Steel construction resulted in a hull lighter by some 35 percent. (The all-iron hull of Warrior absorbed some 52 percent of its entire weight.) Steel was considerably more expensive than iron, but improved production methods made steel cost-competitive by the 1870s. Here again, the French took the technological lead, laying down the first capital ship constructed completely of steel, Rédoubtable. (By contrast, wrought iron was far more long-lasting than steel, which undoubtedly accounts for the remarkable preservation of the surviving nineteenth-century ironclads more than 100 years after their completion.)
Redoutable was a central battery and barbette ship of the French Navy. She was the first warship in the world to use steel as the principal building material.
Compared to iron, steel allowed for greater structural strength for a lower weight. France was the first country to manufacture steel in large quantities, using the Siemens process. At that time, steel plates still had some defects, and the outer bottom plating of the ship was made of wrought iron.
All-steel warships were later built by the Royal Navy, with the dispatch vessels Iris and Mercury, laid down in 1875-1876.
When the Rédoutable was launched from the Lorient Dockyard in 1876, she was one of the most advanced composite-hulled (iron and steel) battleships in the world; her launch provoked more powerful copies in England and Italy. While the full square rig gives her an archaic look to our eyes, the radical hull shape and advanced Creusot process compound armor placed her on the cutting edge of technology in her day.
Brought into existence as an improvement of the 1870 Colbert, France’s last wooden-hulled ironclad, and modeled on her predecessor’s design, Rédoutable combined central battery mounting with some barbette-mounted guns. The central battery comprised a huge ironclad box (redoubt) protruding from both beams; exaggerated tumble-home created a “tunnel” form (right) allowing the central battery guns to fire either dead-ahead or -astern; or, theoretically, both at once.
The three barbette mountings were on either upper-deck corner of the central battery boxes (concealed by light-colored hangings in our top photo), and on the centerline aft, clearly visible in the photo below. French naval design was already becoming fixed as high-sided ships with a hull shape featuring extreme tumble-home. Generations of seasick French sailors could testify to the poor seakeeping characteristics of ships so shaped. But the tumble-home convention would continue long after the central battery disappeared. So would siting elements of the main armament in beam positions, either in wing turrets or in barbettes sponsoned over the sides. A gigantic plow ram disfigured Rédoutable’s bow; a single enormous flat funnel dominated her superstructure. Huge anchors with wooden stocks swung from her bows, and the ship featured a haughty raised forecastle. The overall effect was grotesque and homely, with many outsize features juxtaposed.
Her design was copied and enlarged in the sister-ships Courbet and Dévastation of 1878-79 and other combination central battery/barbette ships in the French Navy through the early 1880s, but preference shifted to all-barbette ships with their lighter-weight mountings. The Rédoutable had her sail rig removed in the early 1890s and replaced with armored military masts of the Neptune type. The ship was present during the negotiation of the 1901 treaty penalizing China for damages suffered in the Boxer Rebellion. Following the great extortion of the Celestial Realm, the venerable ship spent the rest of her days stationed at Saigon in the French colony of Indochina. Jane’s Fighting Ships of 1906-07 sourly noted Rédoutable was “of no fighting value” and assessed: “Rédoutable is worn out, also unseaworthy, and is to be dismantled …” (London: Sampson Low Marston, 1906, 152). After a very long career, the old ironclad was decommissioned and broken up in 1910.
Specifications for the Rédoutable:
Dimensions: 330’5″ x 64’8″ x 25’8″ Displacement: 9,200 tons. Armament: (7) 10.6″ BLR, (6) 5.5″ BLR, (12) Hotchkiss machine-guns on bridge and in fighting tops; (4) 14″ torpedo tubes. Compound armor: 13.75″ belt, 9.5″ battery, 2″ deck. Fuel capacity: 510 tons of coal. Propulsion: 12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; two 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 6,071 HP, shafted to twin screw. Sail plan: 3-mast barque rig as built, modified to 2-mast military rig, c. 1890. Maximum speed: 14.66 kts. Endurance: 2,800 nm at 10 kts. Crew: 706.
Dimensions: 100.7m x 19.7m x 7.8m Displacement: 9,200 tons. Armament: (7) 27 cm BLR, (6) 14 cm BLR, (12) Hotchkiss machine-guns on bridge and in fighting tops; (4) 356 mm torpedo tubes. Compound armor: 35 cm belt, 25 cm battery, 50 mm deck. Fuel capacity: 510 tons of coal. Propulsion: 12 cylindrical coal-fired boilers; two 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 4,527 kW, shafted to twin screw. Sail plan: 3-mast barque rig as built, modified to 2-mast military rig, c. 1890. Maximum speed: 27.1 km/hr. Endurance: 5,186 km at 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 706.
Under cover of darkness, and hidden in the midst of the English fleet, the fireships were prepared. Stripped of most of their equipment, they were then filled with combustible material of all kinds, including sails, spars, timber, and sacking, all smothered in pitch, tar and oil. More pitch and oil were applied to their masts and rigging. The guns were in many cases double-shotted, so that their explosions would add to enemy alarm. Manned by skeleton crews, equipped to light the network of slow match that covered each craft, every vessel towing a boat on which the men would escape, the fireships began to slip quietly towards the Armada.
The attackers were assisted by the freshening wind and a high spring tide, but the alarm was raised at about midnight, when two of the ships were apparently fired prematurely. ‘Two fires were seen kindled in the English fleet, which increased to eight; and suddenly eight ships with all sail set and fair wind and tide, came straight toward our capitana and the rest of the fleet, all burning fiercely.’ They would reach the Spaniards in about fifteen to twenty minutes.
Medina Sidonia’s pinnaces and other small craft went into action, and managed to grapple and pull ashore two of the attackers. But, aided by the wind and tide, the remainder continued to bear down on the Armada, their doubleshotted guns exploding as they did so. Logically, they might have been expected to fail. Calais Roads were wide, giving plenty of space for manoeuvre and evasion, and it would soon have become apparent that the fireships were not in fact the dreaded ‘hell-burners’, were too few in number, and contained no explosives. However, against the odds, they succeeded.
According to one angry Spaniard:
‘Fortune so favoured the English, that there grew from this piece of industry just what they counted on, for they dislodged us with eight vessels, an exploit which with 130 they had not been able nor dared to attempt. When the morning came they had gained the weather-gauge of us, for we found ourselves scattered in every direction.’
It is usually claimed the spectacle of the approaching flames caused panic among the ships of the Armada, but the English seem to have exaggerated their effects. Though one Spanish eyewitness hints at the alarm that had seized some of the crews of the Armada:
‘The eight ships, filled with artificial fire and ordnance, advanced in line at a distance of a couple of pike’s lengths between them. But by God’s grace, before they arrived, while they were yet between the two fleets, one of them flared up with such fierceness and great noise as were frightful, and at this the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea; and the whole eight fireships went drifting between the fleet and the shore with the most terrible flames that may be imagined.’
Most of the Spanish crews seem to have managed, despite the darkness and confusion, the difficult feat of setting sail and cutting their cables, the only apparent casualty being the San Lorenzo, flagship of the galleasses, which in the confusion collided with another galleass, the Girona, then with de Leiva’s Rata Encoronada, damaging her rudder.
With the fireships now burning themselves out harmlessly on the shore, Medina Sidonia’s plan had been for the Armada to re-form, recover its anchors and resume its previous moorings. That this did not happen was the result of several factors. The darkness, the wind, the strong currents, and the spring tide carrying them towards the North Sea made it virtually impossible for the Armada to return as planned. It also seems highly likely that some of those commanders who had all along been opposed to the halt at Calais made little effort to obey the duke’s orders.
The outcome was a major – and perhaps unexpected – English success. Unable, owing to the strong spring tide, to return to their original anchorage and pick up what were in most cases their best anchors, the Spanish ships found that their remaining ones were unable to grip in a seabed that provided poor holding, and they drifted north-east, in the direction of Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders. The Armada had not only lost the tight formation it had maintained for most of the past week, but it had now irretrievably lost any chance of linking up with Parma and the Army of Flanders. As dawn would reveal, Medina Sidonia’s situation was increasingly desperate.
And yet Medina Sidonia was still recovering from the panic caused by the appearance of fireships. His subsequent report reveals a fear of ‘fire machines’ and exploding mines:
‘At midnight two fires were perceived on the English fleet, and these two gradually increased to eight. They were eight vessels with sails set, which were drifting with the current directly towards our flagship and the rest of the Armada, all of them burning with great fury. When the duke saw them approaching, and that our men had not diverted them, he, fearing that they might contain fire machines or mines, ordered the flagship to let go the cables, the rest of the Armada receiving similar orders, with an intimation that when the fires had passed they were to return to the same positions again. The leading galleass, in trying to avoid a ship, ran foul of the San Juan de Sicilia, and became so crippled that she was obliged to drift ashore. The current was so strong that although the flagship, and some of the vessels near her, came to anchor and fired off a signal gun, the other ships of the Armada did not perceive it, and were carried by the current towards Dunkirk.’
Meanwhile, from the deck of his ship, Vanguard, Vice Admiral Sir William Wynter, their original proposer, keenly watched the effects of the fireships:
‘about twelve of the clock that night six ships were brought and prepared with a saker shot, and going in a front, having the wind and tide with them, and their ordnance being charged, were fired; and the men that were the executers, so soon as the fire was made, they did abandon the ships, and entered into five boats that were appointed for the saving of them. This matter did put such terror among the Spanish army that they were fain to let slip their cables and anchors; and did work, as it did appear, great mischief among them by reason of the suddenness of it. We might perceive that there were two great fires more than ours, and far greater and huger than any of our vessels that we fired could make.’
But not all of the English were unreservedly delighted at the success of the fireships. Captain Henry Whyte, whose ship the Bark Talbot, was one of those employed, was rather more concerned about compensation:
‘There [at Calais] it was resolved to put them from their anchor, and ships were allotted to the fire to perform the enterprise; among the rest, the ship I had in charge, the Bark Talbot, was one; so that now I rest like one that had his house burnt, and one of these days I must come to your honour for permission to go a-begging.’
This history of the fireship explains how the device became increasingly sophisticated, with purpose-built fireworks becoming their weapon of choice. From the earliest days until their decline in the early nineteenth century. Illustrated. ; 256 pages
No other Confederate ironclad has spurred so much continuing debate as the giant CSS Mississippi at New Orleans. That ironclad was a truly singular vessel, and both its unusual construction and powerful machinery installation drew much attention. The Mississippi was begun early in the Civil War and belongs with the early nonstandard design category of ironclads (such as CSS Louisiana) because it was intended for both offensive and defensive operations on the rivers and the sea. This warship was considered the Confederacy’s ultimate weapon in early 1862, if it could ever be finished.
