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Warship Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019: We’ll fight them both

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019: The Under-armed Hero of the Iceland-Faroe Passage

Here we see the P&O R-class steamer SS Rawalpindi, a passenger liner who spent most of her life in the Far East and colonial India but earned everlasting fame with a scratch crew of reservists and naval pensioners during her last 13 minutes in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, 80 years ago this week.

The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co Ltd, London which is usually just referred to as P&O, in the 1920s built a series of 16,697-grt R-class liners for the UK to Bombay mail and passenger run. The four sisterships– SS Ranpura, SS Ranchi, SS Rawalpindi and SS Rajputana— were designed by the same people who made the Titanic a decade prior, Harland & Wolff Ltd., Belfast, with the first two built by R & W Hawthorne Leslie on the Tyne, and the last pair by H&W’s Greenock yard in Scotland.

Using a twin set of reciprocating engines with their aft 2nd funnel a dummy used for ventilation, they had a design speed of 17.8 knots although made 19 on trials. With interiors designed by Lord Inchcape’s daughter Elsie Mackay, they were set up with accommodation for 307 first-class and 280 second-class passengers with public lounges, music rooms, dining saloons and smoke rooms separated by class. Capable of carrying large amounts of refrigerated stores, they were popular ships on the run to the Orient.

Laid down at Greenock as Yard No. 660, Rawalpindi was named for the historic Indian (now Pakistani) city and launched 26 March 1925 with Lady Birkenhead as her sponsor. She was delivered to P&O that September and began a quiet 15-year run in regular service uniting the Home Isles with Britain’s colonial Indian Empire.

Rawalpindi notably showed up in Pathe newsreels of the era when she brought the survivors of the lost Parthian-class submarine HMS Poseidon (P99) home from China in 1931.

Once the balloon went up in 1939, the Admiralty called in their markers with London shipping lines and requisitioned more than 50 fast passenger liners for conversion to armed merchant cruisers for patrol and convoy use. Typically outfitted with surplus six-inch guns that had been removed from the casemates of old battlewagons and cruisers, the liners landed much of their finery and art, received a coat of grey paint, and were rushed into service with a crew largely composed of their former civilian mariners who volunteered for active duty in the RNR.

For Rawalpindi, her transformation amounted to removing her fake funnel then picking up eight 6″/45 BL Mark VII guns, a pair of QF 3-inch AAA guns, and a half dozen Vickers machine guns– the newest of which dated to 1916. The armament was intended to plug away at enemy armed surface raiders of the type the Kaiser put to sea during the Great War, fight it out on the surface with U-boats, or warning off the occasional Condor long-range patrol bomber.

6″/45 (15.2 cm) BL Mark VII bow gun on monitor HMS Severn during the Great War. Rawalpindi had eight of these mounts. IWM Q 46247.

Rawalpindi’s conversion was completed on 19 September 1939– just over two weeks after the Germans marched into Poland. Her wartime skipper was CPT Edward Coverley Kennedy, RN, a 60-year-old Great War vet of the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand who had been on the retired list since 1921, a collateral victim of the Washington Naval Treaty.

Requisitioned at Tilbury the day the war started, SS Rawalpindi became haze grey His Majesty’s Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi just 19 days later after conversion by R&H Green & Silley Weir at the Royal Albert Dock, London.

Note her aft funnel, which was vestigial, has been amputated.

Sailing Northwest for patrol duties in the Iceland Gap, our converted liner had a chance to get muscular with the 4,500-ton German tanker Gonzenheim at 63.25N, 12.00W, in the Denmark Strait on 19 October while the latter was trying to run the blockade home from Argentina. With the gig up, the German tanker scuttled as Rawalpindi recovered her crew. A second vessel, a Swedish freighter with a German destination, was stopped and rerouted the next week towards Scotland.

At the time, there were no less than eight British AMCs, backed up by several actual RN cruisers, prowling between Scotland and Iceland and were effective in stopping German blockade runners, typically catching 8 to 10 a week during this early stage of the war. This led to a sortie by the brand-new Kriegsmarine battleship SMS Scharnhorst, in her first operation, accompanied by her sister Gneisenau, to clear out the area.

Gneisenau (foreground), Admiral Hipper (center) and Scharnhorst (background) at Trondheim, Norway June 11, 1940

Sailing from Wilhelmshaven late on 21 November, the lead ship of the strong German task force was observed through the snow at 15,000 yards by lookouts on the Rawalpindi at 1531 on 23 November in the Iceland-Faeroes channel, about 100 miles to the East of Iceland itself.

