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The Brits really dug camo for their snipers

Common among snipers the world over today, the ghillie suit or bush suit, traces its origin to Scottish gamekeepers with a Scotland-raised yeoman regiment, the Lovat Scouts, using them for the first time in modern combat in the Boer War.

These Highlanders, drawn largely from outdoorsmen, were described as “half wolf and half jackrabbit” in their tactics when down in the veldt and the suit draws its name from the Gaelic faerie Gille Dubh, a forest character clad in moss and leaves that hides among the trees. The use of “scrim” often from repurposed potato sacks, helped break up their outline.

What is scrim?

Scrim is nothing but a basic fabric that has a light, almost gauzy weave to it. It’s used in bookbinding (that woven fabric in the back of hardcover books), theatre and photography (to reflect light), and in simple industrial applications like making burlap sacks.

(H 10707) A camouflage suit for a sniper. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215212

The suits became widespread in sniper use in the Great War. Take this superb example in the IWM under review:

“First World War period British Army sniper’s camouflage robe. Many British Army snipers were trained by former Highland gamekeepers and deer stalkers of the Lovat Scouts, who gave extensive guidance regarding their skills of personal camouflage and concealment. As a result, many items of clothing were adopted on the Western Front, either improvised or officially produced, including mittens, gaiters, and robes” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30097861

Here is another.

“Robe loose-shaped single-breasted robe, made of linen, complete with a fitted hood that incorporates a face mask with apertures for the mouth and eyes. The smock is dabbed and smeared with various shades of paint to achieve a random (disruptive) camouflage finish.” Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30100483

And a third:

“Smock: loose-shaped single-breasted robe, made of canvas, complete with a fitted hood that incorporates a face mask with openings for the mouth and eyes. The smock is painted in colors of various shades to achieve a random camouflage finish and, additionally, has tufts of dried organic vegetation sewn to break up the outline.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30092440

When the Second World War came in 1939, the Brits fell back on what worked.

“Experiments in camouflage, 1940. One figure is trying on the upper portion of a prototype sniper suit. He is being watched by a man wearing Khaki and smoking a pipe, who is holding the suit trousers. On the floor behind them are some pots of paint and another suit hung on a mannequin. There are more sketches of the suit in the upper right corner of the page.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/38898

A Camouflaged Sniper watching his Target, Llanberis, North Wales (Art.IWM ART LD 3422)”A head and shoulders depiction of a British infantry sniper in training in Wales. The sniper is shown wearing camouflaged kit and black face paint, aiming his rifle at a distant target.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/21861

British Snipers on the Island of Ubbea near Khakio : 10th Infantry Brigade (Art.IWM ART LD 5040) image: In the foreground three carefully camouflaged British snipers wearing camouflaged smocks have positioned themselves
amongst the rocks and vegetation of a hill side. They appear to be overlooking a road that winds through a hilly coastal country. The sea and a neighboring island are visible in the top right of the composition. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/5318

Normandy Campaign (B 8177) A sniper demonstrates his camouflage at a sniper school in a French village, 27 July 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202430

The practice continues across MoD today, using low-IR fabric to keep down detection by modern optics, because if it ain’t broke…

Pictured are Snipers from 34 Squadron, The Royal Air Force Regiment based at RAF Leeming, undertaking Live Firing Tactical Training at the Otterburn Training Area. (MoD Crown Copyright)

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100 years ago today: Spandaus-a-go-go

Can you say, Maschinengewehr?

“Two German Machine Guns at Main Advance Salvage Dump of the 77th Division. These guns, which have been put in order by the French, will be used to fire back captured ammunition against the Boche. The large gun is a heavy Maxim marked, ‘Deutsche Waffen Und Munitons fabriked, Berlin 1917.’  The small gun is a light Maxim marked, ‘9238 MG 08/15 Gwf Spandau, 1917.’ 77th Division near Chery-Chartrevue, September 12, 1918”

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Apparently in the Ukraine somewhere is a cache of M95 Steyr Mannlichers

The Ukrainian Army is working on uniforms for their Presidential Regiment, a reinforced company/light battalion-sized force detailed with ceremonial guard of honor duties with a secondary detail as public order troops in the capital area.