Construction of the largest and most powerful ironclad built in the South was begun at the same time as on the Louisiana at Jefferson City, Louisiana, just upriver from New Orleans. Nelson Tift (1810–1891) and his brother Asa (1812–1889) were originally from Connecticut but settled and made a name for themselves in Georgia and Key West. Nelson was successful as a planter, politician, and business entrepreneur by the time of the Civil War; Asa was involved in ship repair, warehousing, and merchandising in Key West. Neither had any shipbuilding experience, but both were prewar friends of Secretary Stephen Mallory, so they submitted plans for an enormous vessel to be driven by three screws and built without curved surfaces. This conception was a result of the brothers’ perceptive realization that the Confederacy lacked experienced shipwrights. The Mississippi was, therefore, constructed more like a ferry or a flat than a ship. A rough sketch drawn by the Tifts illustrates the design’s unusual conception and basic premise.
Many prominent naval officers and experts were on hand to observe and comment on the Mississippi’s form, and the plans were apparently approved by Constructor Porter. Some of the country’s most senior officers praised the Tifts’ concept. The Mississippi’s intended captain, Arthur Sinclair (1810–1865) touted the “formidable ship, the finest of the sort I ever saw in my life,” as a potential “terror of the seas” capable of “not only . . . clear[ing] the river of the enemy’s vessels, but rais[ing] the blockade of every port in the South.” Even Union Flag Officer David Farragut considered himself fortunate in not encountering a completed Mississippi during his campaign to seize New Orleans.
There were a few others who doubted, though. Lieutenant Robert Minor, the commander of the Naval Ordnance Works in Richmond, observed, “By model she is waterborne in centre and near before and abaft the broadest beam but bow & stern are not waterborne sufficiently. . . . On the whole the work seems to be very reliable, but all depends upon the principle of construction which remains to be tested.” Minor, despite his experience and technical knowledge, seems to have been in the definite minority of opinion regarding the Mississippi. It is uncertain to what extent the engineers and mechanics actually working on the vessel agreed or disagreed with his opinions. The citizens of New Orleans certainly believed the ironclad to be an invincible weapon that could deliver their city from the Yankee aggressors gathering in the Gulf of Mexico. The Tifts found no lack of support for their ambitious project, both in the Crescent City (New Orleans) and in Richmond.
The first plank of the Mississippi was laid on October 14, 1861, but construction lagged despite the simplicity of the ship’s design and its location adjacent to the Confederacy’s largest shipbuilding center. Among the most significant reasons for the delay was the Mississippi’s sheer size: 240 feet long between perpendiculars, 58 feet in extreme beam, and 15 feet in depth of hold.8 The length was increased by 20 feet during the course of construction when it was found during a consultation with experienced engineers that the existing boiler layout had insufficient grate and fire surface area to effectively propel the ship. The Mississippi’s original design called for “11 boilers 32 feet long and 42 inches in diameter, 2 return flews [sic], with mat [mud] drum 24 inches in diameter, steam driver [steam drum] 30 inches in diameter, about 40 feet long.” This already large system had to be upgraded to 16 double-flue boilers 42 inches in diameter and 30 feet long, capable of generating approximately 1,500 HP.
The Mississippi’s triple 11-feet-in-diameter propeller arrangement was one of the first such systems ever built and required powerful engines of 36-inch bore and 24-inch stroke turning at a maximum of 125 RPM.10 The stroke length was later increased to 30 inches during the revision of the boiler layout. The engines were high-pressure horizontal direct-acting and were optimistically projected to drive the Mississippi at 14 knots. Both boilers and engines, in addition to two doctor engines, two blowers, and two steam pumps, were constructed by Patterson Iron Works (formally known as Jackson & Company) of New Orleans.
The size of the Mississippi’s machinery and propulsion components caused great difficulty for the manufacturers. The giant center propeller shaft had to be forged by Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. No foundry in New Orleans could produce the 50-foot-long wrought-iron piece required. In response to this dilemma the Tifts and Secretary Mallory contracted with Tredegar to forge the shaft from the burned-out steamer Glen Cove (sometimes called the Glencoe). The piece was painstakingly removed from the wreck, but no steam hammer in the Confederacy was capable of working such a large shaft, which had been built in the Northern states. Tredegar therefore had to resort to reworking it by hand. Two roughly 25-foot-long sections were eventually completed with some difficulty. Fifty men labored night and day for two months to complete the work, and a special railroad car was built just to transport the immense piece of iron to New Orleans. Much time was lost in the process, and the shaft and center screw had just been installed when the Mississippi was destroyed.
Forging the two wing shafts was also an odyssey. They were ultimately made by Clark & Company of New Orleans. Finding no complete shafts in the area and “no parties [there] . . . competent to make it” (i.e., no one apparently had the proper equipment), the Tifts contracted with Ward & Company of Nashville, Tennessee, to make the shafts. Negotiations with Ward about proper furnace and hammer equipment along with haggling over prices continued for some time but came to nothing. The Tifts next turned to Clark & Company which agreed to do the work. Clark then constructed a large steam hammer and furnaces in a new building for the purpose. Further negotiations with Leeds & Company of New Orleans resulted in an agreement to finish the shafts once forged, and progress was finally made. The shafts were 9 inches in diameter and about 40 feet long.
Manufacture, delivery, and installation of these pieces proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of the Mississippi’s construction. Nor was progress on the engines themselves turning out to be quick and simple. Under the advisement of a noted agent of Tredegar Iron Works, E. M. Ivens, and according to reviews of the machinery layout by Chief Engineer James Warner, many changes were necessary to strengthen the engine component castings. This included most major parts, such as the piston rods, cylinders, heads, bedplates, main pillow block bolts, crank pins, and eccentrics.
Patterson Iron Works agreed to furnish the engines and boilers after a consultation with Leeds had failed because that company was already occupied in manufacturing the shafting for the Arkansas and the never-finished Tennessee in Memphis. Leeds’s asking price for constructing the engines of $65,000 plus a build time of no less than four months was too steep for a short construction time. The Patterson works in turn offered to construct the machinery for $45,000 plus a bonus if the work was finished in ninety days, and received the contract. When the necessary augmentations and improvements to the boilers and engine castings were specified, Patterson added $20,000 in price for building the engines and $8,000 for the boilers.
The delays occasioned by the machinery revisions, and especially making the shafting, delayed the Mississippi’s launch date until April 19, 1862, just days before the Union captured New Orleans. By the fateful night of April 24–25 the boilers, smokestack, engines, center shaft and propeller, and wing shafts were on board, nearly complete but not connected. As a result, the Confederacy’s greatest warship was burned to prevent capture, after several attempts to tow the hulk upriver had failed. The Tifts had just days earlier estimated a completion date of May 1.
The Mississippi’s loss was a huge blow to Confederate morale and especially to the people of New Orleans. So great was the faith placed in its abilities that the anger and shock caused by the ship’s destruction nearly cost the Tifts their lives at the hands of a furious lynch mob. Most were convinced that only treachery by the Northern-born brothers could have caused the loss of the already legendary Mississippi.
Overall, of any Confederate ironclad, the Mississippi was affected in its construction most catastrophically by shortages of workers and materials and the limited abilities of local industry (despite it being abundant and accomplished). Even though the giant warship was of simplified design, there was not enough time to finish it, since New Orleans was captured at the end of the first year of war. As Secretary Mallory realized, there was great manufacturing potential in the Crescent City, but it took too long to build up to full wartime production. In the end the New Orleans firms’ inability to cope with increased industrial demand at the beginning of the Civil War resulted in the premature loss of the city and the Confederacy’s two most powerful ironclads, the Louisiana and the Mississippi.
Dresden, flying a white flag, moments prior to her scuttling.
Before the war, Germany had devoted considerable study to the damaging blows which could be made against Britain through attacking the vital trade routes. It was, however, fully appreciated that the task of getting through to the Atlantic, and so to the other highways, would always be difficult when once hostilities had begun.
There were but two methods practicable. If one of her regular naval cruisers attempted to burst through the blockade by force, she would be handicapped from the first: she would be too blatant, too obvious. For, whilst a merchantman can become a disguised warship, it is not always possible to change the appearance of a man-of-war in order to make her resemble a passenger or cargo vessel. (It is true that during the war two or three of the British naval sloops were altered to suggest traders, but they were not a great success and did not always deceive the enemy.) When a cruiser has four, or even three funnels, war-like bow, low freeboard, and conspicuous guns, but a forebridge without any of the high decks of a liner, no amount of paint can fool a seafarer into believing her innocence. Therefore the chances of genuine cruisers running the blockade were rightly considered remote. We have seen that Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse and Berlin succeeded because the blockade patrols were not yet of sufficient strength, and these two raiders went hundreds of miles out of their way. But they were also dressed to conceal their true character, prepared to pretend and bluff; and this second method quite definitely was accepted by the German Admiralty as the only means of sending surface cruisers forth when the other genuine cruisers had ceased to exist.
It remains an interesting fact that not one of the latter throughout the whole four years made the slightest effort, either independently or in company, to rush the Dover Straits or get westward of Scotland. At the time when the Canadian convoy was coming over the Atlantic there certainly were both anxiety and a half-expectation at the British Admiralty that German battle-cruisers might break through and do their direst. It would have been a gamble, but certainly a justifiable risk. Transports full of soldiers are always most attractive targets in their helplessness; and it would have been of direct assistance to the German Army if some thousands of British troops could have been shelled or drowned. Whether all the battle-cruisers would have got back to Germany again is quite another consideration.
It may be stated at once that after Berlin’s meteoric career concluded at Trondhjem, not even a merchant cruiser got out from Germany to the ocean routes again until January 1916. No blockade line between Scotland and Iceland, or Scotland and Norway, can ever be absolutely impenetrable having regard to long dark nights and days of fog. The very few raiders which did pierce this steel ring certainly deserved some reward. Only when these attempts were made by exceptionally brave and determined commanding officers, who had the patience and endurance to go near the Arctic Circle, the care to make the best of nocturnal and meteorological conditions, and the luck of not being discovered lower down the North Sea, was attainment possible.
