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Warship Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022: Hoagy, Shmoo, Winkle & the Forgotten Ocean

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, Oct.5, 2022: Hoagy, Shmoo, Winkle and the Forgotten Ocean

U.S. National Archives photo 80-G-446967

Above we see the crew of the British Colossus-class light aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) on deck for an inspection by Field Marshal Earl Alexander, the British Defense Minister, on 14 June 1952. Ocean was at the time off the Korean coast– a peninsula where she was highly active some 70 years ago– and she has Hawker Sea Furys of 802 Squadron and Fairey Fireflys of 825 Squadron aboard. It looks like the light cruiser HMS Belfast (C35) is off her stern.

Ocean is often forgotten when it comes to British carriers, as it seems everyone just cares about the ones that were active in WWII and the Falklands and forgot about everything between 1946 and 1982, however, she was important in naval history– being the first flattop to host a jet (intentionally) as well as probably the last to have a combat-ready biplane take off from her deck. As you can tell in the above, she also saw a good bit of combat as well.

Ocean was one of 16 planned “1942 Design Light Fleet Carriers” for the RN. This series, broken up into Colossus and Majestic-class sub-variants, were nifty 19,500-ton, 695-foot-long carriers that the U.S. Navy would have classified at the time as a CVL or light carrier. They were slower than the fast fleet carriers at just 25 knots with all four 3-drum Admiralty boilers lit and glowing red, but they had long legs (over 14,000 miles at cruising speed) which allowed them to cross the Atlantic escorting convoys, travel to the Pacific to retake lost colonies or remain on station in the South Atlantic or the Indian Ocean for weeks.

The classes’ 1946 Jane’s entry with 12 of the 16 sisters listed.

Capable of carrying up to 45 piston engine aircraft of the time, these carriers had enough punch to make it count.

The thing is, only seven of these carriers were completed before the end of World War II and even those came in during the last months and weeks. They effectively saw no service. Laid down beginning in 1942, most of the ships were launched but when the war ended, construction was canceled. Two were completed as a peculiar RN invention of a “maintenance carrier,” intended just to repair and ferry but not operate aircraft. Some were immediately transferred to expanding Commonwealth fleets. Suddenly, the Australians, Canadians, and Indians became carrier operators. The Dutch (later passed on to the Argentines) and Brazilians soon followed. Class leader HMS Colossus was even sold to France as Arromanches.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Our Ocean, a long time coming

The fifth HMS Ocean in the Royal Navy since 1761 was laid down in Scotland on 8 November 1942 at Alexander Stephen & Sons Limited in Glasgow. However, she was a slow build-out and wasn’t launched until after D-Day, with the Australians showing an interest in acquiring her. (While the Australian deal fell through, they did ultimately operate no less than three of her sisters after the war.)

Ocean was captured by noted English painter, Sir Henry George “Harry” Rushbury, at the time, while Sir Henry was working as an official war artist– a job the 56-year-old had done in the Great War as well– around the port of Glasgow.

Shipbuilding, Glasgow, a view looking up at the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) under construction from the quayside. A crane transporting a component onto the deck of the ship looms above while cables and wires cross from the ship to the quay, by Sir Henry Rushbury, 1944. © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23522

This left the Admiralty to commission Ocean on 8 August 1945, three months after the war ended in Europe and just a week before the surrender of the Empire of Japan in World War II was announced by Emperor Hirohito on 15 August.

The aircraft carrier HMS Ocean at sea, late 1945. IWM A 30618

HMS OCEAN, BRITISH LIGHT FLEET CARRIER. JULY 1945, AT SEA. (A 30619) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205161723

Although it had been intended to rush her to join the British Pacific Fleet as a dedicated night fighter carrier in the last push to take down Japan, that plan evaporated soon after she was commissioned and Ocean, therefore, spent the rest of 1945 in home waters at Rosyth as a trials ship, including the final embarkation of the iconic Fairey Swordfish “Stringbag” torpedo bomber that had won laurels at Taranto and against the Bismarck early in the war.

Capable of just 140 knots when wide open, while dated when it came to any sort of warfare in WWII, the Fairey Swordfish became a formidable ASW asset against surfaced U-Boats due to their low-speed and stable flight. Ocean was the last British carrier to operate the type. IWM A 24981

She was also the trials ship for the new twin-engine De Havilland Sea Hornet F.20, with prototype PX219– the full naval version– conducting carrier deck trials on board Ocean in late 1945 with renowned test pilot Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown at the controls. The plane was notable for being the fastest production piston-engine aircraft ever put into service.

The Sea Hornet was designed with cues from the successful De Havilland DH98 Mosquito and powered by a pair of massive 2,070 hp Merlin engines. Brown would later describe it as “Like flying a Ferrari in the sky.”

Winkle Brown also made a bit more history on Ocean in 1945, just before the year was out.

On 4 December 1945, he made the world’s first carrier landing by a jet, bringing the second prototype De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, No. LZ551, aboard HMS Ocean.

De Havilland Sea Vampire Mk.10 LZ551G catches the arresting wire aboard HMS Ocean, on 3 December 1945.

Peacetime service

Deployed to the Mediterranean Fleet in late 1945 with a wing of Seafires and Fireflys, Ocean left her aircraft behind in Malta to run troops to Singapore the next summer, then responded that October to the stricken destroyers HMS Saumarez (G12) and HMS Volage (R41), both of which had been damaged by Albanian infernal devices while conducting mine-clearing operations in the Corfu Channel.

HMS OCEAN, BRITISH LIGHT FLEET CARRIER. JUNE 1948, GRAND HARBOUR, MALTA. (A 31456) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162475

In 1948, Ocean covered the British withdrawal from their troublesome Palestine mandate-– leaving the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the war that followed.

A rare sight post-1945: three British carriers at sea. HMS Ark Royal (R09), HMS Albion (R07), and the little HMS Ocean (R68) bringing up the rear. IWM

Korea

With the balloon going up at the 38th parallel in June 1950, Ocean’s sister, HMS Triumph, happened to be in Japanese waters with the rump occupation fleet of Task Force 95 and soon, in conjunction with the American Essex-class fleet carrier USS Valley Forge (CV-45), was performing air strikes on North Korean airfields within a week of the outbreak of the conflict. By October, another sister, HMS Theseus arrived in the Yellow Sea to join her, with her two dozen Sea Furys logging almost 500 sorties a month by December and a whopping 3,500 sorties in just 86 days. 

Soon, Ocean was being prepped to head to the Pacific to give her sisters some relief.

HMS OCEAN’S NEW COMMISSION. 1951, ON BOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS OCEAN AS SHE RECEIVED HER NEW COMMISSION TO JOIN THE MEDITERRANEAN FLEET. (A 31944) Some of the aircraft of Nos 807, 810, and 898 Squadrons, were stowed on HMS OCEAN’s flight deck after the first landing on the light fleet carrier’s new commission. HMS OCEAN sailed from Portland and joined the 2nd Aircraft Carrier Squadron at Malta on August 3rd. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162892

HMS Ocean. Firefly F.R.5s of 810 squadron ranged on deck, engines running ready for takeoff. Commander (Flying) observes from FlyCo. Working up in the Mediterranean from September 1951 to April 1952. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

On April 5th, 1952, HMS Ocean passes the liner Empress of Australia while leaving Grand Harbor, Malta for the Far East. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

HMS Ocean passing through the Suez Canal on passage to East Asia, May 1952. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

Her first tour off Korea would run from May to November 1952, with Sea Furys of 802 Squadron and Fireflys of 825 Squadron embarked.

ON BOARD HMS OCEAN DURING OPERATIONS IN KOREAN WATERS. 10 JULY 1952. (A 32250) A Firefly of 825 Squadron landing on HMS OCEAN on return from attacking enemy targets. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163137

HMS OCEAN IN KOREA, 1952 – 1953 (KOR 32) A Hawker Sea Fury, with RATOG (Rocket Assisted Take Off Gear), taking off from the carrier HMS OCEAN in Sasebo Harbour, Japan. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205191739

THE ADMIRAL PAID A VISIT. 11 JULY 1952, ON BOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS OCEAN. DURING PATROLS OFF KOREA REAR ADMIRAL A K SCOTT-MONCRIEFF, DSO, FLAG OFFICER SECOND IN COMMAND, FAR EAST STATION, TRANSFERRED FROM HIS FLAGSHIP HMS BELFAST TO HMS OCEAN AND SPENT 4 DAYS ABOARD WHILE HER AIRCRAFT ATTACKED TARGETS IN NORTH WEST KOREA. (A 32243) HMS OCEAN at speed, with planes ranged on deck, in the Yellow Sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016293

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, (A 32259) HMS OCEAN at speed about to catapult her aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016296

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHS OF, AND ONBOARD THE LIGHT FLEET CARRIER HMS OCEAN, AS SHE TOOK PART IN OPERATION PRESSURE PUMP, TARGETING THE NORTH KOREAN CAPITAL OF PYONGYANG. (A 32261) HMS OCEAN at speed about to catapult her aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016298

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, (A 32262) Sea Furies and Fireflies ranged on the flight deck of HMS OCEAN. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205163145

HMS OCEAN TAKES PART IN LARGE RAID ON PYONGYANG. 11 JULY 1952, (A 32260) HMS OCEAN at speed about to catapult her aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016297

The Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Belfast (C35) approaching the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean (R68) off Korea, before the transfer of RADM Alan Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff, Flag Officer, Second in Command, Far East Station from his flagship Belfast to Ocean to observe air operations against targets in north-west Korea. IWM A 32244

HMS Ocean at flying stations, a Sea Fury is on the catapult ready to launch. Via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

West coast of Korea. At least 33 Sea Furys and Fireflies with WWII D-day style invasion stripes were applied to avoid misidentification as North Korean aircraft, ready to launch as part of Operation Pressure Pump, on 11 July 1952, targeting railways outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. IWM KOR 27

On 9 August 1952, FAA LT Peter “Hoagy” Carmichael, who flew Corsairs at the end of WWII, was at the controls of his Sea Fury and logged the only official victory of a piston-engine aircraft over a jet fighter during the Korean War. His four-plane section was attacking railroad facilities near Chinnampo when they were jumped by eight MiG-15s, leaving at least one of the latter burned into the countryside and two others reportedly smoking. While today the kill is usually credited to Carmichael’s young No. 4, Sub-LT Brian “Shmoo” Ellis, the fact remains that on that day a Sea Fury from Ocean bested a MiG and all four British aircraft returned safely to their carrier, where they received a “pretty euphoric” welcome, whereas the MiGs could not say the same. 

From 802 Squadron’s War Diary for the Day: 

Lieutenant Carmichael, Lieutenant Davis and Sub-Lieutenants Haines and Ellis started the ball rolling this morning by flying the first AR of the patrol. By 0600 they had entered the area and had commenced their Hanchon and Pyongyang to Chinnampo rail search. By 0630 they had reconnoitered as far south as Chinji-ri, a small village about 15 miles north of Chinnampo. As they meandered down the line, checking the bridge state as they went, they suddenly saw eight jet bogies to the north. Almost immediately the bogies were identified as MiGs – and were closing. By this time drop tanks were fluttering earthwards and the flight had assumed proper battle formation and No.4 – Sub Lieutenant Ellis – had noticed a shower of red tracer streaming past both sides of his fuselage. He cried “Break” over the R/T and the flight commenced a “Scissors”. It was soon apparent that four MiGs were after each section of two Furies but by continuing their break turns our aircraft presented practically impossible targets to the enemy who made no attempt to bracket.

‘On one occasion a MiG came head-on to Lieutenant Carmichael and Sub Lieutenant Haines – they both fired –  it broke away and proceeded to go head-on to Lieutenant Davies and Sub Lieutenant Ellis – they both fired and registered hits. On another occasion, a MiG pulled up in front of Ellis with its air brakes out and he was amused to find the range closing. He gave a long burst and noticed hits on the enemy’s wings. The aircraft then proceeded northwards and a reduced speed with two other MiGs in company. Meanwhile, the flight, still in its battle formation, managed a dozen or so more firing passes at the MiGs head-on. The dog fight lasted 4-5 minutes and then the MiGs disappeared as quickly as they had arrived – as they departed an aircraft was seen to crash into a hillside and blow up. At first Lieutenant Carmichael thought it was one of his flight and ordered a tell-off. However when No.4 came up “loud and clear” it was realized that the Royal Navy had shot down its first communist aircraft. Lieutenant Carmichael as flight leader is being credited with its destruction officially but the rest of the flight are claiming their quarter as well’

“Sea Fury – MiG Encounter” by Robert Taylor: Flying an 805 Sqn. Sea Fury from HMS Ocean in Korean waters, 1952, Hoagy Carmichael became the first piston engine pilot to destroy a jet aircraft during the war, when he downed a North Korean MiG-15.

Royal Navy Fairey Firefly FR.IV from 825 Naval Air Squadron flying a reconnaissance mission from HMS Ocean (R68) along the eastern seaboard of Korea. 16 September 1952. IWM KOR29

In all, Ocean would log 5,945 sorties in her first Korean tour, dropping 3,884 500/1000-pound bombs and launching 16,490 rockets– not bad for a light carrier with just two squadrons of single-engine aircraft embarked.

After some downtime, she would return to Korean waters from May to November 1953 with two new squadrons aboard– 807 (Sea Furys) and 810 (Firefly).

The British and Australians would keep a light carrier or two off Korea throughout the conflict, all from the same class. Besides Theseus, Triumph, and Ocean, HMS Glory would clock in for a tour in 1951 while the Australian HMAS Sydney would also get into the act. Lending a hand, the Canadian sister, HMCS Warrior, transported replacement aircraft to Korea from Britain. Another sister, the Centaur-class maintenance carrier HMS Unicorn (I72), spent most of the war ferrying aircraft, troops, stores, and equipment in support of Commonwealth efforts in Korea and became likely the only aircraft carrier in history to conduct a shore bombardment when she engaged North Korean observers coastwatchers at Chopekki Point with her QF 4-inch Mk XVIs.

In all, FAA and RAN pilots flew at least 25,366 sorties from these budget flattops during the Korean conflict.

The war is over – HMS Ocean moored at Sasebo in October 1953.

HMS Ocean with her paying off pennant streaming from her mast sailing from Sasebo on October 31st, 1953, for the voyage home to the UK, via The Royal Navy Research Archive.

One last hurrah for Empire!

By January 1954, with a glut of flattops and peace in Korea, the Admiralty decided that Ocean and her sister Theseus should be re-tasked from operating fixed-wing aircraft and refitted for helicopters and a battalion-sized element of marines, then deemed “Commando Carriers,” a concept akin to a U.S. CVHE of the period or later LPH.

HMS OCEAN’S NEW COMMISSION (circa August 1954). (A 31947) Naval air-sea rescue Supermarine Supermarine Sea Otter taxis into a pickup position alongside HMS OCEAN before being hoisted on board. The Supermarine Sea Otter was the last biplane amphibian in Fleet Air Arm service. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205162895

This brings us to the Suez Crisis (Operation Musketeer). After Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, our two new commando carriers were part of the Anglo-French intervention, embarking troops and stores for passage to Cyprus and then on to North Africa. There, Whirlwinds and Sycamores from their decks took part in an early combat experiment in vertical envelopment from the sea, seizing Port Said.

Royal Navy commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64) is shown with a crowded deck of Westland Whirlwind and Bristol Sycamore helicopters of the joint RAF/Army unit which operated alongside Royal Navy helicopters from her flight deck, November-December 1956. Note the French hospital ship in the background. IWM A 33639.

A member of 45 Royal Marine Commando priming a grenade [actually a mortar bomb] before disembarking from HMS THESEUS for the landing beaches at Port Said. Note his sand goggles, Pattern 37 webbing, and Denison smock– all looking very WWII. IWM A 33636.

Captain Griffiths inspecting troops of 45 Royal Marine Commando in full battle equipment, preparatory to their being landed at Port Said from HMS THESEUS. Note the desert goggles and MK V STEN gun of the Marine closest to the camera as well as the 2-inch patrol mortar with bomb tubes on deck. A 33635

British Royal Marines of 45 Commando loading into Royal Navy Westland Whirlwinds aboard the Colossus-class light fleet carrier HMS Theseus (R64) to assault Egyptian positions during the Suez

Royal Navy Westland Whirlwind helicopters taking the first men of 45 Royal Marine Commando into action at Port Said from the commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64) during “Operation Musketeer”. November 1956. IWM A 33640.

