April 9, 1940 A Dish Best Served Cold

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.


The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Croton oil as a “poisonous viscous liquid obtained from the seeds of a small Asiatic tree…”  Highly toxic and a violent irritant, the substance was once used as a drastic purgative and counter-irritant in human and veterinary medicine, but is now considered too dangerous for medicinal use. Applied externally, Croton oil is capable of peeling your skin off.  Taken internally, the stuff may be described as the atomic bomb, of laxatives.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or subject to Nazi occupation.  France fell to the Nazi war machine in six weeks, in 1940.  The armed forces of the island nation of Great Britain were left shattered and defenseless, stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

On the Scandinavian Peninsula, longstanding policies of disarmament in the wake of WW1 left the Nordic states of Denmark and Norway severely under-strength, able to offer little resistance to the Nazi invaders.

On this day in 1940, German warships entered Norwegian harbors from Narvik to Oslo, as German troops occupied Copenhagen and other Danish cities.  King Christian X of Denmark surrendered almost immediately.  To the northwest, Norwegian commanders loyal to former foreign minister Vidkun Quisling ordered coastal defenders to stand down, permitting the German landing to take place, unopposed.  Norwegian forces refused surrender demands from the German Minister in Oslo, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Nazi Germany responded with an airborne invasion by parachute.  Within weeks, Adolf Hitler could add a second and third scalp to his belt, following the invasion of Poland, six months earlier.  The Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, were out of the war.

Norway was out of the war, but not out of the fight.   One Nazi officer passed an elderly woman on the street, who complained at the officer’s rudeness and knocked his hat off, with her cane. The officer apologized, and scurried away.  The gray-haired old matron snickered, to herself:  “Well, we’ll each have to fight this war as best we can.  That’s the fourth hat I’ve knocked into the mud this morning.

Norwegian Resistance was quick to form, as patriotic locals united against the Nazi occupier and the collaborationist policies of the Quisling government.

“Anti-Nazi graffiti on the streets of Oslo, reading “Live” above the monogram for the Norwegian king, who had fled when the Germans invaded in 1940”. (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Norwegian secret army known as Milorg and led by General Otto Ruge, was at first loath to engage in outright sabotage, for fear of German reprisals against innocent civilians.  Later in the war, Milorg commandos attacked the heavy water factory at Rjukan and sank a ferry carrying 1,300 lbs of heavy water, inflicting severe damage to the Nazi nuclear research program.

Sven Somme, tree
Norwegian Resistance member Sven Somme demonstrates one of the techniques by which he evaded capture in the mountains.

In the beginning, Resistance activities centered more around covert sabotage and the gathering of intelligence.  One of the great but little-known dramas of WW2 unfolded across the snow covered mountains of the Scandinavian peninsula, as the civilian-turned-spy Sven Somme fled 200 miles on foot to neutral Sweden, pursued by 900 Wehrmacht soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds.

Operations of all kinds were undertaken, to stymie the Nazi war effort. Some actions seem like frat-boy pranks, such as coating condoms destined for German units, with itching powder.  Hundreds of Wehrmacht soldiers (and presumably Norwegian women) showed up at Trondheim hospitals, believing they had contracted Lord-knows-what kind of plague.

Other operations demonstrate a kind of evil genius.  This is where Croton oil comes in.

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As dedicated as they were, Norwegian resistance fighters still had to feed themselves and their families.  Many of them were subsistence fishermen, and that meant sardines.  For centuries, the small fish had been a staple food item across the Norwegian countryside.  It was a near-catastrophic blow to civilian and Resistance fighters alike, when the Quisling government requisitioned the entire sardine crop.

The Battle of the Atlantic was in full-swing by this time, as wolf packs of German submarines roamed the north Atlantic, preying on Allied shipping.  Thousands of tons of sardines would be sent to the French port of Saint-Nazaire, to feed U-Boat crews on their long voyages at sea.

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German Type X Submarine, U-864

Norwegian vengeance began with a request to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Great Britain, for the largest shipment of Croton oil, possible.  The “atomic laxative” was smuggled into canneries across Norway, and used to replace vegetable oil in sardine tins.  The plan worked nicely and no one suspected a thing, the pungent taste of the fish covering the strange flavor of the oil.

From midget submarines such as the BiberHaiMolch, and Seehund models to the behemoth 1,800-ton “Type X“, the Kriegsmarine employed no fewer than fifteen distinct submarine types in WW2, including the workhorse “Type VII”, of which some 700 saw service in the German war effort. 

On the surface of the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic raged on with torpedo and depth charge.  Under the surface, there unfolded a different story.

