Tag Archives: WWII

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021: Behold, the Destroyerzooka

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. 22, 2021: Behold, the Destroyerzooka

Here we see the Soviet Orfey (Orpheus)-class destroyer Engels (formerly Desna) with his (Russian warships are always masculine by tradition) unique stern 12-inch (305mm) Kurchevsky pattern “Dynamo-Reactive” recoilless rifle, circa the summer of 1934. A tough little ship going past his goofy one-off experimental gun, he had an interesting life.

Background

With a shredded naval list after the Russo-Japanese War, having lost two out of three fleets, the Tsarist Imperial Navy needed new ships of every stripe in the 1910s as they were facing an increasingly modern Ottoman fleet in the Black Sea as well as the Swedes (always a possible opponent) and the German juggernaut in the Baltic. Part of the naval buildout was a series of 52 destroyers derived from the Novik.

Novik was a great destroyer for 1910. At some 1,600-tons full load, he could make 37.3 knots, which is still fast for a destroyer today, and carried four twin 18-inch torpedo tubes (eight tubes total) as well as four 4-inch guns.

The follow-on Orfey-class upgrade from Novik, planned to number 23 vessels, ended up being trimmed back to just 16 due to the Great War and Russia’s series of revolutions and civil war, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Some 1,440-tons when fully loaded, the 321-foot tin cans used a plant that had two Curtis-AEG-Vulkan turbines and four Normand-Vulkan boilers on two shafts to make 32 knots, making them still very fast for the age but slightly slower than the 6-boiler/3-turbine/3-shaft plant seen in Novik. However, they carried more torpedo tubes, a total of nine, in addition to their four 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns.

Ofrey class destroyer plan. These ships, benefiting from the Russo-Japanese war experience, had double the main transverse bulkheads of pre-1904 Russian destroyers with 12 watertight sections (each with their own pumping systems) as well as individually compartmentalized boilers, hence all the funnels. The keel was made of doubled 6mm steel sheets set at angles to each other, creating a double hull of sorts. Lacking true armor, the conning tower/bridge was made of half-inch ordnance steel sheets to provide splinter and small arms protection. Interestingly, the topside radio room (one 2 kW transmitter and two receivers) and two 45-cm searchlights were fed by a separate 10kW Penta kerosene dynamo protected centrally, rather than the rest of the ship’s power which was provided by two 20 kW turbo generators.

Desna, shown here in fitting out at the Kolpino Metalworks in Petrograd (Great War-era St. Petersburg) had nine 18-inch torpedo tubes.

Closer detail on those tubes

And even closer

His initial armament, as with the rest of the class, included four long-barreled 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns, one over the bow, and three crowding her stern. These could fire a 66-pound HE or 52-pound “Diving” shell at 12 rounds per minute, providing the crew was drilled properly, to a range of 17,600 yards. Two 150-shell magazines, fore, and aft, were installed below deck. The guns were directed by a 9-foot Barr & Stroud 30x stereoscopic rangefinder of RN F.Q. 2 pattern.

Laid down in November 1914, three months into the Great War, Desna was named after the famed tributary of the Dnieper that runs through Smolensk to Kyiv.

Commissioned 16 August 1916, he was rushed into operations and famously came to the defense of the heroic but obsolete Borodino-class battleship Slava during the long-running Battle of Moon Sound, in which the Russian battlewagon gave, by all accounts, a full measure against a much larger and more powerful German force.

Slava, after the Battle of Moon Sound

Helping to evacuate Slava’s crew, Desna fired torpedoes into the stricken battlewagon to prevent it from falling into German hands. Desna’s brother, Grom, was sunk during the operation.

Caption: A newly -completed Destroyer of the improved “Novik” Type, either DESNA (1915-1941) or AZARD (1916-1919). Courtesy of Mr. Boris V. Drashpil of Margate, Fla., 1983. Catalog #: NH 94295

Same, NH 94294

Same, NH 94296

Civil War

Becoming part of the Red Baltic Fleet by default during the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Desna took part in the “Ice Campaign” during which the force broke through the frozen Baltic to escape Helsinki ahead of the Germans in April 1918.

Based at the fortress island of Kronstadt, Desna took part in operations against the British in 1918-19. (During this period, brother Gavriil helped sink HM Submarine L-55 and three British torpedo boats, while brothers Konstantin and Vladimir/Svoboda were sunk in turn by British mines. Another classmate, Kapitan Miklucha Maklai/Spartak, was captured by the British and turned over to the Estonians.)

Then, in the continued evolution of counterrevolution, Desna and company fought against the Bolsheviks in the 1921 revolt of the Red Fleet.

Rudolf Franz’s 1936 painting depicts the storming of Kronstadt by the Red Army to put down the revolt. Over a thousand were killed on both sides and an estimated 2,100 rebellious sailors were executed or disappeared into labor camps.

In part to wipe out the stain of his role in the brutally suppressed Kronstadt revolt, Desna was renamed in 1922 to Engels, celebrating the German socialist philosopher of the same name who helped develop Marxism.

An ice-bound Engels

Then came several years of lingering operations and refits, as the Soviets were cash strapped for operational funds throughout the rest of the decade. During this period, classmates Orfey and Letun, in bad technical condition after Great War damage, were broken up after the Civil war.

Dynamo-Reactive!

In 1932, Engels was refitted and rebuilt, emerging two years later with a new engineering plant as well as a new gun over his stern in place of two of his 4-inchers.

A design came from the mind of weapon engineer Leonid Kurchevsky, who was fascinated with recoilless rifles. He had spent time in Stalin’s gulag system then emerged in 1929 to catch the eye of Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the “Red Napolean” military theoretician who wanted to see Kurchevsky’s simple designs fitted on everything.

Kurchevsky and some of his recoilless rifles in the early 1930s.

The Kurchevsky gun fitted on Engels was awkward, only able to fire to port and starboard with a low train and elevation.

It fired a 660-pound shell to 14,000 yards but proved inaccurate, unreliable, and prone to malfunction. A larger 15-inch model was to be installed on a cruiser but never made it off the drawing board.

I mean, come on…

While some 2,000~ Kurchevsky guns were delivered, fitted to tanks and vehicles as well as ships, it turns out they sucked.

Via Global Security: 

Soon the “bubble” burst. It turned out that the armor-piercing shells of anti-tank DRP, even when fired at point-blank, were not able to penetrate armor thicker than 30 mm. The accuracy and range of field artillery guns do not meet the requirements at all. At the same time, the guns themselves are unreliable and unsafe during operation, there had been numerous cases of rupture of barrels during firing.

Aircraft and naval automatic cannons of the Kurchevsky caliber from 37 to 152 mm gave constant failures and delays during firing due to incomplete combustion of the nitro-fabric sleeves and the unreliable operation of the pneumatic recharge mechanism, which made this weapon absolutely not combat-ready. Soon all PDDs were removed from the troops and destroyed. By June 22, 1941, there was not a single Kurchevsky gun in service with the Red Army.

While Tukhachevsky was sacked in 1937 for other reasons and scapegoated as a Trotskyist in the Great Purge before WWII, Kurchevsky got the wrap at around the same time directly for his funky weaponry. Thrown back in the gulag the inventor was executed sometime in the late 1930s.

War, again, and again

With the Russians flexing against the Finns in the 1939-40 Winter War, Desna/Engels, his Kurchevsky gun landed, and his old 4-inchers reinstalled, bombarded Finnish positions and installations, a task for which his 9-foot draft no doubt assisted.

When the Germans invaded in 1941, Engels was used in coastal minelaying and convoy duty.

Just two weeks after Barbarossa kicked off, on 6 July, he and two other destroyers (Serditogo and Sil’nyy) clashed with two German minesweepers (M-23 and M-31) in what is known today as the Battle of the Irbensky Strait. Famed in Russian naval lore as it was the largest surface battle they fought in the Baltic in WWII; it is much less known outside of the Motherland. This is probably because all vessels involved sailed away after the engagement, a tactical draw.

Damaged extensively on 7 August 1941 by a 550-pound bomb dropped via Stuka, Engels was soon patched up and two weeks later sailed from Tallinn in occupied Estonia to Kronstadt as part of a convoy. It was on this voyage that he stumbled across a German minefield off Cape Yuminda, hitting one with his bow and shrugged it off, damage control successful. However, while the damaged destroyer was being rigged for towing by the icebreaker Oktyabr, Engels hit a second mine that exploded under her stern and triggered the aft 4-inch magazine. That was it and she rolled over and sank. 

Four days later, classmates Pobiditel/Volodarski and Azard/Artyom were lost in a similar minefield in the same Tallinn-to-Kronstadt run.