Steaming alone but with other units nearby (the light cruisers HMS Newcastle, Delhi, Ceres, and Calypso; heavy cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk) Kennedy twice signaled (incorrectly) that Rawalpindi had found the German pocket battleship SMS Deutschland at 63.40N, 12.31W, an alert that drew emergency orders from the Admiralty to Clyde to send the gorilla squad– consisting of the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney, along with the heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire and seven destroyers– north.

However, stuck with a ship that at the time could only make 14 knots, and outgunned even if confronting a pocket battleship much less a full-grown brawler, Kennedy decided to stand and fight rather than surrender.

The fast-approaching Scharnhorst fired a warning shot across Rawalpindi’s bow at 1603 from a range of 10,000 yards and signaled the Brit to stop transmitting and halt. Soon after, Gneisenau emerged from the fog and made her presence known. The converted liner faced 18 11-inch, 24 5.9-inch, and 28 4.1-inch guns as well as a dozen torpedo tubes between the two German battleships. As they had 13-inch belts, the best the merchant cruiser’s own 6-inch guns could do was scratch their paint.

“We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye,” Kennedy reportedly told his crew and ordered his guns to fire.

The action was over within 13 minutes or so, with the unarmored Rawalpindi pummeled by 11-inch shells from the two German capital ships, causing the death of over 260 of her crew, Kennedy included. The British ship was a burning hulk but had landed shells on Scharnhorst’s foc’sle causing Hitler’s newest battlewagon slight damage.

Norman Wilkinson’s “Rawalpindi’s final action,” a painting that hung in P&O’s main London office for decades.

A final signal came from a morse lamp on the British ship “please send boats,” to which the Germans launched whaleboats. Between the two German battleships, they picked up at least 20 survivors (some reports list numbers as high as 38) from the flaming wreck who went on to become POWs for the duration, largely at Stalag X-B, a merchant lager near Bremervorde.

They Sailed the Seven Seas: The P & O Story — “We’ll Fight Them Both”

German ADM Wilhelm Marschall, aboard Gneisenau, ordered his task force to withdraw into an approaching gale, doubled back towards the Arctic to lose their pursuers, and returned to Wilhelmshaven on 27 November after successfully evading the alerted, and very revenge-minded, British fleet.

The responding 6-inch gun-armed light cruisers Newcastle and Delhi spotted the Germans at a range of 6 miles as they left Rawalpindi’s last location around 1900 on 23 November but chose, wisely, not to engage.

Another P&O passenger ship converted to an armed merchant cruiser, HMS Chitral (F57), moved in to search Rawalpindi’s floating wreckage field for survivors the next morning, in the end rescuing 10 and landing them at Clyde on 24 November where the Second Sea Lord, ADM Sir Charles Little, was on hand to greet them in a special parade in London.

Around the world, the incorrect headline, “Rawalpindi sunk by the Deutschland” flashed.

While there had been a number of warships sunk by aircraft (see= Polish Navy) and significant individual submarine vs. ship actions– for instance between the carrier HMS Courageous and U-29 on 17 September that left British carrier and 518 of her crew in the cold embrace of Poseidon– the often forgotten scrap between Rawalpindi and the battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst was the first large surface clash of World War II and the first the British had seen since 1919 when RADM Tich Cowan tossed around the Red Navy in the Baltic during the Russian Civil War.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told Parliament of the Rawalpindi: “These men might have known, as soon as they sighted the enemy, that there was no chance, but they had no thought of surrender. They fired their guns until they could be fired no more, and many went to their deaths in the great tradition of the Royal Navy. Their example will be an inspiration to those that come after them.”

On the 6 December 1939, then-First Sea Lord Winston Churchill honored the sacrifice of the Rawalpindi in Parliament, “Whose glorious fight against overwhelming odds deserves the respect and honor of the House (of Commons) and of the nation.”

Of Rawalpindi’s sisters, Ranchi served on East Indies Station and in the Pacific during the war as an armed merchant cruiser and was returned successfully to P&O in 1947. She was then used on 15 lengthy emigrant voyages from Portsmouth to Australia carrying thousands of “Ten Pound Poms” to Oz on one-way trips before she was broken up in 1953.

Rajputana was likewise transformed into an armed merchant cruiser during WWII and was torpedoed and sunk off Iceland on 13 April 1941 by U-108, after escorting convoy HX 117 across the North Atlantic. In all, the British lost 15 out of 57 of their armed merchant cruisers in WWII: 10 to U-boats, three to German surface raiders, one (the converted A. Holt & Co liner HMS Hector) to Japanese carrier aircraft and one (the converted P&O liner HMS Comorin) to fire.

