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Warship Wednesday, August 18, 2021: The Last Sub Killer

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, August 18, 2021: The Last Sub Killer

National Archives photo 80-G-442833

Here we see a starboard bow view of the Balao-class fleet boat USS Spikefish (SS-404) underway on the surface on 5 June 1952 when she operated from New London making training cruises along the east coast from Bermuda to Nova Scotia. Commissioned in the twilight of the conflict, she is notable in naval history for sinking the final submarine lost by the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, some 76 years ago this week.

The Balao Class

A member of the 180+-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature U.S. Navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. U.S. subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were “fleet” boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home. The Balao class was deeper diving (400 ft. test depth) than the Gato class (300 foot) due to the use of high yield strength steel in the pressure hull.

Able to range 11,000 nautical miles on their reliable diesel engines, they could undertake 75-day patrols that could span the immensity of the Pacific. Carrying 24 (often unreliable) Mk14 Torpedoes, these subs often sank anything short of a 5,000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their deck guns. They also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.

Some 311-feet long overall, they were all-welded construction to facilitate rapid building. Best yet, they could be made for the bargain price of about $7 million in 1944 dollars (just $100 million when adjusted for today’s inflation) and completed from keel laying to commissioning in about nine months.

An amazing 121 Balaos were completed through five yards at the same time, with the following pennant numbers completed by each:

  • Cramp: SS-292, 293, 295-303, 425, 426 (12 boats)
  • Electric Boat: 308-313, 315, 317-331, 332-352 (42)
  • Manitowoc on the Great Lakes: 362-368, 370, 372-378 (15)
  • Mare Island on the West Coast: 304, 305, 307, 411-416 (9)
  • Portsmouth Navy Yard: 285-288, 291, 381-410, 417-424 (43)

We have covered a number of this class before, such as the sub-killing USS Greenfish, rocket mail slinger USS Barbero, the carrier-slaying USS Archerfish, the long-serving USS Catfish, the U-boat scuttling USS Atule, and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch —but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.

Spikefish!

The first (and only) U.S. warship named for the common label for the striped Pacific marlin, Spikefish was laid down on 29 January 1944 at Portsmouth; launched on 6 March 1944, and commissioned on 30 June 1944.

Her christening sponsor was a true “Rosie” with a compelling backstory, Mrs. Harvey W. Moore. The widow of LT Harvey Wilson Moore, Jr., a submariner lost with USS Pickerel (SS-177) off Honshu the previous April, she was a welder at PNY and affixed Spikefish’s christening plate to the boat’s bow before ditching her leathers for the champaign ceremony.

Mrs. Moore. NARA 12563144, 12563137, and 12563134.

Commissioning day, 30 June 1944, finds the Spikefish (SS-404) off Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard. Note her single 5″/25 over the stern and her 40mm single on the sail. National Archives photo # 80G-453355

After workups, Spikefish arrived in Pearl Harbor the week before Halloween 1944 to prepare for her 1st War Patrol.

Setting out in mid-November with 24 Mark 18-2 torpedoes to conduct an anti-shipping sweep through the Kuril Islands and the Sea of Okhotsk, she didn’t have much luck as Japanese Maru traffic by this stage of the war had been halted as most of it was on the bottom of the Pacific by then. The highlight of her time in the area was being socked in a six-day gale and stalking two merchant vessels on Christmas Eve into Christmas that turned out to be Russian. She ended her 48-day, 9,976-mile fruitless patrol at Midway on New Year’s Day 1945. As noted by Submarine Force Pacific, even though “Spikefish on this patrol underwent the rigors of cold, rough weather in the Kurile Island areas at this time of year without the satisfaction of contact with the enemy…the award of the Submarine Combat Insignia for this patrol is not authorized.”

Setting out on her 2nd War Patrol on 26 January, Spikefish was ordered to patrol off the Ryukyu Islands.

On 24 February, Spikefish encountered a mixed convoy of six cargo ships protected by four escorts and conducted a submerged attack, firing all six forward tubes at two of the freighters, three of which were heard to hit. While it is not known if she sank anything, she did have to dive deep to withstand an 80-depth charge attack over the span of four hours.

Spikefish sighted another convoy on the morning of 5 March while working in tandem with her sistership USS Tilefish (SS-307), fired another six torpedoes with no confirmed results, and took another pounding. Meanwhile, Tilefish bagged a Japanese minesweeper.

Spikefish ended her patrol at Pearl Harbor on the 19th and was credited at the time with damaging a 5,000-ton Sinsei Maru-type cargo ship in her first attack. She had traveled 11,810 miles in 54 days. With space limited in barracks, her crew was put up at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which surely was horrible.

On 3 May 1945, Spikefish departed from Guam for her 3rd War Patrol and was ordered to patrol east of Formosa where she was assigned lifeguard station duties as the Fleet’s big carrier task forces were at the time hammering the Japanese province. She managed to pull a downed pilot (Ensign H.O. Cullen, USNR 390961, an FM-2 Wildcat pilot off the escort carrier USS Sargent Bay (CVE-83)) from the drink on 7 June. On the same patrol, our submarine conducted a fruitless attack on a passing cargo ship and rained 29 5-inch shells on the Miyara airstrip on Ishigaki Jima from a range of 10,000 yards.

USS Spikefish (SS-404) rescues Ens. Cullen (in the raft, lower right), VC-83, five miles off Ishigaki Jima, 7 June 1945. NS0308306. Via Navsource

Spikefish ended her 3rd patrol after 55 days and 13,709 miles in Guam on 13 June 1945.

She began her 4th, and most historically significant war patrol, on 8 July 1945, ordered to operate in the East China and Yellow Seas.

Besides dodging random Japanese aircraft and at least 19 floating mines (marksmen firing rifles from her cigarette deck detonated/sank at least six and hit four others that failed to explode), combat opportunities were slim, with most surface contacts proving to be Chinese junks which the sub sent on their way with the gift of a carton of cigarettes. She surfaced off Surveyor Island in the Yellow Sea on the night of 24 July and bombarded random points with 39 5-inch and 60 40mm shells from a range of about 4,500 yards, with the intent of hitting a supposed Japanese radar site.

On the pre-dawn of 11 August, Spikefish came across a 250-ton sea truck dead in the water. Closing to within 1,500 yards and ascertaining it was an awash Japanese Sugar Dog (SD) type wooden-hulled coaster, the sub opened with 5-inch (15 rounds, 5 hits), 40mm (28 rounds), and 20mm (20 rounds) on the vessel at close range. The craft was quickly sent to the bottom and Spikefish recovered three survivors, including the skipper who said the vessel was homeported in Korea.

Then, tipped off by Ultra intelligence provided by the FRUMEL team at Melbourne, came a two-day stalk of Japan’s only completed Type D-2 Modified “Tei-gata Kai” (Project Number S51C) transport submarine, I-373 while on her inaugural tanker run to Takao, Formosa.

I-370 Type D1 submarine by Takeshi Yuki via Combined Fleet. The 18 planned Type D submarines, 241-foot/2,200-ton boats could carry five Kaiten manned torpedoes of the Shinchō Tokubetsu Kōgekitai topside and carry 85-100 tons of freight or gasoline to blockaded far-flung outposts. Only 13 were completed 1944-45 and nine of those subsequently lost during the war. I-373 was the only one completed as a tanker.

Foreshadowing EW of today, Spikefish was able to track the zigzagging and doubling back I-373 some 200 miles SE of Shanghai in part due to the impulses of the Japanese submarine’s Type 13 air-search radar picked up on her primitive APR warning gear. The end game was played at 0424 on 14 August when the American sub let lose a full salvo of four Mk. 14-3A and two Mk. 23 torpedoes at 1,500 yards, with at least two hits.

After surfacing and passing through a debris field just after dawn, a single survivor, coated with oil, was taken aboard, the remaining 84 Japanese submariners were lost. The recovered Japanese sailor identified the lost sub as the non-existent I-382.

As noted by H-Gram 051, Spikefish claimed the last of 128 Japanese submarines lost during the war while her sistership, USS Torsk (SS-423) went on to claim the final surface warfare vessel:

Later that day, having penetrated the heavily mined Tsushima Strait, Torsk torpedoed and sank Japanese escort ship CD-47 and then did the same to CD-13, using new acoustic homing torpedoes and passive acoustic torpedoes. CD-13 was the last Imperial Japanese Navy ship sunk by the United States before the surrender, going down with 28 crewmen. (Other Japanese ships would be sunk by U.S. mines in the weeks after the surrender.)

At 0800 on 15 August, just over 27 hours after I-373 was sent to the bottom, Spikefish was notified by COMSUBPAC to cease hostilities. She put into Saipan on 21 August to turn over her two prisoners after a 44-day patrol, her war over. Spikefish received three battle stars for World War II service.

Besides claiming the last Axis/Japanese submarine sent to the bottom in WWII, Spikefish can arguably tote the title of the last warship to have sunk an enemy submarine in combat with the narrow exception of the Korean submarine infiltration stranding incidents in 1998 and 1996. While one day there may be an unlikely bombshell about one of the five Cold War-era submarines still on Eternal Patrol (K-129, Thresher, Dakar, Scorpion, and Minerve; four of which were all lost in 1968), Spikefish still holds the trophy.

When it comes to Spikefish’s sisters, of the schools of Balaos which were commissioned, 10 were lost in the war during operations while another 62 were canceled on the builders’ ways as the conflict ended. In 1946, the Navy was left with 120 units.

Jane’s entry on the Balao class, 1946

Postwar

Transferring to the East Coast, she was given a short refit at Portsmouth then in February 1946 was assigned to Submarine Squadron 2 at New London where she trained new personnel at the sub school, making regular training cruises along the east coast from Bermuda to Nova Scotia for the next 17 years, alternating with runs down to Key West to perform service for the Fleet Sonar School.

Portside view of the Spikefish (SS-404), 1950s. Note that her topside armament has all been removed and she has large sonar domes installed on her deck.

This streak as a school ship was only broken by two short refits/yard periods and a five-month deployment to the Med under the 6th Fleet in 1955, possibly the last such active overseas service for a non-GUPPY Balao. She earned the Navy Occupation Service Medal (Europe) for this cruise, which included exercising with the British submarine HMS Trenchant (P-331), being an OPFOR for the Greek Navy’s ASW forces off Crete, and port calls at Malta, Cartagena, Monaco, and Gibraltar.

Photograph of Spikefish undated. NHHC Photograph Collection, L-File, Ships.

Spikefish, as she looked in the late 50s with a large bubble trunk entrance on her foredeck.

Spikefish diving, photos by Larry Thivierge, Royal Canadian Navy, taken from HMCS Lanark off the coast of Newfoundland/Labrador, via RCN History.

“US Navy submarine USS Spikefish on display at Port of Tampa on McKay St. near 13th St banana docks, circa the late 1950s.” Original Kodachrome by photographer Hector Colado courtesy of Tampa native Yvonne Colado Garren via Tampapix. https://www.tampapix.com/tampa50s.htm

“A good view of the Peoples Gas tanks at 5th Ave. and 13th Street, Ybor City. The smaller tank was built in 1912 for the Tampa Gas Co. and at the time, its 212-foot height made it the tallest structure in Tampa. The tanks were disassembled in 1982 because they were no longer needed for storage and their upkeep was costly.” Original Kodachrome by photographer Hector Colado courtesy of Tampa native Yvonne Colado Garren via Tampapix. https://www.tampapix.com/tampa50s.htm

With so much time spent educating new bubbleheads, on 18 March 1960, Spikefish became the first United States submarine to record 10,000 dives, an impressive safety record that earned her the title of “The divingest Submarine in the World.” As she was the repeated target for scores of destroyers and ASW aircraft, she was probably the “Most depth charged Submarine in the World” as well, albeit they were simulator charges rather than the real thing as she had rained on her back in 1945.

It seems Mrs. Moore and her fellow tradespeople were good at their welding.

Spikefish (SS-404) at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, circa the early 1960s, Courtesy of Jay Jones EM3, Roberts (DE-749). via Navsource.

Bill Bone, a Spikefish vet of that period, speaks of his experience on the aging diesel boat in Key West in 1960-61, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He confirms that Spikefish didn’t even have a snorkel conversion in place at the time but did carry warshot torpedos just in case:

Spikefish was redesignated an Auxiliary Research Submarine and renumbered AGSS-404 (auxiliary, submarine) in 1962, was decommissioned on 2 April 1963 at Key West, and was struck from the Navy list on 1 May 1963.

Epilogue

Spikefish was subsequently sunk as a target off Long Island, New York, SSE of Montauk point in about 255 feet of water on 4 August 1964, just past her 20th birthday. Ironically, she was sent to the bottom by another submarine. 

Eastern Search & Survey has extensively surveyed her wreck via side-scan sonar noting:

Due to residual buoyancy from air trapped in her hull, USS Spikefish moved on the bottom in the weeks after it sunk, making it difficult for Navy divers to locate the wreck and inspect the damage caused by the experimental torpedo that sunk her, a MK 37-1. Damage from this torpedo is still visible in these scans on the starboard side just aft of amidships. Also, note the shadows and faint reflections of nets that drape the wreck.

Note torpedo damage on the starboard side, just aft of amidships Via Eastern Search Survey

Her war history, patrol reports, logbooks, and positional reports are digitized in the National Archives. 