Not wanting to rely on past Russian/Soviet uniforms, influences and weapons for obvious reasons (their current service uniforms already look more like NATO’s than Moscow’s anyway), the uniform proposals blend a lot of different things from the country’s past including gear worn by the army of the old Kievan Rus and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; various Don and Kuban Cossacks of different periods; the Russian Civil War-era rule of Hetman of the Ukraine Pavlo Skoropadsky; the armed forces of the Ukrainian People’s Republic; and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of WWII and the 1950s.

One such dress uniform drawn from this buffet of military history is the proposal below.

 

If you note carefully, the rifle for the unit is the M1895 Steyr, an 8x56Rmm bolt gun with an enbloc clip magazine used by the Royal and Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI and the Germans in WWII.

Bosnian soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army take aim at enemies on the Isonzo Front, 1917. Note the Steyrs

It makes a lot of sense as the Tsar’s Army (which included millions of Ukrainians) captured hundreds of thousands of M95s in the early part of the war and reissued them to the Empire’s troops. The Austrians also provided a few trainloads of the rifles to Skoropadskyi’s troops and Hetman Pyotr Krasnov’s Don Cossacks in 1918 to use against the Reds, and the Germans did the same for various Ukrainian and Cossack irregulars in WWII.

In a way, the Austrian rifle is more “Ukrainian” than the Mosin-Nagant if you think about it.

And if you told me that somewhere along the Don a warehouse exists that is still full of M95s still in arsenal condition waiting to be issued, I would not be the least surprised.

New skins for an old warrior

When my grandfather joined the National Guard at 17, but before he headed off to war on active duty, he bought a “fighing knife” from a local hardware store as any strapping youth in olive drab needed just such the item.

It was a PAL RH-36.

The PAL Cutlery Company of Plattsburgh, NY. was established in 1935, specializing in kitchen implements. The company was a merger of the Utica Knife & Razor Company of Utica, NY and the Pal Blade Company of Chicago, IL. Pal used both the “Blade Company” and “Cutlery Company” monikers interchangeably during the next two decades until they went out of business in 1953. They purchased the cutlery division of Remington in 1939, along with all of their machinery, tooling and designs and soon began production in the old Remington owned factory in Holyoke, MA.

The design of the RH-36 came from that Remington acquisition, as the designations meant “Remington, Hunting, Pattern 3, 6” blade”. These were one of the most common US fighting knives of WWII, these were bought by all branches during the war, often with unit funds, and were also available as private purchase knives– such as my gramps.

Overall length is 11-inches with the razor-sharp blade just over 6, thus balancing well. Though some blades were parkerized, this one is bright though there is some patina. The old “PAL RH-36” markings are clear on the ricasso. The leather washer grip with red spacers is still tight, though dark. The pommel and guard are still surprisingly tight after more a half-century of use.

It has been sharpened and resharpened perhaps hundreds of times and was used by my grandfather overseas until he left the military in 1974, then sat in a box until I recently inherited it. The original sheath has long since broken, and subsequently discarded, leaving the blade naked.

Now, with the help of my friend Warren at Edged Creations who handcrafted the new sheath with three layers of leather, hand stitching and copper rivets, it should be good for another 70 years.

Thanks, Warren!

Warship Wednesday, Aug 9, 2017: The King’s most curious battlecruiser

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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, Aug 9, 2017: The King’s most curious battlecruiser

Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

Here we see the modified Courageous-class battlecruiser HMS Furious (47) of the Royal Navy as she appeared extensively camouflaged in 1942, during her Second World War. By the time this image was taken, she had come a long way and still had many miles to travel.

