated it at 1,200 to 1,500 metres away. As I went past I saw the second destroyer. Then I went past five destroyers on the port side. We had received a command to shoot between 4 and 5 o’clock and I was in quite a favourable position. I launched the torpedo. It jumped about two or three times out of the water. You had to measure the time with a stopwatch so that you could work out the running time. I was sweating loads and was quite nervous when the explosion came. So then I set off on my way back. I saw three destroyers following me. I cleared the windscreen and looked back at them with a pocket mirror. I thought to myself, ‘Ah … now he’s listening’ so I switched off my motor. Then he came up to my port side and stopped and I lay still also. Then they got the searchlights out and searched the sea. But we all had a towel on board so I put the towel over my head and made myself as small as possible inside. I put my trust in God and said to myself – ‘you’ll make it’.
I’ve tormented myself for years. In the small hours of the morning I’ve thought about how many people must have gone down with that ship; how many mothers had lost their sons, how many wives had lost their husbands and how many children their fathers … it really bothered me and I’ve thought about it a lot. It moves me still today. I lost my own father as well in that war.
At 03.04hrs Gerhold fired his torpedo at the tempting target. After forty seconds he registered a powerful detonation as his torpedo struck home. Dodging the ensuing storm of enemy ships racing to the scene Gerhold eventually made landfall near Honfleur where he was pulled from the water by Wehrmacht troops after scuttling his carrier torpedo. The Allies captured two other pilots when their Negers were detected and sunk. In fact it had been the British destroyer HMS Trollope that Gerhold had hit. The destroyer had been loaned from the US Navy (who had designated it DE566) on 10 January 1944 as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement. Generally attributed to an S-boat attack, Trollope was damaged so severely that she was written off as a total loss, towed away and later broken up in Scotland.
Potthast himself, leading the attack, suffered catastrophic failure in his underslung torpedo when it developed a leak that added so much weight to the weapon that it threatened to pull his carrier torpedo underwater. Jettisoning the useless torpedo his carrier was also damaged and began to leak, forcing him to abandon his Neger. Eventually he pulled himself ashore west of the Orne estuary and was taken back to the flotilla’s base by local German troops.
Observers deployed by Böhme along the coastline reported a number of large explosions to sea and much gunfire and by next morning ten Negers had been lost. However, between the remaining pilots they claimed to have sunk an Aurora class cruiser (Gerhold’s target HMS Trollope), two destroyers, one merchant ship of approximately 7,000 tons and two LSTs (one of them claimed by Matrosengefreiter Horst Berger who had also claimed a patrol boat sunk off Anzio) totalling 2,000 tons. They also claimed damage inflicted on another cruiser, destroyer, two LSTs and a pair of steamers. The results appeared to have more than justified the human torpedoes’ deployment.
However, the reality was slightly less overwhelming. Three ships had indeed been destroyed, HMS Trollope and the British minesweepers HMS Cato and Magic. Of the two minesweepers HMS Magic was the first to be hit as she lay 10 miles from Ouistreham. Many of the crew were sleeping when at 03.55hrs (British time) the torpedo exploded against the hull and the minesweeper rapidly sank with twenty-five men still aboard. A little less than an hour later HMS Cato suffered the same fate, also sinking rapidly and taking one officer and twenty-five seamen to the seabed with her. Mercifully for the Allied shipping clustered off the British beachhead, they were the only confirmed successes for the K-Verbände pilots.
Nonetheless the Wehrmacht’s propaganda machine went into overdrive at the image of an ex-clerk destroying what was believed by the Seekriegsleitung (SKL; Naval War Staff) to have been a cruiser using such a rudimentary weapon. Dönitz concurred and Gerhold became the first K-Verbände man to be awarded the Knight’s Cross on 6 July. Two days later his flotilla commander was similarly rewarded, his Knight’s Cross bestowed for his role as chief of the 361 K-Flotilla.
