Dreadnoughts’ three




All-big-gun designs commenced almost simultaneously in three navies. The Imperial Japanese Navy authorized the construction of Satsuma, designed with twelve 12-inch (305 mm) guns in 1904; she was laid down in May. The Royal Navy began the design of HMS Dreadnought in January 1905; she was laid down in October. The U.S. Navy gained authorization for USS Michigan, carrying eight 12-inch guns in March; she was laid down in December 1906.

The move to all-big-gun designs was accomplished because a uniform, heavy-caliber armament offered advantages in both firepower and fire control, and the Russo-Japanese War showed that naval battles could, and likely would, be fought at long distances. The newest 12-inch (305 mm) guns had more long-range firepower than a gun of 10-inch (254 mm) or 9.2-inch (234 mm) caliber. Most historians also cite advantages in fire control; at long ranges guns were aimed by observing the splashes caused by shells fired in salvos, and it was difficult to interpret different splashes caused by different calibers of gun. There is still debate as to whether this point was important.

The Royal Navy had to accelerate Dreadnought’s construction, knowing full well that the other major naval powers had their own dreadnought-type battleships on the drawing boards. In fact, the Japanese Satsuma class (laid down in 1903, completed in 1909) should be credited as the world’s first all-big gun battleships laid down. Plans for the U. S. Navy’s dreadnought-type battleships, the South Carolina class (laid down in 1905, completed in 1910) had also been drawn up before Dreadnought. The naval powers had come to realize that smaller-caliber guns on battleships led to confusion in gunnery spotting during battle, that mixed-caliber projectiles complicated handling, and that a single heavy gun size would simplify matters across the board. In sum, Dreadnought set the pattern for the 177 dreadnought-type warships subsequently laid down by the world’s navies between 1905 and 1941 (this figure includes uncompleted battleships).

Dreadnought embodied several significant technological advantages already enjoyed by the Royal Navy. The first was its heavy 12-inch and later 13.5-inch and 15-inch guns, with their greater hitting power and their flatter trajectories-that is, when their shells performed as designed. The second was Dreadnought’s faster turn of speed.

The greatest single undisputed Royal Navy superiority lay in its dreadnoughts’ turbines, pioneered by Dreadnought itself. At the time, no large steam turbine-powered ship had even been laid down, and the first RN turbine-propelled destroyers had been at sea only for four years. Turbines, lighter and more compact than reciprocating engines, gave Dreadnought a 2-knot advantage over its closest contemporaries; they were also more durable. Great Britain was so far ahead in turbine manufacturing, in fact, that for years afterward even advanced maritime powers such as the United States, Italy, Japan, and Germany had to build turbines under licenses from British firms. The United States did not go over to its own domestic turbines (Curtis) until the Nevadas (laid down in 1912). The Italians installed the Parsons turbine drive for their first dreadnought (Dante Alighieri, laid down in 1909) and did not install a domestically manufactured turbine (from Bulluzo) until the Littorio class (laid down in 1934-1938). The French stuck with Parsons turbines (with one mixed-drive exception) through to the end of their battleship construction. The first German turbine-powered battleships, the Kaiser class, were not even laid down until almost five years after Dreadnought. (This fact alone should invalidate much of the popular assertions of German technological superiority, spread as much by British journalists as by the Germans.)

The U. S. Navy, full of imperial visions in the wake of the triumphant Spanish-American War, had every expectation of soon surpassing the size and strength of the Royal Navy. As it was, the U. S. Navy trumped Dreadnought with its new South Carolina class (South Carolina and Michigan, completed in 1910) by arranging all of their heavy guns line-ahead, one turret mounted over another, a design pattern that all dreadnoughts would follow. The British and the Germans persisted in mounting wing turrets until the former’s Orions, laid down in 1909, and the latter’s Koenigs, laid down in 1911. But the U. S. designers hesitated to install turbines, so the South Carolinas had a speed some three knots slower than Dreadnought. The South Carolinas thus were not deployed to European waters during World War I and, in some circles, were not even considered to be dreadnoughts. At any rate, the Americans built their battleships for long range and protection, sacrificing some speed in the process.


The Steam Powered Warships

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‘It was at this same (1897 Fleet Review at Spithead) Review that a wonderful little vessel named the “Turbinia” appeared, steaming through the Fleet at 35 knots, a speed never before achieved on water. She was the first ship to be fitted with the turbine machinery invented by her owner, the Hon. C. A. Parsons of Newcastle-on-Tyne, and a great sensation was caused by her steaming through the lines at such a speed. Whilst she was at anchor in Portsmouth Harbour, I went aboard and told the owner that I would like to get a snap of his craft going at full speed.

“No one has succeeded yet, although many have tried”, replied Mr. Parsons.

“I should like to have a shot at her”, I persisted.

“Alright, so you shall!” he said with a smile, “I will make another run through the fleet tomorrow, look out for me between lines A. and B. at noon. That should give you an opportunity.”

“I’ll be there, opposite the Flagship”, I told him,

Punctually at l2 o’clock there appeared between the leaders of the lines a smother of foam – it was the “Turbinia”. As she raced past the Flagship, I was waiting in my launch and took a flying shot of her. When I developed the plate I was delighted to find that I had “got her”, and the owner was so pleased with the result that he invited me to take a number of photographs and a cinematograph film of his craft on the Tyne.’


For thousands of years, most mariners had dreamed of being able to take a large cargo anywhere they wanted without worrying about wind and currents. High-ranking British naval officers in the 19th century were the exception. We’ll come to that in a moment.

Ships propelled by oars could, of course, proceed into the wind (although progress was a lot slower than if there were no wind), but the large number of rowers precluded carrying much cargo and ensured that such ships as the Greek triremes (a galley with three banks of rowers) could not go far from land. Primitive sails like those of the classical galleys or the Arab dhows could take a vessel a long distance if the wind were favorable, but not if it were in the wrong direction. That’s why a dhow plying the Indian Ocean trade took a year to make a round trip. Half of the year the winds blew to the West; the other half, to the East. Scandinavian seamen learned to manipulate a square sail to allow some progress against the wind, as did Arab sailors using the lateen sail. But even after Europeans developed the full-rigged ship, progress could be slow unless the weather cooperated. If there was no wind, progress was nil.

The steam engine changed sailing radically, and that transformed warfare at sea. But the steam engine would not have been possible without a previous advance in the art of war. In the 18th century, a Swiss gunfounder named Jean Maritz, improved the rough, sometimes-crooked bores of cannons by inventing a machine for boring out the barrel after the gun was cast solid, instead of incorporating the bore in the casting. A few years later, in 1774, a British engineer named John Wilkinson improved the machine. Wilkinson’s device created an extremely smooth and precise hole. With a machine like that, the pioneers of steam power were able to build cylinders with tight-fitting, efficient pistons. Such cylinder and piston arrangements are essential to early steam engines as well as modern internal combustion engines.

The first steam engines worked by filling a cylinder with steam, then condensing it to water. The vacuum created drew the piston into the cylinder. These “atmospheric” engines were useful for pumping out mines and other tasks where their weight was not important. They were far too heavy and bulky to use aboard ships, however. James Watts’s improved steam engine drove the piston in the opposite direction—expanding steam, rather than atmospheric pressure on a vacuum was the driving force. Such engines could be made small enough to power a ship. Their earliest use was to turn a pair of huge side wheels.

Steam gave navies a great strategic advantage. Steam warships no longer depended on weather and could cross the oceans much faster than sailing ships. “Seizing the weather gauge” (maneuvering into the best location to take advantage of the wind) had long been a favorite tactic of British seamen. It no longer gave any advantage. For that reason, Britain, although it was the home of the first steam engines and it utterly depended on its navy for its primacy in world affairs, tried to retard the development of steam-powered ships. British naval personnel were the most skilled in the world; British shipyards devoted to building sailing men-of-war were the biggest in the world; British technology in preserving food for long journeys, manufacturing the heavy, short-range cannons, called carronades, and everything else needed for wooden, sail-driven warships, led the world. If the world’s navies went to steam, all of that would be worthless.

In 1828, the British admiralty expressed their views on steam-powered warships:

Their lordships feel it is their bounden duty to discourage to the utmost of their ability the employment of steam vessels, as they consider that the introduction of steam is calculated to strike a fatal blow at the naval supremacy of the Empire.

In spite of the size of the British Navy, this policy bore more than a little resemblance to the actions of an earlier British authority figure: King Canute, who tried to tell the tide to reverse itself. The American, Robert Fulton, had built a working steam ship as early as 1807. In 1837, the paddle wheel steamer Sirius crossed the Atlantic in 18 days—breathtaking speed in an era when Atlantic crossings were measured in months.

Although the new method of propulsion had manifest advantages, the world’s navies did not immediately board the steamship. The French started building steam warships in the 1840s, but they did so on a small scale. There were a number of reasons for this slow progress. There was the natural conservatism of sailors and military men, and that the British, owners of the world’s most powerful navy, professed to see little value in the new technology. And, most important, there was the fact that the early steamships could not survive a battle with sailing warships of comparable size. The huge paddle wheels on each side of the vessel were vulnerable to gunfire, and they made it impossible for the ship to carry enough cannons along the side to match the broadsides of a sailing ship. Another drawback was that steamships could not stay at sea nearly indefinitely, as the sailing ships could. They had to be near a supply of coal.

The paddle wheel was the first drawback eliminated. In its place, ship builders used the screw propeller. The new device had to rotate much faster than a paddle wheel, which meant both major changes in gearing and much more efficient engines. John Ericsson, a Swedish engineer, invented both a screw propeller that worked and an engine to drive it. He sold the designs to the U.S. Navy, and in 1842 the U.S.S. Princeton became the world’s first screw-propelled steamship. Princeton’s engine and drive shaft were located below the waterline for protection, and the ship was able to carry enough guns for a broadside. In 1843, the British steamer Great Britain became the first screw-equipped ship to cross the Atlantic.

The age of steam had arrived. Ship builders were still hedging their bets by equipping their vessels with masts and rigging that could be used if the engine failed, but it was hard to navigate a paddle wheeler using sails alone. Screw propellers made sailing easier, but even the propeller caused interference. The next major improvement in warships was adding armor. Another huge advance in steam engines after the introduction of armor was the steam turbine engine, which used a spinning wheel turned by rapidly expanding steam to propel the vessel. These engines made possible the high-speed torpedo boats that threatened the supremacy of the battleship at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. At the British Jubilee Naval Review in 1897, the steam launch Turbinia stole the show as it dashed in and out of the line of battleships at the unheard-of speed of 34 1/2 knots.

