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25 Years On: Operation Amaryllis

During the opening stages of the horror that was the Rwandan genocide, the French moved in with a muscular response that, sadly, had too narrow a focus to make a difference for the local Rwandans.

Opération Amaryllis- 1994, French paras of 3e RPIMa deployed from the CAR to Rwanda for a week on a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) mission, now 25 years in the past. Note the FAMAS rifles

Sparked by the dual April 1994 assassination of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutu, in the same aircraft shootdown, the respective Rwandan and Burundi civil wars kicked into overdrive with violence aimed at Tutsi tribe members.

Two days after the shootdown, some 500 French paratroopers based in the nearby Central African Republic, consisting primarily of members of the 3e Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (3e RPIMa) but with some members of the 8eRPIMa and artillerists of the 35e RAP (Régiment d’Artillerie Parachutiste), were deployed to Rwanda on orders from Paris to affect a non-combatant evacuation of French and allied nationals.

8e RPIMa Paras, note the FAMAS and its corresponding bayonets. Also, the para on the right has an AKM bayonet on his belt as well in addition to his Vuarnet sunglasses. 

Overwatch by a 3e RPIMa marksman with a distinctive French MAS FR-F2 rifle. Despite the anchor insignia on his beret and the regiment’s “Marine” designation, they are an Army unit, with the nautical references being a throwback to their colonial roots in 1948 Indochina as the 3e BCCP. French colonial troops always sported an anchor as marine “overseas” units. 

A scout from 3e RPIMa with his Peugeot P4, watching a route for a convoy through Kigali in Opération Amaryllis. Note the suppressed HK MP5SD

Lead by Col. Henri Poncet, 3e RPIMa’s commander, the light battalion-sized force managed to evac some 1,417 people– including 445 French– to Bujumbura in Burundi and Bangui in the CAR within a week.

Dubbed Opération Amaryllis, the mission was a success when judged by its immediate tasking, but history, sobered with the fact that an estimated 1 million Tutsi perished in the ensuing genocide as the French beat feet, has left that benchmark somewhat hollow.

Similarly, the UN mission in the country, UNAMIR, which was established to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement signed by the Rwandese parties the previous August, commanded by Canadian MG Romeo A. Dallaire, dropped its authorised strength from 2,548 military personnel to only 270 in late April 1994 as Belgium and others pulled their troops from the blue berets– showing it was not just the French who pulled stumps at the onset of the crisis in Kigali.

French paras conversing with UN-capped Belgian Paracommando during the Amaryllis evac. Note the latter’s FNC rifles.

During the opening stage of the genocide, 15 UN Blue Helmets, troops from UNAMIR, who had been protecting the Rwandan Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, were captured by members of the Presidental Guard. Five of the 15 were Ghanaians who were set free. The other 10 were Belgian Paracommandos shot and hacked to death by machetes after they surrendered. The Belgians subsequently left the auspices of UNAMIR, and you can note these paras are not in UN livery. 

Another look at an FR F2 rifle. Note the “cat eyes” on the back of the Belgian paracommando‘s helmet. Also, note the early kevlar fragmentation vest.

The French paras did return a few weeks later, as part of a 5,500 military personnel expedition, dubbed Opération Turquoise, near the end of the 100-day genocide, and established the so-called Turquoise Zone meant to stop the mass killings and give a safe haven to refugees. French President François Mitterrand at the time hailed the move and Radio France said that tens of thousands were saved through its efforts– although Turquoise has since joined Amaryllis on the heap of “mistakes were made” operations when judged by after-action historical documents.

For a haunting further look at the international cockup by all involved in 1994 Rwanda, read Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by LG Roméo Dallaire.

Notably, while United Nations peacekeepers have been deployed for more than seven decades, it was only in 1999– five years after Rwanda and four after the horrible failure in Bosnia that led to the Srebrenica massacre — that the UN Security Council issued resolutions (1265 & 1270) which put the Protection of Civilians (POC) at the heart of UN Peacekeeping. Today, peacekeepers have an actual mandate to protect civilians.

Warship Wednesday, May 22, 2019: The Defiant Bicyclist

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, May 22, 2019: The Defiant Bicyclist

Il sommergibile Enrico Toti 2

Here we see the Balilla-class diesel submarine Enrico Toti of the Italian Regia Marina around 1933, dressed to impressed. Although many of Il Duce’s undersea boats met grim ends at the hands of the Allies in World War II and had little to show for their career, Toti had a much higher degree of success on both accounts.

While British, American and German submarines are given a lot of press for their storied achievements during the conflict, it should be noted that Italy was no slouch in the submersible department, historically speaking. The first Italian “sottomarino,” Delfino, was designed by marine engineer Giacinto Pullino at the La Spezia Navy Yard back in 1889, predating John Philip Holland’s designs for the U.S. and Royal Navy by a decade.

Over the next four decades, the Italians produced more than 100 subs, including some for the King of Sweden, the Kaiser of Germany and the Tsar of Russia, while in turn adopting a modicum of contemporary British designs to learn from. During World War I, the Italian submarine force counted some of the few Allied “kills” in the northern Adriatic when the Regia Marina’s F-12 torpedoed the Austro-Hungarian U-boat SM U-20 in 1918. Importantly, after the war, Italy received the relatively low-mileage German Type UE II long-range submarine SM U-120 as reparations, which the country’s designers apparently learned a good deal from.