Revenge, it is said, is a dish, best served cold. Excepting the participants in this tale, no one knows what it looks like when ten thousand submariners simultaneously lose control of their bowels. It could not have been a pretty sight.

February 9, 1945 An Underwater Chernobyl

Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.

A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.

With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret.  Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic. 

The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew.  Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.

At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room.   14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.

In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another.   And for good reason.  At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean. 

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other.  Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.

Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.

Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.

The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines. 

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U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed.  The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

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The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.

U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.

The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.

u-864-wreck

A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Unknown factors could only be guessed at.

A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

So, what about all that mercury?

In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.

The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.

Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.

In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.

In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.

Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.

The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.

Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.

The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”

Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.

In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.

February 7, 1917 The Road to War

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  No one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so there was war.  By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

wwi-submarine

On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

lusitania-sinking

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans.  100 of the dead, were children. .

The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

lusitania-warning
Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53.  American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry.  Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.  

Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw.  The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

January 14, 1969 Fire at Sea

For every multi-ton flying fuel tank hurtling from bow-mounted catapults bristling with armaments, a controlled crash landing of that same aircraft, takes place in the stern. Combine all that chaos with a heaping helping of Murphy’s law and the table is set, for disaster.

From the WW1-era launch of the first modern aircraft carrier to the present day, the carrier sailor has literally lived and worked, surrounded by the means of his own destruction.

In March 1953, a Corsair fighter off the coast of Korea landed on the decks of USS Oriskany, with a bomb still attached. The thing fell off and exploded, piercing the wingtip tanks of several F9F-5 Panthers, spilling flaming fuel across the decks. That time, fire crews were able to put out the fire, before the flames reached ordnance lockers. Loss of life was limited to two sailors killed and another fifteen, wounded. A decade later, the “Mighty O” wouldn’t get off, so lightly.

USS Oriskany

Oriskany began her second tour off the Vietnam coast in July, 1966. The carrier’s five fighter squadrons launched nearly 8,000 sorties in the first four months, a pace taxing to man and machine, alike.

On October 26, apprentice seamen George James, 18, and James Sider, 17, were ordered to stow 117 parachute flares. Untrained and unsupervised, Sider snagged a lanyard , and accidentally set one off. Panicked, blinded by the brilliant light of white phosphorus, Sider tossed the flare into the storage locker.

The bin already contained some 650 flares and 2¾-inch air-launched rockets, each carrying a 6-pound warhead. Temperatures inside the locker soared to 4,500° Fahrenheit and the main hatch exploded as steel bulkheads began to sag and buckle.

Water is worse than useless against a magnesium fire. Anyone who’s seen the Hindenburg tape understands why. Water breaks down to oxygen and hydrogen at temperatures over 3,000°, literally transforming into fuel, for the inferno.

Magnesium fires burn as hot as 5,600°, Fahrenheit. As a point of reference, volcanic lava ranges from 1,470° to 2,190°.

As helicopters burned and ammunition cooked off, the courage of individual firemen is scarcely to be believed. Literally surrounded by bombs staged for loading, firemen trained water hoses to cool these monsters even as their paint blistered, and fuze inlets began to smoke.

Oriskany fire, October 1966

Had the bombs gone off, the probable result would be the death of the carrier itself.

Down below, murderous heat and noxious fumes killed men where they stood. Lt. Cmdr. Marvin Reynolds wrapped a wet blanket around himself and fumbled in the darkness, for the wrench to open his porthole. “If you let this wrench slip and lose it in the smoke” he thought, “you’ve bought the farm.” Reynolds managed to open his porthole, holding his head out the small opening until a sailor passed him a breathing mask, and fire hose.

In the end, firemen could do little but hose the edge of the fire, while the inferno burned itself out. 44 men were killed and another 156, injured. So much water was pumped onboard that scuba teams were required, to rescue men trapped on lower decks.

8 months later, USS Forrestal met a similar fate. This one is personal as a close family member, was involved.

In 1967, the carrier bombing campaign against North Vietnam reached an intensity unrivaled, in US Naval history.

USS Forrestal, departing San Francisco bay.

Combat operations were literally outpacing ordnance resupply, which soon included AN-M65A1 “Fat Boy” bombs, left over from the war in Korea.  Handlers feared these old bombs might spontaneously explode from the shock of a catapult takeoff.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of Navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1000-lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. Tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall compared with older munitions and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures, like a huge sparkler.

The problem was, the old ordnance was thinner-skinned than the modern bombs, and armed with 10+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already more sensitive to heat and shock than the newer ordnance, composition B becomes more volatile as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful too, as much as 50%, by weight.