Epilogue

As with Desna/Engels, few Orfey-class destroyers made it out of WWII. Three units that survived by nature of serving with the Northern Fleet out of Murmansk and two more with the Pacific Fleet out of Vladivostok remained in service into the early 1950s but were soon discarded. The last remaining example of the class, Spartak, spent her final days in Peru’s Pacific coast as the Estonians had sold her to that Latin American country in the 1930s.

The class is remembered in some Soviet-era maritime art.

Meanwhile, a fishing net-wrapped wreck off Estonia’s Cape Yuminda, documented in 2020, could be the bones of Engels.

As for Leonid Kurchevsky, he was “rehabilitated posthumously in 1956” after the end of the Stalin regime. The next year, Marshal Tukhachevsky and his codefendants in the Purge trial were declared innocent of all charges and rehabilitated, posthumously.

Specs:


Displacement: 1,260 tons (standard) 1,440 tons (full load)
Length 321 ft 6 in
Beam 30 ft 6 in
Draught 9 ft 10 in
Machinery: 4 boilers (30,500 shp) 2 steam turbines, 2 shafts
Speed 32 knots
Range: 1,680 miles @21 knots
Complement: 150 (8 officers, 6 michman, 136 ratings)
Armament:
(1917)
4 x 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns in single unprotected mounts
1 x 40/39 Vickers AAA pom-pom anti-balloon gun
2 x Maxim machine guns (7.62×54)
9 x 18-inch torpedo tubes (3×3)
80 M1908 style sea anchor mines
10 depth charges

(1934)
1 x 12-inch recoilless rifle (experimental)
2 x 4″/60 Vickers-Obukhovski Pattern 1911 guns in single unprotected mounts
1 x 3″/28 Lender AAA
4 x 1 12.7mm/79 DK Heavy machine gun (drum fed)
9 x 18-inch torpedo tubes (3×3) with more modern 45-36Н torpedoes
2 x depth charge racks
58 mines

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a member, so should you be!

Warship Wednesday, Sept. 1st, 2021: Fortunate Son, the Army Flat Top Edition

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. 1st, 2021: Fortunate Son, the Army Flat Top Edition

Photo by SP4 Ingimar DeRidder, 69th Sig Bn, via U.S. Army CMH files.

Here we see USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVN-1), a 14,000-ton floating aircraft maintenance depot, anchored in Cam Ranh Bay, 12 November 66. Note at least three Army UH-1 Hueys on her deck. The Veteran WWII-era Curtiss-class seaplane tender, disarmed and manned by civilian mariners, was the closest thing the Army had to an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.

The two Curtiss-class tenders, which include class leader USS Curtiss (AV-4) and her sistership USS Albemarle (AV-5) — the latter would become the above-shown Army flattop– were the first purpose-built seaplane tenders constructed for the Navy, with the previous vessels being repurposed minesweepers and destroyers. Ordered in 1938, they were laid down side-by-side at New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey, and were commissioned in November and December 1940.

USS ALBEMARLE (AV-5) (Foreground) and sistership USS CURTISS (AV-4), fitting out at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. CURTISS departed Philadelphia on 2 January 1941 for shakedown, ALBEMARLE on 28 January. Both ships had been commissioned there in November/December 1940. USS TRIPPE (DD-403) and a sistership are at right; OLYMPIA (IX-40) is visible in the reserve basin at the top, along with an EAGLE boat. Note NEW JERSEY (BB-62) under construction in slipway at far left; two motor torpedo boats are visible just to the left of ALBEMARLE’s bow. NH 96539

USS ALBEMARLE (AV-5) passing south yard, Sun shipyard, Chester, PA., c 1941. NH 57783

The newly-commissioned USS ALBEMARLE (AV-5) on her shakedown cruise, anchored at Havana Harbor, Cuba, on 22 February 1941, “dressed” for Washington’s birthday. Note Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes on the flight deck, aft. NH 96538

Some 527-feet long (keep in mind destroyers of the age were in the 300~ foot range), they had a very wide 69-foot beam and drew over three fathoms under their hull when fully loaded. Packed with four high-pressure boilers that pushed a pair of geared turbines, they could make a respectable 19.7 knots, which was faster than most auxiliaries of the era, and steam for 12,000 miles at 12 knots– enough to halfway around the globe. Equipped with CXAM-1 radars from the time they joined the fleet, at a time when many of the world’s best cruisers and battleships didn’t have such luxury gear, they were well-armed with four 5″/38 singles and an array of Bofors and Oerlikons.

One of Albemarle’s four 5″/38 DP mounts, note the 40mm Bofors tub in the distance. By the end of WWII, they would carry 20 40mm and 12 20mm guns for self-defense against enemy aircraft, more than most destroyers. Not bad for a “tender”

But of course, their main purpose was to support a couple squadrons of patrol bombers such as PBY Catalina or PBM Mariner flying boats, with a large seaplane deck over the stern and extensive maintenance shops in the superstructure forward.

A U.S. Navy Martin PBM-1 Mariner of Patrol Squadron 55 (VP-55) is hoisted on board the seaplane tender USS Albemarle (AV-5), in 1941. Note the Neutrality Patrol paint scheme on the aircraft and the sailors manning the handling lines. U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum photo NNAM.1986.014.022

The third (and last) such U.S. Navy ship named Albemarle— after the sound in North Carolina, a traditional naming structure for seaplane tenders– she commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 20 December 1940, CDR Henry Maston Mullinnix in command.

Graduating first in the USNA Class of 1916, Mullinnix was a destroyerman until he switched to Naval Aviation in the 1920s. Leaving Albemarle in early 1941 to be the skipper of Patrol Wing Seven, he would go on to command the carrier Saratoga in the Pacific before making RADM. He was killed aboard USS Liscombe Bay (CVE-56) as Task Force Commander off Makin Island on 24 November 1943 when the escort carrier was sent to the bottom by Japanese submarine I-175.

With the Americans and British becoming increasingly cooperative despite U.S. neutrality, Albemarle was dispatched soon after her shakedown to patrol Greenland and the western Atlantic, arriving 18 May 1941 with the PBYs of patrol squadron VP-52 at Argentia, Newfoundland. It should be noted that, just two days later, the Royal Navy was bird-dogging the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen across the North Atlantic. Soon, VP-71, VP-72, and VP-73 would join the tender.

Little Placentia Harbor, Argentia, Newfoundland. USS Albemarle (AV-5), with an AVD alongside, in the harbor, circa 1941. Note PBY Catalinas in the foreground. NARA 80-G-7448

Greenland Expedition by USS Albemarle (AV 5) May-September 1941. East Coast of Greenland with PBY Catalina making observations, May 25, 1941. The PBYs performed long reconnaissance missions to provide data for convoy protection. Caption: Greenland – A Mysterious Land of Mountain and Ice. Majestic fjords indent the coast serrated by rocky buttes some of which are precipitous cliffs attaining elevations of two to three thousand feet. 80-CF-73186-6 Box 126.

Her crew earned the American Defense Service Medal for the ship’s peacetime actions in the Atlantic, 23 Jun 41 – 22 Jul 41, 15 Aug 41 – 1 Nov 41.

She was one of the unsung Brotherhood of the F.B.I. “The Forgotten Bastards of Iceland,” and survived a strong (hurricane-force) storm there in January 1942.

WAR!

After a refit on the East Coast, she would spend most of the rest of 1942 and the first half of 1943 running around much warmer climes, delivering aeronautical material and men to naval air bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific coast of South America, as well as in the northern South Atlantic.

OS2U Kingfishers aboard USS Albemarle AV-5, 14 May 1942

Her relatively fast speed enabled her to keep ahead of U-boats and she, ironically, would carry back captured German submariners from sunken boats– killed by patrol bombers– to POW camps in the U.S.

Crossing the Line Neptunus Rex Party onboard USS Albemarle (AV 5). September 28, 1942. NARA 80-G-22195, 80-G-221182, 80-G-22193

USS ALBEMARLE (AV-5) underway in the Atlantic, with a PBY Catalina on her seaplane deck, 30 December 1943. 80-G-450247

Her role as a high-speed aviation transport continued with convoys to North Africa in 1943, delivering 29 dive bombers on one such trip.

U.S. Navy seaplane tender USS Albemarle (AV-5) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 10 August 1944. She is painted in Camouflage Measure 32, Design 5Ax. The photo was taken by a blimp of squadron ZP-11. 10 August 1944. Note her heavy armament for an aviation support ship. 80-G-244856

Same as above. Note the array of emergency brake-away rafts. She carried a 1,000+ man complement and often carried 200 or more transients. 80-G-453347

Post War Mushroom Collecting

In May 1945, just after VE-Day, she was detailed to begin carrying flying boat squadrons from the Atlantic Theatre to the U.S. for transfer to the Pacific Theatre, which was still active. Likewise, our broadly-traveled seaplane tender was planned to receive extra AAA mounts and gear in preparation for her own transfer Westward to take part in the final push to Tokyo. Her sistership, Curtiss, had a much more active war in the Pacific, being in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and going on to earn seven battlestars supporting island-hopping operations.