A Westland Whirlwind helicopter of the joint Royal Air Force/Army unit is leaving the Royal Navy commando carrier HMS Ocean (R68) with troops for Port Said during the Suez Crisis. November 1956. IWM A 33643

With the Egyptian affair wrapped up, the British chose to pull back “West of Suez” in 1956 and, other than a Baltic cruise that gave the Soviets some heartburn when she called at Helsinki, just over the horizon from Leningrad, Ocean’s days were numbered. Just 13 years old, she was laid up in 1958 and soon nominated for disposal, being sold for scrap in 1962.

Epilogue

Few relics of Ocean remain today.

A large scale model of Ocean is on display in the city of her birth, housed at the Glasgow Transport Museum.

She is remembered in maritime art.

“Ocean Firefly” HMS Ocean in the Korean war, by Roy Gargett

She was outlived by the legends that flew from her deck. 
 
“Winkle” Brown went on to be dubbed the “world’s greatest test pilot,” a title he earned after flying a whopping 487 types (a record verified by Guinness) over his career, interrogating Goering, becoming the only Allied pilot to fly both the rocket-powered Me 163 and more advanced Me 262, and making 2,407 carrier traps while testing the arrestor wires on more than 20 British flattops. He died at Redhill, Surrey, England, on 21 February 2016, at the age of 97 years. The Vampire he landed on Ocean is preserved at Yeovilton. 
 

Captain Eric M. Brown with his De Havilland DH.100 Sea Vampire Mk.10, LZ551, at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton, Somerset, England. (Nigel Cheffers-Heard, Fleet Air Arm Museum)

 
Commander Peter “Hoagy” Carmichael, OBE, DSC, would go on to command 806 Squadron in the 1960s and retire from service in 1984. He passed in 1997, aged 73. His young No. 4 over Chinnampo (now known as Nampo) in 1952, Sub-LT Brian “Schmoo” Ellis, was still alive as late as 2018 and being hailed for his deeds over Korea. (For the record when it comes to prop vs. jet combat, a Marine Corsair of VMA-312 would also later down a MiG in Korea and U.S. Navy Skyraiders would bag a MiG-17 over Vietnam on at least two occasions in the mid-1960s)
 
Meanwhile, Ocean’s four hard-working Korean War squadrons– 802 NAS and 807 NAS (Sea Fury); along with 810 NAS and 825 NAS (Fireflys)– would endure for the most part long past the time their carrier was scrapped: 
 
  • 802 Squadron would fly Sea Hawk FB5s from HMS Albion on top cover during Suez and was then disbanded in 1959. 
  • 807 Squadron would upgrade to Supermarine Scimitars and became well-known for running their new jets hot in airshows across the UK. They would also fire the first British Sidewinder in 1961. 
  • 810 Squadron would fly Hawker Sea Hawks from HMS Bulwark in the Suez, ending several Egyptian MiGs on the runway. Later flying Fairey Gannets before transitioning to become a rotary winged unit, they would fly Sea Kings as late as 2001. 
  • 825 Squadron became a helicopter squadron in 1960 and, after flying Sea Kings during the Falklands, is still around as the Royal Navy’s Operational Conversion Unit for the new AW159 Wildcat. 

As for Ocean’s sisters, the last of her class in the Royal Navy, Triumph, was kept around as a repair ship until 1975 and then scrapped. The Australians kept HMAS Melbourne (R21)/ex-HMS Majestic, on hand until 1980, including using her with A-4 Skyhawks and S-2 Trackers in the Vietnam-era (her bones, sold for scrap for a paltry A$1.4 million, would be slowly picked over by the Chinese for 15 years, jump-starting their domestic carrier program). The third-hand ex-HMS/HMAS Vengeance/ex-NAeL Minas Gerais, also a Skyhawk/Tracker carrier, was sold for scrap by the Brazilian owners in 2004, torched to man-portable pieces on the beach at Alang. The Indian ex-INS Vikrant/ex-HMS Hercules, which has used Sea Harriers as late as 1997, was saved briefly as a museum ship and then scrapped in 2014 ending the era of these well-traveled light carriers. While no less than five American carriers of the same vintage are preserved, there are no British-built carriers as museum ships.

The Admiralty in 1993, perhaps in recognition of Ocean’s work as a commando carrier at Suez, named the new 23,000-ton Vickers-built one-of-a-kind helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12). Although not capable of launching heavily loaded Sea Harriers due to the fact she didn’t have a ski-jump, the new Ocean would for a time be the only British flattop in operation, following the decommissioning of the old Harrier carrier HMS Illustrious (R06) in 2014.

Capable of hosting as many as 20 helicopters including a mix of Wildcats, Merlins, Chinook, and Apaches, HMS Ocean (L12) was in active service with the Royal Navy between 1998 and 2018, the last four as its fleet flagship and the closest thing the Brits had to a carrier.

Decommissioned in 2018, both Brazil and Turkey wanted the ship with the former winning out. She currently operates as NAM Atlântico with an airwing of EC725s, S-70B Seahawks, and AS350s.

The Royal Navy has not had an “HMS Ocean” since, something that should change, in my opinion.


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Warship Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022: Bats, Retiring from the Line

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, Sept. 28, 2022: Bats, Retiring from the Line

Commonwealth of Australia/Royal Australian Navy image.

Above we see the Tribal (Arunta)-class destroyer HMAS Bataan (I91) of the Royal Australian Navy conducting a replenishment at sea in 1951 while dressed in her distinctive “Chicago Blue” scheme. A witness to the Japanese surrender in 1945, “Bats’” Korean War service was extensive, and she set out for home from her second stint off the coast of that peninsula some 70 years ago this week– only to be rewarded with early retirement.

Background on the Tribals

The Tribals were a new type of destroyer designed for the Royal Navy in the late 1920s to experience gained in the Great War and to match the large, modern escorts on the drawing boards of contemporary naval rivals of the time.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Huron (G24), in dazzle camouflage, sailing out to sea during the Second World War during one of her countless trans-Atlantic escorting runs. The Tribal-class destroyer, commissioned on July 28,1943, also served in the Pacific theatre during the Korean War under the new pennant number 216.

These 378-foot vessels could make 36+ knots on a pair of geared steam turbines and a trio of Admiralty three-drum boilers while an impressive battery of up to eight 4.7″/45 (12 cm) QF Mark XII guns in four twin CPXIX mountings gave them the same firepower as early WWI light cruisers (though typically just three turrets were mounted).

Gun crew on Tribal-class destroyer HMCS Algonquin cleaning up their 4.7″/45 (12 cm) Mark XII guns after firing at the Normandy Beaches on 7 June 1944. Note that the crewman kneeling in the rear is holding a 4.7″ (12 cm) projectile. Library and Archives Canada Photograph MIKAN no. 3223884

Some 32 Tribals were planned in eight-ship flights: 16 for the RN (named after tribal warriors: HMS Eskimo, HMS Sikh, HMS Zulu, et. al), eight for the Royal Australian Navy, and eight for the Canadians. Of the Canadian ships, four were to be built by Vickers in the UK and the other four by Halifax shipyards in Nova Scotia. All the Canadian ships were to be named after First Nations tribes (Iroquois, Athabaskan, Huron, Haida, Micmac, Nootka, Cayuga, etc.)

An unidentified Tribal class destroyer in profile

We have discussed the very successful class in prior Warship Wednesdays (e.g., HMS Cossack and HMCS Haida) but relax, they are great ships with amazing histories.

Of the eight Tribals planned for Australia, only three– HMAS Arunta, HMAS Warramunga, and Bataan— were ever completed. All constructed at the Cockatoo (Island) Docks and Engineering Company near Sydney, Arunta and Warramunga joined the war in 1942 while Bataan would follow three years later, and the five others ultimately canceled.

HMAS Bataan was laid down on 18 February 1942 as the last Australian Tribal-class destroyer and was originally going to be named either HMAS Chingilli or HMAS Kurnai, but was renamed in response to the U.S. Navy’s christening in 1943 of the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser USS Canberra (CA-70) in honor of the sunken County-class heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra, the latter lost to the Japanese alongside two American cruisers in the disaster at Savo Island the year prior. As such, she was the only Tribal not to be named after a people or nation of the British Empire (RAN Tribals were named for Aboriginal tribes.)

Mrs. Jean Marie MacArthur, the wife of General Douglas MacArthur, was invited to launch her.

Since she was completed three years after Arunta and Warramunga, Bataan was an updated version of her older sisters including a lattice foremast with an American SC pattern radar, and six single 40mm Bofors as close-range armament.

WWII

Following shakedown, Bataan put on a British destroyer pennant and sailed for the Philippines in July 1945 to join Task Force 74 in Subic Bay, then in company with sister Warramunga, made for Okinawa and the Japanese Home Islands with an eye to the sky, wary of kamikaze.

The Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Bataan (I91) anchored off Manila, Philippines, circn August 1945. She wears the British Pacific Fleet pennant number “D09”. Note her American SC radar fit on the foremast, different from most RN Tribals of the time which usually carried a British Type 268 Cheese antenna” set. Photo by Pte. M.V. Gulliver, AWM 134521.

On the morning of 31 August 1945, Bataan and Warramunga were part of the British Pacific Fleet ships that entered Tokyo Bay, screening the cruisers HMS Newfoundland, HMNZS Gambia, HMAS Shropshire, and HMAS Hobart. At 0930 on 2 September, they stood by for the formal surrender ceremony that took place on the battleship USS Missouri, which MacArthur, among others, attended.

Bataan soon got into the business of coming to the rescue of Allied POWs liberated post VJ-Day in addition to occupation and disarmament duties which kept her in Japanese waters until November. Then came a much less tense cruise home.

Crossing the line ceremony, 1945, via the AWM.

Korea

Returning to Japan on occupation duties in September 1946, Bataan would spend 17 months there in four different tours through 1949 and then would return in June 1950 for her fifth post-war cruise to the rebuilding country. As the North Korean Army crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea on 25 June, Australia, under UN mandate, was soon in another war.

On 29 June 1950, Bataan, along with the River-class frigate HMAS Shoalhaven (K535) and the cruiser HMS Belfast as Task Group 96.8, was placed at the disposal of the British Far East Fleet commanded by RADM William Andrewes. The ships, joined by the RAAF’s No.77 Squadron– a P-51 Mustang squadron based in Japan– were Australia’s first contribution to the conflict.

Following duty escorting troop convoys from Japan to Korea, Bataan was carved off from the British fleet and joined TG 96.5 for the Pohang amphibious operation, screening the cruiser USS Juneau (CL-119), and clocking in with three American tin cans (Coller, Higbee, and Kyes) for NGFS.

On 1 August, Admiral Andrewes took Belfast and Bataan into the Haeju Man approaches to bombard the shore batteries guarding this potential source of enemy seaborne supply.

HMAS Bataan’s 4.7s in action

She would continue to lend her guns to the fight, supporting mine sweeping and counter-battery fire in the Kunsan approaches in September and covering the amphibious landings at Wonsan in October.

By the end of the year, she was operating in the freezing seas just 12 miles from the entrance of the Yalu under arctic conditions.

British Commonwealth destroyers moored off Yokosuka, Japan, after returning from combat patrols in Korean WatersThe phototo is dated 26 January 1951. The ships are (from left to right): HMAS Warramunga HMAS Charity, and HMAS Bataan. NH 90625

Supporting the fighting withdrawal from the Yalu after the New Year, operating in direct support of the U.S. 8th Army, her first Korean war tour ended on 18 May. During her 11-month deployment, Bataan was underway for more than 4,000 hours on active operations and steamed some 63,292 miles.

Following a seven-month refit and shakedown, Bataan deployed from Sydney in January 1952 for a second Korean tour, relieving HMAS Murchison at Kure the next month.

As noted by the RAN:

It was the familiar pattern on the west coast of Korea, blockade enforcement, shore bombardment and escort duty. The weather, true to the forebodings of old hands in the ship, was bleak and squally with temperatures down to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. On the night of her arrival Bataan was allocated a patrol between Sokto and Chodo, three miles from the enemy held mainland, for harassing fire support.

The patrolling was constant and enemy forces active. On 13 February the destroyer carried out her first air spot bombardment using spotters from HMS Glory to shell enemy troops encamped outside the village of Pungchon. Later the same day as dusk was falling a brief duel began between the ship and 75mm shore batteries, ending with silence from the enemy and a single hit on the captain’s day cabin after 78 rounds of 4.7-inch ammunition had started two fires on the battery positions. The patrol ended on 24 February with a heavy bombardment of enemy positions on the mainland opposite Hodo Island. 543 rounds of 4.7-inch and 75 rounds of 4-inch ammunition had been expended when the ship finally withdrew en route for Sasebo.

Curiously, the U.S. Navy was operating USS Bataan (CVL-29) off Korea while our HMAS Bataan was in the region.

USS Bataan (CVL-29), shown here underway in January 1952 with “Black Sheep” F4U-4B Corsair fighter-bombers of VMF-314 on board, was planned as the Cleveland-class light cruiser USS Buffalo (CL-99), she was one of the Clevelands chosen for conversion into Independence-class light carriers and was therefore renamed from her traditional cruiser “city” moniker in honor of the Battle of Bataan. Commissioned on 17 November 1943, the flattop earned six battle stars for WWII and another seven for Korea. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-633888

And, in true naval history fashion, the two even worked together at least twice, in January 1951 and again in March-April 1952.

HMAS Bataan (I91) escorting USS Bataan (CVL-29) off the coast of Korea, April 17th, 1951. NHHC image.

In May 1952, Bataan served as a mothership for inshore daylight guerrilla raids by Wolfpack and Donkey partisan groups while firing 400 4.7-inch shells in close support, bombarding the enemy on eight occasions, leaving her skipper to note that the month was “never a dull moment.” Then came an extended period operating on the screen of the British carrier HMS Ocean.

Korea. Elevated port side view showing detail of the forward part of the destroyer HMAS Bataan (ex-HMAS Kurnai) (D191) as she receives personnel by highline from the aircraft carrier HMS ocean. Note forward twin 4.7-inch Mk XII guns in cp xix mountings, with the breeches of B mounting prominent and the 40 mm Bofors aa gun in the port bridge wing. Behind the bridge are the director control tower and rangefinder tower MK II with a Type 285 fire control radar mounted upon the latter. Note rope stowage in the blast screen forward of B mounting and Carley floats by the forward superstructure with paddles neatly arrayed. The screening destroyer in the background is HMS Consort. (Naval Historical Collection) AWM.

August saw her flirting with Typhoon Karen as she prepared to end her 2nd Korean deployment. On the books were 40,277 steaming miles fothese nine monthsod and arrived back at Sydney on 3 October. In all, she fired 3,462 rounds of 4.7-inch, 549 rounds of 4-inch, 8,891 rounds of 40mm, and 3,240 rounds of 2-pounder pom-pom ammunition in anger in 1950-52. This was only bettered in the war by her sister ship Warramunga.

Operating off the Korean coast, members of HMAS Bataan, load a 4.7 gun for firingin , August 1952. Note the soup bowl helmets but lack of flash gear. Pictured, left to right; Able Seaman A. P. ‘Jock’ Harley, Leading Seaman R. J. ‘Bob’ McArthur, Leading Seaman Hugh M. Currie (rear), and Able Seaman N. B. Cregan. AWM HOBJ3429.

Combat artist Frank Norton was aboard her in Korea and several of his works in which Bataan is at the center are in the AWM collection. On 7 August 1952, Norton was transferred at sea to HMAS Bataan (via helicopter from Ocean to HMS Newcastle than at sea to the destroyer by jackstay) to ride out the rest of the tin can’s last Korean patrol, including Typhoon Karen.

View from the deck of destroyer HMAS Bataan towards unidentified ships at anchor, small craft transferring men to USS Strong (DD-758), an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer of Task Force (TF) 77. Strong deployed to Korea from June to October 1952 and served with the United Nations Blockade and Escort Group on the west coast and was at Pusan, Songjin, and Wonsan.

Norton depicts part of RAN destroyer HMAS Bataan, with motor and sail junks manned by members of the Wolfpack irregular forces alongside. The RAN destroyer HMAS Bataan is not to be confused with the United States Navy aircraft carrier USS Bataan.

