Category Archives: military history

Warship Wednesday, Jan.20, 2021: Bruised Georgie

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, Jan.20, 2021: Bruised Georgie

Australian War Memorial Photo 100014

Here we see the ancient and battered Regio incrociatore corazzato (armored cruiser) San Giorgio, some 80 years ago this week, scuttled and burning after air attacks at Tobruk, Libya, 22 January 1941. The anti-torpedo nets around the wreck reportedly held 39 British fish of various types in their mesh.

Named after Saint George, the patron saint of Genoa, San Giorgio was ordered for the Regia Marina in 1904, during the height of the Russo-Japanese War, and at the time was the largest and strongest armored cruiser in the Italian fleet.

Designed by naval engineer Edoardo Masdea, San Giorgio and her near-sister San Marco were beefy 10,000-ton beasts swathed in as much as 10 inches of armor. They carried four 10″/45 Elswick-pattern Modello 1908 in a pair of turrets as the main battery, eight 7.5″/45 Modello 1908s in four twin turrets as a secondary battery that itself was powerful enough for a heavy cruiser, and a tertiary armament of 20 rapid-fire 76mm and 47mm guns meant to defend against torpedo boats– then seen as the most dangerous non-battleship threat. Speaking of torps, they had three small tubes of her own, below the waterline in period fashion, and at least two steam cutters that could carry torpedos as well.

Powered by 14 Blechynden boilers trunked through two sets of paired funnels, San Giorgio could make 23 knots and steam for over 6,000 nm on a full coal load at about half that.

Janes of the era listed the class under the battleships section. Click to big up

Laid down in 1907 at Regio Cantieri di Castellammare di Stabia in Naples, she was completed 1 July 1910.

Cover of the magazine La Tribuna Illustrata 9 August 1908, showing the launch of San Giorgio

She was a good looking ship and appeared numerous times in postcards of the era. 

Embarrassingly, the brand-new ship on 12 August 1911, following exercises in the Gulf of Naples, ran aground on the shoal of Gaiola, a rocky outcrop some 18 feet deep. As she did so while making 16 knots, she had five forward compartments flooded and took on 4,300 tons of water. Recovering the vessel required much effort and it took a full month to refloat.

Lightened and patched up, she was pulled free on 15 September by the battleship Sicily.

The resulting investigation hit the skipper– the well-placed Marquis Gaspare Alberga– and XO with a slap on the wrist while the navigator got three months in the brig.

Quickly patched up, she took part in the latter stages of the Italian-Turkish War, operating along the Libyan coast.

San Giorgio firing her guns during the Italo-Turkish War 1912

In March 1913, she was part of the international squadron that escorted the remains of former Danish prince William, who served as Greek King George I from 1863 onwards, back home to Athens. George had been assassinated while walking in Thessaloniki, shot in the back of the head by a socialist who later fell to his death from a police station window.

Transfer of the body of King George I on the Greek Royal yacht Amphitrite escorted by three Greek destroyers, Russian gunship Uralets, German battlecruiser SMS Goeben, British cruiser HMS Yarmouth, French cruiser Bruix and Italian cruiser San Giorgio. Painting by Vassilios Chatzis.

Remarkably, San Giorgio soon grounded once again off Sant’Agata di Militello in the strait of Messina in November 1913 but, while another black eye, was more easily freed than the 1911 crack up.

Der italienische Panzerkreuzer San Giorgio im November 1913 in der Straße von Messina gestrandet.

The card translates to “O ship, twice locked in the tenacious branch of the treacherous cliff and returned twice to the loving mother who embraces you,” which makes you think it was issued sometime after her second grounding.

Another war

When Italy joined the Great War in 1915 on the side of Britain, France, and Russia, San Giorgio was soon very active against the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the southern Adriatic. This involved defending the Otranto line and Venice but got hot with a surface raid on the Italian port of Durazzo in October 1918 along with her sistership San Marco and the cruiser Pisa.

At the end of the conflict, she sailed triumphantly into Pola to take the surrendered Austrian fleet under her guns.

San Giorgio class (Italian Armored cruiser), center. RADETZKY Class (Austrian Battleship), built in 1908 (right). The photograph was taken about 1919, Pola Yugoslavia Description: Courtesy of Mr. Donald M. McPherson 169 Birch Avenue, Corte Madera, California, 1969. Catalog #: NH 68218

Peace

An aging ship, San Giorgio by the 1920s was increasingly used for training purposes and extended overseas cruises for midshipmen from Livorno.

On such a run in 1924-25, she carried crown prince Umberto of Savoy abroad on a round-the-world voyage to take a company of the San Marco Battalion to Shanghai to protect the international delegation there.

Crown Prince Umberto boarding the San Giorgio for the voyage to South America, 1924. Illustration by A. Beltrame

After 1931, her sister, San Marco, was disarmed per the various London and Washington Naval Treaties– back when Italy was still in the ill-fated League of Nations. Like the U.S. Navy battleship Utah (BB-31/AG-16), she was repurposed as a floating target ship, an easy conversion for a vessel that had armor coating almost every surface, even the deck.

Italian Target Ship ex-Armored Cruiser SAN MARCO, capable of being radio-controlled. She would go on to be captured by the Germans in 1943 when Italy pulled out of the war, then later scuttled at Spezia. Interestingly, she used a different engineering suite from San Giorgio, being powered by Parsons steam turbines, and Babcock & Wilcox boilers. NH 111446

By 1936, she was assigned to the Italian task force off Spain during the Spanish Civil War and, with the Supermarina seeing the writing on the wall, withdrawn from the line the next year for modernization.