During the first months of hostilities, then, Germany’s units for waging war along the commercial sea-routes consisted of (a) those of her regular cruisers which happened to be on the China or West Indies stations, and (b) any of her ocean liners which happened to be in foreign waters. It will now be our interesting inquiry to follow one of the most amazing voyages in all records of the sea. Let us open the map at the West Indies, which are so richly endowed with colourful background and memories of maritime rovers. It will help us to vitalise the story if we try to visualise the small German cruiser Dresden, which was a sister-ship of that famous raider Emden. At the beginning of the war Dresden was six years old, and still capable of about 24 knots. Armed with ten 4.1-inch guns, she had three tall thin funnels, two tall masts (with searchlight platforms), and displaced 3544 tons. Her maximum coal capacity was 850 tons, a factor which was to have an important influence on her adventures; and her engines were turbines. Captain E. Köhler was her commanding officer.
Steaming across from Germany to the Caribbean came the cruiser Karlsruhe, a bigger vessel, of 4820 tons, with a speed of over 27 knots. She was armed with twelve 4 1-inch guns, had been built only that same year, and was under the command of Captain Lüdecke. A lean, four-funnelled, low-lying ship with a modern bow, and every line of her suggesting speed, this two-master was coming out to relieve Dresden, but the two captains were to change over. Dresden was then to return home and have a much-needed refit. This is a second factor which will presently gain greater significance. It was at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that the two cruisers met and on July 25 the respective captains took over from each other. Our immediate concern being Captain Lüdecke’s cruise in Dresden, we must postpone the career of Karlsruhe till a later chapter.
It was on July 28 that Dresden left Port-au-Prince and went on to the Danish Island of St. Thomas in order to coal her bunkers before starting for Germany. This little hilly islet of only 33 square miles, with poor soil, occupies considerable strategical importance which has become even more marked since the Panama Canal was opened. Nature has made it one of those key-positions of the sea where four important routes converge. It is the centre whence radiate the tracks to New York and Boston, the Mexican Gulf, the eastern ports of South America, and Colon for the Panama Canal. When aerial travel becomes more firmly established it will doubtless increase the value of St. Thomas still further. But in 1914 it was, as we have noticed, one of the German supply centres, and here indeed the Hamburg-Amerika Line had its offices. If it was little more than a port of call, yet its harbour is one of the finest of all the West Indies, excellently placed for raiders to come in, coal quickly, and then on putting out to sea find themselves already on the highway of commerce.
By July 30 European political affairs were advancing towards a crisis, but on the next day Dresden steamed out of St. Thomas north-eastwards for the Azores and English Channel. She had not been gone more than three hours when she picked up a wireless message from Porto Rico ordering her not to return home but carry on cruiser warfare in the Atlantic: that is to say, she was to destroy enemy commerce. She was ideally placed with the choice of routes, and no raider could wish for a better beginning. Here she was, already at sea, beyond territorial waters, bunkers full, too far from land to be spied on, but supposed to be making for mid-North Atlantic.
As a matter of fact she turned south and wisely began cruising down the track of shipping bound up from South American ports. Not many days had she to wait. It was erroneously reported that she was off New York, though in truth on August 6 she had passed the mouth of the Amazon and off Para stopped her first ship. This was the British S.S. Drumcliffe, 4072 tons, from Buenos Aires in ballast on her way to Trinidad for fuel. A boarding-party was sent to her, but Drumcliffe’s master had with him both wife and child, who would be an inconvenience aboard the cruiser if the merchantman were now destroyed; and it would be useless to take the steamer along, seeing that she was in need of coal. After the steamer’s wireless had been destroyed, and a declaration signed pledging officers and crew not to take part in hostilities against Germany, Drumcliffe was dismissed.
Just over an hour later appeared the British S.S. Lynton Grange, 4252 tons, bound for Barbados, and the same experience happened to her. But in the meantime arrived the British S.S. Hostilius, 3325 tons, bound for Barbados also, and then the extraordinary situation occurred of captain, officers, and crew all refusing to sign the German declaration, yet Captain Lüdecke at 7.40 p.m. released her because he did not think her destruction worth while. Dresden then proceeded still on her south-east course towards Rocas Reef, which lies singularly isolated, about 130 miles off Cape San Roque, and just off the position where the north-west track for Barbados and St. Thomas separates itself from that to the Cape Verdes and Canaries. It is worth while calling attention to it at this stage, as Rocas was one of the secret rendezvous for German raiders and likely to become of the greatest convenience.
After cruising about the crossways for a few days, she must needs coal, and such was the good organisation of the Supply Officer that she was now able to enter the little-known, rarely frequented harbour of Jericoacoara, a Brazilian inlet which lies just west of the 40th meridian, between Cape San Roque and Para. There she led the S.S. Corrientes, from which she took 570 tons of coal. This supply ship had been waiting in Maranham, a port which is a little further westward, but had been summoned by Dresden’s wireless and got under way at 6 a.m., August 8, meeting Dresden the same afternoon. The operation of coaling occupied August 9-10, after which the two ships in company went to the north of Rocas Reef and Fernando Noronha, having thus intentionally crossed both the north-west and north-east trade routes, but so far with no reward.
Fernando Noronha is another Atlantic island which gives picturesque background to the raiders’ story. Lying about 80 miles east of the Rocas Reef, it is only 7 miles long by 1½ wide. We can picture this volcanic settlement as a collection of gaunt rugged rocks, over which the hot tropical rains and against which the smashing thunderous seas beat. Ashore there is nothing lovely in the stunted trees, the 700 convicts of assassins and others who long to escape. But the island boasts of cable and wireless station, and in recent years since the war aeroplane flights between Europe and South America have halted here. Liners do not call, but give a wide berth to these bare rocks and shark-infested blue waters.
Now, on the day before she met Corrientes, Dresden was still further being provided for. The Hamburg-Amerika collier Baden on August 7 with 12,000 tons of coal had reached Pernambuco, which, of course, is only a few hours’ steaming from Cape San Roque and therefore excellently situated in regard to the two sea-tracks. So, having spent some more unprofitable days hovering about, Dresden sent Baden an order to rendezvous near Rocas Reef. This signal was wirelessed through Olinda, the telegraph station which is close to Pernambuco, and out came the supply ship. The perpetual anxiety of every raider’s captain was the frequent necessity of having to meet, without fail, some undefended slow-steaming ship at a rendezvous that might become compromised suddenly. There was the further inconvenience, and even danger, of having to take in supplies without adequate protection from heavy swell.
During August 13 Dresden and Baden were lashed alongside each other under the lee of Rocas Reef: but the Atlantic movement is no respecter of ships or nationalities. The two steel ships rose and fell, rolled inwards and outwards, crashing and banging severely in spite of all the fenders. Hawsers were snapped, and some actual ship damage inevitably occurred. Nor can we ignore these as negligible items. The psychological effect on officers and crew of having overwrought nerves still further strained by this monstrous jarring every few days was bound to be cumulative. Coaling ship is at all times an unpleasant evolution, and when it has to be done hurriedly under a tropical sky, with look-outs posted to report any possible enemy cruiser, and the ocean surge every moment endangering the men at work amid black dust and the din of donkey-engines, the operation each time intensifies the men’s annoyance with life.
Dresden did manage, however, to take in 254 tons, but the lighthouse-keeper at the island wanted to know who she was. The German fobbed him off with the lie that this was the Swedish ship Fylgia doing some repairs to defective engines. She sent Corrientes into Pernambuco, and presently there came two more supply ships, Prussia and Persia. We thus see that so efficiently planned was the German organisation that, notwithstanding the sudden incidence of war, there were at hand and with full cargoes, colliers perfectly placed to render necessary service. At the opening of hostilities there were 54 German and Austrian vessels in American Atlantic ports, New York alone containing nine large German liners such as the Vaterland, George Washington, Friedrich der Grosse, Grosse Kurfurst, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. On August 21 the North German Lloyd liner Brandenburg, with 9000 tons of coal and having taken in a large quantity of provisions two days previously, was permitted by the United States authorities to leave Philadelphia, under the declaration that she was bound for Bergen. Actually this Brandenburg, whose speed was only 12½ knots, was despatched by the New York German Supply Centre to a rendezvous near Newfoundland, and her presence would have been appreciated by any unit raiding the New York to England route. But Brandenburg never met a ship, held on across the Atlantic, reached Trondhjem on the last day of August and was interned by the Norwegian authorities, as we have already seen.
From Rocas Reef Dresden went south, and resumed her search for victims, being accompanied by Baden and Prussia. She got well across the north-east trade route and on August 15 captured the British S.S. Hyades, 3352 tons, Pernambuco for Las Palmas. The latter carried a cargo of grain, and was consequently sunk after the officers and crew had been taken aboard Prussia, the position of this first prize being some 180 miles to the north-east of Pernambuco. On the next day Dresden molested but released the British S.S. Siamese Prince, 4847 tons, and presently parted company with Prussia who steamed into port and landed her prisoners, but not at Pernambuco, Bahia, or any other adjacent harbour. That would never have done; not enough days would have elapsed. Prussia therefore entered Rio Janeiro, and in the meantime Dresden, after steering a false course so as to prevent the Hyades officers from providing accurate intelligence, went off towards the land-crab Island of Trinidada.
Here once more we note the Teutonic organisation and arrangements for concentration working out with extraordinary success. The only German warship in South African waters, just immediately before the war, was the little gunboat Eber. She was eleven years old, carried only two 4 1-inch guns, her displacement being 977 tons, and her speed 13 ½ knots. She was of negligible fighting value and likely to be sunk by any of the British cruisers of the Cape station. Eber wisely left Capetown on July 30, whilst the going was good, and went across the South Atlantic. Thither likewise proceeded the German S.S. Steiermark from Luderitz Bay (German South-West Africa). Now, during the night of August 18-19 Dresden was in wireless touch with Steiermark, and on arrival at Trinidada with Baden there was the assemblage of several supply ships which provided coal, stores and food. For, additional to Dresden, Eber, Baden and Steiermark, there had come the Santa Isabel which sailed from Buenos Aires on August 9, pretending she was bound for Togoland. Actually she brought out forty bullocks, oil, besides shovels and coal-bags, and a week later was met by another German steamer Sevilla which transferred to her both a wireless set and operator. It may be said at once that the useless Eber was about to hand over her guns to a crack German liner and enable the latter to go raiding. But this must be read in another chapter, since it led up to a most interesting series of events.