On the morning of July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.  Twenty-seven aircraft were on deck, fully loaded with fuel, ammunition, bombs and “Zuni” unguided rockets. 

An electrical malfunction fired a rocket across the flight deck, severing the arm of one crew member and piercing the 400-gallon fuel tank of an A-4E Skyhawk. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented the weapon from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration.

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During WW2, virtually all carrier sailors were trained to fight fires. That all changed by the Vietnam era in favor of small, highly trained teams of fire fighters. Damage Control came into action immediately, as Team #8 Chief Gerald Farrier spotted a Fat Boy bomb turning cherry red, in the flames.  Without protective clothing, Farrier held a fire extinguisher on the 1000-pound bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold, but composition B proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  Farrier “simply disappeared” in the first of a dozen or more explosions, in the first few minutes.  By the third such explosion, Damage Control Team #8 had all but ceased to exist.

There were nine major explosions on deck during the first five minutes.

The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist in the violence of the blasts. Office furniture was thrown to the floor, five decks below.  Huge holes were torn through the flight deck while 40,000 gallons of flaming jet fuel, poured through ventilation ducts and into living quarters below.

USS_Forrestal_fire_1_1967

Future United States Senator John McCain managed to scramble out of his cockpit and down the fuel probe.  Seconds later, Lieutenant Commander Fred White wasn’t so lucky.

With the life of the carrier itself at stake, tales of incredible courage, were commonplace. Medical officers worked for hours in the most dangerous conditions imaginable. Explosive ordnance demolition officer LT(JG) Robert Cates “noticed that there was a 500-pound bomb and a 750-pound bomb in the middle of the flight deck… that were still smoking. They hadn’t detonated or anything; they were just setting there smoking. So I went up and defused them and had them jettisoned.” Sailors volunteered to be lowered through the flight decks into flaming and smoked-filled compartments, to defuse live bombs.

The fire burned until 4:00 the next morning. 21 of the 73 aircraft on board were destroyed and another 40, damaged. 134 crewmen died in the conflagration. Another 161 received non-fatal injuries. It was the worst loss of life on a US Navy vessel, since World War 2.

They say bad luck comes in threes. On this day in 1969, the nuclear carrier USS Enterprise finished the list.

Since the age of the Wright brothers, aircraft designers have often left out the excess weight of starters and batteries. Early piston engines were startd by hand and, in the jet age, gas turbines often use auxiliary starters powered by gas or other combustible material.

On the morning of January 14, 1969, USS Enterprise was training 70-miles off Hawaii, preparing for her 4th tour of Vietnam. Her flight deck was crowded with F-4 Phantoms and A-7 Corsair II bombers, each loaded with Zuni rocket pods and 500-pound Mk-82 bombs. At 8:18am, an MD-3A “Huffer” aircraft engine starter was parked near the wing of an F4 Phantom, its exhaust a mere 24-inches from a rocket pod.

The 15-pound warhead on a Zuni rocket, goes off at 358° Fahrenheit. A Huffer exhaust burns between 362° and 590°. For a minute and 18 seconds, no fewer than four crew members were aware of the problem. None took steps to fix it and each, paid the ultimate price.

In the flash of an eye the exploding rocket ruptured several nearby fuel tanks as fuel vaporized and immediately, burst into flames. That’s when all hell, broke loose. The nearest 15 aircraft carried a combined fuel load of 15,000 gallons with a combined armament of 30 500-pound bombs and 40 Zuni rockets. 18 massive explosions went off in close succession, tearing great holes in 2½-inch deck armor.

Men and machines were tossed by each explosion, “like dust”. Three bombs went off at once opening a 22-foot hole in the deck, damaging a nearby tanker and spilling burning fuel, six floors below.

Knocked unconscious in the initial blast, Petty Officer 3rd Class Frank Neumayer of Fighter Squadron VF-96 awoke to find his goggles melting and his clothing, on fire. “The roar of the fire was just horrendous,” he later said. “It just blotted out any other sound. The stench… was horrible.” He managed to crawl to the catwalk below just as 2 500-pound bombs went off, not 30-feet from his previous position. Neumayer lost his left leg in the blast and twice received last rites, but survived.

The Destroyers USS Bainbridge and Rodgers came alongside, to lend their hoses. Helicopters arrived within two hours from Pearl Harbor, to medevac the wounded. Within three hours the last flames, were out.