Spending nearly two full years at Ansaldo in Genoa, the cruiser was extensively rebuilt and modernized. Her boilers, replaced by more modern oil-fired examples, were reduced from 14 to eight, which allowed two funnels to be removed. She also picked up new electronic gear, landed most of her 1910-era small guns in favor of new 100/47mm OTO Mod 1928 DP twin mounts, and sealed up her torpedo tubes.

Italian Ship: SAN GIORGIO. Italy – OCA. (San Giorgio Class). 1939. Note her vastly changed appearance from the original Great War era vessel. NH 111445

And it was just in time.

George’s final war

Deployed from Italy to the Eastern Libyan fortress port of Tobruk, arriving on 13 May 1940 while the country was still at peace. Remember, Italy didn’t join WWII until 10 June 1940 when Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg has already fallen and France was on the verge of collapse, leaving Britain alone against Hitler and Mussolini.

Two days after the Italians clocked in, the British light cruisers Gloucester (62) and Liverpool (C11) swung by Tobruk and engaged the port and San Giorgio in an ineffective long-range artillery duel, with neither side connecting. Before the end of the month, HMS Parthian (N75), arriving in the Med from China station in May 1940, made it close enough to fire two torpedoes at the big Italian that did not connect, leaving the British sub to settle with sinking the Italian submarine Diamante near Tobruk on 20 June.

San Giorgio‘s skipper at the time, Capitano di Fregata Rosario Viola, reinforced her exposed decks with sandbags and ordered a triple layer of torpedo nets around the hull, then mounted as many extra guns and lookouts as he could.

This had mixed results as, on late in the afternoon of 28 June, her gunners were involved in a friendly-fire incident in which a pair of SIAI-Marchetti SM79 Sparvieros had the bad luck of coming in low and out of the sun over the port in the wake of a British bomber strike. One Sparviero was blown from the sky– flown by no other than fascist darling and big aviation advocate Italo Balbo, then serving as Libya’s governor-general.

Oof.

Balbo/Sparvieros.

Still, the attacks came. 

5 July, Swordfish torpedo bombers of 813 Squadron from HMS Eagle attacked Tobruk in a combined attack with the RAF at dusk, sinking the destroyer Zeffiro and the freighter SS Manzoni but missing San Giorgio.

Swordfish from Eagle’s 824 Squadron conducted a night raid on 27 October, seeding the harbor with mines.

San Giorgio was still Tobruk in early 1941, which was probably the worst time and place to be an Italian cruiser. After a terribly run invasion of Egypt, the Italian 10th Army had just been thoroughly defeated by the British Western Desert Force at Bardia and the stragglers, largely formed around the 61st (Sirte) Infantry Division by 7 January were encircled in Tobruk and subject to heavy bombardment.

San Giorgio, after the Balbo shootdown, was placed under the command of Capitano di Fregata Stefano Pugliese, a 40-year-old who had spent 25 of those in the Navy, including as skipper of the “pirate” submarine Balilla during the Spanish-American war and as XO of the light cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Battle of Calabria. The port commander, RADM Massimiliano Vietina, ordered Pugliese to remain in the besieged port as a floating artillery battery and lend his cruiser’s heavy guns to the wobbly perimeter.

Over the next two weeks, as the Italian lines crumbled and air attacks by Blenheims escorted by Gladiators and Hurricanes owned the skies, San Giorgio did her best. Sealed into the harbor by the destroyer-screened Great War Erebus-class monitor HMS Terror, who occasionally lobbed 15-inch shells into Tobruk, the Italian cruiser was heavily damaged but continued to both contribute to the flak clouds and ground defense.

When it came to AAA, her biggest contribution was from five twin 100/47 high-angle guns, augmented by three 20mm Bredas and four 13.2mm mounts. Over the course of 291 air raid warnings during her time at Tobruk and 115 engagements, she fired a whopping 13,000 100 mm rounds and 120,000 from the smaller pieces. Her crew claimed 47 aircraft hit or shot down (not sure if Balbo’s plane is included in that tally).

Note the sandbagged AAA positions and covering on deck as well as the torpedo net boom

Twin OTO 100mm DP mount

Her big guns fired over 100 shells from the big 10-inch guns and 360 from her 7.45s.

Finally, when the end was near on the night of 21/22 January, Pugliese signaled the ship abandoned, after ordering the crew to wreck everything they could find for two hours, then led a small party, primarily of volunteer junior officers and NCOs, back to blow the vessel’s magazines. Two men, Torpedoman 1st Class Alessandro Montagna and 2nd Lt. Giuseppe Buciuni, were lost in the explosion due to a delayed fuse.

Epilogue

The ship, through a combination of magazine explosions and bunker fires, burned for days.

Members of C Company (mostly from 14 Platoon), Australian 2/11th Infantry Battalion, part of the 6th Division having penetrated the outer defenses of Tobruk, assemble again on the escarpment on the south side of the harbor after attacking anti-aircraft gun positions, 22 January 1941. San Giorgio is one of the plumes in the background. Burning fuel oil tanks at the port are the second. AWM

These photos were taken on 25 January, four days after the ship was scuttled. AWM

One of the better shots soon circled the globe, tagged in four languages. Big news for the struggling Brits in 1941. 

Once the wreck cooled, there were extensive surveys and relic hunting done by Allied troops.