A second attack was rapidly planned for the following night when twenty-one Negers were launched against enemy shipping in the same area. From this desperate raid no German human torpedoes returned, several reportedly attacked by Allied aircraft, prompting Hitler to enquire of the Luftwaffe on 9 July whether they could aid returning Neger pilots by laying smokescreens. However, Potthast lived to later recount his tale in Cajus Bekker’s book K-Men:
I was one of the last to be launched and I remember the ‘ground crew’ coming up and tapping on the dome of my Neger to wish me good luck. The launching went perfectly; soon I was heading for the enemy ships. At about 3am I sighted the first line of patrol vessels, which passed me not more than three hundred yards away, but I had no intention of wasting my torpedo on them. Half an hour later I heard the first depth-charge explosions and some gunfire. Perhaps a fellow Neger had been spotted in the moonlight, for the British were on the alert. The depth charges were too distant to affect me, but I stopped my motor for fifteen minutes to await developments. A convoy of merchant ships was passing to port of me, too distant for an attack; anyhow I was determined to bag a warship.
I went on and towards 4am sighted a ‘Hunt’ class destroyer, but she turned away when no more than five hundred yards distant. The sea was freshening slightly; I was thankful that the five hours already spent in the Neger had not exhausted me. Soon I sighted several warships crossing my course. They appeared to be in quarter line formation, and I steered to attack the rear ship, which seemed larger than the others and had evidently slowed down to permit redeployment of her escorts. Was rapidly closing in on this ship; when the range was a bare three hundred yards I pulled the firing lever, then turned the Neger hard around. It seemed ages before an explosion rent the air, and in that moment my Neger was almost hurled out of the water. A sheet of flame shot upwards from the stricken ship. Almost at once I was enveloped in thick smoke and I lost all sense of direction.
Interceptions of garbled enemy radio traffic led the Germans to claim a single unidentified cruiser sunk. In actuality Potthast had hit and fatally damaged the Polish cruiser ORP Dragon, while at least two other Negers had sunk minesweeper HMS Pylades.
Following the enormous blast that devastated the Polish cruiser an elated Potthast was unable to navigate his small machine with any certainty. There were no stars to guide him and his inexact compass was of little use in the darkness of the Neger cockpit. After nearly an hour he noticed the sun dawning behind him so he reversed his course, realising that he had been sailing further away from his home port. He successfully eluded several enemy warships, though fatigue was taking its toll.
I must have been dozing when a sharp metallic blow brought me to my senses. Turning my head I saw a corvette [sic] not a hundred yards off. Instinctively I tried to duck as the bullets rained on the Neger, shattering the dome and bringing the motor to a stop. Blood was pouring down my arm and I collapsed.
Acting more on instinct than anything else Potthast managed to free himself from his stricken Neger, which plunged to the bottom. Floating barely conscious in the water Potthast was caught by a British boathook from the deck of his attacker, the minesweeper HMS Orestes, and he was hauled from the water and his injuries treated. He soon learnt that another single Neger pilot, a severely-wounded Obergefreiter, had been rescued by the enemy – though he did not realise that they two were the only survivors of the second Normandy attack by the K-Verbände.
Potthast’s target, the ‘D’ class cruiser Dragon, had seen meritorious service since commissioning in August 1918. Briefly seeing action in the First World War as part of the 5th Light Cruiser Squadron, Dragon served during the inter-war period in American, Chinese, Mediterranean and Caribbean waters before reducing to reserve on 16 July 1937. In September 1939 the ship was with Home Fleet’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, transferred first to the Mediterranean and then to South Atlantic Command, where she captured the Vichy French merchantman Touareg off the Congo in August 1940. During the Dakar operation of September 1940 she had been unsuccessfully attacked by the Vichy French submarine Persee and was stationed at Singapore on escort duties, serving with the China Force from the beginning of 1942 until February of that year and the fall of the British bastion. After carrying out strikes from Batavia at the end of February, Dragon sailed for Colombo on 28 February and joined the Eastern Fleet, where she was attached to the Slow Division. After her return to the Home Fleet in Britain she joined the 10th Cruiser Squadron until paid off in December 1942. It was then, while sitting in the Cammell-Laird dockyard that Dragon was transferred to the Polish Navy who took control of the ship on 15 January 1943. Despite her new Polish masters the ship’s name remained unchanged. Their wish to rename her Lwow was politically embarrassing to the British whose Russian ally occupied the Polish city, thus she continued to sail as ORP Dragon. Brief service in Russian convoy duties was followed by attachment to 2nd Cruiser Squadron for part of the D-Day support off Sword Beach (Force B) in June 1944. Dragon shelled batteries at Calleville-sur-Orne, Trouville, Houlgate and Caen as well as German armoured formations during the invasion until the early hours of 8 June when Potthast’s torpedo struck amidships, abreast of Q magazine. The impact caused a sympathetic detonation of the stored ammunition. Though many casualties were suffered during the explosions and resulting fires, the ship remained afloat. She was soon declared a constructive total loss, however, and was subsequently towed to and beached at the Gooseberry harbour as part of the breakwater that sheltered the fragile beachhead.