Finally, she has a small public Facebook group for vets and families of vets. 

Eight Balao-class submarines are preserved (for now) as museum ships across the country.

Please visit one of these fine ships and keep the legacy alive:

-USS Batfish (SS-310) at War Memorial Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
USS Becuna (SS-319) at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
USS Bowfin (SS-287) at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu, Hawaii.
USS Clamagore (SS-343) at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. (Which will not be there much longer)
USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Which is hopefully in the process of being saved and moved to Kentucky)
USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts.
-USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California, (which played the part of the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope).
USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

Specs:
(1944)
Displacement: 1,570 tons (std); 1,980 (normal); 2,415 tons submerged
Length: 311 ft. 8 inches
Beam: 27 ft. 3 inches
Operating depth: 400 feet
Propulsion: diesel-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks Morse main generator engines, 5,400HP, two Elliot Motor Co. main motors with 2,740HP, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers.
Speed: 20 surfaced, 10 submerged
Fuel Capacity: 113,510 gal.
Range: 11,000nm @ 10 knots surfaced, 48 hours at 2 knots submerged, 75-day patrol endurance
Complement 7 officers 69 enlisted (planned), actual manning 10 officers, 76 men
Radar: SV. APR and SPR-2 receivers, TN tuning units, AS-125 antenna, SPA Pulse Analyzer, F-19 and F-20 Wave Traps, VD-2 PPI Repeater (1946 fit), Mark III Torpedo Data Computer
Sonar: WFA projector, JP-1 hydrophone (1946 fit)
Armament:
(1944)
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 28 torpedoes max, or up to 40 mines
1 x 5″/25 deck guns (wet mount)
1 x 40mm guns (wet mount)
1 x 20mm gun (wet mount)
2 x .50 cal. machine guns (detachable on six mounting points)

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Vespucci at 90

The Italian Navy’s historic nave scuola (training ship) Amerigo Vespucci (A5312) was constructed back when Italy had a king on the throne and is still going strong. Built at the Royal Shipyard of Castellammare di Stabia, Vespucci was commissioned as part of the Divisione Navi Scolastiche (School Ships Division) on 6 June 1931, joining her sister, the ill-fated Cristoforo Colombo, with the task of training Italian naval cadets.

The “most beautiful ship in the world” is set to turn 90 this year and never looked better.

Warship Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020: Scandinavian Shellbacks

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Nov. 25, 2020: Scandinavian Shellbacks

Sjöhistoriska museet, Statens maritima museer/Swedish Maritime Museum/ Fo229117

Here we see the pansarkryssare, or armored cruiser, HSwMS Fylgia of the Swedish Royal Navy passing through the Weimar Republic’s Kiel Canal in the summer of 1928 during the vessel’s annual goodwill cruises. A beautiful ship that remained a stalwart sentinel in the fleet of the three crowns, Fylgia endured across a career that spanned 50 years– and her guns lasted even longer.

Laid down at Bergsunds Mekaniska Verkstads AB (Finnboda) in October 1902, Fylgia was named for the mythological Norse guardian angel figures, which represented her intended role in the Swedish battlefleet– that of being the leader of the country’s growing flotillas of torpedo boats, vessels that would be the mainstay of the Baltic nation’s coastal defense throughout the 20th Century.

The 4,800-ton, 379-foot cruiser was speedy-ish on her engineering suite of 12 Yarrow-style coal-fired boilers and two triple expansion engines, ginning up 22.8-knots on her trials. In a nod to her auxiliary role as the school ship for the Swedish Navy’s officer corps, her 322-man complement could be expanded by as many as 50 midshipmen. Notably, when launched, she was the fleet’s longest modern warship, running some 65-feet longer than the coastal defense battleship (Pansarskepp) Oscar II.

Relatively protected, her Krupp armor ranged up to 5-inches deep that protected her boiler and engine rooms, making her one of the smallest armored cruisers in the world.

Her armament included eight Bofors 15.2 cm/50 (6″) Model 1903 guns in four twin enclosed armored turrets– rare in an age of cruisers with simple shielded guns– including two on the centerline edges and one each fore and aft. She had 14 smaller anti-torpedo boat guns, mostly in casemates, and a pair of submerged 18-inch torpedo tubes to lend her own “Swedish fish” (see what I did there?) to a torpedo attack against those who would enter the country’s waters. Like most cruisers of her day, she also had the ability to carry and deploy mines. 

Pansarkryssare Fylgia coming into the harbor on her 1922 cruise. Note one of her characteristic oblong 6″ turrets. These guns were effective to 15,000 yards with a 101-pound AP shell. D 13816_178

Her 1914 Jane’s entry. Note her armament arrangement

Once completed in June 1907, she was off immediately on what was to be her calling card– långresor goodwill cruises that waved Sweden’s flag while training her mids. She made 32 such cruises over the coming decades.

With Prince Wilhelm of Sweden aboard, Fylgia visited Norfolk for the Jamestown Exposition in 1907, and her crew was the subsequent talk of the town in New York where the original knickerbocker Teddy Roosevelt hosted a July 4th reception in honor of the midshipmen. They also squeezed in visits in Boston, France, Bermuda, and England before arriving back at Karlskrona in September.

FYLGIA (Swedish Armored Cruiser) Photographed in Hampton Roads on 20 August 1907 during the Jamestown, Virginia 300th Anniversary Exposition. NH 92340

A period postcard showing our cruiser with Prince Wilhelm, Duke of Södermanland. The Norwegian-Swedish noble of the Bernadotte family, born in 1884, was married to the Tsar’s first cousin and was something of an author, penning numerous books in his lifetime. Fo220335

Before the Great War hampered her peacetime trips, she would complete another 10 out-of-Baltic cruises in six years, often taking as many as three deployments a year.

In that time, she called at ports in Belgium, Scotland, Spain, Holland, Italy, Algeria, Portugal, Panama, Trinidad, Cuba, Egypt, and other exotic locales throughout the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

Navigation training D 13816_12

Bilden visar pansarkryssaren Fylgia som passerar Kielkanalen vid Levensauer Hochbrücke 1907 D 15032

War was declared!

As the lights went off across Europe, Fylgia had just left Karlskrona on the way to Gibraltar and points Med when she received a signal to return home post-haste. Landing her finery, she made ready for armed neutrality (Neutralitesvakten) and held the line for the next four years, challenging and keeping an eye on foreign ships in Swedish water for the next four years.

Fylgia armored cruiser Swedish Navy passing under Årstabrons bridge in Stockholm Photo by Hennos AB

Pansarkryssaren Fylgia, wartime postcard. Marinmuseum D 14983

Interbellum

By 1919, with peace once again returned to (most of) Europe, she left Sweden for a winter cruise to the U.S., calling at New York, Hampton Roads, and Savannah before roaming as far south as Cuba and Panama then returning home in time for Easter 1920.

Fylgia in Havanna, 14 Februari 1920. Note the salute being fired and Morro Castle. Photo by Hugo Karlsson. Bohusläns museum collection

Then came a series of increasingly longer cruises, heading to India and Sri Lanka via the Suez in 1921 and an epic Latin American excursion in the winter of 1922-23.

During that South American trip, she left Sweden on 6 November, touching at Kiel and Spain before crossing the line on the way to Brazil.

Archive photos show what looks to be a downright spooky Neptunus Rex ceremony on that occasion.

Calling at Uruguay, Argentina, then rounding the Horn into the Pacific, she continued up the West coast of the continent to the Ditch, then crossed back into the Caribbean and heading for England, arriving back at Karlskrona in April in what was to be her longest mission– making 21 port calls.

Rocking and rolling! This isn’t the Baltic anymore.

Ahh, the improvised underway swimming pool

Under sails on her schooner rig to conserve fuel on her trip down to Sydamerika

Note the rarely-seen Swedish navy tropical officers’ uniform, complete with sun helmets and white leather shoes. Note the shoeless bluejacket to the left

Bilden visar pansarkryssaren Fylgia som passerar Kielkanalen Photo by Cay Jacob Arthur Renard, 1924-25 D 11821

Pansarkryssaren Fylgia firing a salute at Kiel, photo by Cay Jacob Arthur Renard, D 11820

FYLGIA in the port of Alexandria on January 18, 1926, Fo229223

“Swedish armored cruiser Fylgia docks at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Warping the Fylgia to her berth, the cruiser, with a crew of 390 men and twenty-two cadets in training remains here until Saturday, when she leaves for Mobile, Alabama. After visiting the Azores, she will return to Sweden” 1/30/1930. Temple University Collection

By July 1933, she would complete another 16, mostly shorter, overseas sorties. On her 1927 trip, while visiting Latin America once again, she collided with the Brazilian freighter SS Itapura, sending the merchantman to the bottom. Nonetheless, Fylgia’s crew sprang into action, rescuing all of Itapura’s mariners.

Then her mission changed.

Rebuilt for a new era

Thoroughly obsolete and outdated, Sweden’s familiar cruiser was disarmed and laid up as new Italian-designed Tre Kronor-class light cruisers were ordered, capable of 30+ knots and packing new high-elevation 6″/53 Bofors.

By 1939, with Europe again headed to war, it was thought that Fylgia could be reworked for a coastal defense mission, after all, she still had a sound hull and a decent armor scheme.

The armored cruiser FYLGIA under reconstruction at Oskarhamn’s shipyard 1939-1940. Note, all of her funnels are gone. Fo62553A

Transferred to Oskarshamn, Fylgia spent 18 months undergoing a complete modernization. With that, her 12-pack of coal-burning boilers were junked in favor of a quartet of new Penhoët oil-burners, which made one of her three boiler rooms an empty compartment–converted to accommodations– and allowed her No. 1 funnel to be deleted. She could again make 21+ knots.

Note the usual Swedish 1940s scheme that consisted of a mottled grey-on-grey camouflage with white recognition stripes.

And another shown just with stripes, likely late in the war or just after

Topside, her entire arrangement changed with a new superstructure and a redesigned bow. To give her teeth, she picked up eight new 1930-pattern 15.2 cm/55 (6″) Bofors, and a mixed suite of 57mm, 40mm, 25mm, and 20mm AAA guns as well as two larger 21-inch deck-mounted torpedo tubes. For sub-busting, she picked up depth charges and listening gear. 

The result was a new, albeit slow for the era, 34-year-old light cruiser.

Joining the Gothenburg Squadron in October 1941, Fylgia spent her summers on neutrality patrol then embarked midshipmen in the winter for schoolship missions in home waters, a familiar task.

An excellent wartime image of her at Malmo, on 4 May 1944, showing her aerials and armament. Note the three crowns badge on her hull.

Fylgia 1946 Jane’s entry.

Into the Cold War

Once WWII concluded, the rejuvenated Fylgia resumed her old work as a seagoing training ship, sailing on a series of four short tours around Western European ports and a lengthy cruise to West Africa over the winter of 1947-48, calling at Dakar and Freetown.

Fylgia passing the Hembrug bridge across the North Sea Canal headed to Amsterdam, 28 May 1948, Dutch Nationaal Archief 902-7703. Note some of her wartime AAA guns have been stripped but her long-barreled 6-inchers remain aboard.

It was during that cruise that the Swedish Olle Lindholm musical comedy, Flottans Kavaljerer, was filmed aboard and it has remained a classic.

However, the turn-of-the-century vessel was showing her age and remained in Swedish waters after 1949. By 1953, she was again decommissioned and disarmed, turned into a floating target ship, an inglorious but still useful tasking.

As target ship, 1956 Fo155A

In 1957, Fylgia was sold for her value in scrap and dismantled in Copenhagen.

Nonetheless, Fylgia’s still-young Bofors 6″/55s would live on much longer. Emplaced in the Siknäs battery as part of the Swedish Kalix line (Kalixlinjen), all eight were positioned in four new purpose-built emplacements to cover the deepwater port of Töre and the approaches to towards Boden along Highway 13 (E 4).

Note the camo screening is scarce, but the framework remains. Via SiknasFortet Museet

The battery was served by a local defense battalion of over 300 men and was, when it was finished in 1960, considered the largest and most modern of the Kalix line’s approximately 3,000 installations.

And a better look at how it would look netted up. Via SiknasFortet Museet

Each battery system was constructed of concrete with four floors based on springs to mitigate shockwaves and was extensively camouflaged. They included self-contained generators, magazine facilities, barracks with showers, and kitchens and were fully protected against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Outside of the emplacements, they were protected by a ring of 40mm AAA guns and counter-assault pillboxes manned by infantry.

The trees have grown up in the past 20 years, but you get a general idea. Via SiknasFortet Museet

Despite being 1930s technology, these could still ruin a perfectly good Russian destroyer moving about the Swedish littoral well into the 1990s. Via SiknasFortet Museet

The Siknäs battery, operated by the Swedish Army until as late as 1998, is preserved as a museum today.

Echos 

Other parts of the old cruiser survive, such as her elegant porcelain tea set, which has been broken out on at least five continents.

Sjohistoriska museet O 10224.J

And of course, there is a ton of maritime art in circulation, particularly in postcard format.