Dresden was now replenished with food and fuel, so that after two days she was able to go south-west and reach the trade route coming up from the River Plate. Thus she met the British S.S. Holmwood, 4223 tons on the 26th, when about 170 miles S ½ W of Cape Santa Marta Grande. The steamer was bound from Newport with Welsh coal for Bahia Blanca, and, after her crew had been placed aboard Baden, she was sunk by bombs. Already, then, the Dresden had reached as far south as the southern boundary of Brazil. But at this hour steamed up the British S.S. Katharine Park, 4854 tons, bound from Buenos Aires for New York with cargo for United States owners. She was therefore not sunk, but to her were transferred Holmwood’s crew, and she was dismissed on the understanding that officers as well as crew were not to engage in hostilities against Germany. On August 30 the Katharine Park reached Rio Janeiro, though by this time Dresden had carried on still further south till on the last day of August she reached Gill Bay (Gulf of St. George), which is some 800 miles from the River Plate.
She was under way again on September 2 and ready to resume her attacks, though the number of likely victims must necessarily be restricted to only those ships using the Magellan Straits or doubling the Horn. Captain Lüdecke was getting into cold latitudes, so sent on Santa Isabel in order to procure warm clothing, as well as materials for repairing his engines that had not been allowed their intended refit. This supply ship entered Magellan Straits and reached Punta Arenas on September 4, whence she was able to telegraph the Supply Centres of Buenos Aires and Valparaiso. She also sent a cable through to the German Admiralty at Berlin, and three days later came a reply ordering Dresden to operate with the cruiser Leipzig which was then at Guaymas (Gulf of California).
From now begins the second phase of Dresden’s voyage in which she was to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The former was becoming not too healthy now that British cruisers were steaming up and down sweeping the Brazilian coast; though in truth a raider with adequate fuel could play hide-and-seek in the wide Atlantic for months, unless she were remarkably unlucky. After Gill Bay, Dresden chose not to enter Magellan Straits: she had kept her whereabouts shrouded in mystery and used her supply ship as a link between self and civilisation, thus giving a further instance of the reliance which the German Navy had placed on their auxiliary mercantile craft.
The beginning of September saw this cruiser butting into the wild seas off Cape Horn and encountering the chilly, depressing weather, grey skies, biting blasts, of a most inhospitable area. Making a wide sweep, she put into Orange Bay, Hoste Island, whence the turbulent ocean stretches direct to the frozen Antarctic. So rarely do vessels of any sort whatsoever use this forlorn anchorage, that it has long been a custom amongst mariners to “leave their card” by writing on a board the name of their ship with date. So when liberty men from Dresden were at last allowed ashore to stretch their legs after being at sea for several weeks, they discovered ship names and wrote on a board the word Dresden with the date, September 11, 1914. It was a natural, unthinking, but imprudent action; and the record was partially yet not entirely obliterated. There remained sufficient evidence, however, for her visit to be proved later on beyond all doubt.
Dresden’s war against commerce in the Atlantic had been neither particularly brilliant nor as ruthless as were the assaults by some other raiders. She had steamed from the West Indies to Cape Horn, burnt many hundred tons of coal, cruised thousands of miles, and the net gains were two not large cargo ships. These were the last she was ever to sink in that ocean.
But the few days in Orange Bay, where she could be fairly sure of seclusion away from the world, were welcomed as an opportunity for such overhaul as was possible without dockyard assistance. And now she must so regulate her programme as to join hands with Admiral von Spee who was coming east across the Pacific, and to this end she left her anchorage on September 16. Two days later, taking Baden with her, she sighted the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s 8075-ton steamer Ortega in the Pacific bound to England from Valparaiso. The cruiser gave chase, but Captain D. R. Kinneir escaped by entering the uncharted Nelson’s Strait, and through the splendid efforts of his engine-room staff who got 18 knots out of a 14-knot ship. The sequel was that Dresden gave up the pursuit, while Ortega felt her way cautiously but riskily into Smyth’s Channel and out into the Atlantic. It is worth noting that the cruiser kept shelling this passenger liner, but that no hits were made, and there is other evidence that Dresden’s gunnery was not very good.
Still proceeding up the Pacific, the latter went into St. Quentin Bay (Gulf of Peñas) where she coaled from Baden, coasted further yet but found no more shipping, and then made a tack out away from the land to that lonely island of Mas-a-fuera. No one can say that the German Navy failed to use every geographical convenience to the extreme limit. Having entered the war without the advantage of a chain of coaling stations, she regarded all isolated rocks, islands, lonely bays, as her privilege for supplies, refits, or rendezvous. The question of infringing the rights of neutral nations was ignored: necessity was the dominating factor, and absence of that force which imposes obedience to law prevented interference.
The principle was unprincipled, the policy impolitic; for the cumulative effect of using other nations’ property without permission was to arouse indignation, which in turn was to create a hostile reaction. But for the present all was well, and the Chilean Government were five hundred miles away — too far for any immediate protest; and it was whilst at Mas-a-fuera that Dresden’s wireless gained touch with the approaching Admiral von Spee on October 3. Spee’s immediate object was to obtain a concentration of cruisers and for this purpose he selected another remote spot still further away from the American continent. Easter Island was discovered by the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen on Easter Day, 1722, but now belongs to Chile from which it is distant fifteen hundred miles. It has neither timber nor brushwood, and hither in 1774 came Captain Cook.
In 1897 Mr. Merlet of Valparaiso leased part of the island, and subsequently formed a company to exploit it. Scientifically Easter Island demands interest because of hundreds of strange colossal stone idols, some of which are 30 feet high. There is no regular connection with South America, except for a small sailing vessel which is owned by the company using the island as a ranch. Sometimes this vessel comes once a year; sometimes not so frequently, and then tarries only long enough to take aboard the wool crop. Of triangular shape, measuring only 13 miles along its base, one can think of this volcanic miniature kingdom rising suddenly out of the ocean with high cliffs and jagged rocks, against which the unfettered Pacific perpetually dashes itself into white spray. Quiet, beyond all the traffic routes, quite untouched by the world’s progress, it would have seemed the last bit of territory that could be associated with modern war.
In October 1914 its total population consisted of Mr. Edmunds (the English manager of the ranch) and a German tobacco planter in addition to 250 natives, who are Polynesians. But it so happened that in 1913 there had sailed from England the schooner yacht Mana (91 gross tons), which had brought to the island in March 1914 Mr. and Mrs. Scoresby Routledge on a scientific expedition to investigate the mysterious idols. It chanced that in October the yacht had fortunately already been sent away temporarily to South America, leaving Mrs. Routledge and one of the crew on the island. The last visit of strangers had been in June 1913, when a crew of shipwrecked mariners from the schooner El Dorado, trading between Oregon and Chile with a deck-load of timber, had sprung a leak and compelled her crew to take to the ship’s boat.
In the normal course of Easter Island chronology it might have taken about a year before news of the World War reached its inhabitants. Neither Mrs. Routledge nor Mr. Edmunds had the faintest idea that Germany was at enmity; that Britain, France, and Russia were plunged in a great struggle; but on Monday morning, October 12, 1914, the islanders were surprised to find a squadron of German vessels had anchored off the shore. They consisted of the cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, and Dresden. The latter had been towed here by Baden, in order to economise coal, and with the arrival of Leipzig the concentration of von Spee’s force was now complete. Besides these fighting units the islanders were able to gaze down upon colliers and storeships.
What was the meaning of this sudden irruption? The Germans said nothing about a war: they mentioned that they were cruising from the China station to Valparaiso. So unsuspecting were the handful of Easter Island white people that Mrs. Routledge entrusted the Germans with letters to post, of which incidentally all but one at length reached its destination. As for Mr. Edmunds, he innocently sold the Germans £1000 worth of meat. The visitors offered to make payment in gold, but the manager (perhaps remembering than an exploiter had once been murdered here) considered it wiser to ask and accept an order instead!
But there was an indefinable mysteriousness about this squadron, and it seemed curious that no one came ashore except very rarely. The natives became annoyed that so few presents were made. Had these Europeans no information to impart? Why were they so secretive? The Germans insisted that they had no newspapers, but at night they steamed out with no lights showing. Strange rumours began to develop, and one day an officer was foolish enough to make the remark that “in two months Germany will be at the top of the tree”. The crew had been told to keep their tongues quiet, but when the German tobacco-planter went aboard they gave him the momentous news that the Great War had begun. And that was how the tidings came to Easter Island.
Leading his squadron to sea after dusk on Sunday, October 18, with his flag in Scharnhorst, von Spee finally quitted Easter Island.1 During a whole week he had knowingly and deliberately delayed, where he had been entitled to rest only a few hours. He had flouted Chilean neutrality by using in the most leisured manner this island as his base: yet who was there of Chile to say him nay? To a belligerent who likes to defy international law, the seas afford many a free station whereon authority sits lightly if it exists at all. Will the spread of wireless stations and the extension of aviation make such proceedings nowadays impossible?
The squadron never came back, though the raider Prinz Eitel Friedrich descended on the anchorage just before Christmas. Of her cruise we shall investigate the stages in a later chapter. Whilst the sheep-shearing at Easter Island went on, the German squadron with their auxiliaries steamed south-east for Mas-a-fuera where they anchored on October 26, coaled, left the next day, and approached the vicinity of Valparaiso two days later. Now during this same month Admiral Cradock had been into Orange Bay and found the inscription proving that Dresden had called. On November 1 his inferior squadron met and was defeated by Admiral von Spee at the Battle of Coronel.
On November 6 the concentration again began to be made at Mas-a-fuera, yet once more defying neutrality, and now supplies fairly poured in. For two sailing vessels had been captured, one French with 3500 tons of coal, the other Norwegian with 2634 tons; whilst the German supply ship Sacramento had arrived from San Francisco with coal and food. Not till November 15 did von Spee sail, though Dresden and Leipzig left four days earlier and on November 13 called at Valparaiso, embarked stores, but left the next day. It was on the 16th that the British S.S. North Wales with coal was captured by Dresden and sunk, and next day the crew were transferred to the latter’s supply ship Rhakotis, who a month later landed them at Callao.
At St.Quentin Bay von Spee once more concentrated his squadron; this time the rendezvous was to see a veritable squadron also of supply ships. It was now November 21 and five days later von Spee set out for the fate that awaited him, the force consisting of his five cruisers, but also he took with him only the three supply ships Baden, Santa Isabel, and Seydlitz. Dipping their bows into the heavy seas, avoiding the Magellan Straits, and going outside the Horn the wanderers halted: for, coming towards them on December 2 was the British-owned Drummuir, 1844 tons, one of the few survivors of the sailing ships. Through four hundred years “Cape Stiff” had been the sailing ship’s deadliest enemy, the graveyard of many a sailor, the nightmare of every sailing-ship master. Drake, Anson, and a host of others had spent anxious times battering round this tempestuous corner of the globe, and now the age of sail was completing its last few voyages. As if to hurry its departure by the dominance of steam, Leipzig played her rôle by capturing Drummuir, which was taken to the back of Picton Island; next, after the sailing vessel’s cargo of coal had been transferred to the supply ships, followed the sad passing. Drummuir, representative of a fine race which revealed the Old World to the New, was towed into deep water and sent to the bottom.