The wreck of the Italian Armored Cruiser San Giorgio in Tobruk Harbor, sunk by RAF and RN aircraft. Photographed by Robert Milne taken from HMAS Vendetta. AWM

AWM photos.

To honor the crew and the vessel, San Giorgio was awarded the Medaglia d’oro al Valor Militare, Italy’s highest recognition for military valor, by the Royal Decree of King Umberto on 10 June 1943. Only seven other units– the five daring torpedo boats of the Dardanelles Squadron: Spica, Centaur, Perseo, Astore, Climene; MAS Flotilla Alto Adriatico, and the submarine Scirè— received the MOVM in gold during the war.

The two men lost in San Giorgio’s scuttling were similarly decorated, posthumously.

Her surviving ~700 crew, meanwhile, spent the rest of the war in a British POW camp in India. Many would receive decorations for their actions for Tobruk. The crew was decorated with five Silver MVMs as well as 16 Bronze and 237 War Crosses.

“Four Italian ratings captured from San Giorgio, 31 January 1941.” AWM

Pugliese, who returned home to a hero’s welcome in 1945 and a MOVM of his own, later went on to rise to the rank of vice admiral in the postwar Italian fleet and in the 1960s would become commander of the NATO naval forces in the central Mediterranean– which ironically included British vessels.

In 1951, the then-independent Libyan government of King Idris came to an agreement with Rome to salvage the cruiser’s hulk. During the recovery, it was reported that 39 torpedoes and a huge amount of other UXO were found in the nets and on the seabed around the ship.

Refloated by a scrapper who intended to haul it back to Italy, while under tow by the tug Ursus the wreck started taking on water and broke her lines, taking a deep plunge some 140 miles north of Tobruk in some of the deepest water in the Med.

Relics of the cruiser are few.

San Giorgio‘s ceremonial ensign, presented to the ship in 1911 by Duchess of Genoa, Isabella Maria Elisabetta di Baviera, was spirited past the blockade out of Tobruk by a volunteer crew of six officers, three sailors and the ship’s dog, “Stoppaccio,” and made it back to Italy aboard a requisitioned trawler, Risveglio II. If anyone can find an image of the banner, please let me know.

When the Axis retook Tobruk in 1942 once Rommel was on the scene, the Italians inspected the wreck of the cruiser and, finding three 100/47mm guns still sound, recovered them and put them back in circulation.  

A 12-minute wartime film, Vita e fine della San Giorgio, The Life and end of the San Giorgio, can be seen online at the Italian national archives and includes much footage of the vessel.

The Australian War Memorial has a brass pistol grip and trigger from one of San Giorgio‘s direction finders that were salvaged by the crew of the destroyer HMAS Vendetta (I96), as well as an Italian naval officer’s dress sword engraved to the ship.

AWM

The U.S. National Archives has numerous naval attaché reports on San Giorgio in their collection.

As for the Italian Navy, the Regia Marina faded away in 1945 and was replaced by the Marina Militare Italiana, which still honors the famous armored cruiser’s memory. Since then, the Italians have very much kept the name alive on their naval list, commissioning a 5,000-ton light cruiser/destroyer leader/training ship (D 563) in 1955.

SAN GIORGIO (D 562), Italian DL, in New York Harbor for the International Naval Review, 4 July 1976. Originally laid down as a Roman Captain-class light cruiser in WWII, by 1965 she was a training ship that took summer midshipmen cruises around the globe– replicating her namesake’s 1920s and 1930s mission. She was retired in 1979 and sold to the breakers in 1987. K-114252

In 1987, the Italian Navy christened the class leader of a new series of 8,000-ton amphibious transport docks (L9892) which are all still in service and going strong.

Specs:

(1910)
Displacement: 10,167 tons (standard), 11,300 (full)
Length: 462 ft 3 in (o/a)
Beam: 69 ft 0 in
Draught: 24 ft 1 in
Machinery: 14 Blechynden boilers, 2 shafts, 2 vertical triple-expansion steam engines, 19,500 ihp
Speed: 23 knots
Range: 6,270 nmi at 10 knots on 1500 tons of coal, (Carried 50 tons naphtha for boats)
Complement: 32 officers, 673 enlisted men
Armor:
Belt: 7.9 in
Gun turrets: 6.3–7.9 in
Deck: 2.0 in
Conning tower: 10.0 in
Armament:
4 Elswick 10.0 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (2×2)
8 Armstrong 7.5 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (4×2)
18 single Armstrong 76 mm guns
2 single Vickers 47 mm guns
2 Colt 6.5mm machine guns
3 x 17.7 in torpedo tubes
Embarked torpedo boats

(1940)

Displacement: 9,232 tons
Length: 459 ft.
Beam: 69 ft 0 in
Draught: 22.5 ft.
Machinery: 8 boilers, 2 shafts, 2 VTE, 18,000 ihp
Speed: 18 knots
Complement: 700
Armor: (Augmented by sandbags and extensive anti-torpedo nets)
Belt: 7.9 in
Gun turrets: 6.3–7.9 in
Deck: 2.0 in
Conning tower: 10.0 in
Armament:
4 Elswick 10.0 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (2×2)
8 Armstrong 7.5 in/45 Mod. 1908 guns (4×2)
10 100mm/47 OTO Mod. 1928 DP (5×2)
12 Breda 20mm/65 Mod. 1935 AAA guns (6×2)
10 Breda Mod. 31 13.2mm machine guns (5×2)

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America’s Hornet

How about this beautiful Full-Scale Development (FSD) YF-18A Hornet prototype #3 (BuNo 160777) grabbing some deck? I know the scheme isn’t practical, but it is striking.