In 1927, with an increasingly fascist Italy on track to build the fourth largest navy in the world, Rome ordered a new class of four Balilla-class “cruiser” type submarines, large enough to operate independently in the Indian Ocean and around Italy’s African colonies which at the time included Italian Somaliland and Eritrea on the strategically important (Red Sea/Suez Canal) Horn of Africa.

The country’s first post-WWI submarine design, the big Balillas went 1,900-tons and ran 284-feet long, capable of making 17-knots in a surface attack. Capable of diving to 400 feet– which was deep for subs of the 1920s, they could travel 13,000 nm on their economical diesel engines. Able to carry 16 torpedoes for their six tubes as well as a 120mm deck gun, the design rivaled the U.S. Navy’s later Porpoise-class subs (1900-tons/289-feet/18-knots/16 torpedoes) of the early 1930s, which in turn was the forerunner of the USN’s WWII fleet boats. A fifth Balilla was constructed for Brazil, which in turn triggered Argentina to order three later Cavallini-class subs from Italy in the 1930s

Built by OTO at Muggiano, largely side-by-side, Italian Navy sisters Balilla, Domenico Millelire, Amatore Sciesa, and Enrico Toti were all in service by 1928.

Balilla class member Domenico Millelire, note her conning tower-mounted short-barreled 120mm gun. This was later replaced by a longer gun mounted on the deck.

All the vessels were named after famous Italian heroes:

Balilla was the nickname of one Giovanni Battista Perasso, a Genoese youth who is credited with a revolt against the Austrians in 1746.

-Millelire was an officer in the Sardinian Royal Navy who reportedly gave the first defeat to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1793.

Sciesa was an Italian patriot hung by the Austrians in 1851.

As for Toti, the namesake of our sub, he was a one-legged bicyclist who was allowed to join the elite Bersaglieri in the Great War and was killed by the Austro-German forces at the horrific waste that was the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo in 1916, famously throwing his crutch at the enemy lines and remaining defiant to the last.

The 1 October 1916 cover of La Domenica del Corriere, a popular 20th Century Italian weekly newspaper famous for its cover drawings akin in many ways to the American Saturday Evening Post, on Toti’s deed

The class soon engaged in a series of long-range peacetime cruises, waving the Italian tricolor around the globe. Boston photojournalist Leslie Jones documented Balilla off the Boston lightship on her way to Charlestown Navy Yard in May 1933.

Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library

Note how large the sail is on these boats. Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library

In September 1933, Toti, in conjunction with her sister Sciesa, set sail from La Spezia to circumnavigate the African continent East-to-West, passing through the Suez, and calling at Mogadishu, Chisimaio, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam, Diego Suarez, Lourenço Marques, Durban, Cape Town, Walvis Bay, Lobito, São Tomé, Takoradi, Dakar, Praia, Las Palma, Gibraltar and Barcelona before making it back to Italy in February 1934. In short, visiting every important British, French, Portuguese and Spanish port in Africa and the Med.

Il sommergibile Enrico Toti

In 1934, the class was updated with a more modern 120mm/45 cal gun (from the old 27cal weapon) mounted on the deck rather than the conning tower, while Breda M31 13.2mm twin machine guns on innovative pressured disappearing mounts replaced the older Hotchkiss singles.

Images of Toti in March 1935, showing her new configuration, via Association Venus :

Deck mounted 120mm gun

Images of the internals of WWII Italian submarines are hard to come by

At sea, note the new conning tower profile

One of the few pictures I’ve ever seen of the twin submarine mount Breda M31 AAA machine guns. It could reportedly telescope in and out of the pressure hull like a periscope.

Starting in 1936, Toti and her sisters became heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War, semi-secretly supporting Franco’s forces without any (published) successes.

When Mussolini finally joined WWII proper in June 1940, just in time to deal a death blow to France, the Balilla class were no longer the best subs the Italians had in their fleet, as a staggering 150~ follow-on large submarines were either in commission or on the drawing board. With this, the four Balillas were largely relegated to training use although they did undertake a few war patrols early in the conflict. Toti was the only one that was successful.

Just after midnight on 15 October 1940, off the Italian central Mediterranean town of Calabria, Toti, commanded by LCDR Bandino Bandini, encountered the British Royal Navy T-class submarine HMS Triad (N53) at a distance of about 1,000 meters.

HMS Triad (N53)

Toti, like the British sub, was operating on the surface and moved to close at flank speed, managing to hit Triad with her 120mm deck gun as the vessel was submerging. RN LCDR George S. Salt, the skipper of Triad, went to the bottom with the vessel’s entire 52-man crew. Salt and Triad did not go down without a fight. Her own deck gun hit Toti‘s pressure hull and injured two Italian sailors, while a torpedo from the British boat reportedly came within just a few feet of her opponent.

Once Bandini and the crew of the Toti made it back to port, they were celebrated as heroes. After all, they had sunk a British submarine (and would be the only Italian boat to do so, although HM Submarine Force would scratch 17 Italian subs). However, there would be enduring confusion over just which RN ship they should be credited for. The Italian press was initially told it was HMS Perseus (N36), a British Parthian-class submarine which in fact would only be sunk by an Italian mine in the Ionian Sea on 6 December 1941.