A view of typhoon ‘Karen’ from the deck of the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Bataan on the high seas, with unidentified ships on the horizon. In a letter to the Director of the Memorial in September 1952, Norton recalled ‘The day after joining “Bataan”, all ships on the coast were forced out to sea by Typhoon “Karen” – and rode out – the backlash of the storm. Norton strove to convey a sense of the Korean coastal landscape and weather during patrols. In his letter, he comments on the unpleasant conditions at sea caused by cramped living quarters and tropical weather.

Final hurrah!

Arriving back home from two lengthy Korean deployments, Bataan was selected for conversion to an anti-submarine escort destroyer in late 1952. This saw the deletion of her WWII anti-air suite, the fit of a Squid anti-submarine mortar, and the replacement of the foremast with a lattice structure. She would sail on exercises with RNZN ships and those of other SEATO members in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, roaming as far as Singapore.

In October 1953, sailing in conjunction with the carrier HMS Vengeance, Bataan would suffer an “intense cyclonic depression” that damaged the destroyer.

Patched up but with a wonky bow, six months later she would be part of the Royal escort for Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Australia.

HMS Ceylon escorts the Royal yacht SS Gothic along with HMAS Bataan (I91), HMAS Anzac (D59), and HMS Vengeance (R71), in April 1954.

Vengeance made the occasion unique.

As noted by the RAN, “On seeing the image taken of Vengeance, HM is reported to have commented that it was a most original forgery.'” Photo via the Robert Elliston Glasgow Collection – State Library of Western Australia.

Following that handover of Gothic to the cruisers HM Ships Colombo and Newfoundland in the Indian Ocean, on 5 April, during a replenishment at sea between Vengeance and Bataan off Cocos Island, the destroyer became entangled and cracked up in rough seas against the hull of the much larger carrier.

HMAS BATAAN in a terrifying jam – L.M. Hair, HMAS CERBERUS Museum.

HMAS CERBERUS MUSEUM COLLECTION 156 HMAS BATAAN and VENGEANCE photo L.M. Hair.

As detailed by the Naval Historical Society of Australia:

Former Chief Radio Electrician Bill Robertson, who was on board Bataan at the time, believes the collision was caused by a rogue wave which lifted Bataan’s bow and turned the ship towards Vengeance, when there were less than 10 tons of fuel left to transfer.

“The change in heading couldn’t be controlled by the quartermaster in time to avoid a collision,” he said. “The Venturi effect, so dreaded when two moving vessels are so close together, held Bataan’s port side in contact with Vengeance’s starboard side. “There was an imminent danger Bataan would roll over and be sucked under Vengeance.” Mr. Robertson said, as Bataan slowly slid aft, each time Vengeance rolled to starboard, her AA platforms came down on Bataan’s port superstructure. “Then the port side of the PO’s Mess, the ‘B’ gun deck, and the Bofors platform on the port side of the bridge were all crushed,” he said. “I remember thinking the noise sounded like the damage was going to be expensive.”

According to Mr. Robertson, only the quick thinking of CO Bataan CMDR Glenn Fowle saved the ship. “He ordered, ‘hard a’ port, full ahead together’,” he said. “This forced our bow into Vengeance while kicking the stern out. “When Bataan had pushed itself out to about 45 degrees, the CO ordered full astern together, which separated the ships but didn’t do the bow any favors. “At the time of the action I was on the starboard side of the bridge with a lifejacket in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other, somewhat unsure which had priority.”

Her bow banged up even further, Bataan paid off at Sydney on 18 October 1954, having steamed 279,395 miles since commissioning. Placed on the Disposal List, she was soon sold to a Japanese shipbreaker for demolition.

Epilogue

Several relics from the destroyer are in the Australian War Memorial collection including a Hinomaru signed by 55 of her crew in indelible purple ink on the occasion of the surrender of Japan in Tokyo Harbor on 2 September 1945.

The AWM also has her RAN Reports of Proceedings on file as well and the Memorial has digitized them. For reference, the Jan. 1950-Jan. 1952 file for Bataan is 231 pages alone.

Meanwhile, there are several markers to Bataan dedicated around Australia.

In 2021, a 1/72 scale model of Bataan, crafted from brass, copper, and aluminum over two years by one of her WWII vets, was put on display at the entrance to the Sea Power Centre – Australia’s Naval History Section in Canberra. 

Said her 95-year-old maker and former destroyerman, “I’m upset, looking at warships today. They are just steel boxes with a sharp end on them. There’s no shape to them, no flares, they’re not romantic, unlike Bataan,” and I cannot agree more.

As for Bataan’s sisters, both Arunta and Warramunga earned honors for WWII and Korea, then were paid off in the 1960s, experiencing a longer life than that seen by Bats. It is no surprise that these two ships topped 357,273 miles as steamed by Arunta and a half million miles steamed by Warramunga.

When it comes to her expanded Tribal-class family, no less than 12 of the 16 members in British service were lost during WWII and the remaining quartet paid off by 1949. All the Tribals in Canadian service were sold to the breakers by 1969 save for Haida who is the only member preserved as a museum ship, all others turned to razor blades.

Known as “Canada’s most-fightingest ship” Haida (DDE 215) is open to the public in Hamilton, Ontario. Like Bataan, she saw combat in both WWII and Korea, decommissioned in October 1963 after 20 years of hard service. (Parks Canada)

Specs:
Displacement:1,959 long tons (1,990 t) tons standard, 2,519 long tons (2,559 t) deep load
Length: 377 ft (114.9 m)
Beam: 37 ft 6 in (11.4 m)
Draught: 13 ft (4.0 m)
Propulsion:
2 shafts; 3-Admiralty 3 drum type boilers
2 × Parsons Marine geared steam turbines, 44,000 shp
Speed: 36.5 knots (maximum), 32 knots (service)
Complement: 259 (14 officers, 245 ratings)

Armament:

3 x 2 4.7-inch (119 mm)/45 QF Mark XII guns in twin Mark XIX mounts
1 x 2 4-inch (102 mm)/45 Mark XVI QF in twin mount
6 x 40mm Bofors
1 quad launcher with Mk.IX torpedoes (4 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes)
1 rail + 2 Mk.IV throwers (Mk.VII depth charges)


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Warship Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2022: Way Down Upon…

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, Sept. 24, 2022: Way Down Upon…

U.S. Navy photo in the National Archives. 80-G-344419

Above we see Naval Aviators of the “Flying Boars” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 40, upon their return to the Sangamon-class escort carrier USS Suwannee (CVE 27), talking about splashing three Japanese Vals off Okinawa, on 16 May 1945. In flight suits are (L-R): Ensign Raymon L. Lebel, LT John E. Lockridge, and LT (jg) Joseph Coleman. For that month alone, the F6F-3 Hellcat squadron would claim six enemy aircraft and nine fishing boats destroyed.

Not a bad job for flying from a converted oiler.

Tanker flattops

During WWII, the U.S. launched 50 of the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company’s Casablanca-class and 45 smaller Bogue-class escort carriers between September 1941 and June 1944. These 95 rapidly built flattops, based on simple Liberty ship/C3-class freighter hulls, were the bulk of the “jeep carrier” production. At just 10,000-ish tons and about 500 feet long with the ability to carry about 20 or so aircraft (typically Wildcats and Avengers), these formed the backbone of the Allied “hunter-killer” ASW teams in the Battle of the Atlantic and later lent their shoulders to support amphibious warfare landings across the Western Pacific.

However, before the Navy settled for these little guys, it rushed a four-ship class of oiler conversions into service which set the bar high for the type.

The largest escort carriers converted for the U.S. Navy; the Sangamon-class all started life as big Maritime Commission Type T3-S2-A1 oil tankers. Large and turbine powered, the 553-foot, 11,300-ton (gross) vessels could tote 146,000 bbl. of oil at 18-19 knots and do it reliably. A full dozen of these had been laid down before WWII started, originally intended for a variety of U.S.-flagged oil companies. Of that dozen, all were rapidly taken up by the Navy in the summer of 1941 for conversion to desperately needed Cimarron-class oilers, a type the fleet would need possibly more than any other in 1942.

The thing is, in 1942, the Navy found it needed aircraft carriers even more.

Four CimarronsSS Esso Trenton, Esso Seakay, and Esso New Orleans, all originally planned for Standard Oil; and Esso Markay, which would drop the “Esso” and become just the SS Markay for the Keystone Tankship Corp– had only just gotten as far as changing their names to the Cimarron-class standard convention after rivers when the Navy stepped in once again and ordered their fast conversion to “Aircraft Escort Vessels,” often with different hull numbers to keep things properly confusing.

  • SS Esso Trenton became USS Sangamon (AO-28), then AVG-26.
  • SS Esso Seakay became USS Santee (AO-29), then AVG-29.
  • SS Esso New Orleans became USS Chenango (AO-31), then AVG-28
  • SS Markay became USS Suwannee (AO-33), then AVG-27.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

While our vessel is the only “Suwannee” on the NVR– named for the river which rises in Ware County in southeastern Georgia and flows southwest across Florida to empty into the Gulf of Mexico at Suwannee Sound– the Navy had two previous “Suwanee,”: a Civil War gunboat that spent her career fruitlessly chasing the Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah, and a captured German steamer (ex-SS Mark) that was turned into a collier in the Great War.

Four ladies swimming and eating watermelon in the Suwannee River, Fanning Springs Florida

Our subject vessel was laid down at New Jersey’s Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. as hull number 5 on 3 June 1939 for Standard Oil, then, as mentioned, was delivered to Keystone in early 1941 sans her planned “Esso” prefix. She was purchased by the Navy on 26 June 1941.

Tanker SS Markay (incorrectly listed as Esso Markay) was photographed on 26 June 1941, just before conversion into USS Suwannee (AO-33), later AVG/CVE-27). Probably photographed in Baltimore, Maryland. 19-N-24297

Her Navy conversion was brief, and Suwannee was placed in commission on 16 July 1941 after just three weeks of work which consisted primarily of adding underway replenishment gear, painting her haze gray, and bolting on a topside armament of a single 5-inch gun and four water-cooled .50 caliber machine guns.

Her first task was to take Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron (MTBRon) 1, including its men as passengers and six 77-foot Elco torpedo boats (PT-20, PT-21, PT-22, PT-23, PT-24, and PT-25) as deck cargo, to Hawaii, shipping out from Brooklyn with the mosquito boats aboard and arriving at Pearl Harbor on 18 September, delivering the craft to Hawaii. Originally to go to the Philippines, MTBRon 1 would instead see action at Pearl Harbor, then later at the Battle of Midway, and participated in the Aleutian campaign.

PT Boats and Zeros Painting, Oil on Canvas; by Griffith Baily Coale; 1942; Unframed Dimensions 10H X 20W Accession #: 88-188-AF On the brightly colored waters of the lagoon, the PTs are skimming about, darting here and dodging there, maneuvering between the rows of machine gun splashes, incessantly firing their twin pairs 50 caliber guns.

Shipping back to the East Coast, Suwannee carried passengers and cargo from Texas to Newfoundland in the uneasy neutrality that was the U.S. in 1941. At Norfolk Navy Yard in maintenance on December 7th, she continued her service as an oiler, dodging U-boats along the East Coast.

With the success of the small early escort carriers USS Long Island (originally AVG-1, later ACV-1 then CVE-1), her sister HMS Archer (D78), and the Royal Navy auxiliary aircraft carrier (aka escort carrier) HMS Audacity (D10), it was decided just two months after Pearl Harbor to convert the quartet of above-mentioned oilers to carriers.

With that, Suwannee decommissioned on 20 February 1942 at Newport News, Virginia, to begin the conversion process.

Meet your new carrier

Recommissioned 24 September 1942– 80 years ago this week– our new carrier’s first skipper was Capt. (later Admiral) Joseph James “Jocko” Clark. The first Native American to graduate from Annapolis when the Cherokee passed out in 1917, Jocko learned his trade in the surface warfare field and then became a Naval Aviator in 1925. He was XO of USS Yorktown (CV-5) at the Coral Sea and Midway, having just seen his beloved carrier sent to the bottom just three months before taking command of his tanker-turned oiler-turned-AVG. Kind of a demotion and promotion all at the same time.

Armed with two 5″/38s, one port another starboard, these ships would eventually carry 22 40mm and 21 20mm AAA guns before the war was out, giving them a respectable self-defense armament.

The Sangamon class carrier’s air department included the flight deck and hangar deck crew, an Aerology Lab, radar, and radio maintenance shops, a photographic lab, a parachute loft, an ordnance gang, and Air Office. With a flight deck 503 feet long and 85 feet wide, they had a single catapult installed but would later pick up a second. They were the only CVEs during the war that were deemed suitable to fly dive bombers from as the SBDs were awkward on small hulls since their tough wings, filled with massive air braking flaps, did not fold.

Keep in mind that in their full-load 1944 displacement, the Sangamons went almost 25,000 tons, twice the weight of other CVEs. 

USS Sangamon, as converted

Suwanee’s first air group, 18 F4F Wildcats and 15 new TBF Avengers of Escort Scouting Group (VGS) 27 were the Navy’s top aircraft of the time and were attached on the day she was recommissioned. It should be noted this was significantly larger than the freighter-based CVEs (some of which only shipped out with eight aircraft) and, with a more robust hull type, the oiler-based baby flattops could conduct ops in higher seas. Truth be told, they should have been labeled “light carriers” as they were much close to the cruiser-hull converted Independence-class CVLs in size (15,000 tons, 620 feet oal for Indy) and supported roughly the same sized air wing.

As noted in Hunter-Killer: U.S. Escort Carriers in the Battle of the Atlantic by William T. Y’Blood:

The Sangamon-class ships were much more stable than the Bouge-class vessels because they had lower flight decks– 42 feet versus 54 feet– on a longer hull. These vessels also had two elevators but the hangar deck distance between them was shorter than in the other carriers. This shorter length was mitigated by increased width and no shear in the hangar deck area. A number of openings in the flat sides of the hull gave excellent ventilation for the hangar deck.

One big advantage that vessels of the Sangamon class had over the Bogue class was in the amount of fuel oil the former could carry. The Bouge could carry only 3,290 tons whereas the Sangamons could carry over 5,880 tons. Over and above this, too, was the fact that these ex-oilers could carry 100,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 7,000 gallons of aviation lubricants.

The Sangamon-class were very efficient, with more speed, greater range, increased stability, and the capability of operating more aircraft than the earlier escort carrier classes. However, because of the critical need for more oilers, these four ships would be the only such vessels converted. Had sufficient tanker hulls been available, the Kaiser CVEs might never have been built.

Aerial view of the escort carrier USS Suwanee (CVE-27) underway. USN 470158

Torch!

Just barely out of the shipyard– their guns had only been test fired for structural validation and yard workers were still aboard– the four Sangamons were joined with the Navy’s only “real” carrier in the Atlantic at the time, the smallish USS Ranger (CV-4), to form TF34 under RADM Ernest McWhorter and head to North Africa where they would support the Operation Torch landings.

As the Vichy French had 170 modern aircraft ashore in Morrocco as well as a significant surface and submarine force, and, if they wanted to, could be a formidable opponent, the five-carrier task force had its hands full.

The carriers had to mix and match their air wings so that Chenango could carry 76 Army P-40F Warhawks on a one-way trip. To support the landings, Ranger carried 54 Wildcats and 18 SBDs while Sangamon would ship with 9 Avengers, 9 SBDs, and 12 Wildcats; Santee with a strike-heavy package of 14 F4Fs, 8 TBFs, and 9 SBDs; and Suwanee with at least 29 Wildcats drawn from VGF-27 and VGF-28 and 9 TBFs. The Wildcats, fresh from Grumman, had to test fire their guns for the first time on the trip from the East Coast to the war zone.

USS Brooklyn (CL-40) and USS Suwannee (ACV-27) underway, with the amphibious convoy, en route to North Africa, in early November 1942. 80-G-30228.

USS Santee (ACV 29) en route to Torch landings

Color image showing SBD Dauntless and F4F Wildcat aircraft on the flight deck of USS Santee (ACV 29) during Operation Torch. Note the directions written on the deck

USS Chenango (CVE-28) ferrying army P-40F fighters to Morocco, with the North African Invasion force, November 1942. 80-G-30221

As the landings had three major objectives– Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers– Ranger and Suwanee would remain in the Center Attack Group (TG 34.9) headed for Casablanca, Sangamon and Chenango headed for Port Lyautey with the Northern Attack Group (TG 34.8), and Santee would cover the Southern Attack Group (TG 34.10)’s push off Safi.

Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter (nicknamed “Rosenblatt’s Reply”) on board USS Suwanee (ACV-27), circa late 1942 or early 1943. The plane bears traces of the yellow Operation Torch marking around its national insignia. Photographed by Ensign Barrett Gallagher, USNR. 80-G-K-15634

SBD Dauntless dive bombers pictured in flight over an escort carrier during Operation Torch. NNAM photo

As noted by DANFS:

Early in the morning of 8 November, Suwanee arrived off the coast of Morocco, and, for the next few days, her Wildcat fighters maintained combat and antisubmarine air patrols, while her Avengers joined Ranger’s in bombing missions. Between 8 and 11 November, Suwannee sent up 255 air sorties and lost only five planes, three in combat and two to operational problems. On 11 November, off Fedala Roads, her antisubmarine patrol claimed the destruction of a submarine, a “kill” not verified in post-war accounting.

While DANFS says Suwanee’s claim wasn’t borne out post-war, most other sources disagree.

To expand on that, Suwanee’s operations included sending her Avengers with Ranger’s airwing to attack the French battleship Jean Bart and three submarines at Casablanca, scoring a bomb hit on the incomplete dreadnought and one on the docked submarines. Her Avengers also got in licks against the cruiser Primaguet and the destroyer Albatros as they tried to sortie from Casablanca’s outer harbor.

With her Wildcats burning gas providing a CAP over the Task Force, it once again fell to her Avengers to do the heavy lifting, with four TBF “Turkeys” smothering the French Redoutable-class submarine Sidi Ferruch (Q181) in a dozen Mk.17 depth bombs off Fedhala Roads.

French submarine Sidi-Ferruch (Q181) facing the cathedral of Saint Mary Major in the Old Port of Marseille, pre WWII

As noted by Y’Blood:

The Sidi-Ferruch was diving when the last four bombs exploded directly over her. The conning tower bobbed back up, and pieces of the vessel were flung in the air. The conning tower then submerged vertically. Violent explosions and a “boiling” of the water disturbed the surface for about ten minutes. Seeing the obvious death throes of the submarine, the fourth pilot held his bombs. A light boiling of the water, accompanied by some oil, continued for 45 minutes. There was no doubt that the VGS-27 fliers had destroyed the sub.

Even Uboat.net, the gold standard these days for Axis submarine losses in Europe, holds that Sidi Ferruch met her end at the hand of Suwanee’s air group.

It was the first time an American escort carrier would bag an enemy submarine but it would be far from the last. In the Battle of the Atlantic, jeep carriers would harvest more than 50 U-boats and at least two Japanese submarines while in the Pacific and Indian Oceans at least another nine would be added to the list. Suwannee’s sister Santee’s embarked VC-9 air group across a single cruise in July 1943 would tally three German boats: U-160, U-509, and U-43

Overall, the four “oiler carriers,” rushed through a hasty conversion to aviation vessels, acquitted themselves well in Torch. Despite almost near total inexperience by all involved, with new planes flown by green crews from ships that had been cobbled together, the three operational Sangamons flew 582 combat sorties in four days, dropped 399 bombs, and fired 111,000 rounds of ammunition. In exchange, they lost 29 aircraft– 21 from Santee alone– and landed 74 of 76 Army P-40s from Chenango.

Shifting gears to Guadalcanal

The Vichy regime over, and all but occupied metropolitan France now in with the Allies, Suwannee sailed home and, after a short yard period, was transferred to the Pacific where the fight around Guadalcanal was at its height and the Navy could only count on one or two forward deployed carriers at a time, all the others having been sunk or sent home with a beating.

Reaching New Caledonia on 4 January 1943, Suwannee spent the next seven months providing air escorts for Guadalcanal-bound convoys and in the occupation of New Georgia, Rendova, and Vanunu. She was interchangeably part of TF 18 and TF 69 during this period. The beans, bullets, and avgas that made it to the Marines and Soldiers on “The Canal” during this period largely did so under a protective umbrella of Wildcats and Avengers from Suwannee.

View from another ship showing a Sangamon-class aircraft carrier underway in the South Pacific in 1943. NNAM photo

It was during this time that one of her airedales, AMM B. L. Thomas, penned several safety drawings that were turned into posters.

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), April 7, 1943. Flight deck poster made by an AMM, B. L. Thomas, of the crew. Artwork details the dangers of propellers. Photograph: April 7, 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. 80-G-39315

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details crossing the flight deck during launchings. 80-G-39316

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details crossing the flight deck during landings. 80-G-39317

USS Suwannee (AVG-27), poster by Thomas. Artwork details sitting on the flight deck during flight operations. 80-G-39318

Suwannee returned to the U.S. for a brief refit, leaving Espiritu Santo on 26 August and arriving at Alameda on 10 September. There, she left her original air wing of VGS-27 behind and picked up the 12 F6F-3 Hellcats, 9 TBM-1C Avengers, and 9 SBDs of the newly formed Air Group (CVEG) 60 composed of VC-60 and VF-60. She would carry this force through November 1944 and would be the only carrier to embark CVEG-60.

Leaving San Diego on 16 October, Suwannee was back at Espiritu Santo and returned to service in time to spend Thanksgiving 1943 as part of the Gilbert Islands operation, bombing Tarawa with TF 53.

Another short stint on the West Coast and she headed for the Marshalls in January 1944 with her planes raiding the Roi and Namur islands of the Kwajalein Atoll and performing antisubmarine patrols.

Parry Island, Eniwetok Atoll, under bombardment 21 Feb 1944 recon from USS Suwanee (CVE 27) 80-G-218634

Escort carrier Suwannee (CVE 27) pictured at anchor at Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands in an image taken from the heavy cruiser Baltimore (CA 68) Feb 7, 1944

March, joining her three sisters– Sangamon, Chenango, and Santee— as Carrier Division 22 (CarDiv 22), brought raids on the Palau Islands while April saw Suwannee supporting the Hollandia landings. By June, they were part of the invasion of the Marianas including the campaigns against Saipan and occupied Guam.

Much as Suwannee has been the first escort carrier to sink an Axis sub in the Atlantic when she pulled the plug on Sidi-Ferruch, her sister Chenango was the first to sink one in the Pacific, with VC-35 aircraft flying from Chenango splashing I-21 (Inada) in November 1943. However, Suwannee soon caught up and would be the only carrier of her class to sink enemy subs in both oceans. 

As part of the Battle of the Philippine Sea in which CVEG-60 came face-to-face with a Japanese Type KD7 boat.

As told by Combined Fleets on IJN Submarine I-184:

19 June 1944: The Battle of the Philippine Sea: 20 miles SE of Saipan. The USS SUWANEE (CVE-27) is supporting the invasion of the Marianas. Ensign G. E. Sabin’s Grumman TBM-1C “Avenger” torpedo-bomber of VT-60 is flying an ASW patrol. Sabin drops below the cloud cover and spots a surfaced Japanese submarine. LtCdr Rikihisa spots the Avenger and crash-dives, but Sabin drops his depth bombs just ahead of the submarine’s track and sinks I-184 with all 96 hands at 13-01N, 149-53E.

By September, Suwannee was supporting the landings on Morata in the Dutch East Indies and then was placed in the vanguard of the force headed to liberate the Philippines after two years of Japanese occupation.

The Divine Wind

Sailing from Manus with RADM Thomas L. Sprague’s Escort Carrier Group Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy 1) of TF77 on 12 October with her sisters Santee and Sangamon along with the new Casablanca-class “Kaiser coffin” USS Petroff Bay (CVE-80), Suwannee’s planes were soon raiding the Visayas.

By the 24th Taffy 1 was embroiled in the wild combat that swirled around the Battle of Leyte Gulf, just escaping the sacrifice of TG 77.4.3 (“Taffy 3”) off Samar. While her airwing landed several blows against Japanese capital ships– battered survivors of the Battle of Surigao Strait– Suwannee and her sisters were subject to repeated kamikaze attacks from land-based planes across the 24th-26th.

Despite bagging at least one Zeke with her AAA guns, Suwannee took a hit about 40 feet forward of her aft elevator which peeled back a 10-foot hole in her deck and penetrated to the hangar where a 25-foot gash was ripped in the deck.

“Two Japanese Zero aircraft making suicide attacks on USS Sangamon (CVE 26) off Leyte Gulf, Philippines, as seen from USS Suwannee (CVE 27). One Japanese near miss near the bow. Trailing Japanese turned away and was shot down by our fighters, 25 October 1944.” 80-G-270665

Fires and explosion on USS Suwannee (CVE 27) resulting from a suicide hit of a Japanese “Zero” near Leyte Gulf, Philippines, taken from USS Sangamon (CVE 25), 25 October 1944. 80-G-270626

Japanese “Zero” crashes deck of USS Suwannee (CVE 27) and bursts into flames, Leyte Gulf, Philippines, 25 October 1944. TBM may be seen in flight behind the smoke. This plane which was loaded with a torpedo was unharmed by the crash. 80-G-270662

Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 1944. Damage done to USS Suwannee (CVE 27) after attack by a Japanese kamikaze off Leyte Gulf, photographed 25 October 1944. Note the hole in the flight deck. 80-G-270693

Battle of Leyte Gulf, wardroom of USS Suwannee (CVE 27) in use as an emergency sick bay following the kamikaze hit of 25 October 1944. 80-G-289527

Back conducting air ops just three hours later, the 26th saw a second kamikaze hit, this time creating a fire that destroyed nine of CVEG-60’s aircraft along with much of the ship’s bridge.

Fires and explosions on the flight deck of USS Suwannee (CVE 27), resulted from a suicide hit of a Japanese “Zero” near Leyte, Philippines. The airborne plane is friendly. Taken from USS Sangamon (CVE 26) at Leyte, Philippines, 26 October 1944. 80-G-270619

Japanese suicide “Zero” coming in for dive on USS Suwannee (CVL 27) off Leyte Gulf surrounded by ack ack This attack was the second one of the day, 26 October 1944. 80-G-270673

U.S. Navy escort carriers pictured at sea during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The photograph was probably taken from USS Petroff Bay (CVE-80), which was part of Task Unit 77.4.1 (Taffy I), together with the USS Sangamon (CVE-26), USS Suwannee (CVE-27), and USS Santee (CVE-29). The carrier burning in the background is most probably Suwannee, which was hit by two kamikazes, Santee by one amidships. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2000.236.023

Damage done to USS Suwannee (CVE 27) after attack by Japanese suicide plane off Leyte Gulf. Note the shrapnel pattern. Photographed on 26 October 1944. 80-G-270689

Damage to elevator well on USS Suwanee following October 26, 1944 kamikaze hit

Nonetheless, her crew again patched up, made an emergency open-air navigational bridge, and made for the Palaus for repair.

An emergency bridge manned on after flight deck of USS Suwannee (CVL 27) was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze plane off Leyte Gulf, the Philippines, on 26 October 1944. 80-G-270674

In all, her two kamikaze hits in two days would result in almost 100 dead, another 58 missing, and 102 wounded. Keep in mind her crew and embarked air group at its largest only numbered about a thousand, meaning a full quarter of the men who sailed aboard her were on her casualty lists:

The same battle left sister Santee extensively damaged, hit both by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-56 and a kamikaze, while Sangamon was struck by two kamikazes of her own. Retiring on 29 October, Sprague’s “oiler carriers” proved they could take abuse of the kind that was hard to shrug off.

Operation Iceberg

After some quick patchwork to get her that far, Suwannee made for Pearl Harbor in mid-December and then spent Christmas in San Diego. Repaired, she set out for Hawaii again in mid-January 1945 where she would shake down with a largely new crew and a new air wing, Air Group (CVEG) 40 composed of VC-40 and VF-40. This final package, of 20 F6F-5s and 12 TBM-1Cs, would be her last and, like CVEG-60, CVEG-40 would only know Suwannee as home.

By April Fool’s Day, she was off Okinawa as part of TF for Operation Iceberg, an 82-day battle that is known in Japan as the Kotetsu no ame (“rain of steel”) due to the intensity of the Japanese kamikaze attacks sent at the American forces. Keep in mind Japan lost an estimated 1,600 planes against the U.S. Fifth Fleet at Okinawa, a figure that never fails to stun no matter how many times you read it.

Again, Suwannee would sail with her three sisters of CarDiv 22 and was the flagship of RADM William Dodge Sample.

F6F-5 Hellcats of Fighting Squadron (VF) 60 pictured preparing to launch from the escort carrier Suwanee (CVE 27) on April 21, 1945

From DANFs on Suwannee during the period:

Her first assignment was close air support for the invasion troops; but, within a few days, she settled down to a routine of neutralizing the kamikaze bases at Sakishima Gunto. For the major portion of the next 77 days, her planes continued to deny the enemy the use of those facilities. Periodically, she put into the anchorage at Kerama Retto to rearm and replenish, but she spent the bulk of her time in air operations at sea.

In May, Suwannee suffered another serious fire because of a cracked-up Avenger.

Fire-fighting crews on board USS Suwannee (CVE 27) brought the blaze under control when a 100-pound bomb of TBM-3 (Bu# 68368) exploded after the plane landed on board. Pilot, Lieutenant Junior Grade Obed F. Flingerland, USNR, was killed and 13 crewmembers were injured. One of the crewmen died later. Photographed by Seaman First Class Hyman Atias, 24 May 1945. 80-G-325116

Likewise, both Chenango and Santee would suffer similar incidents during the operation. High-tempo carrier ops in a combat environment on a 500-foot deck across extended periods with lots of new pilots will do that.

As noted in her War Diary:

Part of CVEG-40’s scoresheet for Iceberg:

Balikpapan

With Iceberg thawed, Suwannee was pulled from the line, stopped in the PI for a week or so, then shipped south for the Dutch East Indies to support the cakewalk Free Dutch-Australian landings at Balikpapan on the Borneo coast. That accomplished, she headed North to the Japanese Home Islands once again and was at Buckner Bay, Okinawa when the news came that the Emperor would throw in the towel.

F6F-5 Hellcat of Fighting Squadron (VF) 40 launches from USS Suwanee (CVE 27) on August 30, 1945

VF-40 pilots smiling around the “kill” scoreboard, August 1945. Left to right: LCDR James C. Longino, Jr., LT (jg) Levi Monteau– pointing to trophy flags– LT(jg) Joseph Coleman, Ensign Raymond L.J. Lebel, and LT Earl E. Hartman. 80-G-349434

While RADM Sample and Suwannee’s skipper, Capt. Charles C. McDonald would go missing after their Martin PBM Mariner flying boat disappeared near Wakayama, Japan soon after VJ Day (they would be recovered in 1948), the rest of her crew made it home in late September 1945 under the command of XO, CDR Schermerhorn Van Mater.

Epilogue

Assigned to the Atlantic Inactive Fleet in October 1945 at Boston, Suwannee spent the rest of her career in mothballs there where she was re-designated to an escort aircraft carrier (helicopter) CVHE-27 in 1955. Stricken from the Navy List on 1 March 1959, she was sold later that year for conversion to merchant service but, with that falling through, was instead towed to Spain where she was scrapped in 1962.

She earned a Presidential Unit Citation and 13 battle stars for her World War II service, the most decorated of her class.

Her 13 stars and Unit Citation

Suwannee’s war diaries and plans are in the National Archives but few other relics endure.

Her three sisters of CarDiv22 likewise were mothballed just after the war, silently redesignated CVHEs– a job they were no doubt suited for– and scrapped by the early 1960s. Between them, Santee, Sangamon, and Chenango received a total of 28 battle stars, a Navy Unit Commendation, and the Presidential Unit Citation during WWII. An impressive record. It should be noted that the Navy’s final 19 escort carriers ever finished, the Commencement Bay-class, were all based on Maritime Commission type T3 tanker hulls like the Sangamons. Apparently, a lesson had been learned.

Of Suwannee’s 31 Cimarron-class oiler half-sisters, two, USS Neosho (AO-23) and USS Mississinewa (AO-59) were lost during the war while the rest continued to serve throughout the Cold War. The final Cimarron in the fleet, USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98), only decommissioned in 1990 after an amazing 45 years of service and was not scrapped until 2010.