O 11892

Painting by Jacob Hägg 1908 depicting H.M. armored cruiser Fylgia meeting H.M. the corvette Saga in the open sea O 10037

Pansarkryssaren HMS Fylgia

Specs:

Fartygsmodell av pansarkryssaren Fylgia MM 25577

(1907)
Displacement: 4,800 tons
Length: 379 feet
Beam: 48 ft 7 in
Draft: 16 feet
Propulsion: 12 Yarrow coal boilers 2 Finnhola steam triple expansion, 2 screws, 12,000 ihp
Speed: 22 knots
Range: 8,000 nmi at 10 knots with maximum 900-ton coal load
Complement: 322 but at times would run over 400
Armor:
Side belt 100 mm (3.9 in)
Turrets 50–125 mm (2.0–4.9 in)
Deck 22–35 mm (0.87–1.38 in)
Conning tower 100 mm
Armament:
8 x 152 mm/50cal. Bofors M/1903
14 x 57 mm/48cal. QF M/1889 (10 in casemates)
2 × 37 mm/39cal. cannons M/1898B
2 × 45 cm torpedo tubes M/1904
Mine rails (max 100 mines)

Fylgia original compared to her 1940 format, model by H Biärsjö MM 18071

(1941)
Displacement: 4,800 tons
Length: 378 feet
Beam: 48 ft 7 in
Draft: 20 feet
Propulsion: 4 oil-fired boilers, 2 4cyl-triple expansion, 2 screws, 13,000 ihp
Speed: 21.5 knots; 5,770nm endurance @10kts on 500 tons oil
Complement: 341
Armor:
Side belt 100 mm (3.9 in)
Turrets 50–125 mm (2.0–4.9 in)
Deck 22–35 mm (0.87–1.38 in)
Conning tower 100 mm
Armament:
8 × 152 mm/55cal. Bofors M/1930
4 × 57 mm/55cal. AA M/89B-38B
4 × 40 mm/56cal. Bofors AA M/1936
2 × 25 mm/58cal. Bofors AA M/1932
1 × 20 mm/66cal. Bofors AA M/1940
2 × 533mm torpedo tubes
2 depth charge throwers

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

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Sneaky, Sneaky

Here at LSOZI, we have talked about several of the Italian and German midget subs of WWII, including a whole Warship Wednesday dedicated to the spooky little craft that sank the HMS/ORP Dragon off Normandy and another on the Italian explosive motorboats that crippled HMS York.

With that being said, I recently ran into two things you guys would find interesting. Below is a great 26-minute Oct. 1945 newsreel on German and Italian sneak attack that was recently archived by the AP:

The second is a write up by H I Sutton over at Covert Shores on the Untersee-Gleitflächen-Schnellboot Manta, a craft I had never even heard of until now.

The designers hoped to combine the transit speed of a speedboat with the stealth and survivability of a submarine. To do this it would need to combine several advanced technologies which Germany had been developing. Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) and hydrofoils.

More on the Manta over at Covert Shores.

Warship Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020: Spaghetti & Stringbags

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Nov. 11, 2020: Spaghetti & Stringbags

U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1977.031.085.071

Here we see a great bow-on shot of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (87) underway in the Indian Ocean during the Spring of 1944, while the British flattop was operating with USS Saratoga (CV-3) during WWII. “Lusty” was one of the luckier of HM’s early fleet carriers during the conflict, and a handful of hopelessly obsolete aircraft flying from her decks, borrowing a bit of that luck, would pull off an amazing feat some 80 years ago today.

While today the U.S. Navy is the benchmark for carrier operations, the British would be incredibly innovative in the use of such vessels in warfare. This included being the first country to lose a carrier in combat when HMS Courageous (50) was lost to a German U-boat in the third week of the war and sistership HMS Glorious was embarrassingly lost to the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the withdrawal from Norway in June 1940. With that being said, it was a good thing that Illustrious was on the way to make up losses.

Laid down at Vickers Barrow-in-Furness on 27 April 1937, 13 months after German troops marched into the Rhineland as part of the British rearmament due to such muscular action, Illustrious was the lead ship of a new class of a planned six aircraft carriers designed from the first steel cut to be modern flattops. Displacing 25,000-tons full load, they had a 740-foot overall length and the ability to touch 30-knots on a trio of steam turbines.

U.S. ONI sheet on the Illustrious class

Carrying up to 4.5-inches of armor– to include an armored flight deck designed to withstand 1,000-pound bombs– and protected by 16 excellent QF 4.5-inch Mark I guns, both of which would have rated her as a decent light cruiser even without aircraft, the class could carry 36 aircraft in their hangars, which was smaller than American and Japanese carriers of the same size, but keep in mind the Brits guarded their birds inside an armored box. Further, they were fitted with radar, with Illustrious having her Type 79 installed just before she joined the fleet.

HMS Illustrious (87) underway 1940. Note the 4.5″ (11.4 cm) Mark I guns in twin Mark III UD mountings. IWM FL2425

Commissioned 25 May 1940, during the fall of France, Illustrious was to do her workup cruise to Dakar but plans changed once the French surrendered, sending the carrier instead to do her shakedown in the relative safety of the West Indies. Meanwhile, Italy had clocked in on Germany’s side, declaring war on 10 June.

HMS Illustrious landing Swordfish in June 1940. Picture: Fleet Air Arm Museum CARS 1/171

By 30 August, she set out for the Mediterranean on her first operational deployment, sailing for Alexandria in convoy with Force F. Within a week, her airwing, which included Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers of Nos. 815 and 819 Squadrons, would be flying combat missions against Axis-held airfields on Rhodes.

While Illustrious carried a mix of quaint Fairey Fulmar and Sea Gladiator fighters, it was her embarked Swordfish, biplanes capable of just 124 knots and nicknamed “flying stringbags,” that made up the bulk of her strike capability.

Swordfish could carry a torpedo or up to 1,500 pounds of bombs or mines, although their combat radius while doing so was only about 200nm. Self-defense amounted to two .303-caliber Vickers guns.

On the 17th, Swords from Illustrious drew blood during shipping attacks on Benghazi harbor, sending the Italian Turbine-class destroyer Borea to the bottom while air-dropped mines would take out several merchantmen. The proven carrier then spent the next several weeks riding shotgun on convoys between Malta and Egypt.

Then, on 10 November, Illustrious was detached on Operation Judgement, a planned midnight home invasion of the Italian fleet’s main base at Taranto under the cover of darkness, where her airwing would target Rome’s mighty battleships at anchor. As an ace in the hole, they had up-to-date reconnaissance photographs of the harbor, taken by Martin Maryland light bombers flying from Malta.

The carrier strike force? Even including aircraft cross-decked from HMS Eagle, Illustrious could count a mixed bag of just 21 Swordfish of Nos. 813, 815, 819, and 824 Squadrons. To give them a boost in range, each would be fitted with a spare av gas tank that they only had to leave their rear gunner behind to accommodate– what could go wrong?

The first wave, of 12 aircraft, would launch at 20:40 on 11 November and consist of six Swords each with a single 18-inch torpedo, backed up by four Swords each with a half-dozen light 250-pound bombs, and two aircraft with a mix of 16 parachute flares and four bombs each.

The second wave (!), of nine aircraft, would launch an hour later and included five torpedo carriers, two with bombs and two flare-droppers. In all, the Brits planned to bring a total of 11 Mark XII torpedoes and 52 almost lilliputian bombs.

250-pound bombs that would later be dropped on the Italian fleet at Taranto on HMS Illustrious’s flight deck

The tiny force of biplanes faced some serious opposition.

Besides the masses of guns on the Italian ships themselves– which were under standing orders to keep their AAA batteries at least half-manned even when the vessels were anchored– around the Regia Marina’s primary roadstead were land-based anti-aircraft batteries that held no less than 21 4-inch, 84 20mm and 109 13.2mm guns at the ready in addition to smaller numbers of 125mm, 90mm, and 40mm guns. While there was no air-search radar at Taranto, the Italians did have at least 13 “war tuba” sound-detection devices capable of hearing aircraft engines as far out as 30 miles away. Two dozen powerful searchlights scanned the heavens.

Even if the British bombers could get inside the harbor, the Italians had over 23,000 feet of counter-torpedo netting ready to catch any trespassing Royal Navy fish. Further, there was a flotilla of 90 barrage balloons tethered by steel cables, deployed across the harbor in three rows.

While the Brits caught some breaks– two-thirds of the barrage balloons were not on station due to storms and a lack of hydrogen; and 2.9km of the torpedo nets were coiled up, in need of repair– it was still a dangerous mission as witnessed by the more than 12,000 shells of 20mm or greater from shore-based batteries alone during the strike.

Cobb, Charles David; Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from ‘Illustrious’ Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940; National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/taranto-harbour-swordfish-from-illustrious-cripple-the-italian-fleet-11-november-1940-116445

In the end, just two Swords were lost while three of six Italian battleships present were seriously damaged, and the last of 18 recovered aircraft were aboard Illustrious by 0230 on 12 November.

The brand-new 35,000-ton fast battleship Littorio suffered three torpedo hits, while the older battlewagons Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour picked up one each, with the latter so wrecked she would not be repaired for the duration of the war. Bombs lightly damaged the 13,000-ton heavy cruiser Trento, the destroyers Libeccio and Pessagno, and two fleet auxiliaries in addition to falling on the dockyard and oil depot. The fleet suffered nearly 700 casualties, although less than 10 percent of that figure was mortal.

The raid upset the balance of power between the strong Italian fleet and the weaker British force in the Med at a crucial period.

As a booby prize, the Italians captured two downed British Fleet Air Arm members and were left with several dud bombs and torpedoes to examine. Two RN aircrewmen were killed. The morning after the Taranto raid, the undamaged battleship Vittorio Veneto, assuming ADM Inigo Campioni’s flag from the crippled Littorio, led the Italian fleet to Naples. Campioni would be relieved of command three weeks later, replaced by ADM Angelo Iachino.

Interestingly enough, this attack took place while both America and Japan were at peace and each country’s navy took notes from the engagement, although they were applied very differently by the respective note takers a year later.

As encapsulated by the Royal Navy today, “The Fleet Air Arm’s attack on Taranto ranks as one of the most daring episodes in the Second World War. It transformed the naval situation in the Mediterranean and was carefully studied by the Japanese before their carrier-borne strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941.”

Much more on Operation Judgement can be read at Armoured Carriers.com and the 26-page paper, The Attack at Taranto, by Angelo N. Caravaggio in the Naval War College Review.

Post-Taranto

How do you top a 20-aircraft raid from a five-month-old carrier that sidelined half of the Italian battlefleet? For the rest of the war, Illustrious was a one-ship fire brigade supporting operations in the Med to include earning honors for keeping Malta alive during Operation Excess.

Her luck ran out on the Excess run on 10 January 1941– hit by five bombs from a swarm of 18 He 111s and 43 Stukas 60 miles west of Malta. “Illustrious was the main target and was enveloped in waterspouts and mist of exploding bombs. Some bombers diving from an altitude of 12,000 feet delayed bomb release until they pulled-out lower than the height of Illustrious’ funnel.”

THE BOMBING OF HMS ILLUSTRIOUS AT MALTA. 10 JANUARY 1941, ON BOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER. (A 9793) The view of the flight deck from the ship’s bridge.(Same as MH 4623). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205143579

Even so, she reached Malta that day and would suffer 126 dead and 91 wounded by the time she departed the besieged island stronghold– the subject of continuing German and Italian air attacks the entire time she was there.

She was sent to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the ostensibly neutral United States for repair, eventually arriving there via the Suez Canal on May 27.

HMS ILLUSTRIOUS At the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, following battle damage repairs, November 1941. NH 96323

Post repairs, Illustrious was soon back in the war, covering the landings at Diego Suarez in Vichy-held Madagascar during Operation Ironclad in 1942, where her Swords were back at work.

The Royal Navy battleship HMS Valiant fires its 38.1 cm guns during exercises as seen from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious (87). 22 December 1942, Indian Ocean. The planes in the foreground are Fairey Fulmars of B Flight, 806 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, with Grumman Martlets of 881 NAS parked aft. Lt. D.C. Oulds, Royal Navy official photographer IWM A 15152

She then shipping back to the Med for the Salerno landings in 1943.

BIG SHIPS AT MALTA. OCTOBER 1943, ON BOARD HMS FORMIDABLE AT GRAND HARBOUR, VALLETTA, MALTA. (A 19815) The aircraft carrier HMS ILLUSTRIOUS steams into Grand Harbour, as men line the flight deck of HMS FORMIDABLE to watch her progress. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205152374

From there she set out for the Indian Ocean in 1944 where she worked alongside USS Saratoga and raided the Japanese-held island of Sabang (Operation Cockpit).

HMS Illustrious and USS Saratoga Trincomalee, Ceylon part of Operation Cockpit

HMS Illustrious (87) steaming past the U.S. carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in the Indian Ocean, 18 May 1944. Note the crews of both ships assembled on deck to pay farewell. NNAM.1977.031.085.012

HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, part of the Eastern Fleet, stationary, coastal waters (photographed from the cruiser HMS MAURITIUS). IWM A 13559

HMS Renown and Illustrious in Trincomalee Harbor, Ceylon in early 1944.

Royal Navy aircraft repair carrier HMS Unicorn (I72, left) and HMS Illustrious (87), probably pictured at Trincomalee, Ceylon, in 1944. NNAM No. 1996.488.037.044

Corsairs in the armored box hangar of HMS Illustrious. Tight spaces!