Official caption: An F/A-18 Hornet aircraft touches down and prepares to tailhook the arresting wire on the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA (CV-66). The aircraft is undergoing sea trials, 11/1/1979

330-CFD-DN-ST-83-09015 Via NARA https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6372739

The first U.S. Navy YF-18A Hornet (BuNo 160775) had only been delivered from the McDonnell Douglas plant at St. Louis, Missouri in October 1978, making the trials aircraft shown above very early indeed. At this time, the Navy still fielded lots of Vietnam-era aircraft including the A-7, A-4, and F-4, which the Hornet was intended to phase out. Heck, there were still a few EA/KA-3B Skywarriors around as well.

As noted by Joe Baugher: 

A total of nine FSD F/A-18As were built. Carrier qualifications began with the third FSD aircraft (Bu No 160777) aboard the USS America (CV-66) on October 30, 1979. These tests went extremely well. Before the carrier qualifications got underway, the Navy had determined that it would no longer be necessary to have distinct attack and fighter versions of the Hornet. The aircraft was deemed sturdy and versatile enough to carry out both jobs, and plans for separate F-18s in fighter (VF) squadrons and A-18s in attack (VA) squadrons were abandoned. The Navy introduced a new type of unit, the strike fighter squadron (VFA) to carry out both fighter and attack missions.

Sadly, while 160775 is preserved at NAWS China Lake, 160777, much like USS America herself, is long gone. Incidentally, “Triple 7” traded in her blue livery for red tips sometime in the 1980s while at Patuxent.

Nonetheless, it will live on forever in vintage Monogram model kits!

 

Welcome back: Chesapeake, Silversides, Pittsburgh

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it, I think that traditional ship names for warships need to be recycled. That goes for any fleet, not just the U.S. Navy. While current SECNAV Kenneth J. Braithwaite no doubt is updating his Linkedin and Jobs.com accounts in preparation for the new administration, he at least chalked up some great ship names last week.

The future ships will bear the names and hull numbers:

USS Chesapeake (FFG 64), Constellation-class frigate.
USS Silversides (SSN 807), Virginia-class attack submarine.
USS Pittsburgh (LPD 31), San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock.
USNS Lenni Lenape (T-ATS 9), Navajo-class towing, salvage, and rescue ship.
USS Robert E. Simanek (ESB 7), Puller-class Expeditionary Sea Base.

While Simanek, named for a Korean War Marine hero, and Lenape, named after the first tribe to sign a treaty with the United States in 1778, are new names to the Naval List, the other three vessels have been there numerous times. Chesapeake, going back to 1799, has appeared four times, Silversides twice (both to other subs) and Pittsburgh four times, going back to a Civil War ironclad.

As detailed by the Navy

The future Constellation-class frigate USS Chesapeake (FFG 64) will be named for one of the first six Navy frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794. The first USS Chesapeake served with honor against the Barbary Pirates in the early 1800s.

To honor the Silent Service, the future Virginia-class attack submarine USS Silversides (SSN 807) will carry the name of a WWII Gato-class submarine. The first Silversides (SS 236) completed 14 tours beneath the Pacific Ocean spanning the entire length of WWII. She inflicted heavy damage on enemy shipping, saved downed aviators, and even drew enemy fire to protect a fellow submarine. A second Silversides (SSN 679) was a Sturgeon-class submarine that served during the Cold War. This will be the third naval vessel to carry the name Silversides. The name comes from a small fish marked with a silvery stripe along each side of its body.

The future San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Pittsburgh (LPD 31) will be the fifth Navy vessel to bear the name. The first was an ironclad gunboat that served during the American Civil War. The second USS Pittsburgh (CA 4) was an armored cruiser that served during WWI, and a third USS Pittsburgh (CA 72) was a Baltimore-class cruiser that served during WWII – supporting the landing at Iwo Jima. The fourth USS Pittsburgh (SSN 720) was a Los Angeles-class submarine that served the Navy from December 1984 to August 2019.

I only wish that Pittsburgh could have been used on a combatant, but at least it falls in line with the naming convention of the current crop (and previous Austin– and Raleigh classes) of LPDs, which are all named after well-known large cities.

Hopefully, the new SECNAV will keep the theme going and not revert to the sins of Mr. Mabus, who was infamous for naming ships after non-serving politicans and labor/LGBT leaders.

Burma 1945: Z Craft Beach Arty Battery

Burma: A “Z” Craft lighter, likely of No 4 IWT Group, beached on the Arakan Peninsula at Myebon. Note that it is loaded with a section of at least four Ordnance 25-pounder (3.45-inch or 88mm caliber) QF field guns used to fire on the Japanese lines, reportedly less than 6 miles away, 13-18 January 1945. This was likely on the run-up to the Battle of Hill 170 in support of No. 3 Commando. Also, note the sandbags, ready ammo, packs, and drums.

Z lighters, simple shallow-draft ramped vessels similar to LCM/LCUs designed and built by the Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport section, were typically ship to shore connectors. They were 135-feet long (excluding the ramp) with a 30-foot beam and a 2-to-4-foot sloping draft. They had a deck “the size of a tennis court,” accommodations for a crew of 8-10, and a speed on a pair of light diesels of 8-10 knots.

