September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

A child was born on this day in 1906.  He was John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British employees of the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time and returned to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving in Burma with the Manchester Regiment before leaving the military, ten years later.

Churchill worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with an occasional career as male model, and a couple appearances in motion pictures.  From there he may have faded into obscurity (unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation), with the same last name.  Then came World War II, when John Churchill earned the name, “Mad Jack”.

It was around this time that Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era, but Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.  He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, becoming quite good at it.  Good enough to represent his country in the world archery championship in Oslo, in 1939.

Jack-Churchill

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland.  Part of the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out its sergeant with a broadhead arrow.  No one could have been more surprised than that German himself: How the hell did I get an ARROW in my chest?

Such were the dying thoughts of the only combatant in all World War 2 to be felled, by an English longbow.

Jack Churchill (far right) leads a training exercise, sword in hand, from a Eureka boat in Inveraray. H/T warhistoryonline.com

Soon thereafter, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe.  The only way back in was via those same beaches. 

We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault:  invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches.  Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy.  In all that time there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, armed with bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, that Scottish broadsword at his side .

Jack-Churchill-Speaks-During-a-Landing-Exercise
“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore.  He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” Mad Jack could be seen at the Catania (Sicily) and Salerno landings of 1943, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword one time in confused hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order.  Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad.   “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained.  “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…”  It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

He later trudged back to town, to collect his sword.  Encountering a lost American squad Churchill informed the NCO they were headed, toward German lines. The soldier refused to change direction so Churchill took his leave, saying, he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German held, Yugoslavian island of Brac.  He was leading a Commando raid at the time, coordinating with a unit of Josip Broz Tito’s Partisans.  Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622 when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself.  He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, requiring the instant execution of captured commandos. Churchill and his men escaped execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks only to the human decency of one Wehrmacht Captain named Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.”

After the war Churchill paid back Thuener’s act of kindness, keeping him out of the clutches of the merciless Red Army. But I digress.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, and later sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany.  There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped in September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain before walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

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following the defeat of Nazi Germany, Mad Jack was sent off to Burma. He was bitterly disappointed by the swift end of the war in the Pacific, brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he complained, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing.  Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

Tidal Bore
Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Mad Jack Churchill remained an eccentric, even in his later years.   He loved sailing radio controlled model warships on the Thames. Little brought him more apparent joy than to horrify fellow train passengers, opening the window and hurling his briefcase into the darkness.

No one ever suspected that he threw it into the garden of his own back yard.  It saved him the trouble of carrying the thing home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard bearing regimental colors, and mailed it to a friend.

On the back o, Mad Jack Churchill had written fifteen words:

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

August 16, 1346 A Feudal State

Few understood at the time that the whole system was about to come crashing down, near a place called Crécy.

From the time of Charlemagne, the social and political structure of Middle Ages European society revolved around a set of reciprocal obligations between a warrior nobility supporting and in turn being supported by, a hierarchy of vassals and fiefs.

This was Feudalism, a system in which the King granted portions of land called “fiefs” to Lords and Barons in exchange for loyalty, and to Knights (vassals) in exchange for military service.

Knights were a professional warrior class,  dependent upon the nobility for lodging, food, armor, weapons, horses and money.

The entire edifice was borne up and supported by peasants, serfs who farmed the land and provided vassal and lord alike with material wealth in the form of food, and other products.

None of this is to be confused with the notion, of chivalry. The 18th century historian and political economist Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi wrote “We must not confound chivalry with the feudal system. The feudal system may be called the real life of the period of which we are treating, possessing its advantages and inconveniences, its virtues and its vices. Chivalry, on the contrary, is the ideal world, such as it existed in the imaginations of the Romance writers. Its essential character is devotion to woman and to honour”.

Few understood at the time that the whole system was about to come crashing down, near a place called Crécy.

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Crécy Battlefield

The Battle of Crécy is memorable for several reasons. Crude cannon had appeared in siege operations during the Muslim conquest of Spain, (al Andalus), but this was the first time artillery was used in open battle. Perhaps more important though less evident at the time, was that Crécy spelled the end of feudalism.

The Battle of Crécy was the first major combat of the hundred years’ war, a series of conflicts fought over a 116-year period for control of the French throne.  King Edward III invaded the Normandy region of France on July 12, 1346. Estimates vary concerning the size of his army, but not of its composition. This was not an army of mounted knights, though there were a few of those. This was a yeoman army of spearmen and foot archers, ravaging the French countryside as they went and pursued by a far larger army of French knights, and mercenary allies.

crecy-map

A fortunate tidal crossing of the Somme River gave the English a day’s lead, allowing Edward’s forces time to rest and prepare for battle as they stopped near the village of Crécy.