However, VJ-Day halted things and, when Albemarle finally arrived at Pearl Harbor in November 1945, it was to join the “Magic Carpet” fleet returning American veterans home from the Pacific. This would include carrying the entire 658th Tank Destroyer/Amphibian Tractor Battalion back from the Philippines, landing them at San Francisco on 13 January 1946.

She went on to support Operation Crossroads Atomic tests, moored in Kwajalein lagoon during the Able and Baker drops at Bikini Atoll, and otherwise taking part in staging for and follow up from those mushrooms from May to August.

After a brief East Coast stint, she was back in the Pacific with Joint Task Force Switchman, arriving at Eniwetok in March 1948 to serve as a floating lab ship for the triple nuclear tests during Operation Sandstone– “X-Ray” with an experimental 37 kt A-bomb made from a 2:1 mix of oralloy and plutonium. (15 April 1948), the 49 kt oralloy “Yoke” (1 May 1948) and 18 kt oralloy “Zebra” (15 May 1948) bombs.

Swapped back to the East Coast after the conclusion of the tests, she was attached to the New York Group, Atlantic Reserve Fleet, decommissioned on 14 August 1950 and berthed at Brooklyn where she rested for six years. Meanwhile, sistership Curtiss, who had operated helicopters in Korea, was decommissioned on 24 September 1957 and would only leave mothballs again in 1972 when she was scrapped.

Seamaster

Albemarle was recommissioned at Philadelphia on 21 October 1957 after a 20-month conversion to be able to operate the planned Martin P6M Seamaster jet-equipped flying boats. Intended to be a nuclear deterrent, the Seamaster program was one of the Navy’s top priorities.

Martin P6M Seamaster. Just 12 of these strategic bombers in the guise of high-speed mine-laying flying boats were made. They could carry a 70-kt B28 nuke to a combat radius of 700 miles.

However, as Seamaster never reached the fleet, Albemarle ended up spending the next three years quietly tending more traditional Martin P5M Marlin flying boats off and on while participating in operations with the Atlantic Fleet. As Seamaster was canceled– it turned out the Polaris FBM submarines were a better idea– she was placed out of commission, in reserve, on 21 October 1960 before being laid up with the James River Fleet. Transferred to MARAD, Albemarle was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 September 1962 and likely would have been scrapped.

However, her special services were soon needed by someone else.

Vietnam War – Project Flat Top – USNS Corpus Christi Bay

On 7 August 1964, MARAD transferred ex-Albemarle back to the Navy and six months later she was transferred to the Navy’s Military Sea Transportation Service (which became today’s MSC in 1970), entered on the NVR as USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVH-1). She was sent to the Charleston Naval Shipyard for an $11 million conversion to become a maintenance depot at sea for Army helicopters in Vietnam.

The idea was that, instead of shipping damaged helicopters back to the U.S. for refit, Corpus Christi Bay could, with her 32 on-board repair and fabrication shops, blueprints for every model helicopter in service, and cargo of 20,000 spare parts, could rework them. Meanwhile, her sister Curtiss, which had been laid up since 1957 and had been stricken in 1963, was robbed of everything useful to keep Albemarle/Corpus Christi Bay in shape.

USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVH-1) In port, probably at the Charleston Naval Shipyard, South Carolina, in 1966. Photographed by Captain Vitaly V. Uzoff, U.S. Army. This ship was originally USS Albemarle (AV-5). Official U.S. Army Photograph, from the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Military Sealift Command collection. Catalog #: NH 99782

Delivered for sea trials in December 1965, on 11 January 1966 she was placed into service.

Dubbed an Aircraft Repair Ship, Helicopter as part of “Project Flat-Top,” Corpus Christi Bay lost her seaplane ramp, had her superstructure reconstructed to include a 50×150 ft. landing pad to accommodate just about any of the Army’s choppers. Damaged helos could be dropped via sling loads from CH-47s or CH-5s or barged out to the ship and lifted aboard by a pair of 20-ton cranes. All her remaining WWII weapons were removed. She picked up extensive air conditioning, a cobbler shop, barbershop, modern dining facilities, a dental clinic and medical center staffed by Army flight surgeons, and other amenities that the Navy’s flying boat aviators of 1940 could have only dreamed of.

The MSTS crew would be just 130~ civilian mariners and 308 green-uniformed helicopter techs of the Army’s specially-formed 1st Transportation Corps Battalion (Seaborne), which she picked up at Corpus Christi, Texas on 22 January.

 

As a lesson learned from the sinking of the former Bogue-class escort carrier-turned transport USNS Card (T-AKV-40) in 1964 by Viet Cong sappers, the MSTS made assorted security changes to vessels operating for extended periods in Vietnamese ports. This included helmets and flak vests for topside personnel, sandbags around the bridge, grenade screens secured on portholes, extra medkits and firefighting equipment kept at the ready, bilge and ballast pumps warmed up, and towing wires ready for a tow without assist from the ship’s crew. In addition to this, her Army techs maintained an extensive small arms locker to include several machine guns to replace damaged ones on gunships.

She had two Hueys assigned to her full-time for liaison work, Flattop 086 (68-16086), and Flattop 045 (69-15045).

Corpus Christi Bay operated out of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam as a Floating Aircraft Maintenance Facility, or FAMF, arriving 2 April 1966, and would remain overseas until 19 December 1972, spending almost seven years overseas, rotating crews and Army maintainers out regularly.

USNS Corpus Christi Bay at dock during the Vietnam War era, TAMUCC collection

As a seaborne asset of the United States Army Material Command, she was designated a floating Helicopter Repair Depot. Ostensibly manned by civilian merchant mariners of the MSTS, she was still owned by the Navy but, for all intents and purposes, was an Army ship.

Army Veteran Peter Berlin remembers her fondly and in detail:

The Floating Aircraft Maintenance Facility was designed for use in contingency operations, initially for backup direct support and general support and provided a limited depot capability for the repair of aircraft components. It was equipped to manufacture small machine parts and also to repair items requiring extensive test equipment operating in a sterile environment such as avionics, instruments, carburetors, fuel controls, and hydraulic pumps. The mobility offered by the ship also contributed to the effectiveness of aircraft support since it could move from one deep water port to another as the density of aircraft units shifted with changing tactical situations. The guys aboard this FAMF could fix anything..

Ultimately determined by MSC to be “in excess of current and future requirements”. Corpus Christi Bay was taken out of service in 1973 and berthed in ready reserve status at Corpus Christi, Texas.

Corpus Christi Bay served six tours of duty in the Republic of Vietnam and earned four Meritorious Unit Commendations. Determined by MSC to be “in excess of current and future requirements,” she was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 31 December 1974, just two weeks after she returned to Corpus Christi from overseas. On 17 July 1975, she was sold to Brownsville Steel and Salvage, Inc. for the princely sum of $387,777 and subsequently scrapped.

Epilogue

The Army is a good caretaker of the vessel’s relics, with a scale model, the ship’s bell, and other artifacts on honored display at the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas, an important cradle of Army aviation maintenance. Former members of the ship’s crew meet at CCAD from time to time. 

The USS Albemarle bell, which stands at the entrance of the CCAD Headquarters along with other relics from her day as USNS Corpus Christi Bay.

The U.S. Army Transportation Museum this month unveiled a large scale model of Corpus Christi Bay, saluting her service.

A private Facebook group, the USNS Corpus Christi Bay Alliance, is out there for Vets to reconnect. 

Her Navy war history and logbooks are digitized in the National Archives while the Army has numerous films of her Vietnam “Project Flat-Top” days in the same repository. 

And, of course, you didn’t come all this way and not expect this:

Specs:

Jane’s 1946

Jane’s 1973

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a member, so should you be!

You Don’t See a Semi-Auto DP-28 Everyday

While at the GDC warehouse last month, I had a chance to run across this bad boy.

Rick Smith’s Texas-based Smith Machine Group has been in the business of breathing life back into historical military guns for well over a decade and their DP series guns have long been one of their primary staples. Their complete DPM semi-automatic rifle is built using a surplus Polish kit with a new receiver, a new chrome-lined barrel, and their own fire-control group.

The semi-auto rifle was built off a Polish Circle 11 marked kit dated 1953 and is chambered in 7.62x54R. Firing from a closed bolt, it still has a gas piston operating system and uses an internal hammer.