HMS Ranpura (F93) was used as an armed cruiser in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean during WWII and notably moved Britain’s gold reserves to Canada in 1940 for safekeeping. She finished the war as a repair and depot ship in Malta and was retained by the RN through the 1950s in such a role, participating in the Suez Crisis, before she was finally scrapped in 1961, the last of her class.

Rawalpindi is remembered extensively in maritime art by the likes of Jack Spurling, William McDowell, and Norman Wilkinson.

HMS Rawalpindi by William McDowell incorrectly shows her with two stacks

The original 1:48 scale (2155 x 4045 x 900 mm) P&O builder’s model of SS Rawalpindi, complete with its ornately carved mahogany display case, is on display at the Maritime Museum Greenwich, London.

As for P&O, they went defunct in 2006 with their assets spun off to Maersk and Carnival.

“Bulldog” Kennedy is remembered in a memorial at High Wycombe, Bucks, on a panel in Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace, at the Plymouth memorial, and on an altar rail at All Saints Church, Farringdon, as well as wherever old sea dogs gather to tell stories.

The Admiralty mentioned him in dispatches, but he was not posthumously decorated. Perhaps a VC would have been appropriate or, alternatively, the entire crew of Rawalpindi collectively could have been recognized with the George Cross, much like the population of Malta was in 1942.

Kennedy’s son, Ludovic, went on to be a noted journalist and BBC broadcaster. In 1971 he hosted an hour-long documentary entitled “The Life and Death of the Scharnhorst.”

Notably, he spoke with eloquence of the stand of the Rawalpindi saying, “In Britain, this action caught the imagination in a way that it might not have done later. For it was the first naval action of the war and it showed people that they could still rely on the Navy and that, even in a ship manned by pensioners and reservists, the Navy was going to fight this war’s battles as it had in the past, whatever the outcome, whatever the cost.”


Model of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi MOD 381 IWM

Displacement: 16,697 grt / 9,459 nrt
Length: 547.7 ft
Beam: 71.3 ft
Draft: 25.9 ft
Engines: 2- Screw 2 shaft 2xQ4cyl (33, 47, 67.5, 97 x 60in) Harland & Wolff engines, 2478nhp, 15000ihp, 17.8 knots
Crew: (1939) 276
Armament: (1939)
8 x 6″/45 (15.2 cm) BL Mark VII guns
2 x QF 3 in (76 mm) 20 cwt anti-aircraft guns

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So I watched Midway…

To be clear, the current Midway movie is at least the third film– counting John Ford’s WWII-era propaganda short and the verbose 1976 Henry Fonda flick– to be centered around the pivotal battle of the Pacific War.

What I liked:

Great effort overall.

Lots of little known stories were highlighted such as efforts of Station Hypo and the vastly unsung work of CDR Joseph J. Rochefort and his busy swarm of ex-musicians from the stricken battleships USS California and West Virginia.

Also, as 15 submarines were present at Midway, and the straggling Japanese destroyer Arashi— detailed to sink USS Nautilus without luck– led the U.S. planes to the unexpecting Japanese carrier task force, it was nice to see SS-168 detailed a bit. This included filming scenes in the torpedo room and control tower aboard the ex-USS Bowfin (SS-287), which was a nice period touch.

The Marines and Midway-based air groups are given a few minutes of camera time. Many forget they were part of the battle as well. More on the Marines of Midway, here.

Obsolete fabric-covered SB2U-3 dive bombers of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 taking off to attack the Japanese fleet striking force on the morning of 4 June 1942, during the Battle of Midway. Part of Marine Aircraft Group 22 (MAG-22), they would earn a Presidental Unit Citation for their role in the epic naval clash.

As there are exactly zero functional TBD Devastator torpedo bombers that made it out of WWII, it was amazing to see them digitally recreated and flying in squadron order, Ride of the Valkyries-style, to their doom.

Wreck of the Lexington showing TBD Tare-3 flown by Ensign N. A. Sterrie USNR who claimed a hit on the carrier Shoho during the second attack at the Coral Sea. Tare-4 flown by Lt. R. F. Farrington USN who claimed a hit during the first attack. This is amazing as there are only four known TBDs in existence anywhere in the world– all crashed. Only 130 were made and 35 lost at Midway alone (Photo via RV Petrel)

Likewise, in many scenes, the Chicago Piano, the quad 1.1-inch AAA gun mounted across the U.S. fleet in the early part of WWII, was shown in action although most examples are at the bottom of the Pacific at this point.

These…(RV Petrel)

Unlike the 1976 film, which tried to tell the story of the battle through the eyes of a fictional third party staff officer, much like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, the new version is told through a focus on Dick Best, the legendary leader of Enterprise’s VB-6; and LCDR Edwin T. Layton, Nimitz’s intel boss.