A long way from Sea Gladiators! HMS Illustrious in the Indian Ocean. The flight deck being cleared of Corsairs at sunset ready for the Avenger dusk patrol to land on. May 1944

By January 1945, she was off Sumatra in the Japanese-held Dutch East Indies, launching raids on the vital Soengi Gerong oil refineries near Palembang while dodging kamikazes.

She was the first ship in Green Island’s Captain Cook dock, 11 February 1945

Speaking of which, she continued to reap the divine wind off Okinawa in April, with a Japanese D4Y3 Judy making contact with her deck, leaving the carrier with a vibration in her hull and the remains of a Japanese rubber dinghy as a trophy.

The Bridge and Island crew of HMS illustrious had a remarkably close call on 6 April 1945 when a kamikaze attack plane scored the thinnest of glancing blows with its wingtip ripping the ray dome just forward of the Bridge with the plane spinning into the sea causing no casualties to the crew

Sailing at a reduced speed of 19 knots for Sidney and emergency repairs, she ended the war in the dockyard.

Post-war

The Illustrious class entry in the 1946 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships

Post-VJ-Day, Illustrious was used for deck-landing trials until being place in reserve in late 1947.

Armoured carrier HMS Illustrious carrying out flying trials in 1947. Seafire is on an out-rigger just forward of the island, and the aircraft aft is a Sea Fury

Hawker Sea Fury about to land on HMS Illustrious 1947. Just a great view of her stern QF 4.5″ gun batteries as well, with the turrets trained seaward

Recommissioned the next year, she was used for further trials and training duties, clocking in as a troop carrier to Cyrus in 1951.

HMS Illustrious, off Norway, 1954, at the tail-end of her career. Note the long-serving TBM Avengers on her deck and twin 4.5-inch guns forward. Via the Municipal Archives of Trondheim

She attended Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Review at Spithead in June 1953 and continued to provide some service, she never again deployed as an operational carrier. 

Battleship HMS Vanguard at Spithead on June 1953, with the bruiser old aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.

Illustrious was sold to BISCO for breaking-up at Faslane, arriving there on 3 November 1956.

As for her three sisters that were completed, HMS Formidable (67) and HMS Indomitable (92) had been broken up shortly before Illustrious leaving only HMS Victorious (R38) to soldier on, paid off in 1968 and scrapped the next year.

What could have been: Blackburn Buccaneer flies past Illustrious-class aircraft carrier HMS Victorious note Sea Vixen, Gannetts and Westlands on deck

Epilogue

While the name HMS Illustrious would go on to be used by an Invincible-class Harrier carrier, which was retired in 2016, several artifacts of the WWII-era vessel endure.

Of course, as a great ship, she was the subject of great maritime art:

HMS Illustrious entering the Basin at John Brown’s Shipyard, Clydebank (Art.IWM ART LD 1371) image: the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious is guided into the basin of John Brown’s shipyard at Clydebank in Scotland by three tug boats. Another Royal Navy warship is moored to the side of the dock. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/3031

Hamilton, John Alan; HMS ‘Illustrious’ under Attack: Excess Convoy, January 1941; IWM (Imperial War Museums); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hms-illustrious-under-attack-excess-convoy-january-1941-7670

Cobb, Charles David; Operation ‘Excess’, ‘Illustrious’ under Air Attack, 19 January 1941; National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/operation-excess-illustrious-under-air-attack-19-january-1941-116447

Macdonald, Roderick; HMS ‘Illustrious’ under Air Attack, 10 January 1941. The scene of the attack is viewed from the cockpit of one of ‘Illustrious’ own Fairey Swordfish aircraft. By Roderick Macdonald circa 1980 via the Fleet Air Museum E00728/0001http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hms-illustrious-under-air-attack-10-january-1941-40645

Macdonald, Roderick; HMS ‘Illustrious’ under Attack in the Grand Harbour, Malta; Fleet Air Arm Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hms-illustrious-under-attack-in-the-grand-harbour-malta-40646

“Task Force of Two Navies” Watercolor by Dwight Shepler, USNR, 1943, depicting U.S. and British warships in the Pentland Firth during an operation toward the Norwegian coast, coincident with the Sicily invasion, July 1943. Alabama (BB 60) is in the lead, followed by HMS Illustrious and HMS King George V. Three British carrier-based fighters (two “Seafires” and a “Martlet”) are overhead. Official USN photo # KN-20381, courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC, now in the collections of the National Archives.

No place to land by Michael Turner, showing FAA Royal Navy F4U Corsairs return to their carrier HMS Illustrious after the April 1945 Kamikaze attack

And of a variety of scale models from Heller, Aoshima, Revelle, and others.

The plans for Illustrious are in the Royal Museums Greenwich.

The rubber survival dinghy recovered from the kamikaze that struck her deck off Okinawa is in the IWM.

Japanese Kamikaze pilot’s aircraft dinghy (MAR 595) Dinghy from a Japanese Kamikaze aircraft, recovered from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, 1945. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30004058

While both her original ship’s bell– which was damaged in 1941 by the Germans off Malta– and her U.S.-cast replacement, presented while she was at Norfolk, are preserved.

This week, the Royal Navy is planning a spate of remembrance activities concerning the 80th anniversary of Taranto, keeping the memory of Lusty and her 21 stringbags alive.

Specs:
Displacement: 28,661 tons, full load
Length: 710 ft
Beam: 95 ft
Draft: 28 feet
Propulsion: 6 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 3 Parsons geared turbines producing 110,000 shp, three shafts
Speed: 30.5 knots, range= 10,700nm @ 10 knots
Complement: ~1,200 designed. Up to 1,600 during 1944-45
Armor: 3 to 4.5-inches
Aircraft: 36, later increased to 60
16 × QF 4.5-inch naval gun (8 × 2)
40 x QF 2 pounder naval gun (5 × 8)
Later fitted with:
3 x Bofors 40 mm gun (3 x 1)
38 x Oerlikon 20 mm cannon (19 x 2), (14 x 1)

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

Warship Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020: A German and a Frenchman walk into a Cuban bar…

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Nov. 4, 2020: A German and a Frenchman walk into a Cuban bar…

Cropped stereograph by Hermann Schoene, Otto Loehr, and William Trupp, via the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2006678582/

Here we see a very martial pose struck by a group of jacks on the Camäleon-class dampfkanonenboot Meteor of the short-lived Norddeutsche Bundesmarine, or North German Federal Navy, at the time visiting New York City in May 1871. Note the flat caps, cutlasses, Dreyse needle-guns (Zündnadelgewehr), holstered 1851 Colt revolver, and nearby Krupp wedge-locked 4.7-inch breechloader. Meteor had an interesting history, having fought the only seagoing naval battle of the Franco-Prussian War– in the Americas of all places– 150 years ago this week.

The Camäleons were a product of their age, just 142-feet long, they carried a schooner rig in addition to their early steam plant. Copper-sheathed over an oak hull, they were not meant for speed and would wallow in blue water but they could float in coastal waters and provide a modicum of resistance to foreign interlopers, which was about the best the Royal Prussian Navy could hope for in the 1860s when they were ordered. Eight of these hybrid steam/sail gunboats were ordered but the Prussian fleet was in such a nascent sort of affairs that most were laid up soon after commission and some didn’t even have a chance to complete sea trials.

The subject of our story, Meteor, was laid down 17 June 1861 at the Wolgast shipyard in Lübke– about the time Tennessee decided to secede from the United States– but government bean counters drug their feet on paying the yard the princely sum of 94,400 thalers to complete the vessel and she only joined the fleet in September 1869– while Ulysses S. Grant was President in the States. While on the builder’s ways, the Prussian Navy had morphed into the Greater Germanic Norddeutsche Bundesmarine as a steppingstone to the unified Kaiserliche Marine of 1872 after Wilhelm I was named Kaiser.

Meteor’s inaugural skipper, 30-year-old KptLt/ Ernst Wilhelm Eduard von Knorr, had already spent half of his life at sea under various German flags and had seen combat against pirates off the coasts of both Morocco and China, and he took his new ship and crew to the West Indies, arriving off the coast of unrest-addled Venezuela the day after Christmas in 1869, to protect German interests and property there as part of an international naval blockade. Literal gunboat diplomacy.

Operating out of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, Meteor was Germany’s first overseas station ship.

Moving into the new year, her 1870 Caribbean cruise was filled with pitfalls, scraping her hull on a reef off Haiti, battling a Yellow fever outbreak among her crew, and weathering the occasional unfriendly shell from Venezuelan coastal forts.

Then, on 5 August, Knorr got word that his country was at war with the French Empire– a nation with a much larger navy and numerous colonies in the West Indies.

The German skipper’s first thought was to ditch his slow gunboat, transfer its crew and guns to something faster, and assume the role of a commerce raider. Picking his way gingerly to neutral Kingston and then Key West, where he was able to communicate with the German counsel– and was crushed to learn Berlin had no desire for Knorr to become a raider, he set out for the myriad of islands in the Bahamas chain where the cool neutrality of the British Crown offered him an umbrella of protection from roving French naval assets.

Out of coal, Knorr put into Havana on 7 November. To his bad luck, the French arrived later that same day.

Flying the tricolor, the 182-foot French steam aviso Bouvet under Capitaine de Frégate Alexandre Franquet– a career officer with service in the Crimean War and, like Knorr, off the wild China coasts under his belt– soon made ready for combat, clearing the ship’s decks and rigging sandbags.

As the rules of neutrality had to be upheld, Franquet sent a dispatch to the German vessel with a challenge and stood to, just off the port, to wait for a Bataille Navale. Meteor obliged and sortied out on the morning of the 9th as neutrality rules required a wait of 24 hours since the Frenchman left harbor before the Germans could pursue them with the Spanish corvette Hernan Cortez standing by a referee. Truly an elegant Old-World contest if there ever was one.

With both vessels largely matched in size and armament, Bouvet had a slight advantage in speed due to a better powerplant and hull form. Nonetheless, the ensuing surface action proved inconclusive, with the two vessels dancing a lazy series of turns trying to gain an advantage, coming in and out of cannon range over the course of three hours.

Finally, the two ships moved to ram, an event that saw Prussian sailors rake the French vessel’s decks with rifle fire and left the French ship’s boiler losing steam and the German vessel’s screw fouled with rigging.

Meteor got off 22 shells at Bouvet in addition to rifle fire, scoring 2 hits which caused minor damage.

Unfurling canvas, Bouvet broke free before Knorr’s salts could board and the engagement ended with a warning shot from Cortez as the vessels had strayed back into Cuban waters.

Licking their wounds, the combatants went back into Havana together, where they were the talk of the town. Although neither ship was mortally wounded, and each side suffered less than a handful of casualties to their respective crews, the matter had come to an end honorably. Two deceased German crewmen– Steuermann Carbonnier and Matrosen Thomsen– were buried ashore at the Cementerio de Colón, and a seriously wounded man sent to the hospital.

Counting himself lucky, Knorr kept Meteor in the safety of the Cuban port until the conflict ended the following April, sailing up the U.S. eastern seaboard (where our photos in New York were taken) before crossing the Atlantic for home, being celebrated at Plymouth before arriving at Kiel on 25 June.

In all, she had spent 19 months on her overseas deployment, one for the German Navy’s record books.

Meteor would go on to have a quieter career, used for a variety of training and coastal survey work until trouble broke out in Spain in 1873, which required some good old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Further unrest in the Balkans found the crew of the German gunboat on libo in Smyrna in 1876 where they were involved in a high-profile street brawl with visiting French sailors.

Rapidly approaching obsolescence in an age of iron-and-steel warships, Meteor was decommissioned in 1877 and used as a coal hulk for a time at Kiel, with some of her machinery recycled for the newly constructed gunboat SMS Iltis.

Knorr, whose career blossomed after the Meteor fight earned him an iron cross, went on to become a full admiral in the Kaiserliche Marine and a member of the Order of the Black Eagle, having gone on to directly help establish the German colonial empire from Samoa to Cameroon by 1899.

He died in 1920 and a street in his river city birthplace of Saarlouis is still named for him.

The exotic pitched battle between the two gunboats in a Spanish colonial port would prove a romantic favorite of late 19th and early 20th Century maritime artists and would be portrayed by Hans Bohrdt, Charles Leduc, Fredrich Meister, Robert Parlow, Hermann Penner, Christopher Rave, Willy Stower, and Reinhold Werner, among others.

The Germans would go on to use Meteor’s name three times by 1918, on a 1,000-ton dispatch boat (1891), a 3,400-ton hilfskreuzer commerce raider during the Great War, and a 1,500-ton gunboat-turned-survey ship that was later captured by the Soviets in 1945.

A circa 1863 1:96 scale model of Meteor is retained in the collections of the German Museum of Technology in Berlin and a modern version is in the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg.

As for her war dead, they are still in Havana, where German citizens there installed a monument via subscription that is still regularly maintained and visited, with a ceremony last year that had both the French and German ambassadors in attendance.

Specs:

Displacement: 422 t (415 long tons)
Length: 142 ft overall, 134 waterline
Beam: 22 ft 10 in
Draft: 8 ft 9 in, max
Propulsion: 2 Schichau-Werke boilers, 2 horizontal 1-cyl steam engines, 320 ihp, single three-leaf 1.9 m prop
Sail plan: Modified schooner rig, three masts, 3,767 sq. feet of canvas
Speed: 9.3 knots on steam, only four days’ worth of coal (52 tons)
Complement: four officers and 67 men
Armament:
One 15 cm (5.9 in) Krupp breech-loading steel 24-pounder breechloader on centerline pivot
Two 12 cm (4.7 in) Krupp breech-loading steel 12-pounder breechloaders on each broadside

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I am a member, so should you be!