While heavy, it has zero recoil when fired from the prone position and due to its 47-round pan magazine has a very low profile when compared to other magazine-fed semi-autos.

More in my column at Guns.com.

Cowboy Guns as Brush Guns for Canadian Guerillas

As part of the general mass panic that came about all along the Pacific coast of North America after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which kicked into overdrive with the follow-on actions of Japanese submarines off Oregon and California and the seizure of windswept islands in the Aleutians within six months of that Infamy, a home guard force was formed in British Columbia.

Eventually christened the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, they eventually grew to some 15,000 members. With guns and training time for new types short, they were outfitted with old bolt-action rifles which dated to the previous World War– which grizzled old vets of the Rangers no doubt remembered– as well as almost 5,000 commercial rifles from Connecticut.

Lever action Marlins and Winchesters.

More in my column at Guns.com.

Keeping the Deeds Alive

I’ve always had a staunch, somewhat old school take when it comes to traditional naval ship names. In short, it is hard for a plank owner rushing aboard to bring a new ship to life if it is named after some smarmy politician who never wore a uniform or activist and be told to “live up to the legacy” of that person. Ships should be named for five things: maritime heroes (Halsey, Farragut, Munro, Puller et. al), historical former ships (Wasp, Wahoo, Ranger), places (especially if they are also former famous ships, e.g. Nevada, Brooklyn), battles (Lexington, Midway, Hue City), and aspirations (Independence, Freedom).

That goes not just for the U.S. Navy but for any fleet.

With that in mind, the word from First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin this week that the first five names for the future Type 31 frigates for the Royal Navy are familiar.

Each name has been selected to represent key themes and operations which will dominate and shape the global mission of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines: carrier operations (Formidable); operational advantage in the North Atlantic (Bulldog); forward deployment of ships around the globe to protect UK interests (Active); technology and innovation (Venturer); and the Future Commando Force (Campbeltown).

We’ve covered the unsinkable aircraft carrier HMS Formidable (R67) in a past Warship Wednesday, but HMS Cambeltown (notably the ex-USS Buchanan, DD-131), famous for the St. Nazaire Raid; the sixth HMS Bulldog (H91), the destroyer whose capture of a complete Enigma machine and codebooks from the German submarine U-110 in 1941 no doubt helped shorten the war; the 12th HMS Active (F171), the frigate whose blistered 4.5-inch gun chased Argentine troops across every hill around Port Stanley in 1982; and the third HMS/m Venturer (P68), the only submarine in history to have sunk another (the very advanced Type IXD2 U-864) while both were submerged; are no less important to naval history.

The well-known image of the fifth and most famous HMS Formidable on fire after the kamikaze hit on 4 May, photograph A 29717 from the collections of the Imperial War Museum

The “Trojan Horse Destroyer” HMS Campbeltown rests on the St Nazaire dock gate shortly before she will explode, March 1942

HMS Bulldog, in her three-shades-of-blue North Atlantic camouflage. IWM Photo No.: FL 1817

RN photo of frigate HMS Active escorting Lanistes through the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, mid-1987 Armilla patrol

HMS/m Venturer in Holy Loch in 1943. Because of her, U-864 and her cargo of 65 tons of mercury as well as Junkers Jumo 004B jet engine parts (used in the Messerschmitt Me 262) never made it to Japan as a result of an amazing underwater action. IWM A-18832.

Bravo Zulu, ADM Radakin.

Warship Wednesday, May 5, 2021: De Gaulle’s Pearl

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, May 5, 2021: De Gaulle’s Pearl

BuShips photo 19-LCM-67592 via the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.

Here we see a great surface view of the Free French Saphir-class minelaying submarine (sous-marin mouilleur de mines) Perle (Q-184) while off the Philadelphia Navy Yard, 5 June 1944– the day before the Normandy invasion to begin the liberation of her homeland. Perle, in the above photo, was preparing to sortie from PNSY to continue her already active war, having just completed an overhaul. Sadly, she would never see France again.

The six minelaying boats of the Project “Q6” Saphir-class were ordered across a series of naval programs in the late 1920s. With a double-hull construction, the 216-foot subs were small enough for work in the confined waters of the Mediterranean, displacing less than 1,000 tons when fully loaded and submerged. Using a pair of Normand-Vickers diesels and a matching set of electric motors they were not built for speed, capable of just 12 knots on the surface and less than that while under the waves. However, they could remain at sea for a lengthy 30-day patrol, able to cover 7,000nm without refueling.

Saphir

Besides the capability to carry and efficiently deploy 32 Sautter-Harlé HS 4 2,500-pound contact mines double-loaded vertically into a series of 16 Normand-Fenaux chutes built into the hull on either side of the sail, the class had three 550mm torpedo tubes and two smaller 400mm tubes (but only stowage for six spare torpedos) as well as some modest deck guns.

Drawing of a Saphir-class submarine. The black circles are the vertical mine launchers, which worked on compressed air to eject their mines. You can also note her 75mm deck gun forward and twin 13.2mm MG mount, aft. She also carried a pair of 8mm Hotchkiss MGs that could be mounted on her tower. Via К.Е.Сергеев/Wikimedia

Our Perle was something like the 18th warship used by the French to carry the name of the jewel of the ocean-going back to a circa 1663 34-gun ship of the line. Of note, the 17th Perle was also a submarine, a tiny (70-ton/77-foot) Naïade-class boat of the Great War era, complete with Russian-style Drzewiecki drop collar torpedoes.

Laid down in 1931 at the Arsenal de Toulon as the final member of her class, our Perle was commissioned 1 March 1937 and was assigned to the 21ème Division des Sous-Marins (DSM) at Toulon.

The Phony War

When the war kicked off against Germany in 1939, the French Mediterranean fleet was left where-is/how-is just in case the Italians decided to enter the game. When Mussolini obliged on 10 June 1940, Perle was dispatched to sow a defensive minefield off the Corsican port of Bastìa and patrol alongside sistership Diamant.

Vichy Boat

The general French ceasefire on the 22nd ended Perle’s initial involvement in the war. However, after the British plastered the Vichy battleline at Oran two weeks later, she and three other submarines were ordered to head to Gibraltar for a bit of revenge that was called off at the last minute.

Then came deployment to the strategic West African port of Dakar, which was under pressure from the British and De Gaulle’s nascent Free French movement. There, Perle joined the 16ème DSM, which consisted of several smaller submarines, to prepare for a second Allied assault on Senegal that never came. Instead, once the Torch Landings in North Africa triggered the German dismantling of the Vichy French republic and the order to scuttle those ships still in European French waters, Dakar came over to De Gaulle and Perle switched sides by default.

Working for the Liberation

By early 1943, Perle had been integrated into Allied efforts in the Med and was in Oran and was soon running patrols off Cannes and Marseille in between landing operatives and agents where needed, helping no doubt to spread the deception at play across the region as to where the Allies would strike next.

From December 1942 (Operation Pearl Harbour) through November 1943, the “Algerian Group” Free French submarines to include Perle, Casabianca, Marsouin, and Arethuse were heavily involved in running “Le Tube” along the Riveria. Run by intelligence officer Colonel Paul Paillole, the subs made regular runs to Southern France and Corsica, dropping off OSS, SIS, and French resistance agents and supplies ranging from STEN guns to suitcase transmitters. In many of these cases, the submarines would have selected shore party members sent through abbreviated commando training, just in case. 

On one of these missions, in late October 1943, Perle landed Guy Jousselin Chagrain de Saint-Hilaire, who used the nomme de guerre “Marco” in the hills outside of Cavalaire sur Mer in Southern France along with two radio operators and their equipment. Saint-Hilaire would set up the Marco Polo network which played a key role in the liberation in 1944.

Those landed ran the gamut from small groups of operatives, such as Marco and his common guys, to teams of exiled field-grade French Army officers complete with regimental banners that had been spirited out of France in 1940, eager to reform units to spring into action for the liberation. The trips, coordinated with local Resistance cells, would also pick up Allied agents and downed pilots looking to exfiltrate from Nazi-occupied France and carry back important dispatches, reports, objects of intelligence, and film.

In short order, Perle, along with the other Algerian Group subs, conveyed shadowy individuals to Barcelona (where she planted Deuxième Bureau Capt. D’Hoffelize on the beach), Cap Camarat in Corsica, and elsewhere.

Speaking of Corsica, Perle was used to deliver 30 operators of the Bataillon de Choc near Ajaccio on 13 September to help pave the way for the Firebrand landings. The larger Casabianca would land 109 commandos of the same unit– so many that she carried them across the Med while surfaced!

