June 19, 1864 Ship’s Duel

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil.

Maryland native Raphael Semmes was a career Naval officer, having served in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1860.  There was an extended leave of absence following the Mexican-American war, in which he settled in Alabama and practiced law.  Semmes was offered a Confederate naval appointment in 1861, following the secession of his adopted home state.  He resigned his commission, the following day.

Following a fruitless assignment to purchase arms from the North, Semmes was ordered to New Orleans, to convert the steamer Habana into the commerce raider CSS Sumter.  Semmes breached the Union blockade in June of 1861, outrunning the sloop of war USS Brooklyn.  So began the most successful commerce raider, in naval history.

Captain_Raphael_Semmes_and_First_Lieutenant_John_Kell_aboard_CSS_Alabama_1863
Captain Raphael Semmes standing by his ship’s 110-pounder rifled cannon. His XO 1st Lieutenant John McIntosh Kell, stands by the ship’s wheel.

His was a war on the economic might of the Union.  Sumter would eliminate 18 Union merchant vessels from the Caribbean to the Atlantic, constantly eluding the Union warships sent to destroy her.  In six short months, CSS Sumter was laid up in neutral Gibralter, her boilers too spent to go on.

On May 13, 1861, Queen Victoria issued a “Proclamation of Neutrality” in the American Civil War, prohibiting the sale of ships of war. Vessels were permitted neither to alter or improve their equipment while in British waters, but were permitted to enter.

Hull #290 was launched from the John Laird & Sons shipyard in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England as the screw sloop HMS Enrica on May 15, 1862.   Enrica left Liverpool that July on a “trial run”, a party of ladies and customs officials on board to allay suspicions that the trip was anything but ‘neutral”.

The ruse was a success.  Passengers were transferred to a tug only a short distance from Liverpool and returned to port, while the ship itself continued on to the Terceira Island in the Azores.  There she met her new captain.  Raphael Semmes.

Three days, 8 cannon and 350 tons of coal later, Enrica was transformed into the 220’, 1,500 ton sloop of war and Confederate States of America commerce raider, CSS Alabama.

CSSAlabama, artist unknown
CSS Alabama, artist unknown

Alabama’s mission was to wage economic war on the Union, attacking commercial shipping from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from Newfoundland to Brazil. In her two years as commerce raider, Alabama destroyed the Union warship USS Hatteras off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and claimed 65 prizes valued at nearly $123 million in today’s dollars.

Alabama was badly in need of a refit when she put into Cherbourg, France, on the 11th of June. The Mohican-class Union sloop of war USS Kearsarge was then on patrol near Gibraltar, making it to Cherbourg by the 14th.

Seeing that he was blockaded, Semmes challenged Kearsarge Captain John Winslow to a ship-to-ship duel.  “My intention is to fight the Kearsarge as soon as I can make the necessary arrangements. I hope these will not detain me more than until to-morrow or the morrow morning at farthest. I beg she will not depart until I am ready to go out. I have the honor to be your obedient servant, R. Semmes, Captain”.

That suited Winslow just fine.  Kearsarge took up station in international waters, and waited.

USS_Kearsarge
USS Kearsarge

Alabama steamed out of Cherbourg on the morning of June 19, 1864, escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which remained nearby to ensure that combat remained in international waters.  Kearsarge steamed further out to sea as the Confederate vessel approached.  There would be no returning to port, until the issue was decided.

Captain Winslow put his ship around and headed for the enemy at 10:50am. Alabama fired first from the distance of a mile, firing furiously as the range decreased.

Heavy, overlapping rows of chain armor allowed Kearsarge to be more deliberate, and she chose her shots, carefully.

Kearsarge Stern Post
Kearsarge Stern Post

The engagement followed a circular course at a range of a half mile; the ships steaming in opposite directions and firing at will.

Alabama’s forward 7-inch Blakely pivot rifle scored an early success, lodging a 56lb shell in Kearsarge’s exposed sternpost.  With its rudder thus bound, Kearsarge’s mobility was sharply limited.  It could have been far worse for Captain Winslow, however, had that shell not failed to explode.