That was on December 6, and in the evening von Spee’s squadron got under way for the Falklands; but then on December 8 followed the historic battle with his overwhelming defeat. Had it been a victory, the Falklands would have been transformed into a German base, the Atlantic would have been terrorised for a long time by cruiser raids, and the trade routes would have been death-traps. Finally, the squadron would have been able to essay a return to the North Sea and a conjunction with the outcoming High Sea Fleet might have led to a full-dress engagement with the Grand Fleet. But, as it was, von Spee lost to Admiral Sturdee four out of five cruisers, and two out of three remaining supply ships, so that there remained at the end of December 8 only the Dresden cruiser, and the Seydlitz. The latter had come all the way from Australia, and was one of the North German liners: she escaped, landed the Drummuir crew twelve days later, but finally was interned in February at Bahia Blanca.
We are now at liberty to devote ourselves exclusively once more to the adventures of Dresden and to observe the incredible situations, the narrow escapes, and terrible moments of suspense which were to last for weeks and weeks. She was destined to play a lonely game in the loneliest and most cheerless portion of the globe. The desperate condition in which she found herself was not merely that her admiral and sister-ships had perished, but that the whole of the German supply system had received a series of disintegrating shocks. Inasmuch as the very life of a raider depended on coal and stores, she could not do much if neither reached her. And owners were preferring to keep their ships in port just now rather than expose them to disaster, so the chances of helping herself to fuel and food in the Patagonian area were not promising. Hitherto life for these cruisers had been rather that of a speculative criminal. They had trespassed flagrantly, their supply ships had by lies and deceit used harbours of South American Republics as the sources for coal, provisions, stores of all sorts, and communication with Berlin. Such insults to the self-pride of neutral nations could not be endured for ever.
Brazil and Argentina were now beginning to tighten up regulations: in future colliers would not be allowed to leave port if there was the slightest suspicion that they were about to serve German cruisers. The Governments of Uruguay and Chile were likewise becoming less patient than before, with the result that German Supply Officers in South America were finding their task impossible. Only across the Atlantic at Canary Islands, Las Palmas, Tenerife were there always several thousand tons of German-owned coal always ready. Captain Lüdecke was compelled to do some serious thinking for the future, and the great lesson to be learned from his subsequent movements is one of moral courage. He refused to bow his head to discouragement and, on the contrary, utilised every conceivable means for outwitting fate.
Dresden was able to survive the Battle of the Falk-lands because she got away in the thick weather of the afternoon. At first Captain Lüdecke intended making for Picton Island, where von Spee was to have rendezvoused. But Lüdecke’s wireless calls could get no reply from a supply ship. Dresden needed coal, and must have it: yet how? Whence? Punta Arenas — inside the Magellan Straits — that was the only possible place. But surely British cruisers would be hovering off the eastern entrance to the Straits? Most likely they would. Then what to do? The answer was found in choosing the tricky Cockburn Channel which he entered on December 10 and came to anchor at 4 p.m. in Sholl Bay, some sixty miles south of Punta Arenas. So desperate had become the fuel problem that Captain Lüdecke had to send his men ashore to cut down trees, and they also brought off water. Forests abound in the Magellan neighbourhood, and when Darwin was thereabouts in the Beagle during 1834 he recorded: “So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out.”
Only 160 tons of the cruiser’s maximum 850 tons of coal remained, so Dresden could not have carried on much longer. That night the Chilean torpedo-gunboat Almirante Condell visited Dresden. She was a quarter of a century old and lightly armed, but she represented the law and informed Lüdecke he must not prolong his stay beyond twenty-four hours. At 10 a.m. on December 12 Dresden weighed anchor and reached that quite unpretentious little town of Punta Arenas so famous for its driving storms. He knew that the United, States collier Minnesotan, specially chartered by the German Government, was there lying; but this vessel’s master now refused to let him have a shovelful. He was not going to supply a man-of-war.
This was awkward, time was precious, and the British cruisers could not be far away. But the German Roland Line Turpin had been lying there since war began, so from her Dresden managed to obtain 750 tons of briquettes aboard by the evening of December 13, and at 10 p.m. steamed away south down the Straits. Five hours later the British cruiser H.M.S. Bristol arrived! It had been a narrow shave.
From now onwards Dresden was to live a hand-to-mouth existence in a grand game of hide-and-seek, with the most impressive scenery for background. She was hunted and searched for incessantly; false clues, all sorts of rumours, were followed up and still the German could not be located. She was like some culprit wanted by the police, and unable to show herself in public. In order to picture the strange environment we have to remember that these Magellan Straits are a bewildering labyrinth of channels and islands that even in this twentieth century still remain inadequately surveyed, and such charts as exist date back chiefly from Darwin and the Beagle epoch. Imagine a kind of Norway with valleys, gorges, snow-clad mountains, precipices, and peaks, and all nature in a savage primitive isolation. Here are channels, sometimes 4000 feet deep, running between mountains rising to 5000 feet. Anchorages are few and even thirty miles apart. To navigate except by daylight is impossible, and dangerous at that if the more unfrequented passages are attempted; for rocks are waiting to hole the ship’s bottom. Certainly there is smooth water, but the tides are strong, the light is not generally good, the atmosphere never warm, and out of the twenty-four hours it rains for eleven. Its cold and wet, its damp fogs, are comparable only with an English winter.
The deep ravines, the incessant gales of wind, and what Darwin once called “the death-like scene of desolation”; the gloomy woods inhabited by only few birds; the dark ragged clouds that drive furiously over the cones of snow and blue glaciers, overawe the mind of man. Not even the abundant firewood and many waterfalls make up for the misty sunless weather, the grey seas outside, the heartlessness of the fjords themselves. These are cliffs covered with fern and brilliant moss, and there is something majestic in the crags as well as the ravines. But down come the squally “williwaws” lashing the smooth water into foaming crests and liable to lay any sailing craft flat down. Altogether this stern, forbidding, barren region of South America’s extremity was an ideal, if strange, asylum for a turbine cruiser hiding after the most complete naval victory of modern times.
Histories of the Battle of the Atlantic universally fail to appreciate the impact that the introduction of the snorkel had on the evolutionary shift in U-boat operations at the end of the war.
German U-boat histories of the Second World War are dominated by the period 1940–43 and written by, or about, veterans that never saw a single operational patrol in a snorkel-equipped U-boat. Out of the top twenty-five U-boat aces of the war, only one – Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock – commanded an operational snorkel-equipped U-boat. However, he did not take part in the inshore campaign during this cruise. Well-known U-boat commanders including Kretschmer, Lüth, Topp, Merten, Prien, Schepke, Witt and Lemp never experienced a patrol on a snorkel-equipped U-boat nor had any understanding of its potential.
Lothar-Günther Buchheim, author of the popular anti-war book Das Boot, never sailed on a snorkel-equipped U-boat. Yet he disparaged the device in his follow-on 1976 book Der U-Boot Krieg, even though he admitted ‘it was a life saver’. The U-boat force was given an ‘orthopedic contraption’, Buchheim stated colourfully, by leadership that called it an ‘epochmaking invention’. While Dönitz gave the snorkel device due credit in his post-war memoir, he also had no practical experience with the snorkel and spent only about twenty pages covering the period of the U-boat war from 1944–45. He longed only for the day his ‘wolves’ could return to the heyday of convoy warfare.
The problem in German U-boat veteran historiography is that no one grasped how the snorkel fundamentally altered the nature of submarine warfare. The potential resumption of anti-convoy operations remained paramount in the minds of Dönitz and his U-boat men because it recalled the heyday of success and brought meaning to the force’s sacrifices. However, there was never going to be a resumption of such operations because the challenge of submerged communications was never overcome during the war. Not even the introduction of the Type XXI ‘wonder weapon’ was going to change that fact. There was never a post-war survey by German naval historians of the impact of the snorkel within the U-boat fleet, leaving the broader understanding of the Battle of the Atlantic overwhelmingly distorted towards the earlier period of convoy battles.
Most British and American authors remain content to view the Battle of the Atlantic through the narrow optic of convoy warfare, and within that limited view argue that the U-boat as a weapon system was defeated in May 1943. Many opine that continued resistance by the U-boat force after May 1943 was folly, despite any wartime technical developments.
As an example, Ed Offley’s 2011 work, Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic, argues the well-worn thesis that the U-boat was defeated in May 1943 and forced to withdraw from the Atlantic. His view of the U-boat’s continued deployment during the following two years was that they served little purpose beyond ‘cannon fodder’. While he briefly discusses Dönitz’s actions to restore the U-boat force, he cites only the future development of the high-speed Electro-boats and Walter turbines, never once mentioning the snorkel. Offley, like many authors, is content to interpret the remaining years of the Battle of the Atlantic through the balance sheet of tonnage sunk versus U-boats destroyed.4 It is a victor’s perspective that offers little historical value.
Arguably, one of the most audacious attempts at solidifying the victor’s perspective of the Battle of the Atlantic came from former Second World War US Submarine veteran Clay Blair, who took a direct attack in his assessment of both the U-boat and its technology. He was determined to counter what he believed was a growing U-boat ‘mythos’ in the late 1980s and early ’90s, fuelled in popular literature by scores of U-boat veteran memoirs and movies such as Das Boot that found eager audiences in Great Britain and the United States. Blair published his two-volume history Hitler’s U-Boat War starting with Volume 1 in 1996 and continuing with Volume 2 in 1998. His scope was the U-boat itself and not just the convoy battles of the mid-Atlantic. In the foreword of his first volume he set a contrary tone regarding wartime technological advances in the U-boat force by dismissing any evolutionary value of the Type XXI offhandedly, despite the known benefits of its hull form and internal mechanics widely copied after the war by all major navies. He specifically dissected its snorkel apparatus into ‘imperfect’, ‘hazardous’ and ‘nightmarish’. In his second volume he addressed the introduction of the snorkel across the U-boat diesel force in counterfactual terms. He stated that the snorkel was ‘technically primitive’; only employed for one to four hours a day; a snorkelling U-boat was completely ‘deaf’ and could not use its radio receivers or hydrophones; a U-boat that snorkelled could not use its periscope; snorkels were prone to emit exhaust smoke; snorkels leaked carbon monoxide into the pressure hull; a snorkelling U-boat had no way to get rid of its waste; and arguably the most erroneous statement that ‘almost without exception, U-boat crews distrusted snorts and hated to use them’. All of Blair’s statements are gross exaggerations or counterfactual when compared against period primary documents. In Blair’s desire to diminish the evolutionary contribution to modern submarine development made by German wartime engineers, he asserted that the US Navy advanced into the nuclear-powered submarine age with such sophistication as to leave behind all ‘hopelessly archaic’ German technical innovations, like the snorkel. His amateurish historical assertions are contradicted by official US Navy technical assessments.