Edward’s forces took a strong defensive position overlooking flat agricultural land, natural obstacles to either side effectively nullifying the French numerical advantage. The French army under King Philip VI was wet and exhausted when they arrived on the 26th but launched themselves nevertheless, directly at the English lines.

Genoese crossbowmen opened the battle on the French side, but wet strings hampered the weapon’s effectiveness. English archers had unstrung longbows during the previous night’s rain, and now showered thousands of arrows down on the heads of the adversary. The French first line broke and ran, only to be accused of cowardice and hacked to pieces by knights to the rear.

French mounted knights now entered the fray, but orderly lines soon dissolved into confusion. The muddy field combined with English obstacles and that constant barrage of arrows unhorsed French knights and confused their lines.

Riderless horses and unmounted knights alike were run down by successive waves of horsemen, each impatient to win his share of the “glory”. Those who made it to the English side faced a tough, disciplined line of spearmen and foot soldiers who held their position. Once unhorsed, heavily armored knights were easy prey to the quick and merciless knives of the English.

Crecy, Bowmen

In the midst of battle a messenger sought out the English King beseeching aid for the King’s son, the 16-year-old Edward of Woodstock, known as the Black Prince. Edward responded “Do not send to me so long as my son lives; let the boy win his spurs; let the day be his.”

Philip’s ally, the blind King John of Bohemia, heard that the battle was going badly for the French. He ordered his companions to tie his horse’s bridle to theirs, and lead him into the fight. It was the last time he was seen alive.

Ich Dien

The Black Prince did indeed earn his spurs that day and, according to legend retrieved the helmet from the dead king and adopted as his own the triple ostrich plume with the words “Ich Dien”. I serve.  To this day that heraldic badge symbolizes the the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, to the British throne.

When it was over, the mythical age of chivalry lay dead in the mud and the blood of Crécy, alongside the feudal system.  2,200 Heraldic coats were taken as trophies. The English side suffered 1/10th the number of casualties, as the French.  

In the words of A Short History of the English People, by John Richard Green, “The churl had struck down the noble; the bondsman proved more than a match in sheer hard fighting, for the knight”.  After Crécy, the world’s land battles would be fought not by armored knights fighting toe-to-toe with battle-axe and lance but by common foot soldiers with bow, spear and gun.

August 18, 1587 Lost Colony of Roanoke

What happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke, remains a mystery. They may have died of disease or starvation, or they may have been killed by hostile natives.


The 16th century was drawing to a close when Queen Elizabeth set out to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World. The charter went to Walter Raleigh, who sent explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to scout out locations for a settlement.

The pair landed on Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, establishing friendly relations with local natives, the Secotans and Croatans. They returned a year later with glowing reports of what we now call the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two Native Croatans, Manteo and Wanchese, accompanied the pair back to England. All of London was abuzz with the wonders of the New World.

Sir Walter Raleigh (?)
Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh

Queen Elizabeth was so pleased she knighted Raleigh.  The new land was called “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, miners and scientists to Roanoke Island, under the leadership of Captain Ralph Lane. The attempt was doomed from the start. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and Lane alienated the neighboring tribe when misunderstanding led to the murder of their chief, Wingina. By 1586 the new arrivals had had enough, and left the island.

Ironically, their supply ship arrived about a week later. Finding the island deserted, the vessel left 15 men behind to “hold the fort” before they too, departed.

The now knighted “Sir” Walter Raleigh was not to be deterred. He recruited 90 men, 17 women and 9 children for a more permanent “Cittie of Raleigh”, appointing John White governor. Among the colonists were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor, her husband Ananias Dare, and the Croatans Wanchese and Manteo.

Wanchese, Manteo
Wanchese, Manteo

The caravan stopped at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier.  Raleigh believed that the Chesapeake afforded better opportunities for his new settlement, but his Portuguese pilot Simon Fernandes had other ideas.

Fernandes was a Privateer, impatient to resume his hunt for Spanish shipping.  He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island. It could not have lifted the spirits of the small group to learn that the 15 left by the earlier expedition, had disappeared.

Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter on August 18, 1587, and called her Virginia.  She was the first English child born to the new world.

Fernandez departed for England ten days later, taking along an anxious John White, who wanted to return to England for supplies. It was the last time Governor White would see his family.

croatoan(2)White found himself trapped in England by the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and the Anglo-Spanish war.  It would be three years before he could return to Roanoke. He arrived on August 18, 1590, three years to the day from the birth of his granddaughter. White found the place deserted, save for the word “CROATOAN”, carved into a fence post.  The letters “CRO” appeared on a nearby tree.

croatoan(1)

White had hopes of finding his family at Croatoan, the home of Chief Manteo’s people to the south, on modern day Hatteras Island.