Allied Countermeasures against the snorkel-equipped U-boat I

The Illustrated London News, 23 December 1944. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt jointly announced to the public on 9 December that German U-boats were now equipped with a device that allowed them to remain submerged. Five days later First Lord of the Admiralty A V Alexander followed up with a public warning that with the appearance of this new device heavy losses should be expected by the public. The day after this illustration was published the snorkel and Alberich-equipped U-486 (VIIC) sunk the SS Leopoldville outside Cherbourg Harbour despite it having a Royal Navy escort, causing a significant loss of life among the US 66th Infantry Division being sent as reinforcements to the Western Front.

The snorkel was treated as a ‘secret’ development by the Kriegsmarine when it was introduced. Allied intelligence certainly intercepted wireless traffic about its existence through Ultra intercepts. However, it appears that the best information came from captured German crewmen picked up after their U-boat was sunk or scuttled.

The British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division’s C.B. 04051 (103) Interrogation of U-Boat Survivors, Cumulative Edition, June 1944 was the first known assessment of the German snorkel. The document revealed that the equipment as well as its basic technical schematics were known to the British at the very start of the Normandy invasion. While this document was descriptive, it did not contain any analysis of the snorkel’s operational or tactical potential as U-boat tactics had not yet evolved. Consequently, the report did not assess any impacts to ongoing Royal Navy Escort or Support Group tactical responses during a U-boat hunt.

This information acquired by British intelligence was accurate. It is clear that by June they had gained knowledge of the Type II non-flange mast as well as the replacement of the pulley system with a hydraulic piston lift. Both design improvements were starting to be fielded broadly across the U-boat fleet, as in the case of U-480, which received a second snorkel installation that summer, upgrading from the Type I to the Type II. The Admiralty report understood that the snorkel was intended for charging, but clearly did not opine the consequences of a non-existent U-boat profile on their detection gear, or the possibility that U-boats could remain submerged for almost their entire patrol. In November British forces that occupied the former German U-boat base at Salamis, Greece, found technical renderings of the Type II snorkel mast installation for Type VIICs, the first such technical documents of their kind obtained by Allied intelligence.

Four months later, US Naval Intelligence observed the stark drop off of actionable intelligence, defined by immediate, readable Ultra intercepts or HF/DF map plots that allowed them to ‘fix’ a U-boat’s location. The report noted the decrease in wireless transmissions and change in Enigma keys, as well as the atmospheric conditions that impacted reception in the North Atlantic. These observations prompted OP-20-G to publish a memorandum notifying US Naval leadership about the impact of these developments to anti-U-boat operations. What the report did not mention was the fact that a number of the intelligence impacts were caused by the introduction of the snorkel, suggesting that OP-20-G did not fully comprehend the correlation. A contributing factor to the lack of understanding was that most snorkel-fitted U-boats were being employed almost exclusively around the coastal regions of the British Isles and not in the convoy lanes of the North Atlantic.

A few statements of note in the 24 November 1944 report are of interest. ‘The problem of fixing U-boats in the Atlantic has become more difficult and will probably continue so …’ for the following reasons: ‘Approximately 90% of the D/F cases have involved U-boat transmissions of the ration of 30 seconds or less. Such short transmissions make it difficult to obtain any large number of high quality bearings.’; ‘the use of Norddeich Off Frequencies has become more general for all types of transmissions. It has been our experience that fewer bearings are obtained on all frequency transmissions of short or medium duration, thereby resulting in less accurate fixes’; ‘U-boats have been maintaining a rigid condition of radio silence. We have noted U-boats on patrol in various areas in the North Atlantic for periods as long as 30 or 40 days without making a single radio transmission’; and ‘ionospheric disturbances, in the North Atlantic in the winter have a detrimental effect upon D/F fixing’.

This resulted in the conclusion by OP-20-G that ‘the accurate locating of U-boats by means of Ultra information has progressively become more and more difficult’.

The OP-20-G memorandum balanced the fact that the dramatic reduction in reliable U-boat position signals was assessed as not impacting operations too significantly given the fact that few U-boats were operating in the mid-Atlantic. The report assumed that if traditional Wolfpack tactics were reinstituted in the spring of 1945 then a natural increase of signals would result in a resumption of accurate U-boat position information. Like the Admiralty report of June, this US Navy intelligence assessment failed to appreciate the paradigm shift introduced by the snorkel.

Overnight the snorkel rendered Allied radar detection almost ineffective and significantly reduced the value of Ultra in fixing U-boats for hunter-killer groups. Yet, a review of US and British intelligence reports revealed that it took both countries about six months to appreciate the snorkel’s impact on their anti-U-boat operations and implement effective countermeasures.

This was revealed by Ladislas Farago, who served as the Chief of Research and Planning in the US Navy’s Special Warfare Branch (OP-16-Z) during the Second World War. Writing after the war, he offered how unprepared the Western Allies were in the face of snorkel-equipped U-boats. The US Tenth Fleet was organised in May 1943 at the very height of the North Atlantic convoy battles as the first anti-submarine command. Its mission was to find, fix, and destroy German U-boats. To this end, its supporting missions included the protection of coastal merchant shipping, the centralisation of control and routing of convoys, and the co-ordination and supervision of all US Navy anti-submarine warfare training, anti-submarine intelligence, and co-ordination with the Allied nations. The Tenth Fleet had no organic naval vessels. Its commander, Admiral Ernest King, used Commander-in-Chief Atlantic’s (CINCLANT) vessels operationally, and CINCLANT issued operational orders to escort groups originating in the United States. The Tenth Fleet was also responsible for the organisation and operational control of hunter-killer groups in the Atlantic.

The Tenth Fleet was ‘misled in its appreciation of the snorkel by reports that tended to emphasise the deficiencies of the device’, according to Farago. Interrogations of German U-boat prisoners early in 1944 who had participated in the first snorkel trials and training in the Baltic spoke despairingly of the device. At this time no U-boat had conducted an operational cruise and not even the German U-boat command understood the device’s full potential. OP-16-Z produced a number of intelligence broadcasts that disparaged the device through the Tenth Fleet. By the summer of 1944 the Tenth Fleet dismissed the snorkel as a viable technological solution for the U-boat. This assessment changed by the late summer and early autumn of 1944 with the approach of U-518 (IXC) off North Carolina in August, followed by others off Canada (see Chapter 9). U-518 sank the SS George Ade, 100 miles from the US East Coast – the first American-flagged ship sunk by a snorkel-equipped U-boat. All Tenth Fleet efforts to hunt down this U-boat failed, leaving it concerned.

The Allies had no tactics or technology to counter the new threat, which was the responsibility of the US Navy’s Tenth Fleet. Farago noted in the early 1960s:

In a very real sense, then, the snorkel thus succeeded in doing exactly what Doenitz hoped it would accomplish: it provided effective protection from the U-boats’ most dangerous foe, the planes of the escort carrier groups. The protection was so effective, indeed, that from September, 1944, through March, 1945, the escort carrier groups managed to sink but a single U-boat, and a non-snorkeller at that, although they accounted for forty-six U-boats during the prior sixteen months.

The Allies devised a simple division of labour in terms of counter-U-boat operations from 1942 onward. The US Navy’s hunter-killer groups were given the responsibility for the central Atlantic and US East Coast, while the British and Canadian air and surface forces were responsible for their respective coastal regions as well as the North Atlantic. This generally placed the burden of counter-U-boat operations on the US Navy from 1942 until early 1944, when U-boats were non-snorkel equipped and operated in Wolfpacks. Once the snorkel was introduced the burden of anti-U-boat operations shifted to the British and Canadian forces through to the end of the war. This included the development of new tactics. It is made clear in reviewing available primary documents that by the end of the war the British and Canadian Royal Navies appreciated the fact that they were fighting a very different U-boat foe, and adapted accordingly. The US Navy and US Coast Guard, however, did not have that same appreciation due to a lack of operational experience against snorkel-equipped U-boats.

Allied Air Operations

In order to destroy a U-boat, it had to be located. By the spring of 1944 location and destruction was predominately carried out by radar-equipped Allied aircraft. The British Air Ministry published ORS/CC Report Nr. 325 on 5 January 1945 titled Operational Experience Against U-Boats Fitted with Snorkel, which summarised the negative impact the snorkel had on Allied air operations against U-boats during the previous six months. The report began: ‘Throughout the past few months the German U-boat fleet have been fitted with a “Snorkel” pipe, about 16’ in diameter and showing some 2–3 feet above the water, through which the air for the Diesels can be sucked in and the exhaust expelled. The consistent use of this device has very considerably reduced the efficiency of [aircraft] detection of U-boats – probably by a factor of about 10, and produced a return to close-in submarine warfare.’

Based on past operational results the following ‘recommendations and statements of fact are considered to follow fairly definitely from the scanty data on operations:’

1. Snorkels are usually seen by their wake and ‘smoke’, this ‘smoke’ is however only produced on some occasions, much more frequent in winter. Theoretical investigation in progress may enable this effect to be predicted. The average citing ranges are average ‘smoke’ 7 miles, (two cases of 20 miles!), wake 4½ miles, snorkel itself about 1 mile.

2. An improvement in efficiency of two- or three-fold could be obtained by use of binoculars throughout.

3. Very little use has in fact been made of binoculars, even for recognition.

4. The operational range of detection on a ASV Mark V (4 miles) is about one third of the operational range on surfaced boats (13 miles), but

5. Radar efficiency is very low and sees more than Force 3 – because of the sea returns.

6. The proportion of snorkel U-boats seen snorkelling and subsequently attacked while visible, or less than 15 seconds dived, amounts to 70% of attacks.

7. Hence the depth charge setting for snorkels should be that proper to ‘snorkel depth’ itself.

8. The sighting range in Leigh-Lights at night is so low (about 400 yards media) that visual bombing holds out little hope. Radar bombing and or homing weapons will be essential.

It was noted in the study that U-boats could clearly be identified through the wakes left by the periscope or snorkel. In the last several months snorkels could be identified seven times greater through the ‘smoke’ trail. This ‘smoke’ was probably vapour caused by a snorkel riding too high out of the water, exposing its exhaust vent. However, the British assessment identified that the smoke, which was usually described as grey in colour, was ‘presumably largely water mist that became clearly visible and much more frequent in cold weather’. The results up to November, according to the assessment, ‘show so low a proportion of ‘smoking snorkels’ (9 out of 22 = 40 per cent) that this phenomenon must be due to some special weather conditions, more frequent in winter than summer’. It was made apparent by the study that the British pilots were not utilising binoculars during their air patrols and that a periscope or snorkel that was not smoking could be identified by binoculars at about 4.5-mile range, while the naked eye could only identify it at a range of 1.9 miles. Despite this fact, the study stated that very few periscopes or snorkels were in fact either first sighted or even recognised using binoculars. Even when air patrols used binoculars, they assessed that periscopes were identified only 16 per cent of the time, while snorkels only 33 per cent. By binocular ‘recognition’ it was meant ‘to identify the vague phenomenon: wakes, smoke, odd looking waves, etc. which are usually first seen’. The study also looked at the rate at which binoculars could identify a periscope or snorkel when radar contact had provided a rough bearing an exact range. It was determined that a binocular was used to confirm a radar bearing 19 per cent of the time. All this led to the conclusion that ‘there is room for considerable improvement in the use of binoculars, both regular scanning by lookouts detailed for the purpose whenever the neck disability is more than 5 miles and for recognition of radar blips. The second point could be met by the second pilots always keeping a pair of binoculars ready focused.’ What this assessment did not consider was the fact that U-boats predominately snorkelled at night as directed by BdU [Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote], limiting the effectiveness of visual identification even further.