Warship Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020: Horse Trading and Gun Running

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Oct. 28, 2020: Horse Trading and Gun Running

Cropped LIFE Archives photo by Carl Mydans

Here we see the Barnegat-class seaplane tender USS Orca (AVP-49) showing off the welcome sign  “Where the occident meets the Orient by accident,” signed by her skipper, CDR Morton K. Fleming, Jr, while in Philippine waters, likely Ormoc Bay, in December 1944.

The 41 Barnegats were 2,500-ton, 311-foot armed auxiliaries with destroyer lines capable of floating in 12 feet of water. They had room for not only seaplane stores but also 150 aviators and aircrew. Their diesel suite wasn’t fast, but they could travel 8,000 miles at 15.6 knots. Originally designed for two 5-inch/38-caliber guns, this could be doubled if needed (and often was) which complemented a decent AAA armament helped by radar and even depth charges and sonar for busting subs. All pretty sweet for an auxiliary.

We’ve covered them in the past to include the former “Queen of the Little White Fleet” USS Duxbury Bay (AVP-38) and the 60-year career of USS Chincoteague (AVP-24) but don’t worry, they have lots of great stories.

Our armed tender was (kind of) the fourth Orca in the U.S. Navy, as submarine USS K-3 (SS-34) carried the name as a PCU in 1911 but never served as such. The second Orca was an 85-foot steam yacht out of Boston taken into service as SP726 for patrol operations in the 1st Naval District during World War I. The third Orca was to be a Balao-class fleet submarine (SS-381) but, like SS-34, was changed before commissioning, in this case to USS Sand Lance, a boat that subsequently served until 1972, completing five WWII war patrols.

The hero of our study, which was officially named after Orca Bay, Alaska, in line with the naming convention for seaplane tenders to be named after bays and lakes, was laid down 13 July 1942, built by the Lake Washington Shipyards, Houghton, Washington, and commissioned 23 January 1944.

USS Orca (AVP-49) ready for launch on 4 October 1942. The ship Her builder’s number, Hull 538, is displayed on her bridge. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Catalog #: 19-N-44301

USS Orca (AVP-49) being launched at the Lake Washington Shipyards, Houghton, Washington, on 4 October 1942. 19-N-47209

USS Orca (AVP-49) Off Houghton, Washington, on 6 February 1944, about two weeks after commissioning. She was completed with three 5/38 guns, including an open mount on her fantail. 19-N-61647

USS Orca (AVP-49) from the port side in Puget Sound on February 6, 1944, wearing camouflage 32/2Ax. The vertical colors are dull black, ocean gray, and light gray. Photo source: NARA BS 61646. H/T USN Dazzle

USS Orca (AVP-49) again in Puget Sound this time from the starboard wearing camouflage 32/2Ax on February 6, 1944. Orca was commissioned on January 23, 1944. Photo source: NARA BS 61645. H/T USN Dazzle

After shakedown, she shipped out for the 7th Fleet off Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, arriving there 26 May 1944. There, she would be the floating home to Patrol Bombing Squadron 11 (VPB-11) whose black-painted PBY-5 Catalinas were busy wrecking Japanese shipping and bases in night attacks while clocking in for air-sea rescue during the day.

PBY-5 Catalina of US Navy Patrol Squadron VPB-11 on the Sepik River in Australian New Guinea bringing supplies to a coast-watcher working in the area, Jan 1943. VPB-11 was Orca’s first squadron

Over the course of the war, Orca would go on to support VPB-33 and finally VPB-34, with all three squadrons being so active as to earn Presidential Unit Citations.

In early November, Orca moved into the Leyte Gulf area in the PI, where the next month her Cats proved lifesavers in Ormoc Bay right under the noses of the Japanese as they taxied around the bay for nearly an hour picking up survivors of the Sumner-class destroyer USS Cooper (DD-695), sunk the previous night by Long Lances from the Japanese destroyer Take.

From her 18-page War History, in the National Archives:

A cartoon from VPB-34 of the Cooper rescue

For his role in the Cooper rescue, VPB-34’s Lieutenant Frederick J. Ball, the lead pilot, would receive the Navy Cross.

Orca would then go on to have repeated run-ins with air attacks and later “the kamikaze boys” as her diary states, with her crew sending up reportedly impressive amounts of fire to meet incoming Japanese planes. The report comes from Tokyo Rose, who announced that, following a raid in an area where Orca was the primary ship, “The volume of Ack-Ack which met the previous night’s raid, indicated that a U.S. battleship of the Wisconsin class had been sighted by Japanese planes…” which is certainly something to brag about for a seaplane tender.

While in the Lingayen Gulf, raids were so heavy that she experienced attacks for six nights in a row, bagging a couple aircraft but coming out unscathed. As her diary states, “Fortunately for us, our first attackers appeared to have not been confirmed Lodge members- Kamikaze Local No. 269, for none of them made suicide dives unless actually hit and out of control.”

Then came the, often frustrating, efforts to recover downed Japanese aircrew.

Other rescues by Orca’s Cats and later Mariners while operating in the PI included the 12 crew and passengers of an Army C-47– which included female nurses– a P-51 pilot, five survivors of a downed B-25 from a raid over Formosa, nine Filipino women whose fishing vessel had capsized 20 miles offshore leaving them to cling to wreckage for three days, and the curious case of CDR McPherson B. Williams of Augusta Georgia. Williams, who was Yorktown’s ComAirGrp 3, had been downed and rescued by Filipino guerillas who kept him out of Japanese hands for seven weeks and, in a twist of fate, was picked up by a Mariner piloted by his Annapolis roommate.

More Carly Mydan photos of Orca, with her crew performing maintenance on PBMs

Speaking of Filipino guerillas, Orca would spend much of her time in local waters supporting Gen. Walter Kreuger’s Sixth Army’s effort to arm, support, and equip bands of insurgents behind Japanese lines, running guns, uniforms, radio equipment, and medicine to these plucky freedom fighters.

VJ Day found Orca at sea, having just completed an overhaul at Manus Island in preparation for “the big push” on Tokyo. On 26 September, Orca arrived at Okinawa to assist in the occupation of the Japanese Islands.

USS Orca (AVP-49) Off Mare Island, California, on 8 January 1946 after completion of an overhaul. 19-N-92247

USS Orca (AVP-49) Off Mare Island, California, on 8 January 1946 after completion of an overhaul. Her 40mm quadruple mount had been moved forward replacing one 5/38 mount, but she retained two 5guns, including one in an open mount on her fantail. 19-N-92245

USS Orca (AVP-49) Off Mare Island, California, on 8 January 1946 after completion of an overhaul. Her 40mm quadruple mount had been moved forward replacing one 5/38 mount, but she retained two 5guns, including one in an open mount on her fantail. 19-N-92246

After supporting the Bikini Atoll A-bomb tests, Orca then decommissioned on 31 October 1947 and joined the reserve fleet in San Francisco. According to her War History, 82 percent of her plank owners, the majority of which were green on commissioning, completed the war with the tender.

She had earned three battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation for service in the conflict.

The 1950s…

Orca re-commissioned 15 December 1951, as the push was on in Korea, and went on to serve the rest of the decade in a variety of West Pac cruises and training evolutions, including tense China service, with much of her WWII armament landed.

USS Orca (AVP-49) moored at Naval Station San Diego, circa 1950s. Dave Schroeder and John Chiquoine. Via Navsource http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/43/4349.htm

USS Orca (AVP-49) Underway on 4 April 1955. Note the aviation insignia on the bow aft of the hull number. The open 5/38 mount formerly on her fantail was removed between late 1951 and 1955. 80-G-668276

To the Horn of Africa!

Decommissioned in March 1960, at Tongue Point Naval Station, Astoria, Oregon, she was subsequently laid up in the Pacific Reserve Fleet, Columbia River Group. Her second stint in mothballs, however, did not last long and the following year she was towed to SFNSY and reactivated for transfer to the brand-new Imperial Ethiopian Navy in January 1962, named, well, Ethiopia (A01). Along with a group of 95-foot PGMs and some surplus LCMs, they would prove the backbone of the force.

Formed in 1955 with a group of retired British naval personnel who served as advisers and training supervisors, Ethiopia’s Navy was not a huge armada, with our repurposed seaplane tender being the fleet’s largest vessel, training ship, and flagship/imperial yacht for three decades. It was from her deck that Emperor Haile Selassie regularly inspected visiting foreign ships for the country’s annual Navy Day each January, an event that often saw a decent turnout.

“Haile Selassie is Host to British, French, theU.S. and Soviet Ships. January 1969, At Massawa, during Ethiopia’s Navy Days. The British frigate HMS Leander took part along with USS Luce, Russian destroyer Gnevy, French frigate Commandant Bory and the Ethiopian flagship, Ethiopia. On the sea day, all ships sailed in company, with Emperor Haile Selassie onboard Ethiopia. Later, the Emperor dined onboard HMS Leander. The international line-up during the Ethiopian Sea Day. Left: HMS Leander (lower) and Gnevy (Above). Right: USS Luce (above), Ethiopia (center) and Commandant Bory (lower).”” IWM A 35201

HMS CHICHESTER AT ETHIOPIA NAVY DAYS. FEBRUARY 1970, MASSAWA. THE FRIGATE HMS CHICHESTER REPRESENTED GREAT BRITAIN AT THE ANNUAL ETHIOPIAN NAVY DAYS. OTHER SHIPS TAKING PART INCLUDED US FLEET ESCORT SHIP FOREST ROYAL, THE FRENCH FRIGATE COMMANDANT BORY, THE SOVIET DESTROYER BLESTIYASCHYJ AND PATROL BOATS OF THE SUDANESE NAVY. INCLUDED IN THE PROGRAMME WAS A GRADUATION PARADE FROM THE ETHIOPIAN NAVAL COLLEGE AT MASSAWA AND A SERIES OF INTERNATIONAL SPORTING EVENTS BETWEEN TEAMS FROM THE VISITING SHIPS. (A 35268) Royal salute from Emperor Haile Sellasie on board his yacht ETHIOPIA as HMS CHICHESTER steams past. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205165107

The 1,300-man Imperial Ethiopian Navy took up –almost– a full page in the 1973 Jane’s, with ex-Orca as the largest vessel.

After Selassie was deposed in 1974, and the socialist regime pivoted towards Moscow and away from the West by 1978, Soviet advisors replaced the Brits, Americans, Dutch, and Norwegians. By the 1980s, the force tripled in size as Petya, Osa and Turya-class fast attack craft arrived as military aid to help with the country’s low-key wars with its Western-backed neighbors.

Still, Orca/Ethiopia endured as the largest ship.

By 1990, Ethiopia had lost its ports as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front had captured Massawa, prompting the
Ethiopian admiralty to pull stumps and migrate their homeless fleet to nearby Yemen. This situation came to a head when Eritrea gained de jure independence. In 1993, the Yemenis pulled the plug on the Ethiopian nautical squatters and asked them to leave in a bar closing sort of way (you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here…).

However, at that point, Orca/Ethiopia could no longer fire up her engines and, with her ~200 crewmembers interned as refugees, was sold for scrap to pay off delinquent dock fees in 1995.

She was still seen on Google Earth sat images as late as September 2003, languishing and covered in rust. 

Thanks, Alex Comer!

As for the Ethiopian Navy, over the past couple of years, there has been an effort to reboot it, a curiosity for a land-locked country. The general plan would seem to be for the force to work out of Djibouti. Nonetheless, last year Adm. Foggo, commander of Naval Forces Africa, met with Brig. Gen. Kindu Gezu, Ethiopian Head of Navy in “the first staff to staff talks.”

Here in the U.S., Orca’s ship engineering drawings, as well as 30 assorted war diaries and reports, are digitized in the National Archives. She is also remembered on the Commemorative Plaque Wall at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington.

A total of 18 Barnegats transferred to Coast Guard in the 50s and 60s to become the “Casco” or “311” class (for their length) of heavy weather endurance cutters, WHEC, with pennant numbers 370 to 387. Many were renamed traditional USCG names, e.g after past Treasury Department Secretaries. Many of these were subsequently transferred a second time to overseas allies such as the Republic of Vietnam and the Philippines. 

As for these sisters, they have all gone on to the breakers or been reefed with the final class member afloat, ex-Chincoteague/Ly Thuong Kiet/Andres Bonifacio scrapped in the Philippines in 2003.