A hurricane came up before he could explore further, his ships so damaged that he had return to England. Despite several attempts he never raised the resources to return.

What happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke, remains a mystery. They may have died of disease or starvation, or they may have been killed by hostile natives.

Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all. One of the wilder legends has Virginia Dare, now a young woman, transformed into a snow white doe by the evil medicine man Chico, but that must be a story for another day.  The fate of the first English child born on American soil may never be known.

white-deer

Seventeen years later another group of colonists would apply the lessons learned in Roanoke, founding their own colony a few miles up the coast at a place called Jamestown.

One personal anecdote involves a conversation I had with a woman in High Point, North Carolina, a few years back. She described herself as having Croatan ancestry, her family going back many generations on the outer banks. She described her Great Grandmother, a full blooded Croatan. The woman looked like it, too, except for those crystal blue eyes. She used to smile at the idea of the lost colony of Roanoke. “They’re not lost”, she would say. “They are us”.

July 31, 1917 Passchendaele

“My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light”
Siegfried Sassoon, Memorial Tablet

The “War to end all Wars” exploded across the European continent in the summer of 1914, devolving into the stalemate of trench warfare, by October.

The ‘Great War’ became Total War, the following year.  1915 saw the first use of asphyxiating gas, first at Bolimow in Poland, and later (and more famously) near the Belgian village of Ypres.  Ottoman deportation of its Armenian minority led to the systematic extermination of an ethnic minority, resulting in the death of ¾ of an estimated 2 million Armenians living in the Empire at that time. For the first time and far from the last an unsuspecting world heard the term, genocide‘.

Battle-of-Passchendaele
Battle of Passchendaele

Kaiser Wilhelm responded to the Royal Navy’s near-stranglehold on surface shipping with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, as the first zeppelin raids were carried out against the British mainland.  German forces adopted a defensive strategy on the western front, developing the most sophisticated defensive capabilities of the war and determined to “bleed France white”, while concentrating on defeating Czarist Russia.

Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command that September, following catastrophic losses in Galicia and Poland.  Austro-German offensives resulted in 1.4 million Russian casualties by September with another 750,000 captured, spurring a “Great Retreat” of Russian forces in the east and resulting in political and social unrest which would topple the Imperial government, fewer than two years later.   In December 1915, British and ANZAC forces broke off a meaningless stalemate on the Gallipoli peninsula, beginning the evacuation of some 83,000 survivors.  The disastrous offensive produced some 250,000 casualties.  The Gallipoli campaign was remembered as a great Ottoman victory, a defining moment in Turkish history.  For now, Turkish troops held their fire in the face of the allied withdrawal, happy to see them leave.

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Passchendaele, 1917

A single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 could produce more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined. Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded while vast stretches of the Western European countryside were literally torn to pieces.

1917 saw the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, and a German invitation to bring Mexico into the war, against the United States.  As expected, these policies brought America into the war on the allied side.  The President who won re-election for being ‘too proud to fight’ asked for a congressional declaration of war, that April.

Sealed Train

Massive French losses stemming from the failed Nivelle offensive of that same month (French casualties were fully ten times what was expected) combined with irrational expectations that American forces would materialize on the western front led to massive unrest in the French lines.  Fully one-half of all French forces on the western front mutinied.  It’s one of the great miracles of WW1 that the German side never knew, else the conflict may have ended, very differently.

The sealed train carrying the plague bacillus of communism had already entered the Russian body politic.  Nicholas II, Emperor of all Russia, was overthrown and murdered that July, along with his wife, children, servants and a few loyal friends, and their dogs.

This was the situation in July 1917.

third-battle-of-ypres-passchendaele-ww1-007For eighteen months, British miners worked to dig tunnels under Messines Ridge, the German defensive works laid out around the Belgian town of Ypres.  Nearly a million pounds of high explosive were placed in some 2,000′ of tunnels, dug 100′ deep.  10,000 German soldiers ceased to exist at 3:10am local time on June 7, in a blast that could be heard as far away, as London.

Buoyed by this success and eager to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast, General Sir Douglas Haig planned an assault from the British-held Ypres salient, near the village of Passchendaele.

general

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George opposed the offensive, as did the French Chief of the General Staff, General Ferdinand Foch, both preferring to await the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  Historians have argued the wisdom of the move, ever since.

The third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began in the early morning hours of July 31, 1917. The next 105 days would be fought under some of the most hideous conditions, of the entire war.

In the ten days leading up to the attack, some 3,000 guns fired an estimated 4½ million shells into German lines, pulverizing whole forests and smashing water control structures in the lowland plains.  Several days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rainfall, in thirty years.

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German pillbox, following capture by Canadian soldiers.

