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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September 6, 1939 Battle of Barking Creek

There is a time when every hero, is as green as the grass.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with 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 under Nazi occupation.

Ground forces of the United Kingdom were shattered in 1940, along with those of her French, Indian, Moroccan, Polish, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch allies.  The hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small were all that stood before unmitigated disaster.

338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France.  Defeated but still unbeaten, these would live to fight another day.

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In 1940, the island nation of Great Britain stood alone and unconquered, defiant in the face of the Nazi war machine.  In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to follow, as Adolf Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union.

After the allied armies were hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period as only he could, when he said that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

The “so few” to whom the Prime Minister referred, were the 2,342 British aircrew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the 595 international air crews who were her allies, in the “Battle of Britain“.

freeborn2_1715769cJohn Connell Freeborn was a pilot with the RAF, and a good one, too. Credited with 13½ enemy aircraft shot down, Freeborn flew more operational hours during the Battle of Britain, than any other pilot, ending the war with a Distinguished Flying Cross and  Bar, and completing his RAF career as a Wing Commander.  Yet, there is a time when every hero is as green as the grass.  In the beginning, John Freeborn like everyone else, were rank amateurs.

On the third day of the war, September 6, 1939, air combat experience was precisely, zero.  Very few had so much as seen a German aircraft, when a squadron of Mk IIB Hawker Hurricane fighters took off from North Weald Air Base after an early morning air raid alert. Two reserve Hurricanes left shortly afterward, piloted by Montague Hulton-Harrop and Frank Rose.

Something went wrong, and the two reserves were identified as enemy aircraft. Three Spitfires from Hornchurch, Essex were ordered to attack. Commanding officer of the flight, Adolph “Sailor” Malan, gave the order to engage.  Flying Officer Vincent ‘Paddy’ Byrne opened fire on Rose’s aircraft, as Pilot Officer John Freeborn attacked Hulton-Harrop.

Both aircraft were shot down. Rose survived, but Hulton-Harrop was dead before he hit the ground, shot through the back of his head. He was the first RAF pilot to die in the second World War. In another unfortunate first, this was the first time any aircraft had been shot down by a Spitfire.

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At the ensuing court martial, Malan testified for the prosecution, against his own pilots. He claimed that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken heed of vital communications. As for Freeborn himself, his attorney, Sir Patrick Hastings, called Malan a “bare-faced liar”.

As an interesting aside, Hastings’ co-counsel for the defense was Roger Bushell, who was later incarcerated with Paddy Byrne at Stalag Luft III.  Roger “Big X”Bushell became the mastermind of the “Great Escape“, in which he and seventy-five other allied prisoners escaped Stalag Luft III via three tunnels, dubbed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”.  Bushell was caught along with Bernard Scheidhauer, while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station, and murdered by members of the Gestapo.  Only three of the 76, escaped to freedom.

The court exonerated both Spitfire pilots, ruling the case to be an unfortunate accident.

RAFHurricaneRichard Hough and Denis Richards wrote about the episode in The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II, saying “This tragic shambles, hushed up at the time, was dubbed in the RAF ‘the Battle of Barking Creek’ – a place several miles from the shooting-down but one which, like Wigan Pier, was a standing joke in the music halls.”

The “Wigan pier” joke has to do with an inland industrial town, as if such a place could possess a pier, like some seaside pleasure resort.

Many years later, Freeborn spoke of the first RAF pilot to die in WW2, the man he himself had killed in a “friendly fire” incident. “I think about him nearly every day”, he said. “I’ve had a good life, and he should have had a good life too”.

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