A 22 October 1940 Domenica del Corriere cover depicting Toti’s deck crew splashing a British submarine in a night action, incorrectly identified as Perseus.

For decades, both the Italians and the British mistakenly thought Toti sank the submarine HMS Rainbow (N16), which had actually been lost off Albania at about the same time after she struck a submerged object.

It was only in 1988 that Triad, which had been listed as missing for 48 years, was positively tied to the Italian boat that sunk her. In a twist of fate, Triad‘s lost commander was the father of British RADM James Frederick Thomas George “Sam” Salt, who was captain of the destroyer HMS Sheffield during the Falklands when that ship was lost to an Argentine Exocet– the first sinking of a Royal Navy ship since WWII. The junior Salt was only six months old at the time of his father’s disappearance in the Med.

By 1941, the obsolete Balillas were removed from frontline service. Of the quartet, Millelire and Balilla were soon hulked and used as floating battery charging vessels. Sciesa was disarmed and hit by an air attack in Benghazi in 1942 while running resupply missions to the Afrika Korps then later scuttled in place as the Americans advanced on the city.

Toti, true to her past, remained more active than her sisters.

From March to June 1942 she carried out a reported 93 training missions at the Italian submarine school of Pula, which saw her very active.

Enrico Toti submarine at the submarine school in Pula

She was then was used for four short-run supply missions across the Med to Italian forces in North Africa, landing her torpedoes and instead carrying some 200 tons of medicine and high-value materials as well as transferring most of the diesel fuel in her bunkers ashore for use by panzers and trucks.

Enrico Toti returns to Pola June 42, note her newly supplied camo scheme applied to run supplies to Italy Via Lavrentio/WarshipP reddit

Submarine blockade runners in North Africa: Enrico Toti (left) with the smaller Bandiera-class submarine Santorre Santarosa (in the center) and the Foca-class minelaying submarine Atropo (right) in Ras Hilal, Libya on 10-7-42. Of these, Santarosa would be grounded and scuttled in place 20th January 1943 while Atropo would be used to supply isolated British forces in the Dodecanese after the 1943 armistice and scrapped after the war. Via Lavrentio/WarshipP reddit

By April 1943, Toti was hulked and used to charge batteries, a role she continued through the end of the war.

The Italians lost over 90 subs during the war, almost one per week, with little bought with their loss. This figure is made even more considerable once you figure the Italians were only an active Axis ally from June 1940 to Sept 1943. By 1945, the country could only count about a dozen semi-submersible vessels and most of those had been laid up/disarmed for months.

On 18 October 1946, Toti was retired for good, along with the last of the Italian submarines. You see, the Regia Marina was dissolved with the end of the monarchy and the Treaty of Paris in 1947 banned Italy from operating submarines. With that, Toti and the last few Italian boats were scrapped or given away to victorious Allies as war reparations.

Jane’s 1946-47 edition does not list Italy with a single submarine of any kind.

Italy, with her navy rebranded as the Marina Militare, was only allowed out of the Treaty restrictions after the country joined NATO in 1949, effectively refraining from submarine operations until 1954 when the Gato-class submarines USS Barb (SS-220) and USS Dace (SS-247) were transferred to Italian service, where they became Enrico Tazzoli and Leonardo da Vinci, respectively. Through the 1970s, the Italians went on to acquire nine former WWII U.S. fleet boats.

The first of a new class of domestically made Italian submarine since WWII was laid down in 1965 by Fincantieri and commissioned in 1968 with the name of one of Italy’s most succesful boats, Enrico Toti (S 506). She went on on to provide nearly 25 years of service to the Italian Navy, much of it during the Cold War spent keeping tabs of the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet

This newer Toti has been preserved at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan since 2005.

The latter Toti, via the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan

Today, the Italian Navy fields eight very modern SSKs of the Todaro and Sauro-classes, with two more of the former on order.

Italian submarine Salvatore Todaro (S 526) passing the Castello Aragonese di Taranto by Alberto Angela

Specs:
Displacement: 1464 tons (1927 submerged)
Length: 284 ft.
Beam: 26 ft.
Draft: 15 feet.
Operating depth 100 m
Propulsion:
2 4,000 hp Fiat diesel engines, twin shafts
2 Savigliano electric motors, 240 cell battery
Submerged speed, max: 9 knots
Surfaced speed, max: 17 knots
Range: 3,000 miles at 17 knots or 13,000 nm at 7 knots; 8 miles at 9 knots underwater
Crew: 5 officers, 47 enlisted. Given as 77 in wartime.
Armament:
(1928)
1 120mm/27cal Mod. 1924 gun (150 shells)
2 single Hotchkiss 13.2 mm machine guns
6 torpedo tubes (4 front, 2 rear) of 533 mm, 16 torpedoes
4 mines in dedicated tube
(1934)
1 120mm/45cal Mod. 1931 gun (150 shells)
2 twin Breda M1931 13.2mm machine guns on disappearing mounts (3000 rounds per machine gunner)
6 torpedo tubes (4 front, 2 rear) of 533 mm, 16 torpedoes
4 mines in dedicated tube

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Vale, Herman Wouk

As a kid, I was a naval film junkie and the War and Remembrance, and The Winds of War miniseries along with Humphrey Bogart’s The Caine Mutiny were standard fare. Who can ever forget the ultimate toxic skipper that was LCDR Philip “Old Yellowstain” Queeg?

