April 20, 1949 Ship’s Cat

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon. 

Mankind first crossed the line from hunter-gatherer to farmer, some ten thousand years ago. The earliest civilization known mainly for agricultural subsistence is the naturally well-watered region around Jericho, circa 8000BC. From that day to this, grain stockpiles and domesticated livestock have attracted vermin.  With that came the wild ancestor of the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus.

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From the earliest times when man took to the sea, food stores were an attractive free ride, for rodents.

Rats reach sexual maturity in as little as four to five weeks and complete the act of procreation, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 8 to 14 “kittens” and run as high, as 21. With an average gestation period of only 21 to 23 days, rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.

Left uncontrolled, rats and mice can destroy ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from the earliest days, first controlling damage to pantries, ropes and woodwork and, in more modern times, electrical wiring.  To say nothing, of rat-borne disease.

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Not without reason, are cats seen as good luck at sea. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, able to detect even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the cat’s behavior, often the first sign of foul weather ahead.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) is believed to descend from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to the Scandinavian peninsula from the modern-day United Kingdom, sometime in the first millennium.

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Norwegian Forest Cat

“Simon” was found in 1948, one of countless and nameless cats roaming the dockyards of Stonecutter’s Island, in Hong Kong. He was about a year old at that time, a sickly little waif, smuggled on board the HMS Amethyst by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, George Hickinbottom. Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats, and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather in that time and place.  Happily, the job of ship’s cat was open at that time, however (says Hickinbottom), ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

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Simon, the Amethyst cat

Simon quickly earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s cap.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.  On this day in 1949 and only a hundred miles upriver, Amethyst came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

yi4Amethyst returned fire but it wasn’t long before she was disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, mortally wounding Commander Skinner and badly injuring the ship’s cat.

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate and some managed to swim to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months turned to a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was brought to the sick bay, where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his body and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was not expected to make it through the night.

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As the weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rat known as Mao Tse-tung.

peopleThe Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained heavy damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War One, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, it is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon.

Simon returned to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon did not survive his war wounds, after all.  Required to be placed in quarantine like any animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to complications of his injuries and died on November 28, 1949.

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Hundreds attended Simon’s funeral at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in east London, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. These words were inscribed on the stone, which marks his grave:

IN
MEMORY OF
“SIMON”
SERVED IN
H.M.S. AMETHYST
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
AUGUST 1949
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER

    

A Trivial Matter
“Oskar” was plucked from the ocean on May 27, 1941 by sailors from HMS Cossack, following the sinking of the German Battleship, Bismarck. So named from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’, code for “Man Overboard”, Oskar became ship’s cat aboard the British warship until October 27 when a German torpedo blew off the forward one-third of the destroyer, killing 159 sailors. Oskar survived this disaster as well, making his way to land and thence to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and dubbed “Unsinkable Sam”. The mighty carrier was herself sunk by a German torpedo on November 14, leaving Unsinkable Sam “angry but quite unharmed” clinging to a plank, in open ocean. World War Two would would rage for another four years, but not this particular ship’s cat. A superstitious lot, no sailor wanted any part of a shipmate who’d been through three wrecks. Sam was transferred first to the Governor of Gibraltar and then back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his days, at the “Home for Sailors”, in Belfast.
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April 17, 1945 Kamikaze

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a human bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

By the end of 1944, a series of naval defeats had left the Imperial Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and ground crew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, the Atlanta class light cruiser USS Reno was hit by a Japanese aircraft in what many believed to be a deliberate crash.  The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers against a carrier task force.  Arima was killed and part of one bomber hit the USS Franklin, the Essex-class carrier known as “Big Ben”.

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17-year-old Corporal Yukio Araki (holding the puppy) died the following day in a suicide attack near Okinawa. H/T Wikipedia

Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.  Whether this was a deliberate “kamikaze” attack remains uncertain.  The tactic was anything but the following week, during the battle of Leyte Gulf.  Japanese aviators were deliberately flying their aircraft, into allied warships.

By the end of the war, this “divine wind” would destroy the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 American naval personnel.

American Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, the first allied landing on Japanese territory. It was a savage contest against a dug-in adversary, a 36-day battle costing the lives of 6,381 Americans and nearly 20,000 Japanese.

The table was set for the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war.

On April 1, Easter Sunday, 185,000 troops of the US Army and Marine Corps were pitted in the 85-day battle for Okinawa, against 130,000 defenders of the Japanese 32nd Army and civilian conscripts.  Both sides understood, the war would be won or lost in this place.