Conditions defy description. Time and again the clay soil, the water, the shattered remnants of once-great forests and the bodies of the slain were churned up and pulverized by shellfire.  You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived and fought in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze, capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules.  Most of the offensive took place across a broad plain formerly crisscrossed with canals, but now a great, sucking mire in which the only solid ground seemed to be German positions, from which machine guns cut down sodden commonwealth soldiers, as with a scythe.

Soldiers begged for their friends to shoot them, rather than being left to sink in that muck. One sank up to his neck and slowly went stark raving mad, as he died of thirst. British soldier Charles Miles wrote “It was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down; when it yielded under your feet you knew that it was a body you were treading on.”

Passchendaele, aerial
Passchendaele, before and after the offensive. H/T Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons

In 105 days of this hell, Commonwealth forces lost 275,000 killed, wounded and missing.  The German side another 200,000.  90,000 bodies were never identified.  42,000 were never recovered and remain there, to this day.  All for five miles of mud and a village barely recognizable, following capture.

Following the battle of Passchendaele, staff officer Sir Launcelot Kiggell is said to have broken down in tears.  “Good God”, he said, “Did we really send men to fight in That”?! 

The soldier-turned war poet Siegfried Sassoon reveals the bitterness of the average “Joe Squaddy”, sent by his government to fight and die, at Passchendaele.  The story is told in the first person by a dead man, in all the bitterness of which a poet decorated for bravery and later shot in the head by his own side, is capable.  It’s called:

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,  
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—  
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,  
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell  
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.  

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,  
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:  
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;  
‘In proud and glorious memory’… that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:  
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.  
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…  
What greater glory could a man desire?

July 25, 1944 Doodlebug

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.


In the early morning hours of June 13, 1944, a member of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) spotted a bright yellow glow in the early morning darkness. The sentry was on the lookout for such a sight and immediately informed his superiors. The code word, “diver”.

The yellow glow went out within moments and plummeted to the earth, landing in the village of Swanscombe, some 20 miles east of the Tower of London. Other such devices were soon falling from the sky with terrible exclusive force. Cuckfield, West Sussex, London and Sevenoaks, in Kent. This time only six people died in a place called Bethnal Green. There would be more.

Most V1 rockets were launched from a simple rail system, others taken aloft attached to host aircraft

The Nazis called this new and terrifying weapon, “Vergeltungswaffe”, or “Vengeance weapon”. Finnish soldiers called the thing a flying torpedo. At over 27-feet long it was a flying bomb with a payload of nearly a ton of high explosive. Allies called this Nazi superweapon the “Buzz Bomb” or simply, “Doodlebug”.

Nazi Germany aimed as many as 10,492 of these Doodlebug rockets against England. Some 6,000 were killed in London alone, with another 18,000 serious injuries. The subsonic Doodlebug was an effective terror weapon but, bad as it was to be the target of one of these things, the “low and slow” trajectory and the weapon’s short range lacked the strategic punch Nazi Germany needed to win the war.

The next generation V2 missile was a different story.  The V2 ushered in the era of the ballistic missile and Nazi Germany was the first off the starting line.

The Peenemünde Aggregat A4 V2 was an early predecessor of the Cruise Missile, delivering a 2,148 pound payload at 5 times the speed of sound over a 236-mile range. While you could hear the V1 coming and seek shelter, victims of the V2 didn’t know they were under attack, until the weapon had exploded.

When Wernher von Braun showed Adolf Hitler the launch of the V2 on color film, Hitler jumped from his seat and shook Braun’s hand with excitement. “This is the decisive weapon of the war. Humanity will never be able to endure it,” Hitler said, “If I had this weapon in 1939 we would not be at war now.”

Allies were anxious to get their hands on this new secret weapon. In early 1944 they had their chance when a V2 crashed into a muddy bank of the Bug River in Nazi-occupied Poland, without exploding. The Polish underground was waiting for such an opportunity and quickly descended on the rocket, disguising it with brush. Desperate to retrieve the weapon, Germans conducted a week long aerial and ground search for the V2, but failed find it under all that camouflage.

Polish Partisans preparing for battle_WW2
Polish Partisans preparing for battle, WW2

The search came to an end after what must have seemed an eternity, when partisans returned to the site. This time they brought four Polish scientists who carefully disassembled the weapon, packing the pieces in barrels. The parts were then shipped to a barn in Holowczyce, just a few miles away.

The allied effort to retrieve the stolen missile, code named “Most III”, got underway on this day in 1944, when Royal New Zealand Air Force 1st Lt Stanley George Culliford landed his Dakota C47 in the early morning darkness at a secret air strip near Tarnow.