Specs:

Displacement 1,766 t.(lt) 2,800 t.(fl)
Length 310′ 9″
Beam 41′ 2″
Draft 13′ 6″ (limiting)
Speed 18.6kts.
Complement: 73 officers, 294 enlisted (including 152 members of embarked seaplane squadron)
Fuel Capacities: Diesel 1,955 Bbls; Gasoline 71,400 Gals
Propulsion: two Fairbanks Morse Diesel 38D8 1/4 engines, single Fairbanks Morse Main Reduction Gear, two propellers, 6,080shp
Ship’s Service Generators: two Diesel-drive 100Kw 450V A.C., one Diesel-drive 200Kw 450V A.C.
Armament:
3 single 5″/38 cal dual-purpose gun mounts
1 quad Bofors 40mm AA gun mount, 2 twins
4 twin Oerlikon 20mm AA gun mounts
Stern depth charge racks
Changes as a training ship, 1960:
Radars: RCA SPS-12 air search radar, I-band navigation radar, RCA/General Electric Mark 26 I/J-band fire control
Armament:
1 single 5″/38 cal dual-purpose gun mount
1 single Bofors 40mm AA gun mount, 2 twins

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

Warship Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020: The Kaiser’s Gorgon

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Oct. 21, 2020: The Kaiser’s Gorgon

Naval History and Heritage Command NH 46824

Here we see the Gazelle-class kleiner kreuzer SMS Medusa of the Kaiserliche Marine passing under the Levensauer Hochbrücke in the Kiel Canal, likely between 1901 and 1908. The sleek little vessel with beautiful lines and a prominent bow would go on to live a long life, a rarity for 20th Century Teutonic warships.

Medusa and her nine assorted sisters were built to scout for a growing battle fleet, and most importantly show the German flag around the world in ports both tropical and frozen. Just over 344-feet long, smaller today than a typical frigate, they were powered by two triple-expansion engines that gave the class a (planned) speed of 21.5-knots, which sounds slow by 21st Century standards but was fairly fast for ~1900.

Armed with ten 10.5 cm/40 (4.1″) SK L/40 naval guns and some torpedo tubes, they followed the traditional cruiser trope of being intended to sink anything faster than them and outrun anything bigger. She was built at AG Weser, Bremen for 4,739,000 Goldmarks and commissioned July 1901.

German light cruiser, either THETIS, ARIADNE, AMAZONE, or MEDUSA. Photo by Arthur Renard, Kiel, 1901. NH 47870

The 1914 Jane’s entry for the class. Of note, there were many small differences in dimensions, displacement, powerplant, and torpedo tube armament amongst the 10 vessels in the class. In a very real way, there could be considered at least three different flights among the Gazelles. Even Jane’s recognized this at the time, detailing Medusa not with a 10-ship Gazelle listing but with a five-ship subclass along with near-identical sisters Nymphe, Thetis, Ariadne, and Amazone.

Medusa spent her first decade on a series of flag-waving and training cruises around Europe, making just about every cherry port call you could want from Stockholm to Constantinople.

Gazelle Class Light Cruiser SMS Medusa pictured at Kristiansand, Norway in 1906.

During this time, her gunners were considered the best in the fleet, winning the Kaiserpreis für Kleine Kreuzer, a feat that resulted in her becoming the fleet gunnery school ship for a period.

Tyske kryssaren Medusa at Gustafsberg Juli 05, Swedish Bohusläns museum UMFA53278 2009

In May 1908, the still relatively young Medusa— as with most of her class– was overhauled and placed in reserve, tasked with second-line duties as larger, faster cruisers such as the Königsberg, Dresden, and Kolberg classes were joining the fleet.

Guns of August…

Nonetheless, when the Great War came, the Gazelles were reactivated and pressed into fleet service as scouts. In such work, they often tangled with much more powerful British vessels.

Medusa’s sistership, SMS Ariadne was sent to the bottom at Heligoland Bight on the fourth week of the war after she was caught between two of Beatty’s battlecruisers, while sister SMS Undine exploded after being hit by two torpedoes in 1915 and SMS Frauenlob was lost at Jutland opposing British cruisers as part of IV Scouting Group.

Medusa’s war service was more pedestrian, serving in a coast defense role along the Baltic to include being the flagship of Vizeadmiral Robert Mischke in the Küstenschutzdivision der Ostsee. She did see some action supporting German troops moving through Latvia in 1916 and ended the war as a tender to the old school frigate König Wilhelm in Flensburg.

Weimar Days

Post Versailles, the heart of the Kaiserliche Marine lay wrecked at Scapa Flow and the Allies took the better part of what remained afloat, leaving the newly-formed Weimar Republic’s Reichsmarine to rise like a phoenix with clipped wings from the ashes using obsolete vessels that London, Paris, and Washington neither wanted for their own fleets nor felt would be a threat.

When it came to the eight pre-dreadnoughts and six plodding cruisers allotted for the Germans to retain, ironically Medusa was the best of the lot and she served as the Reichsmarine’s first flagship from July 1920 through February 1921, when the duty was passed off to the battleship SMS Hannover, which by then was dusted off enough for active service.

To give her some better teeth, Medusa’s 450mm torpedo tubes were upgraded with larger 500mm tubes and she was fitted with rails to carry as many as 200 sea mines. The new Republic’s first active warship, Medusa cruised the Baltic in the summer of 1920, making Weimar Germany’s inaugural port calls in Finnish and Swedish harbors, a task she would repeat in 1924.

By March 1929, with the Reichsmarine able to add a few new K-class cruisers to the list as one-for-one replacements for their oldest boats, Medusa was disarmed and transferred to Wilhelmshaven to serve as a barracks ship. Her experienced crew changed hulls almost to a man to become plankowners on the brand-new German light cruiser Karlsruhe, the latter of which was known around Kiel as Ersatz Medusa during her building and outfitter.

Of her six sisters that survived the Great War, Gazelle was scrapped in poor shape in 1920, followed by SMS Nymphe and SMS Thetis which were scrapped in the early 1930s. Likewise, SMS Niobe was sold to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1925. Besides Medusa, the Germans only kept her sisters Arcona and Amazone, which, like our subject, were disarmed by the 1930s and hulked.

New war and a new look

As the Reichsmarine transitioned to the Kreigsmarine in 1935, and the world marched into war once again, Medusa swayed at her moorings until early 1940 when she was towed to Rickmers, Wesemünde, where she was reworked into a floating anti-aircraft battery, dubbed a flak kreuzer. She was not alone in this task as the Germans converted not only her sister Arcona in such a way but also a mix of seven captured Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian warships of similar vintage.

Medusa, her engine rooms gutted and funnels/masts removed, emerged with a new camouflage scheme and looked far and away different than when she was in the Kaiser’s service.

Her armament consisted of five 105/60 SK C/33 guns— good high-angle AAA weapons rated to 41,000 feet in altitude– as well as two 37mm flak guns, eight 20mm flak guns, HF/DF equipment, searchlights, a low-UHF band Würzburg gun-laying radar, and a Kleinkog fire control device, all state of the art for the time.

She would be crewed by the men of Marine Flak Abteilung 222 who not only manned Medusa but five other heavy batteries ashore as well.

Stationed typically at various roadsteads off Wilhelmshaven, Flak Batterie Medusa was frequently towed from anchorage to anchorage to minimize the risk of her being targeted specifically and, between 13 May 1940 and 3 May 1945, would sound her air raid alarm 789 times, sending up flak on at least 136 of those occasions. It should be noted that the Allies, primarily the British, carried out at least 102 air raids on the vital port, with 16 of those being large-scale attacks.

Note Medusa’s scoreboard, with numerous RAF and U.S. bomber outlines, none of which I can confirm. It should be recognized that the famous Flying Fortress, Memphis Belle (Boeing B-17F-10-BO #41-24485) was the recipient of flak while raiding Wilhelmshaven in 1943

Medusa remained afloat and fully operational until she was targeted by an airstrike on 19 April 1945 which killed 22 and seriously wounded 41 others. As the Allies were closing in on Wilhelmshaven, she was towed to the Wiesbaden Bridge and scuttled by her gunners there during the predawn hours of 3 May in an effort to block the channel. The city’s 33,000-man garrison, to include the former residents of Medusa, officially surrendered to Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek’s 1st Polish Armored Division later the same day.

A local firm was granted salvage rights in 1947 and scrapped her wreck over the remainder of the decade.

When it comes to her two remaining sisters, they also proved fairly lucky in Kriegsmarine service. The unarmed ex-SMS Amazone was used post-war as an accommodation hulk for refugees and broken up in Hamburg in 1954 while Arcona, who like Medusa served as a floating AAA platform, was seized by the Royal Navy at Brunsbüttel in May 1945 and subsequently scrapped in 1949.

Today, Medusa is well-remembered in the model collection of the International Maritime Museum Hamburg, where both a circa 1900 white-hulled and a circa 1945 camouflage 1:100 scale example reside.

Speaking of models, Combrig offers an excellent 1:700 scale version of the Kaiser’s gorgon.

Those flak gunners lost on her decks in April 1945 are commemorated in a marker at Wilhelmshaven.

Specs:

Via Combrig

(1900, Kleiner kreuzer)
Displacement: 2,659 tons normal; 3,082 full
Length: 344.8 ft overall; 328 waterline
Beam: 40 ft
Draft: 15.9 ft; 17.5 maximum
Propulsion: 9 x Schulz-Thornycroft water-tube boilers; 7,972 hp; two 3-cylinder triple-expansion steam engines, two 3.5m props
Speed: 21.5 knots (designed), 20.9 knots in practice, 22 trials (all Gazelles were different in this)
Range: 3,560 nmi at 10 knots on 300 tons coal (560 tons max)
Complement: 14 officers, 243 enlisted men
Armor: (Sheathead & Muntz)
Deck: 25mm at ends, 50mm amidships
Conning tower 75-80 mm
Gun shields: 50 mm
Armament:
10 x 10.5 cm/40 (4.1″) SK L/40 (1,000 shells in magazine)
14 x 37mm 1-pounder Maxim Guns (autocannons)
2 x 45 cm (17.7 in) submerged beam tubes (5 torpedoes)

(1945, Flak kreuzer)
Displacement: 3,100 tons
Length: 344.8 ft overall
Beam: 40 ft
Draft: 15.9 ft
Propulsion: None, was towed and generators supplied on-board power while afloat
Armor: Deck: 20-50 mm, Conning tower 80 mm
Complement: 6 officers, 37 NCOs, 237 enlisted in embarked flak batteries and support personnel
Armament:
5 x 105/60 SK C/33 AAA guns
2 x 37mm Flak 36/37
8 x 20mm Flak 30

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

Warship Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020: The Empire Strikes Back

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Oct. 14, 2020: The Empire Strikes Back

National Archives 80-G-703401

Here we see Balao-class fleet submarine USS Atule (SS-403), left, torpedoing ex-U-977 during weapon tests off Cape Cod, 14 November 1946. The (in)famous German boat was far from Atule’s only kill, although it was likely her easiest. However, in the end, she would meet a somewhat ironic fate that had, some contend, an aspect of divine intervention.

A member of the 180+-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature U.S. Navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. U.S. subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were “fleet” boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home. The Balao class was deeper diving (400 ft. test depth) than the Gato class (300 foot) due to the use of high yield strength steel in the pressure hull.

Able to range 11,000 nautical miles on their reliable diesel engines, they could undertake 75-day patrols that could span the immensity of the Pacific. Carrying 24 (often unreliable) Mk14 Torpedoes, these subs often sank anything short of a 5,000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their deck guns. They also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.

Some 311-feet long overall, they were all-welded construction to facilitate rapid building. Best yet, they could be made for the bargain price of about $7 million in 1944 dollars (just $100 million when adjusted for today’s inflation) and completed from keel laying to commissioning in about nine months.

An amazing 121 Balaos were completed through five yards at the same time, with the following pennant numbers completed by each:

  • Cramp: SS-292, 293, 295-303, 425, 426 (12 boats)
  • Electric Boat: 308-313, 315, 317-331, 332-352 (42)
  • Manitowoc on the Great Lakes: 362-368, 370, 372-378 (15)
  • Mare Island on the West Coast: 304, 305, 307, 411-416 (9)
  • Portsmouth Navy Yard: 285-288, 291, 381-410, 417-424 (43)

We have covered a number of this class before, such as the sub-killing USS Greenfish, rocket mail slinger USS Barbero, the carrier-slaying USS Archerfish, the long-serving USS Catfish, and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch —but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.

The first (and only) U.S. warship named for the bluish-olive colored fish, Atule (SS-403) was laid down 25 November 1943 at Portsmouth; launched on 6 March 1944; and commissioned on 21 June 1944, LCDR (later RADM) John Howard Maurer (USNA 1935) in command. Maurer would be Atule’s only wartime skipper, coming to the new boat from a stint as Engineer Officer and later XO of USS Harder (SS-257) across three successful patrols that saw him receive the Silver Star.

Launch of USS Atule at the Portsmouth Navy Yard 3.6.44. NARA

Following a rushed wartime shakedown cruise and fortnight at the sonar school at Key West, Atule was soon off to the Pacific, leaving Pearl Harbor on her first patrol in company with sisterships USS Pintado (SS-387) and USS Jallao (SS-368) as a Yankee wolfpack on 9 October under the latter sub’s skipper’s nominal tactical control.

Aerial photo USS Atule (SS-403) 15 August 1944. Note she is just wearing her 5″/25 aft and two M2s on her sail, an armament that would soon be augmented with a 40mm and a 20mm. NARA 80-G-313787

Heading for patrol areas in the Luzon Strait and the South China Sea, partner Jallao bagged the Japanese Kuma-class light cruiser Tama (5,200 tons) on 25 October northeast of Luzon.

On Halloween night, it was Atule’s turn and she bagged a big one, stalking a large Japanese surface contact in a night surface radar attack and into All Saints Day.

From her Patrol Report:

0305 hours – In position 19°59’N, 117°25’E obtained radar contact bearing 225°, range 26000 yards. Started tracking.