The USS Enterprise fire resulted in the death of 34 men and another 341 non-fatal injuries. The fire resulted in a redesign of the Huffer starter and repair costs equivalent to $912 million, today. No formal inquiry was ever held, to determine fault. Everyone plausibly to blame for the catastrophe, had been among the first to die.

December 30, 1863 Bermuda and the Confederacy

“As a consequence of the naval blockade, Bermuda — along with the Bahamas and Cuba — became a centre of Confederate commerce. A steady stream of fast-running ships from the South clandestinely skirted the Union blockade, passing through St. George’s carrying cotton from Charleston, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina for English manufacturers; they made the return journeys freighted with European armaments. Bermuda was both a transhipment point where cotton was directly exchanged for British weapons warehoused here and a refuelling depot for Confederate blockade runners making transatlantic runs.” – Hat tip BerNews.com


South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, the first of 11 states to do so. War broke out in April, and the Confederacy desperately needed ships for its fledgling Navy. The CSA needed manufactured goods as well, goods no longer available from the industrialized North. The answer, in both cases, was Great Britain. While remaining officially neutral, England soon became primary ship builders and trade partners for the Confederacy.

For the British military, Bermuda had already demonstrated its value. Bermuda based privateers captured 298 American ships during the war of 1812. The place served as a base for amphibious operations as well, such as the 1815 sack of Washington, DC. British Commander Sir Alexander Milne said “If Bermuda were in the hands of any other nation, the base of our operations would be removed to the two extremes, Halifax and Jamaica, and the loss of this island as a Naval Establishment would be a National misfortune”.

slide_18President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation soon after taking office, threatening to blockade southern coastlines. It wasn’t long before the “Anaconda Plan” went into effect, a naval blockade extending 3,500 miles along the Atlantic coastline and Gulf of Mexico, up into the lower Mississippi River.

Running the blockade was no small or occasional enterprise. The number of attempts to run the Federal stranglehold have been estimated at 2,500 to 2,800, of which about 2/3rds succeeded. Over the course of the war, the Union Navy captured over 1,100 blockade runners. Another 355 vessels were destroyed or run aground.

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Cotton would ship out of Mobile, Charleston, Wilmington and other ports while weapons and other manufactured goods would come back in. Sometimes, these goods would make the whole trans-Atlantic voyage.  Often, they would stop at neutral ports in Cuba or the Bahamas.

North Carolina and Virginia had long-established trade relations with Bermuda, 600 nautical miles to the east.

The most successful blockade runners were the fast, paddle wheeled steamers, though surprisingly little is known of the ships themselves. They were usually built in secrecy, and operated at night. One notable exception was the “Nola”, a 236-foot paddle steamer which ran aground on December 30, 1863, en route from London to North Carolina. Nola ran aground, attempting to escape threatening weather. She was wrecked near Western Blue Cut on Bermuda’s reefs, and remains a popular dive destination, to this day.

shipwreck-in-bermuda
The blockade runner “Nola” was known at various times as Montana, Gloria, and Paramount.

President Lincoln appointed Massachusetts native Charles Maxwell Allen Consul to Bermuda in 1861, where he remained until his death, in 1888. There were times when it was a great job, I’m sure, but not in the early days. “There are a great many Southern people here”, Allen wrote in 1862, “14 came in the steamer ‘Bermuda’. They & their friends are down on me & have threatened to whip me”. People were getting rich running the blockade.  Allen estimated that one blockade runner alone, which sank after three voyages, generated a profit of more than £173,000.

“The British colonial government monitored both sides to try to maintain strict neutrality, but only the latent threat of the powerful Royal Navy fleet based at Bermuda kept the belligerents from open warfare within British boundaries”. – Hat tip BerNews.com

Bermuda-National-Trust-Museum

Today, the capital of Bermuda is Hamilton, moved across the island in 1815 from the old port of St. George, leaving the former capital in a kind of time warp, where you can walk down streets that look like they did 150 years ago. Portraits of Robert E. Lee and Confederate battle flags can still be found on the walls of the old port, beside paintings showing the harbor filled with blockade runners, lying quietly at anchor.

Once the office of Confederate Commercial Agent John Tory Bourne and Confederate Shipping Agent Major Norman Walker, today the Bermuda National Trust Museum tells the story of the island’s history, including Bermuda’s role in the American Civil War. The museum’s guide book explains: “The opportunities for Bermudians to profit from blockade running were boundless. Ships needed coal and provisions. Crews required lodging, food and entertainment between runs. Cargoes had to be unloaded, stored and reloaded, while crews and cargoes had to be ferried to ships lying at anchor. Bermudian pilots guided the ships through the reefs; those with skills as mates, carpenters, firemen and ordinary seamen signed on as crew. The Civil War proved to be the road to riches.