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Home Army intelligence on V1 & V2

The V2 chassis and several technical experts were loaded on board, but it was all too much.  The overloaded C47 couldn’t move on the wet, muddy field – the port wheel stuck fast in the mud.  Everything had to be offloaded, Polish partisans working desperately to free the aircraft as dawn approached. They stuffed the wheel track with straw, and then laid boards in the trench.  Nothing worked.

Co-pilot Kazimierz “Paddy” Szrajer thought the parking brake must be stuck, so the hydraulic leads supplying the brake, were cut. That didn’t work, either. In the end, partisans were frantically digging trenches under the aircraft’s main wheel. Two attempts failed to get the aircraft off the ground, and Culliford was thinking about blowing up the plane and burning all the evidence.  There could only be one more attempt.

The aircraft lumbered off the ground on the third try.  The last of the partisans scattered into the night, even as the headlights of Nazi vehicles could be seen, approaching in the early morning darkness.

18lfbi20zpunyjpgThere would be 5 hours of unarmed, unescorted flight through Nazi-controlled air space and an emergency landing with no brakes, before those V2 rocket components finally made it to England.

Today, few remember the names of these heroes, struggling in the dark to defeat the forces of Tyranny.  We are left only to imagine a world in which Nazis remained in sole possession of the game changing super weapons, of WWII

June 22, 1807 The Chesapeake-Leopard affair

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”


The Napoleonic Wars took place between 1799 and 1815, pitting a series of seven international coalitions against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée.  The former American colonies benefited from the European conflict, remaining on the sidelines and doing business with both sides.  Within a ten-year period, the fledgling United States had become one of the world’s largest neutral shippers.

In 1807, two third-rate French warships were penned up in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, blockaded by a number of English warships outside of the harbor.

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The American frigate, USS Chesapeake

London born Jenkin Ratford was an English sailor who deserted the British Navy and defected to the neutral United States.  This story might have ended better for him had he not run his mouth, but that wasn’t this guy.  Ratford couldn’t resist taunting British officers, boasting of his escape to the “land of liberty”

The USS Chesapeake was preparing for a Mediterranean cruise with Ratford aboard when she emerged from Norfolk, Virginia.  Her decks were laden with supplies and stores of every kind and her guns, unwisely stored.  Chesapeake was nowhere near combat ready when she was approached by the HMS Leopard on June 22.

The Chesapeake’s commander, Commodore James Barron, was unconcerned when Leopard, under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, asked permission to board.  Lieutenant John Meade of Her Majesty’s Navy presented Barron with a search warrant.  Barron declined to submit, and the officer returned to the Leopard.

Chesapeake_Leopard

Humphreys then used a hailing trumpet and ordered the American ship to comply, to which Barron responded “I don’t hear what you say”. Humphreys then fired two rounds across Chesapeake’s bow, followed immediately by four broadsides.

Chesapeake fired only a single shot before striking colors and surrendering.  Humphreys refused the surrender and boarded, taking Ratford and three American born sailors with them when they left.

There was but token resistance, and yet the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” left three American crewmembers dead, and 18 wounded.

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

The English court found all four guilty of desertion and hanged Ratford by the fore yardarm of his former vessel, HMS Halifax.  The three Americans, David Martin, John Strachan, and William Ware, were sentenced to 500 lashes.

With the puny American navy deployed to the Mediterranean to check the Barbary pirates, President Jefferson’s options were limited to economic retaliation.  The Embargo Act of 1807 intended to extract concessions from France and Great Britain, instead had the effect of imposing crippling setbacks on some industries, while others railed against government interference in the private economy.  Many conclude that the only solution, lay in violence.

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Political cartoon depicting merchants harassed cursing the “Ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment,  amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships.  In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

Despite being wounded, Barron was blamed for the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair”.  A court-martial suspended him from service for five years, without pay.   Commodore Stephen Decatur was one of the presiding officers at the court-martial. In 1820, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, killing his fellow Commodore over his comments concerning the 1807 incident.

Undergoing a refit in Boston Harbor in 1813, USS Chesapeake was challenged to single combat by Captain Philip Broke, commanding the British frigate HMS Shannon.

Chesapeake_Mill

United States Naval Captain James Lawrence was eager to comply, confident in the wake of a number of American victories in single-ship actions.

It was a Big mistake.

All of Boston turned out that June day, to watch the fight.  Cheers went out across the docks and from scores of private vessels across Boston Harbor, as Chesapeake slipped her moorings and glided out of the harbor.

Boston authorities reserved dock space in expectation of a prize.  The arrival of a captured British frigate, was a foregone conclusion. Rooftops, hills and trees from Lynn to Malden and Cohasset to Scituate were crowded with spectators, come to watch the show.