One of the last developments of Adm. Jackie Fisher’s love affair with the battlecruiser, the shallow draft Courageous-class vessels (25 feet at a deep load, which isn’t that bad for a ship with an overall length of 786-feet) were fast and were the first large warships in the Royal Navy to use Parsons geared steam turbines with Yarrow small-tube oil-fired boilers to generate a speed of 32+ knots. They were designed to carry a quartet of BL 15-inch Mark I guns in two twin turrets recycled from Revenge-class battleships, along with 18 BL 4-inch Mark IX guns in six mounts.

While this was significantly less than some other battlecruisers and battleships, these boats were meant to be more of a super cruiser that could eat German armored cruisers for breakfast. As such, they only had a smattering of armor– a coupled inches of high-tensile steel in the belt and as much as 10-inches Krupp cemented armor in turrets, barbettes, and tower.

How the class was designed to look via Conway’s

Three were laid down in 1915, with class leader Courageous and Furious at Armstrong’s storied works at Elswick, and Glorious at Titanic builder Harland and Wolff in Belfast.

Our subject was the fifth and last HMS Furious on the Royal Navy’s list since 1797 to include two different 12-gun brigs that served in Nelson’s era, an 1850s paddle frigate, and an Arrogant-class second class protected cruiser that had just been hulked in 1915– while our battlecruiser was on the way.

The thing is, while they were under construction a few realizations came about battlecruisers– look up Jutland and the “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today,” moment.

Glorious and Courageous were finished just after Jutland and were both modified with a dozen torpedo tubes, the latter ship also equipped to sow mines in quantity, and both assigned to the 1st Cruiser Squadron with Courageous as the flag.

Furious received a more extensive modification.

Her forward 15″ turret was ditched and a hangar for 10 single-engine biplanes was fitted on her foredeck with a 160-foot long wooden flight deck affixed to the top of the structure. On the rear, her remaining twin 15″ turret was swapped out for a single 18″/40 (45.7 cm) Mark I gun for which she would carry 60 massive 3,320-pound shells. Instead of the 18 4-inchers in 6 turrets as designed, she received 11 5.5-inch singles.

In such condition, she was commissioned 26 June 1917

BRITISH SHIPS OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR (SP 89) HMS FURIOUS as originally completed, with 18′ gun aft and flight deck forward, 1917 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205027917

Another view of the sweet 18. Note that these mountings used sighting ports in the glacis plate rather than sighting hoods. National Maritime Museum Photograph E13/276. Via Navweaps

THE ROYAL NAVY IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR (Q 74101) HMS Furious. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205318889

HMS Furious photographed when first completed in 1917, with a single 18-inch gun aft and flying-off deck forward. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 60606

Then came the flight experiments.

The most important of the time was when Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning, a 25-year-old aviator who had already earned the DSC, became the first pilot to land an aircraft on a moving ship when he placed his Sopwith Pup aboard Furious while she was sailing just off Scapa.

Squadron Commander Dunning making the first successful landing on a ship at sea in 1917. After “crabbing” in sideways above the deck built over the fore part of the cruiser FURIOUS, his brother pilots had to haul him down. IWM A 22497. Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

While he made a second landing five days later (100 years ago this week), on his third an updraft caught his port wing, throwing his plane overboard. Sadly, the daring young man was knocked out on impact and drowned.

Commander Dunning goes over the side and is killed when attempting the third landing on HMS FURIOUS (7 August 1917).© IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154698

This led to a further change in how Furious did business and she was reconstructed for the second time after the accident, removing the rear 18-inch single and fitting another 300 feet of deck to allow launches forward and landings aft in November. When she emerged in March 1918, she was significantly different.