[http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-us-cs/csa-sh/csash-ag/advance.htm DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY — NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER WASHINGTON NAVY YARD WASHINGTON DC] Sepia wash drawing by R.G. Skerrett, 1899. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Sheryl and I traveled to Bermuda a while back, and visited the old port at St. George. At some point we learned about the maritime history of the island. Making a living at sea in the 19th century was a dangerous business, so much so that one in ten married women living in Bermuda, were widows.

It occurred to me. All those Confederate officers and enlisted men were spending a lot of time in Bermuda.  The possibility that followed soon morphed into probability and then a certainty. At this point I can only wonder how many English citizens there are, residents of Bermuda and loyal subjects of the Queen, who can trace paternity back to the Confederate States of America.

Bonnie Blue
‘The ‘Bonnie Blue’ flies over bonnie St George’s’ H/T Royal Gazette

December 10, 1917 A Gift of Gratitude

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston. A gift of gratitude, between two peoples.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, and the bonds between two peoples.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of the third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

Nova Scotia, ca 1900

The Norwegian vessel Imo left her mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

SS Imo

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running herself aground.

That’s when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

The ferocity of the blast literally tore Mont Blanc’s cannon from its mount and bent the barrel.

Mont Blanc’s Cannon

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light on the morning of December 7 revealed an apocalyptic scene of devastation, some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast as a blizzard descended over Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts’ Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax, a sum equivalent to some $665,000 today.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train to arrive on the scene.

Halifax Herald

There was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  An enormous Christmas tree.

In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston.  A gift of gratitude, between two peoples. More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

A monument was unveiled on Boston Commons on November 30, 2017, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

2020 tree

This year’s tree stands 48-feet tall tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax explosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.

The trip was a little different this year as the border remains closed, due to COVID restrictions. The 2020 tree arrived by ship in Portland Maine to continue the journey south, by road.

For a small Canadian province, the annual gift is no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

The 2020 tree lighting ceremony on December 3 was, like so many things in this year of years, virtual. There were televised remarks from Mayor Marty Walsh and Karen Casey, Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia, accompanied by Santa Claus and a squadron of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The switch was thrown and and a live audience of…nobody…enjoyed the ceremonial lighting of the tree.

Thank you, Xi Jinping. You have brought so much warmth into our lives.

BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 5: Fireworks explode around the Christmas tree on Boston Common at the conclusion of the festivities at the 78th annual tree lighting at the Boston Common on Dec. 5, 2019. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 2016, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word the following year, on the centennial anniversary of the Halifax catastrophe. “We had massive deaths and injuries”, he said. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”

December 5, 1941 Henry Breault

It is a searing act of imagination, merely to contemplate those 17 days. Trapped and disoriented inside that black, upside down hell, waiting and desperately hoping for a rescue that would come, too late. A searing act, merely of the imagination. What would it be to enter such a place, as an act of free will.

December 5, 1941 was a Friday. The conflict destined to be known as World War 2 was still, “over there”. The United States was neutral, and at peace. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington and five heavy cruisers leave the US Pacific naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, unaware that only yesterday, Emperor Hirohito approved the attack to be carried out, in two days.

It was literally “out of the blue”, when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes, across Hickam Air Field and over the waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.

In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into the hull in the first ten minutes. Eight torpedoes crashed into her port side, each striking higher up as the Battleship slowly rolled over.

Bilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection that Monday, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumping overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out on mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland in the next berth.

Nine Japanese torpedoes struck Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.

The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged, four sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other ships were damaged and another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most while still on the ground. 159 of those were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.

Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get to those trapped inside. 32 of them were delivered from certain death. 14 Marines and 415 sailors lost their lives on board Oklahoma, either immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hulk of that ship. The last such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.

It is a searing act of imagination, merely to contemplate those 17 days. Trapped and disoriented inside that black, upside down hell, waiting and desperately hoping for a rescue that would come, too late.

A searing act, merely of the imagination. What would it be to enter such a place, as an act of free will.

Let’s rewind. To 1914.

Early attempts had failed, to build a sea-level canal across the 50-mile isthmus of Panama. It was decided instead, the canal would be comprised of a system of locks. The giant crane barges Ajax and Hercules were ordered in 1913, to handle the locks and other large parts, in building the canal. The two cranes arrived in Cristóbal, Colón, Panama on December 7, 1914.