One of Kearsarge’s 11″ Dahlgren smooth bore pivot cannon found its mark, tearing Alabama’s hull open at the waterline and exploding her steam boiler.   Alabama turned and tried to run back to port, but Kearsarge headed her off.  Within an hour of the first shot, the most successful commerce raider in history was reduced to a sinking wreck.

sinking_alabama
“Sinking of the CSS Alabama” by Xanthus Smith (1922)

Wounded in the battle, Semmes hurled his sword overboard, denying the Union captain that symbol of surrender.  He ordered the striking of his ship’s Stainless Banner and a hand-held white flag of surrender, as Alabama went down by the stern.

For those Confederate sailors rescued by Kearsarge, the Civil War was over. They would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.  Raphael Semmes escaped with 41 others, being plucked from the water and taken to neutral ports by the British steam yacht Deerhound, and the private sail yacht Hornet.

Battle_of_Kearsarge_and_Alabama_(1892)_by_Xanthus_SmithSemmes would recover from his wounds, returning to the war ravaged South via Cuba in February, 1865.  That April, he would supervise the destruction of all Confederate warships in the vicinity, following the fall of Richmond.  Semmes’ former command fought on as “the Naval brigade”, Semmes himself appointed Brigadier General, though the appointment would never be confirmed.  The Confederate Senate had ceased to exist.

Elements of the Naval Brigade fought with Lee’s rear guard at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, before their surrender at Appomattox, only days later.  Semmes himself was surrendered with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army near Durham Station, North Carolina.

Semmes returned to Mobile after the war, where he resumed his legal career.  There were those who wanted to try the man for piracy, but it never happened.  Raphael Semmes died an untimely death in 1877, as the result of eating some bad shrimp.

His 1869 Memoirs of Service Afloat During The War Between the States has been described as one of the “most cogent but bitter defenses ever written”, about the “lost cause”, of the South.

 

 

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June 15, 1904  P.S. General Slocum

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.” 

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now  the East Village.  “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called it, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

General Slocum tokenIt was 9:30 on a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel passenger steamboat General Slocum, left the dock and steamed into New York’s East River.

She was on a charter this day, carrying German American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Over a thousand tickets were sold for that day’s harbor cruise and picnic, not counting the 300+ children on board who were sailing for free. There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match in the forward section lamp room. Fueled by lamp oil and oily rags on the floor, the flames spread quickly, being noticed for the first time at around 10:00am.  A 12-year old boy had reported the fire earlier, but the Captain did not believe him.

Slocum 3

The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment.  Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor.  Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.Slocum 4

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered”  It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings. The wind and speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.

Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.  Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel. One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

Slocum-ablaze

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.  Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death or drowned.  It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.  There were only 321 survivors.General Slocum Casualties

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six month old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother. The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both her sisters, were among the unidentified dead.

Youngest_Slocum_Survivor

Less than one per cent of Little Germany’s population was killed in the disaster, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of the once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  There was nothing for them, there.   Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the Slocum disaster had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

In Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan, there is a 9′ stele sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble.  The relief sculpture shows two children, beside the words “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.”

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100.  The oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history, until September 11, 2001.

General_Slocum_Memorial

April 18, 1943 Terrible Resolve

Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to neuter the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia

Captian Isoroku YamamotoIsoroku Takano was born in Niigata, the son of a middle-ranked samurai of the Nagaoka Domain. His first name “Isoroku”, translating as “56”, refers to his father’s age at the birth of his son. At this time, it was common practice that samurai families without sons would “adopt” suitable young men, in order to carry on the family name, rank, and the income that came with it. The young man so adopted would carry the family name.  So it was that Isoroku Takano became Isoroku Yamamoto in 1916, at the age of 32.

After graduating from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy, Yamamoto went on to serve in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, later returning to the Navy Staff College and emerging as Lieutenant Commander in 1916. He attended Harvard University from 1919-1921, learning fluent English. A later tour of duty in the US enabled him to travel extensively, and to study American customs and business practices.

Like most of the Japanese Navy establishment, Yamamoto promoted a strong Naval policy, at odds with the far more aggressive Army establishment. For those officers, particularly those of the Kwantung army, the Navy existed only to ferry invasion forces about the globe.