Free French soldiers from the Bataillon de Choc, a commando unit created in Algeria in early 1943. The Bataillon was decisive in the liberation of Corsica and Elba. This picture, with a recently repurposed camouflaged German 7.5cm Pak 40, was taken after they landed in Provence during Operation Dragoon, during the fight to free Toulon, August 1944. Note the mix of gear including British watch caps, American M1903 rifles, boots, uniforms, and gaiters; and Italian Beretta MAB 38sub guns. Also, note the open 75mm shell crate with two rounds ready, no doubt fixing to get back into service against its former owners.

The French commandos, meeting no opposition, soon linked up with Corsican partisans, some 20,000-strong, who had been in open revolt against the German occupation force. Perle’s skipper at the time was able to twist the arm enough of the Toulon-Ajaccio ferry captain to sail to Algiers and come over to the Free French side of things. The submarine also landed three tons of flour on 16 September– more important than guns when it came to winning hearts and minds. The submarine Arethuse arrived two days later to bring five tons of munitions from North Africa to help put those minds to use. 

The campaign evolved rapidly and De Gaulle, on his arrival in Ajaccio on the 8 October 1943, declared Corsica to be the first part of Metropolitan France to be liberated – eight months before Overlord.

The final “Tube” mission was one of Perle’s. On 29 November, she appeared at the designated point and time off the French coast and sent her shore party to the beach only to run across a German patrol, resulting in two prisoners and one killed on both sides.

The results of the covert efforts in Southern France were evident in the Dragoon landings the next year, where it seemed that well-organized FFI units were everywhere. 

Free French Resistance meeting Allied troops on the beach at Saint Tropez, Aug.1944 During Dragoon (Signal Corps Photo 111-SC-212383 via NARA)

Refit

At this point, Perle was in dire need of an overhaul and made for Philadelphia, one of numerous Free French vessels to do so at the time. There, arriving just before Christmas 1943 by way of Bermuda, she would land her 13.2mm machine guns for a set of American-made 20mm Oerlikons, as well as undergo general modification for continued work with the Allied fleets.

A great series of photos exist of her from this time in the states. 

Cleared to return to the war, she sailed in late June 1944 for Holy Loch via Newfoundland in the company of the destroyer escort USS Cockrill (DE-398). Leaving St. Johns with the Flower-class corvette HMCS Chicoutimi (K156) on 3 July.

Five days later, while some 1,000 miles out into the Atlantic, Perle came close to the outbound 94-ship convoy ONM243, sailing from Halifax to Clyde, while it was roughly between Greenland and Iceland. The convoy was protected by a pair of merchant aircraft carrier (MAC) ships, MV Empire MacColl and MV Empire MacCallum who, tragically, were not notified of the possible presence of the Free French submarine until it was too late.

In the early afternoon of 8 July, a Fairey Swordfish Mark II torpedo bomber flown from Empire MacCallum by a Free Dutch Navy pilot of 836 Squadron FAA, was flying ahead of the convoy performing routine a sweep and spotted the mysterious submarine, and subsequently executed a textbook attack that proved successful.

From an article by Dr. Alec Douglas, a former Canadian Forces Director General of History, in the Autumn 2001 Canadian Military Journal:

The pilot, Lieutenant Francoix Otterveanger of the Royal Netherlands Navy, assumed that the submarine, surfaced and on a northeasterly course, was a U-boat, as did the senior officer of the Canadian Escort Group C5 in HMCS Dunver [a River-class frigate]. That officer, Acting Commander George Stephen, the colorful and widely respected Senior Officer Escorts (SOE), is reputed to have exclaimed “Sink the bastard!”, as he ordered the two MAC ships in company to get all available aircraft up.

The ‘string bag’, a slow old biplane, had to give a wide berth to U-boat flak. Lieutenant Otterveanger put his Swordfish into a position upwind between the sun and the target. He waited for the other aircraft from Empire MacCallum and Empire MacColl to join him, and then held off for another ten minutes or so while the six Swordfish (four from Empire MacCallum and two from Empire MacColl) formed up, flying clockwise around the submarine, to carry out a series of attacking runs.

It was just about then, at 1358Z, an hour and five minutes after receiving the sighting report at 1253Z, that Commander Stephen suddenly passed a voice message to the MAC ships: “Have aircraft been informed that submarine ‘La Perle’ might be in our vicinity?”

The bewildered air staff officer in Empire MacCallum knew nothing about La Perle, nor exactly what to do about the message, but tried to alert the aircraft with a belated warning: “Look out for recognition signals in case the sub is friendly. If not, attack.” Only one aircraft heard him over the RT (radiotelephone) traffic that filled the air, and asked in vain for a repetition, just as Lieutenant Otterveanger was beginning his attacking run between 1404 and 1408Z, about an hour and fifteen minutes after the first sighting.

When Otterveanger saw a series of “L’s”, the correct identification for the day, flashing from the conning tower of La Perle, and not having heard the last-minute caution, he concluded it was simply a ruse de guerre and fired four pairs of rockets at the target. All the other aircraft followed up with rocket attacks and (now running into light machine gun fire from the submarine), in the last instance, with two depth charges on the order of Lieutenant Otterveanger, “who had conducted operations in a most proper manner from the start”.

So effective was the operation that the air staff officer in Empire MacCallum was moved to comment, in a more triumphal tone than probably was intended: “The attack was extremely well coordinated and was over in the space of a minute. At least eight hits were scored on the submarine which sank within four minutes of the attack.”

By the time escorts from Convoy ONM-243 reached the scene, only one man out of a crew of sixty men, a Chief Petty Officer machinist [Émile Cloarec, rescued by HMCS Hesperler], was still alive.

A board of inquiry into the loss pointed a lot of fingers, largely at Acting CDR Stephen, and exonerated Ottervaenger.

She was not the only Free French submarine to be lost during the war. The mighty cruiser submarine Surcouf would vanish on her way to Panama in 1942, taking 130 men down with her.

Epilogue

Documents on “the French submarine Le Perle” including her PSNY repair log and the report of her sinking by a Swordfish aircraft are on file in the U.S. National Archives.

Of her five sisters, Nautilus, Saphir, and Turquoise were captured by the Axis in North Africa in 1942 who tried to put them to use but instead scuttled them. Diamant was likewise sunk at Toulon by her own countrymen.

Rubis, like Perle, would join the Allied effort, escaping the Fall of France in 1940 by nature of already working out of Scotland with the Royal Navy at the time. She would carry out an impressive 28 war patrols including almost two dozen mining operations off Norway, sowing deadly seeds that could claim at least 15 Axis vessels.

French submarine Rubis as seen from the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Curacoa in the North Atlantic. Photo via the Dundee Submarine Memorial

Rubis would have a stacked Jolly Roger by the end of 1944.

What is left of the 6-submarine Saphir class in the 1946 edition of Jane’s.

One of a handful of submarines in the immediate post-war French Navy, Rubis would retire in 1949. She was scuttled as a sonar target in 1958 off Cape Camarat. Her wreck is in 135 feet of water between Cavalaire and Saint-Tropez and is a popular dive spot.

The French Navy has carried on the legacy of both of the hardworking WWII Saphirs with the Rubis-class attack boat SNA Pearl (S606) commissioned in 1993. She is currently under extensive repair and refurbishment at Cherbourg-en-Cotentin following a fire last summer.

Rubis-class SSN Perle (S606) surfacing. Just as the previous Perle was the sixth and final boat of the Saphir-class in the 1930s, the current boat is the sixth and last of the Rubis series.

Specs:

A scale model of the Saphir class with a net cutter forward and no 13.2 twin mount. If you look close, you can see the doors to the mine chutes. Via Wikimedia Commons

Displacement: 761 tonnes (surfaced), 925 tonnes (submerged)
Length: 216.5 ft.
Beam: 23.3 ft.
Draft: 14 ft.
Machinery: 2 Normand Vickers diesels of 650 hp ea., 2 Schneider electric motors of 410 kW ea., 144 batteries
Speed: 12 knots (surface), 9 knots (submerged)
Range: On 75 tons diesel oil- 4000nm @12 knots, 7000nm @7.5 knots surfaced; 80nm @4 knots submerged. 30 days endurance
Hull: 13mm shell, 80-meter operating depth
Crew: 3 officers, 10 petty officers, 30 enlisted
Armament:
2 550mm bow tubes with four torpedoes.
1 trainable 550mm tube
2 400mm tubes with four torpedoes
1 x 75mm/35cal M1928
1 x Twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss M1929 machine gun mount
2 x 8mm Hotchkiss M1914 machine guns
32 Sauter-Harlé HS4 mines (2,400lbs each with 704 pounds of explosives)

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Warship Wednesday, April 21, 2021: Let’s Vote on It

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, April 21, 2021: Let’s Vote on It

Library and Archives Canada 4951041

Here we see a beautiful original color photo of the Improved Fiji-class (alternatively described as Colony-class, Mauritius-class, or Ceylon-class) cruiser HMCS Quebec (31) in Copenhagen, Denmark, on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, 21 April 1954– some 67 years ago today. She battled the Germans, Italians, and Japanese withstood the divine wind and “Fritz X” only to have her reputation mired in undeserved controversy.

