Category Archives: military history

Torres Strait LI at 80

Some 80 years ago this month, on 17 March 1943, the Australian Army formed the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, so named as it was drawn from the indigenous men of the fourteen inhabited islands along the Torres Strait between Northern Australia and New Guinea.

The 880 volunteers– many as young as 16– were organized into companies according to their island of origin:

A Coy – Murray, Darnley, York, and Stephen Islands
B Coy – Badu, Moa and Mabuiag Islands
C Coy – all the above
D Coy – Saibai and Boigu Islands (the two most remote islands)

As with Gurkha units, all of the unit’s officers, under Major Jock Swain and then Major Charles Frederick Mayne Godtschalk, were white.

Exercising in the jungle on Prince of Wales Island with the 5th Machine Gun Battalion and the 26th Battalion, AIF, by October they were testing out their military skills on patrols deep into the jungles of Dutch New Guinea. In the end, no less than 36 members of the unit perished on active service before it was disbanded in 1946.

Inspection of Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Thursday Island, 1945. AWM C202332/ C47381

The only “indig” regular army unit in the WWII Australian forces, they received only one-third the pay (later increased to two-thirds) of comparable ranks and it was not until the mid-1980s – four decades later – that the veterans of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion received their service medals and full pay to which they were entitled.

Today, their lineage is carried on by Charlie (Sarpeye) Company of the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (51 FNQR), which has been responsible for sovereignty patrols in the Torres Strait since 1987.

And they conduct a unique Sarpeye Steyr dance, complete with both traditional weapons and the current F88 Austeyr.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) commemorated the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion on Thursday Island, Queensland on 16-17 March 2023. Today, descendants of the Battalion continue to serve in the ADF across Australia, many within Thursday Island’s Charlie (Sarpeye) Company of 51st FNQR

LTGEN Simon Stuart, AO DSC, Chief of the Australian Army, along with members of 51 FNQR, was present at a ceremony on Thursday Island last week honoring the “ilan men” of the old battalion.

Cactus Crew Chief

80 Years Ago Today: “March 22, 1943: Technical Sgt. R.W. Greenwood, a Marine, sits in the cockpit of a Grumman Wildcat fighter plane, based at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, that is credited with shooting down 19 Japanese aircraft, as illustrated by the number of Japanese flags on his plane. Several different pilots have flown the ship during successful missions, but Sgt. Greenwood has remained plane captain.”

(AP Photo)

I’d imagine the good Sgt. Greenwood is from the “Bulldogs” of VMF-223. Led by Major John L. Smith (19 air-to-air kills 21 August-to-03 October 1942 with the “Cactus Air Force” on Guadalcanal) along with XO Capt. Marion Eugene Carl (16.5 air-to-air kills 04 June 1942-to-03 October 1942 with Cactus) the unit was a legend among legends.

Other Marine Wildcat Squadrons on Guadalcanal included the “Fighting Bengals” of VMF-224 under Major Robert E. Galer (11 kills with Cactus), The “Wolfpack” of VMF-112 which included the “Raging Cajun” Lt. Jefferson J. DeBlanc who downed five Japanese aircraft in minutes before being shot down himself in Jan. 1943, the “Green Knights” Of VMF-121, the “Candystripers” of VMF-122 (whose XO at the time was Pappy Boyington of later Baa Baa Blacksheep fame), the “Flying Eight Balls” of VMF-123, and the “Hell Hounds” of VMF-212.

Warship Wednesday, March 22, 2023: Herr Ericsson’s Original Tin Can

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time 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, March 22, 2023: Herr Ericsson’s Original Tin Can

Naval History and Heritage Command Photo NH 52307

Above we see the circa 1892 image of John Ericsson’s experimental war vessel, “Destroyer” testing her “submarine artillery” by the firing of an inert shell into the flooded drydock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be recovered later.

The Swedish-born inventor and mechanical engineer had just passed on to the great drawing board in the sky the previous March, aged 85, and is best known for the U.S. Navy’s first screw-propelled steam-frigate USS Princeton in 1843 and the Civil War-era USS Monitor— the world’s first armored ship with a rotating turret, with his penultimate warship, Destroyer, most often falling through the cracks of history.

John Ericsson (1803-1889). Photographed by the Matthew Brady studios, 1862 & 1863. Naval History and Heritage Command: NH 305 & NH 482

Ericsson spent the last 12 years of his life working on Destroyer, which he envisioned would be the ideal harbor defense vessel, particularly for his beloved New York.

A compact iron-hulled beast of some 130 feet in length with a narrow 17-foot beam and the ability to float in just 11 feet of water, she carried a 70-foot “wrought iron breastwork of great strength near the bow” as a defense to allow for bow-on close-in attacks with a sort of innovative albeit not effective centerline underwater cannon. She could be built for about the cost of a small gunboat and crewed by as few as a dozen men.

Ericsson’s Destroyer. View of this experimental ship showing submarine gun projectiles on deck. Taken at the New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. USS Maine of Spanish-American War fame is fitting out in the left background. Detriot Bain News Service image LOC LC-D4-20348

The Destroyer’s “submarine gun” was a whopper.

With a 16-inch diameter bore and a 30-foot barrel that was eight feet below the waterline, it fired a 26-foot long projectile crafted of spruce and pine timbers and sheathed with thin metal. In all, it weighed 1,500 pounds of which 300 was gun cotton payload. Alternatively, a smaller, 10-foot-long projectile was designed as well.