Yamamoto opposed the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the 1937 land war with

uss_panay
Panay

China. As Deputy Navy Minister, it was Yamamoto who apologized to Ambassador Joseph Grew, following the “accidental” bombing of the USS Panay in 1937. Even when he was the target of assassination threats by pro-war militarists, Yamamoto still opposed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he believed would “awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”.

Yamamoto received a steady stream of hate mail and death threats in 1938, as a growing number of army and navy officers spoke publicly against him. Irritated with Yamamoto’s immovable opposition to the tripartite pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, army hardliners dispatched military police to “guard” him. In one of the last acts of his short-lived administration, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai reassigned Yamamoto to sea as Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, making it harder for assassins to get at him.

USS-Arizona-Sinking-Pearl-Harbor-Newspaper-December-7-1941-AP-Getty-640x480Many believed that Yamamoto’s career was finished when his old adversary Hideki Tōjō ascended to the Prime Ministership in 1941. Yet there was none better to run the combined fleet. When the pro-war faction took control of the Japanese government, he bowed to the will of his superiors. It was Isoroku Yamamoto who was tasked with planning the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nothing worked against the Japanese war effort as much as time and resources. Painfully aware of the overwhelming productive capacity of the American economy, Yamamoto sought to emasculate the US High Seas fleet in the Pacific, while simultaneously striking at the oil and rubber rich resources of Southeast Asia. To accomplish this first objective, he planned to attack the anchorage at Pearl Harbor, followed by an offensive naval victory which would bring the Americans to the bargaining table. It’s not clear if he believed all that, or merely hoped that it might work out.

Yamamoto got his decisive naval engagement six months after Pearl Harbor, near Midway Island. Intended to be the second surprise that finished the carriers which had escaped destruction on December 7, American code breakers turned the tables. This time it was Japanese commanders who would be surprised.

Battle-Of-Midway-Turns-Tide-Of-Pacific-War-2American carrier based Torpedo bombers were slaughtered in their attack, with 36 out of 42 shot down.  Yet Japanese defenses had been caught off-guard, their carriers busy rearming and refueling planes when American dive-bombers arrived.

midway-copyMidway was a disaster for the Imperial Japanese navy. The carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, the entire strength of the task force, went to the bottom. The Japanese also lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma, along with 344 aircraft and 5,000 sailors. Much has been made of the loss of Japanese aircrews at Midway, but two-thirds of them survived. The greater long term disaster, may have been the loss of all those trained aircraft mechanics and ground crew who went down with their carriers.

The Guadalcanal campaign, fought between August 1942 and February ’43, was the first major allied offensive of the Pacific war and, like Midway, a decisive victory for the allies.

Needing to boost morale after the string of defeats, Yamamoto planned an inspection 2013-Yamamoto-10.1tour throughout the South Pacific. US naval intelligence intercepted and decoded his schedule.  The order for “Operation Vengeance” went down the chain of command from President Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King to Admiral Chester Nimitz at Pearl Harbor. Sixteen Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, the only fighters capable of the ranges involved, were dispatched from Guadalcanal on April 17 with the order: “Get Yamamoto”.

Yamamoto’s two Mitsubishi G4M bombers with six Mitsubishi A6M Zeroes in escort were Yamamoto Wreckintercepted over Rabaul on April 18, 1943. Knowing only that his target was “an important high value officer”, 1st Lieutenant Rex Barber opened up on the first Japanese transport until smoke billowed from its left engine. Yamamoto’s body was found in the wreckage the following day with a .50 caliber bullet wound in his shoulder, another in his head. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Isoroku Yamamoto had the unenviable task of planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he was an unwilling participant in his own history. “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain”, he had said, “I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success”.Yamamoto

April 15, 1912 Unsinkable

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age. Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side. The couple went down with the ship.

Titanic_stern_and_rudder
For Scale, Note the Man Standing Next to Titanic’s Stern and Rudder

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.

Both 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 around 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.

The Southampton-to-New York run made stops at Cherbourg, France and Queenstown Ireland, to pick up passengers before the Atlantic crossing.  Titanic stoker John Coffey jumped ship in Ireland, hiding under a pile of mail bags.  The Queenstown native may have had a premonition as he claimed, or maybe he just wanted to go home.  Be that as it may, subsequent events may have made him the luckiest man on the cruise.