0325 hours – Obtained radar contact on escort vessel.

0331 hours – Obtained radar contact on a second escort vessel.

0359 hours – Started attack, during the approach a third escort was sighted.

0432 hours – In position 20°09’N, 117°38’E commenced firing six torpedoes from 1850 yards. The target was a large passenger liner. Two torpedoes were seen to broach and then disappear.

0434 hours – A terrific explosion threw material three times the height of the target’s masts. Range to one of the escorts was only 1200 yards. Decided to dive. When clearing the bridge, a second torpedo hit the target. Atule dived to 450 feet.

0440 hours – 9 depth charges were dropped but they were not close.

0445 hours – Heard very loud and crackling breaking up noises on the bearing of the target.

0740 hours – Lost contact with the escorts.

The contact was the Japanese NYK liner Asama Maru (16,955 GRT), escorted by two armed minesweepers and a torpedo boat.

Asama Maru was a beautiful ship that in her peacetime service had such personalities as Baron Nishi Takeichi, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Hellen Keller grace her decks. In wartime, she repatriated U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Grew and hundreds of American diplomats and their families back to the West before serving as a shuttle carrying up to 5,000 of the Emperor’s troops at a time to the front lines while hauling Allied POWs back on “hell ship” missions back to the Home Islands. While a troopship, she was armed with depth charges, listening gear, 8cm deck guns, and an assortment of AAA mounts.

Asama Maru and her sisters were literally page no. 1 in ONI 208J “Japanese Merchant Vessels,” hinting at how big a prize she was for American sub skippers.

When Atule found her, Asama Maru was carrying a mix of 1,383 military personnel, civilian employees for the military, and survivors from sunken Japanese merchant ships as well as 170 tons of iron scrap, 80 tons of hemp, 80 tons of raw rubber, and other items. As noted by Combined Fleets, “98 of 201 crew, 21 of 266 gunners and armed guards and 355 of 1,383 military personnel and passengers are KIA. Survivors are rescued by the three escort vessels.”

On 20 November, Atule drew blood once again, sinking the Japanese minesweeper W-38 (648 tons).

Just five days later, Atule haunted Japanese convoy MATA-34 just after midnight on 25 November, with six overlapping torpedoes from her bow tubes reaping the freighter-turned-sub tender Manju Maru/Santos Maru (7,266 GRT)  and the escort patrol boat No.38 (935 tons) in the same salvo. Santos Maru was carrying 2,400 troops and sailors including 430 survivors of the battleship Musashi. In the end, she took almost a third of those men to the bottom with her. As for No.38, it “disintegrated.”

Finally, Atule bagged a 4,000-ton freighter on 27 November, anchored between Dequey and Ibuhos Islands, Philippines. “Fired four bow torpedoes,” said her patrol report. The rest of the report was eloquent if terrifying:

Via NARA

Postwar, Atule was not given credit for the almost certain kill, although Nanko Maru No. 6, which went missing at about the same time, seems a good fit.

Wrapping up her first patrol at Majuro on 11 December, which ran 63 days/16,570 nm with a green crew (53 of 77 men were on their first patrol) and expended 22 Mk 18 torpedoes for 11 hits, Atule claimed five ships for a total of 26,600 tons. Postwar, this would be confirmed at four ships and 25,804, which is fairly close to the estimate tonnage wise.

Atule shipped from Majuro on her second war patrol on 6 January 1945, bound for the Yellow Sea. There, she sent the brand-new freighter Daiman Maru No.1 (6888 GRT) to the bottom on 24 January, having to break ice off her deck gun in the process. Not as exciting as her inaugural cruise, she ended her 2nd war patrol at Midway on 7 March.

Her third patrol left out of Midway on 2 April, tasked with lifeguard duties off the Japanese Home Islands which were under constant attack by Navy and USAAF planes, with her crew often taking the time to sink floating mines and wreckage found in her operational area and (unsuccessfully) stalk an elusive Japanese submarine near the Ashizuri lighthouse.

In a twist of irony– she would have many in her career– the only aviator she would rescue was a Japanese naval observer on 5 May. The observer was retrieved from the water from a downed Jake, which had been smoked by a passing B-29 gunner with spotting provided by the sub.

Once again, Maurer, Atule’s skipper– who was a near classmate of Robert Heinlein— showed his prose in detailing the scene in the patrol log.

“A thick wad of currency, a vial of perfume and several condoms showed he was ready for any eventuality.” (NARA)

Putting into Pearl Harbor on 30 May, she had some downtime to train and resupply, then left on her fourth patrol on 3 July– no Independence Day leave in Honolulu for them– bound once again for Japan’s front yard. On that cruise, in a night action across 12/13 August, she spotted two Japanese frigates, Kaibokan 6 and Kaibokan 16 (both 740 tons), sinking the former and damaging the latter with a brace of six torpedoes.

And that was it, the ceasefire was called on the 15th when Emperor Hirohito announced that his country would accept unconditional surrender. With that, she was ordered to terminate her patrol on the 45th day by COMSUBPAC and return to Pearl via Midway, arriving in Hawaii on the 25th.

By the end of August, even before the official surrender, she was headed to New London.

Reaching the East Coast, Atule was assigned to Submarine Squadron 2 and was used as a training and trial boat. In this role, she traveled to the Arctic in July 1946 as part of Operation Nanook in company with the icebreaker USS Northwind (WAG-282), two auxiliaries, and the seaplane tender USS Norton Sound, the latter embarking PBM flying boats.

Atule off the northwest coast of Greenland, on 20 July 1946, during Operation Nanook. Note that she has her full AAA armarment on her sail. 80-G-636420

It was on this frozen trip along the coast of Greenland that she “reached latitude 79 degrees 11 minutes north in the Kane Basin, setting a record for the United States Navy,” and rescued a PBM that had to put down with engine trouble.

Then came her dramatic sinking of U-977, the Type VIIC that famously ignored the formal German surrender order for U-boat at sea on VE-Day and made for South America instead. The rouge boat entered the port of Mar del Plata, Argentina on 17 August 1945, some 108 days and more than 7,600 nm after it had departed Norway.

U-977 lies in in Mar del Plata, Argentina; rusty and weather beaten after 108 days at sea – Photograph courtesy of Carlos J. Mey – Administrator of the Historia y Arqueologia Marítima website http://www.histarmar.com.ar/ via U-boat Archive

In the end, turned over to the U.S. Navy and towed to Boston for a photoex, Atule sent her to the bottom in the test of a prototype steam-powered torpedo off Massachusetts.

View showing torpedoing of U-977 by ATULE (SS403) on 13 November 1946. As noted by the Navy: The pressure hull of U-977 has apparently been completely severed by the detonation and that the forward and after portions of the hull have jack-knifed. U-977 was a standard German Type VII-C design: length 220′-2″; maximum beam 20′-4″; diameter of pressure hull 15′-5″; pressure hull plating thickness .73″; and submerged displacement 880 tons. The torpedo used by ATULE was a Mark 14 body fitted with a Mark 16, Mod. 4 magnetic proximity-fuzed warhead containing 660 lbs. of Torpex and is believed to have detonated almost directly underneath the keel of U-977. This photograph demonstrates the great destructive power of torpedoes when used against unprotected ships such as submarines.

Her wartime service complete, on 8 September 1947, she was placed out of commission, in reserve, with the New London Group of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. Atule earned four battle stars for World War II service.

Her confirmed WWII tonnage tally stood at 33,379

Atule’s WWII battle flag eventually found its way to the USS Bowfin Museum in Pearl Harbor, where it remains on display today. Note the 51 mines zapped, the rescued Japanese flier chit, and four Rising Suns (Kyokujitsu-ki) and four Hinomaru flags for the eight ships she claimed sunk or damaged

As for Maurer, who earned the Navy Cross on Atule, he went on to hold two surface commands, including the cruiser USS Saint Paul, and be both COMSUBPAC and COMSUBLANT. His final assignment was as Commander of Naval Forces in Key West, retiring from the Navy in 1974.

When it comes to Atule’s sisters, of the schools of Balaos which were commissioned, 10 were lost in the war during operations while another 62 were canceled on the builders’ ways as the conflict ended. In 1946, the Navy was left with 120 units.

Jane’s entry on the Balao class, 1946

Rebirth

After three years on red lead row, Atule was towed to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard– her birthplace– for reactivation and conversion to a Guppy 1-A type submarine.

Of the 48 GUPPY’d WWII diesel boats that were given a second life in the Cold War, Atule was one of the first 10 IA series boats which recieved the most basic reboot when compared to the other Balaos and Tenches modified later.

Outfitted with a German-style snorkel not too different from the one the Navy inspected on U-977, and a streamlined superstructure sans deck guns, Atule rejoined the fleet a stronger, more versatile warship, recommissioned 8 March 1951.

GUPPY-1A USS Atule (SS-403). NHHC L45-15.02.01

For the next 19 years, she led a quiet life, participating in operations with Latin American allies in a series of UNITAS exercises, working with NATO allies on Mediterranean deployments as part of the 6th Fleet, visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, training naval reservists, and, as part of SUBRON12, alternated duty at Key West with service at Guantanamo Bay supporting ASW training for the destroyer force while keeping an eye on Castro.

Reclassified AGSS-403 on 1 October 1969, Atule was decommissioned on 6 April 1970, and her name was struck from the Navy list on 15 August 1973.

In all, she had spent 29 years on the Naval List, with nearly 24 of those on active duty. Not a bad return to Uncle Sam for the $7,000,000 original cost to build her.

The GUPPY-1A entry from the 1973 Jane’s, listing Atule and the last four of her type in U.S. Navy service, USS Sea Poacher, USS Becuna, USS Blenny, and USS Tench, then in reserve.

Points South

Ex-Atule was sold to Peru in July 1974, and renamed BAP Pacocha (S 48), duplicating the name of an earlier boat used by the Marina de Guerra del Perú. She was sent south in tandem with BAP Pabellón de Pica/La Pedrera (SS-49), ex-USS Sea Poacher (SS/AGSS-406) after a refit. Atule/Pacocha was commissioned on 28 May 1974 into the MGP, where she continued her quiet life of training and exercises over the course of the next 14 years. Then came disaster.

On the evening of 26 August 1988, with a reduced crew of 49 men aboard, the 44-year-old submarine was operating on the surface with her hatches open when, just off the port of Callao, a 412-ton Japanese fishing trawler with a reinforced ice-breaking prow collided into her aft port quarter, opening her like a tin can with a 2 meter by 10 centimeters split in the pressure hull. Pacocha didn’t even have time to sound her collision alarm.

Via U.S. Navy Submarine Medical Research Labratory Special Report SP89-1

It was almost as if the ghosts of the Asama Maru, Santos Maru, and others, had returned as wraiths and exacted retribution for the Atule’s past actions.

Nonetheless, the Peruvians had a spirit of their own, it seems.

With the boat taking on water and three men dead, including the skipper, 23 submariners were able to scramble off the submarine before she raced for the bottom of the Pacific some 140 feet down. As the boat was drowning, Teniente Roger Cotrina Alvarado was somehow able to dog a partially flooded hatch to compartmentalize the sub’s forward torpedo room with 21 other survivors, a feat he chalked up to the help of Marija of Jesus Crucified Petković, a Croatian nun who had traveled extensively through Latin America helping the poor and sick.

A 61-page U.S. Navy report on the resulting rescue, compiled in 1989 through first-hand interviews, is fascinating but somewhat outside the scope of this. Suffice it to say, rescue divers were able to use the escape trunk in the forward torpedo room to retrieve the remainder of the crew 23 hours later in six groups, utilising Mark V dive lines.

Naturally, after spending almost a full day 140 feet down in a compromised atmosphere and making a swim to the surface with only the assistance of a rescue hood, most suffered from the bends, but in the end, only one perished.

As for Alvarado, a documentary was made of his efforts and his personal beliefs on the source of his “humanly impossible” strength that day.

Some 11 months after Atule/Pacocha hit the bottom, she surfaced again following 800 hours of work by Peruvian Navy salvage crews, raised on 23 July 1989.

Towed ashore and drydocked, she was studied for the effects of the ramming and sinking, then her hulk was cannibalized for spare parts for other Peruvian submarines.

In the U.S., Atule’s war engineering drawings, patrol diaries, post-war deck logs, and complete WWII muster rolls have been digitized and are online at the National Archives. A veteran’s group was active for several years, but their webpage has since been archived.

Eight Balao-class submarines are preserved (for now) as museum ships across the country.