Ericsson’s Destroyer plan of submarine gun for this experimental ship, dated 7 October 1890. NH 54252

John Ericsson’s “Destroyer” Longitudinal section of the ship’s bow, showing the underwater gun and its projectile torpedo, circa 1881. Note the “inflated air bags” in the bow and original pneumatic feeder tubes for the gun. NH 84476

It was thought by Ericsson that the gun could be fired at a target from some 500 feet away. To keep the projectiles on a level course, they were fitted with “hydrostatic bellows” in the center along with two horizontal rudders.

The method of the launch was originally to be via a piston that would be actuated by a steam line but this was eventually changed to a 40-pound explosive (black powder) charge. The energy produced by such a projectile at damaging speeds was estimated to be something on the order of 2,000,000 foot-pounds.

The idea was Destroyer’s hull would be ballasted down when operational to have as low a freeboard as possible, only exposing the armored plate iron deck house. Voids were to be filled with blocks of cork and inflated rubber airbags to allow for buoyancy even with a penetrated hull.

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view showing the submarine gun and pneumatic loading mechanism, taken circa 1890. NH 54251

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view shows the breech mechanism of the submarine gun. Taken about 1890. NH 54248

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view shows the breech mechanism of the submarine gun. Taken about 1890. NH 54249

Uncrated projectile and body. NH 52494

In an initial low-pressure light load test in April 1886, Ericsson himself declared that “the submarine gun has proved a perfect success” after its inert projectile ran 300 feet into a suspended net in less than three seconds, a speed of about 59 knots. “The effect produced by exploding a loaded projectile remains to be ascertained, but this trial an individual is not permitted to make, hence I now desire to hand the Destroyer over to the Government.”

Built on spec with $150,000 ($5 million in today’s dollars) coughed up by foundry owner and Ericsson friend Cornelius Henry DeLamater (who also died in 1889)– and was the guy who built the steam boilers and machinery for both USS Princeton and USS Monitor— Ericsson proposed in 1886 to sell the vessel and its patents to the Navy for “modest sum” of $220,000. Not much of a profit although there would presumably be royalties involved as well should the patents be utilized on a wide scale. 

In the end, it turned out that Destroyer and her related submarine artillery still needed another $30,000 in funds from the Navy to be made ready for a firing trial after the death of both Ericsson and DeLamater. At the time, that was about the cost of a harbor tug (four were ordered that year at a cost of $35K each).

By this stage, the prototype warship and her gun were the assets of the independent Ericsson Coast Defense Company.

The thing is, other, more proven, locomotive torpedoes had already far surpassed Destroyer’s gun and the world was awash in small, steam-driven, torpedo boats that used Mr. Whitehead’s deadly and economical devices.

They had even been proven in warfare already, with the Ottoman ship Intibah sunk in 1878 by Russian torpedo boats carrying Whiteheads. Even the U.S. Navy had ordered one, USS Cushing (Torpedo Boat No. 1), from Herreshoff in Rhode Island in 1886, and the 140-foot craft was undergoing experiments by 1890 at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport.

USS Cushing torpedo boat experiments, ca. 1890, DeGolyer Library, SMU.

The E.W. Bliss Company of Brooklyn had stood up the same year, and, using Whitehead’s patents under license, had won a 100-unit contract for American-made 18-inch (diameter) torpedoes.

The number of torpedo boats in service or building around the globe topped 1,000 in 1889-90, from a Navy Department report published in the NYT. Of course, many of these were very small coastal steam launches with no overnight/rough weather/blue water capability, but they could still carry a “fish.”

Argentinian sailors with a Whitehead torpedo, Fiume, Austria, 1888. At the time this picture was taken, torpedo boats were in all of the world’s major– and many minor– fleets.

Meanwhile, Ericsson’s body was repatriated to his native Sweden, carried on the deck of a modern new U.S. Navy cruiser that was very much the descendant of his USS Princeton and USS Monitor.

“The White Squadron’s Farewell Salute to the Body of John Ericsson, New York Bay, August 23, 1890”. Oil on canvas, 36″ by 54″, by Edward Moran (1829-1901), signed and dated by the artist, 1898. It depicts USS Baltimore (Cruiser # 3) departing New York Harbor to return the remains of John Ericsson to his native Sweden. Note the Swedish ensign flying from the ship’s foremast. Painting in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection. Gift of Paul E. Sutro, 1940. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. National Archives photograph, KN-10851 (Color).

Subaquatic Shooting

The Government Torpedo Board then embarked on a series of experiments in the Spring and Summer of 1892 with the late Mr. Ericsson’s Destroyer. The board, who watched the trials from the vessels’ deck, consisted of Commander George Albert Converse (USNA 1861, later RADM) and lieutenants T.C. McLean and C.A. Bradbury. Each shot was triggered at the drop of CDR Converse’s handkerchief.

Initial tests were done in March in Brooklyn’s Erie Basin, with a few inert rounds fired into a net with a modest 20-pound charge of black powder.

The May-June 1892 tests at the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw Destroyer moored off the mouth of the Simpson wooden dry dock, which was flooded, and its gates locked opened. Inside the dock was a series of six 40×20-foot nets, at 100-foot intervals. The nets were made of 1/4-inch manila cordage. At each net stood a team of bluejackets who, holding an attached rope to gauge the vibration of the projectile hitting the net, stood ready with a chronograph in hand to be used to help calculate velocity through the docks.