Edward Smith
Edward Smith, 1911

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 the ship continued to steam at full speed.  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 had been averted.  Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.  The ship had been designed to withstand the flooding of four watertight compartments.  The iceberg had opened five.  As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear that the ship was doomed.

last-image-of-the-titanic
Last known image of titanic

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however 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. The crew, however, hadn’t been adequately trained in evacuation.

The “women and children first” protocol was generally followed, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.  Ship’s officers didn’t know how many could safely board the lifeboats, and many were launched barely half-full. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

3rd class passenger Bertram Dean and his wife Georgette had decided to leave the UK and emigrate to the United States.  Mr. Dean planned to become a partner in a tobacco store, owned by a cousin in Wichita.   Down below, Bert Dean was among the first to hear the collision.  After inspecting the damage, Dean told his wife to dress the children, two-year old Bertram and two-month old Millvina, the youngest passenger on board.     Georgette and the two kids were placed on lifeboat #10, the first to escape.  Most of the male passengers and crew were left aboard, even as lifeboats launched half empty.Carpathia Iceberg

J. Bruce Ismay, CEO of White Star Lines, helped to load some of the boats. Looking about and seeing no women or children in the vicinity, only then did he step onto a lowering collapsible, but he never lived down having survived a disaster in which so many others perished.

Titanic chief architect Thomas Andrews was last seen in the First Class smoking room, staring blankly at a painting of the ship.  John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest passenger onboard, was traveling with his young wife Madeleine Talmadge Force, 29 years his junior.  Placing her on a lifeboat, Astor asked if he could join her, explaining that she was pregnant.  All that money didn’t help him, Astor was refused.  All he could do was kiss his young wife goodbye as the boat lowered out of sight.

The elderly owner of Macy’s Department Stores Isidor Straus was offered a seat with his wife Ida, on account of his age.  Strauss refused any special consideration and Ida refused to leave his side.  The couple went down with the ship, as did Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, who returned to their rooms and changed into Tuxedos.  Emerging on deck, the wealthy industrialist declared, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”.

The stories that will never be told, are those of the 700 or so 3rd class passengers below decks.  Disoriented, terrified and trapped below decks, one by one they spent their last moments gasping in shrinking pockets of air, as frigid water swirled like class V rapids through the pitch black interior of the ship.Titanic last moments

Distress signals were sent by wireless and lamp, but none of the ships responding were close enough to effect the outcome. The Californian, six miles to the north, was close enough to see distress rockets, but crew members thought the liner was having a party.

Two hours and 40 minutes after striking the iceberg, Titanic went up by the stern.  The forward deck dipped underwater as seawater poured in through open hatches and grates.  The immense strain on the keel split the ship in two between the third and fourth funnels, as the unsupported stern rose out of the water.  Propellers exposed, the stern remained afloat for a few minutes longer, rising to a nearly vertical angle with hundreds of people still clinging to it. The last piece sank out of sight at 2:20am, plunging passengers and crew into 28°F water.  Most of them died within minutes of hypothermia, cardiac arrest, or drowning. Lifeboats had room for almost 500 more, but only 13 were pulled from the water. Titanic_wreck_bow

RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am, in response to Titanic’s distress calls.  Originally bound for Austria-Hungary, Carpathia diverted to New York with survivors.  A crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors on the 18th, despite a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the full list of casualties.

Millvina Dean, once the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, died 97 years later, the last survivor of the sinking.  The remains of her father lie with the ship on which he perished, 12,415 feet beneath the surface of the north Atlantic.

March 28, 1915 Thrasher Incident

That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba

102 years ago, the Great War was in its 8th month.  The war of mobility of the early months was long gone, replaced by the lines of trench works which would characterize the rest of the war. Off the battlefield, the German and British governments each sought to choke the life out of the other’s economy. Great Britain held the upper hand, with the superior deep-water surface fleet.  To the Kaiser’s way of thinking, parity would come in the form of a submarine.

Picture_of_Leon_Chester_Thrasher_who_died_on_the_RMS_Falaba
Leon Chester Thrasher 1st American killed in WW!