The U.S. Navy fleet oiler USS Caloosahatchee (AO-98) underway in 1988.

Specs:

(1942, as Converted)
Displacement (design): 11,400 tons standard; 24,275 tons full load
Length: 553
Beam: 114 over deck
Power plant: 4 boilers (450 psi); 2 steam turbines; 2 shafts; 13,500 shp (design)
Speed: 18+ knots
Endurance: 23,920 nm @ 15 knots (with 4,780 tons of oil fuel)
Aviation facilities: 2 elevators; 1 hydraulic catapult
Crew: 830 (ship’s company + air wing)
Armament: 2 single 5″/51 gun mounts; 4 twin 40-mm/56-cal gun mounts; 12 single 20-mm/70-cal gun mounts
Aircraft: 25-40


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Warship Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022: Continuing the Legacy

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, Sept. 14, 2022: Continuing the Legacy

Above we see a superb example of the Ceres sub-class of the Royal Navy’s C-type light cruisers, namely HMS Coventry (D43), pictured after her anti-aircraft conversion refit modernization in May 1937. While the 10 new QF 4″/40 Mk Vs she is fitted with sound formidable, she met a swarm of German bombers she wouldn’t be able to swat away exactly 80 years ago today.

Laid down as Yard No. 1035 at Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend on Tyne in April 1916 just before the launch of the Somme Offensive in the third year of the Great War, Coventry was a member of the 28-strong “C”-class of new-fangled oil-fired light cruisers. Sturdy 446-foot ships of 4,000~ tons, their eight-pack of Yarrow boilers trunked through two funnels and pushing a pair of Brown-Curtis turbines coughed up 40,000 shp– enough to sprint them at 29 knots.

The first entry for the class in the 1914 edition of Jane’s, shows the eight initial vessels and the original layout of the first ships.

HMS Cardiff, a C-class cruiser in a dry dock. Note how thin of beam these sea-going stilettoes were. With a 446-foot overall length and a 41-foot beam, the ratio was roughly 1:10, akin to a destroyer

Split into seven incrementally modified subclasses with minor changes among them, usually in terms of armament layout, superstructure arrangement, and turbine fit (some with Parsons-made equipment, others with Brown-Curtis) they were built across the UK at eight different yards during the War years with the first, Comus, laid down in November 1913 and the 28th, Colombo, completed in July 1919.

Comparable in size to a smallish frigate today, they packed three to five single BL 6-inch Mk XII guns arranged fore and aft along with a more distributed battery of six or eight QF 4-inch Mk IV guns in addition to two bow-mounted or four beam-mounted 21-inch torpedo tubes.

HMS Cardiff, a C-class cruiser, firing one of her beam deck-mounted torpedo tubes

With up to 6-inches of steel armor (conning tower, just 2.5 inches on the belt), they could hold their own against similar cruisers, slaughter destroyers, and gunboats, and run away from larger warships.

The five Ceres-variant sisters (HMS Cardiff, Ceres, Coventry, Curacoa, and Curlew), which joined the fleet in the first half of 1917, had a much-reduced secondary armament, dropping the 4-inch guns in favor of a few new 3-inch and 2-pounder high-angle AAA mounts, with the latter seen as more useful against increasingly encountered and very pesky Jerry seaplanes and Zepps.

After just 18 months on the builder’s ways, Coventry, originally laid down as HMS Corsair, was commissioned on 8 February 1917, the fourth of HMs vessels to carry the name one of the Midlands city since 1658. Tragically, all three of the previous Coventrys had been captured by the French in battles across the 17th and 18th centuries and the cruiser was the first to carry the name since 1783.

HMS Coventry cruiser in her early layout. Imperial War Museum image

Note her shielded 6-inch mounts

Assigned to the 5th Light Cruiser squadron along with many of her sisters, Coventry stood in case the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet sortied out once again and spent her WWI service on guard but without the opportunity to fire a war shot.

During this period, Royal Navy war artist Phillip Connard captured images from her decks that endure today.

Lowering the Whaler HMS Coventry by Phillip Connard, 1918, IWM ART1297

Between Decks, HMS Coventry by Phillip Connard,1918. Note the twin torpedo tubes on her port beam. IWM ART1300

While none of the 28 C-type light cruisers were lost during the Great War– despite several showing up in U-boat periscopes and being present at Jutland and the Heligoland Bight– Coventry’s sister HMS Cassandra was sunk by a mine in the Baltic on 5 December 1918 while acting against the Reds.

Interwar

Joining the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron back in the Atlantic in 1919, Coventry would often be employed as a flagship for destroyer flotillas and, in the early 1920s, would be transferred to the Mediterranean where she would continue in the same vein.

HMS COVENTRY (British Cruiser, 1917), pictured in the 1920s. NH 61317

HMS Coventry in Malta, interwar period, sporting extensive peacetime awnings. Note the carrier HMS Glorious in the background

A 1928 refit saw her little-used flying platform removed and in 1935 she was paid off, reduced to reserve status at the ripe old age of 18.

With the times passing and newer cruisers coming online eating up valuable treaty-limited tonnage, many of the class were paid off and sold for their value in scrap metal. These included almost all the early ships of the class– HMS Carysfort, Cleopatra, Comus, Conquest, Cordelia, Calliope, Champion, Cambrian, Canterbury, Castor, Constance, Centaur, and Concord. Others were converted for new purposes– for instance, HMS Caroline, stripped of her guns and boilers in 1924, became a headquarters and training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve’s Ulster Division at Belfast.

Just under half of the class, 13 vessels, made it out of the Depression still in the fleet, and most went on to serve in one form or another in the Second World War, despite their advanced age and outdated nature.

Some were converted to meet the needs of the age.

Coventry and Curlew were taken from reserves and morphed into early “AA cruisers,” landing their large 6-inch guns and smaller secondaries for an all-up battery of 10 improved 4″/45 MK Vs along with an updated fire control layout and redesigned magazines, able to carry a total of 2,000 such shells. Three other remaining vessels of her sub-class– Ceres, Cardiff, and Curacoa— were slated to get the same conversion but tight budgets precluded this and only the latter of that trio would ultimately pick up 8 4-inchers, and even that was not until WWII. Receiving a similar fit would be the last of the C-types– HMS Carlise, Cairo, Calcutta, Colombo, and Cape Town— picking up six 4″/45s after hostilities commenced.

The 4″/45 MK Vs were the standard high-angle DP guns of the Royal Navy in the 1930s. With a rate of fire that went to 10-15 rounds per minute depending on the training of the gun crew, they could fire a 53.5-pound HE shell to an anti-aircraft ceiling of 31,000 feet or a 56-pound SAP shell against a surface target to 16,430 yards. Historic Naval Ships Association image.

Two 4″/45 MK Vs on HMAS Sydney ca. 1940, for reference. Note the No. 1 gunners on each outfitted with asbestos flash hoods and mittens. State Library of Victoria Image H98.105/3249.

Coventry, refit at HM Dockyard, Portsmouth, over the first ten months of 1936, would spend the following two and a half years in a series of trials work helping to develop mountings for the multiple barreled 2-pounder “Pom Poms” that would become a notable fixture on Royal Navy surface ships in WWII, as well as new degaussing gear and 20mm Oerlikon guns. She would soon also start work with early sea-going radar sets.

HMS Coventry is shown after her conversion into an anti-aircraft cruiser with 10 x 4-inch high-angle guns in open mounts

HMS COVENTRY (FL 5186) Underway coastal waters postthe  AA conversion, late 1930s. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205124848

Then, came war, again.

Outpost duty and the Barents Sea

In August 1939, with the war on the horizon, Coventry joined the newer light cruisers Danae and Dauntless for passage to the Med, arriving at Alexandria on 3 September.

Recalled to Home Waters, she was the urgent task of convoy escort then as a floating AAA battery at the Sullom Voe seaplane base in the Shetland Islands, she fought off German aircraft on 21 October and again on 13 November, shooting down a Heinkel He 111 in the latter effort. Further German attacks on Christmas Day 1939 and New Year’s Day 1940 ensued, with Coventry’s gunners rushing out from the holiday meals to fire at Goering’s party crashers. It was in the latter that a near-miss (the first of many she had during the war) left her with a leaking hull.

Once the Army arrived at Sullom Voe to install shore-based ack-ack batteries, Coventry was relieved and entered refit at Chatham where she got her leaks fixed and landed her after 4″/40s (No. 6 and No. 7 mount) then picked up a Type 279 dual-purpose air- and surface-warning set with an instrumented range of an optimistic 65 miles (airwave) and about 6 miles surface wave. Her installation complete, Coventry became the flagship of the 1st AA Squadron (flying the flag of Rear-Admiral J.G.P. Vivian, RN) with Humber Force alongside her sisters Curlew and Cairo, in April 1940, just in time for the Allied intervention in Norway.

Coventry would support the landings at Bodo in mid-May– her Pom Poms credited with an AAA kill on 18 May off that port– followed by the assault on Narvik, and ultimately cover the withdrawal from the latter in June, even embarking evacuating troops. She both bombarded German positions ashore and served up hot anti-air to Luftwaffe aircraft overhead.

It was during the Norway operation that sister Cairo was hit by hit by two bombs and severely damaged, suffering 12 killed while Coventry herself would take splinters from a near-miss that left one rating killed. Curlew, meanwhile, was sent to the bottom by German bombers of Kampfgeschwader 30 on 26 May, near Narvik.

Of Junkers and Spaghetti

Patching up damage from Norwegian rocks and German shells, Coventry helped cover Convoys WS 2, AP 1, and AP 2, then was ordered back to the Med in August where the Italians were now in the war.

Picking up troops in Gibraltar, she made Malta with Force F in what was termed Operation Hats on 1 September, screening the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Making Alexandria on 6 September, she would cover Convoys BN 5A, MAQ 2, MF 3, and MF 4. In October 1940, she was part of Operation BN, the landing of British troops on Crete. In the latter, she would prove a successful minesweeper, discovering and partially sweeping without loss an enemy minefield using her paravanes– a rare occurrence.

In early November, with available escorts few and far between, two Allied convoys, A. N. 6, and M. W. 3 set out from Port Said/Alexandria in Egypt for the Aegean Sea and Malta. The ships were covered by Coventry and her sister Calcutta, along with the destroyers Dainty, Vampire, Waterhen, and Voyager. Then came Operation Barbarity, the transport of British troops from Alexandria to Piraeus in Greece.

Sailing with Force D in November 1940, Coventry, and company, joined by Gibraltar-based Force H, briefly engaged a superior Italian force south of Sardinia’s Cape Spartivento in an inconclusive battle that led to ADM James Somerville almost being cashiered by Churchill when he did not pursue the retreating Italians.

The next month, while supporting operations against the Italian army in Cyrenaica and screening the battleships HMS Barham and Valiant, 2042 on 13 December, Coventry, while some 80 miles off Mersa Matruh, Egypt, was hit by a torpedo in the bow from the Italian Adua-class submarine Neghelli. The damaged cruiser, losing part of her stern but suffering no casualties made it back to Alexandria under escort the next afternoon. For what it’s worth, Neghelli disappeared on her fifth war patrol a month later.

Repaired, Coventry soon again joined on the regular Med convoy route, lending her guns to Convoy AN 13 in January 1941, AS 14 in February, AN 17, AN 18, MW 6, AN 22, AN 23, and ANF 20 in March– claiming her share of six Junkers Ju88s shot down on the 26th off Piraeus; ASF 23, ANF 29, GA 14, and AS 25 in April– stopping to help evacuate a British battalion at Mudros in an act very similar to the withdrawal from Narvik the year before.

At this point, the barrels on her guns had to be replaced, as they were considered too worn for use– one had exploded on 26 April during air attacks, killing one gunner and injuring the rest of the gun crew. The approximate barrel life on these mounts was between 600 and 850 shells depending on type and charge, giving you an idea of just how many Coventry had been firing.

May saw Operation Tiger, riding shotgun over aborted reinforcement “Tiger convoy” through the Eastern Mediterranean to Malta. It was on this sortie that Coventry came to the assistance on 17 May of the hospital ship Aba (7938 GRT, built 1918) which had been attacked by German aircraft to the south of the Kaso Strait.

Rescue of the Hospital Ship HMHS Aba by HMS Coventry, painting by Charles Pears at the Royal Cornwall Museum

The cruiser suffered nine casualties when she was strafed by enemy aircraft during her efforts. It was during this rescue that 30-year-old Petty Officer Alfred Edward Sephton, one of Coventry’s director layers, would earn the VC the hard way, posthumously. It would be the first such award of the Mediterranean campaign for the Royal Navy.

“No. 35365”. The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 November 1941. p. 6889

The end of May saw Coventry and her sister Calcutta covering the desperate nighttime evacuations of British and Commonwealth troops of Creforce from the village of Sphakia, situated on the southern coast of Crete.

The two ships were attacked on 1 June by German Ju 88 bombers of Lehrgeschwader 1 while 100 miles north of Alexandria and, while Coventry was narrowly missed, two bombs hit Calcutta and she sank the cruiser in minutes with Coventry standing by to pluck 254 survivors from the water. Sadly, Calcutta took 107 with her to the bottom.

Shrugging it off, Coventry was on point for Operation Exporter, the Syria–Lebanon campaign, during which the cruiser was subjected to regular day and night air raids while off Haifa and Beirut, with Vichy French coastal artillery also taking pot shots at her.

The rest of the year saw the cruiser allowed to rest in the quieter waters of the Red Sea then begin a six-month refit in November at Bombay that saw additional AAA mounts fitted.

In June 1942, fresh from the yard, she took on gold in Alexandria and transported it to Jeddah to pay the Saudis for oil then escorted the battered old HMS Queen Elizabeth for part of the dreadnought’s sail from the Med via the Red Sea to America for modernization.

Coventry was back in the shooting war by August, part of Operation Pedestal, the last ditch effort to resupply Malta before the besieged island was forced to surrender. Her role would be with MG 3, a dummy convoy of three merchant ships, escorted by three light cruisers (Coventry, HMS Arethusa, and Euryalus) and ten destroyers that would function as a diversionary force in the Eastern Med, shuffling around Port Said to Beirut/Haifa and then dispersing.

Then, on September 1942, with the British gearing up for a Commando raid against Axis-held Tobruk, (Operation Agreement), Coventry was operating with a force of six destroyers, was swarmed by a force of at least 16 German Ju 88s of I./Lehrgeschwader 1— the same force that sunk Calcutta— followed up by a dozen Stukas of III. /Sturzkampfgeschwader 3. Despite RAF Beaufighters running interference and seven German aircraft downed between the AAA and the British fighters, Coventry was hit by at least four bombs. With fires out of control and at least 64 of her crew killed, Coventry was abandoned and sunk by torpedoes from the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Zulu (F18).

Shortly after, Zulu was sunk as well.

The sinking of Coventry on 14 September 1942. HMS COVENTRY, with the destroyers HMS DULVERTON and HMS BEAUFORT alongside picking up survivors from the attack by German dive bombers. Soon after she was sunk by British gunfire and torpedoes. Sixty-three men on board COVENTRY were killed in the attack. IWM HU 89668

THE SINKING OF HMS COVENTRY ON 14 SEPTEMBER 1942. (HU 89668) HMS COVENTRY, with the destroyers HMS DULVERTON and HMS BEAUFORT alongside picking up survivors from the attack by German dive-bombers. Soon after she was sunk by British gunfire and torpedoes. Sixty-three men on board COVENTRY were killed in the attack. See also HU 89667. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205084854

Epilogue

Of the 13 active C-types that entered WWII, almost half of those, six, were lost. In addition to Coventry, Calcutta, and Curlew– all victims of German land-based bombers as discussed above– sisters Calypso and Cairo were claimed by submarines while Curacoa was taken out in a collision with the Queen Mary. Of special distinction, one member of the class, Carlise, was credited with more AAA kills (11) than any other British cruiser, not a bad distinction for the old girl especially considering the Royal Navy had several more modern and better-armed cruisers in the thick of it.

By the end of 1945, the seven survivors were paid off, waiting for disposal, and were soon scrapped.

The C-class survivors from WWII, are listed in the 1946 Jane’s.

Just one C-class cruiser survived past 1948, Caroline, a past  Warship Wednesday alum. Having served as an RNVR drillship in Alexandra Dock, Belfast until 2011, since 2016 she has been a museum ship. She is the last remaining warship that was at Jutland.