A separate detailed analysis was conducted on daylight attacks against U-boats by aircraft during the period June to December 1944. This study focused on U-boats that submerged once they were attacked on the surface. The report was divided into attacks that occurred when a U-boat had been submerged for less than fifteen seconds, submerged between fifteen and sixty seconds, submerged more than sixty seconds, and were lost while the aircraft was manoeuvring to attack. The study found that whether the U-boat was identified operating with just a periscope or snorkel separately, or the U-boat was identified operating both simultaneously, it was impossible to obtain a kill once the vessel began to submerge. The kill rate per attack when the snorkel and/or periscope were still visible was only at 17 per cent. This was 50 per cent less than the 43 per cent kill rate for a completely surfaced U-boat. The study went on to state ‘the number of snorkel sightings leading to targets visible, partly visible or dived less than 15 seconds (41% of sightings, 74% of attacks) is so high that the DC’s against snorkels should have the depth setting proper to the boat actually snorkelling’. This data does support that the U-boat dipole mounted on the snorkel mast was effective in identifying attacking aircraft, giving U-boats the advantage of diving before an air attack commenced. A fifteen-second advantage was enough to gain survivability against an air attack regardless of how far out the aircraft identified the snorkelling U-boat. The realisation that snorkel ‘smoke’ was a marked advantage caused British Coastal Command to issue a memo that declared this study was only permitted to be circulated among those engaged in ‘Air Anti-U-boat Warfare’. Not even the Royal Navy was notified of this observation in order to maintain strict secrecy over this operational advantage. Given that this memo was issued on 22 March 1945, at the end of winter, it probably contributed little to the anti-U-boat effort. However, it does show how seriously the snorkel altered the balance sheet against Allied aircraft.

One effective Allied aircraft tactic against snorkel-equipped U-boats introduced was the use of sonobuoys. U-boat commanders noted in their short reports to BdU that Allied aircraft dropped sonobuoys in areas where their snorkels were presumably seen to alert other aircraft or anti-submarine groups to the U-boat’s diving points. All U-boats were warned of this tactic on 15 February by BdU, suggesting it was a recently employed tactic. There were two types of sonobuoys, one for listening and one for HF/DF. The HF/DF buoy was less effective as snorkel-equipped U-boats rarely transmitted wireless signals. It was the direction-finding buoy that was used with effect during the last six months of the war against the snorkel-equipped U-boat.

Sonobuoys were originally intended to be dropped manually from blimps. Parachutes were added when the decision to deploy them from manoeuvring aircraft was made. They were equipped with a stored, self-erecting antenna. The first operational passive broadband sonobuoy was known as AN/CRT-1. The operational frequency of the AN/CRT-1 was 300Hz to 8kHz, which was within the audible range of the human ear. The operator had to make real-time decisions based on his ability to distinguish various underwater sounds. The problem was that in shallow water the operator had to contend with a host of other noises caused by waves, currents and density layers, making identification of a U-boat operating on electric motors or even drifting with engines off problematic. An improved version, the AN/CRT-1A, also known as the Expendable Radio Sonobuoy (ERSB), had an increased frequency band of 100Hz to 10 kHz and lighter weight (12.7lb).

The improved sonobuoy contained enough battery power for four hours of continuous operation. It was not until June 1944 that these new sonobuoys were being employed by US aircraft squadrons operating in the central Atlantic. It was not until the autumn of 1944 that a single British aircraft squadron received the device for employment.

As an approximation, an aircraft equipped with eight sonobuoys could hold contact with a U-boat for sixty to ninety minutes, and if equipped with twelve, for as long as three hours. This was ample time to vector in a surface hunter-killer group or squadron. The drawback was that calm water was required to achieve these contact times.

The British also took a careful look at operational and practice data recording radar returns against the snorkel. The data the British collected was identified by their own intelligence analysts as ‘scanty’. The S-Band equipment, while operational, could not be compared effectively with the X-Band, which was not yet operational. However, in looking at the MK.V Liberator it was noted that the operational range to identify a periscope or snorkel was 4.7 miles compared with the average of 12.9 miles by day or 14.3 miles by night for this specific equipment on surfaced U-boats. It was thought that the ratio of a third would appear promising until it was realised that this fact implied the majority of these contacts would appear inside the ‘sea returns’ and thus be almost impossible to recognise by sight. The study predicted that in a calm sea the MK.V Liberator had a ratio of 10:1 to identify the snorkel or periscope, while the MK.III Wellington’s ratio was 6:1. In moderate seas the ratios were respectively 50:1 and 30:1. In rough seas it was considered next to impossible to make a radar contact. The conclusion was that the S-Band’s operational range against snorkels ‘appears to be about one-third of that on surfaced U-boats’. In addition ‘detection of snorkel radar in seas of Force 3 or higher is much more difficult than in calmer seas’.

While the above data was based on daylight attacks, a sobering assessment of night-time attacks was also made. The study concluded: ‘The sighting range of the snorkel at night is so low that the technique of attack hitherto used, i.e. radar contact – visual sighting – release of bombs by visual judgment – holds out little hope of success. It is suggested that either radar bomb sites or homing weapons or both are essential.’ This observation is interesting when compared with the procedures outlined to German U-boats by BdU that snorkelling should be carried out at night. This meant that if proper guidance was followed then a snorkel-equipped U-boat’s survivability against aerial identification and attack was very high. No calculations were made by the British in their report between snorkels camouflaged with anti-radar matting and those without. The process of covering snorkel masts with the Wesch anti-radar matting became commonplace in the autumn of 1944 and served to reduce the ability of Allied radar detection even further than already indicated in the above assessment.

The British knew the U-boats were there but were now unable to easily locate them or even effectively employ their aircraft and radar technology against them. The study noted that ‘of the conclusions drawn some are practically certain; others are open to some doubt as based on small numbers. It is however, considered that, in view of the urgency of the snorkel problem, these probable conclusions should also be drawn.’ Indeed, there was a snorkel problem. Six months into this problem the Western Allies were still struggling to identify probable countermeasures against an enemy that they thought was defeated in May 1943, but that had now returned with a vengeance.

Given the negative impact that the snorkel had on British air-based antisubmarine efforts, a series of meetings were convened starting on 22 November 1944 that were intended to address the issue. Meetings followed on 15 December, 19 January 1945, 29 January and 13 March to identify solutions to the troubling snorkel trend. These meetings were held in Room 71/II at Whitehall in the Air Ministry and were chaired by Sir Robert Renwick Bt, who looked for updates from Air Commodore H Leedham, CB, OBE, as the DCD (Director of Communications Development), and Dr A C B Lovell, as the TRE, on ‘actions taken by the DCD and TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment) to provide anti-Schnorkel measures …’ In the first meeting in November it was stated that ‘methods that could be introduced into existing equipment which it was anticipated would give some 20%–25% increase in the ratio of the snorkel responses as against those of sea returns’. In addition, Commodore Leedham believed that either X-Band or K-Band could be used but at least another month of experiments was required. It was confirmed in December that ongoing trials suggested that modifications to both the Wellington and Warwick systems would allow them to better pick up smaller targets. X-Band trials were still ongoing. It was also recommended that American detection systems be included in the testing programme.

In the 19 January meeting it was expressed that significant delays caused by wrongly specified equipment had prevented Coastal Command from equipping their aircraft with the new detection system modifications. K-Band was given the highest priority and X-Band results were promising. By 29 January, Coastal Command aircraft were finally receiving modifications to their radar sets that would allow for better detection of smaller targets. Interestingly, it was noted that the tests being performed off Llandudno, North Wales, in the Irish Sea against British submarine test targets had to stop due to the presence of actual U-boats in the testing area. The first X-Band-equipped Warwick Mk V aircraft were expected to be delivered in late March or early April.

The Air Ministry wanted to increase their chances of a successful attack against a snorkel-equipped U-boat by 20 per cent. Most of their recommendations, however, were not implemented until the spring of 1945. The US was not involved in these meetings, primarily as they were not directly engaged in the snorkel war to any great extent. British findings were to be made available to the US primarily because it was thought they would ‘interest them’.

BdU issued new guidance on 3 March 1945 to their U-boats based on changes introduced by British Coastal Command air patrols. Specifically, Message No. 226C reminded U-boats to maintain depth discipline when snorkelling and avoid being observed. Seven days later, on 10 March 1945, a follow-on message was sent, followed by further guidance to maintain a low snorkel profile in calm surface conditions embodied in Message No. 228B.

What BdU did not calculate was that with the coming of spring, North Atlantic storms gave way to calmer water, as noted by the reference in Message No. 228B of a sea state 1. This increased the potential of a U-boat’s identification through a raised snorkel or periscope by Allied radar or visual recognition.

Allied Countermeasures against the snorkel-equipped U-boat II

Allied Surface Operations

From the start of the war until mid-1944 BdU did not believe that U-boats could patrol effectively along an enemy’s coast. This self-imposed operational limitation was due to the belief that Allied aircraft combined with the critical limiting factor of a U-boat’s requirement that it had to surface in order to recharge its batteries simply prevented extended coastal operations. Just prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy the Admiralty conducted an assessment of the potential for U-boats to operate in the shallows, titled ‘Inshore Operations by U-boats’, where they concluded that once a U-boat conducted an attack in the shallows it would immediately proceed to deeper water in order to withdraw. The idea that a U-boat would ‘bottom’ at the scene of the attack, or move closer inshore, was ‘considered unlikely’ by the Admiralty. This view changed before the end of the war.

The Royal Navy’s ‘support group’ was the corollary to the US Navy’s ‘hunter-killer group’. The number of support groups in the North Atlantic grew to seventeen Royal Navy and seven Royal Canadian Navy by November 1944, the predominant number being assigned to the critical area of the United Kingdom’s coast. Despite the advantage held by the Allies in the number of anti-submarine surface vessels operating in familiar home waters equipped with state-of-the-art search gear, they found that hunting a snorkel-equipped U-boat in the shallows was difficult.