In another departure from the 1976 film, rather than fill the ranks of the IJN with Hawaiian nisei actors and a token Toshiro Mifune (whose lines were dubbed in English!), the current production used a number of high-profile Japanese actors including Etsushi Toyokawa and Tadanobu Asano (you will recognize him from all of the Thor movies as well as 47 Ronin).

What I didn’t like

A lot of this is nitpicky from a nerd who built SBD, F4F and TBD models as a kid in the 1980s while dog-eared copies of Infamy and At Dawn We Slept sat on the desk, so take it with a grain of salt.

While the movie spends the first 45~ minutes or so delving into the six months of the Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to Midway, this seems like too much of a setup, one that could have been condensed to spend more time on the actual battle itself. For instance, of the aforementioned amount, a good 10-15 mins are spent on the Doolittle Raid (with Aaron Eckhart lending his magnificent chin to portray Doolittle himself). While those “30 Seconds over Tokyo” were important to the war effort, they had little to do with Midway.

While the story of SBD gunner AMM1c Bruno Gaido is told– and deservedly so– his execution at sea was botched in the film. Gaido and his pilot, Ensign Frank O’Flaherty, were picked up by the destroyer Makigumo and tortured for over a week then tied to weighted gas cans and thrown overboard on/about 15 June. The movie implies they were killed soon after rescue during the battle and that O’Flaherty may have given actionable intelligence that was used to sink Yorktown. This is shameful.

Speaking of Yorktown, there were three U.S. flattops at Midway but Yorktown is only glimpsed a couple times and Hornet barely even gets a mention, leaving the otherwise uninformed viewer to think Enterprise pulled off the whole thing on her own. Sure, the seagoing action is largely from Dick Best’s point of view, but still…

As for the Japanese fleet, the bushido code of RADM Tamon Yamaguchi– a Princeton alumnus who clashed with Nagumo and was the commander of the Japanese Carrier Striking Force’s Carrier Division Two– is retold and he is shown going down with his stricken flagship, IJN Hiryu, on the predawn of 5 June. However, the movie has him only meeting this fate accompanied by Hiryu’s commander when in fact he had 20-30 men of his staff all resolutely remain behind to ride her to “enjoy the moon together.”

Carrier flagship Hiryu: Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi at the Battle of Midway. oil painting by Renzo Kita, 1943.

Even with the above complaints lodged, the movie is still a much better effort than I hoped for. Of course, it is very CGI/greenscreen heavy, but this is the nature of the cinema these days.

All-in-all, it could be used as an educational tool in high school history classes, in my humble opinion.

For those interested in delving more into Midway, check out Shattered Sword.

Grayback discovered

USS GRAYBACK (SS-208) data plaque, photographed in 1941. NHHC 19-N-24245

The Lost 52 Project, which aims to find all of the U.S. Navy’s WWII submarines still on Eternal Patrol, this week announced they have discovered the final resting place of USS Grayback (SS-208) near Okinawa.

USS GRAYBACK (SS-208) Photographed in 1941. NH 53771

Grayback, a Tambor-class fleet boat, commissioned on 30 June 1941 and was on her 10th War Patrol in the Pacific when she went missing in February 1944. Earning two Navy Unit Commendations and eight battlestars, she chalked up 63,835 tons in Japanese shipping to include over a dozen marus and the destroyer Numakaze.

Grayback (Cdr. John Anderson Moore) was lost with 80 men.

Via The Lost 52

So far, The Lost 52 Project has accounted for five missing boats since 2010, including USS Grunion (SS-216) off Kiska, USS S-28 (SS-133) off Hawaii, USS S-26 (SS-131) off Panama, and USS R-12 (SS-89) off Key West.

Remember, today is not about saving upto 20% on select merchandise

Division Cemetery, Okinawa, 1945, Photo via Marine Corps Archives

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

Reverence, 88 years ago today

You almost get a sense of storm clouds on the horizon here in this beautiful image of a “treaty cruiser,” USS Indianapolis (CA-35) at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, 7 November 1931, her launch day.

Slow Death of the Nachi, 75 years on

One of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s mighty quartet of Myoko-class heavy cruisers, Nachi was a 13,000-ton brawler built at the Kure Naval Arsenal and commissioned in 1928. Carrying five dual twin turrets each with 8″/50cal 3rd Year Type naval guns, her class was the most heavily-armed cruisers in the world when they were constructed.