Ajax crane barge at work in the canal zone, 1914

Much of the world was at war at this time while the United States, remained neutral. Henry Breault was born to be a sailor and at sixteen, enlisted in the British Royal Navy. For four years, the Connecticut-born Vermonter served under the White Ensign. When his four-year tour ended in 1921, he joined the US Navy.

In 1923, now-torpedoman First Class Henry Breault was assigned to the O-Class submarine USS O-5 (SS-66). On October 28, O-5 under the command of Lieutenant Harrison Avery was leading a column of submarines across Limon Bay, toward the canal entrance.

The steamship SS Abangarez, owned by the United Fruit Company, was underway and headed for dock 6, at Cristobal. There were navigational errors and miscommunications and, at about 0630, Abangarez collided with the submarine, tearing a ten-foot opening on her starboard side.

USS O-5

The main ballast tank was breached. O-5 was doomed. As the submarine rolled sharply to port and then to starboard, Avery gave the order to abandon ship. Breault was a few short steps to safety when he realized. Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown was still below, sleeping. As the bow was going under, Breault shut the deck hatch over his head, and went below.

Brown was awake by this time, but unaware of the order to abandon ship. The pair headed aft toward the control hatch, but it was too late. With the dying sub rapidly filling with water, Breault and Brown made their way to the torpedo room, and dogged the main hatch. Seconds later the battery shorted, and exploded. The two men were trapped under 42-feet of water with no food, no water and only a single flashlight, to pierce the stale air of that tiny, pitch black compartment. It was all over, in about a minute.

Salvage efforts were underway almost immediately, from nearby submarine base, Coco Solo. By 10:00, divers were on the bottom, examining the wreck. Divers hammered on the hull starting aft and working forward, in a search for survivors. On reaching the torpedo room they were answered, by hammer blows from the inside. Somebody’s still alive in that thing.

There were no means of rescue in those days, save for physically lifting the submarine with pontoons, or crane. There were no pontoons within 2,000 miles but the giant crane barges Ajax and Hercules were in the canal zone, working to clear a landslide from Gaillard Cut. (Now known as the Culebra cut).

“The Culebra Cut. An artificial valley along the Pacific Ocean to Gatun Lake (ahead) and eventually the Caribbean Sea.. Water level here is 85 feet above sea level…Contractor’s Hill is on the left and Gold Hill is on the right.” H/T Wikipedia

A simple excavation now became a frantic effort to clear enough debris for Ajax, to squeeze itself through the cut.

Divers worked around the clock to dig a tunnel under the sub, through which to snake a cable. Sheppard J. Shreaves, supervisor of the Panama Canal’s salvage crew and himself a qualified diver, explained: “The O-5 lay upright in several feet of soft, oozing mud, and I began water jetting a trench under the bow. Sluicing through the ooze was easy; too easy, for it could cave in and bury me. … Swirling black mud engulfed me, I worked solely by feel and instinct. I had to be careful that I didn’t dredge too much from under the bow for fear the O-5 would crush down on me.”

Ajax arrived around midnight and by early morning the tunnel had been dug, the cables run and attached to Ajax’ hook. Cables strained as the lift began and then…disaster. The cable snapped.

Inside, the headaches were terrific from the pressure and the stale air but all around them, they could hear it. The scraping sounds that meant, rescue was on the way.

Sheppard Shreaves and his team of exhausted divers were now in their suits for nearly 24 hours, working to snake a second set of cables under the bow. Again the strain, as Ajax brought up the slack. Again…disaster. The second set of cables, snapped.

Midnight was approaching on the 29th when the third attempt began, this time with buoyancy added, by blowing air into the flooded engine room. O-5 broke the surface just after midnight. For the first time in 31 hours, two men were able to take in a breath of fresh air. The pair were rushed to the base at Coco Solo for medical examination, and to decompress.

Henry Breault presented the Medal of Honor by President Calvin Coolidge.

Henry Breault received the Medal of honor for what he did that day. Sheppard Shreaves received the Congressional Life Saving Medal, personally presented by Henry Breault and Lawrence Brown along with a gold engraved watch, a gift from the grateful submariners, of Coco Solo.

Henry Breault served 20 years with the US Navy and later became ill, with a heart condition. He passed away on this day in 1941 at the age of 41, and went to his rest in St. Mary’s cemetery, in Putnam Connecticut. To this day the man remains the only enlisted submariner in history, to receive the Medal of Honor.

November 27, 1942. Vanquished, but Unbeaten

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-France

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of the country, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain. Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime. Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2

With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers. This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

Scuttled, 1

In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening reached French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon. Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops. By any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

Under orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulon

Finally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more. German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet. Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light. Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from her superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp. In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed. 39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks. The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded that day. 78 years ago, today. The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable. How many lives may have been lost, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power. But for the obstinate bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten foe.