The tale of the Battle of Boston Harbor must be a story for another day.  Suffice it to say that USS Chesapeake ended her career as the British frigate HMS Chesapeake, before being sold for scrap, in 1819.  Two-hundred years later, the ship’s timbers live on.  Part of the Chesapeake Mill in the historic village of Wickham, in Hampshire, England.

A Trivial Matter: British manpower needs expanded exponentially following defeat at the battle of Saratoga and impending hostilities with Napoleonic France. Regular army enlistment swelled from 48,000 to 110,000. The Recruiting Acts of 1778 and 1779 alike reaffirmed the necessity of impressment. Some recruits went so far as to chop off their own thumb and forefinger of the right hand making it impossible to handle musket or sword, to avoid impressment.

June 18, 1815 Waterloo

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.  Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1799, pitting Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Armée against a succession of international coalitions. The first five such coalitions formed to oppose him would go down to defeat.

The empire of Czar Alexander I had long traded with Napoleon’s British adversary. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 intending to cut off that trade, but he made the same mistake that Adolf Hitler would make, 130 years later. He failed to account for Russia’s greatest military asset. General Winter.

For months Napoleon’s army pressed ever deeper into Russian territory, as Cossack cavalry burned out villages and fields to deny food or shelter to the advancing French army. Napoleon entered Moscow itself in September, with the Russian winter right around the corner. He expected capitulation.  Instead, he got more scorched earth.

Grand Armee Retreat from Moscow

Finally there was no choice for the Grand Armée, but to turn about and go home. Starving and exhausted with no winter clothing, stragglers were frozen in place or picked off by villagers or pursuing Cossacks. From Moscow to the frontiers you could follow their retreat, by the bodies they left in the snow. 685,000 had crossed the Neman River on June 24. By mid-December there were fewer than 70,000 known survivors.

The War of the 6th Coalition ended in 1814 with Bonaparte’s defeat and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and the restoration to the throne of the Bourbon King, Louis VXIII. That would last 111 days, until Napoleon reappeared at the head of another army.

Waterloo_Campaign_map

The Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw on March 13, 1815.  Austria, Prussia, Russia and the UK bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece into the field to end his rule.

Napoleon struck first, taking 124,000 men of l’Armee du Nord on a pre-emptive strike against the Allies in Belgium. Intending to attack Coalition armies before they combined, he struck and defeated the Prussian forces of Gebhard von Blücher near the town of Ligny.

Napoleon then turned his attention to the coalition forces under the Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who fell back to a carefully selected position on a long east-west ridge at Mont St Jean, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo.

Waterloo, Chateau

It rained all day and night that Saturday. Napoleon waited for the ground to dry on the morning of June 18, launching his first attack before noon while Wellington’s Prussian allies were still five hours away. The 80 guns of Napoleon’s grande batterie opened fire at 11:50, while Wellington’s reserves sheltered out of sight on the reverse slope of the Mont St. Jean ridge.

Waterloo_Cavalry

Fighting was furious around Wellington’s forward bastions, the walled stone buildings of the Château Hougomont on Wellington’s right, and La Haie Sainte on his left.  Eight times, French infantry swarmed over the orchards and outbuildings of the stone farmhouses, only to be beat back.

Waterloo, Chateau Battle

Most of the French reserves were committed by 4:00pm, when Marshall Ney ordered the massed cavalry assault. 9,000 horsemen in 67 squadrons charged up the hill as Wellington’s artillery responded with canister and shot, turning their cannon into giant shotguns tearing holes in the French ranks.

Waterloo_Cavalry

It was common practice of the age to “spike” enemy cannon, driving a nail into the touchhole to disable the weapon. But for a handful of nails, the outcome of the battle might have been different. Possibly, even the history of the world.  Eleven times French cavalry gained the hill and surrounded those guns. Eleven times the gunners retreated into defensive infantry squares, bristling with bayonets. Eleven times French cavalry withdrew only to form up, and do it all over again.

Newly arrived Prussians were pouring in from the right at 7:30 when Napoleon committed his 3,000-man Imperial Guard. These were Napoleon’s elite soldiers, almost seven feet tall in their high bearskin hats. Never before defeated in battle, they came up the hill intending to roll up Wellington’s center, away from their Prussian allies. 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying down to shelter from French artillery. As the French lines neared the top of the ridge, the English stood up, appearing to rise from the ground and firing point blank into the French line.

Infantry Square

The furious counter assault which followed caused the Imperial Guard to waver and then fall back.  Retreat broke into a route, someone shouting “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (“The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!”), as the Allied army rushed forward and threw themselves on the retreating French.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge. One of the last cannonballs fired that day hit Uxbridge just above the knee, all but severing the leg. Lord Uxbridge was close to Wellington at the time, exclaiming “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”. Wellington replied “By God, sir, so you have!” There’s another version in which Wellington says “By God, sir, you’ve lost your leg!”. Looking down, Uxbridge replied “By God, sir, so I have!”