Epilogue

As she was lost during WWII, little remains in terms of relics from our subject cruiser. Even the VC issued to the hero Alfred Sephton– who was buried at sea– was stolen in 1990 from its display case at the Coventry Cathedral and has never been recovered. The Sephton Cross is one of only 17 VCs, and the only one awarded to a member of the Royal Navy, to be reported stolen.

The Royal Navy recycled “Coventry” with a new Type 42 destroyer in 1974. Faithful to the legacy of the four warships with the same name that preceded it– three of which were captured and the fourth scuttled after being abandoned– this new destroyer would also perish in combat.

HMS Coventry (D118), shown in Hong Kong in 1980.

Sunk 25 May 1982 by Argentinean airstrikes, 19 sailors went down with said destroyer and another died 10 months later. As the survivors awaited rescue from the nearby ships, they sang Always Look on the Bright Side of Life in true Monty Python fashion.

A sixth Coventry, a Type 22 frigate (F88) commissioned in 1988, broke the chain of sacrifice and served 14 years before she was sold in a wave of post-Cold War drawdowns to Romania, where she still sails as Regele Ferdinand (F221), that country’s flagship. Fingers crossed she doesn’t hit a loose mine in the Black Sea.

Thus far, there has not been a seventh HMS Coventry.

Specs:

HMS Coventry cruiser layout WWII and Med camo scheme, via AJM Models. Note her Type 279 radar.

Displacement: 3,750 tons (designed); 4,320 fl; 4,799 deep load
Length: 446 ft (o/a)
Beam: 41 ft 6 in
Draught: 14 ft 10 in (with bunkers full, and complete with provisions, stores, and water: 16 feet 3 inches mean)
Propulsion: 8 Yarrow small tube boilers, 2 Brown-Curtis steam turbines, 2 shafts, 30,000 shp natural/40,000 forced draught
Speed: 28.5 knots max (some hit 29 on trials)
Number of Tons of Oil Fuel Carried: 841
Quantity of Water carried: For boilers, 70 tons, for drinking 49.25 tons
Ship’s Company (typical)
Officers: 31
Seamen: 149
Boys: 31
Marines: 36
Engine-room establishment: 88
Other non-executive ratings: 44
Total: 379
Boats:
One motorboat 30 feet
One sailing cutter 30 feet
Two whalers 27 feet, Montague
One gig 30 feet
Two skiff dinghies 16 feet
One motorboat 30 feet for Commodore’s use
Armor:
Waterline belt: 1.5–3 in
Deck: 1 in
Conning tower: 6 in
Armament:
(1918)
5 x single BL 6″/45 Mk XII guns on Forecastle, Forward superstructure, Aft Forward superstructure, and Quarterdeck
2 x QF 3-inch 20 cwt IV on Mark IV AAA mounting on foc’sle
2 x QF 2 pounder Pom-pom AAA on the aft superstructure
2 x twin 21-inch deck beam mounted torpedo tubes, typically with eight Mark IV Torpedoes
(1937)
10 x QF 4″/40 Mk Vs in open mounts


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After 60 years you’re still the most beautiful ship in the world

As we covered in a past Warship Wednesday on the Italian Navy’s historic nave scuola (training ship) Amerigo Vespucci (A5312), according to legend, while sailing in the Med in the 1960s, the 80,000-ton Forrestal-class supercarrier USS Independence, on a deployment with the Sixth Fleet duty in support of President John F. Kennedy’s firm stand on the newly-established Berlin Wall, came across a strange tall ship at sea.

The carrier flashed the vessel, Vespucci, with the light signal asking, “Who are you?” The answer, “Training ship Amerigo Vespucci, Italian Navy,” came back. Independence was said to have replied, “You are the most beautiful ship in the world.”

AMERIGO VESPUCCI Italian Training Ship, Sails past USS INDEPENDENCE (CVA-62) in the Mediterranean, 12 July 1962. The Navy later used this image on recruiting posters and advertising in the 1960s and 70s. USN 1061621

Well, in a salute to that exchange, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) transited the Adriatic Sea alongside Vespucci on 1 September to commemorate the (just passed) 60th anniversary of the 1962 meeting between Indy and Italy’s senior national vessel.

As related by the Marina Militare, the signal from the big American flat top remained very similar: “Amerigo Vespucci, after 60 years you’re still the most beautiful ship in the world”

The Navy also marked the Bush’s 25 August passage through the Strait of Gibraltar with a nice time-lapse video. 

Of note, the GHWBCSG is comprised of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 7, Destroyer Squadron 26, and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55).

“The GHWBCSG is on a scheduled deployment in the U.S. Naval Forces Europe area of operations, employed by U.S. Sixth Fleet to defend U.S., allied and partner interests.” 

Speaking of carrier news…

In case you missed it, the Indian Navy’s third aircraft carrier– after the Kiev-class INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov) and Centaur-class INS Viraat (ex-HMS Hermes)– and first to be indigenously built, the brand new INS Vikrant (R11), was commissioned last week on 2 September after a 23-year planning and construction period.

The new $3 billion (which is a bargain compared to a $13 billion Ford-class CVN) carrier runs 860 feet overall and hits the scales with a 45,000-ton displacement, making her roughly the size of an old Essex-class fleet carrier of WWII or a current LHA/LHD but sans landing equipment. Using a COGAG suite of four LM2500 gas turbines– the same as an Arleigh Burke— she can make 30 knots. 

She actually compares well to the new $7.4 billion 65,000-ton British Queen Elizabeth class carriers, although it should be pointed out that the QEs operate F-35s (if they ever get enough of them). 

The Indian carrier’s armament is Italian/Israeli/Russian, electronics are from all over Europe, and her air group (for now) will be 30-ish STOBAR ski-jumped MiG-29Ks and a few Kamov Ka-31 ASW helicopters. However, this is set to change as the Indians are receiving MH-60Rs from the U.S. and it is between Dassault Rafale-M and the F-18E/F (with odds going towards the cheaper French option). 
 
Boeing recently completed ski jump tests with a Super Hornet loaded with two 500lb laser-guided bombs, AIM9Xs, and AIM-120s.
 

Well that’s something you don’t see everyday

Looks like the “Mighty T” made it to Galveston, where she is undergoing repairs in dry dock for the first time in 32 years.

Early Wednesday morning, USS Texas (Battleship No. 35) was pulled out of her traditional berth into the Houston Ship Channel and was guided by the tugs Cecile M, Wesley A, Dolphin, and Audrey while the 87-foot patrol boat USCGC Hawk (WPB-87355) stood guard. She completed her stately 10-hour transit at 15:57– America’s oldest (and only) sea-going battleship!

Law enforcement boat crews protect the battleship USS Texas as pilot boat crews tow the historic ship down the Houston Ship Channel near Baytown, Texas, Aug. 31, 2022. The USS Texas moved from the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site in La Porte, Texas, to a dry dock in Galveston, Texas, where it will undergo extensive hull repairs. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki)

Pilot boat crews tow the battleship USS Texas down the Houston Ship Channel near Baytown, Texas, on Aug. 31, 2022. The USS Texas moved from the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site in La Porte, Texas, to a dry dock in Galveston, Texas, where it will undergo extensive hull repairs. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Corinne Zilnicki)

“Today’s successful transit of the battleship Texas was a historic, monumental event only possible with planning and partnerships throughout the port community,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jason Smith, captain of the port and commander of Sector Houston-Galveston. “Long before today’s event, the Battleship Texas Foundation and Valkor worked closely with naval architects from Resolve Marine and the Coast Guard’s Salvage Engineering Response Team to ensure a sound transit plan. Coast Guard crews partnered with local pilot associations and various other maritime law enforcement agencies to protect both the battleship and our waterways throughout the transit. As we say in the maritime community for a job well done, Bravo Zulu to all involved!”

Video of the move via the Battleship Texas Foundation:

Out of the water! USS Texas at Gulf Copper 31 Aug 2022. Note the paravane skeg at the foot of the bow, her 1920s torpedo bulge love handles, and the stabilizer skeg on the latter. Photo by Sam Rossiello Battleship Texas Foundation

Her last yard period was at Todd’s Shipyard, Galveston, from 13 December 1988 to 23 February 1990, where she was extensively reworked in a $14 million effort topside and hull-wise including 235,000 pounds of outer hull plate replaced and 460,000 gallons of additional oil/oily water pumped out. She also had a concrete deck at the time, installed in 1968, that was removed and replaced with 26,660 square feet of 4inch x 4inch x 16foot yellow pine.

USS Texas at the beginning of the 1988-89 yard period

And in a great piece of digital maritime art, Andy Poulastides reworked the Texas image from PO1 Zilnicki into a tribute to Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, circa, 1838.

Welcome back, HMS Anson

Yesterday’s Warship Wednesday profiled the final KGV-class battleship to join the Royal Navy, the sixth HMS Howe (32), and her WWII career which included a stint as the flagship of ADM Bruce Fraser’s British Pacific Fleet in 1944-45. We also touched on her sister, the seventh HMS Anson (79) which joined the fleet the same summer of 1942 as Howe.

HMS Anson dressed in Sydney Harbor for the Australia Day sailing regatta, 1946. The KGV-class fast battleship was commissioned in April 1942 but didn’t become operational until September, joining Convoy QP 14 on the Murmansk run. In all, she would watch over nine such convoys, support the Husky landings against Sicily, tag along on the Tungsten operation to sink Tirpitz and host RADM Cecil Harcourt’s liberation of Hong Kong in August 1945.

Like her four sisters that survived WWII, the battlewagon Anson would remain in mothballs until 1957 and was unceremoniously disposed of shortly after.

Well, the name Anson returned to the Admiralty’s list as the fifth of seven Astute-class hunter-killer submarines, commissioned yesterday into the Royal Navy at a ceremony at BAE Systems’ Barrow-In-Furness site. She had been christened in 2020 via a bottle of cider smashed against the hull– the drink favored by her namesake, 18th-Century Admiral George Anson, as a cure for scurvy.

Of interest, while both battleships Anson and Howe visited Australia in 1945 during the war, Royal Australian Navy submariners, as part of the AUKUS initiative to send SSNs down under, will join British crews to train on newly commissioned HMS Anson as announced yesterday by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. In reflecting this, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and a delegation of RAN officers attended Anson’s commissioning this week.

HMS Anson will join four other Astute class submarines in service with the Royal Navy –HMS Astute, HMS Ambush, HMS Artful, and HMS Audacious– all proud names carried by former vessels. Two further boats that echo historic battleship names – Agamemnon and Agincourt – are in various stages of construction at Barrow.

Warship Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022: The Well-Traveled Admiral

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, Aug. 31, 2022: The Well-Traveled Admiral

Photo by Coote, R G G (Lt), Admiralty Official Collection Photograph A 11745 from the Imperial War Museums.

Above we see the King George V-class battleship HMS Howe (32) conducting full power trials at Scapa Flow with a bone in her teeth on 29 August 1942. The last “KGV” and the final British dreadnought built that would see combat, Howe joined the Home Fleet some 80 years ago this week.

Some 42,000 tons when at their fighting weight, these 745-foot long ships were brawlers. Capable of breaking 28 knots on a set of Parsons geared steam turbines, they were faster than all but a handful of battleships on the drawing board while still sporting nearly 15 inches of armor plate at their thickest. Armed with 10 BL 14-inch Mk VII naval guns and 16 5.25″/50 DP QF Mark I guns, they could slug it out with the biggest of the dreadnoughts of their day, possibly only outclassed by the American fast battleships (Washington, SoDak, Iowa-classes) with their 16-inch radar-guided guns and the Japanese Yamatos, which of course carried 18-inchers.

King George V class battleships, Janes 1946 plan

RN British battleship profiles ONI 201, circa 1944

The KGVs featured ten big 14″/45s in just three turrets, two 4-gun 1,582-ton Mark III mounts, and a single superimposed 2-gun 915-ton Mark II mount. They were capable of firing 1,590-pound Mark VIIB AP projectiles to 38,560 yards at maximum elevation and charge. The shells were able to penetrate 15.6 inches of side armor at anything closer than 10,000 yards.

Six of the 10 14-in guns of HMS Howe pointing to port as seen from a small boat alongside the battleship. IWM A 11755.

British Royal Marines fitting tampions to the guns of turret A or X aboard HMS Howe,

Workmen doing the same, HMS Howe (32)

Looking from the foc’sle towards the 6 forward 14 inch guns of HMS Howe, with the guns at maximum elevation and a group of sailors lined up in front of them

Royal Marines working on a 5.25 secondary turret on HMS Howe, August 1942. She had eight such mounts, the equivalent of a Dido-class light cruiser, and was capable of hitting up to 36,000 ft altitude in AAA mode

Note her AAA suite including 8-barreled pom poms

Part of a class of five mighty battleships whistled up as Hitler was girding a resurgent Germany, HMS Howe was ordered on 28 April 1937, just a year after the Austrian corporal-turned-Fuhrer violated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact by reoccupying the demilitarized Rhineland. Built at Glasgow’s famous Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company’s yards in Govan (all five KGVs were constructed at different yards to speed up their delivery), she joined the fleet as Montgomery was preparing to rebuff Rommel for good at El Alamein in Northern Africa. What a difference a few years can make!

One classmate, HMS Prince of Wales, had already been lost in combat before Howe was commissioned, sent to the bottom infamously by Japanese land-based bombers after surviving two encounters with Bismarck while still technically on her builder’s trials.

Originally to be named after the great Admiral of the Fleet David Richard Beaty, she was instead the 6th RN warship since 1805 graced with the name of Admiral of the Fleet Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe, KG, a career sea dog who at age 68 led his 25 ships of the line against a larger French fleet during the “Glorious First of June” melee in 1794. Howe succeeded in capturing or sinking seven French ships without losing any of his own.

C., H. ; Lord Howe on Board the ‘Queen Charlotte’ Bringing His Prize into Spithead, 1794; HMS Excellent; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lord-howe-on-board-the-queen-charlotte-bringing-his-prize-into-spithead-1794-26045

Convoy Duty

Commissioned at her builder’s yard at Govan in June 1942 although she was not yet completed, Howe would spend the next three months in a series of trials while finishing outfitting.

RN British battleship KGV class HMS HOWE IWM A 10381

King George V class battleship HMS Howe during trials in August 1942

HMS Howe underway at sea, date unknown

HMS HOWE, BRITAIN’S LASTEST BATTLESHIP IN COMMISSION. 2 JULY 1942. (A 10514) HMS HOWE enters the dock for her finishing touches before taking her place with the Fleet. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205144216

An imposing shot of Howe from the waterline, showing off her secondaries

HMS Howe Joins the Fleet, Glasgow, Scotland, July 1942. Thousands of people gather on the banks of the Clyde to see the recently constructed British battleship HMS HOWE, towed out by tugs to join the Fleet. IWM A 10383

With HMS Howe. August 1942, on Board the Battleship HMS Howe. The fitting mascot for the great battleship is “Judy”, a thoroughbred bulldog. A 11770

HMS Howe. August 1942. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh, speaking to the ship’s company. IWM A A 11739

HM’s newest battleship would spend the rest of the year in a series of exercises and shake down evolutions, getting her green crew ready for war. Building on lessons learned from chasing down Bismarck and in fights with the Japanese off Java and Guadalcanal, lots of nighttime training.

 

HMS Howe firing her 14-inch guns near Scapa Flow, likely around 25 September to 5 October 1942. IWM A 12334.

“The brilliant flash from the guns which precedes the cordite smoke lasts only for a fraction of a second”

Howe moved from being passively in the fight to heading out for combat on New Year’s Eve 1942 when she sortied out from Scapa as part of the distant screening force for Convoy RA 51, heading to the UK from Murmansk, tantalizingly close enough for the German surface raiders in Norway to get a bite (if they wanted.) In this, she sailed with her sister, the battleship HMS King George V, and in future convoys would often steam alongside other sisters, HMS Anson and HMS Duke of York, the latter of which would end the career of the battleship Scharnhorst during the Battle of the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943– soaking the German warship in 446 14-inch shells across 80 broadsides.

Before leaving Scapa again to help cover Convoy JW 53 in late February as a distant cover force, our new battlewagon would host the king.

King George VI inspecting the ship’s company on board HMS Howe. The King pays a 4-day visit to the Home Fleet. 18 to 21 February 1943, Scapa Flow, wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, the King paid a four-day visit to the Home Fleet. IWM A 15210.