The first Allied experience against a snorkel-equipped U-boat in coastal waters occurred in the English Channel in the days immediately following the Normandy invasion. One particularly graphic account is provided by Lieutenant Commander Allan Easton (Distinguished Service Cross recipient), who commanded the destroyer HMCS Saskatchewan at the time. Operation Neptune was the code name for the Allied protection of the invasion area from U-boats operating in the English Channel. HMCS Saskatchewan was operating as part of 12th Escort Group in that operation. On 7 June, one day after the Normandy invasion, Easton’s ship was on escort duty accompanying four other vessels when a ‘low rumble was heard, the unmistakable sound of an underwater explosion’ at around 8pm. No one knew exactly what it was. The flag went up from the other escort communicating that it was searching for a contact it made via ASDIC. ‘Action stations’ was now called onboard HMCS Saskatchewan. A search began and a salvo of hedgehogs was fired that exploded without hitting any target. Three destroyers were now searching for the original contact with active ASDIC. The ASDIC officer onboard Easton’s destroyer, Sub-Lieutenant Coyne, noted ominously that: ‘I think the Channel is not going to be an easy place to locate submarines.’ He elaborated on his statement to Easton: ‘In the few days we’ve been in these waters, the H.S.D. [Higher Submarine Detector] and I have been watching the sound effects and so on of the ASDIC and they’re very confusing. Fish appear to be very plentiful. The tides may have something to do with it. To my mind the outlook isn’t particularly bright.’ He concluded his observation, while observing four destroyers now searching for a U-boat, that: ‘It’s not like the clear water of the mid-Atlantic, sir. There’s the place for good ASDIC condition!’ At that very moment an explosion was heard, immediately followed by a column of water that shot up into the air a mere 100 yards abaft Eaton’s destroyer.

As Easton observed the area of the explosion there were no track marks left by a typical torpedo’s stream of bubbles in the water. He correctly concluded that a defective electric-drive acoustic torpedo had self-detonated just four seconds before hitting their stern. As was the custom in a U-boat hunt, the destroyer’s loudspeaker was switched on as it was connected to an ultra-short range telephone on the bridge. It was assumed that the acoustic torpedoes had a short range so everyone was alert searching the immediate area. Eight minutes after the first explosion a report came over the loudspeaker from one of the other destroyers: ‘Torpedo just passed down starboard side running very shallow leaving slight swirl behind it. Heard on hydrophones. No explosion.’ The ASDIC operator on a nearby destroyer picked up multiple contacts, then almost immediately dismissed them as fish. The same false signals were heard by Easton’s ASDIC operator. Then a third destroyer picked up something slightly different and turned slowly to starboard to investigate when the slender pipe of a periscope broke the surface, just abaft to starboard.

The periscope was indeed from a U-boat operating within 20m of the surface among four searching destroyers. Seeing the destroyers, the U-boat retracted its periscope and began evasive manoeuvres that quickly broke contact. Twenty minutes later a hydrophone operator noted that he distinctly heard blowing tanks. HMCS Saskatchewan quickly turned and gave chase, letting loose a salvo of depth charges, but they did not hit the mark. After the first detected torpedo the crew had dropped a trailing noise maker into the water that was designed to detonate acoustic torpedoes. It was a good thing, because no sooner had the depth charge explosions stopped echoing over the hydrophones than another explosion abaft of Easton’s destroyer was heard, accompanied by a column of water 100ft high. Another acoustic torpedo had been detonated by the noise maker.

Oberleutnant zur See Heinz Sieder (1920-1944), Kommandant Unterseeboote “U 984”, Ritterkreuz 08.07.1944

The U-boat Eaton encountered was U-984 (VIIC), which reported firing two T5 torpedoes and a LUT acoustic homing torpedo at a group of three destroyers on that day. Oberleutnant Heinz Sieder claimed ‘one missed, one detonated too soon, one probable hit after 7 minutes’. On both attacks against HMCS Saskatchewan Sieder set the running depth of the T5s at 4m. Both were launched at periscope depth. After the third torpedo, Sieder ordered the U-boat to bottom in order to reload the tubes. He believed that an hour later he was accurately located on the bottom by two destroyers that bracketed him with depth charges. While the destroyers had detected an ASDIC return they did not know it was U-984. The lights flickered onboard the U-boat and sea water began to leak into the bow compartment, but the boat withstood the concussions.

U-984 remained bottomed until the afternoon of the 8th as the destroyers criss-crossed the area. Sieder knew the destroyers were utilising a well-drilled tactic to starve the U-boat of oxygen and battery power in order to force it to the surface, where it was vulnerable. However, U-984 was a snorkel-equipped U-boat. At noon, Sieder decided to lift off from the bottom and move closer to shore, to the area of Ushant, France, where he planned to snorkel to recharge batteries and refresh oxygen. He noted in his KTB that ‘the air condition was exceptionally bad in the last 12 hours. The men literally gasped for air. A certain amount of relief was provided by breathing with potash cartridges. (Mouthpiece of the escape lung connected).’ By 9pm U-984 was snorkelling close to the coast. Sieder then decided to return to Brest, where he could recharge the batteries in a long snorkelling run, instead of the two it would require in the operational area.

U-984 returned to Brest on the 10th and after some minor repairs went back out to the operational area two days later. Sieder’s second foray into the English Channel was an extraordinary example of the snorkel’s new ability. He penetrated the Allied defensive screen and reached the invasion area off the Cotentin Peninsula. In the five days from 25 to 29 June he sank a British frigate, HMS Goodson, and subsequently sank three vessels and damaged one off the invasion beaches of Omaha and Utah. The Allied vessels were from Convoy ECM-17 and carried military equipment and troops for the invasion. His total tonnage for this patrol was 30,090 GRT. BdU noted in Sieder’s KTB after it was turned in: ‘Exemplarily executed enterprise carried out with high attack spirit. The Commander carried himself on 7.6 and 25.6 with iron calmness and toughness towards the destroyer and took advantage of every opportunity for attack. The attack on the convoy on 29.6 was a tactical masterpiece with magnificent success. The experiences of the boat are valuable.’ Sieder was awarded the Knight’s Cross on 8 July 1944 for his patrol.

Back on the surface, the rest of the night and following day were quiet. Then at around 7.30pm on the 8th a deep underwater explosion was heard and the previous night’s attack and counter-attack with a U-boat was repeated. Torpedoes were fired, missed their target or prematurely exploded, followed by ASDIC contacts, depth charges, and in Easton’s words, ‘dead or unconscious cod rising to the surface’. This U-boat, if it was an actual U-boat, was not U-984 as Sieder had already departed the area. If the encounter had occurred in the mid-Atlantic in 1943 the U-boat would have probably been destroyed in short order as clear ASDIC returns would have been acquired. Here in the shallows, four destroyers could not zero in on a U-boat due to the benefits gained from the rocky bottom, thermoclines and current.

The next afternoon Easton’s squadron fell in with six British destroyers that formed a line of ten abreast that began to search for U-boats. This was a formidable defensive line at the western end of the English Channel. The weather was overcast, with a rain squall, though visibility was still good at 3 miles. At some time after 5pm a puff of smoke was seen in the distance. Two destroyers began to turn towards the smoke, with one opening fire from its deck gun. Easton recalled:

On that instant I knew exactly what she was firing at. I altered course towards the smoke and rang for twenty-five knots as I saw our neighbour turning, too. A minute later the smoke had disappeared and nothing whatever was to be seen. What we had observed was a new German invention in operation, an invention with which we were acquainted but not familiar. It was the snorkel …

Easton and his fellow commanders were briefed on the German secret invention before the invasion. He recalled that in his briefing it was noted that the snorkel was to allow U-boats to operate in British coastal waters by allowing it to recharge batteries without surfacing. The report went so far as to note that it was equipped with a radar antenna on the snorkel head that would allow it to identify aircraft and surface ships. However, Easton noted: ‘It did not occur to us that a [snorkel] would smoke.’ This fact was kept as an Allied secret, as previously noted. Not surprisingly, the U-boat evaded all ten destroyers.

Improved detection of a snorkel-equipped U-boat was the Allies’ first priority. The snorkel evolved U-boat tactics to a degree that traditional detection techniques were rendered nearly irrelevant overnight. Usual detection sources such as the HF/DF of wireless signals, surface radar returns, or visual sightings of a surfaced U-boat could not be relied upon. ASDIC was only effective at short range and when used in shallow coastal water could not effectively discern rock from wreck from U-boat. During the convoy battles of previous years ASDIC had proved effective in maintaining contact with a U-boat after an initial detection, often from a visual source such as a surface vessel or aircraft that subsequently vectored in an escort vessel. From mid-1941 until mid-1943 most U-boats were initially detected through radar or visual identification on the surface, not by a chance ASDIC contact.

As BdU shifted focus from open-ocean convoys to specific coastal embarkation/debarkation routes, so did the support groups. Support groups were assigned coastal patrol areas with the intent that they learned all the sub-surface ASDIC signature returns given off by the shallow sea floor and various wrecks. This was believed to be a critical factor in the future success of hunting U-boats as the knowledge gained of the bottom conditions made the difference in distinguishing a U-boat sonar signature from a known sub-surface anomaly.

In August the Admiralty conducted a preliminary analysis of the problem that continued to hold true for the remainder of the war. Through the use of Ultra intercepts, analysis showed that search groups had probably passed over U-boats ten times, but made only one contact. The U-boat on the other hand, had detected 65 per cent of the escorts that passed within 3 miles of them by using their own hydrophones. At this range a U-boat had an excellent chance of slipping through the search screen or manoeuvring around their flank.27 Captain R Winn came to the judgement at the end of August that a U-boat was able to remain ‘submerged for up to ten days without presenting any target detectable by radar or visually except at short range’.

U-boats operated with two main weaknesses prior to the introduction of the snorkel. First, a U-boat could not remain submerged for more than twenty-four hours without surfacing completely to recharge its batteries. Second, when operating in the deep open ocean of the North and Central Atlantic, a U-boat’s sonar signal was often clear and distinct. Allied escort vessel tactics prior to the introduction of the snorkel were to leverage these two weaknesses in a ‘hunt to exhaustion’ whereby the U-boat, once identified through ASDIC, would be pursued until it was compelled to the surface after a loss of electric power caused by drained batteries. Once on the surface, the U-boat could be destroyed by surface gun fire or ramming. This tactic worked only when a U-boat was identified by ASDIC and contact maintained. In the shallows, density layers, thermoclines, currents, rocky bottoms, other wrecks as well as the tactic of bottoming for long periods, significantly diminished the effectiveness of ASDIC. Additionally, a U-boat only had to raise its snorkel mast just a few metres above the surface to recharge its batteries or suck in fresh air required for it to run full diesels and escape at high speed, thereby presenting the Allies with a very difficult target. Allied tactics had to change.