According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” The French defeat was complete. Bonaparte was once again captured and exiled, this time to a speck in the North Atlantic called Saint Helena.  He died there in 1821.

Estimates of the total killed and wounded in the Napoleonic wars range from 3.5 to 6 million, at a time when the entire world population was about 980 million. Until Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte participated in, and won, more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Frederick the Great, and Alexander the Great.  Combined.

May 4, 1943 Counter Measures

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities.

In the Spanish language, the word “Bobo” translates as “stupid…daft…naive”. The slang form “bubie” describes a dummy. A dunce. The word came into English sometime around 1590 and spelled “booby”, meaning a slow or stupid person.

In a military context, a booby trap is designed to kill or maim the person who activates a trigger. Like the common mess tin at the top of this page, modified to mangle or kill the unsuspecting soldier. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you get) were tucked into backpacks, bamboo sticks or simply hung by their tails, a living trap for the unwary GI.

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Punji stakes were often smeared with human excrement result in hideous infection for the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle…just before the fragmentation grenade goes off. Often, the first of his comrades running to the aid of his now shattered body hits the trip wire, setting off a secondary and far larger explosive.

Not to be outdone, the operation code-named “Project Eldest Son” involved CIA and American Green Berets sabotaging rifle and machine gun rounds, in such a way as to blow off the face the careless Vietcong shooter.

German forces were masters of the booby trap in the waning days of WW1 and WW2. A thin piece of fishing line connected the swing of a door with a hidden grenade, by your feet. A flushing toilet explodes and kills or maims everyone in the building. The wine bottle over in the corner may be perfectly harmless, but the chair you move over to get it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped on or moved in any way can be rigged to mutilate or kill, the unwary. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities. Would the “Joe Squaddy” entering the room care if that painting on the wall was askew? Very possibly not but an “officer and a gentleman” may be moved to straighten the thing out at the cost of his hands, or maybe his life.

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

In the strange and malignant world of Adolf Hitler, the German and British people had much in common.  Are we not all “Anglo-Saxons”?  The two peoples need not make war the man believed, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a true leader of world-historical proportion during the darkest days, of the war.  Taking the man out just might cripple one of Hitler’s most potent adversaries.

In 1943, Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off of this thing, you might wonder in the last nanoseconds of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

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Churchill was known to have a sweet tooth and so it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister. A booby trapped chocolate bar placed in a war cabinet meeting room.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there were times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

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The lives of millions, or perhaps only one.  German saboteurs were discovered operating inside the UK, the information sent to British Intelligence.

Lord Victor Rothschild was a trained biologist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family. During WW2, British Intelligence recruited him to work for MI5, heading up a three-member explosives and counter-sabotage unit. Rothschild immediately grasped the importance of the information and the need to illustrate Nazi devices to communicate, with other intelligence officers. 

We live in an age when computers are commonplace but that wasn’t the case, in 1943. ENIAC, the first electronic computer wouldn’t come around yet, for another two years. Photoshop was definitely out of the picture and yet, high quality illustrations were needed and quickly, and they had to come from a trusted source. Donald Fish, one of Rothschild’s two colleagues, had just the man. His son.

On this day in 1943, Lord Rothschild typed a letter to illustrator, Laurence Fish.  The letter, marked “secret”, begins: “Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate…”

The letter went on to describe the mechanism and included a crude sketch, requesting the artist bring the thing, to life.

Laurence Fish would one day become a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his work, “Laurence”. 

From the pen and ink technical drawings of the war years to the brightly colored travel posters of his post-war career, Laurence Fish was a gifted and versatile artist.

In 1943 that was all for some time in an unknown future, a time when dozens of wartime drawings were quietly left in a drawer and forgotten, for seventy years. For now a world had a war to win and Laurence Fish, played a part.

Hitler’s bomb makers devised all manner of havoc, from booby trapped mess tins to time-delay fuses meant to destroy shipping, at sea.   In 2015, members of the Rothschild family were cleaning out the house, and discovered a trove of Fish’s work.

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The artist is gone now and his name all but forgotten but his work, lives on.  Fish’s illustrations are now in the hands of his widow Jean, an archivist and former journalist living in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Thanks to her we can see this forgotten piece of history in her husband’s work, last shown in an exhibition last year over the weekend of September 18 – 19.

And a good thing it is. The man has earned the right to be remembered.

March 24, 1944 The Great Escape

“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability”. Group Captain Ramsey (played by James Donald), senior British officer at the prisoner of war camp in the 1963 film The Great Escape, addressing the German commandant.