How they were catapulted:

A Sopwith Pup being readied for take-off from the flying-off deck of HMS FURIOUS. Note the gear. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205092010

On how they were trapped:

An early experiment made in FURIOUS designed to stop aircraft from slithering over the side. Parallel rows of wires acted as guides to the undercarriage, while collapsible barricades helped to slow the aircraft. The aircraft is a Parnell “Panther”, two-seater reconnaissance biplane. It had a folding fuselage instead of the usual folding wings. The hinge can be seen just below the back edge of the rear of the cockpit, the rear half of the fuselage folding to a position parallel with the starboard wings. The Hydrovanes ahead of the wheels assisted “landings in the drink”. The fore-and-aft elongated sausages on landing gear struts could be inflated with CO2 gas to support the aircraft right way up in the water. The dog-lead catches on the axle picked up the fore-and-aft deck wires.

The Panther with the above-mentioned trap means. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154695

HMS FURIOUS at anchor, in dazzle camouflage at Scapa 1918. Note her 18incher has been landed and she has a new 300-foot deck aft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205121875

HMS Furious, a converted cruiser serving as an aircraft carrier, viewed at “Dress Ship” when King George V inspected the Grand Fleet in September 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205318369

Aerial view of the aircraft carrier HMS Furious at Scapa Flow, 1918. Note the large floatplane off her bow. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205213857

HMS Furious photographed in 1918, with palisade windbreaks raised on her flying-off deck, forward, and an airplane just behind her crash barrier, aft of the funnel. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 61098

HMS Furious shortly following its initial conversion and in dazzle paint scheme in 1918. An SSZ class blimp is on the after deck with her gondola inside the elevator. Note the walkways between the two flight decks

In July 1918, Furious sailed towards Denmark as part of Operation F.7, attached to a force of Revenge-class battleships and fast cruisers, with seven Sopwith Camel 2F.1a’s aboard.

HMS FURIOUS with Sopwith Camels on her flight deck, en route for the attack on the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern in Schleswig-Holstein, 19 July 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205039749

The mission: strike Tonder airfield, home to three German Naval Airship Division zeppelin sheds. The daring pre-dawn raid on 19 July by the small force of Camels destroyed the airships L.54 and L.60 on the ground and damaged the base and sheds. Of the Camels, four ditched at sea after either running out of gas or experiencing engine trouble and three were interned in Denmark.

One pilot, Lieut. W.A. Yeulett, drowned and his body was recovered on the beach nine days later. He received the DFC.

After the war, Furious was laid up and, in 1924, her two battlecruiser sisters were converted to aircraft carriers. To keep up with the class, Furious herself underwent a serious reconstruction which involved scraping off her superstructure, masts, funnel and existing landing decks and replacing them with an upswept 576×92 foot deck with an island. A double-decker hangar deck was installed under the roof. Her armament was updated with some QF 2-pounder “pom-poms” and eventually, her older 5.5-inchers were replaced by new QF 4-inch Mk XVI guns.

HMS Furious sketch, possibly prepared by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, showing her anticipated appearance after reconstruction, as understood in May 1923. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 60974

HMS Furious photographed after completion of her reconstruction, circa 1925. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 77035

Putting back to sea, she made several other important carrier milestones including the first carrier night-landing while testing and operating more than a dozen different model carrier planes that came and went over a decade long expansion of the Fleet Air Arm. During this interwar period, as more flattops joined the RN, she was increasingly used for training purposes.

HMS Furious circa 1935-36 with 4 Blackburn Baffins flying over.

Blackburn Shark (in the foreground) and a Fairey IIIf flying over HMS FURIOUS. The Shark went into service in 1934 and was a torpedo-spotter-reconnaissance aircraft that was soon replaced by the Fairey Swordfish in 1937. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205085238

Ski jump! The forward end of the flight deck of HMS FURIOUS sloped upwards before she was finally reconstructed in 1939. The idea was to help pull up the aircraft, which in the early days were not fitted with brakes. The aircraft is a “Blackburn” 3-seat spotter-reconnaissance biplane. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154697

The aircraft carrier HMS FURIOUS, photographed from an aircraft that has probably just taken off from the ship, note the unusual feature of a lower flying off deck, this was disused before the start of the Second World War. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205021217

Then came her next war.