While Kamikaze attacks were near-commonplace following the October battle for Leyte Gulf, these one-way suicide missions became a major part of defense for the first time in the battle for Okinawa.  Some 1,500 Kamikaze aircraft participated in the battle for Okinawa, resulting in US 5th Fleet losses of 4,900 men killed or drowned, and another 4,800 wounded.  36 ships were sunk and another 368 damaged.  763 aircraft, were lost.

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Kamikaze, taking off

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a flying bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

On April 16, 1945, the Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey was assigned to radar picket duty, thirty miles north of Okinawa. At 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of blips at 17,000 yards, too numerous to count and approaching fast.  165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft were coming in, from the north

The Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber appeared near the destroyer at 8:30. This was a reconnaissance mission and, fired upon, the Val jettisoned her bombs, and departed. Four more D3As were soon to follow, tearing out of the sky in a steep dive toward USS Laffey. 20mm AA fire destroyed two while the other two crashed into the sea. Within seconds, a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber made a strafing run from the port beam while another approached on a bomb run, from the starboard side. These were also destroyed but, close enough to wound three gunners, with shrapnel. The flames had barely been brought under control when another Val crashed into the ship’s 40mm gun mounts, killing three sailors while another struck a glancing blow, spewing aviation fuel from a damaged engine.

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Immediately after, another D3A came in strafing from the stern, impacting a 5″ gun mount and disintegrating in a great column of fire as its bomb detonated a powder magazine. Another Val came in within seconds, crashing into the burning gun mount while yet another scored a direct hit, jamming Laffey’s rudder to port and killing several men. Within minutes, another Val and yet another Judy, had hit the port side.

It was all in the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, four FM2 Wildcats followed by twelve Vought F4U Corsair fighters from the escort carrier Shamrock Bay waded into the Kamikazes attacking Laffey, destroying several before being forced to return, low on fuel and out of ammunition.

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By the time it was over, some fifty Kamikazes were involved with the action. USS Laffey suffered six Kamikaze crashes, four direct bomb hits and strafing fire that killed 32 and wounded another 71. Lieutenant Frank Manson, assistant communications officer, asked Commander Frederick Becton if he thought they should abandon ship. Becton snapped “No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire.” He didn’t hear the comment, from a nearby lookout: “And if I can find one man to fire it.”

For USS Laffey, the war was over.  She was taken under tow the following day, April 17, and anchored near Okinawa.  She would not emerge from dry dock, until September.

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Today, the WW2 destroyer is a museum ship, anchored at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  A bronze plaque inside the ship is inscribed with the Presidential Unit Citation, received for that day off the coast of Okinawa:

For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY sent up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.

For the President,
James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

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The Battle for Okinawa
“The Battle of Okinawa was an intense 82-day campaign involving more than 287,000 US and 130,000 Japanese troops. It was considered the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, and more than 90,000 men died from both sides, along with almost 100,000 civilian casualties. During this conflict, Kamikazes inflicted the greatest damage ever sustained by the US Navy in a single battle, killing almost 5,000 men. All told, Kamikazes sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others during the entire war”. H/T Listverse.com

March 27, 1794 Quasi War

On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

Imagine you consider yourself to be somewhere in the political center.  Maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, national politics have shifted to the point you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution as such by your government.

And your personal convictions have never so much as wavered.

America’s strongest Revolution-era ally lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into a revolution of its own.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-’94 “Reign of Terror” alone, including King Louis XVI and Queen consort, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.

OSS-FrenchRevolutionMythsThe monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene.  For the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France once again found themselves in a state of war.

France was the American patriot’s strongest supporter during America’s revolution, yet the US remained neutral in the later conflict, straining relations between the former allies.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “l’ancien régime”, not to the French First Republic which had overthrown it and executed its King.

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships in the act of trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” with Great Britain, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French 1st Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 American civilian ships in one eleven-month period, alone.

In 1796, the French Republic formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s representative Ambassador Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, he who lends his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

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The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded money before meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time, but the Americans blanched.

Documents later released by the Adams administration describe Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker identified only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large “loan” to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans, followed by Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), sent by Talleyrand to meet with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

Believing that Adams sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian members of Congress joined with the more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications.  It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis which followed.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” espoused by revolutionaries.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling class enjoyed the chaos.  One British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, looks on laughing from a nearby hilltop.

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Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, the failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, the date beginning the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France.  Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

At this point, the United States had no other means of fighting back.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with its Marine contingent at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” for purposes of customs enforcement.  On this day in 1794, the United States Government established a permanent navy and authorized the building of six frigates..  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned warship in the United States Navy.

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American military involvement proved decisive.  Before armed intervention, the conflict with France resulted in the loss of over 2,000 merchant ships captured, with 28 Americans killed and another 42 wounded.   Military escalation with the French First Republic cost the Americans 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost.  That one, was later recaptured.