The below images described as “circa 1890” were actually in May-June 1892.

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard circa 1890. The projectile is shown. NH 52495

Projectile body. NH 52496

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard circa 1890. Assembly of warhead and projectile body. NH 52497

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view shows the breech mechanism of the submarine gun open and the shell ready to load. Note the net slicers on the tip. Taken about 1892. NH 54246

Ericsson’s Destroyer interior view showing shop facilities and a projectile for the submarine gun, taken circa 1890. Note the projectile along the bulkhead. It was thought the vessel could carry up to 15 shells. NH 54250

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. The firing of a shell. NH 52305

NH 52306

View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. Firing of a shell into the drydock to be recovered later. NH 52311

Ericsson’s Destroyer. View during tests of her submarine gun at New York Navy Yard, circa 1890. The projectile is in a drained drydock. NH 52313

Firing 20 inert cigar-shaped projectiles, with charges not exceeding 25-30 pounds of black powder, tests were conducted from as close as 100 feet off the dock to as far as 600 feet away, with the latter showing a lateral spread of 22 feet on average. The warheads, carrying equivalent ballast rather than guncotton, were topped with four razor-sharp net cutters. It was thought able to penetrate at least one steel mesh net, as in most tests the wooden bolts zipped through at least five of the six of the manila nets.

Muzzle velocity was estimated by the board to be around 300 feet per second, which translates to about 204 mph. At the 1,200-pound test weight, that’s kinetic energy of something like 2,097,963 ft./lbs.– remarkably close to Mr. Ericsson’s estimates.

There were some glaring failures, including projectiles that sank after they filled with water, some that nosedived just after launch, and others that decelerated rapidly and were caught in the first couple of nets, or came too fast and broached over the nets.

As noted by the New York Times, “Of the 20 shots fired, 15, at the maximum range of 600 feet, were sufficiently accurate in flight to have sunk the underwater hull of an average-sized vessel.”

The craft was taken into Naval custody, although not formally purchased, then tugged for more experiments at the Newport Naval Torpedo Station, where CDR Converse’s team would continue to keep Destroyer into late 1893. This involved testing anti-torpedo nets constructed by the Washington Gun Foundry and a series of nine live submarine gun shells fabricated by the Continental Iron Works of Brooklyn.

This came after a public outcry when “the majority of foreign warships present in the World Columbian Naval Review fleet carried torpedo nets” while no American ship was fitted with one.

Sale and overseas service

In October 1893, Flint Co. of New York City bought Destroyer from the Ericsson Coast Defense Company for resale to Brazil, where a civil war/revolution that included a naval aspect was afoot. Converse dutifully handed the vessel back to ECDC president Ericsson F. Bushnell (the son of Cornelius Scranton Bushnell of USS Monitor and Intelligent Whale fame) later that month and she was towed back to NYC by the tug Scandinavia.

Seafaring adventurer Joshua Slocum, soon after to be the first person to sail single-handedly around the world, accepted the job to take Destroyer to Brazil with a scratch crew that included a Royal Marine officer on furlough who was never without his Colt revolver and sword, a Brazilian “count” whose only redeeming quality “was a good judge of a hotel,” and a handful of other hardy souls.

Supported by the freighter Santuit, Slocum was “navigator in command” and set out on 7 December, arriving at Pernambuco on 20 January 1894, with a weeklong layover in Martinique to make repairs following a hairy incident during a storm in which the vessel was nearly lost at sea.

Destroyer never made it into much active service with the Brazilians, and Slocum, recalling in a self-published pamphlet on the trip, would say:

Concerning the last days of my worthy old ship, there is little more to say. The upland navigators at the Arsenal at Bahia, having observed the New York crew put the Destroyer in the basin and out again with dispatch, undertook, like some tropical quadrupeds, to do the “trick” themselves. Whether from pure cussedness or not this time, I can’t say, but they stove a great hole in her bottom, having grounded her on a rock, “accidentally,” they said.

Alas! for all our hardships and perils! The latest account that I heard said that the Destroyer lay undone in the basin. The tide ebbing and flowing through her broken hull–a rendezvous for eels and crawfish–and now those high and dry sailors say they had a “narrow escape.”

In handwritten notes to a copy found in 1997, Slocum would also detail:

When I returned to Brazil, later, in the Spray [the 36-foot sailboat he rounded the globe in] and inquired about a balance of wages due me from the Destroyer some $600 or more: The officer I addressed said “Captain so far as we are concerned we would give you the ship and if you care to accept it we will send an officer to show you where she is – I know very well where she was, as I have already said at the bottom of the sea.”


While Ericsson’s Destroyer was borrowed by the Navy for about 20 months in 1892-93, she was never commissioned as USS Destroyer, nor given a crew. The Navy did, however, name its second torpedo boat (TB-2), USS Ericsson, after the late inventor in 1897. Later, a Great War-era O’Brien-class torpedo boat destroyer (DD-56) and a WWII-era Gleaves-class destroyer (DD-440) would carry the same name.

USS Ericsson, (TB-2) alongside USS Cushing (TB-1), November 1900. Catalog #: 19-N-14-24-10

USS Ericsson (DD-56) circa 1916. NH 77909

The third USS Ericsson (DD-440), a Gleaves-class destroyer, was pretty enough to star on a 1941 Naval Reserve poster by Matt Murphey. UNT World War Poster Collection

Sadly, today the name of this titan of naval technology rides on an MSC-manned Kaiser-class oiler, USNS John Ericsson (T-AO-194), which has been in service since 1991. If ever a destroyer should be named for a man, it is Mr. Ericsson. 