Nachi fought in the Java Sea (sharing in the sinking the Dutch cruiser HNLMS Java along with Graf Spee veteran HMS Exeter) and at the Komandorski Islands (where she, in turn, took a beating from the USS Salt Lake City) before she ended up as part of VADM Kiyohide Shima’s terribly utilized cruiser-destroyer force during the Battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944.

Shima, who was later described by one author as “the buffoon of the tragedy” ordered his cruisers to attack two islands he thought were American ships then raised the signal to turn and beat feet after they found the wreckage of the battleship Fuso, a move that left Nachi, the 5th Fleet flagship, damaged in a crackup with the heavy cruiser Mogami, the latter of which had to be left behind for the U.S. Navy to finish off.

Nachi pulled in to Manila Bay, which was still something of a Japanese stronghold on the front line of the Pacific War, for emergency repairs.

Discovered there two weeks after the battle by the Americans, while Shima was ashore at a meeting, Nachi was plastered by carrier SBDs and TBMs flying from USS Lexington and Essex.

In all, she absorbed at least 20 bombs and five torpedos, breaking apart into three large pieces and sinking in about 100-feet of water under the view of Corregidor. The day was 5 November 1944, 75 years ago today.

Nachi maneuvers to avoid bomb and torpedo plane attacks in Manila Bay, 5 November 1944. Note torpedo tracks intersecting at the bottom, and bomb splashes. Catalog #: 80-G-272728

Nachi under air attack from Task Group 38.3, in Manila Bay, 5 November 1944. Photographed by a plane from USS ESSEX (CV-9). Catalog #: 80-G-287018

Nachi under air attack from Task Group 38.3, in Manila Bay, 5 November 1944. Photographed by a plane from USS ESSEX (CV-9). Catalog #: 80-G-287019

Nachi dead in the water after air attacks in Manila Bay, 5 November 1944. Taken by a USS LEXINGTON plane. Catalog #: 80-G-288866

Nachi dead in the water and sinking, following air attacks by Navy planes, in Manila Bay, 5 November 1944. A destroyer of the FUBUKI class is in the background. Taken by a USS LEXINGTON plane. Note: Destroyer is either AKEBOND or USHIO. Catalog #: 80-G-288868

Nachi sinking in Manila Bay, after being bombed and torpedoed by U.S. Navy carrier planes, 5 November 1944. Note that her bow has been blown off, and the main deck is nearly washed away. The photo was taken from a USS LEXINGTON plane. Catalog #: 80-G-288871

Nachi nearly sunk, after U.S. carrier plane bomb and torpedo attacks, in Manila Bay, 5 November 1944. Air bubbles at right are rising from her midship section, while the stern is still floating, perpendicular to the water. The photo was taken from a USS LEXINGTON plane. Catalog #: 80-G-288873

Although close to shore and with several Japanese destroyers and gunboats at hand, Nachi went down with 80 percent of her crew including her skipper, Capt. Kanooka Enpei.

Also headed to the bottom with the ship were 74 officers of the IJN’s Fifth Fleet’s staff and a treasure trove of intel documents and records, the latter of which was promptly salvaged by the U.S. Navy when they moved into Manila Bay and put to good use. The library brought to the surface by hardhat divers was called “the most completely authentic exposition of current Japanese naval doctrine then in Allied hands, detailed information being included relative to the composition, and command structure of the entire Japanese fleet.”

Even though it was late in the war, Nachi was the first of her class to be lost in action. Within six months, two of her remaining sisters, Ashigara and Haguro, were sunk while Myoko was holed up in crippled condition at Singapore, where the British under Mountbatten would capture her in September. 

HMS Urge, found on eternal patrol

HMS Urge, IWM FL 3433

Commissioned 12 December 1940, the British U-class submarine HMS Urge (N 17) served in World War II throughout 1941, seeing extensive action in the Med. Over the course of 20 patrols, she proved a one-submarine wrecking crew to the Italian Navy, sinking the Giussano-class light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere as well as extensively damaging the cruiser Bolzano and battleship Vittorio Veneto.

On 27 April 1942, the 16-month-old Urge left Malta en route to Alexandria but failed to arrive on schedule and was reported overdue on 7 May. Her crew, commanded by LCDR Edward Philip Tomkinson, DSO and Bar, RN, was never heard from again.

Her shield, which had been landed prior to shipping out, is currently on display at The Register Office in Bridgend, Wales. The town, which contributed around £300,000 to the war, had adopted HMS Urge as part of national “Warship Week” in 1941.

HM Submarine Urge was discovered in a search conducted by staff from the University of Malta just off Malta’s Grand Harbour, where she apparently was destroyed on the surface by a mine. In addition to her 32 crewmembers, she had been carrying 11 other naval personnel and a journalist.

More here.


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