Z craft via Royal Engineers Journal. They flew a blue RE ensign, emblazoned with a Sapper thunderbolt. 

Although mainly used in the Mediterranean by the Royal Engineers, some made it to the Far East by 1945

An interesting background story, from British Army vet Stuart Alexander, that could be of this very craft, operating during the Arakan campaign:

I was on a Z-craft Lighter which took part in two landings on the West Coast of Burma, one 35 miles between the Japanese front line. We sailed in at H+180 at Kangaw and fixed our guns which were attached to the deck of the lighten. We moved forward periodically and tied up to trees in the jungle swanps. This lasted for about nineteen days until we were landed on an island very much behind Japanese and although the guns were silent there were registered on a Japanese Fery crossing. This was putting a deception over as we invaded an LCM further south.

A great article on Z-craft and their use is in the June 1965 edition of the Royal Engineers Journal (pdf here) including this specific section about them carrying 25-pounders in Burma:

Although a dated concept, it is not too far out of the box to envision LCM/LCUs of today doing the same type of work with an embarked section of HIMARS or 155mm howitzers. Could be handy in a littoral. 

Main Battery, Away

Check out this series of great images from LIFE photographer Bill Ray in 1964, chronicling Douglas A-1J Skyraiders from Attack Squadron 196 (VA-196) “Main Battery” aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) gearing up for a strike in Vietnam.

VA-196 was part of Carrier Air Wing 19 (CVW-19), tail code NM, aboard the “Bonnie Dick” for the carrier’s West Pac deployment to Vietnam from 28 January to 21 November 1964.

Commissioned in late 1944, Bonnie Dick was the first ship in the modern Navy to commemorate the name of John Paul Jones’ famous Revolutionary War frigate– and she got in enough licks in during WWII to earn one battlestar.

Her WWII cruise

She was much more active in Korea, carrying the F9F Panthers and AD-4 Skyraiders of first Carrier Air Group 102 (CVG-102) then CVG-7.

Stretched and given the SCB-125 overhaul in the mid-1950s, BHR was in the thick of the air war off Vietnam from 1964 onward.

USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) with her crew spelling out Hello San Diego, while en route to San Diego on 9 February 1963. She returned to San Diego, her home port, on 11 February, following a Western Pacific cruise that had begun seven months earlier, on 12 July 1962. Aircraft on her flight deck include three E-1, 11 F-8, six F-3, 13 A-4, and nine A-1 types. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 97343

Completing her sixth and last deployment to Yankee Station on 12 November 1970 (again with CVW-5), she was decommissioned the next year and, after spending 21 years on red lead row as a source for potential spare parts for the similarly laid-up but slightly younger USS Oriskany (which the Navy saw as a mobilization asset through the Reagan years), she was scrapped in 1992.

As for CVW19, it was disestablished in 1977, having conducted nine Vietnam tours from the decks of Essex-class flattops (BHR, Oriskany, Ticonderoga).

The end of VA-196 came on 21 March 1997, after more than 48 years of service, with the squadron switching to A-6 Intruders in 1966, an aircraft they put to good use not only over Indochina but also in the Persian Gulf, but that is another story. 

38 Special Standing By: Mine No More

Below we see the watercolor entitled “Mine No More” by Chip Beck, showing, “An Iraqi mine is blown in place by U.S. Navy EOD divers from USS Missouri as USS Curtis [sic] hovers in the background in the northern Arabian Gulf.”

NHHC Accession #: 91-159-D

The painting is based on a real photograph and depicts the long-hull Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Curts (FFG-38) hard at work in the Persian Gulf some 30 years ago today.

14 January 1991: The Persian Gulf – An Iraqi mine is detonated by an explosives ordnance disposal team near Curts during Operation Desert Storm. (U.S. Navy photo DVID #DN-SN-91-09317 by PH3 Brad Dillon)

During Desert Storm, Curts was very busy, supporting a mix of Navy and Army helicopters to capture the 51-man Iraqi garrison on occupied Qaruh Island, Kuwait. While the speck of land, just 275 meters long by 175 meters wide, is tiny, Qaruh was symbolically important as it was the first section of Kuwaiti liberated in Desert Storm on 21 January.

Curts also reportedly destroyed two mines, sank an Iraqi minelayer, and provided further support to combat helicopter operations during the Battle of Bubiyan Island.

Part of the Missouri Battleship Group, Curts, used her sonar to gingerly lead USS Missouri (BB-63) northward to get within striking range of Iraqi strongpoints ashore. Missouri gun crews then sent 2,700-pound shells crashing into an Iraqi command and control bunker near the Saudi border. It marked the first time the battlewagon’s 16-inch guns had been fired in combat since March 1953 off Korea. Missouri‘s gun crews returned to action 5 February, silencing an Iraqi artillery battery with another 10 rounds. Over a three-day period, Missouri bombarded Iraqi strongholds with 112 16-inch shells.

For her part, Curts received the Navy Unit Commendation for her exceptional operational performance, as well as the Admiral Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy.

Decommissioned in 2013 after three decades of hard service, “38 Special” was slated for possible transfer to Mexico but has since been placed on the list of target ships. Laid up at Pearl Harbor, she will likely be expended in an upcoming RIMPAC Sinkex.