With that, the bell should be rung at the passing of author, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and WWII destroyerman Herman Wouk who shipped out for that great Libo call in the sky at age 103 last Friday.

Born in 1915, Wouk, a 27-year-old radio dramatist, signed up for the U.S Navy Reserves shortly after Pearl Harbor and was soon bobbing around on the aging WWI-era destroyer-minesweeper (“any ship can be a minesweeper, once”) USS Zane (DMS-14).

USS Zane (DMS-14) Off San Francisco, California, 21 September 1943. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-57504

USS Caine, err, I mean USS Zane (DMS-14), Off San Francisco, California, 21 September 1943. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-57504

Wouk had a very active war, participating in eight invasions from New Georgia to Okinawa and later becoming XO of Zane‘s Clemson-class sistership, USS Southard (DD-207/DMS-10). While aboard the latter, he survived numerous kamikaze attacks and Typhoon Ida. Importantly, his fictional USS Caine was a destroyer-minesweeper in WWII whose pivotal “mutiny” scene revolves around a Pacific typhoon.

He said of his time in the Navy during the war, “I learned about machinery, I learned how men behaved under pressure, and I learned about Americans.”

Wouk reportedly passed in his sleep.

Be sure to have a nice bowl of strawberries sometime this week in his honor.

Speaking of VE-Day

Here is past Combat Gallery Sunday artist Alex Colville with his haunting painting, Tragic Landscape (oil on canvas 61 x 91 cm, painted in 1945) depicting a fallen German Fallschirmjäger in the tail end of the war, who has already been picked clean of his boots.

Alex Colville, Tragic Landscape German paratrooper 1944

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. Canadian War Museum 19710261-2126

A Canadian military combat artist who landed in France in August 1944 and worked his way into Germany largely on foot, to Buchenwald and beyond, Colville saw the war up close and personal.

“I remember the paratrooper lying in a [Deventer] field,” recalled Colville in a 1980 interview. “He was about twenty. They [the Germans] would fight right to the very end; they had put up a tremendous fight until they were all killed.”

Warship Wednesday, April 10, 2018: All Forms of Manly Sports

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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, April 10, 2018: All Forms of Manly Sports

NH 76743-KN

Here we see the Seagoing Athletes that were the all-fleet champion basketball team of the Chester-class scout cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2) circa 1910. Birmingham and her crew were indeed involved in all sorts of manly sports in her brief career. From her help to show off the modern steel Navy, to her very real contribution to “Remember the Maine,” to her service as the cradle of U.S. Naval Aviation and in a curious war against the Austrians that garnered a pair of Kaiser Karl’s battlewagons for the Stars and Stripes, B’ham was there.

In the early 1900s, when it came to cruisers, the Navy had lots of big boys such as the 10 Washington and California-class armored cruisers (15,000 tons, 10- and 8-inch gun main batteries); as well as five “1st class cruisers” of the Charleston, Brooklyn and Saratoga-classes (8500-10,000 tons, 6 and 8 inch guns); four aging “2nd class cruisers” e.g. USS Olympia, Baltimore, Columbia, Minneapolis (5,000-7,000 tons, 6- and 8-inch guns); the six slow “3rd class” Chattanooga cruisers who could only make 16 knots; and in the bottom rung were the old Span-Am War era protected cruisers Raleigh, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Albany (the last two British built), of questionable utility due to their slow speeds. This dearth of small, modern– and above all fast– light cruisers led to the Navy to order the trio of Chester class scout cruisers in 1904.

USS BIRMINGHAM (CS-2) and USS SALEM (CS-3) completing, at the Fore River Shipbuilding Co., Quincy, Massachusetts, circa early 1908. Original is a color-tinted postcard, mailed at Quincy on 9 September 1909. Courtesy of Captain Don Fink, 1983 NH 94937

The 4,687-ton ships– Chester, Salem, and Birmingham— were race boats for their time, capable of 24 knots (Chester hit 26.52 on speed trials), which made them able to reach out past the battle fleet and look for enemy formations. They also could sip coal and make some truly impressive ocean-crossing voyages at slow/low speeds, which would make them good ships if needed to be dispatched to far off flashpoints in the growing Pax Americana.

Chester class cruisers

Chester class cruisers, 1914 entry in Janes

Lightly armored, with just 2-inches of plate over their steering and engineering spaces with no gun shields or conning tower protection, they were supposed to run, not fight. If pushed into a corner by a similarly fast ship, such as a destroyer, they had (just) enough muscle to prevail with a single 5″/50 cal mount forward and rear along with six 3″/50 singles in broadside. A pair of submerged 21-inch torpedo tubes made them trouble for capital ships, especially in a night attack.