King George VI aboard HMS Howe with Captain C. H. L. Woodhouse and Admiral John Tovey, Scapa Flow, Scotland, Feb 1943. They are nearing the aft “X” turret. IWM A 15204

King George VI aboard HMS Howe, same day, a beautiful view of her bow turrets (“A” and “B”) with their unusual 4+2 arrangement. IWM A 15121

(A 15430) HMS HOWE firing her starboard 5.9 guns, as seen from the inward deck of HMS KING GEORGE V in Northern waters. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205148494

In March, she would join the cover force for Convoy RA 53 then in April, in work up for the Operation Fracture/Husky Landings in Sicily, would take part in exercise XCJ off Iceland.

The Med

Sailing for Gibraltar in the company of three destroyers, she arrived in the shadow of “The Rock” on 25 May and would join “H” Force, made up of Howe and her sister HMS King George V (flying the flag of Rear-Admiral A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN), along with the carrier HMS Formidable and nine British and Polish destroyers/escorts. Shipping out for Algiers from Gibraltar, the group would rename Force Z and ultimately head into combat off Sicily on 11 July– sans Formidable and four tin cans but adding the cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Sirius — under Howe’s skipper, Capt. Charles Henry Lawrence Woodhouse (who captained HMS Ajax in the Battle of the River Plate), the senior officer with 37 years in service.

HMS Howe July 1943, off Algiers

The role of Force Z would be to shell Trapani and Marsala along with the islands of Favignana and Levanzo in the dark pre-dawn hours on 12 July, serving as a decoy to the main landings on the west coast of Sicily. During the feign, Howe fired 17 salvoes from her 14-inch guns at the hills along Trapani harbor along with several star shells for illumination.

Following the diversion, Force Z would remain a fire brigade on short notice, scrambled in case Italian battleships wanted to come out and fight. It was in this role that CinC Malta, Vice Admiral Arthur John Power, would break out his flag on Howe on 8 September to sortie towards the incoming Italian fleet sailing from Taranto to surrender. The force would encounter the Italian battleships Andrea Doria and Caio Duilo (flying the flag of VADM Alberto Da Zara), along with the cruisers Luigi Cadorna and Pompeo Magno and a destroyer at sea, escorting them back to Malta.

Taking a break from accepting the surrender of Umberto II’s capital ships, Howe supported the Operation Slapstick landings of the British 1st Airborne Division outside of Taranto (with the Paras arriving by sea rather than by air). Then, on 14 September, Force Z would escort the surrendered Italian battleships Vittorio Veneto, Italia (Littorio), cruisers Eurgenio di Savoia, Emanuelle Filiberto Duca d’Aosta, Raimondo Montecuccoli and Luigi Cadorna; and the destroyers Artigliere, Velite, Grecale, and Nicoloso da Recco from Malta to Alexandria.

Langmaid, Rowland; The Surrendered Italian Fleet with HMS ‘King George V’ and ‘Howe’, 1943; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-surrendered-italian-fleet-with-hms-king-george-v-and-howe-1943-174942

Sent back to Scapa to resume Home Fleet duties in October, it was thought Howe could best serve with a new force being mustered to fight the Japanese now that the Med had calmed down and the Axis had lost its capital ships in that ancient sea.

To the Pacific!

Laid up at Devonport for a six-month refit that saw her packing on new radars (Type 274, 282, and 283 radar added; Type 273, 281, and 284 removed) and a serious AAA suite, Howe was destined for the new British Pacific Fleet, where she would be the force’s flagship. While her original 1942 “ack ack” fit was substantial– 6 octuple 40/39 2pdr QF Mk VIII “pom-poms” and 18 20mm/70 Oerlikon Mk II/IV singles– Howe could sail for the Far East in early 1944 with 8 pom poms (64 guns), 34 Oerlikon singles and 8 Oerlikon twin mounts (for a total of 50 20mm guns); and two quad 40mm Bofors mounts (8 guns).

Howe, Flagship of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, passing through the Suez Canal on 14 July 1944 on her way to join the British Pacific Fleet. Naval History and Heritage Command original color photograph, NH 94456-KN, courtesy of The Imperial War Museum London

Swimmers from a local swimming club gather on a jetty to watch the passage of HMS Howe through the Suez Canal. Many of the battleship’s crew are on deck

While the fighting core of the BPF was to be RADM Admiral Sir Philip Vian’s 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron (Task Force 57), ultimately including a half-dozen Illustrious-class armored carriers (supported by a mix of five replenishment and repair carriers) and 36 FAA squadrons flying from their decks, HMS Howe would be the first British battleship to return to the Pacific since Prince of Wales and her companion, the aging but beautiful battlecruiser Repulse, were sunk in December 1942. (*While several of the Great War vintage Revenge-class and Queen Elizabeth-class battleships along with the battlecruiser Renown would serve in the Eastern Fleet in 1943-44, their service was isolated to convoy escort and operations along the Burma coast and various island groups in the Indian Ocean.)

Passing through the Suez, stopping at Aden in late July, and arriving at Colombo on 3 August (where she exercises with the Free French battleship Richelieu), Howe joined the Eastern Fleet’s carrier forces (soon to be BPF carriers), consisting of the HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable for Operation Banquet– a raid against Padang, Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies (Aug 19-27) followed by Operation Light, a similar carrier raid (Sept 14-20) against the railway repair and maintenance center at Sigli, Sumatra.

Howe and her escorting destroyers, with Fraser aboard, arrived at Fremantle on 11 December 1944 from Colombo and Australia went crazy.

Relocating to Sydney on 17 December for a two-week pier side stand down, the enthusiasm was palpable, and Howe’s skipper at the time, Capt. H.W.U. McCall, DSO, RN, explicitly mentioned the battleship was there, two years after the fact, to avenge Prince of Wales and Repulse and “take our full share in bringing about the defeat of Japan.”

Once in the Pacific, Howe would soon be reinforced by her familiar sister, the hard-wearing HMS King George V, in February 1945 followed by siblings Duke of York and HMS Anson later in the summer (post-VJ-Day). They would comprise the 1st Battle Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet. Sadly, the four would never steam together as a fighting unit. The older but 16-inch gunned HMS Nelson (28) would arrive in the Pacific just in time for the surrender in Singapore on 12 September.

THE BATTLESHIP HMS HOWE IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS. JANUARY 1945, ON BOARD HMS HOWE, FLAGSHIP OF ADMIRAL BRUCE FRASER, C IN C BRITISH PACIFIC FLEET, WHEN SHE WAS IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS AND DURING HER VISIT TO AUCKLAND. (A 28861) Destroyer escort seen from the bridge of the HOWE. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205160182

THE BATTLESHIP HMS HOWE IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS. JANUARY 1945, ON BOARD HMS HOWE, FLAGSHIP OF ADMIRAL BRUCE FRASER, C IN C BRITISH PACIFIC FLEET, WHEN SHE WAS IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS AND DURING HER VISIT TO AUCKLAND. (A 28865) Captain H W U McCall, DSO, RN, with the HOWE’s dog mascot Guinness. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205160186

HMS Howe with a bone in her teeth

Working towards the Japanese surrender, KGV and Howe (as Task Group 57.1), joining the growing British carrier power that was TF57, were off to Okinawa for Operation Iceberg in March. They stood by the carriers amid the waves of incoming kamikazes (with one suicider crashing in flames 100 yards from HMS Howe after passing over the quarterdeck). Our battleship also got her guns on target, bombarding Hirara airfield and the runways at Nobara and Sukuma (4 May: 195 rounds of 14″ HE, and 378 rounds of 5.25″ HE).

After spending most of the preceding year at sea, and with a move from the UK to Japan’s doorstep and a series of fast carrier raids behind her, Howe was pulled off the line to refit for the final push (Operation Olympic) — the invasion of the Japanese home island of Kyushu, set for November 1945. With that, Howe steamed from Manus for Sydney in early June, then arrived at Durban, South Africa– because no suitable facilities were available in Australia at the time– arriving on 27 June. There, her AAA suite was upgraded for a final time, landing most of her 20mm guns in favor of better-performing 40mm Bofors.

However, by the time her refit finished on 10 September, the war was already over.

Her sisters, Duke of York and KGV, were in Tokyo Bay when the instruments of surrender were signed.

HMS Duke of York in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese Surrender was signed on USS Missouri BB-63. The Ensigns of all Allied nations were flown for a ceremonial “Sunset.” Note the two Quad QF 2-pounder/40mm “Pom-Pom” gun mounts and five smart Royal Marine buglers (center) ready to sound Sunset. Nimitz called upon ADM Sir Bruce Fraser aboard HMS Duke of York on the eve of the Japanese surrender ceremony. Nimitz noted that the visit was “partly on official business, partly because I like him, and mostly to get a scotch and soda before dinner because our ships are dry.” IWM – Cross, G W (Sub Lt) Photographer

Epilogue

Howe, the last of her class, remained in commission for the rest of the decade and became Flagship of the Training Squadron at Portland.

King George V class battleships listing, Jane’s 1946

Reduced to Reserve status in 1950 as the flag of the Devonport Division of the Reserve Fleet, she was placed on the Disposal List in 1957 along with her three surviving sisters.

Mothballs Devonport mid-1950s Fairmile D MTBs HMS Howe HMS Belfast and Dido class light cruiser, possibly HMS Euryalus

Battleships HMS Vanguard and HMS Howe lying in reserve at Devonport, 1956 HMS Unicorn Euryalus behind

Howe was sold to BISCO for demolition, arriving at Inverkeithing on 2 June 1958 for breaking up.

It would fall to the one-off HMS Vanguard (23), the last and never fully operational British battleship, completed in 1946, to hold the line for two further years until she too was decommissioned and scrapped in late 1960 to end the Admiralty’s 54 years run with dreadnoughts.

Howe is remembered in maritime art by some of the most gifted painters in the class.

Battleship in Suez Canal, HMS ‘Howe’ by Charles Pears. Photo credit: The National Archives

HMS Howe under attack from Japanese aircraft, torpedo-armed Vals by artist Terence Tenison Cuneo (UK Art Trust) 

Suez Transit by Wayne Scarpaci. Depicts the King George V class Battleship, HMS Howe, passaging through the Suez canal in 1944

Her bell was saved and installed in Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral, lovingly tended by the HMS Howe Association while her giant circa 1937 1:96 scale builder’s model from Govan is on display in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Other relics of her are on display at assorted museums across the UK.

Her wartime movement logs are digitized at Uboat.net.

For their own reasons, the Royal Navy has not had a seventh HMS Howe. A shame. 

 


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Ah, the sound of CRRCickets in summer

Check out this great photo essay, shot in the Philippine Sea (Aug. 19, 2022), featuring Maritime Raiding Force Boat Company Marines of 2/5 with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit conducting a boat launch aboard the 25,000-ton San Antonio-class amphibious assault dock USS New Orleans (LPD 18).

Official caption: “Boat companies launch from the well-deck to provide the landing force a ship-to-shore capability. The 31st MEU is operating aboard ships of the Tripoli Amphibious Ready Group in the U.S. 7th Fleet to enhance interoperability with Allies and Partners and serve as a ready response force to defend a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

15 CRRCs of a full boat company, carrying at least 90 Marines, trailed by a RHIB serving as a control boat. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Danny Gonzalez)

The craft are Enhanced Combat Rubber Reconnaissance Craft (CRRC, or just “Crick”) of the type made by Wing Inflatables of Arcata, California.

Wing’s five-chamber P4.7 series inflatable runs 15′ 5″-feet long, has a 6′ 5″-foot beam, and offers 38.32ft² of usable deck space on a 12×3-foot deck. Empty weight is 180-pounds not counting the 274-pound rollup hard deck insert and can accommodate a 65hp outboard and 10 passengers/2,768-pounds of payload. The whole thing folds up into a 27″x29″x56″ package or roughly the size of a curbside garbage can.

Each of the 7 Marine Expeditionary Units (a battalion landing team with a bunch of stuff bolted onto it and a harrier/helicopter airwing for support) has a bunch of different ways to get to the beach. These include of course the choppers, navy landing craft (LCU, LCAC, etc), and the Marines own amtrac swimming APCs. However, each one of these MAUs also has 18 (15 active and 3 spares) of these little rubber zodiac-style boats.

A little larger than a sectional couch and powered by an outboard (or two) these can motor out from a task force still some 20 miles out at sea and approach an enemy-held beach, port, or vessel with very little footprint. They are hard to spot by eyeball, radar, or other means, especially in a light chop state. It’s a wet ride for the Marines aboard and anyone who has ever ridden one through the surf doesn’t look forward to doing it a second time– especially on a contested beach.

For landings, a company of the battalion landing team is designated the “Boat Company” and they spend a couple weeks figuring these boats out. This includes sending as many as 36 of its force before deployment through a four-week coxswains school where they learn basic sea-nav, and what not to do with these temperamental crafts.

Meanwhile, a few other members of the Boat Coy head off to scout swimmer school where they learn the finer points of exiting a rubber raft on fins and doing lite frogman shit.

In the end, Cricks allow two-thirds of a 144-man company to be landed on a strip of beach or empty pier in three, five-boat waves. The latter third can be shipped in follow-on elements or landed by helicopter. This type of landing was done under OOTW conditions by Marines in Somalia in 1992.

Air transportable, Cricks can be slid out the rear ramp of MV-22s or parachuted from cargo planes such as the C-130 (and Navy C-2 CODs), can be launched from surface vessels ranging from Amphibious assault ships (shown) or smaller craft like patrol boats, LCS and frigates.

They can also be (and are) carried up from submerged submarines by divers for inflation on the surface.

Warship Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022: Last Dance of the Prancing Dragon

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, Aug. 24, 2022: Last Dance of the Prancing Dragon

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

Above we see the Japanese light carrier Ryujo (also sometimes seen in the West incorrectly as Ryukyu) on sea trials at Satamisaki-oki, 6 September 1934 after her reconstruction, note her open bow and tall flight deck, showing off her bridge under the lip of the flattop. Built to a problematic design, she had lots of teething problems and, while she breathed fire in the Empire’s dramatic expansion after Pearl Harbor, the sea closed over her some 80 years ago today and extinguished her flames.

If you compare the development of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier program in the 1920s and 30s to that of the U.S. Navy, there is a clear parallel. Each fleet had an initial, awkward, flattop commissioned in 1922 that proved to be a “schoolship” design to cradle a budding naval aviation program (Japan’s circa 1922 10,000-ton Hosho vs the 14,000-ton USS Langley). This was followed by a pair of much larger carriers that were built on the hulls of battlewagons whose construction had been canceled due to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty but still carried large enough 7.9-inch/8-inch gun batteries to rate them as heavy cruisers in armament if not in armor (the 38,000/40,000-ton Kaga and Akagi vs. the 36,000-ton USS Lexington and USS Saratoga) that would pioneer the art of using such vessels via war gaming exercises. Then came smallish (to make the most of treaty limits), specially-designed, one-off carriers that were built after several years of experience with the type– the “under 10,000-ton” Ryujo vs the 15,000-ton USS Ranger (CV-4), which would be test beds for the bigger and better designs that each country would turn to for heavy lifting in 1942 (32,000-ton Shokaku class vs the 25,000-ton Yorktown class).

Laid down on 26 November 1929 at Mitsubishi in Yokoyama, Ryujo, whose name translates into something akin to “prancing dragon” or “dragon phoenix,” was slipped in by the Japanese as a nominal 8,000-ton aviation ship before the 1930 London Naval Treaty came in and limited even these small carriers as well as placed an armament cap of 6-inch guns on flattops.

Ryujo under construction Drydock No. 5, Yokosuka, Japan, 20 Oct 1931. Note how small she appears in the battleship-sized dock

Built on a slim 590-foot cruiser-style hull that, with a dozen boilers and a pair of steam turbines could make 29 knots, the Japanese elected for an extremely top-heavy build above the waterline placing her double-deck hangars and stubby 513-foot long flight deck towering some 50-feet into above the 01 deck to what proved to be an unsteady metacentric height (GM). Like Langley and Hosho, she was a true flattop, lacking a topside island, which would have made the whole thing even more unstable, instead opting to have a broad “greenhouse” bridge on the forward lip of the flight deck.