In September 1944, after four months of hunting U-boats in the English Channel, the Admiralty changed their conclusion on U-boat tactics. They now put out guidance that when a ship was torpedoed in waters where a U-boat could bottom effectively, that it would do so if immediate anti-submarine attacks occurred.29 They began to realise that a U-boat no longer attempted to run for deep water; its best defence was to hide in the shallows. By October 1944 the Admiralty issued new guidance:

U-boats can now operate inshore and are likely to adopt static tactics in place of the mobile tactics which we have been used to dealing with. Static tactics involve the use of curly and gnat torpedoes fired from U-boats which endeavour to lie in wait on the course of convoys. When no targets are available U-boats are likely to move with great caution and charge by snort [i.e. snorkel] mainly by night. On approach of a hunting force [the U-boat] will probably bottom or may drift with tide near bottom.

In addition to ASDIC, another source of submerged U-boat identification was through the sound emitted from inside the vessel. The Admiralty was interested in learning if there were ways to improve U-boat identification through hydrophones. The Admiralty Research Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, published a classified study on 22 February 1945 titled Supplement to the Detection of Schnorkel by Hydrophone. This was part of a series of reports designed to show the ‘probability of recognition of Schnorkel over a yearly cycle on various hydrophone systems’. As a baseline the probability model was based on a snorkel-equipped U-boat charging its batteries at a regular snorkel depth cruising at 2–3 knots. A subsequent report considered propeller noise in the calculus among other operational conditions, as well as practical results from test trials being carried out. What is interesting is how limited the report was given that it was nearly one year since the first snorkel-equipped U-boat became operational. The analysis factored in the rule that pressure is inversely proportional to distance, as well as the impact of temperature gradients based on the report ‘Sound Beam Patterns in Sea Water’ issued by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Massachusetts, on 10 October 1944. This latter point is interesting as it shows how little the Admiralty understood the impact of temperature gradients, especially now that the U-boats had moved back to operating inshore.

The study looked at all hydrophone and sonar systems across the spectrum of distances. It was based on depths of 150ft and 900ft, with the former having a bottom reflection coefficient of .3 and the latter being evaluated with a bottom reflection coefficient of both .3 and .7. All probabilities were modelled across sea states 1–4. Looking at a sea state 2, in 150ft of water with a bottom reflection coefficient of .7, we see that in order to have a 60 per cent chance of picking up a snorkelling U-boat that is charging its batteries, a 50ft vertical rod hydrophone has the best chance at 14,000 yards, followed by 15ft ASDIC at 10kc/s being 6,000 yards, 15ft ASDIC at 20kc/s being approx. 4,200 yards, a non-directional hydrophone suspended from a sonobuoy being 3,900 yards, and finally a non-directional hydrophone suspended from a ship being less than 2,000 yards. A calm sea would give greater distances, while a sea state 4 would reduce them significantly. These averages were compounded in shallow water by the extensive noises heard from a wide range of other vessels and differing gradients. The study was based on British submarine diesel noise trials. The results were not promising and confirmed the difficulty of submerged U-boat detection in coastal waters, already well known by support group commanders.

In addition to the use of technology, new search patterns were adopted by the search groups designed specifically to find a bottomed U-boat. These patterns were ‘Scabbard’ and ‘Artichoke’. Both made the assumption that a U-boat would in fact bottom near the torpedoed vessel, bow pointed in the direction of tide. The search patterns were designed to improve the chances of ASDIC detection by hopefully encountering the bottomed U-boat abeam. However, it is not clear if these patterns were routinely employed in practice as the tactical conditions of a U-boat encounter were often highly varied.

While the British wrestled with U-boat detection in coastal waters they also introduced a series of defensive measures designed to blind and confuse U-boats, which now operated almost exclusively in an underwater world of sound. Code-named ‘Foxer’, this noise maker was towed behind an Allied ship and was originally intended to confuse the German G7 acoustic homing torpedoes introduced in 1943–44. These were turned into buoys in the autumn of 1944 and employed in a static fashion around harbours and close-in waterways where Allied vessels manoeuvred to blind U-boats operating in these areas. BdU issued guidance regarding this Allied tactic to all U-boats on 3 January 1945:

It has been determined that the enemy has noise-producing buoys which reproduce the noise of a buzz saw. Apparent purpose: (1) Attempt to deflect Zaunkönig (2) Blocking our hydrophones. Details on the buoy not yet known. The following observations are important and are to be reported: (1) Appearance of buoy, if it can be determined by chance observation through periscope. (2) Length of the towing connection. (3) Does the buzz saw noise also occur in noise-producing buoys? (4) Is the noise produced by the movement of the current or by a special mechanism?

It was clear that BdU did not completely understand the buoy’s tactical use. This tactic was employed some six months after the introduction of the snorkel and the inshore campaign, highlighting how long it was taking the Allies to adapt to the new U-boat tactics.

A post-war analysis of the inshore campaign revealed the Allied struggle with locating and destroying U-boats. In the period from July to mid-September 1944 twenty-six ships were torpedoed. During that time only three U-boats were found and located immediately by Allied support groups after a torpedoing. From the period mid-September to December 1944, where U-boats were completing their evacuation to Norwegian bases and snorkel retrofittings were being completed on the existing operational boats, the number of U-boat patrols against the British Isles decreased. However, three Allied ships were sunk with no U-boats located after the attacks. From mid-December 1944 until February 1945, twenty-three Allied ships were torpedoed with only three U-boats sunk immediately after the reported attack. This period of the inshore campaign proved the most effective for snorkel-equipped U-boats and the most concerning for the Allies. The final period was from mid-February until May, 1945. This period saw a marked increase in operational U-boats sent against the British Isles, which resulted in thirty-five Allied ships torpedoed and eight U-boats identified and sunk shortly after the attack. This suggested that Allied tactical improvements were proving effective, though the number of operational U-boats deployed also increased at the same time. During these four periods the number of U-boats sunk by aircraft proved dismal, with only one each for the first three periods and six in the fourth.

There were other U-boats sunk around the British Isles during these four periods of analysis, however, they were identified by chance. In the first period there were eight sunk, followed by two, one and twelve. These numbers reflected a combination of contributing factors that ranged from some U-boats transiting British waters without a snorkel in July–September on their return to Norway to a large increase of U-boats sent on patrol at the end of the war.

The Admiralty understood that the chance encounter provided the best opportunity to locate and sink a U-boat. This is revealed by the fact that out of thirty-seven U-boats sunk during the inshore campaign by surface vessels, only eleven were destroyed by surface ships escorting or supporting a convoy, while the other twenty-six were targeted by patrolling support groups. Most U-boats sunk in the inshore campaign were encountered en route to their patrol areas. Put another way, by April 1945 U-boats that reached the British coast found themselves in a very effective position. The Admiralty assessed that their escorts only had an 8 per cent chance of detecting a U-boat as it approached a convoy in coastal waters.35 The key was interdicting the U-boat before it reached the coast.

Acoustic Camouflage

The Admiralty did take note of the use of rubber coating of U-boats during the war. Survivors of U-485 were interrogated about this technology. The Royal Navy interrogator noted that the: ‘Rubber covering was against our ASDIC. His was one of the first boats to be so fitted, and he personally had had insufficient experience to be able to assess its value.’

In the autumn of 1944 the Admiralty took serious note of the development. In a report dated 21 November 1944, it reviewed the possibilities of what the rubber was used for and concluded: ‘In general, it is considered that there is a possibility of reducing echo strength from a submarine by protective coatings, and that any development along these lines must be carefully watched.’

The November assessment was indeed correct that developments had to be ‘watched’ as Alberich reduced the ASDIC effectiveness and gave U-boats a marked advantage when operating in coastal waters.

Strategic Countermeasures

Air raids were employed as a strategic countermeasure to U-boats. Starting in the spring of 1943 and lasting through to the end of the war, Allied air raids hit German shipyards and production centres. The result was that most shipyards experienced work stoppages of three to four weeks that delayed the VIIC construction and operational readiness of existing boats. In the last twelve months of the war air attacks reportedly contributed to preventing some 150 Type XXIs from being built. Diesel production was hit hard when a raid on the factory in Augsburg delayed work for nearly four weeks in June 1944. Battery production at Hagen and Hanover was paralysed by air attacks, causing a scarcity in them after February 1945. It was determined that due to this shortage, only half of the ordinary number of batteries required for the Type XXIs would be installed after December.

Despite the strategic bombing campaign, more U-boats were at sea or operationally ready in May 1945 than at any point during the war.


The Second Sudan War, 1896-8

Despite their tactical reverses, the dervishes followed up the British withdrawal from the Sudan. On the Nile sector their northwards advance was checked at Ginnis on 30 December 1885, the battle being otherwise remarkable in that it was the last occasion on which British infantry went into action in their traditional scarlet. Under British officers, the Egyptian Army was reformed, the men being given regular pay, decent conditions of service, the prospect of promotion and thorough training. Skirmishing continued along the frontier, escalating to a seven-hour pitched battle at Toski on 3 August 1889 in which the dervishes were decisively defeated with 1000 killed, a quarter of their strength, including one of their most notable commanders, the Emir Wad-el-Najumi.

In 1896 it was decided that the Sudan would be reconquered. This decision was not taken for the humanitarian cause of rescuing the Sudanese from the Khalifa’s barbaric oppression, but for altogether more pragmatic reasons. The Italians, for example, had been seriously defeated by the Abyssinians at Adowa in 1892. The event damaged the prestige of all the colonial powers and there was a need to restore this. Even more pressing was the interest which other great powers, notably France, were showing in establishing control of the upper reaches of the Nile.

The Sirdar or Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army was General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who had been appointed to the post in 1892. He had performed intelligence duties during the Gordon Relief Expedition and considered the British withdrawal to have been a national disgrace. He had later commanded at Suakin. He was not a notable tactician but he was an expert in logistics, the very quality required for a campaign that would be conducted over such vast distances.

Egypt, goes the saying, is the gift of the Nile and so, largely, is the Sudan. The contribution made by Gordon’s little gunboats during the 1884-5 war was such that Kitchener decided his own advance would have continuous gunboat support. When the new war started he had at his disposal four old stern-wheel gunboats, named after battles in the earlier war (Tamai, El Teb, Abu Klea and Metemmeh), all armed with one 12-pounder gun and two Maxim-Nordenfeldt machine guns. From 1896 onwards these were joined by three more stern-wheelers, Fateh, Naser and Zafir, armed with one quick-firing 12-pounder, two 6-pounders and four Maxim machine guns. In 1898 the flotilla was joined by three twin screw gunboats, Sultan, Melik and Sheikh, armed with one quick-firing 12-pounder, two Nordenfeldts, one howitzer and four Maxim machine guns. These last were built by Thornycroft and Company at Chiswick and shipped out to Egypt in sections. Some of the craft were fitted with powerful searchlights.