A borderline “treaty” cruiser of interwar design, the Fijis amounted to a class that was one short of a dozen with an 8,500-ton standard displacement. In WWII service, this would balloon to a very top-heavy weight of over 11,000. Some 15 percent of the standard displacement was armor. As described by Richard Worth, in his Fleets of World War II, the design was much better off than the previous Leander-class cruisers, and essentially “the Admiralty resolved to squeeze a Town [the immediately preceding 9,100-ton light cruiser class] into 8,000-tons.”

With a fine transom stern, they were able to achieve over 32 knots on a plant that included four Admiralty 3-drum boilers driving four Parsons steam turbines, their main armament amounted to nine 6″/50 (15.2 cm) BL Mark XXIII guns in three triple Mark XXI mountings in the case of our cruiser and her two immediate full sisters (HMS Ceylon and HMS Newfoundland).

The standard Fiji/Colony-class cruiser had four Mark XXI turrets, as shown in the top layout, while the “Improved Fijis/Ceylon-variants of the class mounted three, as in the bottom layout. Not originally designed to carry torpedo tubes, two triple sets were quickly added, along with more AAA guns, once the treaty gloves came off. (Jane’s 1946)

Ordered from Vickers-Armstrong’s, Walker in March 1939, just six months before Hitler sent his legions into Poland, Quebec, our subject vessel was originally named HMS Uganda (66) after that African protectorate. A war baby, she commissioned 3 January 1943.

HMS Uganda sliding down the slipway at the Walker Naval Yard, 7 August 1941. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM ref. DS.VA/9/PH/12/17).

HMS UGANDA, MAURITIUS CLASS CRUISER. JANUARY 1943, SCAPA FLOW. (A 22963) Broadside view. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155098

After workups and interception patrols on the lookout for German blockade runners, in May she escorted the RMS Queen Mary (with Churchill aboard) across the Atlantic for a meeting with President Roosevelt at what later became known to history as the Washington Conference.

Transferred to the Mediterranean for service with the 15th Cruiser Squadron, she helped escort convoy WS31/KMF17 on the way before arriving in Malta with Admiral Cunningham aboard on 4 July. Then came the Husky landings in Sicily, where she was very busy covering the landings of the British 1st Airborne Division near Syracuse, rescuing 36 survivors from the hospital ship Talamba, and delivering naval gunfire support.

Cruisers HMS Orion and HMS Uganda on patrol with Mount Etna towering in the distance, some 40 miles away. Taken from HMS Nubian, 12th July 1943. The ships had bombarded Augusta the previous day.

A pom-pom crew of HMCS Uganda examining Kodak pictures. Note the “tropical kit” to include sun helmets and shorts. NAC, PA 140833

Then came the Avalanche landings at Salerno in September, where she provided NGFS for the British X Corps. Four days after reaching the beachhead, she was hit by a 3,000-pound German Fritz X precision-guided, armor-piercing bomb at 1440 on 13 September. Passing through seven decks and through her keel, it exploded under her hull, crippling but not quite killing the ship. When the smoke cleared, amazingly just 16 men of Uganda’s complement were dead.

The damage was very similar, albeit much less costly in lives, to the hit that the same-sized treaty cruiser USS Savannah (CL-42) suffered off Salerno two days prior. In the Fritz attack on that Brooklyn-class light cruiser, the early smart bomb hit the top of the ship’s number three 6/47-gun turret and penetrated deep into her hull before its 710-pound amatol warhead exploded. The damage was crippling, blowing out the bottom of the ship’s hull, immediately flooding her magazines– which may have ironically saved the ship as it prevented them from detonating– and killed 197 of her crew. In all, she would spend eight months being rebuilt.

As for Uganda, she was moved to Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina for extensive repairs– just in time to become the most capable warship in another navy.

Oh, Canada!

By 1944, the Royal Canadian Navy could rightfully claim to be about the third strongest in the world when it came to warship tonnage. However, it was almost all in small escorts such as sloops, corvettes, frigates, and destroyers as well as armed yachts, trawlers, and torpedo boats. The RCN did have three armed merchant cruisers– the “Prince” class Canadian National Steamships passenger liners, which, at 6,000 tons, carried a dozen 6-, 4- and 3-inch guns, as well as depth charges and assorted Bofors/Oerlikons– but Ottawa had no proper cruisers on its naval list.

To rectify this, the brand-new light cruiser HMS Minotaur (53), transferred to Royal Canadian Navy in July 1944, and became HMCS Ontario (C53), although she did not finish working up in time to contribute much to the war effort. She was soon joined by Uganda, who kept her name when she was recommissioned 21 October 1944– Trafalgar Day– but replaced HMS with HMCS.

Uganda’s new crew, drawn from throughout the Canadian fleet, was assembled in 80-man teams and shipped out on a range of British 6-inch cruisers to train on their vessel while it was being repaired. These included a team that, while on HMS Sheffield, braved the Murmansk run and the Boxing Day 1943 fight against Scharnhorst. Curiously, and a bone of contention with the crew, she carried an RN duster rather than a Canadian ensign.

The Canadian cruiser would be commanded by Capt. Edmond Rollo Mainguy, who had previously served on several large RN warships including the battleship HMS Barham in the Great War.

Dispatched for service with the British Pacific Fleet, which was preparing for the final push against Japan, she stopped in the UK for sensor upgrades on the way, swapping Type 284 and 272 radars for newer Type 274 for fire control and Types 277 and 293 for surface warning and height finding. Nonetheless, the choice of the ship for tropical service, as it at the time lacked both onboard exhaust fans for air circulation and a water distillation plant capable of supporting the crew, was questionable. Belowdecks, when not on duty, many men simply wore “a towel and a pair of shoes.”

Regardless, she was a beautiful ship and her crew, most of whom were Battle of the Atlantic vets, were ready to fight.

A great shot of HMCS Uganda with a bone in her teeth. H.F. Pullen Nova Scotia Archives 1984-573 Box 1 F/24

British light cruiser HMS UGANDA underway. 14 October 1944. IWM FL 17797

HMS UGANDA, BRITISH CRUISER. 1944, AT SEA. (A 27728) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205159166

HMCS Uganda in 1945 while in the British Pacific Fleet. IWM ABS 698

She joined the BPF on 9 March, arriving that day in Sydney via the Suez and the Indian Ocean. Joining British TF 57 as part of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Uganda soon became a close escort for the fleet’s carriers, particularly HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable. This included fighting off kamikaze raids, delivering NGFS, and acting as a lifeguard for downed aviators as the fleet pushed past Formosa, through the Philippines, and on to Okinawa.

Task Force 57 at anchor, HMS Formidable (foreground) and HMS Indomitable w 4th Cruiser Squadron- (L to R) Gambia, Uganda, and Euryalus-San Pedro Bay, Leyte April 1945

Japanese aircraft attacking H.M.C.S. UGANDA. Ryukyu Islands, Japan, 4 April 1945. LAC 3191649

Bombardment by H.M.C.S. UGANDA of Sukuma Airfield on Miyoko Jima, 4 May 1945, the ship’s QF 4 in (102 mm) Mark XVI guns in action. LAC 3191651

Decks of HMCS Uganda after her bombardment of the Sakishima Island airstrip of Sukama, south of Okinawa, 12 May 1945, with her 6-inch guns swamped with powder tubes. The ship in the distance is her Kiwi-flagged sistership, HMNZS Gambia (48). (Photo: CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, VR2014.1.1)

Ratings sleep amidst 4-inch shells on HMCS Uganda, 1945 (Photo: CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum, VR2014.1.26)

HMCS UGANDA and HMS FORMIDABLE, the latter burning after a Kamikaze airstrike, May 9, 1945, Royal Canadian Naval photograph. (CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum /Photo Catalogue VR2014. 1.24 from the museum collection.)

Life aboard the ship continued to decline for the crew. Compounding the uncomfortable heat aboard– which led to rounds of tropical bacteria, viruses, and fungus infections among the crew– the BPF had logistical issues trying to supply its ships. This led to mechanical issues as spare parts were not available and poor food.