By the turn of the century, the naval power of the English speaking nations brought about a more agreeable negotiating position with the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. The Convention of 1800 ended the Quasi-War, asserting American rights and ending the alliance with France.

The entangling French alliance of 1778, was dead.   The Napoleonic Wars would be fought entirely on European soil.

 

A Trivial Matter
Between 1803 and 1812, the Royal Navy’s manpower needs greatly exceeded voluntary enlistment.  5,000 to 9,000 American sailors were forcibly “impressed” (kidnapped) into service, becoming a major casus belli for the war of 1812.

March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.

February 9, 1942 Of Hoodlums and Heroes

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

As the Great War gave way to the Roaring Twenties, operators of the great ocean-going liners began to look at a new class of vessels.

The White Star Lines’ Britannic, Olympic and the doomed Titanic. Cunard’s Carpathia, Mauretania and the ill-fated Lusitania. The Red Star Line’s Finland, Kroonland, and Lapland. These were the veterans of the trans-Atlantic trade, built around enormous numbers of immigrants and the one-way steerage class voyage from Europe, to the United States.

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Normandie poster

As the US all but shut down immigration in the early 1920s, the shipping industry looked to a new class of super liner to serve an upper-crust tourist trade, particularly Americans traveling to Europe, to escape Prohibition.

The German-built Norddeutscher Lloyd company was first off the line with the SS Bremen and Europa. The British-made RMS Queen Mary was not far behind, but the Queen of this new class of super-liner, was the French-built Normandie.

SS Normandie was one-of-a-kind.  The first vessel laid in compliance with the 1929 SOLAS Convention (Safety of Life at Sea), she was enormous.  1,029-feet long and 119-feet wide and displacing 85,000 tons, she was the largest liner in the world. 1,975 berths offering seven classes of service, served by a crew of 1,300.

Despite worldwide depression, Normandie was launched in 1932, making her first Atlantic crossing, in 1935.

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Normandie under construction

War broke out in Europe in 1939.  When France surrendered to Nazi Germany in June 1940, Normandie was tied to a dock, in New York.  Under no circumstance would such a vessel be allowed to fall into Nazi hands.  SS Normandie was immediately placed under “protective custody” by the US Navy.

There was speculation in the press, that the liner would be converted to an aircraft carrier in the event of American entry into the war.  The Navy seized the liner in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but not for a carrier.  The most luxurious liner in the world would be converted, to a troop ship.

Work began within weeks on the renamed USS Lafayette.

normandie-6-3176-default-largeThe afternoon of February 9, 1942 was cold and clear, over the West 49th Street pier. Welder Clement Derrick was removing the last of four stanchions in the Grand Salon when sparks ignited bales of burlap, covering highly flammable life vests.

Within a half-hour, much of the great liner was engulfed in flames. Black, oily smoke filled the City skyline as spectators crowded Pier 88.

Squadrons of fire boats poured a deluge of water, more than the great liner could bear. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Rear Admiral Adolphus Andrews attempted to board when she suddenly lurched several feet, to port. USS Lafayette was drowning in the water, meant to save her life.

The scene was a carnival, with food vendors and  hawkers. Skycraper windows were opened, to watch the grim spectacle.

USS Lafayette continued her slow roll as, unseen within her holds, shifting water picked up speed. In twelve hours, it was over. At 2:35am on February 10, she rolled over and died.

Miki Rosen was five at the time, coming by in the family car, to gawk at the scene: “My father wanted us to see it because it was an historical event. I was terribly frightened by this enormous thing that I knew was supposed to be upright and bobbing up and down. It didn’t even look like a ship. It was a mass of iron floating in the water.”

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USS Lafeyette, 1942

It wasn’t long before speculation turned to certainty. Sabotage. German spies were all over the waterfront, taking jobs as bartenders, stevedores and factory workers. Only a month earlier, 33 German agents were sentenced in a Brooklyn courtroom, to 300 years.  German U-Boats sank 20 allied vessels in January alone, a mere sixty miles off the New Jersey and Long Island shore.

main-qimg-5b28658362e63dfcf2abdc5a8709522fBBC broadcaster Alistaire Cooke, “the Twentieth Century’s de Tocqueville”, spoke of American seamen, torpedoed and picked up by a German submarine. The U-Boat commander came in and asked, in a perfect Brooklyn accent, if any were from the borough. “Maybe I worked with some o’ youse guys.  I was twelve years in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The FBI recreated Clement Derrick’s accident with the same dreadful result but, no matter.  By then, speculation had turned to “fact”.