170718-N-OY799-016. CORAL SEA (July 18, 2017) The Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS John Ericsson (T-AO 194) is underway alongside the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), as part of a replenishment-at-sea during Talisman Saber 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate/Released)

Since Ericsson’s Destroyer, the Navy has commissioned no less than 1,087 destroyer (DD/DDR/DL/DLG/DDG) series vessels and another 588 destroyer escort (DE) types spanning from USS Bainbridge, laid down on 15 August 1899, by Neafie and Levy Ship and Engine Building Company at their shipyard in Philadelphia, to the next set to come to life, the future guided-missile destroyer USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) accepted from Ingalls shipbuilding last November.

She is scheduled to be commissioned, Saturday, May 13 in Key West Florida.

USS Bainbridge (DD-1) was the first ship commissioned as a destroyer in the United States Navy, authorized on May 4, 1898, three days after the commencement of the Spanish-American War. She served most of her active life in the Asiatic Station. In World War I she was based at Gibraltar, where she served as an escort ship for Allied shipping out of the Mediterranean Sea. Bainbridge was decommissioned at the end of the war in 1919 and sold. Lithograph by C. F. Kenney; C. 1950. NHHC 07-572-A

PCU USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) during sea trials. HII photo

Ships are more than steel
and wood
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
them know
That some ships have a

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Late Valentines, courtesy of The Black Watch

A Valentine Mk I/II tank with the earlier two-man turret, carrying infantry of the Black Watch, North Africa, March 1943.

Armed with a 40mm main gun and a .303 machine gun, around 8,000 Valentines were produced, making it the most numerous tank in British Army history. Photo by McLaren (Lt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit. Imperial War Museum photo IWM NA 1670, colorized by Monochrome Spectre. 

The image was captured north of Gabes, Tunisia, and specifically shows the 5th (Angus) Battalion, Black Watch Highlanders aboard a tank of the 23rd Armoured Brigade. In the Tunisian Campaign, the latter brigade served as an independent armored formation under XXX Corps, with Monty’s Eighth Army, and fought in most of the battles of the campaign.

The above image could be the same tank seen in the below shot:

A Valentine tank of the 23rd Bde’s 50th Royal Tank Regiment carries infantrymen of the 5th Battalion, Black Watch, March 1943. IWM NA 1139

Formed originally in 1939 with only a handful of light vehicles– a few cranky old armored cars– by November 1941 the 23rd Bde would be armed with three battalions of early Valentines (120) and a company (18) of Matilda IIs, which it would take to North Africa to fight Rommel.

Shortly after the above images were snapped, the “Liver Bird” brigade would be pulled from the line and re-equipped with Lend-Leased American-made M4 Shermans that it would soon put to good use in Italy and Greece.

As for the 5th Black Watch, part of the reformed 51st Highland Division, they fought as leg infantry at El Alamein, Mareth, and Wadi Akarit, landed in Sicily, got their feet wet again in Normandy on or shortly after D-Day, on 6 June 1944, and continued into Germany, crossing the Rhine in March 1945.

As both the Angusmen and the Liver Birds were Territorial units, VE Day soon brought disbandment.

21st-Century Visual Aircraft Recognition

Spotted on a Ukrainian coastal craft recently:

Besides the normal MiGs and Sukhois, note the assorted drone silhouettes.

Of note, the U.S. has donated 62 “coastal and riverine patrol boats” to Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict with Russia. Presumably, these are all small enough to be carried in via Eastern Europe from Poland and Romania via rail (under 89 feet) and truck (under 53 feet).

Last year, it was disclosed that at least 20 of those were 36-38 foot aluminum hulled boats from Metal Shark in Alabama. 

Speaking of which, the Department of Defense this week quietly posted the latest, 34th, drawdown from DoD inventories for Ukraine since August 2021 which is valued at up to $350 million. Big ticket items include HIMARS rockets, 155mm artillery rounds, 25mm cannon ammunition, 81mm and 60mm mortar rounds, grenade launchers, demo equipment, more riverine patrol boats, thermal sights, and other gear. Also included were additional small arms– classified as .50 caliber BMG and under– along with associated ammunition.

Overall, this brings the total of American military assistance to Ukraine to more than $33.2 billion since the beginning of the Biden Administration took office– roughly the cost of three new Ford-class supercarriers. By comparison, Ukraine spent just $5.9 billion on its entire military in 2021.

When it comes to the running tally of equipment transferred from U.S. stocks to Ukraine this year, more than 150 million rounds of small arms ammunition have been allocated along with 232 pieces of artillery and over 2 million shells. Add to this over 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems, 8,500 Javelin tank killer missiles, and 58,000 “other anti-armor systems.”

The full list, as of March 20, is below:

Is that a Reising in a matching Frogskin jump case? I think so…

Warpath Military Collectibles in Fayetteville, North Carolina has this absolutely amazing Harrington & Richardson Arms Inc WWII USMC Paramarine Model 55 Reising SMG with its “Frogskin” camouflage padded jump case.

I’ve always been a fan of the Reising as the humble carbine saw extensive service both in its SMG and semi-auto formats not only with the Marines but also with the Navy and Coast Guard.