Gun Practice - Gun practice on board U.S. Cruiser Salem, Birmingham's sister, Chester class Charlestown, Navy Yard, Charlestown, Mass - NARA - 45510731

Gun Practice – Gun practice on board U.S. Cruiser Salem, Birmingham’s sister, Chester class Charlestown, Navy Yard, Charlestown, Mass – NARA – 45510731

USS Birmingham, starboard view, May 4, 1908 NARA 19-N-33-9-13

USS Birmingham, starboard view, May 4, 1908, NARA 19-N-33-9-13

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Running sea trials in March 1908. She is flying the flag of her builder, the Fore River Shipbuilding Company of Quincy, Massachusetts, from her mainmast. NH 56390

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Running sea trials in March 1908. She is flying the flag of her builder, the Fore River Shipbuilding Company of Quincy, Massachusetts, from her mainmast. NH 56390

Built at Fore River Shipbuilding Co., Birmingham, the first U.S. Navy vessel with that name, commissioned at Quincy, Massachusetts 11 April 1908 and was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. As part of her shakedown cruises, she popped in at Mobile, Alabama in February 1909 “where the increasingly seasoned cruiser received a silver service in honor of that state and her namesake.”

Keep in mind the Civil War had just ended 44 years before.

She then picked up President-elect Howard H. Taft in New Orleans and carried him up the Eastern Seaboard to Hampton Roads, VA to join Teddy Roosevelt in reviewing the Great White Fleet which was returning from its round the world cruise.

Soon, all three of the Chesters would see active service when, as a group, they sortied to Liberia on the West African Coast, dispatched by Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root to get involved in the local unrest there, which in large part stemmed from British and French colonial actions on the country’s borders.

From DANFS:

The U.S. appointed a commission to investigate the crisis, which set out on board Birmingham from Tompkinsville on 23 April 1909. The ship rendezvoused with Chester and Salem, and the three cruisers crossed the Atlantic, coaled and provisioned at Porto Grande Bay at São Vicente in the Cape Verde Islands (1–9 May), and reached Monrovia, Liberia, on the 13th. The commissioners lodged on board the trio of cruisers while they worked with Liberian representatives at Monrovia (13–29 May and 5 June), Grand Bassa (29–31 May), Cape Palmas (1–4 June), and Robertsport — also on 5 June — and wrapped-up their investigation with a visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone (7–8 June). The ships coaled and completed upkeep at Las Palmas in the Cape Verde Islands (13–16 June) and at Funchal, Madeira (17–23 June), and returned to Newport. The commissioners subsequently presented a message to Congress, and Root recommended that the U.S. consider lending military officers to assist the Liberians.

The following year the U.S. arranged a Loan Agreement, whereby 17 African-American Army officers eventually (1911–1930) served in Liberia, where they worked as military attachés to the American Consulate in Monrovia, or organized, trained, and led the Frontier Force, that country’s constabulary. These dedicated men carried out their difficult mission with minimum support but set the conditions to stabilize the Liberian regime.

The three Chesters arrived back in the country just in time to show off for the international armada that had assembled in New York in the summer of 1909. The event was Hudson-Fulton Celebration, the commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River, and the 100th anniversary of the first successful commercial application of a paddle steamer, by Robert Fulton Jr.

USS Salem (Scout Cruiser # 3) and USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser #2) In the Hudson River, off New York City, during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 25 September 9 October 1909. Photo #: NH 91473

USS Salem (Scout Cruiser # 3) and USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser #2) In the Hudson River, off New York City, during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, 25 September 9 October 1909. Photo #: NH 91473

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Dressed in flags while at anchor, circa 1909. Collection of Chief Quartermaster John Harold. NH 101517

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Dressed in flags while at anchor, circa 1909. Collection of Chief Quartermaster John Harold. NH 101517

After coming to the assistance of the British tug Bulldog and later the sinking steamer Kentucky off the North Carolina coast, Birmingham visited Liberia again in early 1910 before returning to duties with the Atlantic Fleet. In November, she was part of a great experiment.

Less than seven years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made their brief manned air flight on Kill Devil Hill in the Outer Banks, sailing just 120 feet at a speed of a whopping 34 mph, the “aero plane” had made leaps and bounds. From the very beginnings, the military had its eye on the contraption– Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian had been underwritten by the War Department even before the Wright brothers made it off the ground.

Aviation pioneer Eugene Ely, who held pilot’s license No. 17 from the Aero Club of America, had a rendezvous with Birmingham, and destiny.

DANFS:

Shipwrights from Norfolk Navy Yard built an 83-foot slanted wooden platform onto Birmingham’s bow and, on the overcast morning of 14 November, she embarked civilian exhibition stunt pilot Eugene B. Ely, his 50 hp. Curtiss Model D Pusher biplane, some maintainers, and a group of naval officer observers headed by Capt. Washington I. Chambers, an advocate of early naval aviation.

Birmingham got underway at 11:30 a.m. and proceeded in company with Roe (Destroyer No. 24) and Terry (Destroyer No. 25), Barley (Torpedo Boat No. 21) and Stringham (Torpedo Boat No. 19), down the Elizabeth River to the Chesapeake Bay, where she anchored off Old Comfort Point at 12:35, and then shifted her anchorage and dropped the anchor again at 2:55 p.m.