While it can be ascertained with certainty that Potthast had been responsible for the sinking of the cruiser, the second successful torpedoing that night has only recently been confirmed as sunk by human torpedo, HMS Pylades had been in almost constant service off the Normandy coast since the initial landings on 6 June 1944. The battle against German minelaying continued as German sea and air units periodically replenished already thick fields. Two explosions relatively close together shook Pylades in the early hours of 8 July, the minesweeper sinking in minutes. Her commander listed the cause of the explosions as having struck a pair of German mines, but debate has long continued as to whether they were in fact caused by the Neger attack. During 2004 a BBC film crew filmed French diver Yves Marchaland and an English television presenter as they dived the wreck of the Pylades which now lies almost upside-down in 34m of water. Conditions were less than favourable and eventually an ROV took over the task of filming the wreck in order to deduce the cause of her demise. Though the stern section of Pylades had been mangled by the force of the blasts, Ministry of Defence damage assessment expert David Manley was able to compare the difference in damage patterns caused by mines and torpedo strikes. Influence mines such as the type deployed by the Wehrmacht off Normandy leave a characteristic crimping pattern on the hull of target ships after exploding beneath them. The explosion of a torpedo did not give this signature and the Pylades bore no such distortion on her ruptured and corroding hull. Indeed she had been the victim of two torpedo strikes, the first struck the ship and incapacitated her, the second hitting and blowing a large hole in the hull, sending the minesweeper under and leaving dozens of shocked British sailors floundering in the Normandy swell. Both Neger pilots remain anonymous to this day, lost in the course of events.
For Böhme it had seemed a costly exercise. Though he was aware that a cruiser may have been sunk, not a single Neger returned. Five pilots had been captured by the British, the remainder destroyed by surface gunnery and aircraft of the RAF and Free French. A single undamaged Neger had also washed ashore to be recovered by the enemy. Nonetheless the Neger pilots’ exploits, in particular that of Walter Gerhold, perhaps served to encourage men to enter the ranks of the K-Verbände, though not necessarily into the human torpedoes. Werner Schulz, a Seehund engineer, recalled a conversation amongst new K-Verbände personnel in 1944 that showed that propaganda could not disguise the perilous nature of the human torpedoes despite the lure of glory:
‘I have heard’ an Obermaschinist told us – he introduced himself later as Kurt Keil from Uelzen – ‘that in the English Channel one-man torpedoes have grounded a Polish steamer and sunk an English destroyer. One pilot, an Oberfähnrich, has even won the Knight’s Cross. It was announced in a Wehrmacht report.’
‘That makes sense’ confirmed Oberfunkmaat Papke. ‘I heard it on the wireless.’
‘The one-man torpedoes are nevertheless pure suicide squads. They are not even proper sailors. There every Tom, Dick and Harry arrives, sits down inside the Eel [torpedo], presses on a button and bang, either they hit or they don’t.’
Nonetheless a further assault was planned for the night of 20 July pending reinforcement for the flotilla from Germany. This time the sole success was the destruction of the destroyer HMS Isis seven miles north of Arromanches, often incorrectly attributed to German mines. The 1,370-ton ship was hit amidships on the starboard side, this explosion swiftly followed by two more on the port side, blowing such a large hole that she heeled violently to port and sank in minutes. Though now treated as little more than a footnote in history, the loss of Isis left only twenty survivors. A glimpse of their experience in the cold Channel waters can be gleaned from the following account written by one of the twenty, Ken Davies:
I came aboard Isis some nine or ten days before she was mined [sic] and not only witnessed the bombarding of German shore positions but also took part in the excitement of depth-charging a suspected U-boat. I remember nothing of either event. It appears that the sights and sounds of the mine explosion and its aftermath induced some sort of mental block. I nevertheless stand by my recollections of the mining [sic] itself and of my time on the Carley Float and subsequent rescue by the American Coast Guard cutter.