A period postcard of the Japanese aircraft carriers Ryūjō (top) and the legacy Hōshō. Note the height difference

Close-up view of the stern of carrier Ryujo, Yokosuka, Japan, 19 June 1933. Note how high her flight deck is from the main deck.

Ryujo Photograph taken in 1933, when the ship was first completed. The original print was provided by Dr. Oscar Parkes, Editor, Jane’s Fighting Ships. It was filed on 27 October 1933. NH 42271

She spent 1933 and 1935 in a series of rebuilds that moved to address her stability issues– which she suffered in a typhoon that left her hangar flooded. These changes included torpedo bulges and active stabilizers on her hull, more ballast, and, by a third rebuild completed in 1940, carried a redesigned bow form with re-ducted funnels.

Close-up of Japanese carrier Ryujo’s side mounted exhaust funnels and 12.7cm anti-aircraft guns, Yokosuka, 20 March 1933

This pushed her to over 12,700 tons in displacement and change her profile.

Aircraft carrier Ryujo undergoing full-scale trials after restoration performance improvement work (September 6, 1934, between the pillars at Satamisaki). Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

She saw her inaugural taste of combat in the war with China in the last quarter of 1937, operating a mix of a dozen Navy Type 95 Carrier Fighter and Type 94/96 Carrier Bombers (Susies), both highly maneuverable biplanes. Her Type 95s met Chinese KMT-flown Curtiss F11C Goshawks in aerial combat with the Japanese claiming six kills.

Ryujo at sea 1936. Colorized photo by Atsushi Yamashita/Monochrome Specter http://blog.livedoor.jp/irootoko_jr/

Ryujo. Underway at sea, September 1938. Donation of Kazutoshi Hando, 1970. NH 73072

Ryujo at sea between 1934 and 1937 with only 4×2 127mm AA-guns after 1934 refit

It should be observed that the two 670-foot submarine tenders, Zuiho and Shoho, that were converted to light carriers in 1940-41, as well as the tender Taigei (converted and renamed Ryuho) and the three Nitta Maru-class cargo liners converted to Taiyō-class escort carriers in 1942-43, greatly favored our Ryujo in profile and they were surely constructed with the lessons gleaned from what had gone wrong with that latter carrier in the previous decade. Notably, while still having a flush deck design without an island, these six conversions only had a single hangar deck instead of Ryujo’s double hangar deck, giving them a smaller maximum air wing (25-30 aircraft vs 40-50) but a shorter height and thus better seakeeping ability.

Japanese carrier Zuiho, note the similarity to Ryujo

Running Amok for five months

Ryujo would be left behind when Yamamoto sent Nagumo’s Kido Butai eight-carrier strike force (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, Shokaku, Soryu, and Zuikaku on the attack itself, screened from a distance by Hosho and Zuiho) to hit Pearl Harbor, instead tasking the wallowing light carrier with being the sole flattop supporting Takahashi’s Third Fleet’s invasion of the Philippines.

USN Recognition slide of the Ryujo LOC Lot-2406-5

With the Japanese keeping their battleships in a fighting reserve in the Home Islands for the anticipated Tsushima-style fleet action, and every other carrier either in the yard or on the Pearl Harbor operation, Ryujo was the Third Fleet’s only capital ship, a key asset operating amid a force of cruisers, seaplane tenders, and destroyers– appreciated at last!

Ryujo was still 100 percent more carrier than RADM Thomas Hart’s Asiatic Fleet had in their order of battle, and the dragon was very active in the PI with her airwing of Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bombers and Mitsubishi A5M “Claude” fighters. It was her planes that delivered the first strikes of the Japanese invasion on 8 December when they hit U.S. Navy assets in Davao Bay in Northern Luzon then spent the rest of the month covering the landings there.

A Japanese Nakajima B5N1 Type 97 from the aircraft carrier Ryujo flies over the U.S. Navy seaplane tender USS William B. Preston (AVD-7) in Malalag Bay, Mindanao, Philippines, during the early morning of 8 December 1941. Two Consolidated PBY-4 Catalinas (101-P-4 and 101-P-7) from Patrol Squadron 01 (VP-101), Patrol Wing 10, are burning offshore. Via Maru magazine No. 461, December 1984 via j-aircraft.org

In January 1942, she was shifted south to support the Malaysia invasion from Japanese-occupied Camranh Bay in French Indochina, with her Claudes thought to have shot down at least two RAF Lockheed Hudsons off Redang Island while her Kates are credited with anti-shipping strikes off Singapore on 13-17 February that sent the Dutch tankers Merula (8,226 tons) and Manvantara (8,237 tons) along with the British steamer Subadar (5,424 tons), to the bottom. Fending off counterattacks, her Claudes shot down two RAF Bristol Blenheim from 84 Squadron and a Dornier Do 24 flying boat of the Dutch Navy.

Here we see Hr.Ms. Java was under attack by Japanese Nakajima B5N “Kate” high-altitude bombers from the light carrier Ryujo in the Gaspar Straits of what is today Indonesia, 15 February 1942. Remarkably, the Dutch light cruiser would come through this hail without a scratch, however, her days were numbered, and she would be on the bottom of the Pacific within a fortnight of the above image. Australian War Memorial photo 305183

While her Kates twice attacked Hr.Ms. Java and HMS Exeter (68) of Graf Spee fame on 15 February without causing either cruiser much damage, Ryujo’s air group found more success in attacking the Dutch destroyer Hr.Ms. Van Nes two days later. A strike of 10 B5N1s chased the Admiralen-class greyhound down in the Java Sea and landed two hits, sending her to the bottom with 68 of her crewmen.

Two Japanese Nakajima B5N torpedo bombers (B5N2 in the foreground and B5N1 in the background) over the Java Sea on 17 February 1942. The smoke in the background is coming from the Dutch destroyer Hr.Ms. Van Nes. She was sunk by Japanese aircraft from the aircraft carrier Ryujo circa 30 km from Toboali, Bangka Island while escorting the troop transport Sloet van Beele.

On the morning of 1 March in the immediate aftermath of the overnight Battle of the Java Sea, her Kates all but disabled the old Clemson-class four-piper USS Pope (DD-225) off Bawean Island, leaving her to be finished off by Japanese cruisers.

April saw Ryujo join Ozawa’s mobile force for the epic “Operation C” raids into the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, where she split her time sending out Kates on search-shipping strikes (sinking the 5,082-ton British steamer Harpasa on 5 April) and raids on the Indian ports of Vizagapatam and Cocanada, accounting for eight assorted Allied ships on 6 April in conjunction with the guns of Ozawa’s cruisers. It is even reported by Combined Fleet that Ryujo was able to use her own 5-inch guns against surface targets as well, an almost unheard of level of sea control.

Arriving back home in Kure in May after five solid months of running amok, Ryujo would land her obsolete Claude fighters in favor of shiny new Mitsubishi Type 0 A6M2 “Zekes” of the latest design– some of which just left the factory– as the Admiralty aimed to send her into an operation where she may expect interference from American F4F Wildcats and P-39 Aircobra/P-40 Warhawks: Operation AL, the diversionary seizure of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians during the Battle of Midway.

Dutch Harbor & Koga’s Zero

Sent to attack Alaska as part of VADM Hosogaya Boshiro’s Aleutian invasion force in company with the new 27,500-ton carrier Junyo, Ryujo would be active in a series of three air raids on Dutch Harbor and Unalaska on 3-4 June which didn’t cause much damage on either side, then covered the bloodless landings at Attu and Kiska on the 7th.

Dutch Harbor, Unalaska Island, Alaska, 3 June 1942: A Navy machine gun crew watches intently as Japanese aircraft depart the scene after the attack. Smoke in the background is from the steamer SS Northwestern, set ablaze by a dive bomber (80-G-11749).

However, one of the aircraft that failed to return to Ryujo was one of those beautiful new Zekes, SN 4593/Tail DI-108, flown by 19-year-old Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga. His oil line hit by a “magic BB” from small arms fire over Dutch Harbor, Koga tried to land his smoking fighter on remote green Akutan Island, some 25 miles from nowhere, where it could possibly be recovered and flown back home or destroyed in place if needed. However, it turned out that the flat field Koga aimed for on Akutan was a bog and his aircraft flipped, killing him, on contact.

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-sen 10 July 1942, on Akutan Island, in the Aleutians aircraft had been flown by petty officer Tadayoshi Koga, IJN, from the carrier RYUJO. Aircraft damaged on 4 June 1942; the pilot was killed when the plane flipped over on its back. This “Zero” was the first captured intact for flight tests. NH 82481

U.S. Navy personnel inspect Koga’s Zero. The petty officer’s body was recovered still inside the cockpit, relatively preserved by the icy bog despite being there for over a month. Regretfully, a number of images of his cadaver are digitized and in wide circulation. Museum of the Aleutians Collections. MOTA 2018.16.10

Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero-Sen on the docks at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, 17 July 1942. This plane, from carrier RYUJO, had crash landed after the Dutch Harbor Raid on 4 June 1942. It was salvaged by VP-41 and was the first “Zero” captured intact for flight tests. NH 91339

The Zero on a barge in Alaska on August 8

More on Koga’s plane later.

The Dragon’s final dance

Having returned to Kure in July after the disaster that befell the Japanese carrier force in a single day at Midway (“scratch four flattops”), Ryujo was now suddenly more important than she had ever been before.

By early August, she was attached to Nagumo’s Main Unit Mobile Force– who the Japanese somehow still trusted– alongside the large fleet carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku of the First Carrier Division which had survived Midway by not being at Midway. Coupled with the battleships Hiei and Kirishima (which would never come back home), the force was dispatched towards Truk to challenge the growing American presence on Guadalcanal. With Shokaku and Zuikaku large enough to tote both strike and fighter packages, the smaller Ryujo, paired with the old battleship Mutsu in a diversionary force away from the two bigger carriers, would instead have a fighter-heavy air wing of 9 Kates and 24 Zekes as American flattops were known to be lurking in the area.

On 24 August, Nagumo’s carriers were close enough to attack Henderson Field on Guadalcanal but in turn fell under the crosshairs of the numerical inferior Task Force 61, commanded by VADM Frank J. Fletcher (who had spanked Nagumo 11 weeks earlier at Midway), in what went down in the history books as Battle of Eastern Solomons. While Ryujo’s strike would hit the U.S. positions on Lunga Point– in a raid observed by Fletcher’s radar-equipped force– SBDs from Bombing Three and TBFs from Torpedo Eight off USS Saratoga (CV 3) would find the relatively undefended Ryujo and leave her dead in the water where land-based B-17s would find her in two follow-on raids.

A U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless flies over the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6), foreground, and USS Saratoga (CV-3) near Guadalcanal. The aircraft is likely on anti-submarine patrol. Saratoga is trailed by her plane guard destroyer. Another flight of three aircraft is visible near Saratoga. The radar array on the Enterprise has been obscured by a wartime censor. U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum photo NNAM.1996.253.671

Battle of the Eastern Solomons, 24 August 1942: The damaged and immobile Japanese aircraft carrier Ryujo was photographed from a USAAF B-17 bomber, during a high-level bombing attack on 24 August 1942. The destroyers Amatsukaze and Tokitsukaze had been removing her crew and are now underway, one from a bow-to-bow position and the other from alongside. Two “sticks” of bombs are bursting on the water, more than a ship length beyond the carrier. The bow of the cruiser Tone is visible at the extreme right. 80-G-88021

Diorama of Ryjuo attack from the Don Garber Collection South Pacific WWII Museum

As detailed by Combined Fleet:

  • 1357 RYUJO is attacked by enemy aircraft (30 SBD and 8 TBF launched at 1315 from USS SARATOGA, (CV-3). The CAP manages to shoot down one TBF, but the carrier receives four bomb hits, many near-misses, and one torpedo hit aft of amidships. The torpedo floods the starboard engine room, and the ship begins to list and lose speed. A second torpedo hit, or large bomb appears to have damaged the port bow.
  • 1408, RYUJO turned north and attempted to retire as ordered by Admiral Yamamoto. But though the fire is extinguished, the list increased to 21 degrees, and flooding disabled the boilers and machinery.
  • 1420 RYUJO stops. At 1515 ‘Abandon Ship’ is ordered. AMATSUKAZE draws close along the low starboard side to attempt to transfer the crew bodily to her by planks linking the ships.
  • 1610-1625 During abandonment, the carrier and screen are bombed by B-17s that are engaged by her fighters, and she receives no further damage.
  • 1730 B-17s bomb again but again no additional damage. AMATSUKAZE completes rescue, and shortly after, about:
  • 1755 RYUJO capsized to starboard and after floating long enough to reveal holes in her bottom, sinks stern first at 06-10S, 160-50E, bearing 10 degrees 106 miles from Tulagi.
  • Four aircraft go down with the ship. Seven officers – including XO Cdr (Captain posthumously) Kishi and Maintenance Officer LtCdr (Eng.) (Cdr (Eng.) posthumously) Nakagawa – and 113 petty officers and men are lost; Captain Kato and the survivors are rescued by destroyers AMATSUKAZE and TOKITSUKAZE and heavy cruiser TONE. The destroyers soon transfer these survivors to the TOEI MARU and TOHO MARU.

Epilogue

While Ryujo has been at the bottom of the Southern Pacific for 80 years now, her legacy should not be forgotten. When it comes to Koga’s advanced model Zero, left behind in Alaska in what was described as “98 percent condition,” the aircraft was so key to Allied intelligence efforts that it has been described as “The Fighter That Changed World War II.”

Koga’s Zero in U.S. markings while assigned to NACA 1943

The folks over at Grumman were able to get their test pilots and engineers in it, then use lessons drawn from it to tweak the F6F Hellcat and later, the F7F and F8F.

Koga’s Zero in flight

As noted by Wings of the Rising Sun excerpts at The Aviation Geek Club:

Once the fighter had been sent to NAS Anacostia in late 1942, a series of test flights were performed by the Naval Air Station’s Flight Test Director, Cdr Frederick M. Trapnell. He flew identical flight profiles in both the Zero and U.S. fighters to compare their performance, executing similar aerial maneuvers in mock dogfights. U.S. Navy test pilot LT Melvin C. “Boogey” Hoffman was also checked out in the A6M2, after which he helped train Naval Aviators flying new F6F Hellcats, F4U Corsairs, and FM Wildcats by dogfighting with them in the Zero.

In 1943 the aircraft was evaluated in NACA’s LMAL in Hampton, Virginia, where the facility’s Full-Scale Wind Tunnel was used to evaluate the Zero’s aerodynamic qualities. It was also shown off to the public at Washington National Airport that same year during a war booty exhibition. By September 1944, the well-used A6M2 was stationed at NAS North Island once again, where it served as a training aid for “green” Naval Aviators preparing for duty in the Pacific.

RADM William N. Leonard said of Koga’s plane, “The captured Zero was a treasure. To my knowledge, no other captured machine has ever unlocked so many secrets at a time when the need was so great.” On the other side of the pond, Japanese Lt-Gen. Masatake Okumiya said the plane’s loss “was no less serious” than the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, and “did much to hasten Japan’s final defeat.”

PO Koga, the teenage son of a carpenter, was at first buried in the hummocks some 100 yards from his crash site after he was extracted from the Zero. Exhumed in 1947, his remains were interred in the cemetery on Adak, in grave 1082 marked as “Japanese Flyer Killed in Action.” He was exhumed a final time in 1953 for repatriation along with 253 others from the Aleutians, and since then has been in the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Japan. The location of his lonely crash on Atukan, half a mile inland from Broad Bight, is occasionally visited by groups from Japan.

While Koga’s Zero was mauled in a mishap on the ground in February 1945 and then later scrapped, instruments from it are on display at the Museum of the U.S. Navy and two of its manufacturer’s plates are in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, some of the only relics of Ryujo left.

Ryujo is remembered in a variety of maritime art, most of which is used for scale model box art. 

Specs:

(1941)
Displacement: 12,732 tons
Length: 590’7″
Beam: 68’2″
Draft: 23’3″
Machinery: 12 x Kampon water-tube boilers, 2 geared steam turbines, 2 shafts, 65,000 shp
Speed: 29 knots
Crew: 924
Airwing: up to 48 single-engine aircraft
Armament:
8 x 5″/40 Type 89 naval gun
4 x 25mm/60 Hotchkiss-licensed Type 96 light AA guns
24 x 13mm/76 AAAs


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