As noted by Bill Rawling’s A Lonely Ambassador: HMCS Uganda and the War in the Pacific, a 25-page article in The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, VIII, No. 1 (January 1998), 39-63, one firsthand report of the time detailed:

In the tropics everything multiplied — of a crew of 900, two men were detailed for spraying cockroach powder through the mess decks to at least try to control them. It was not out of the ordinary to be munching on your de-hydrated peas and carrots to feel a sharp “crunch.” That was another roach being broken up. Flour deteriorated into a life form — a tiny worm with a white body and a little black head. It would be found in the bread which was baked aboard ship. At first, we would pick the worms out, but as we were told, and came to realize, they would not hurt us, we just ate them with the bread and called it our meat ration for the day.

This set the stage for what became known as the “Uganda Episode.”

As explained by the Naval and Marine Museum at CFB Esquimalt:

Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced on 4 April 1945 that the Canadian Government no longer intended to deploy personnel, other than volunteers, to the Pacific Theatre. The “Volunteers Only” policy, as it was called, required that all naval personnel specifically re-volunteer for service in the Pacific Theatre before they would be dispatched to participate in hostilities.

On the eve of the vote, in which it seemed many of Uganda’s crew were on the fence about going home, Capt. Mainguy reportedly gave a tone-deaf speech that went as high as a lead balloon with one crew member’s recalling that he, “Called us four flushers and quitters. Those who were in doubt soon made up their minds at a statement like that.”

The June 22 crew vote found that 556 of Uganda’s men preferred to head home, while just 344 re-volunteered to stay in the Pacific despite the daunting risk of kamikaze attack and a war that, at the time, was expected to drag out at least another year. With the prospect of swapping out so many of the cruiser’s complement while still deployed a non-starter, the plan was to send her back to Esquimalt, update her for continued service, and sail back to the war with a reformed crew in time to join Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyūshū which was slated for November.

Relieved on station by the British cruiser HMS Argonaut on 27 July, ironically the Japanese signaled they were ready to quit the war just two weeks later, making the Uganda vote– which left a bitter pill with the RN– almost a moot subject. Uganda arrived at Esquimalt on 10 August, the day the Japanese officially threw in the towel.

While labels of mutiny and cowardice were unjustly lobbed at her crew by historians, her skipper would go on to become a Vice Admiral.

Better years

Postwar, Uganda would spend the next two years in a training role.

Cruiser HMCS Uganda photographed on 31 November 1945.

A color shot of HMCS-Uganda (C66) as seen from the Canadian aircraft carrier HMCS Warrior circa 1946, note the Fairey Firefly and Maple Leaf insignias. LAC-MIKAN-No 4821077

Transferred to the reserves in August 1947, her slumber was brief.

Recommissioned as a result of the Korean War on 14 January 1952 as HMCS Quebec (C31), she soon sailed for Halifax to continue her service, notably under a Canadian flag and with belowdecks habitability improvements.

Guard of Honor and Band at the recommissioning of H.M.C.S. QUEBEC, Esquimalt, British Columbia, 14 January 1952 LAC 3524549

For the next four years, she was a global traveler, heavily involved in NATO exercises.

HMCS QUEBEC coming alongside for a ship-to-ship transfer receiving supplies from HMCS Magnificent, during  Exercise Mainbrace in 1952. LAC 4951392

A closer view, from HMCS Magnificent. Note the carrier’s 40mm mount and the folded wing of a fighter, likely a Hawker Sea Fury judging from the pair of wing-root 20mm cannons. LAC 4951382

H.M.C.S. QUEBEC heeling in rough seas during exercises. 18 Sept 1952 LAC 3524551

HMCS Quebec (C-31) leads HMCS Magnificent (CVL-21), HMAS Sydney (R-17), and multiple destroyers as they return from the Queen’s coronation, July 1953

Sperry radar scan of Gaspé Bay anchorage, HMCS Quebec 12 July 1953 LAC 3206158

HMCS QUEBEC Parading the White Ensign in Rio-South America cruise, 1954. Note the Enfield rifles, with the rating to the right complete with a chromed bayonet. Also, note the local boy to the left giving a salute to the RCN duster. LAC 4950735

Port broadside view of H.M.C.S. QUEBEC after having been freshly painted by ships’ company, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 29 June 1955 LAC 3524552

She also became the first Canadian naval ship to circumnavigate Africa, during her 1955 cruise. In 1946, she had claimed the first such Canadian warship to “Round the Horn” of South America.  

King Neptune and the pollywogs! Original color photo of HMCS QUEBEC’s crossing the line equator ceremony during her fall cruise to South America, 1956. LAC 4950734

HMCS Quebec (C-31) and USS Newport News (CA-148) at Villefranche.

With all-gun cruisers that required a 900-man crew increasingly obsolete in the Atomic era, Quebec was paid off 13 June 1956 and laid up in Nova Scotia. Four years later, she was sold for her value in scrap metal to a Japanese concern.

She is remembered in period maritime art, specifically in a piece by official war artist Harold Beament, who was on the RCNVR list and later president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

HMCS Uganda in Drydock, Esquimalt, during a post-war refit. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art CWM 19710261-1030

Today, the RCN remembers Quebec fondly. Narrated by R.H. Thomson, the script in the below tribute video is based on a memoir by LCDR Roland Leduc, RCN (Ret’d) who served on the post-war cruiser. 

An exceptional veterans’ site is also online, with numerous photos and remembrances. 

For a great deep dive into HMS Uganda, especially her 1945 service, check out Bill Rawling’s A Lonely Ambassador: HMCS Uganda and the War in the Pacific, a 25-page article in The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord, VIII, No. 1 (January 1998), 39-63.

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

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

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Sub-Marine ops, Back In style

The Marines have been rubber boating around, a skill they are used to as each Battalion Landing Team for years has typically included a designated “Boat Company,” trained to run about on 15-foot Combat Rubber Raiding Craft (CRRC, or “Crick”).

What is interesting about this is that they recently did so in conjunction with a converted boomer in the Philippine Sea, embarking on some expeditionary training. The standard Dry Deck Shelters used by the Navy’s submarines are each able to carry an SDV minisub for use by SEALs– or four CRRCs, enough to carry a platoon-size Marine maritime raid force.

PHILIPPINE SEA (Feb. 2, 2021) The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726), deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations, rendezvous with a combat rubber raiding craft, attached to U.S. Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance Company, III Marine Expedition Force (MEF), for an integration exercise off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. The exercise was part of ongoing III MEF-U.S. 7th Fleet efforts to provide flexible, forward-postured, and quick response-options to regional commanders. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Audrey M. C. Rampton)

“This training demonstrates the ability of Force Reconnaissance Marines in III MEF to operate with strategic U.S. Navy assets,” said III MEF Force Reconnaissance Company Commanding Officer Maj. Daniel Romans. “As the stand-in force in the first island chain, it is critical that Force Reconnaissance Marines are capable of being employed across a myriad of U.S. Navy platforms in order to enhance the lethality of the fleet in the littoral environment. Reconnaissance Marines have a proud history of working with submarines and we look forward to sustaining these relationships in the future.”

It is not a dramatically new concept.

On 17 August 1942, just nine months after Pearl Harbor, 211 Marines of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion embarked aboard the submarines USS Argonaut and Nautilus crept ashore at Makin Island and did what the Raiders were meant to do– hit hard in the most unexpected area they could find and jack up a small Japanese garrison.

Then of course, throughout the 1950s and 60s, Marines on submarines were a regular sight…

Reconnaissance scouts of the 1st Provisional Marine Air-Ground Task Force load into a rubber boat from Greenfish, a submarine of the Pacific fleet as they leave on a night mission against “enemy” installations on the island of Maui. The training afforded the Marines of the Task Force, which is based at the Marine Corps Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, is the most versatile offered to Marines anywhere October 7, 1954. Note the classic WWII “duck hunter” camo which had by 1954 been out of use for almost a decade except for special operations units. (Sgt D.E. Reyher DEFENSE DEPT PHOTO (MARINE CORPS) A290040.)

Warship Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020: Fascist Bananas & Partisan Peace gulls

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020: Fascist Bananas & Partisan Peace Gulls

Here we see former Marshal of the WWII Yugoslav Red Partisan forces, Josip “Tito” Broz, reviewing his naval honor guard aboard the converted minelayer/training vessel Galeb (M11), likely during the mid-1950s. Note the Mausers with fixed bayonets and AAA mount at the top of the image. You have to wonder if Tito could faintly smell bananas.

About that…

The Regia Azienda Monopolio Banane, or Royal Banana Monopoly Company, was formed in 1935. Headquartered in Mogadiscio (Mogadishu), Italian Somaliland, its sole (peacetime) purpose was to ship its namesake elongated yellow berries from Africa to Europe, having secured the sole concession for the practice from the Ministero delle Colonie.

RAMB was busy shipping bananas from Somali ports as far south as Chisimaio (Kismayo) to a half-dozen Italian markets via the Suez Canal, and running back passengers and freight to the Continent on the return trip.