As noted by Gordon Smith, Furious was “extensively deployed during WW2 until withdrawn from operational use when modern Fleet Carriers became available supplemented by several Light Fleet and Escort Carriers. She took part in operations off Norway throughout the war, carried out deliveries of aircraft to Malta and to the Middle East via West Africa as well as providing air cover for Atlantic and Malta convoys and supporting the allied landings in North Africa.”

Sadly, both of Furious‘ sisters were lost before the war was a year old. HMS Courageous (50) was sunk by U-29, 17 September 1939, taking over 500 of her crew with her. HMS Glorious was destroyed in a surface action with the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the North Sea 8 June 1940 while evacuating Norway, with the loss of over 1,200.

Furious had more luck.

Notably, she was involved in escorting precious cargo to and from Canada to the UK to include £18,000,000 in gold bullion going to Halifax and the bulk of the 1st Canadian Division heading the other way. Armed with such dated aircraft as Swordfish and Sea Gladiators, she ran the North Atlantic on five different convoys.

She carried nearly 300 RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires into the Med where flying from shore, they helped keep Rommel at bay and the thin thread of lifeline to Montgomery intact.

Sea Hurricane on the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. Her battlecruiser hull is evident.

And more visits from the sovereign, here King George VI is inspecting the Furious, August 1941. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205138981

Bow-on shot Nov 2, 1942 Underway during Torch. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205120436

Then came the Torch Landings in November 1942 where Furious‘s Seafires strafed Vichy French airfields and covered the landings at Oran. She later served as a diversion to the landings in Sicily by appearing off the coast of Norway to menace the Germans there beforehand.

And Norway would be the focus of the rest of her war. Between April-August 1944, she was involved in no less than three different operations (Tungsten, Mascot and Goodwind) in which her composite airwings of Barracudas, Seafires, Hellcats and Swordfish made attempts with other carriers to sink the battleship SMS Tirpitz.

The men and machines of HMS FURIOUS which took part in the Fleet Air Arm attack on SMS TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway. Here Bob Cotcher, of Chelsea, chalks his message on a 1600-pound bomb just before the attack 3 April 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186984

Commander S T C Harrison of the ship’s air staff briefing Fleet Air Arm crews in their flying gear on board HMS FURIOUS with the aid of a relief map of the target area before the attack on the German Battleship TIRPITZ in Alten Fjord, Norway. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186985

While they did not bag Tirpitz (though several of Furious’ bombs did hit her), the carrier’s airwing sank the ore hauler Almora and the tanker Saarburg in Kristiansund North on 6 May.

6 May 1944 Members of the crew of the FURIOUS have an early breakfast of ham sandwiches and cocoa during the operation. Note the pom poms. Aircraft from the carrier sank two enemy merchantmen that day. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155280

Her last operation was in laying minefields off Vorso Island in September 1944, Tirpitz turned over to the RAF to kill.

Furious finished the war in Home Waters, performing training and testing services. She was laid up after VE-Day, not needed for the war in the Pacific, and was sold for scrap in 1948.

She lives on in maritime art as well as wherever ski jumps, catapults, and arresting wires are enjoyed.

A view of the aircraft carrier HMS Furious at sea, shown port side on. Furious is painted in a dazzle camouflage scheme. The sea is choppy and there is a cloudy sky above. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/21413 By the great Charles Pears.

Also, earlier this month, Commander Dunning and his Sopwith Pup were honored at a ceremony at Scapa, on the 100th anniversary of their famous flight.

In attendance was R. ADM. Fleet Air Arm Keith Blount, Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carriers), who said “Those of us in the Fleet Air Arm that are still proud to serve are standing on the shoulders of giants, and Dunning was one of the greats, there is no questions about that.”