Reisings in USMC service during WWII: Marine Navajo Code Talkers with one of the SMGs front and center, Marine Sgt. Michael Strank with an M55 at the ready, and a Marine guard at FDR’s Shangri-La retreat– now Camp David– with a slung M50.

No word on how much WMC wants for theirs as they don’t have it listed yet apparently (just teased), but they have my attention.

‘For the Queen and old Ireland’, 1900

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

For your consideration, courtesy of the National Army Museum, a photogravure after Frank T Copnall (1890-1942), 1900. Published as a supplement to ‘The Spear‘, 1900, of a tough-as-nails Irish soldier in the Queen’s Army during the campaigns against the Boer:

NAM. 1973-12-55-1

As noted by the NAM:

With the exception of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, which was stationed in India between 1894 and 1906, all the Irish regiments of the Regular Army served in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902). In appreciation of the services rendered by Irish regiments in the defence of Ladysmith, Queen Victoria authorized the wearing of the shamrock by all Irish regiments on 17 March 1900 and on St Patrick’s Day in all succeeding years.

Even after the great separation in 1922 and the disbanding of six regular Irish regiments in the British Army, today, the force still has numerous units with a Celtic identity including the Royal Irish Regiment (R IRISH) amalgamating the 27th Inniskilling, 83rd, 87th, and The Ulster Defence Regiment; the newly reformed The Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry (SNIY), “A” (Liverpool Irish) Troop within 208 (3rd West Lancashire) Battery, 103 Regiment; and, of course, the “Micks” of the Irish Guards.

Besides heavy frontline service in both World Wars, the Irish Guards have been best known for…well, guarding (Photos: MOD Crown Copyright)

And with that, how about a great cover of As I Roved Out, an Irish take on the classic tale of the Trooper and the Maid.

Omar’s Pistols Headed Home

Cue the “That Belongs in a Museum” memes, authorities have managed to recover and return dozens of rare collectible guns– some priceless– to the institutions from where they were stolen.

The pieces all went mission in the 1970s, back when security was lax in most public museums, and all that was needed was a big screwdriver and a flashlight to pull off a low-risk burglary.

In all, some 50 items, some dating to the French and Indian War, were returned to 17 institutions located in five states. 

Among the more interesting items recovered were: 

  • An 1847 Mississippi rifle stolen from Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi.
  • World War II battlefield pickup pistols– a Luger and a Walther PPK– once owned by General Omar Bradley, stolen from the U.S. Army War College in 1979.
  • Assorted 19th-century flintlock rifles stolen from Pennsylvania museums.
  • An early Colt Whitneyville Walker revolver, valued at $1 million, stolen from the Connecticut State Library.
  • 18th-century English and Scottish pistols stolen from the Valley Forge Historical Society Museum.
  • A Volcanic pistol stolen from Pennsylvania’s Hershey Story Museum.
  • A rifle from the Daniel Boone Homestead in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania.

A huge Colt Whitneyville Walker revolver (bottom row with CT tag) was taken back to its home state. A powder horn (center right) dating to the French and Indian War was stolen from a Belchertown, Massachusetts, museum in the 1970s. The Walker PPK and Luger in the top right corner had been donated by Gen. Omar Bradley to the Army War College in Carlise, Pennsylvania. An exceedingly rare Volcanic pistol stolen from the Hershey Museum is to the bottom right. (Photo: FBI)

More in my column at

Is that a Messerschmitt in your backyard?

So while doing construction at a residence on the island of Malta, contractors started hitting metal while digging around.

And this is what they found.

As detailed by the Malta Aviation Museum:

With paint markings and W.Nr 8668 still very clearly visible, it was no great feat to figure the history of this Erla-built Messerschmitt Bf109 F4Z. The history of the crash in a nutshell is that it was hit by flak during a sortie on the 1st of April 1942 while being flown by Unteroffizier Hans Pilz of 5.JG3..

Warship Wednesday, March 15, 2023: Of Skis, Retired Admirals, and Tons of Gold

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time 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, March 15, 2023: Of Skis, Retired Admirals, and tons of Gold

Jean Manzon/ECPAD/Défense, Réf MARINE 257-3588

About we see a scene from the deck of the French croiseur auxiliaire (auxiliary cruiser) Ville d’Oran (X5) in which famed alpine skier Maurice Lafforgue– who competed in the 1936 Winter Olympics and won two silver medals at Chamonix in 1937– showing his skis to a bachi-clad French sailor. The date is mid-April 1940, and Lafforgue is suited up in the traditional “Blue Devils” uniform of France’s elite mountain troops. At the time, Ville d’Oran was carrying the 13e Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins (13e BCA), a proud unit that dated to 1853, to Norway as part of the Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Scandinavie with the doomed goal of kicking the Germans out.

But first, happier beginnings

Sunny Mediterranean travel plans

A paquebot in French parlance, Ville d’Oran and her sister ship, the logically named Ville d’Alger, were short-trip ocean liners ordered in 1935 from Société Provençale de Constructions Navales at La Ciotat for the Cie Gle T (Compagnie Generale Transatlantique) line– the same folks that owned the Normandie.

At some 10,172 tons (GRT) and 461 feet in length, they were not ocean crossers but were instead built for express service between Marseille to Algiers– a run of just under 500 miles that the turbine-powered passenger liners could make in just over 19 hours, or Marseille to Oran in 25.