In the earliest published work on the last year of the Battle of the Atlantic, British naval historian V E Tarrant, writing in his 1994 book The Last Year of the Kriegsmarine, May 1944–May 1945, stated that the snorkel ‘was never welcomed by the majority of the U-boat crews’. His work on this critical, transformative period of the Battle of the Atlantic only focused on the building programmes related to the new Electro-boats and ignored the evolution of tactics and operations brought on by the snorkel. While American authors might be excused from understanding the snorkel’s impact, as snorkel-equipped U-boats only made an appearance off the US East Coast in the waning months of the war, the British, and to a lesser extent the Canadians, dealt with them for an entire year during the inshore campaign.
The point of view that the diesel U-boat was defeated in May 1943 as a weapon system and that the snorkel, unwelcome by U-boat crews, had little or no impact during the war is not corroborated by wartime or post-war primary documents. The diesel U-boat as a weapon system was not defeated in May 1943, only the surface-based Wolfpack tactics it employed against mid-Atlantic convoys. The U-boat survived, and even thrived with the introduction of the snorkel, as the Western Allies struggled to overcome the resurgent menace it had once thought defeated. While it is true that defeating the Wolfpack alleviated the single greatest threat to Great Britain’s survival and thus the Allied war effort, the introduction of the snorkel and shallow-water tactics diminished Ultra’s impact and continued to strain Allied resources. The idea of snorkel-equipped Type XXIs returning to the mid-Atlantic to reignite convoy warfare certainly was a threat that the Allies remained concerned about until the end of the war, but the reality was that BdU planned to send them individually to the coasts of North America and the United Kingdom to operate continually submerged close to Allied ports and within narrow channels and waterways. Surface-based Wolfpack tactics were gone forever.
Canadian maritime historian and former Wilfrid Laurier University professor Roger Sarty is one of the very few historians of the period who viewed the last twelve months of the Battle of the Atlantic through the filter of the snorkel’s impact. He wrote in his 1997 article ‘The Limits of Ultra: The Schnorchel U-boat Offensive Against North America, November 1944–January 1945’ that the:
Schnorchel caused profound difficulties for the Allied anti-submarine forces because of the change in U-boat tactics that the new equipment made possible. Submarines that neither signalled nor surfaced were safe from the radar-equipped aircraft that had long been the basis of the successful, economical defence of coastal waters … It soon became clear that protection of shipping against a single schnorchel boat well-situated in coastal waters required fully as many warships and even more aircraft than an active defence of a large convoy at mid-ocean against dozen of submarines.
Sarty was closer to historical reality than most authors writing of this period.
No Allied power endured the struggle against the German U-boat in the mid-Atlantic and along their coast more than Great Britain. In November 1944 Royal Navy Captain Clarence Howard-Johnson, who served as the Royal Navy’s Director of the Anti-U-boat Division, declared during the resurgent U-boat’s inshore campaign that:
The snorkel has had such far-reaching results that the whole character of the U-boat war has been altered in the enemy’s favour. Frequently he has managed to penetrate to and remain on our convoy routes in focal areas with impunity in spite of intensive air and surface patrols. With more experience in training and with the confidence engendered by his present immunity from air, and often from surface attack, he is likely, in the future, to do us more real harm than he has up to the present.
This was a sentiment echoed by Royal Navy Admiral Submarines Sir George Creasy, who directed British submarines to adopt the snorkel during the war on a limited trial basis in order to understand this innovation and how to counter the emerging threat. He soon recognised that there was no longer a future for the surface-bound submersible as the age of the true submarine was within technological sight.
The performance of the snorkel in the latter half of 1944 was so successful that the Ministry of Propaganda decided to capitalise on the technical innovation. The following radio broadcast aired on 22 March 1945 in conjunction with the release of Die Deutsche Wochenschau, which showed newsreel footage of the new snorkel-equipped U-boats. The snorkel was considered a ‘secret’ development for nearly a year and was now unveiled to the German public for the first time. It is a surprisingly accurate account of the Battle of the Atlantic:
The German public has learned about the new technical development of U-boat warfare for the first time from the report concerning the air mast of the U-boat, which appeared in the High Command communiqué. The facts now published were apparent already in the news of the past few weeks. When a number of U-boat commanders were decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross it was emphasised that they had won it in particularly difficult areas and on their first operational trip. Furthermore, on recommendation of Grand Admiral Dönitz, the Führer awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords to Prof. Hellmuth Walter for his special merits in the technical development of the German U-boats. Lastly, the monthly declarations of Roosevelt and Churchill on the U-boat campaign as well as the speeches of Canadian and North American ministers of which we have given reports in our service, showed the enemy’s considerable anxiety about this steady increase of German U-boat successes …
It has been emphasised in the German reports that the latest successes were achieved not by an entirely new type of U-boat, but by boats of the type which have proved efficient during the period of 1941–1943, and which were fitted with the air mast to enable them to proceed continuously submerged …
Now also the U-boat crews, in spite of being severely strained physically by long months of submerged travelling, are effectively using their new technical equipment, above all in the most dangerous areas close to the enemy ports. In the shallow waters a U-boat, once discovered by the enemy, finds himself in a most difficult situation. But the men of the U-boats take upon themselves these dangers and losses because of the better chances of successes as at this stage every sinking of an enemy ship is particularly important. It is by no means intended to speak now prematurely of a ‘new large-scale U-boat offensive’. The reports on the air mast show, however, that important technical inventions have been made, with which we again overtake the enemy’s U-boat defence.
Compare the above propaganda broadcast to the actual Top Secret intelligence assessment by OP-20-G released just one month later on 20 April 1945 that stated plainly: ‘The last 46 days has seen a marked increase of U-boat pressure against allied shipping, despite the desperate situation in the Homeland and in the Baltic …’ This intelligence assessment issued just weeks before the end of the war in Europe is a clear testament to the fact that the U-boat was not a defeated weapon system. It had survived the ‘Black May’ of 1943 and remained a tactical, if not strategic, concern for the Allies.
Enigma ciphers were ordered changed as concern grew in BdU of their possible compromise. While some Enigma ciphers required days to break, significantly diminishing their value, others still had to be broken. Kurier – the new flash transmission system that could not be read by Allied cryptologists – was being increasingly employed.
Operational U-boat deployments increased to the highest level in more than a year. Allied ship sinkings were up and there was continued concern about the potential deployment of the Type XXIs. The largest concentration of U-boats in nearly three years arrived off the North American coast despite the knowledge of their movement through Ultra and the deployment of the single greatest anti-submarine screen employed by the US Navy in its history. What hampered the U-boat’s success continued to be the ability, though reduced, of Allied cryptologists to ascertain U-boat deployments and re-route convoys.
The final situation update of the U-boat force was written by OP-20-G’s Navy Reserve Lieutenant W V Quine on 2 May, just days before the end of the war. He noted that there were 192 U-boats in the Atlantic and Arctic, with 118 at sea and seventy-four in port. This was an increase of seven over the previous week. He assessed that:
As yet there is no sign of any serious break-up in the German naval organisation in the Baltic. The situation is still quite confused because of the continual transferring of [U-boats] out of the enemy’s reach in the rush to get [U-boats] finished for frontline operations. Orders, however, seem to be carried out effectively and the loss of [U-boats] appears to be relatively small.
Quine’s final assessment contained one of the last Ultra intercepts of the war that noted the singular importance of the snorkel. On 24 April a wireless message was intercepted that read ‘complete repairs, including installation of snorkel, in Rostock on 6 Type XXIII and in Wismar on 3 Type XXIII was assured’. With the Soviet Army surrounding Berlin, the US Army on the Elbe River and the British advancing on the main U-boat production facilities in north-west Germany, the U-boat force remained potent and organised. The installation of the snorkel remained one of the highest priorities for BdU, even in the last days of the war.
What a snorkel-equipped U-boat demonstrated during the war, too often lost on period historians, was that a submarine that didn’t surface and didn’t transmit by radio was almost impossible to track, find and destroy. It was a situation that foreshadowed the future of ‘Total Undersea Warfare’ in the atomic and nuclear age.
The German snorkel device revolutionised undersea warfare. The once surface-bound submersible was turned into a ‘true’ submarine capable of remaining submerged almost indefinitely. This late-war innovation frustrated Allied intelligence and anti-submarine search technology, well into the age of nuclear power. After World War II the snorkel was introduced by all navies around the world, most notably in the ever-expanding Soviet submarine force. In this photograph, Engineer Emil Hymowitz, Chief of the US Navy’s Search Radar Unit, pilots a captured German snorkel mounted on a sub-simulator around the Chesapeake Bay, in 1956. The German snorkel was used to test out new radar search systems designed to locate a snorkeling submarine during the Cold War.
In the post-war period the United States, Great Britain and Soviet Union exploited the significant lead in technology enjoyed by wartime Germany. Not all technology was exploited universally, as it depended greatly on the country’s strategic priority. Among the most sought-after technology was German designs for rockets, avionics and U-boats. It is a known fact that the final drive against north-west Germany by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group was designed to prevent the Soviet Union from reaching Denmark and German ports in that area. The objective was to halt the Soviet advance at Wismar on the Baltic coast, which had the benefit of limiting their access to advanced German U-boat technology, specifically the Walter turbine.
Among the Western Allies it was the United Kingdom that took the lead in the exploitation of U-boats. Under the terms of Operation Eclipse, British forces occupied northern Germany to include all the U-boat production facilities and ports. They quickly gained access to engineers, captains and crewmen. Most of all surrendering U-boats fell into the hands of the Royal Navy, who initiated an immediate post-war testing programme. Among the main technological innovations studied and exploited was the snorkel. Their results were passed on to the United States Navy’s Bureau of Ships, who also evaluated the wartime German innovation with great interest.