Specs:

Displacement:
22,500 long tons (22,900 t)
26,500 long tons (26,900 t) (deep load)
Length:
735 ft. 2.25 in (224.1 m) (p/p)
786 ft. 9 in (239.8 m) (o/a)
Beam: 88 ft. (26.8 m)
Draught: 27 ft. 3 in (8.3 m)
Installed power: 90,000 shp (67,000 kW)
Propulsion:
4 shafts, 4 Brown-Curtis geared steam turbines
18 Yarrow boilers
Speed: 32 knots as designed, 28 by 1939
Range: 7,480 nmi (13,850 km; 8,610 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 795 plus up to 400 airwing
Armor:
Belt: 2–3 in (51–76 mm)
Decks: .75–1 in (19–25 mm)
Bulkhead: 2–3 in (51–76 mm)
Torpedo bulkheads: 1–1.5 in (25–38 mm)
Armament:
(as completed)
1 × single 18-inch (457 mm) gun
11 × single 5.5-inch (140 mm) guns
2 × single QF 3-inch (76 mm) 20 cwt AA guns
2 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes
(1925)
10 × single 5.5-inch guns
6 × single QF 4-inch Mark Vs
(1944)
12x QF 4-inch Mk XVI guns
6x QF 2-pounder
22x 20mm Oerlikon
Aircraft carried: 10 as completed, 36 by 1925, as many as 50 during WWII

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Happy Birthday Rupert Brooke!

happy-birthday-rupert-brooke-3-august-1887-23-april-1915-2

The war poet Rubert Brooke has always been a favorite of mine. So much that my daughter carries “Brooke” as her middle name.

He died  23 April 1915, while serving with the Royal Navy in the Aegean Sea, off the island of Skyros, age 27. His body was interred there and remains in a well tended grave.

Brooke’s brother– 2nd Lt. William Alfred Cotterill Brooke– was a member of the 8th Battalion London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) and was killed in action near Le Rutoire Farm on 14 June 1915 aged 24, just three weeks after he made it to the front.

Brooke’s poem, The Charm, as selected, below, courtesy of the Detroit Public Library.

happy-birthday-rupert-brooke-3-august-1887-23-april-1915

Warship Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017: Uncle’s only submersible aircraft carrier

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Aug 2, 2017: Uncle’s submersible aircraft carrier

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 99774

Here we see the S-class “pigboat” the early direct-drive diesel-electric submarine USS S-1 (SS-105) with her after deck awash, preparing to take a tiny Martin MS-1 seaplane on board during tests in October 1923. Note the tube-shaped sealed hangar behind the tower. The image was probably taken at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

As you can tell, S-1 was the U.S. entry into the oddball inter-war submarine aircraft carrier race.

The Germans first used the concept of a submarine that could support aircraft when SM U-12 helped support a pair of Friedrichshafen FF.29 reconnaissance seaplanes at Zeebrugge in 1915. Though the FF.29s were not housed on the primitive 188-foot U-boat, they did experiment with carrying on the deck of the surfaced submarine in a takeoff position, then launching an aircraft by partially submerging, allowing the seaplane to float off and fly away to strike its target– thus extending their range.

SM U-12 with a seaplane aboard in trials 1915. Note the lollygag under the deck gun. 

In the only German sub-air attack of the war, an FF.29 took off on 6 January 1916, motored around the Kent coast, and returned to Zeebrugge without accomplishing much.

The Brits later experimented with E-class submarines in the Great War and by the 1920s, the RN was joined by Italy (Ettore Fieramosca), France (the Surcouf as detailed in an earlier Warship Wednesday), and later Germany (the Type IX D 2-“Monsun”) and Japan (the I-15 Series and later the huge I-400 series, another WW past favorite) in crafting undersea aircraft carriers.

So why not the U.S., right?

The S-class submarines, derided as “pig boats” or “sugar boats” were designed in World War I, but none were finished in time for the conflict.