The gunboats’ crews consisted of British, Egyptian and Sudanese service personnel and civilians. In command were junior officers drawn from the Royal Navy and the Royal Engineers most of whom would achieve distinction if they had not already done so. The flotilla commander, and also captain of the Zafir, was Commander Colin Keppel whom we have already met during the final stages of the Gordon Relief Expedition. Commanding the Sultan was Lieutenant Walter Cowan who, in 1895, had captured a rebel standard during a punitive expedition in East Africa; a born fighter, he will appear again in these pages and was still fighting in his seventies. Lieutenant David Beatty, commanding the Fateh, would command the battlecruiser fleet at the Battle of Jutland and go on to command the Grand Fleet itself. Lieutenant the Hon. Horace Hood, commander of the Naser, was to lose his life commanding the Third Battlecruiser Squadron at Jutland. Captain W. S. ‘Monkey’ Gordon, RE, was a nephew of General Charles Gordon and thus had a personal stake in the successful outcome of the campaign.

Curiously, when the Second Sudan War commenced, both Kitchener and the Khalifa had decided that the decisive battle would be fought near Omdurman, across the river from Khartoum, where the dervishes had made their capital. Both were aware that in desert warfare a victorious army becomes progressively weaker the further it advances from its sources of supply. The Khalifa’s plan, therefore, was to offer only token resistance to the Anglo-Egyptian advance, drawing Kitchener further and further into the wilderness just as Hicks had been drawn to destruction in 1883. Kitchener, however, intended harnessing the most modern means of transport available, not only to keep his troops supplied but also to reinforce them with fresh British brigades at the critical moment so that when the battle was fought he would have twice the strength with which he had begun the campaign.

One by one the dervish outposts fell after varying degrees of fighting, these local successes doing much to raise the morale of the Egyptians. When Dongola was captured Kitchener took the decision which was to win him the campaign. This was nothing less than to build a railway through the 235 miles of arid and empty desert between Wadi Halfa and Abu Hamed, cutting across the northern arc of the Great Bend. Many doubts were expressed about the idea, for without water, steam locomotives were as helpless as men in the desert. Fortunately, Royal Engineer survey parties located suitable sources of water 77 and 126 miles out from Wadi Halfa. Construction commenced on 1 January 1897 and proceeded at an average rate of one mile per day. Simultaneously, Kitchener sent a diversionary force along the route taken by Stewart’s Desert Column in 1885, hoping to convince the enemy that this was his chosen axis of advance.

During the early stages of the campaign the attack against the dervish positions at Hafir on 19 September 1896 received gunfire support from Tamai, Abu Klea and Metemmeh, which also sank an enemy steamer. During this action Abu Klea was extremely lucky in that a shell penetrated her magazine but failed to explode. On the 22nd the flotilla was joined by the Zafir and El Teb. The next day Dongola fell to a combined attack by the army and the gunboats.

The advance was renewed when the level of the Nile rose again the following year. On 5 August the flotilla commenced its ascent of the Fourth Cataract, led by Tamai. Some 300 local tribesmen had been recruited to assist by hauling on ropes from both banks and, with her stern-wheel thrashing at full power, the gunboat succeeded in climbing half the slope of water. The pull on the ropes, however, was uneven and her head began to pay off. The immense pressure of water would have capsized her had not the ropes been released in the nick of time. Bobbing like a cork, she was carried downstream.

Another 400 tribesmen were recruited and that afternoon El Teb tried the ascent. The same thing happened, but this time the gunboat capsized, flinging Lieutenant Beatty and his crew into the rushing water. All save three were picked up downstream by the Tamai. One man was known to have drowned but the fate of two more remained uncertain. Keel uppermost, El Teb floated down the river until she became trapped between two rocks. A party reached the wreck to see whether she could be salvaged and was about to leave when knocking was heard within the hull. Tools were brought and a plate removed from the keel. Somewhat battered by their ordeal and blinking, the two missing men, an engineer and a stoker, emerged from total darkness into brilliant sunlight. Raised and repaired over a period of months, El Teb was renamed Hafir to change her luck, and took part in the later stages of the campaign.

It was decided to try to ascend the cataract at another point, once the level of the river had risen a little more. The method of hauling was carefully revised and with yet more men on the ropes Metemmeh was successfully brought to the top on 13 August, followed by Tamai the following day, Fateh, Naser and Zafir on the 19th and 20th, and the unarmed steamer Dal on the 23rd. Abu Hamed had already been taken by the army and, to its surprise, Berber was occupied without the need for a fight. On 14 October the Fateh, Naser and Zafir steamed south and engaged the dervish fortifications at Shendi and Metemmeh. During the two-day operation 650 shells and several thousand rounds of Maxim ammunition were fired, inflicting about 500 casualties in return for one man killed and some minor damage.

The rounding of the Great Bend and the capture of Berber were of enormous strategic significance. Those dervish forces in the eastern Sudan found their position untenable and were forced to retire on Omdurman. This provided Kitchener with a second line of supply once the route from Suakin was re-opened. It also enabled completion of the Desert Railway. The line reached Abu Hamed on 31 October and was extended southwards. Along it came the three newest gunboats, the Sheikh, Sultan and Melik. These had been shipped in sections from England to Ismailia on the Suez Canal, then towed along the Sweet Water Canal and the Nile to Wadi Halfa. There, under Captain Gordon’s supervision, the sections were loaded on to railway flats and transported to Abadiya. On arrival, they were launched and assembled by another Royal Engineer officer, Lieutenant George Gorringe, whom we shall encounter again in a later war, commanding a division in Mesopotamia. Lacking heavy lifting gear, Gorringe was forced to improvise, using railway sleepers, rails, ropes and muscle power. During the final fitting-out phase he was joined by Gordon.

On 1 November the Zafir, Naser and Metemmeh again bombarded Shendi and Metemmeh. Joined the next day by Fateh, they continued their raid as far south as Wad-Habeshi. During this foray three men were wounded when a shell struck the Fateh. By now the river had begun to fall and, rather than expose the gunboats to rapids which had appeared at Um Tiur, four miles below the point where it was joined by the Atbara river, a small fortified depot was established for them at Dakhila, just north of the confluence, becoming known as Fort Atbara.

With a growing sense of unease the Khalifa began to realise that he was engaged in a new type of war which he did not really understand. He had never seen a railway but its workings were explained to him and when his spies told him that each day a mountain of supplies reached Kitchener’s army in this way he knew that the Desert Railway had to be destroyed. Although he still believed that the decisive battle would be fought at Omdurman, he despatched 16,000 men under one of his less popular followers, the Emir Mahmud, to execute this important mission. For his part, Mahmud, resenting the fact that the Khalifa seemed to regard him as expendable, declined to do much more than indulge in isolated skirmishes and dug himself trenches within a large zareba which had its back to the dry bed of the Atbara River. During their crossing of the Nile from Metemmeh to Shendi, his troops were badly shot up by the gunboats.

Meanwhile, Kitchener, seeing the critical final phase of the campaign approaching, had obtained two British brigades from the War Office, the first of which joined his army in January 1898. Offensive operations began on 27 March when the Zafir, Naser and Fateh, with troops aboard or in towed boats, attacked and took Shendi. On 8 April Kitchener stormed Mahmud’s zareba on the Atbara, killing 3000 dervishes and taking 2000 prisoners, the latter including Mahmud himself. The Anglo-Egyptian army’s casualties amounted to less that 600. The gunboats were not directly involved in the battle but a landing party under Lieutenant Beatty used rockets to set fire to the zareba, opening the way for the troops’ assault.

The road to Omdurman now lay open but Kitchener was not inclined to advance until the second British brigade had joined him and did not set his troops in motion again until August. On the 28th the flotilla sustained its most serious loss when, near Metemmeh, the Zafir suddenly sprang a serious leak and went down by the head in deep water before she could be run aground. Although no lives were lost, only the Maxim machine guns could be salvaged from the wreck. As no readily identifiable cause has been quoted, sabotage springs to mind as one possibility.

While the army kept pace, the rest of the flotilla passed through the Shabluka Gorge, a place of swirling water and precipitous cliffs covered by several now abandoned dervish forts. Well aware of the gunboats’ potential, the Khalifa increased the number of batteries guarding the river approach to Omdurman and decided to mine the river itself by using two old boilers filled with explosive to be detonated by a pistol, the trigger of which would be pulled by cord from a safe distance. A former officer of the Egyptian Army, who had been a prisoner since the Mahdi’s day, was put in charge of the project. As the first boiler was being lowered into the water the cord snagged, the pistol fired and the reluctant mine warfare expert and his team were blown apart. An emir was ordered to supervise the installation of the second mine. Being a canny man, he allowed water to leak into the explosive, rendering it useless, before sinking the device. The grateful Khalifa rewarded him with a number of presents.

On 1 September the gunboats landed their howitzers to supplement the army’s artillery, then moved up-river to engage the river batteries at Omdurman, Khartoum and on Tuti Island between. Lieutenant Cowan of the Sultan made the dome of the Mahdi’s tomb his special target and punched several holes through it, causing dismay among the superstitious dervishes. Winston Churchill, then a junior officer attached to the 21st Lancers, had a grandstand view of the engagement, of which he has left us the following graphic account:

At about eleven o’clock the gunboats had ascended the Nile, and now engaged the enemy’s batteries on both banks. Throughout the day the loud reports of their guns could be heard, and, looking from our position on the ridge, we could see the white vessels steaming slowly forward against the current, under clouds of black smoke from their furnaces and amid other clouds of white smoke from their artillery. The forts, which mounted nearly fifty guns, replied vigorously; but the British aim was accurate and the fire crushing. The embrasures were smashed to bits and many of the dervish guns dismounted. The rifle trenches which flanked the forts were swept by the Maxim guns. The heavier projectiles, striking the mud walls of the works and houses, dashed red dust high in the air and scattered destruction around. Despite the tenacity and courage of the dervish gunners, they were driven from their defences and took refuge among the streets of the city. The great wall of Omdurman was breached in many places, and a large number of unfortunate non-combatants were killed and wounded.

Seven miles to the north, the army spent the night within a zareba centred on the village of El Egeiga, around which it curved in a half-moon with both flanks resting on the Nile. Outside the zareba lay a bare featureless plain which both sides recognised would be the morrow’s battlefield. Throughout the hours of darkness the gunboats’ searchlights probed the hinterland as a precaution against surprise attack. ‘What is this strange thing?’ asked the Khalifa, pointing to the distant, unblinking orbs. ‘They are looking at us’, he was told by those who understood.