Naval intelligence distrusted the official FBI version.  Hordes of uniformed personnel descended on the waterfront from Connecticut to New Jersey, to be met with a glowering brick wall of silence.  This was a rough and unaccustomed place, an underworld of sailors and gangsters,  fishermen and longshoremen.  A world of street toughs who’d long since lost any trust in uniforms, from meter maids to police officers.  Ivy-league Naval intelligence types got no information whatsoever.  Many were lucky, to escape without a beating.

The only authority in this world, was the Mob.

Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral Carl Espe remembered:  “The outcome of the war appeared extremely grave. In addition, there was the most serious concern over possible sabotage in the ports. It was necessary to use every possible means to prevent and forestall sabotage….” Someone on the docks was feeding the Nazis information, and only the mob had the power to hunt down the guilty party.  Policy makers fretted about doing business with the Mafia, while the Kriegsmarine U-Boats enjoyed the “Happy Time”.  

Could the Mafia even be trusted?  Vito Genovese fled New York to Italy back in 1937 to avoid a murder prosecution, where he became close friends with Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. So tight were the pair that the cagey gangster dispatched hit men to New York to murder newspaperman Carlo Tresca, a vocal critic of the fascist regime.

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Joseph “Socks” Lanza

Closer examination told a different story. Genovese was an opportunist, a double-crosser with no loyalty.  Most Sicilian gangsters were different, most of them refugees from savage Italian purges where Mafiosi were machine gunned, bombed and arrested, in droves. Thugs and gangsters yes, but almost to a man they hated the fascists with the white heat, of a thousand suns.

So it was, the United States Navy entered into one of the strangest relationships of WW2, an operation which would remain secret, until 1977. “Operation Underworld“.

The first mob boss to come on board was Joseph “Socks” Lanza, a hulking bulldozer of a man and undisputed lord of the Fulton fish market. Socks got his name because he’d “sock” anyone in the jaw, who disagreed with his pronouncements. A man with a criminal history going back to 1917, Joe Socks could order the fishing fleet from Maine to Florida to dump an entire catch to inflate prices, with a nod of his head. Fishermen failing to bribe the racketeer found their fish left rotting, on the docks. Continued disobedience resulted in arson, beatings, and death.

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If anyone could ferret out a Judas passing information to German intelligence it was Joe Socks, but how to contact a gangster, sworn to the code of Omerta?

Head of the New York Rackets Bureau, Murray Gurfein and Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Commander Charles Radcliffe Haffenden met with Lanza in the office of the gangster’s attorney. Gurfein explained “It’s a matter of great urgency. Many of our ships are being sunk along the Atlantic coast. We suspect German U-boats are being refueled and getting fresh supplies off our coast …You can find out how and where the submarines are being refueled.”  Surprisingly, the Gangster jumped at the opportunity.

Socks provided union cards held for no-show jobs. Soon, naval intelligence agents were sailing aboard mackerel fleets from Newfoundland to Florida, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications forming a valuable first-line of defense, against the Nazi submarine menace.

Important as it was, Lanza’s fishing fleet wasn’t enough, and Socks himself was disliked by the other four New York crime families.

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Charles “Lucky” Luciano

The never-ending scrum of troop ships and merchant vessels crowding the New York waterfront was of life-and-death importance to the allied war effort. The only man who controlled it all, was in prison. Lucky Luciano.  The only man Luciano trusted, was the Jewish gangster, Meyer Lansky.

Unlike the Italians, no one questioned Lansky’s patriotism.  He and his Jewish mob had attacked Nazi meetings all over the city, throwing some of them out of the windows.

The meeting was arranged and, on May 12, 1942, Luciano was quietly transferred from Dannemora prison to a country club by comparison, and promised parole at the war’s end. This in exchange for the mobster’s cooperation in defeating Nazi Germany.

Cooperate, he did. The word went out from Luciano’s prison cell, from the docks to the heart of the city. Soon, every hat check girl and bartender, every longshoreman and numbers runner and the guys who serviced the vending machines, became the eyes and ears of the United States Navy. From bathroom attendants to elevator operators, the American Nazi organization known as German American Bund couldn’t so much as think out loud, without someone listening in.

It didn’t last forever but, for one golden moment in history, the goons and the government were playing for the same side.

In the end, USS Lafayette would never sail under a US Flag.  She was a total loss, sold for scrap in 1946.  The government was as good as its word. On January 3, 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey commuted Luciano’s sentence, on condition that he did not resist deportation. The most powerful mob boss in New York, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, was deported to Naples.  Four years to the day from the death of the USS Lafayette.

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January 31, 1918 Battle of May Island

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

ww1navybritish-shipbuildingmapbritishisles2Operation E.C.1 was a planned exercise for the British Grand Fleet, scheduled for February 1, 1918 out of the naval anchorage at Scapa Flow in the North Sea Orkney Islands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HMS Fearless

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

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

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

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

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