Some 51 examples of these 1,200-ton diesel-electrics were built in several sub-variants by 1925 and they made up the backbone of the U.S. submarine fleet before the larger “fleet” type boats of the 1930s came online. At 219-feet oal, these boats could dive to 200 feet and travel at a blistering 14kts on the surface on their twin NELSECO 8-cylinder 4-stroke direct-drive diesel engines. Armament was a quartet of 21-inch bow tubes with a dozen fish and a retractable 3″/23cal popgun on deck for those special moments. Crew? Just 38 officers and men.

The hero of our tale, SS-1, has an inauspicious name and was a “Holland” type boat laid down at Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts on a subcontract by the Electric Boat Co. Launched on 26 October 1918, she was sponsored by none other than Mrs. Emory S. Land, just two weeks before the Great War ended.

The USS S-1 slides down the ways at the Fore River Ship Builders on October 26, 1918. Via Pigboats.com

USS S-1 (Submarine # 105) Off Provincetown, Massachusetts, on 17 April 1920, while running trials. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41988

She was commissioned on 5 June 1920 and was attached to Submarine Division (SubDiv) 2 out of sometimes-chilly New London.

(SS-105) Covered with ice while underway in Long Island Sound, January 1922. Note the retractable 3/23 deck gun at right. Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation. Collection of Lieutenant O.E. Wightman. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 80576

On 2 January 1923, she shifted to SubDiv Zero, for “experimental work” involving a dozen all metal Cox-Klemin XS-1 (BuNo A6508-A6520) and six wood-and-fabric Martin MS-1 (BuNo A6521-A6526) seaplanes.

These small (1,000lb, 18 feet long, 18 foot wingspan) experimental biplanes were envisioned to fly off S-class submarines for over-the-horizon scouting and observation missions.

Martin MS-1 scouting seaplane (Bureau # A-6525) being assembled on the after deck of USS S-1 (SS-105), at Hampton Roads, Virginia, 24 October 1923. Note the entrance to the submarine’s small hangar, at left, booms used to erect the plane’s structure, and the seaplane’s metal floats and three-cylinder engine. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 71028

(SS-105) Hangar installed at the after end of the submarine’s fairwater, circa October 1923. This hangar was used during tests with the very small Martin MS-1 scouting floatplane. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1972. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 76124

The seaplanes were to be knocked down, sealed in a hangar attached to the deck behind the conning tower, then after surfacing in a calm area, the little doodlebug could be rolled out and assembled. Like SM-12, they would be launched by ballasting the sub until the deck was awash and allowed to float off and take air.

(SS-105) With a Martin MS-1 seaplane on her deck, circa the mid-1920s. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41986

(SS-105) Underway, while fitted with an aircraft hangar aft of her fairwater, circa the mid-1920s. Note the 4″/50 that has replaced her original gun. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 41987

Curtiss HS-2L seaplane operating with and S-1 type submarine, 1924. These big flying boats were bought in quantity in WWI and were the backbone of the USN and Coast Guard until the late 1920s, but it was thought that submarines could refuel them– another experiment by SS-1. Catalog #: NH 60769

(SS-105) Martin MS-1 scouting seaplane (Bureau # A-6525) on her after deck, during the mid-1920s. Among the submarines docked in the background is USS K-7 (SS-38), at left. USS L-8 (SS-48) is at right, with USS L-9 (SS-49) just to her left. Original photo caption gives location as New London, Connecticut. However, the view may have been taken at Norfolk or Hampton Roads, Virginia. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 70979

(SS-105) With a Martin MS-1 scouting floatplane (Bureau # A-6525) on her after deck, probably at Norfolk, Virginia, on 24 October 1923. Donation of Lieutenant Gustave Freret, USN (Retired), 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 72793

Over the next three years, SS-1 was busy with the project until finally, the “first full cycle of surfacing, assembly, launching, retrieving, disassembly, and submergence took place on 28 July 1926 on the Thames River in New London.”

Deemed unproductive for the outlay in slim peacetime funds, the aircraft experiments were canceled and the tiny seaplanes scrapped.