Capable of carrying as many as 1,100 passengers arranged in four classes (Deluxe, Priority, Tourist, and Deck) as well as a modicum of dry and refrigerated goods, the sisters enjoyed a fair bit of enjoyable peacetime service, complete with a full white, black and red livery and false second funnel to give the illusion of extra grandeur. Indeed, for the upper-class passengers, there were very well-appointed dining rooms and elegant smoking lounges as well as both open and closed promenade decks.

A Cie Gle Transatlantique poster with the 25-hour Marseille-to-Oran promise, a 615 statute mile run which required an average speed of at least 21.37 knots to achieve.

Alas, we are not here to talk of sedate peacetime seaside travel.


Following the outbreak of WWII, Ville d’Alger was requisitioned by the French Navy for use as a troopship while her sister, our Ville d’Oran, was given a quick makeover to become an auxiliary cruiser, one of 12 such conversions ordered by the Navy in September-October 1939.

Under the command of one Capitaine (de Frégate) Roqueblave, Ville d’Oran had her false second funnel removed, received a coat of grey paint, five Canon de 138 mm Modèle 1910 naval guns in shielded single mounts, and 16 13.2mm Hotchkiss M1929 AAA guns. Her pennant number was X5 while the rest of the French auxiliary cruisers used similar numbers ranging from X01 to X20.

ECPAD images of Ville d’Oran headed for Norway with French mountain troops aboard in April 1940, showing her M1910 5.46″/55 guns.

Sailors serving a Hotchkiss M1929 light anti-aircraft piece on the bridge of the Ville d’Oran. These air-cooled guns ran a 13.2x96mm shell from 30-round box magazines at a correspondingly slow rate of fire– just 200 rounds per minute. ECPAD NAVY 211-2921

After such a quick refit, Ville d’Oran was assigned to RADM Jean-Emmanuel Cadart‘s (Ecole Navale 1903) 1re Division de Croiseurs Auxiliaires (DCX) along with three other converted liners– his flagship El Djézaïr (X17, 2400t, 7x138mm), El Kontara (X16, 5079t, 2x75mm AA), and El Mansour (X06, 5079t,2x75mm AA)– all of a similar speed.

RADM Jean-Emmanuel Cadart, whose prewar penultimate assignment had been as captain of the battleship Bretagne, had capped a 36-year career in March 1939 by moving to the reserve list as a rear admiral. His retirement lasted six months.

The mission of Cadart’s force, from October 1939 until March 1940, was simply to backfill the French Mediterranean fleet to cover units transferred to the Atlantic and, in doing so, keep one eye out for German blockade runners while using the other eye on the movements of (then neutral) Italian warships.

Headed to Norway

Then, 1er DCX was called up to the big leagues in late-February 1940 as part of the French effort to bring assistance to Finland during that country’s Winter War with the Soviets. However, as the Finns and Russians signed an uneasy peace on 12 March, the expedition soon morphed into an effort to occupy Norwegian ports and strategic mines to preempt a German invasion aimed at doing the same. This effort, too, would have to be morphed as the Germans struck first, launching Operation Weserübung to occupy Denmark and Norway on 9 April– beating the French, Free Polish, and British to the punch by days.

The relief force sent to dislodge the Germans from Norway, as far as the French go, consisted of the light cruisers Emile Bertin and Montcalm, six destroyers (along with three Free Polish tin cans), three large torpedo boats, Cadart’s four auxiliary cruisers (which would carry troops as well as provide muscle), the submarines Rubis and ORP Orzeł, and a further 20 transports and cargo ships. Of the 38,000 Allied expeditionary troops sent to Norway in April 1940, over two-thirds were French and Polish.

Ville d’Oran and her sister, the unarmed Ville d’Alger, would carry the 5e Demi-Brigade de Chasseurs Alpins (DBCA) of Brig. Gen. Antoine Béthouart, consisting of the 13th, 53rd, and 67th BCA, as well as other brigade and division assets. Laffourge, the Olympian in the top photo, was a member of the brigade d’éclaireurs-skieurs (ski recon) company.

There are several captivating photos of the trip to Norway aboard Ville d’Oran, including lots of shots of their dogs.

With the Germans already in possession of every decent harbor and airstrip in the country, the British and Franco-Polish troops eschewed the heavily-defended (and populated) south Norway and instead landed in the center and north of the country around rural Narvik, Aandalsnes, and Namsos. It was the last small port (pop. 3,000) where Gen. Bethourart’s 5e DBCA would be landed by Ville d’Oran and Ville d’Alger, with the 2,500 French alpine troopers assigned to support Mauriceforce, British Maj Gen. Carton de Wiart’s 146th Infantry Brigade, which began landing at Namsos, 70 miles north of Trondheim, on 14 April.

Sadly, as the harbor facilities at Namsos were not capable of handling 10,000-ton ocean liners, most of the heavy cargo– including 5e DBCA’s mules, artillery, and skis– could not be unloaded. Further, with the Luftwaffe committing over 300 land-based tactical fighters and bombers to the fight and the Kriegsmarine supplying the battlecruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst along with almost 40 U-boats to the region, the Allies could neither count on control of the air or sea off Norway. The French task force only carried a handful of 5- and 6-inch guns as a talisman against the potential damage from the 11-inchers carried by Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and was woefully lacking in AAA guns.