I was on deck when the ship hit the mine. Shortly after this explosion there was a second, which I assumed was that of the boiler. On both occasions I was thrown to the deck. On seeing the for’ard hatch falling away, I began to release one of the Carley Floats. There must have been a dozen or more men just standing by the port rail obviously in shock and doing nothing to help themselves. They only came to life when the float hit the water. Naturally they were the first on.
The emotional strain of our situation was soon demonstrated. On my raft one young fellow’s mind went – he kept talking to his mother whilst refusing to give up the paddle he was clutching. Another was wearing a Duffel coat and a polo-necked jumper. He was asked to give up his coat to cover a fellow who was wearing only a singlet and appeared to be badly scalded or burnt. Duffel coat refused. Someone suggested taking the coat off him but wiser heads said that a struggle would have us all in the water and if that happened some would not make it back to the float.
I remember the speed with which men died. The fellow next to me said he was feeling warm at last. This I knew was a sign of hypothermia. I tried to keep him awake by talking to him, but failed. It seemed no time at all before he was as stiff as a board and we tipped him over the side.
Just as the sun was about to disappear, we saw the silhouettes of two ships. They wouldn’t have been much more than a mile away. Duffel coat stood up to shout and wave. Whether he stumbled or was given a nudge, I don’t know, but he ended up in the water. I don’t know if he got back on board or not, but then I didn’t look for him; it was at this time that a man I was told was the ship’s R.P.C. and I were fixing life-belt lights onto a paddle.
Eventually the American Coast Guard cutter spotted us and nosed between our float and another, not realising that the two were roped together. This had the effect of turning our float onto its starboard side. We had to quickly jump across to the cutter. I was second to jump and was terrified I would mistime my jump and end up in the water. In the event all went well and I was taken below and put in a bunk with white sheets!
In Germany the shortcomings of the Neger human torpedo were becoming immediately obvious. Thus an improved and slightly larger model was designed and manufactured as a replacement. This new model – named the Marder – incorporated a pressure chamber immediately behind the pilot’s seat, carrying 200kgs of compressed air and a 30-litre flooding tank in the nose that added 65cm to the length of the weapon, which now measured 8.3m. The increased size raised the displacement of the Marder to 3m3 as opposed to the 2.7m3 of the Neger. With lOkgs of compressed air used in theory for every surfacing, the Marder could thus submerge up to twenty times before exhausting the air supply. A further oxygen supply was also fitted to the Marder, 200kgs of oxygen mixture connected to the pilot via a rubber tube. Released by a valve, it passed over a purifying agent while impure air was ejected by means of a small jet. Like the Neger pilots’ main breathing equipment, the fighter pilot’s mask and air bottles were also still carried for backup use.
Other refinements included the ability to secure the hinged Plexiglas dome from inside the Marder, an iron traversable ring fixed inside the manhole, which could be turned in a spiral motion by use of a special key. Once turned the ring pressed firmly against another ring fastened to the bottom of the cupola, squashing a rubber joint between them and ensuring water-tightness. This was considered vastly preferable to the Neger’s design in which the dome was removed completely, and which could only be done from the outside. A small depth gauge marked off to 30m was provided, as well as a spirit level on the left hand side of the cockpit graduated from +15° to – 15° to provide guidance for the pilot in the featureless surroundings of green seawater. In practice the pilots were trained to dive and surface at an angle around 7 to 8°. Gauges indicating the pressure inside the pressure chamber, oxygen container and cockpit were also included in the tiny cockpit. Interestingly, many Marders incorporated Italian parts, at least the stern motor compartment being manufactured in Italy and supplied complete with Italian engraved markings for the adjustment screws. Of course, these adjustments were redundant as the pilot exercised complete control over the navigation and attitude of the weapon.