At dawn the Khalifa led out his 60,000-strong army to launch an immediate attack on the zareba. The subsequent battle has sometimes been described as a triumph of firepower over fanatical courage, but that is simplistic. The dervishes had plenty of guns and their field artillery was actually on its way forward when the attack was launched. They also possessed machine guns, and although many of these were obsolete or damaged by rough handling, there were sufficient unscrupulous arms salesmen in the world to satisfy the Khalifa’s needs had he chosen to contact them. The truth was that the dervishes regarded field artillery and machine guns simply as a preparation for the wild charge with sword and stabbing spear, borne forward on a wave of religious fervour.

At 06:25, with the enemy 2700 yards distant and closing rapidly, Kitchener’s artillery opened fire. The gunboats joined in immediately, followed by the Maxim machine guns. At 06:35, with the range down to 2000 yards, volley firing commenced, and within ten minutes the whole of the Anglo-Egyptian line was ablaze. Disregarding their heavy casualties, the dervishes continued to press their attack, but few got closer than 800 yards on the British sector, or 400 yards opposite the slower-firing Egyptians. By 07:30, however, they had had enough and, in their usual way, turned about and walked off.

Elsewhere, matters had not gone according to plan. The Egyptian cavalry, accompanied by a horse artillery battery and the Camel Corps, had been operating outside the zareba and, while withdrawing over the Kerreri Hills, it succeeded in drawing off a large proportion of the dervish army. The slow-moving Camel Corps was soon in difficulty on the broken ground and began to suffer casualties from the enemy riflemen. Burdened with wounded, it was ordered to make for the northern flank of the zareba. With the dervishes in hot pursuit and on the verge of running their quarry to ground, it began to look as though a massacre would take place, but at that moment Captain Gordon’s Melik took a hand. Churchill wrote:

The gunboat arrived on the scene and began suddenly to blaze and flame from Maxim guns, quick-firing guns and rifles. The range was short; the effect tremendous. The terrible machine, floating gracefully on the waters – a beautiful white devil – wreathed itself in smoke. The river slopes of the Kerreri Hills, crowded with the advancing thousands, sprang up into clouds of dust and splinters of rock. The charging dervishes sank down in tangled heaps. The masses in the rear paused, irresolute. It was too hot even for them. The approach of another gunboat completed their discomfiture. The Camel Corps, hurrying along the shore, slipped past the fatal point of interception, and saw safety and the zareba before them.

Somewhat prematurely, Kitchener ordered a general advance. As a result of this an Egyptian brigade came close to being overrun by a dervish counter-attack but was saved by the tactical skill of its commander. The 21st Lancers made their epic but pointless charge, during which Churchill shot his way through the enemy ranks with a privately purchased Mauser automatic pistol. By 11:30 the battle was over. The dervish loss amounted to 9700 killed and perhaps twice that number wounded. Anglo-Egyptian casualties were 48 killed and 428 wounded. Omdurman was occupied during the afternoon. On 4 September it was, fittingly, the Melik which ferried troops to Khartoum for a memorial service for General Gordon, held beside the ruins of the governor general’s palace.

The Khalifa, his power broken, was now a fugitive who would have to be hunted down, but for the moment another matter claimed Kitchener’s attention. On 7 September the Tewfikieh steamed into Omdurman from the south. Her dervish crew, promptly made captive, told a strange tale. The Khalifa had sent them up-river as part of a foraging expedition, but at Fashoda, 600 miles from Omdurman, they had been fired on by black troops commanded by white officers under a strange flag. Having sustained serious casualties, the foraging party had retired some way and sent the Tewfikieh back to Omdurman for further orders. Naturally, news of the presence of another European power on the Upper Nile was far from welcome. Having embarked two infantry battalions, two companies of Cameron Highlanders, an artillery battery and four Maxims aboard the steamer Dal and the gunboats Fateh, Sultan, Naser and Abu Klea, Kitchener set off in person to discover who these intruders might be. On 15 September the foragers’ camp was reached. Rashly, the dervishes, 500 strong, opened fire on the gunboats and were quickly dispersed. Their remaining steamer, the Safieh, tried to escape but, for the second time in her history, a shell burst her boiler.

During the morning of 19 September the gunboats were met by a rowing boat containing a Senegalese sergeant and two men. They handed Kitchener a letter from their commander, a Major Marchand, which confirmed French occupation of the Sudan, offered congratulations to the Sirdar on his victory, and welcomed him to Fashoda in the name of France. Marchand’s force, consisting of eight French officers and NCOs and 120 Senegalese soldiers, was found to be in occupation of the former government post. They had left the Atlantic coast two years earlier and had marched continuously across all manner of terrain before planting the tricolour at Fashoda. They were delighted by Kitchener’s arrival as they had fired off most of their ammunition, had no transport and very little food, and were in touch with no one. Kitchener got on well with Marchand, congratulated him on his remarkable achievement and courteously suggested that settlement of the issues between them was best left to their respective politicians. Faced with so much firepower, Marchand could but agree. Kitchener established one Anglo-Egyptian garrison at Fashoda and two more 60 miles to the south, then, leaving the Sultan and the Abu Klea to support them, he returned to Khartoum. By December the diplomats had reached a conclusion that France had no interest in the area after all. Marchand and his men continued their journey by way of Abyssinia to the French territory of Djibouti, having marched right across Africa.

A period of pacification followed Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman. There were pockets of resistance, notably east of the Blue Nile and in Kordofan province, whence the Khalifa had fled, but most Sudanese had had enough of dervish rule. Control of the major waterways by the gunboat flotilla, latterly commanded by Lieutenant Walter Cowan, was absolute. Often the mere appearance of a gunboat was enough not only to induce the surrender of the dervish garrison of a town, but guarantee a warm welcome from its inhabitants. By the end of the year the last dervish force in the eastern Sudan had been decisively defeated, leaving only the Khalifa and his most ardent followers at large. Finally, on 25 November 1899, he was cornered at Om Dubreikat and, together with his principal emirs, fought to the death.

Of the gunboats which served on the Nile during the period of the dervish wars, two survive. One, the Bordein, it will be recalled, saw much active service during the siege of Khartoum. The second is the Melik, which, after being decommissioned, served as the clubhouse of the Blue Nile Sailing Club until an exceptional flood left her stranded. The Sudan’s Department of Archaeology and Museums is believed to be working on a repair and maintenance plan for both.

Vicksburg 1863 – Union Riverine Forces


On the west side of the Mississippi, some seventy-five river miles north of Vicksburg, lay Lake Providence, a crescent-shaped body of water that could link the Mississippi via Louisiana bayous and rivers to the mouth of the Red River, miles south of Vicksburg. If successful, Grant’s army and Porter’s navy could get safely past Vicksburg and increase options for approaching the hill city out of the range of Pemberton’s guns. Grant’s engineers cut levees and created immense flooding, thus making it difficult to secure safe channels for the passage of Porter’s boats. The project dragged on, and Grant eventually gave up on it in favor of a new strategy to bypass Vicksburg.

In the back of his mind, he considered moving his army down the Louisiana side of the Mississippi and using Porter’s boats to ferry his men across to the Mississippi side, well below Vicksburg. And though it took him a while to embrace the idea as workable, the Lake Providence project produced a future benefit for the operation Grant had in mind. Massive flooding provided a water barrier that would protect Union troops marching south along the Mississippi’s west bank.

Before any of that happened, Grant tried other ideas. An ambitious Federal project took place well north of Vicksburg. Just south of Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi side of the river, flowed a waterway called Yazoo Pass. The pass emptied into the Coldwater, which flowed into the Tallahatchie. The Tallahatchie flowed through the Mississippi Delta region to the town of Greenwood, where it joined with the Yalobusha to create the Yazoo. A successful ascent via this route by Union forces would outflank Pemberton’s position on the Snyder’s Bluff heights overlooking the Yazoo northeast of Vicksburg.

To access the pass, Union engineers had to blow up a levee that protected area farmland in the north Delta from Mississippi River floods. Once Federal vessels entered the pass, they could maneuver across wide Moon Lake and enter a small channel that led to the Coldwater. Confederate naval commanders understood the potential the pass offered for enemy penetration deep into the Delta, but not until the threat materialized did Rebel fatigue parties rush to fell trees to obstruct the channels.

Grant thought the Yazoo Pass gambit worth the effort, and he told his engineers to investigate. The engineers liked what they saw, and on February 3 loud explosions sent high waters from the Mississippi roaring into the pass. The waters washed out a wide gap, and pro-Union planter and future Mississippi governor James Lusk Alcorn informed Grant’s chief engineer that the navy should have few problems getting down to the Yazoo. Grant quickly put together an amphibious force to take advantage of a seemingly golden opportunity.

The water roaring down rivers that led south into the heart of prime Mississippi farmland caused much damage. Slaves had to build levees to keep the water away from animals and farmland vulnerable to erosion, but it was a losing battle. Farmers moved everything of value they could to high ground, while watching their homes flood and many animals drown. By the time the water receded, the landscape was littered with ruined homes, dead animals, and fences scattered everywhere or simply gone, and the Delta black gumbo mud seemed to cover everything. Illness struck many farm families trying to salvage their livelihood.

Union operations continued, and David Dixon Porter sent instructions to one of his commanders, Watson Smith, to command a squadron that included seven vessels: Rattler, Romeo, Forest Rose, Signal, Cricket, Linden, and the ironclad Chillicothe. Later the ironclad Baron de Kalb and the tinclad Marmora joined Smith’s fleet. The Cricket and the Linden did not arrive in time for the expedition. Accompanying the naval detachment would be 600 infantry Sherman assigned to the operation. Smith’s mission was to get to the Tallahatchie, then to the Yazoo, then to the Big Sunflower. Smith must damage all things beneficial to the Confederacy and get as much information as possible about Rebel ironclads on the Yazoo. The possibility of another Arkansas worried Porter.

Natural barriers of large tree limbs hung over waterways, and driftwood, plus obstructions caused by Confederate axes, also worked to hold up the Union flotilla. By February 21 the last obstructions between the Mississippi and the Coldwater had been removed. Grant watched and waited. He turned down a request from McClernand to take 21,000 men and make another incursion into Arkansas. Grant would not be deterred; he needed all the men at his disposal to clear the Mississippi. Grant built up the Yazoo expedition, which now included two divisions. The Union force also included thirty pieces of field artillery and nearly four regiments of cavalry. Other boats, including two rams, Dick Fulton and Lioness, joined Smith’s squadron. Numerous troop transports further clogged the waterways. Grant modified his plan to include an assault on Grenada via the Yalobusha. Afterward, the amphibious force would return to Greenwood and descend the Yazoo.