Please visit one of these fine ships and keep the legacy alive:

-USS Batfish (SS-310) at War Memorial Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
USS Becuna (SS-319) at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
USS Bowfin (SS-287) at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu, Hawaii.
USS Clamagore (SS-343) at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. (Which may not be there much longer)
USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Which is hopefully in the process of being saved and moved to Kentucky)
USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts.
-USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California, (which played the part of the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope).
USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

Specs:
(1944)
Displacement: 1,526 tons (surfaced), 2,391 (submerged)
Length: 311.7 ft.
Beam: 27 ft.
Draft: 13.75 ft.
Machinery: Fairbanks Morse diesel engines, 5,400 HP, fuel capacity, 116,000 gals.; four Elliot Motor Co. electric main motors 2,740 shp, two 126-cell main storage batteries, 2 shafts
Speed: 20.25 kts. (surfaced) 8.75 kts. (submerged)
Endurance: 11,000 miles surfaced at 10 knots; submerged endurance: 48 hours at 2 knots; 75 days
Test Depth: 412 ft.
Complement: 6 officers, 60 enlisted
Radar: SJ
Armament:
1 5″/25cal deckgun, 25 rounds
1 40mm/60 Bofors AAA
1 20mm/80 Oerlikon AAA
2 M2 .50-cal machine guns
10 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 forward, 4 aft), 24 torpedoes
(Post GUPPY 1A)
Displacement: 1,870 tons standard (surfaced), 2,440 (submerged)
Length: 308.
Beam: 27 ft.
Draft: 17
Machinery: 3 Diesels; 4,800 bhp. 2 Electric motors; 5,400 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 17 kts (Surfaced) 15 kts. (Submerged)
Endurance: 90 days
Complement: 8 officers, 73 men
Armament:
10 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 forward, 4 aft) 24 torpedoes

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

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The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

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Warship Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020: U-Boat Hat Trick

Here at LSOZI, we 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, Oct. 7, 2020: U-Boat Hat Trick

Photo # A 22465 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.

Here we see the Attacker-class escort carrier HMS Chaser (D32) as observed from the Telegraphist Air Gunner’s position in a just-launched Fairey Swordfish Mk II biplane strike aircraft of 835 Squadron NAS, while escorting Russia-bound Convoy JW57 in February 1944. Constructed in Mississippi of all places, she had the hull of a freighter but the heart of a lion– and proved particularly deadly to one of Herr Donitz’s wolfpacks.

Most people think the business of making these short flattops, derided as “Jeep Carriers” was one that kicked off post-Pearl Harbor. This is fundamentally incorrect as the U.S. Maritime Commission, under orders from the Navy Department and the guidance of FDR’s White House, got into the “AVG” (Aircraft Escort Vessel) game in late 1939, at a time when the so-called “Phony War” was underway in Europe and both England and France were both very much in the war.

The first two such ships, USS Long Island (AVG-1, later CVE-1) and HMS Archer (D78) respectively, were converted Type C3-class merchant hulls that were brought into naval service in 1940. Capable (in theory) of carrying up to 30 light aircraft and defended by a couple of pop guns, these 13,500-ton vessels were declared an initial success and a follow-on class, the 4-unit Avenger-type with a half hangar, was soon ordered under Lend-Lease. Then followed the much more substantial (45-ship) Bouge-class, which utilized a fuller hangar.

With the Royal Navy in desperate straits in 1941 when it came to aircraft carriers, 9 of the 14 Bogues laid down that year eventually went to the Brits, forming the Attacker-class in RN service. One of these, an 11,900-ton C3-S-A2 type freighter, Hull Number 162, was ordered originally for the Moore-McCormack Lines as the SS Mormacgulf. She was soon requisitioned by the Navy and converted on the builder’s ways at the newly formed Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula to become our HMS Chaser, using the name of an RN sloop that ironically served in the War of Independence era.

Mrs. Jennie Mae Turner, a welder at the Ingalls shipyard, Pascagoula, Miss. Circa 1943. U.S. Maritime Commission photo in Library of Congress. It is still super common to find female welders at Ingalls today.

Nominally commissioned into the U.S. Navy as on 9 April 1943 as USS Breton (AVG-10), she was transferred that day as Chaser in the RN, then marked on U.S Naval List as BAVG-10, with the “B” denoting the British loan.

Some 14,170-tons full load, the 486-foot vessel had a wooden “roof” made up of a 442-foot flight deck. Below deck, she had an 18-foot high hangar that ran 262-feet long and 62 wide. This was serviced by a pair of elevators. When it came to handling equipment, she had a single H2 hydraulic catapult and a 9-wire/3-barrier arrestor system.

Up-armed from the original Long Island-class, Chaser carried two 4″/50s– which had typically been recycled from old Flush Decker tin cans— for warning off surface contacts, and 34 Bofors/Oerlikon AAA guns. She had British radar outfits and commo suites.

Bogue (Attacker)-class sistership HMS Trumpeter (D09) drydocked at Rosyth, Scotland, 4 June 1944. Note the single rudder/screw arrangement, freighter hull, wooden flight deck “roof” and gun sponsons. The angular ones are for 4″/50s while the more rounded are for AAA (IWM A 24056)

In June 1943, equipped with 12 Grumman Avengers of 845 Squadron, the brand-new HMS Chaser sailed across the Atlantic as part of Convoy HX245.

HMS Chaser (D32/R306) underway on 20 June 1943, showing single 20-mm guns on her forecastle and twin 40-mm guns in the forward deck-edge sponsons. Three Avenger strike aircraft are ranged aft. U.S. National Archives photo. Photo and text from Aircraft Carriers of the World, 1914 to the Present: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, by Roger Chesneau. Via Navsource. 

HMS Chaser (D32), commanded by Captain H.V.P. McClintock, at anchor at Greenock, Scotland, date unknown. The photo was taken by Lt. S.J. Beadell, Royal Navy official photographer. Photo # A 17859 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum.

Same day/place/photographer. Photo # A 17861

After a minute spent operating with Fairey Swordfish Mk. II biplanes and Hawker Sea Hurricanes of 835 Squadron, Chaser would later embark 11 Swords and 11 Martlet Mk IVs (British-variants of the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat) of 816 Squadron (commanded by a South African, T/A/Lt.Cdr. (A) Fred Charles “Freddie” Nottingham, DSC, RNVR) for the job of running shotgun for the 42-ship Convoy JW57 from the UK to Murmansk in February 1944.

On the way, several German U-boats had assembled in Norway to jump the convoy but scrubbed their attack due to the heavy air cover, for which Chaser and 816 Squadron could take credit.

A Fairey Swordfish about to be waved off on anti-submarine patrol by the deck control officer aboard HMS Chaser Note the Fairey Swordfish flying above ship to port which has its bows covered in ice. © IWM A 22468

Martlets (Wildcats) and Fairey Swordfish on the flight deck of the CHASER. Note the ice-covered ship astern and the folded wings of the Martlets. © IWM A 22466

Capable of just 140 knots when wide open, while dated when it came to any sort of warfare in WWII, Mark II Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers by 1943 proved valuable once again as, equipped with eight underwing 3-inch rockets, it became a formidable ASW asset against surfaced U-Boats due to their low-speed and stable flight. On 23 May 1943, a rocket-equipped Swordfish destroyed German submarine U-752 off the coast of Ireland, the first such kill, but not the last. IWM A 24981

With JW57 under her belt, then came the Scotland-bound return convoy, RA57, which sailed from Kola Inlet on 2 March. Rolling the dice, the Boreas Wolfpack, which included up to 12 Type VII German subs, moved in to give it a shot as the weather conditions seemed too harsh for aircraft to fly.

They would be wrong.

On 4 March, southeast of frozen Bear Island in the Barents Sea, U-472 (v. Forstner) was sunk by a combination of rockets fired by Chaser’s Swordfish and gunfire from the destroyer HMS Onslaught

“THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER HMS CHASER’S U-BOAT SUCCESS. MARCH 1944, ONBOARD A FAIREY SWORDFISH OF THE CHASER. PICTURES FROM THE AIR OF THE END OF ONE OF THE TWO U-BOATS DESTROYED BY AIRCRAFT OF THE CARRIER HMS CHASER ON A RECENT ATLANTIC CONVOY. (A 22727) The wash of the submarine has been caused by her last vain maneuvers.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154897

“THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER HMS CHASER’S U-BOAT SUCCESS. MARCH 1944, ONBOARD A FAIREY SWORDFISH OF THE CHASER. PICTURES FROM THE AIR OF THE END OF ONE OF THE TWO U-BOATS DESTROYED BY AIRCRAFT OF THE CARRIER HMS CHASER ON A RECENT ATLANTIC CONVOY. (A 22729) The wash of the submarine has been caused by her last vain maneuvers.” Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154899

The next day, on 5 March, U-366 (Langenberg) was sent to the bottom by Chaser’s Swordfish alone in the Norwegian Sea north-west of Hammerfest, with no survivors. 

Finally, on 6 March, U-973 (Paepenmöller) was destroyed by rocket-firing Swordfish in the Norwegian Sea north-west of Narvik.

Three German U-boats in three days*. A record any carrier could be proud of. 

[*A similar event nonetheless occurred two months later when Swordfish from 842 Squadron, flying from one of Chaser’s sisterships, HMS Fencer (D64), sank three U-boats (U277, U674, and U959) of Wolfpack Donner & Keil during Russian Convoy RA59. However, it should be noted that, instead of scratching three boats on three subsequent days, Fencer managed to bag her trio on just two days, 1st and 2nd May 1944.]

To Points West

In the end, RA57 arrived at Loch Ewe having lost just one ship, the 7,000-ton British freighter Empire Tourist, sank by U-703 with no losses. The submarine would later go missing in the Norwegian Sea.

With a collision sidelining Chaser for the rest of 1944, it was decided to send her to the Pacific once she was repaired. Leaving Clyde in February 1945, she carried 20 brand-new Seafires for the British Pacific Fleet’s 899 Squadron.

Chaser arrived in Sydney in May, destined to join the eight other RN baby flattops of the 30th Aircraft Carrier Squadron, which included several of her sisters. Around this time her pennant number shifted to R306.

HMS Chaser arriving at Cochin on the Malabar Coast of India, July 1945, with her flight deck packed with Corsairs, Seafires, and Avengers. The aircraft were to be delivered to the Reception Unit, Royal Naval Air Station Cochin. Some arrived practically fully assembled lashed to the flight deck. Others arrived in packing cases. The photo was taken by an unknown Royal Navy photographer. Photo No A 29289 from the Imperial War Museum Collections.

Used to shuttle replacement aircraft to the BPF’s larger carriers and recover unserviceable aircraft for repair, Chaser was in operations in the Fleet’s train at Leyte in the Philippines and kept up her yeoman service off Iwo Jima and Okinawa, ending the War in Japanese Home Waters where she remained past VJ Day. The then-aircraft-less carrier was used as a troop transport until she returned to the UK in 1946.

HMS Chaser, Hong Kong, 1946 (Art.IWM ART LD 1187) image: a view of the aircraft carrier HMS Chaser moored in Hong Kong harbor. A Chinese junk sail towards the carrier and a small landing craft approaches from the foreground right. Note her R306 pennant. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/19665

Epilogue

After removing her British equipment, Chaser sailed for America with a skeleton crew and was handed over to the U.S. Navy 15 May 1946, resuming her spot on the Naval List as USS Breton (CVE-10) until stricken 3 Jul 1946.

With the U.S. Navy in no need of a partially stripped British escort carrier, she was handed over to MARAD, stricken, and sold 20 Dec 1946. The U.S. launched an astounding 50 Casablanca-class and 45 Bogue-class escort carriers between September 1941 and June 1944. Of these 95 carriers, 87 survived the war but were disposed of.

As for Chaser, flight deck scrapped, she returned to active merchant service as SS Aagtekerk, operating for 21 years with the Dutch N.V. Vereenigde Nederlandsche Scheepvaartmaatschappij (VNS) line. A respectable civilian life. 

Ex-Breton, ex-HMS Chaser, as Aagtekerk, berthed in Bremen, Germany, in the late 1950s with her hull high in the water. Published in a Bremen Port promotion brochure in 1960. Photo by Gerhard Mueller-Debus via Navsource.

Sold again in 1967 to Chinese Maritime Trust, Taipei, she became SS E. Yung. In late 1972, she reportedly foundered and was salvaged then broken-up in Taiwan at Kaohsiung.

Of her sisters, none were quite as successful as Chaser, but all survived the war. Like her, they were returned to U.S. custody, then resold into merchant service, with several lasting for decades. The last Attacker-class afloat, HMS Attacker herself, was only scrapped in 1980, having spent the last years of her life as a floating hotel and casino.

HMS Chaser‘s drawings are located in the National Archives

As for 816 Squadron, whose “Flying Stringbags” bagged the trio of U-boats back in March 1944, they had originally formed aboard HMS Furious in October 1939 and were disbanded by the Fleet Air Arm in 1948. Today their WWII lineage, which included the Malta Convoys and total loss on the destroyed HMS Ark Royal in 1941, as well as their later sub-busting exploits and coverage of the Normandy landings, is carried forward by 816 Squadron RAN, flying MH-60R Seahawks off Australian frigates.

Specs:

CVE-53, D79 – HMS Puncher – Booklet of General Plans, 1944, Bogue/Attacker Class

Displacement: 14,170 tons, full
Length: 486 ft (overall); 465 waterline
Flight deck: 442ft x 80ft wood covered mild steel plate
Beam: 69ft 6in; 107 ft. max over flight deck gun tubs
Draft: 24 ft. full load
Propulsion: 2 Foster Wheeler boilers (285 psi); 1 x Allis-Chalmers geared turbine (8,500 shp), driving 1 shaft
Speed: 18.5 knots
Endurance: 27,300 nautical miles @ 11 knots
Complement: 44 Officers, 766 crew + 94 aviation det. 922 Berths
Armament:
2 single 4″/50 U.S. Mk 9 guns
8 40mm/60 Bofors in 4 twin mounts
26 20mm Oerlikon in 8 twins, 10 single mounts
Aircraft: “Up to 30” single-engine planes, but typically carried 20-22

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I am a member, so should you be!

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