Rainy and drizzly weather prevented Ely from taking off several times, but the pilot gamely decided to continue and launched his plane off the cruiser’s bow at 3:17 p.m. As he left the platform the pusher settled slowly and hit the water but rose again and landed about two and a half miles away on Willoughby Spit.

The plane sustained slight splinter damage to the propeller tips, but Ely’s daring feat marked the first time that an aircraft took off from a warship. Birmingham sent her motorboat to pick up Ely where he touched down at Willoughby Spit, and he, Chambers, and the rest of the party then transferred to Roe for the voyage back to Norfolk. Birmingham’s crew spent the next day tearing down the platform, raising her topmasts, and setting up the rigging, and left the lumber for Navy screw tug Alice to collect.

Just in her third year of service, our hardy cruiser had intervened in an African conflict, rubbed shoulders with both TR and Taft, and become the nation’s very first aircraft carrying warship. She was to continue her footnotes to history.

After visiting Mobile again for Mardi Gras and patrolling off Haiti in a show of gunboat diplomacy (she put in several times at Port-au-Prince and even observed the commissioning of the old Italian Regioni-class cruiser Umbria into the country’s navy as the ill-fated Consul Gostrück), Birmingham appeared in Cuba to serve as a pallbearer for the lost protected cruiser USS Maine (ACR-1), sunk by a controversial explosion in Havana in 1898.

Raised by the Army Corps of Engineers in an epic two-year effort, the remains of 66 lost Sailors and Marines were found and were ordered returned home with honor. Birmingham pulled that duty to escort those remains to the Washington Naval Yard after standing by, along with the armored cruiser North Carolina, while Maine was sunk in 600 fathoms of water offshore.

Maine, ship's after section is scuttled, in ceremonies off Havana, 16 March 1912. In background is USS NORTH CAROLINA (CA-12). USS BIRMINGHAM (CS-2) is at right. NH 46794

Maine, ship’s after section is scuttled, in ceremonies off Havana, 16 March 1912. In the background is USS NORTH CAROLINA (CA-12). USS BIRMINGHAM (CS-2) is at right. NH 46794

The flag-draped caskets of the victims of the USS Maine explosion are brought ashore at the Washington Navy Yard, District of Columbia, from USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), 23 March 1912. Of the 66 sets of remains only one was identified and returned to his home town the rest were reburied at Arlington Cemetery. NH 1690

The flag-draped caskets of the victims of the USS Maine explosion are brought ashore at the Washington Navy Yard, District of Columbia, from USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2), 23 March 1912. Of the 66 sets of remains, only one was identified and returned to his home town the rest were reburied at Arlington Cemetery. NH 1690

NH 1813 USS Maine disaster. Funeral scene of the USS MAINE victims at the Navy Yard, Washington, District of Columbia, 23 March 1912. USS BIRMINGHAM (CL-2) in background

NH 1813 USS Maine disaster. Funeral scene of the USS Maine victims at the Navy Yard, Washington, District of Columbia, 23 March 1912. USS BIRMINGHAM (CL-2) in background

After inaugural service with the Ice Patrol– Titanic had just sunk in April 1912– Birmingham resumed her duties with the Atlantic Fleet, which had been anything but routine.

USS Birmingham (CL-2), circa 1914. From the collection of ADM Horne. UA 571.96

USS Birmingham (CL-2), circa 1914. From the collection of ADM Horne. UA 571.96

With Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt in the Navy’s driver’s seat, trips to Mexico to get muscular in that country’s civil war became common and soon, the Vera Cruz incident erupted. Birmingham, in Pensacola, was urgently ordered on 20 April 1914 to take aboard three aircraft there: “hydroaeroplane AH-2” and Curtiss Model F flying boats AB-4 and AB-5, along with three pilots who went on to be huge names in aviation history– Lt. (later ADM) John H. Towers (Naval Aviator #3), 1st Lt. Bernard L. Smith (USMC Aviator #2), and Ens. Godfrey de C. Chevalier (Naval Aviator #7, who would later be the first to trap on board a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier), 10 “mechaniciens,” a cook, and a mess attendant.

Delivering the assortment to Tampico, the planes accomplished the first combat mission by a U.S. military heavier-than-air aircraft just five days later and were soon among those who first to receive ground fire (with the bullet holes to prove it!)

Pioneer naval aviators Godfrey deChevalier, Henry C. Mustin, and John H. Towers on a beach during service in Mexico in the aftermath of the Veracruz Insurrection. On April 20-21, 1914, naval aviation personnel and their aircraft deployed from the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, Florida, to Mexican waters aboard Birmingham, where they flew the first combat flights in the history of the United States armed forces.

After Mexico, it was the stony duty of wartime neutral.