Warship Wednesday, Jan.13, 2021: Of Hurricat and Hoverfly

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, Jan.13, 2021: Of Hurricat and Hoverfly

National Archives Photo 80-G-159942

Here we see a very early Sikorsky R-4 rotorcraft (BuNo 46445), a type designated the HNS-1 helicopter by the U.S. Navy and the Hoverfly I by the Royal Navy, comes in astern of the red duster-flying British Motor Vessel Daghestan during tests on Long Island Sound in early January 1944. The pilot is LCDR Frank A. Erickson, Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 1, while his passenger in the two-man craft is Army Brig. Gen. Frank Lowe, the latter of whom was on special duty with the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program.

Sure, Daghestan is a merchie, but she truly deserves her place in a Warship Wednesday as you shall see.

Wartime construction built for the Hindustan Steam Shipping Co. Ltd, of Newcastle to replace a lost ship of the same name, MV Daghestan was a 7,200-ton Santa Rosa SR-3 type grainer with four holds. Laid down at William Doxford & Sons Ltd., Pallion, as Yard No. 674, she was completed in August 1941. As a British cargo ship plying the North Atlantic during the “Happy Times” of Donitz’s U-boat wolf packs, her life expectancy outlook was mixed at best, and she was soon on regular convoy runs.

Freighter SS Daghestan going south 13 January 1942 out of Halifax. She has a pair of 3-inch guns on her stern and carried smaller portable Lewis guns for AAA work. It is hard to tell, but she also should have a catapult over her bow. H.B. Jefferson Nova Scotia Archives 1992-304 / 43.1.4 11

Soon after she was completed, Daghestan was one of eight privately-owned British merchies that, along with 27 Ministry of War Transport-owned ships, were selected for use in the Catapult Armed Merchantman program. The CAM ships were a desperate effort by the Brits to counter long-ranging German Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor patrol bombers of Fliegerführer Atlantik who were prowling the sea lanes between Canada and Ireland, bird-dogging convoys who had no air cover.

Carrying a low-UHF band sea search radar and a 2,000-pound bomb load, the Condor could remain aloft for 14 hours, ranging some 2,200 miles from bases in occupied France, haunting not only the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel but pushing out to the Irish Sea and North Atlantic proper as well.

Egbert Friedl Scalemates box art

The ungainly Condors proved extremely effective in both cueing U-boats and plinking freighters on their own, reportedly taking credit for some 365,000 tons of Allied shipping between June 1940 and February 1941 via low-altitude bomb drops on slow-moving targets.

Winston Churchill described the Condor as the “Scourge of the Atlantic” and penned a March 1941 memo to the MOD saying:

  1. We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Fokke Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Fokke Wulf, and other bombers employed against our shipping, must be attacked in the air and in their nests.
  2. Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult, or otherwise launch, fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week.

As with the other CAM ships, Daghestan had a short 85-foot catapult fitted over her bow, just past her forward cargo hatch– these mini aircraft carriers were still expected to carry their full cargo load on escort missions. Her aircraft, mounted on the cat for a single-use launch, was a decrepit “Sea Hurricane Mk. IA,” an aircraft essentially on its last legs and otherwise unfit for further front-line service but still flyable enough to take on a slow and relatively lightly armed Condor in a one-on-one dogfight.

Sea Hurricane I Merchant Ship Fighting Unit aboard a Catapult Armed Merchant Gibraltar IWM CH6918

Sea Hurricane I aboard a CAM ship

Modified by General Aircraft Limited to be carried by CAM ships, these Sea Hurricanes, typically referred to as Hurricats or Catafighters, were given more than 80 modifications including an easily removable canopy (as the pilot likely had to ditch at sea), a 44-gallon overflow fuel tank to extend the plane’s range (which might make it able to reach shore) and an on-board rapidly deployable dinghy for logical reasons. About 50 such Hurricanes were converted, assigned to the RAF’s purpose-formed Merchant Ship Fighter Unit, and manned by volunteers.

To give the aircraft a little extra boost, they have a rocket-assisted take-off.

The catapult was angled to starboard over the bow, both to prevent the blast from its rockets smoking the superstructure, and to reduce the risk of the pilot being overtaken by the ship, should the Hurricat wind up ditching on launch.

One of the pilots assigned to Daghestan during her CAM service, Alec Lumsden, reportedly told his son that “his back was never the same” after being catapult certified.

Sea Hurricane Ia MSFU LUB A Lumsden V6802 MV Daghestan Atlantic Sep-Oct 1941

Between August 1941 and August 1942, Daghestan shipped out on at least seven Atlantic convoys as a CAM ship, often with similarly equipped vessels to help share the load.

While she did not have to launch her Hurricat, at least nine combat launches from other CAM ships took place during the conflict, resulting in nine downed German aircraft, thus proving the concept. When it came to the Hurricats themselves, eight of the nine launched ditched at sea, with seven pilots recovered alive. The ninth aircraft, on a Murmansk convoy, was close enough to Russia to make shore– after splashing two He 111s out of Norway.

Sea Hurricane I Merchant Ship Fighting Unit MS Empire Faith summer 1941-01

Regardless, with the increased use of escort carriers, the CAM project was phased out by 1943, leaving Daghestan and her fellow Hurricat-carrying partners to land their catapults and bid the RAF goodbye. She went on to pull at least another seven convoys with just her guns for protection by October 1943, but that doesn’t mean she was done with aviation.

Enter the whirlybird

Igor I. Sikorsky’s attempts to create a practical helicopter got a big boost from the Army in December 1940 when they gave him $50,000 for his XR-4 concept aircraft, itself a development of his earlier VS-300. The helicopter first flew on 14 January 1942, with Sikorsky chief test pilot Les Morris at the controls. The first production aircraft, 41-18874, was adopted by the Army in May 1942.