The US Navy’s post-war assessment of the snorkel was clear. It had to be adopted, even though the Navy’s two-cycle diesel engines could not be retrofitted with the device outright, and that improvements had to be made based on German wartime experiences:
Engine must be designed for snorkelling upfront. Do not implement exhaust drive superchargers. Extensible mast as designed was technically not viable. Folding mast was better. Designs should be made to prevent periscope vibration at high snorkelling speeds. Power-operated head valve for the induction system was required. Design should minimise resistance in the raised and housed position of the snorkel mast. Apply anti-radar coverings to the snorkel head. Remove the maximum amount of moisture from the air intake. Automatic depth control was not necessary but useful to avoid crew strain during long underwater patrols.
It was the snorkel that was the prerequisite for the modern submarine, as former defence analyst and submarine historian Dr Norman Friedman wrote in his book US Submarines since 1945.
The first US submarine that tested the snorkel was the Irex (SS-482). Within eighteen months of the end of the war the US Navy had completed designs for the modern telescoping snorkel. The Irex was ordered to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for a retrofit in December 1946, followed by operational testing of the device. The Irex conducted snorkel testing from July 1947 until February 1948. After a successful evaluation, the Irex joined Submarine Squadron 8 at New London as the US Navy’s first operational snorkel submarine.
The US Navy did in fact adopt a telescoping snorkel despite its own recommendation to pursue a folding mast design. Initially the US Navy installed two separate masts, one for induction and one for exhaust. The induction mast led into a moisture separator and then into the main engine induction valve via a 22in pipe. Each diesel engine exhaust led directly into an uptake, exiting the submarine either through a car-type muffler or the snorkel exhaust trunk. Later, the US Navy reverted to the original German snorkel design and combined induction and exhaust pipes into a single mast when they began to retrofit their own submarine fleet through the ‘Greater Underwater Propulsion Program’, otherwise known as the ‘GUPPY’. The GUPPY was the first US submarine that operated with a snorkel.
The US Navy’s 1961 edition of its submarine technical training manual known as NAVPERS 16160-B The Submarine, issued to all crew members of the new GUPPY modified submarines, offered unusually high praise to their former German enemy nearly twenty years after the end of the war with the following commentary on the snorkel. The Introduction to Chapter 15’s ‘The Snorkel System’ reads:
The theory of the snorkel had been known for several years; but, it was not until 1943 that the German Navy converted such theory into practical operation … the German Navy perfected snorkel designs and incorporated the device in their submarines. This move increased the efficiency and success of German underseas craft immeasurably.’
Contrary to almost all post-war histories of the German U-boat force and the Battle of the Atlantic, the US Navy understood the snorkel’s impact during the war and its evolutionary role in submarine warfare. The US Navy ensured their own submariners knew this as well.
The snorkel began to transform US Navy submarine operations in the Cold War era. Intelligence gathering became a new, if not critical, component to its mission. In 1949 the snorkel-retrofitted Fleet Submarines Cochino (SS-345) and Tusk (SS-426) entered the Barents Sea. Cochino was also equipped with a version of the GHG Balkon passive sonar. Its goal was to conduct the first intelligence-gathering mission close to the coast of Russia; a task that could only be accomplished by a snorkel-equipped submarine. Unfortunately, Cochino experienced a snorkel defect like some of its German U-boat counterparts did during the war. In rough seas the submarine was unable to maintain trim while snorkelling and the snorkel valve failed to close when it was submerged. Water rushed in and a series of unfortunate events unfolded that resulted in a build-up of toxic gas and a battery explosion. While the crew was rescued after a fourteen-hour fight to save the sub, the Cochino was lost. It sunk on 26 August 1949, some five years after the first German snorkel-equipped U-boat entered the English Channel.
The snorkel remained a key component of post-war submarine design even into the nuclear age (despite the counterfactual claims of Blair). The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, also included a snorkel as a back-up to get the submarine home without surfacing in the case the nuclear reactor failed. In the modern submarine age surfacing meant the loss of the submarine’s most critical asset – invisibility. Once a submarine breached the surface it lost the element of surprise, but a snorkel provided the ability to remain submerged even in a crisis onboard the boat. The future of submarine warfare meant never operating on the surface. This was the embodiment of Walter’s Ortungskampf (battle of location concept) he championed during the war.
The Royal Navy adopted the snorkel during the end of the war, as they saw its potential to alter the course of the U-boat campaign. They needed to understand it, and how it functioned, both technically and tactically. Before the end of the war the Admiralty ordered that one U, S, T, and A Class submarine be equipped with a snorkel. Experiments continued by the Royal Navy well into the post-war period.
The Admiralty already had an eye towards the potential Soviet threat, and they were quick to exploit German naval technology and scientists. The Royal Navy had two main exploitation priorities regarding U-boats. Like the US Navy, they were the snorkel and Type XXI design. Unlike the US Navy, which already had an eye towards nuclear power, the Royal Navy’s third priority was Walter’s hydrogen peroxide closed propulsion system.
The Royal Navy’s secret intelligence unit, the 30 Assault Group, entered Kiel and immediately located Dr Walter at his home next to his factory and design offices. Along with Walter came some 50,000 pages of microfilm recordings in six boxes that he had buried in a secret location on the north coast. The original documents had been burned. These documents covered the entire technical development of German U-boats through the war. Along with the British came US Navy Captain Albert Mumma, originally of the Alsos Mission (looking for German nuclear, chemical and biological weapons research), and in the last days of the war part of the US Navy’s Technical Mission Europe. He was one of the seventy-five-man task force that captured Kiel.
Walter was interrogated extensively after the war. He informed his interrogators that he saw no future for a submarine that operated on the surface and that all design functions must be subordinated to that purpose. It was a vision he himself set on this course with the introduction of the snorkel, the Type XXI and the Walter Prototype. The Royal Navy adopted Walter’s design.
The Admiralty moved quickly to locate and raise the U-1407 hydrogen peroxide-equipped Type XVII to keep it from the Soviets. Testing was carried out in Kiel between August and September 1945 of the Walter turbine U-boats by Walter and his staff of engineers under the watchful eyes of the Royal and U.S Naval officers. After the successful trial in Kiel harbour the British offered Walter and a small group of his trusted engineers’ contracts to go and work for them in England. U-1406 was provided to the US Navy, but they did not operate that U-boat after quickly deciding to pursue nuclear propulsion instead of the Walter turbine. The U-1407 was refitted by Vickers under the guidance of Walter himself in 1947. In 1948, U-1407 was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Meteorite and went through extensive operational testing off the coast of Scotland.
The Royal Navy concluded that while the Meteorite was unstable on the surface, it was ‘outstanding’ underwater and that its high speed, which came at a high cost in fuel, was best employed in escape underwater as originally envisioned by Walter during the war. The Royal Navy went on to commission HMS Explorer and HMS Excalibur to conduct underwater speed trials based on the principles of the Type XXVI. These hydrogen peroxide submarines achieved the underwater speeds of 25 knots that Walter had theorised was possible during the war. The Royal Navy concluded on their own that the diesel submarine fleet had reached its limits of endurance and speed. Walter’s ideas had been vindicated by the very Royal Navy his designs had hoped to defeat. Admiral Creasy stated of Walter’s design that ‘we stand on the threshold of very considerable technical development …’
Despite the efforts of the British to keep the most advanced U-boat technology out of Soviet hands, they failed. The Red Army had seized two unfinished Type XXIs, U-3528 and U-3542, at Schichau on the Baltic coast, Walter’s central design office for the Type XVIIB and XXVI at Blankenburg, and the Bruchner-Kanis factory that produced the Walter turbines in Dresden and at Weinrieb in Chemnitz. It was assessed by the Western Allies that one turbine of 2,500 shaft horsepower and one of 7,500shp were acquired by the Soviets. Beyond the new U-boat designs, the Soviets captured plans for advanced German torpedoes, internal electronics, the GHG passive sonar array and German technical experts themselves. This was cause for alarm at the highest levels in the US Navy.
Under the code name Medusa, two Soviet research institutes, Andreev and Krylov, adopted the German U-boat research and begin to pursue it at an accelerated rate in 1947–48. The Soviets soon adopted the advanced German designs and specifically the snorkel apparatus in their ocean-going Whiskey and coastal Malyutka-class submarines. The Whiskey class had already been designed before the end of the war as an improvement to the existing ‘S’ class, but German U-boat technology was quickly retrofitted. The Whiskey class was produced in more numbers than any other submarine in history, surpassing even the German Type VIIC.
The Soviets went on to develop the S 99 (Project 617) in 1951, known in NATO circles as Whale, which was a near exact copy of the German U-boat Type XXVI. With the help of captured German engineers, the Leningrad-Shuvalovo shipyard developed the first 7,500hp hydrogen peroxide engine for the Soviet Navy. The first operational tests began in June 1952. It was later commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1956 and achieved an underwater speed of 20 knots, making it the fastest submarine in the Soviet fleet at that time. An explosion on the high-pressure line ended its brief career and it was decommissioned as the Soviet Navy shifted from hydrogen peroxide to nuclear power. However, the hull form and underwater principles it derived from building Walter’s Type XXVI were all carried forward into the next generation of Soviet submarines.
The Soviet Navy took an immediate interest in adopting Alberich and furthering the concepts of acoustic camouflage. While the US and, specifically the Royal Navy, were keen to understand Alberich from the perspective of countering its capability, the technical problems of adhesive turned both western naval powers off from further pursuit. The Soviets applied their version of a rubberised coating to both their Whiskey and smaller Malyutka-class submarines. The coatings were initially applied to the exterior hull, however, the Soviets began to pursue the German innovation of applying it on internal surfaces, to include their double hull, in order to reduce the transmission of sound.
Starting with the first Soviet nuclear submarines of the Project 627/November Class, almost all Soviet combat submarines were coated with what modern naval architects call anechoic tiles. Shock absorbers were also installed to reduce engine vibrations. While acoustic dampening was not a priority, creating an atmosphere capable of supporting a crew for fifty days without surfacing was. It was an endurance objective that mirrored the submerged U-boat operations in the last year of the war achieved through the snorkel.
Soviet investment in submarine technology continued at an extraordinary rate through the 1980s. A 1988 Naval Proceedings article argued that, based on developmental trends, the Soviets would all but overtake the US in advanced designs by 2000. The fact that the Soviets had mastered the process of acoustic camouflage introduced by the Germans became evident in the recovery operations of the downed Kursk (K-141) in 2000.