Stalag Luft III in the province of Lower Silesia was a German POW camp, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 US Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

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Model of the set used to film the movie The Great Escape

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound, while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike. Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.  There was no shoring of the tunnel, except at the entrance.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

Harry

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.  Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Roger Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in WWII history. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with 200.

Vintage KLIM Powdered Whole Milk tin can - circa 1940

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.

The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Six hundred prisoners were involved in the construction.  200 with sacks sewn under greatcoats made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, disposing of soil as Tom, Dick and Harry were excavated.  30′ down and only 2 ft. square, the three tunnels extended outward for a football field and more.

These “penguins” were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” originally planned exit point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  73 years ago – March 24,  1944.

Tunnel_Harry

Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point none were left in camp.

The escape was doomed, almost from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse had to be repaired.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  It was over when guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground.

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

Harry Entrance

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  two Norwegian and one Dutch pilot.  Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were carried out.  

General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  He was later involved with the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and executed on March 21, 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the war.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

The50Memorial

Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, he said he was fairly certain he’d been passed over for execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Today, Dick Churchill, age 97, is the only man among those 76, still left alive.

January 31, 1918 The Battle of May Island

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in. The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast. The table was set, for disaster.

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Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

Forty vessels of the British Royal Navy departed Rosyth in the Scottish fjord at the Firth of Forth on January 31, bound for Scapa flow. They were the 5th Battle squadron with destroyer escort, the 2nd Battlecruiser squadron and their destroyers, two cruisers and two flotillas of K-class submarines, each led by a light cruiser.

By 6:30pm, the fleet had formed a line some thirty miles long proceeding north at 20 knots, equivalent to 23MPH over the ground. It was full dark at this latitude with the Haar or “sea fog”, closing in.  The fleet was effectively deaf and blind, and traveling fast.

While only an exercise, strict radio silence was observed, lest there be any Germans in the vicinity. Each vessel displayed a faint blue stern light, travelling 400-yards ahead of the next-in-line. Black-out shields restricted the lights’ visibility to one compass point left or right of the boats’ center line.   The table was set for disaster.

Though large for WW1-vintage submarines at over 300-feet, K-class subs were low to the water and slow, compared with the much larger surface vessels.  Compounding the problem, the unfortunately nicknamed”Kalamity Klass” was powered by steam, meaning that stacks had to be folded and closed, before the thing was ready to dive.  Only eighteen K-class submarines were ever built, only one of which ever caused damage to a German U-boat, and that was a ramming attack.

Seems the K-class was more dangerous to its own people, than anyone else.

A half-hour into the cruise, the flagship HMS Courageous passed a tiny speck on the map called May Island and picked up speed. A pair of lights appeared in the darkness as the 13th Submarine Flotilla passed, possibly a pair of mine sweeping trawlers. The flotilla turned hard to port to avoid collision when the helm of the third-in-line K-14 jammed, and veered out of line. Both K-14 and the boat behind her, K-12 turned on their navigation lights as K-22, the next submarine in line, lost sight of the flotilla and collided with K-14, severing the bow and killing two men. Two stricken submarines now struggled to pull themselves apart while an entire fleet sped through the darkness, unaware of what was about to happen.

The destroyer HMS Ithuriel received a coded signal and turned to lend aid, doubling back and followed by the remainder of the 13th submarine flotilla and thus putting themselves on collision course with the outgoing 12th flotilla.

Unaware of the mess lying in her path, 12th flotilla escort HMS Fearless was traveling way too fast to change the outcome. Fearless went “hard astern” on sighting K-17 but too late, her bow knifing through the smaller vessel, sinking the sub within minutes with the loss of 47 men. Meanwhile, outgoing submarine K-4 heard the siren and came to a stop but not the trailing K-3 which hit her sister sub broadside, nearly cutting the vessel in half.

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HMS Fearless

K-4 sank in minutes, with the loss of 55 men.

The number of near misses that night, can never be known. 104 men were dead before it was over, with the total loss of two K-class submarines. Four more sustained severe damage along with the Scout Cruiser, HMS Fearless.

A hastily arranged Board of inquiry began on February 5 and sat for five days, resulting in several courts martial for negligence.  Those would be adjudicated, “unproved”.

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The whole disaster and subsequent inquiry was kept quiet to avoid embarrassment, and to deprive the propaganda bonanza, to the Germans. Full details were released only in 1994, long after the participants in this story had passed on.

On January 31, 2002, a memorial cairn was erected in memory of the slain.  As it had been eighty four years before there wasn’t a German, in sight.  The “Battle of May Island” was no battle at all.  Just the black and forlorn humor, of men at war.

January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island
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