Birmingham, Photographed by O.W. Waterman, Hampton, Virginia, circa 1916. Courtesy of Admiral M.M. Taylor, USN(d), 1962. NH 77906

Birmingham, Photographed by O.W. Waterman, Hampton, Virginia, circa 1916. Courtesy of Admiral M.M. Taylor, USN(d), 1962. NH 77906

USS Birmingham Firing salutes with her crew manning the rails, accompanied by three 750-ton type destroyers. Photographed by Waterman. Birmingham's black paint scheme and structural details, and the white uniforms worn by her crew, indicate that the date of this photograph is mid-1916, when Birmingham was flagship of the Atlantic Fleet's Destroyer Force. Location may well be near Hampton, Virginia, base of Waterman family's photographic business. Note what appears to be pattern camouflage (perhaps an experimental scheme) worn by the destroyer on the left. Donation of Charles R. Haberlein Jr., 2007. NH 105382

USS Birmingham Firing salutes with her crew manning the rails, accompanied by three 750-ton type destroyers. Photographed by Waterman. Birmingham’s black paint scheme and structural details, and the white uniforms worn by her crew, indicate that the date of this photograph is mid-1916 when Birmingham was the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet’s Destroyer Force. Location may well be near Hampton, Virginia, a base of Waterman family’s photographic business. Note what appears to be pattern camouflage (perhaps an experimental scheme) worn by the destroyer on the left. Donation of Charles R. Haberlein Jr., 2007. NH 105382

When the U.S. entered the Great War, Birmingham continued her East Coast operations with CDR Nathan C. Twining, Commander, Nantucket Detachment, Patrol Force, breaking his flag on the cruiser. By June 1917, she was escorting the first wave of Doughboys, the regulars of the Army’s newly-formed 1st Infantry Division, augmented by the 5th Marines, to France.

In August, she crossed with a second troop convoy and by 1918 was in the Med, operating out of Gibraltar.

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Moored in a harbor, circa 1918, probably in the Mediterranean area. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1969 NH 68227

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Moored in a harbor, circa 1918, probably in the Mediterranean area. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1969 NH 68227

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) In Brest harbor, France, on 15 October 1918. During 1917-1918 she was flagship of U.S. Forces at Gibraltar and escorted convoys in the eastern Atlantic. Note her dazzle camouflage. Courtesy of John G. Krieger, 1966-1967. NH 56393

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) In Brest harbor, France, on 15 October 1918. During 1917-1918 she was the flagship of U.S. Forces at Gibraltar and escorted convoys in the eastern Atlantic. Note her dazzle camouflage. Courtesy of John G. Krieger, 1966-1967. NH 56393

Once the Armistice hit on 11 November 1918, Birmingham was dispatched to the Adriatic where the Allied forces had for the entirety of the war kept the mighty Austro-Hungarian fleet largely bottled up, a paper tiger. Taking on RADM William H. G. Bullard at Malta, within days she was at Spalato (Split) in Dalmatia, where she took custody of not one but two Austrian battleships on 22 November.

Surrender of Austrian Fleet - Austrian battleships surrendered to U.S. Naval forces 2.8.19 SMS Radetzky Zrinyi Spalate Birmingham cruiser LOC 165-WW-329D-002

Surrender of Austrian Fleet – Austrian battleships surrendered to U.S. Naval forces 2.8.19 SMS Radetzky, Zrinyi, Spalate. Birmingham to the right. LOC 165-WW-329D-002

Sisterships of the same class of pre-dreadnought battleships, SMS Radetzky and SMS Zrinyi had both joined Kaiser Franz Josef’s Imperial Austro-Hungarian Navy in 1911 and saw very little service in their seven years on Vienna’s naval list. After ole Franz died in 1916, his great-nephew Karl took the throne and beat feet during the last days of the war, signing over the fleet to the newly formed Yugoslav government to keep it out of the Allies hands.

To comply with this, the two battlewagons sailed out of Pola on 10 November under nominal Slav command and, flying American flags, surrendered to a group of punchy 110-foot U.S. Navy submarine chasers until Bullard and Birmingham arrived a week later. Under U.S. custody, the pair was even referred to as USS Zrinyi and USS Radetzky, unofficially. However, it was not to be and in compliance with the final Austrian peace in 1920, the ships were given to Italy and scrapped.

As for our hardy scout cruiser, she returned home in early 1919 and was soon reassigned to the Pacific Fleet.

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) In the Middle West Chamber, Gatun Locks, during the passage of the Pacific Fleet through the Panama Canal, 24 July 1919. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation, Washington, D.C. Collection of Admiral William V. Pratt. NH 75717

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) In the Middle West Chamber, Gatun Locks, during the passage of the Pacific Fleet through the Panama Canal, 24 July 1919. Note she has extensive warm weather awnings and a grey hull again. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation, Washington, D.C. Collection of Admiral William V. Pratt. NH 75717

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) At Seattle, Washington, in September 1919. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 56394

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) At Seattle, Washington, in September 1919. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 56394

Reclassified as a light cruiser (CL-2), she later became the flag of RADM William C. Cole who used her to head up a squadron dispatched to Panama in 1922 to help quiet down the locals in the Canal Zone– making Birmingham a Mahanian gunboat to the last. Ironically, during this period she called on New Orleans and, while open to the public during the 1923 State Fair, was toured by then CPT. Osami Nagano of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Nagano, of course, would later rise to Chief of the Navy General Staff during WWII, outranking Yamamoto.

In addition to Nagano and the host of early aviators that went on to greatness, at least three of Birmingham‘s former skippers went on to become full admirals including two CINCUS’s and one CNO. She truly was a ship that stars fell upon.