On 12 August 2000 the Russian Navy’s Oscar-II class nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarine suffered a catastrophic explosion from a hydrogen peroxide-fuelled Type 65 practice torpedo. Hydrogen peroxide, it should be noted, was the key component of Walter’s closed-circuit turbine engines. Its cost and highly volatile nature when exposed to an accelerant such as oxygen were among the main reasons that both the US and Royal Navies abandoned it after 1950. The explosion collapsed the first three compartments of the submarine, sending it to the bottom in 108m of water in the Barents Sea.
British and Norwegian undersea salvage experts led the search team looking for the stricken Kursk. They were given its precise co-ordinates by the Russian Navy. At 4.26am on Sunday, 20 August an ROV was lowered down from the Seaway Eagle to 300ft, just 75ft off the seabed, and its active sonar turned on. As the ROV’s sonar began to sweep for the stricken Russian submarine the British operators could not find the Kursk. It wasn’t there. According to the ROV operator ‘the sonar received absolutely no signal. The Kursk had apparently vanished.’ Confusion reigned onboard the search vessel. Numerous search passes were made over the location of the Kursk until finally a faint ‘ping’ was returned. The seven-bladed massive twin bronze propellers, standing high off the seabed, were the only physical component of the submarine that gave away the Kursk’s location. According to the ROV operator, ‘confusion turned to amazement as the men realised that the acoustic tiles on the outer hull of the Kursk were so effective that they had been absorbing the ROV’s active sonar signals’.
The Soviet Navy enjoyed a thirty-year lead in the operational employment of Alberich, known today as ‘anechoic tiles’. The US and Royal Navies did not start applying such tiles until the 1980s. The first US submarine coated was the USS Batfish in 1980, but the US Navy did not systematically adopt the technology until 1988. Even today the US Navy faces ongoing struggles with adhesive properties, as evinced in the recent reports about the Virginia Class ‘mould-in-place’ urethane coating.
Walter’s concepts continued in the post-war Federal German Navy. The introduction of the German Type 212 class submarine in 2003 ushered in the most advanced non-nuclear submarine in operation today. This highly advanced design developed by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW) features both diesel propulsion and an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system using Siemens proton exchange membrane (PEM) compressed hydrogen fuel cells. The Type 212A can operate at high speed on diesel power or switch to the AIP system for silent slow cruising, staying submerged for up to three weeks without surfacing or using its snorkel. According to Doug Thomes, writing in the Canadian Naval Review:
The second of class U-32 set a record in April 2006 when it conducted an uninterrupted dived transit from the Baltic to Rota Spain, a distance of 1,500 nautical miles in two weeks. These vessels are very stealthy by virtue of their lack of a need to snorkel and are much more habitable than their predecessors: the accommodation improvements have enabled the abandonment of the German practice of hot bunking for the first time and there are now dining and working spaces separated from the sleeping quarters.
The Type 212A hull design and composite material make it one of their quietest and hardest to detect submarines in the world. The X-shape stern design allows it to operate in coastal water as shallow as 17m. A direct line can be drawn to the Type 212 and subsequent 214 and 216s from the effective wartime performance of the Type XXIIIs in shallow water.
It remains a testament to German wartime innovation and engineering that almost all modern submarines, whether diesel or nuclear powered, are equipped with a version of the snorkel, and some with anechoic tiles. All strive to remain unseen and undetected in Walter’s vision of ‘Total Undersea War’ ushered in after the introduction of the snorkel into the U-boat fleet at the end of 1943.
Designed as ocean-going escorts with a range of 12970 km (8,060 miles), the ‘Rivers’ were at first fitted with almost totally superfluous minesweeping gear. Once this was eliminated from the design, oil storage rose from 440 tons to 646 tons, with a consequent improvement in endurance.
As in the case of the United States, the British also pursued the construction of escort destroyers for ASW and AA defense roles. These duties were deemed extremely important by British naval officials in the event of a war with Germany and had been foreseen by October 1938. Great Britain was the pioneer of the escort destroyer type through the production between 1939 and 1940 of the 23 Hunt-class escort destroyers. A Hunt-class ship measured 280 feet by 29 feet by 12 feet, 6 inches and displaced 1,000 tons. The vessel was armed with four 4-inch guns in single mounts and four 2- pounder pom-pom weapons. Most lacked any torpedo battery. This was the result of the fact that the ship was designed specifically for the protection of convoys against submarines. The Hunt-class units carried an impressive ASW armament that totaled between 50 and 110 depth charges. The turbine engines of one of these ships produced 28 knots. By the end of the war, the British launched three more batches of escort destroyers that were improved Hunt-class ships. In total, the Royal Navy operated 86 vessels of the Hunt-class design.
Supplementing these vessels were the frigates of the Royal Navy. Great Britain pioneered the design of frigates with the River class, first launched in 1942. A River-class vessel measured 301 feet, 4 inches by 36 feet, 8 inches by 11 feet, 10 inches and displaced between 1,310 tons and 1,460 tons. Its armament consisted of only two 4-inch guns, but it possessed a large ASW battery. This consisted of a Hedgehog and 126 depth charges mounted primarily in racks. The large amount of antisubmarine ordnance is evidence of the fact that the frigate of the Royal Navy, like that of the United States, was intended solely for use against submarines while escorting merchantmen. Great Britain built several classes following that of the original River type. By the end of the war, the Royal Navy operated 349 escort destroyers and frigates.
With the limitations of the ‘Flowers’ readily apparent, the Admiralty rapidly produced a design for a larger ‘twin-screw corvette’ which became known as the ‘River’ class. (The term ‘frigate’ was not officially reintroduced until 1942). Overall they were about 28.30m(93 ft) longer than the later ‘Flowers’ and this made a very great difference in seakeeping, bunker capacity, installed power and armament, Between 1942 and 1944 some 57 were launched in the UK, 70 in Canada and 11 in Australia.
The hull had the raised forecastle extended well aft, with a low quarterdeck for the depth-charge gear and the minesweeping equipment with which too many useful escorts were cluttered at that time. They were the first ships to be fitted as standard with the Hedgehog anti-submarine spigot mortar which, with new sonar gear, made for a more rapid and accurate attack. The Hedgehog was originally sited well forward and was thus extremely exposed, but later units had the weapon split into two 12-bomb throwers which were sited one deck higher, winged out abaft the forward 101.6-mm (4-in) gun. Longer endurance demanded a larger depth charge capacity, and up to 200 could be carried, compared with a maximum of 70 on the ‘Flowers’.
Though not developed from a mercantile hull form the ‘Rivers’ were built to mercantile standards, which speeded construction. They featured a flat transom, which not only obviated much of the complex curvature of traditionally-shaped sterns but also actually improved the hull hydrodynamics. It is noteworthy that over half the ‘Rivers’ were Canadian-built (with more ships coming from Australia) and it is probably all too easily overlooked how magnificent a contribution the Canadian yards and the Royal Canadian Navy made to victory in the Atlantic. Most Canadian-built units had a twin 101.6-mm mounting forward and a single 12-pdr aft. They also had their full outfit of 14 20-mm weapons, which British-built ships rarely achieved. The machinery was simply that of the ‘Flowers’ doubled, though drawing steam from more efficient water-tube boilers. Four ships only were built with steam turbines, which were not generally adopted as a result of shortages of components. The ‘Rivers’ were highly successful, but most of the survivors (seven were sunk in the war) had been scrapped by the mid-1950s. Further ‘Rivers’, to a slightly modified design, were built by the Americans as the ‘PF’ type; of these 21 served in the Royal Navy as the ‘Colony’ class.
*Transferred immediately to the United States Navy and did not enter service.
River class frigates were first mooted in late 1940 when it was realised that something larger would be better suited for the Atlantic convoys – and a higher speed of 22 knots was also considered desirable. The River class were built to merchant ship practice, and like the Flower class used triple expansion steam engines, although with two rather than the single engine of the Flowers. Minesweeping gear was usually fitted.
General characteristics RN group I
1,370 long tons (1,390 t; 1,530 short tons) 1,830 long tons (1,860 t; 2,050 short tons) (deep load)
7,200 nautical miles (13,300 km; 8,300 mi) at 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph) with;440 long tons (450 t; 490 short tons) oil fuel
2 × QF 4 in (102 mm) /40 Mk.XIX guns, single mounts CP Mk.XXIII Up to 10 × QF 20 mm Oerlikon A/A on twin mounts Mk.V and single mounts Mk.III 1 × Hedgehog 24 spigot A/S projector 8 x depth charge throwers, 2 x rails, Up to 150 depth charges
General characteristics (RN group II)
646 long tons (656 t; 724 short tons) oil fuel; 7,500 nautical miles (13,890 km) at 15 knots (27.8 km/h)
Other data per RN group I
General characteristics (RCN group)
1,445 long tons (1,468 t; 1,618 short tons) 2,110 long tons (2,140 t; 2,360 short tons) (deep load)
646 long tons (656 t; 724 short tons) oil fuel; 7,500 nautical miles (13,890 km) at 15 knots (27.8 km/h)
2 × QF 4-inch (101.6 mm) XVI guns on twin mount HA/LA Mk.XIX 1 × QF 12-pdr 12 cwt (3-inch (76.20 mm)) Mk. V gun on mounting HA/LA Mk.IX (not all ships) 8 × 20 mm QF Oerlikon A/A on twin mounts Mk.V 1 × Hedgehog 24 spigot A/S projector Up to 150 depth charges
Other data per RN group I
General characteristics (RAN group I)
1,420 long tons (1,440 t; 1,590 short tons) 2,020 long tons (2,050 t; 2,260 short tons) (deep load)
500 long tons (510 t; 560 short tons) oil fuel; 5,180 nautical miles (9,593 km) at 12 knots (22.2 km/h)
2 × QF 4-inch (101.6 mm) Mk.XVI guns, single mounts HA/LA Mk.XX 8 × QF 20 mm Oerlikon, single mounts Mk.III, later; 3 × QF 40 mm Bofors, single mounts Mk.VII 4 × QF 20 mm Oerlikon, twin mounts Mk.V 1 × Hedgehog 24 spigot A/S projector Up to 50 depth charges
Other data per RN group I
General characteristics (RAN group II)
1,545 long tons (1,570 t; 1,730 short tons) 2,185 long tons (2,220 t; 2,447 short tons)
4 × QF 4-inch (101.6 mm) Mk.XVI guns, twin mounts HA/LA Mk.XIX 3 × QF 40 mm Bofors, single mounts Mk.VII 4 × QF 20 mm Oerlikon, twin mounts Mk.V 1 × Hedgehog 24 spigot A/S projector Up to 50 depth charges