After two weeks of withering on the vine, 5e DBCA/Mauriceforce at Namsos would leave everything larger than a rucksack behind and be evacuated by Allied destroyers coming in danger close under a rain of bombs by German Ju 87 Stukas of I./StG 1, with the French losing the Guépard-class destroyer Bison and the British losing the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Afridi (F07) on 3 May in the process. The destroyers transferred 1,850 French and 2,354 British troops to Cadart’s four-pack of auxiliary cruisers and the whole force headed back home from Scandinavia– just as the war in the Lowlands was fixing to heat up.

The Fall of France

Sailing for Brest, Cadart’s little squadron of converted liners, Ville d’Oran included, could do little but patrol as the German blitzkrieg crashed through Luxembourg, Belgium, and Holland and into Northern France, trapping the British Expeditionary Force along with the French First and Seventh Armies along the coast around Dunkerque by the end of May. Ordered to help pull off the “Miracle” there, 1er DCX pitched in with the Allied flotilla that ultimately was able to evacuate 338,000 Allied troops.

Then, with Paris under direct threat, the French government needed something other than soldiers moved to safety.

The Banque de France’s reserves at the time included 1,777 tons of gold that belonged to the Republic. Added to this were another 230 tons of Belgian and Polish gold, as well as 200 cases stored for the National Bank of Switzerland.

In late May, the carrier Béarn and training cruiser Jeanne-d’Arc sailed for Halifax with 299 tons of gold on board.

Ville d’Oran was detailed, escorted by the torpedo boat Le Hardi, to sail for Casablanca at top speed with 212 tons of gold bars and coins, arriving there on 9 June and transferring the precious cargo to the vaults of the Banque de l’Afrique Occidentale. She then rushed back to Brest.

This still left a huge chunk that could possibly fall into German hands. With that, some 1,260 tons of gold were rushed to the Fort de Portzic, near Brest, via a military convoy.

The light cruiser Emile-Bertine, also just returned from the Norway fiasco, left in early June with another 254 tons of gold, which would ultimately arrive at Fort-de-France in the overseas Caribbean colony of Martinique.

The cruiser Primauguet likewise left for Casablanca with a smaller, 11-ton, shipment.

Meanwhile, the ocean liner Pasteur left Brest with 213 tons of gold which it unloaded at Halifax for storage with the Royal Bank of Canada.

Working around the clock over three days, between 16-19 June, paroled sailors from the French Navy brig at Brest helped load 16,201 boxes and bags of gold– carried from Fort de Portzic by garbage trucks– on the recently returned Ville d’Oran as well as three of Cardet’s other auxiliary cruisers just returned from the Dunkirk evacuation: El Djezair, El Kantara, and El Mansour.

Loading the gold at Brest

The ships left for Casablanca with nearly 750 tons of gold and were met while underway by the auxiliary cruiser Victor-Schœlcher (X07, 4500t, 2x75mm AAA) with another 6,000 cases of gold from the banks of Belgium (200 tons) and Poland (71 tons) aboard.

This five-vessel convoy, under Cadart’s flag, arrived at Casablanca on 23 June– the day after the Frenc Armistice that knocked the country nominally out of the war– carrying a whopping 1,021 tons of gold between them. In one of the last gasps of the French Third Republic, an order was flashed to Cadart to pull up anchor for Dakar in the colony of Senegal, which was thought to be more secure as the country was still at war with the Italians (until 27 June) and the Vichy government had yet to be formed.

Pulling into Dakar safely on 28 June with their cargo intact, Cadart’s sailors helped transport the massive gold reserve 45 miles inland to the Army stronghold at Thiès. From there, it could be placed on boxcars of the Dakar–Niger Railway and be spirited even further inland another 600 miles to Koulikoro in French Sudan (now Mali) if needed. Koulikoro was also conveniently located on the Niger River, thus allowing even further access to anywhere in West-Central Africa at little notice. In short, neither the Germans nor the Allies were going to lay hands on it any time soon.

With this last service to the old Republic, Cadart’s 1er DCX was soon ordered to return to its place of birth, the Med, where it was disbanded in October. The old admiral was allowed to return to the retired list while his auxiliary cruisers were disarmed.

Continued wartime service

Ville d’Oran resumed a liaison shuttle service under Vichy’s orders between Marseilles and Algeria, under a more prewar livery complete with large French flags on her waterline, from October 1940 through September 1941. This pipeline saw thousands of demobilized officers and NCOs in mufti shuttle from Metropolitan France to North Africa, where the local authorities made sure to find places in police units, *new colonial formations, and secret ledgers should they be needed soon. Also on these regular runs were all manner of spies from both sides. You know, basically the subplot of the movie Casablanca.

*Notably, Brig. Gen. Antoine Béthouart, the old commander of 5e DBCA in Norway, was shipped to North Africa around this time to take command of the Division de Casablanca (newly formed from colonial units– 1e RTM, 6e RTM, RICM, 6e RTS, 1e RCA, 3e RSM, and the RACM), with the good general later assisting the Allies in rallying the French troops in Morocco to the Allied cause in November 1942. 

With the French government’s access to fuel oil greatly curbed by the Germans, even this rinky-dink cruise line was shuttered by October 1941, and Ville d’Oran was laid up in Algiers, where the war would soon catch up to her.

THE OPERATION TORCH, NOVEMBER 1942 (NA 89) British paratroops marching away after disembarking from a troop ship on the quayside in Allied-occupied Algiers, 12-13 November 1942. Note the French liner Ville d’Oran in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Soon after the Allied Torch landings in French North Africa, and the fall of the Vichy government, Ville d’Oran, and Ville d’Alger would return to wartime work, this time with the Free French flag and under the management of Cunard, as troopships.