By July 1927, SS-1, with her hangar removed, was back in regular squadron work. First transferred to SubDiv 4, then SubDiv2, she made regular training cruises in the Caribbean, East Coast, and Canal Zone until 1931 when she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet, operating from Pearl Harbor.

At the same time, many of her classmates were retired and scrapped, replaced by newer and much larger fleet boats. Accordingly, SS-1 was given orders to proceed to Philadelphia where she was decommissioned on 20 October 1937 and mothballed.

With tensions rising at the start of WWII in Europe, the old SS-1 was taken out of storage and brought back to life, though she was in poor shape. Carrying new and would-be bubbleheads, she made two cruises to Bermuda, training submariners, and returned to Philadelphia from the second cruise on the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Ironically, as noted by Capt. Julius Grigore in his work on Surcouf, the two submarine carriers may have crossed paths at this time.

Though several S-boats served the Navy well in both the Atlantic and Pacific, six were transferred to the Royal Navy as Lend-Lease. USS S-1 was in this lot and swapped to the Brits at New London on 20 April 1942, to be struck from the Navy List on 24 June 1942.

In her new career, with Lt. Anthony Robert Danielle, DSC, RN, in command, she was known as HMS P-552.

Just out of New London on 1 May she encountered three survivors from the Norwegian steam ship Taborfjell (1,339GT), which had been claimed by the German submarine U-576 under Hans-Dieter Heineken. Saving Radio Operator Olaf Alfsen, Second Officer Erling Arnesen, and Third Engineer Officer Ole Karlsen Svartangen after a two-hour search about 95 nautical miles east of Cape Cod, P-552 diverted to St. Johns and landed the men ashore 7 May.

The sub arrived in Durban South Africa, via Gibraltar and Freetown, in December 1942 where she was used for training for several months.

She was paid off by the RN 11 August 1944 and given back to the USN while still in Durban two months later. She never left the harbor again and was scrapped in September 1946.

None of her sisters endure though Pigboats.com keeps their memory alive.

The Navy revisited the possibility of submarine aircraft carriers again during World War II and the early 1950s but nothing came of it. They did experiment with refueling large seaplanes via submarine as well as using them in helicopter landings for special operations into the 1950s, using the abbreviations AOSS — submarine oiler, and SSP–submarine transport.


USS Guavina (AGSS-362), refueling a P5M-1 Marlin flying boat off Norfolk, Virginia (USA), in 1955. Prior to World War II several submarines were fitted to refuel seaplanes. During the war, Germany and Japan used this technique with some success. After the war this technique was experimented with within the US Navy. It was planned to use submarines to refuel the new jet powered P6M Seamaster flying boats. As part of this program Guavina was converted to carry 160,000 gallons of aviation fuel. To do this blisters were added to her sides and two stern torpedo tubes were removed. When the P6M project was canceled, there was no further need for submarine tankers. This concept was never used operationally in the US Navy.

USS Corporal’s emergency helicopter op

And today, there are several programs to put UAVs on subs, for scouting and observation missions–proving that everything old is new again.

Still, SS-1 was the only U.S. Navy submarine to have the capability to submerge with a manned aircraft aboard and then successfully launch it. For that, she will be immortal.

Specs:


Displacement: Surfaced: 854 t., Submerged: 1062 t.
Length 219′ 3″
Beam 20′ 8″
Draft 15′ 11″(mean)
Speed: surfaced 14.5 kts, submerged 11 kts
Complement 4 Officers, 34 Enlisted
Propulsion: New London Ship & Engine Co (NELSECO) diesel engines, HP 1200, twin propellers
Fuel capacity: 41,921 gal.
Electric: Electro Dynamic Co., electric motors, HP 1500, Battery cells 120, Endurance: 20 hours @ 5 kn submerged
Armament: 4 21″ torpedo tubes, 12 torpedoes, one 3″/23 retractable deck gun–later fixed 4″/50
Aircraft: 1 tiny seaplane

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