Leon Chester Thrasher was an American mining engineer. That March, the 31-year-old Hardwick, Massachusetts native was leaving Liverpool, returning to a job on the Gold Coast of British West Africa aboard the cargo-passenger ship RMS Falaba.

The German submarine U-28 stopped Falaba on this day in 1915, sinking the ship to the bottom with a single torpedo and killing 104, including Leon Thrasher.  The first American killed in the “War to End all Wars”.

German policy varied over the course of the war, from unrestrained submarine warfare, to strict adherence with international law. U-28 Commander Freiherr Georg-Günther von Forstner claimed to have given Falaba 23 minutes to evacuate, cutting that short and firing his torpedo only in response to Falaba’s distress rockets and wireless messages for help. British authorities claim to have been given only 7 minutes’ warning.

The death of the first American in the European war set off a diplomatic row which threatened for a time to bring the Americans into the war. American newspapers called it the “Thrasher Incident”, denouncing the sinking as a “massacre”.   An act of “piracy”.falaba

The Germans claimed that subsequent explosions proved Falaba to be carrying contraband ammunition, intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.  Eyewitness accounts failed to settle the matter, some even tended to support the German view.

President Woodrow Wilson stayed his hand, winning re-election the following year with the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War”.

What remained of Leon Thrasher washed ashore on the coast of Ireland on July 11, 1915, after 106 days in the water.  Authorities mistakenly believed him to be a victim of the RMS Lusitania sinking, designating him Body No. 248.

The U-boat U-20 had torpedoed the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland 40 days earlier, killing 1,198, 124 of whom were Americans. The US came close to the brink of war that time too, but the last and final straw wouldn’t come for another two years.  In the form of a German telegram, to the government of Mexico.

February 9, 1945  Battle of the Atlantic

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

The impending Nazi invasion of Poland was an open secret in 1939.  That August, the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North submarineAtlantic.  On the 25th 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.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland began on September 1.  Even then, he believed that war with England and France could be avoided, the “Kriegsmarine” under strict orders to follow the “Prize Regulations” of 1936.  England and France declared war on Nazi Germany on the 3rd. Hours later, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired a torpedo into the British liner SS Athenia.  Lemp had mistakenly believed it to be an armed merchant vessel and fair game under Prize Regulations, but the damage was done.  The longest and most complex naval battle in history, had begun.atlantic-convoy

As in WWI, both England and Germany were quick to implement blockades on one another.   For good reason.  By the time that WWII was in full swing, England alone would require over a million tons a week of imported goods, in order to survive and to fight the war.

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.  Winston Churchill would say “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome”.

Thousands of ships were involved in over a hundred convoy battles, with over 1,000 singleusmm ship encounters unfolding across a theater thousands of miles wide.  According to www.usmm.org, the United States Merchant Marine suffered the highest percentage of fatalities of any service branch, at 1 in 26 compared to one in 38, 44, 114 and 421 respectively, for the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance in favor of one side and then to the other.  In the end over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships would be sunk to the bottom, compared with the loss of 783 U-boats.

The most unusual confrontation of the war occurred on this day in 1945, in the form of a combat action between two submerged submarines.  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, introducing near-insurmountable complexity into firing calculations.

u-864
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.  At this time, any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was likely to be detected and stopped.  The maiden voyage of the 287’, 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 65 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

The mission was a failure, U-864 having to retreat to the submarine pens in Bergen, u-864-locationNorway, for repairs after running aground in the Kiel Canal.  The sub 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.  They 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 far more helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander that 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.

Developing an engine noise which he feared might give him away, U-864’s commander, Ralf-Reimar Wolfram decided to return 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 the first sounds were detected, giving the British sub the stealth advantage but sharply limiting the time frame in which it could act.

u-864-wreckA four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible, but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Plus, there were unknown factors which could only be approximated.

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.

Surface actions were common enough between all manner of vessels, but a fully submerged submarine to submarine kill occurred only once in WWI, on October 18, 1914, when the German U-27 torpedoed and sank the British sub HMS E3 with the loss of all 28 aboard.  To my knowledge, such an action occurred only this one time, in all of WWII.