With the resulting peace craze that followed WWI and the series of naval treaties agreed to by the world’s great powers, the Chester class were declared surplus and laid up so that their tonnage could be used for more modern cruiser developments. As such, Birmingham headed to Philadelphia, where she was decommissioned on 1 December 1923. Salem had already been laid up at Mare Island in 1921, the same year Chester was put out of service at Boston. By early 1930, all three had been sold for scrap, at which point they were only about 22 years old each and had been in reserve for a decade. A waste.

Birmingham’s name would be twice reused, by the Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-62)— which gave epic service in WWII and decommissioned in 1946– and by the Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine USS Birmingham (SSN-695) which was active from 1978 to 1997.

Birmingham SSBN-695 CL-62

Of course, our Scout Cruiser’s silver service is at the Birmingham Museum of Art, on public display. She has also been remembered in maritime art for her role as America’s first aircraft carrier, of sorts.

Further, on the Centennial of Naval Aviation in 2010, a replica of Ely’s Curtiss Hudson Flier was hoisted aboard the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), for old time’s sake.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Coolbaugh sits in the pilot seat of a replica Curtiss Hudson Flier biplane, the first aircraft to launch from the deck of a navy ship, Nov. 15, 2010, on the flight deck of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) while in port in Norfolk, Va. The replica was built as part of celebrations for the Centennial of Naval Aviation. (DoD photo 101115-N-3885H-265 by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Hall, U.S. Navy/Released)

101115-N-3885H-265 Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Coolbaugh sits in the pilot seat of a replica Curtiss Hudson Flier biplane, the first aircraft to launch from the deck of a navy ship, Nov. 15, 2010, on the flight deck of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) while in port in Norfolk, Va. The replica was built as part of celebrations for the Centennial of Naval Aviation. (DoD photo 101115-N-3885H-265 by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Hall, U.S. Navy/Released)

As for Ely, after his takeoff from Birmingham, he made a landing on a larger deck on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania, another important aviation first. Sadly, before 1911 was out, he died in a plane crash in Macon, Georgia. He was later enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Specs:

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Underway in 1908, possibly during trials. NH 56392

USS Birmingham (Scout Cruiser # 2) Underway in 1908, possibly during trials. NH 56392

Displacement:
3,750 long tons (3,810 t) (standard)
4,687 long tons (4,762 t) (full load)
Length:
423 ft 1 in (128.96 m) oa
420 ft (130 m) pp
Beam: 47 ft 1 in
Draft: 16 ft 9 in(mean)
Installed power:
12 × Fore River boilers
16,000 ihp
15,670 ihp (produced on Trial)
Propulsion:
2 × 4cly vertical triple expansion engines
2 × screws
Speed:
24 knots designed, 24.33 knots (Speed on Trial)
Coal: 1400 tons max. Burned 148 tons in 24 hrs at 20 knots or 31 tons per 24 hrs at 10 knots, which is sweet
Complement: 42 officers 330 enlisted
Armament:
4 × 5 in (130 mm)/50 caliber Mark 6 breech-loading rifles
6 × 3 in (76 mm)/50 caliber rapid-fire guns (6×1)
2 × 3-pounder (47 mm (1.9 in) Driggs-Schroeder saluting guns
2 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes, submerged, with 8 torpedoes in the magazine
Armor:
Belt: 2 in over engineering spaces only, essentially double skinned from 3.5-feet below the waterline to 9.5-feet above
Deck: 1 mm (aft) to protect steering gear

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Still coming home

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission earlier this month held a ceremony at Messines Ridge British Cemetery for two unknown soldiers whose remains were recently recovered near the town of Wijtschate, south of Ieper, in the Belgian province of West Flanders.

Despite the best attempts by the Commission, the two lads were only identified as a member of the Royal Irish Rifles (Now part of the Royal Irish Regiment) and an unknown soldier of an unknown regiment, both of which will bear a headstone marked “Soldier of the Great War, Known unto God.”

Italians discover long lost cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere

Commissioned 1 January 1931, the Giussano-class light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere (John of the Black Bands) was a sleek warship of the Regia Marina, though not quite up to the same quality as her three sisters.

The 7,000-ton, 555-foot cruiser had a lot of speed– 37 knots– and eight 6-inch guns but had *razor thin* armor (less than an inch at its thickest) as an Achilles heel. To make it worse, the class had virtually no underwater protection at all.

When WWII came, Bande Nere managed to escape serious damage in the Battle of Calabria and follow-up Battle of Cape Spada in 1940 but hit HMAS Sydney in turn, then went on to survive another close call at the Second Battle of Sirte in 1942. As such, she was much luckier than her three sisters– Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto da Giussano, sunk December 1941, by Royal Navy and Dutch destroyers during the Battle of Cape Bon; and Bartolomeo Colleoni, sent to the bottom at Spada.

Her luck ran out on 1 April 1942 when she came across HM Submarine Urge who fired a pair of torpedoes at the Italian cruiser, one of which broke the Bande Nere into two sections, and she sank quickly with the loss of more than half her crew in 1,500m of water some 11 miles from Stromboli. In a cruel bit of karma, Urge, a Britsh U-class submarine was herself lost just three weeks afterward with all hands, most likely near Malta as a result of a mine.

Bande Nere was discovered over the weekend by the now-Marina Militare, and her crown of Savoy clearly seen on a released video.

“Over a seaman’s grave, no flowers grow.”

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