November 21, 1916 Unsinkable

There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks. Violet Jessop counted the lighted portholes as the small boat creaked ever downward. One row, then two: every abandoned stateroom a tableau. Three, and four: feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels, sparkling abandoned, on table tops. Five and then six: each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, a last glimpse, soon to slip out of sight.

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

The smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her about, stern-first. Collision was averted by a bare 4-feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

Edward Smith

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold. There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but it was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time. 

Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision was averted. Below the surface, the starboard side ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

Violet_jessop_titanic

The ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear. The great ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The vessel was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, but the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles.

Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. So strictly did Royal Navy officer Charles Lightoller adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that evacuation took the form of women and children, only. Many boats were launched, half-full. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with 28 aboard.

Lightoller himself survived, only by clinging to the bottom of an overturned raft.

titanic-01-wallpaper

Violet Jessop was among those first to leave. A man tossed her a bundle with the words, “ look after this, will you?“. It was a baby.

As ship’s nurse, Jessop was there to look after the comfort of the White Star Line passengers. Now, this small boat full of disoriented women was being lowered into the cold and darkness of night, while all aboard the great vessel was light, and comfort, and warmth.

Denial is a funny thing, that psychological defense mechanism described by Sigmund Freud, in which a person rejects a plain fact too uncomfortable to contemplate. There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks. Violet Jessop counted the lighted portholes as the small boat creaked ever downward. One row, then two: every abandoned stateroom a tableau. Three, and four: feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels, sparkling abandoned, on table tops. Five and then six: each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, a last glimpse, soon to slip out of sight.

Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith. This was not their first cruise together. This wasn’t even their first shipwreck.

The White Star Line’s RMS Olympic set sail for New York seven months earlier with Captain Edward Smith, commanding. Violet Jessop was on duty as the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke performed mechanical tests, on a course parallel to the trans-Atlantic liner. Something went wrong and the tiller froze, swinging the bow of the Edgar-class cruiser toward the liner. Hydrodynamic forces took over and the two ships collided, just after noon. The hull of the cruiser was smashed, two great gashes carved into the side of Olympic. One was below the water line.

Two compartments flooded, but the watertight doors did their job. Olympic limped back to Southampton for repairs. Captain Smith and Violet Jessop moved on to the maiden voyage of her sister ship, the unsinkable RMS Titanic.

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Denial turned to horror that frigid April night in 1912, when six rows of lights became five and then four, and Titanic began to rise by the stern.  RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am in response to distress calls, and diverted to New York with survivors.  Four days later, a crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors , in spite of a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the list of casualties.

Violet Jessop survived that night.  Captain Smith, did not.

Back in 1907, Director General of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay planned a series of three sister ships, to compete with the Cunard lines’ Mauritania, and Lusitania. What these lacked in speed would be made up in size, and luxurious comfort. The three vessels were to be named OlympicTitanic and Gigantic.

800px-Britannic_Funnel_in_transport
One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

That last name was quietly changed following the Titanic disaster and, on December 12, 1915, the newly christened Britannic was ready for service.

Two years later, the world was at war. Nurse Jessop was working aboard HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic. On November 21, 1916, HMHS Britannic was on station near Kea in the Aegean Sea when she was struck by a German mine, or torpedo. Violet Jessop calmly made her way to her cabin, She’d been here, before. There she collected a ring, a clock and a prayer book, and even helped another nurse collect her composure.

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After the Carpathia rescue, Jessop complained to friends and family that she missed her toothbrush. Her wisecracking brother Patrick had quipped next time you wreck, “look after your toothbrush”.

This time, she didn’t forget her toothbrush.

Britannic should have survived even with five watertight compartments filled, but nurses defied orders and opened the windows, to ventilate the wards.   In fifty-five minutes, HMHS Britannic replaced her sister ship Titanic, as the largest vessel on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately, daytime hours combined with warmer weather and more numerous lifeboats, to lessen the cost in lives.  1,035 were safely evacuated from the sinking vessel, keeping the death toll in the Britannic wreck, to thirty.

Violet Jessop survived three of the most famous shipwrecks of her age, and never tired of working at sea. She returned to work as stewardess aboard RMS Olympic after the war, before retiring to private life and passing away, in 1971.