They would carry men to the beaches of Sicily in Operation Husky in July 1943, participate in the Avalanche landings at Salerno in August 1943, and the Dragoon landings in Southern France in August 1944.

Post VE-Day, Ville d’Oran would carry Allied POWs–specifically South African, Palestinian, and Cypriot troops– back from German Camps in Europe to Alexandria for demobilization.

She would also carry German POWs from Italy back to Egypt for processing at the same time, an expedient thought easier than sending them to occupied Germany.

WITH THE VILLE D’ORAN. 31 MAY 1945, ALEXANDRIA HARBOUR. PRISONERS OF WAR WERE BROUGHT BACK IN THE FRENCH SHIP FROM GERMAN PRISON CAMPS IN THE NORTH OF ITALY. (A 29333) Repatriated Palestinian and Cypriot Troops returning on the VILLE D’ORAN from German Prison Camps for demobilization. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

WITH THE VILLE D’ORAN. 31 MAY 1945, ALEXANDRIA HARBOUR. PRISONERS OF WAR WERE BROUGHT BACK IN THE FRENCH SHIP FROM GERMAN PRISON CAMPS IN THE NORTH OF ITALY. (A 29332) South African Troops returning home on the VILLE D’ORAN for demobilization after seeing service on the North Italian front. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

WITH THE VILLE D’ORAN. 31 MAY 1945, ALEXANDRIA HARBOUR. PRISONERS OF WAR WERE BROUGHT BACK IN THE FRENCH SHIP FROM GERMAN PRISON CAMPS IN THE NORTH OF ITALY. (A 29331) A cheering crowd of South African Troops on board the VILLE D’ORAN on their way home after liberation from German Prison Camps. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

WITH THE VILLE D’ORAN. 31 MAY 1945, ALEXANDRIA HARBOUR. PRISONERS OF WAR WERE BROUGHT BACK IN THE FRENCH SHIP FROM GERMAN PRISON CAMPS IN THE NORTH OF ITALY. (A 29334) German Officers were among the 1.835 prisoners of war brought back in the VILLE D’ORAN from North Italy, on their way to internment camps in Egypt. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Ville d’Oran would receive the Croix de Guerre from the Fourth Republic for her wartime service.


Returning to commercial service with Cie Gle T, Ville d’Oran and her sister Ville d’Alger would continue their pre-war Marseille to North Africa runs, and never did get that fake funnel back.

Following the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, the sisters would also serve as one of the main modes of transport for French troops coming from Europe to serve a stint on the lines against the ELN. Typically, conscripts would briefly train in metropolitan France, then be shipped to Algeria after which they would be released from their (nominal) 18 months of service upon arriving back home at Marseille.

In all, over 1.5 million young French conscripts were sent to Algeria to battle the fellaghas, Algerian guerrilla fighters, between 1954 and 1962. Seen here is Ville d’Oran on one such run. (ECPAD)

This duty earned Ville d’Oran an FLN bomb attack in January 1957 that cause negligible damage.

As Cie Gle Transatlantique had moved on to more prestigious ships in the early 1960s– the massive 70,000-ton SS France had just entered service– and, after the country’s withdrawal from North Africa after 130 years of colonization, ending the appeal of regular cross Med liner runs, Ville d’Oran and sister Ville d’Alger were sold in 1965 to the Greek Typaldos Lines.

However, the Greeks soon ran into financial trouble and both sisters were sold for scrap in 1969.


Today, few relics remain of Ville d’Oran, other than a Hein Muck 1:250 scale model both in her pre-WWII and wartime auxiliary cruiser layout.

Cie Gle T itself would be defunct by 1976, and its assets rolled into the container shipping company now known as CMA CGM.

Of the men associated with them, the jolly old admiral, Cadart, a man who had the distinction of receiving the Legion of Honor from the old Republic for his actions off Norway, and the Vichy Order of the Francisque from Petian himself for his gold run, would pass in 1962 at age 78. The Dakar gold stash, incidentally, would return back home in 1945.

Alpine troop commander Gen. Béthouart would command the Free French I Corps in Alsace and Austria in 1944-45, bagging no less than 100,000 German POWs. He would then serve as the High Commissioner for France in Austria and pass in 1982, aged 92.

Olympian Maurice Lafforgue survived WWII and passed quietly in 1999, aged 84. Note the 13e BCA insignia on his sweater.

Meanwhile, the 13e BCA is still in active service, having returned from Norway in May 1940 in time to fight the Germans along the Somme at Liomer-Brocourt, its men convert to maquis status during the Occupation, then reformed in 1945 just in time to seize the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass (altitude 7,600 ft) from German Gebirgsjäger during the Alpine Campaign. Post-war, they occupied Austria for seven years, fought in Algeria, Chad, Djibouti, and Côte d’Ivoire, scrapped with Saddam’s boys during the First Gulf War and served on a host of UN and NATO missions in Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Since 1999, they have been part of the 27th Mountain Infantry Brigade (27th BIM), based in the Roc Noir district in the small Alpine town of Barbie, near Chambéry.

Their motto is “Without fear and without reproach” (Sans peur et sans reproche).

And they still use skis when needed.

Ships are more than steel
and wood
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
them know
That some ships have a

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