Delays in getting troops to the pass, keeping channels clear, and engine problems among the vessels held up the long column’s entrance into the Coldwater until February 28. The actual ascent down the Coldwater toward the Tallahatchie did not commence until March 3. The head of the column reached the latter on the evening of the 5th. Curious slaves lined the banks, and smoke from burning cotton filled the nostrils of Federal soldiers and seamen. Landing parties managed to retrieve much cotton before planters had time to set their bales ablaze. The bluecoats also scavenged planter property for food, throwing scares into white plantation mistresses. Federal officers issued death threats to those who attacked civilians and their property. The trip downriver proved to be a slow one, due mainly to the cautious naval commander Smith. Not until March 11 would the Union force be positioned to attack Confederates awaiting in a stronghold at Greenwood called Fort Pemberton.

Commander Isaac Brown, of the ill-fated Arkansas, had been keeping an eye on Union activity at Yazoo Pass and sent word to Pemberton about the blown levee. Pemberton got the message on February 9 and responded to Brown’s request for heavy artillery with the news that no such guns were available. Anyway, Pemberton did not think a Union threat from that area very feasible. He soon changed his mind when messages about enemy activity continued to pour into Jackson. The Yankees were trying to get to the Coldwater, and one look at a map told the rest. Grant was trying to outflank Pemberton’s line on the Yazoo. Brown rushed to get two steamboats, Mary Keene and Star of the West, ready for combat. Pemberton hurried infantry to Yazoo City, where William Loring arrived to take command of Confederate forces gathering at Fort Pemberton.

Victoria (1859)

HMS Victoria, painting by William Frederick Mitchell, 1898

The two-funnelled Victoria combined up-to-date and traditional features. Despite powerful engines it carried a full spread of sail. Note also the stern galleries.

With its sister ship Howe, Victoria was the last wooden-hulled three-decker to be built for the British Navy. Already obsolescent despite its steam propulsion, it had an active life of less than 10 years.

It was an era of distinct change. The last sail-driven ships of the line were ordered for the Royal Navy as late as 1848 (the 80-gun Orion class). Lord Auckland, First Lord of the Admiralty 1846–49, had defined the new requirement for design: ‘…the manner in which the screw auxiliary may be best combined with good sailing qualities.’

The Crimean War of 1854–56 was a long-distance war for France and even more so for Britain, requiring transport through the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. Steam propulsion, with its speed and independence of the wind, really came into its own. But the Royal Navy still had relatively few steam-powered warships and a hurried programme of conversion began. Victoria however was planned from the start as a steamship. In the British Admiralty’s typical knee-jerk response to French developments, it was intended to rival the 130-gun French three-decker Bretagne, which had been laid down as a sailing ship but was converted to steam propulsion while building, and launched in February 1855.

Victoria was laid down at Portsmouth on 1 April 1856 and launched on 12 November 1859. It was a hybrid, a traditional wooden-hulled three-decker of 121 guns with steam engines, and cost £150,578. Eight boilers were arranged laterally in four pairs with the engine between, and it was the Royal Navy’s first two-funnelled warship. The hull was heavily strapped on the inner side with diagonal iron riders, 127mm (5in) wide and 25mm (1in) thick, to hold the planking together against the vibrations from machinery and screw. Even so, the seams tended to separate and it was a leaky ship. Quite apart from the superior shell-resistance of iron, the problems arising from powerful machinery and heavyweight guns in a wooden hull encouraged the use of iron in construction. Victoria was the largest wooden-hulled battleship ever built, and was briefly absolutely the largest, until the arrival of HMS Warrior. The early engines were bulky, and the weight of machinery, low down in the hull, enabled builders to greatly reduce the amount of ballast carried, or even dispense with it altogether, as in the 101-gun HMS Conqueror (1855). But captains had to learn how to trim their ships as the coal bunkers gradually emptied. Victoria and Howe were both very fast ships for their time; on trials Victoria made 11.79 knots and Howe achieved 13.56 knots though neither was carrying anything like a full load.

Victoria has been described as ‘the acme of the three-decker’, at twice the tonnage of HMS Victory, and with a far higher destructive capacity. A 68-pounder chase gun was mounted in the bow to give forward fire, and the 200mm (8in) and 30-pounder guns were fitted with sights to enable accurate fire at ranges of at least 1097m (1200yd). These guns fired explosive shells which penetrated wood planking and then burst.

Better sighting and longer range also made greater dispersion of fire possible, so that Victoria could direct fire at more than one target at a time. As a result of this, tactics for naval battles were being revised, and within two years the giant three-deckers were acknowledged as obsolescent, when the House of Commons voted in April 1861 to end the construction of wooden-hulled capital ships. This did not lead to the immediate abandonment of the wooden steam-powered men of war, but major refits stopped, and by the end of the 1860s they were out of use.

From 1860 to 1864, Victoria was held in reserve at Portsmouth, then from 1864, with the number of guns reduced to 102, was flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, with its main stations at Gibraltar and Malta. The last time the great wooden-hulled ships went on parade was at the Spithead Naval Review of July 1867, before Queen Victoria and the Ottoman Emperor.

In August 1867 Victoria was paid off, and technically returned to reserve status, but in fact the old wooden vessels were either converted to other uses or left to rot away. Another HMS Victoria was launched in 1887, claimed as the most powerful ironclad in any navy, by which time the old Victoria was disarmed. The hull was sold for scrap in May 1893. A month later the new HMS Victoria was sunk in a collision with HMS Camperdown during drill manoeuvres.

Victoria’s 200mm (8in) guns fired explosive shells. Although these had been in use for some 20 years, they had not proved to be as devastating a weapon as their inventor Joseph Paixhans had supposed, often failing to detonate due to faulty fuses. Shell-fire was more effective in theory and in target practice at this time than in combat. Perhaps more dangerous for a wooden-hulled ship was red-hot cannon balls. These were frequently used by Russian shore forts in the Crimean War and, and from 28 February 1854, the Royal Navy’s steam-powered ships were equipped with furnaces and handling gear for firing red-hot shot. Of course this required very careful handling, and only 32-pounder guns of the most robust construction were considered really safe to fire them. Until 1860 British naval guns were, as they had always been, of smooth-bore muzzle-loading type, but it was evident that these were, or very soon would be, outdated. The problem was what to replace them with.


Dimensions: Length 79.2m (260ft), Beam 18.3 (60ft), Draught maximum 7.8m (25ft 9in), Displacement 6313 tonnes (6959 tons)

Propulsion: Maudslay 3283kW (4403hp), single screw; 3 masts, full ship rig

Armament: 62 200mm (8in), 32 30-pounder, 36 32-pounder, 1 68-pounder

Speed: 11.79 knots on trials

Complement: 1000

Santa Ana (1784)

Santa Ana was a three-masted first-rate, with three decks of guns: the prototype for seven other ships built during the 1780s at Spanish and Cuban yards.

Santa Ana 1784 by San Martín – Artesanía Latina – Scale 1:84

A first-rate of 112 guns, Santa Ana was the first of a class of eight ships intended to provide the central strength of the Spanish Navy. It was Spain’s flagship at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

Naval architecture was a well-established science by the early eighteenth century. By mid-century Spanish shipbuilders were applying lessons learned from English and French designers to their own established techniques, particularly relating to wood treatment and construction methods. Jose Romero y Fernandez de Landa, Santa Ana’s designer, was a scientific builder, author of a textbook on the construction of warships, published in 1784.

Built at El Ferrol, the vessel was launched on 29 September 1784 and first put to sea on 24 November that same year, though not commissioned until 28 February 1785. It was based at Cadiz and maintenance work was done at the La Carraca Arsenal. In January 1787 it was dry docked at La Carraca, and in June 1791 was careened there and rotten timbers were replaced.

Santa Ana had seven anchors with a total weight of 20,457kg (45,100lb). Its ballast, in iron (small ball shots, and iron pieces) occupied around 20 per cent of the length, placed amidships and surrounded by stone ballast. An indication of the care and attention put into construction is given by the ballast-laying instructions. First tar was applied to the holding timbers, then a layer of zulaque (sticky clay or cement), 102mm (4in) thick was applied to the floor-heads. Ground brick was added in alternate layers with iron and fine mix to fill up the space up to 305mm (12in) above the floor-heads. Above this, only the mix of gravel and brick was laid to the heads of the first futtocks. The aim was to ensure that the ballast, around 81 tonnes (90 tons), was densely packed and could not shift in any direction with the pitching and rolling of the ship.

In 1794 the ship was given a full careen at La Carraca, rearmed in January 1797 and stationed at Cadiz. It was with the fleet blockaded in Cadiz in February 1798. In September that year it was careened again at La Carraca and copper sheathing was applied to the bottom. On 21 July 1799 it grounded at the Rota naval base but was refloated. A new keel was fitted in the course of 1800, and Santa Ana remained on service until 1802, when it was again disarmed. Most of its time until 1805 was spent disarmed either through being laid off or having repairs and maintenance; its periods of activity totalled approximately five years out of twenty-one. Disarming meant the removal of everything not integral to the hull structure, including the lower masts, bowsprit and ballast. Everything else was removed and stored away, including the rudder.

In January 1805 preparations for a new spell of active duty began. Careened in La Carraca in September of that year, it was newly rearmed and re-manned when it put to sea with the Combined Fleet, as flagship of the Spanish second-in-command.

In the Battle of Trafalgar, Santa Ana carried the flag of Vice-Admiral Alava and was captained by Jose Gardoqui. It seems it was painted white with black stripes, though some accounts state it was wholly black. Its position in the Combined Fleet’s line brought it against the British fleet’s lee division, headed by HMS Royal Sovereign, flagship of Vice-Admiral Collingwood, under whose drills the ship’s gunnery was the best in the British fleet. Royal Sovereign crossed just abaft of Santa Ana and fired a double-shotted broadside into the stern, which put 14 guns out of action and caused many casualties. The two ships were then locked together for a time, with Royal Sovereign against Santa Ana’s starboard bow, in a devastating cross-fire that continued for almost two hours. ‘They fought us pretty tightish’, reported a British midshipman. Santa Ana’s mizzen topmast was shot away, and after about an hour and a quarter all its three masts had fallen over. At about 14:20 it struck to Royal Sovereign.

Two days after the battle, Santa Ana was recaptured by a Spanish frigate squadron and towed back to Cadiz. When the French invaded Spain in 1808 it was still under repair and took no part in the Peninsular War. With a sister ship, Principe de Asturias, it was moved to Havana in 1810, but saw no further action. It eventually sank at the Havana Arsenal, in 1816.


Dimensions: Length 56.14m (184ft 2in), Beam 15.5m (50ft), Draught 7.37m (23ft), Displacement 2543 tonnes (2803 tons)

Rig: 3 masts, full-rigged ship

Armament: (1805) 30 36-pounder, 32 24-pounder, 10 8-pounder cannon; 10 48-pounder, 2 32-pounder, 6 24-pounder howitzers; 4 4-pounder swivel guns

Complement: 1000-plus