By 1943, more advanced versions of the R-4 were fielded, and the aircraft was theorized to be able to carry small bombs or casualty litters.

Soon, floats were fitted to make the eggbeater amphibious, leading to tests from the decks of the hastily converted freighter SS Bunker Hill and the troopship USS James Parker. From there, the Coast Guard and Navy ordered a trio of YR-4Bs while the Royal Navy signed on for seven. In the end, the Navy would up this to a full 20 aircraft, designating it the HNS-1 (Helicopter, Navy, Sikorsky, model 1) while the British Fleet Air Arm, in conjunction with the RAF, would eventually buy 45.

The first British ship to operate them was our humble Daghestan.

Coast Guard LCDR Frank A. Erickson, an unsung aviation pioneer, trained at Sikorsky Aircraft Company’s plant at Bridgeport then by November 1943 was aboard Daghestan, which was anchored in Long Island as a floating testbed for the YR-4 series. With her bow catapult long removed, she now carried a stern helicopter pad.

MV DAGHESTAN (British freighter) Lies anchored in Long Island (top), while a Sikorsky HSN-1 (BuNo 46445) landing in the water (below). Note, she now has four elevated gun tubs as her two original stern tubs were replaced by the landing pad. Photograph received in January 1944 but was likely taken in late 1943. 80-G-159947

In all, Erickson would conduct shipboard trials with the R-4 while eventually training 102 helicopter pilots and 225 mechanics, including personnel from the Army Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Navy.

HNS-1 in Flight. Note the litter. (Coast Guard Historian’s Office)

He also made history on 3 January 1944 when he rushed much-needed plasma by helicopter from Battery Park to a hospital in Sandy Hook through a severe winter storm. The plasma, used to treat injured sailors from the damaged destroyer USS Turner (DD-648), was a literal lifesaver.

U.S. Navy Sikorsky HSN-1 (BuNo 46445) Landing on board the British MV DAGHESTAN in Long Island Sound, likely in late 1943. Pilot: Lieutenant Commander Frank A. Erickson, USCG. Note details of the landing platform; markings and color scheme on HNS-1. 80-G-159946

BuNo 46445 takes off from a platform constructed on board the British MV, DAGHESTAN, then anchored in Long Island Sound. Pilot: Lieutenant Commander Frank A. Erickson, USCG; Note details of cameraman and platform. Photograph received January 1944 but was likely taken in late 1943. 80-G-159940

As for our ship, she solidified her place in naval lore when she left New York in convoy HX 274 on 6 January 1944, headed to Liverpool, with two Royal Navy-manned R-4s aboard, ready to fight. Daghestan’s choppers were fitted with floats and believed to have flown convoy-protection trials from the ship during the voyage.

Note the two R-4s on her stern. This is during the Jan 6-22 convoy to the UK, the first with helicopter support. Her platform looks to have been greatly extended to support the embarked airwing

FAA marked FT835 YR-4B ex 42-107246, on Daghestan

FAA-marked R4 NNAM 1993.501.073.092

The trials must have been successful as the Brits soon deployed other R-4s, dubbed Hoverfly Is, with the escort carrier HMS Thane (D48) at the end of December 1944.

In the meantime, our freighter was back to her more traditional convoy runs, sans choppers. Typically carrying Canadian wheat/grain/flour and mail, she crossed the Atlantic at least 18 times* headed West to Britain, and then returned back east again with largely empty holds.

*Convoys, via War Sailors.com:

ON 11 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) Aug. 30- Sept 11, 1941, CAM
HX 151 Halifax to Liverpool Sept 22-Oct. 7, 1941 CAM with fellow CAM Empire Spray
HX 160 Halifax to Liverpool Nov. 15-30, 1941 CAM with five other CAM ships!
HX 170 Halifax to Liverpool Jan. 13-28, 1942 CAM along with Empire Spray
HX 187 Halifax to Liverpool April 26- May 8, 1942 CAM along with Empire Foam and Primrose Hill
HX 194 Halifax to Liverpool June 14-26, 1942 CAM along with Empire Day
HX 203 Halifax to Liverpool Aug 16- 28 1942 CAM (with Clyde Commodore aboard)
HX 210 Halifax to Liverpool Oct. 1-16, 1942
HX 216 Halifax to Liverpool Nov. 19-Dec. 6, 1942
ON 159 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) Jan 4-20, 1943
HX 225/226 Halifax to Liverpool Feb. 8-24, 1943
ON 170 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) March 3-20, 1943
HX 252 Halifax to Liverpool Aug 14-28, 1943
ON 203 Liverpool to New York (Halifax) Sept. 22-Oct 8, 1943
HX 274 New York to Liverpool Jan 6-21, 1944 helicopter mission
HX 282 New York to Liverpool March 6-22, 1944
HX 292 New York to Liverpool May 19-June 2, 1944 (96 ship convoy!)
HX 299 New York to Liverpool July 11-24, 1944
ON 223 Belfast to New York Aug. 2-16, 1944
HX 305/306 New York to Liverpool Aug. 31-Sept. 17, 1944
HX 319 New York to Liverpool (Hull) Nov. 9-25, 1944
HX 342 New York to Liverpool April 1945

Coming through the war in one piece, Daghestan was disarmed and soon back on the commercial trade with Hindustan Steam.