John Maxtone-Graham, editor of “Titanic Survivor”, the story of Jessop’s life, remembers one last story about “Miss Unsinkable”. Fifty-nine years after the wreck, the phone rang late one night, during a violent thunderstorm. A woman’s voice at the other end asked “Is this the Violet Jessop who was a stewardess on the Titanic and rescued a baby?” “Yes” came the reply, “who is this?” The woman laughed: “I was that baby.”

November 20, 1820 Call me Ishmael

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked. What was happening now was unmistakable.


The whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in August 1819, the month Herman Melville was born.  The 21-man crew expected to spend 2-3 years hunting sperm whales, filling the ship’s hold with oil before returning to split the profits of the voyage.

Whaleship at sea

Essex sailed down the coast of South America, rounding the Horn and entering the Pacific Ocean.  There they heard that the whaling grounds near Chile and Peru were exhausted so they sailed for the “offshore grounds”, almost 2,000 miles from the nearest land.

That’s exactly where they were there on November 20, 1820, with two of Essex’ three boats out hunting whales.  The lookout spotted a huge bull sperm whale, behaving oddly, lying motionless on the surface with his head facing the ship. He was a large animal, much larger than most, estimated at 85 feet long and 80 tons.  In moments, he began to move. Picking up speed it soon became clear, this beast was charging the ship.   

The powerful tail churned the water to froth as the great beast closed the distance, striking the port side so hard, it shook the ship.

Wreck of the whale ship Essex

Never in the history of the whale fishery had a whale been known to attack a ship unprovoked. What was happening now was unmistakable.

The huge animal seemed dazed at first by the impact, floating to the surface and resting near the ship’s side.  He then turned and swam away for several hundred yards before turning to resume the attack.  He came in at the great speed of 24 knots according to First Mate Owen Chase, ramming the port bow and driving the stern into the water.  Oak planking cracked and splintered as the whale worked his tail up and down, driving the 238-ton vessel backward.  Essex had already started to go down when the whale broke off his attack, diving below the surface, never to return.

Essex_photo

Captain George Pollard’s boat was the first to make it back. Staring in disbelief, Pollard asked “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” The first mate replied:   “We have been stove by a whale”.

The whale ship Essex was dying. No force on earth could save her. The crew divided into groups of seven and boarded the three boats.  It wasn’t long before Essex sank out of sight. 21 men now alone, stranded in 28-foot open boats, about as far from land as it was mathematically possible to be.

The whalers believed that cannibals inhabited the Marquesa islands, 1,200 miles to the west. So they headed south, parallel to the coast of South America.  Before the ordeal was over, they themselves were destined to become the cannibals.

With good winds, they might reach the coast of Chile in 56 days.  There were enough rations to last 60 provided they were distributed at starvation levels, but much of it turned out to be ruined, by salt water.  There was a brief reprieve in December, when the three small boats landed on a small island in the Pitcairn chain.  There they were able to get their fill of birds, eggs, crabs, and peppergrass. Within a week the island was stripped clean.  The men decided to move on save for three who refused to get back in the boats and were left behind.

Essex

None of them knew it but this was Henderson Island, only 104 miles from Pitcairn Island where survivors from the 1789 Mutiny on HMS Bounty had managed to survive for the past 36 years.

After two months at sea, the boats had long separated from one another.  Starving men were beginning to die and the survivors came to an unthinkable conclusion.  They would have to eat their own dead.

When those were gone, the survivors drew lots to see who would die, that the others might live.  Captain Pollard’s 17-year-old cousin Owen Coffin, whom he had sworn to protect, drew the black spot.   Pollard protested, offering to take his place, but the boy declined. “No”, he said, “I like my lot as well as any other.”  Again, lots were drawn to see who would be Coffin’s executioner.  Owen’s friend, Charles Ramsdell, drew the black spot.

On February 18, the British whaleship Indian spotted a boat containing Owen Chase, Benjamin Lawrence and Thomas Nickerson.  It was 90 days sink Essex sank out of sight.  Five days later, the Nantucket whaleship Dauphin pulled alongside another boat, to find Captain Pollard and Charles Ramsdell inside.  The pair was so far gone they didn’t even notice at first, gnawing on the bones of their comrades.

The three left on Henderson Island were later rescued.  The third whaleboat was found beached on a Pacific island several years later, with four skeletons on board.

The Essex was the first ship recorded to have been sunk by a whale, though she would not be the last.  The Pusie Hall was attacked in 1835. The Lydia and the Two Generals were both attacked by whales a year later. The Pocahontas and the Ann Alexander were sunk by whales in 1850 and 1851.

31 years after the Essex’ sinking a sailor turned novelist published his sixth work, beginning with these words: “Call me Ishmael”.