SS Daghestan at the dock, Vancouver, Dec. 20, 1951. City of Vancouver Archives, Walter Frost photo. CVA 447-4171

Sold in 1957 to Asimarfield Shipping Corporation of Monrovia, she left her Red Duster behind for a Liberian flag as MV Annefield for another decade of service.

As MV Annefeld, via the Coll. of Hans Hoffman, courtesy of Sunderland Ships

On 21 February 1969, MV Annefield was delivered to Isaac Manuel Davalillo in Castellon, Spain, where demolition began in May.

Various wartime reports on Daghestan are in NARA and the IWM but are not available online.

Specs:

Displacement: 7248 grt, 4389 nrt, 10325 dwt
Length: 442.9 ft.
Beam: 56.5 ft.
Draft: 27.4 ft. (35.5 depth of hold)
Propulsion: Oil 2SA 3cyl (600 x 2320mm), 1 screw
Speed:
Armament
(1941-43)
2 x 3-inch guns
Lewis guns
(1943-45)
4 x AAA guns, possibly 40mm or 3-inch DP
Aircraft:
1 x Sea Hurricane (single use) CATODITCH, Aug 1942-Aug 1943
1-2 R-4 series helicopters (stern deck, no hangar) Nov 1943- Jan 1944

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ROK Marine Mystery Glass

Official caption: “A sniper of the 5th Battalion, 2nd Marine Brigade (ROK) uses a scope to draw a bead on a Viet Cong during Operation Dragon Five, Oct. 22, 1967. The operation is taking place on the Batangan Peninsula, South of the Chu Lai Marine Air Base.”

Marine Corps Photo A421954 by SSGT Gary Thomas/1st MAW. Via NARA 127-GVB-320-A421954 

Of interest in the above photo, besides the fact that he has a horrible cheek weld and the dust cover is closed, is the ROK Marine’s early M16, equipped with a non-standard low-powered optic.

While Colt marketed the Dutch 3x25mm Delft scope on 601 model AR-15s in the 1960s– before they marketed their own 4×24 optic, the above is neither of those. The ROK’s optic looks sort of like a basic Weaver commercial scope of the time. 

Compare:

1960s Pasadena California Police Dept. Colt AR-15 Model 601 Automatic Rifle with a Dutch 3x Delft scope

The Delft 3x had a G3 Hensoldt-style reticle, and the Dutch State Arsenal (Artillerie Inrichtingen) marketed it with the license-produced ArmaLite AR-10 before the M16 was even a thing.

Ad from 1969, showing the Colt 4×24

I’ve also seen another non-standard optic, possibly a Redfield, in at least anecdotal use with an M-16 in Vietnam: 

K co 75 Rangers Larry Flanigan 1st Bgde 4th Div LRRP 1968

If anyone knows more, drop me a comment or email and I’ll be most appreciative. Watch this space for updates.

Sitting Bull’s Warhawks

Casablanca, 9 January 1943.

Official caption: “Line-up of 13 P-40 United States Warhawks which Americans recently presented to the Fighting French air forces at an airport somewhere in North Africa on behalf of the people of the United States.”

Note the Curtiss Hawk 75 and at least two Dewoitine D.520s inside the hangar, still wearing Vichy-French stripes. A C-47 Skytrain is visible in the background. U.S. Signal Corps Photo via LOC LC-USW33-000982-ZC. 

These former USAAF 33rd Fighter Group P-40F Warhawks had (unofficially) been transferred to the Free French Armee de l’Air on 25 November 1942, just weeks after the Torch landings, during which they had arrived on the continent via the escort carrier USS Chenango (CVE-28). Meanwhile, the 33rd FG moved up to P-40L models until they transferred to the Far East in 1944 and moved to P-47s. 

The P-40Fs shown above were the property of the Groupe de Chasse GC II/5, dubbed the Lafayette Escadrille, after the American volunteer group of the Great War era whose distinctive “Sitting Bull” logo they carry. As the French pilots had been flying Hawk 75s previously– a type that was basically the uglier older sister to the P-40– transition was likely easy. 

Commanded by the exiled White Russian Kostia “MadKot” Rozanoff, GC II/5 flew missions against Axis troops in Tunisia in 1942 and 1943, and covered convoys through the Med.

Renumbered Escadron de Chasse 2/4 in 1947, La Fayette went on to see service in Indochina and Algeria and currently has a nuclear strike role (dissuasion nucléaire) in Metropolitan France, flying Rafale Cs out of Saint-Dizier.

Little Groups of Marines

Ten U.S. Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Southern Command teamed up with the U.S. Navy for a three-month deployment aboard the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport USNS Burlington (T-EPF 10), returning to Little Creek this week. The SPMAGTF-SC detachment provided the 1,500-ton Burlington, officially a noncombatant manned by civilian mariners of the MSC alongside a USN commo team, with an embarked security team, providing force protection for the deployment.

This is the type of tasking that little groups of Marines will increasingly see in the future, no longer just the stuff of the “Gator Navy.”

Of course, it is something of a case of everything old is new again, as the Marines for something like 220 years regularly provided small dets on surface ships for security/gunnery/landing force missions. Back in the day, ships as small as gunboats, sloops, and frigates often had Marines aboard, although the practice was trimmed back to cruisers, battleships, and carriers by the 1920s (with a few notable exceptions).

The Marine Detachment, gunboat USS Dauntless (PG-61) – mid-1942

The last Marine Carrier Dets, useful for guarding admirals, performing TRAP missions, and keeping an eye on “special munitions” (aka nukes) were disbanded in 1998.

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