At its peak, the company was running seven vessels. These included three small Swedish-built freighters– Capitano Bottego, Capitano Antonio Cecchi, and Duca degli Abruzzi— as well as four larger Italian-crafted purpose-built refrigerated fruit carriers, the latter all imaginatively named after the company in sequential order.

Built by Ansaldo and CRDA Monfalcone, the four Rambs could carry 2,418 tons of cargo in refrigerated holds and had accommodations for up to 30 or so passengers in 12 air-conditioned cabins.

La motonave bananiera RAMB III alle prove in mare Oct 1938

The fun thing about RAMB was that, in line with Italian naval practice to keep their Royal concession, all of their ships were to be transformed into auxiliary cruisers in case of war, with weight and space reserved from guns and shells. The smaller freighters were each to pick up four 102/45mm pieces and a smattering of 13.2mm Breda AAA guns. The bigger Ramb-class banana haulers would get an equal number of larger 120/40mm guns along with their Bredas. The guns, in peacetime, would be crated in RAMB’s dockside warehouses in Massawa and Naples in equal numbers to allow for a rapid issue.

In 1939, the last year of commercial operations, RAMB shipped nearly 50,000 tons of Somali bananas to Europe, the company’s best season, ever. 

Then came war

When Mussolini took the plunge to enter the war against the British and French in June 1940, as the latter was on the ropes and dizzy, Ramb III was the only one of her class that was in the Med, the rest being in the Red Sea. Quickly requisitioned in Genoa by the Regia Marina and renamed the uninspiring D6, she soon found herself protecting convoys to support Italian forces in Libya before the end of the month– in tandem with the smaller company ship Cecchi.

Eventually, she tangled with the British.

On the night of 11/12 November, a few hours after the British raid on Taranto, Ramb III/D6 was escorting four freighters with the old Giuseppe La Masa-class torpedo boat Fabrizi when they stumbled across an RN squadron consisting of the cruisers Orion, Ajax, and Sydney, along with the destroyers Nubian and Mohawk. It was no contest, with the Brits cued to the darkened Italians by Ajax’s Type 279 radar.

HMS Dido, Ajax, and Orion in action off Crete, 21 May 1941, by Rowland John Robb Langmaid, via the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. The November 11/12 night action surely looked much like this.

While Fabrizi turned toward the three cruisers, and although hit repeatedly, she fired torpedoes, one of which just missed Sydney astern, Ramb III/D6 attempted to draw the darkened warships off into a nearby minefield.

Within 30 minutes all four of the merchantmen were ablaze and Ramb, after firing some 80~ shells against the vastly stronger Brits, withdrew through the mines, and arrived alone at Bari the next morning.

More convoy actions followed and Ramb III/D6‘s luck ran out on the night of 30 May 1941 when a pair of torps from the T-class submarine HMS Triumph (N18) blew her bow off as she swayed at anchor at Benghazi. Quick damage control kept her from sinking and in August she was towed in reverse some 500 miles across the Med and up the Adriatic to Trieste for repairs.

The auxiliary cruiser D6 (banana boat RAMB III) towed aft by a tug back to Italy after a British torpedo from HMS Triumph removed her bow.

Reconstructed, she returned to service and was almost sunk again by a British sub when HMS Turbulent (N98)Triumph’s sistership– fired a torpedo at her off Palermo on 1 February 1943 while D6 was saving survivors from the sunken freighter Pozzuoli. That fish missed.

Bananiera ‘Ramb III’ – incrociatore ausiliario in Mar Rosso

Her service to the Italian fleet ended on 8 September 1943, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

As for the rest of the RAMB fleet, most were blocked in Italian East Africa and were lost following the fall of the colony in 1941.

Of Ramb III’s sisterships, Ramb I operated as an armed merchant in the Red Sea and was ordered to sail to Japan after the fall of Massawa to the Allies but was sunk in the Indian Ocean in a one-sided surface action with the cruiser HMNZS Leander before she could get that far.

Italian ship Ramb I sinking in 1941, after being dispatched by Leander.

Ramb II did make it to Japan and was scuttled by her crew in Kobe after Italy threw in the towel on the war. Later refloated by the Japanese and returned to service as the transport Ikutagawa Maru, she was sent to the bottom off Indochina by carrier strikes from Task Force 38 in January 1945.

Ramb IV had been captured by the British in Massawa, where she was serving as a hospital ship, but was sent to the bottom of the Med 13 months later to the day by German bombers.

As for RAMB the monopoly, the war ended its operations and the concern was formally dissolved in 1945, although Italy continued to grant then-independent Somali exporters licenses to ship their produce to Europe into the 1960s. Somali bananas vanished from the market with the harvest collapsing during the 1980s famine and cycles of ensuing civil war but are starting to make a comeback.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

German service

At anchor in Trieste when the Italians backed out of the war, Ramb III/D6 was swiftly taken into service by the Germans, who were in occupation of the port, after a sharp skirmish that left her crew prisoner. Renamed Kiebitz in November, she was up-armed with some extra 37mm Bredas, and turned into a minelayer, sowing some 5,000 of the infernal devices along the Dalmatian coasts and the northern Adriatic over the next year.

Kiebitz

On 13 July, while doing such minenwerk, she lost power and drifted into two of her own eggs, damaging her. After limping back to port– running astern with her bow blown off– she was patched up and was back at it a couple months later.

Her third career wrapped up on 5 November when RAF Baltimores plastered Fiume, sending the minelayer Kuckuck, subchaser G104, and our banana boat to the bottom of the harbor, where she would rest in 66 feet of muddy water.

“Rijeka under aerial bombardment by Royal Air Force planes, 1944. Fiume (Rijeka), Yugoslavia. c. 1944. One of the RAF Baltimore aircraft over the harbor during the air attack. Bombs can be seen exploding on the port rail facilities and in the water nearby. South African Air Force and RAAF Baltimore aircraft of the Desert Air Force attacked shipping in the Adriatic harbor, scoring hits on a 3,000-ton ship, another vessel and demolishing warehouses.” AWM C355608

However, many of her mines are still active and very much in service.

German UMB Naval mine (Rijeka Croatia). Photo courtesy of Aleksandar Stancin via Gue.com

Yugoslav rebirth

With Fiume firmly changed to the Croatian Rijeka, Yugoslavia inherited our smashed boat and, finding her salvable, raised the vessel in 1947.

She was reconstructed in Pula over a four year period as a schoolship and minelayer with Burmeister & Wain diesels and a mix of recycled German surplus and American armament (4 x 1 – 88/45 SK C/32, 4 x 1 – 40/60 Mk 3, 6 x 4 – 20/65 as per Navypedia). Her new name: Galeb (Seagull).

 

Via Muzej Grada Rijeke

Via Muzej Grada Rijeke

As Galeb, she became a favorite of Tito’s, being pressed into service as a de facto presidential yacht. She carried the fearless leader to London, Egypt, India, and elsewhere, appearing often in newsreels of the day.

Meeting of President Tito with the Yugoslav Ambassador to Greece Radoš Jovanović, during his visit to Greece, June 2, 1954, aboard Galeb. Note the 40mm Bofors in the background. Museum of Yugoslavia Inventory number: 1954_029_030

While carrying Tito over the course of three decades, Galeb would have the head of the Yugoslav state on board for 318 days, covering 86,062 nautical miles. 

Eventually, she would be disarmed and assume a full-time emissary duty, a ship of state as Yugoslavia navigated the murky waters between East and West, entertaining everyone from Gaddafi to Elizabeth Taylor. In all, she hosted more than 102 kings, presidents, and prime ministers. 

Her 1976 Jane’s entry, literally on the last page of the book.

This beautiful period shot shows the immaculate Galeb late in her career passing Castello Aragonese in Taranto– a port she used to be awfully familiar with.

In 1976, a documentary, Peace Ship Galeb (Brod Mira Galeb), was filmed aboard her.

After Tito died in 1980, Galeb was used less and less, with Montenegro getting the old girl in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

She then fell into serious disrepair. 

Via Muzej Grada Rijeke

Passing hands several times since then, the Croatian city of Rijeka purchased the derelict vessel in 2009 and has been trying to refit it as a museum ship for the past decade.

Now, after a $9.6 million effort, she is ready to be a showboat once again.

“I expect the ship to be completed for its new purpose in the first half of 2021,” Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel told Reuters. “Its command deck, the premises used by Tito, and the engine room will become a museum. The other parts of the ship will serve as a hotel with bars and a restaurant,” he said.

Specs:

(1940)
Displacement: 3,667 GRT, 2,179 NRT
Length: 383 ft 2 in
Beam: 49 ft 7 in
Depth: 24 ft 8 in
Propulsion:
2 × 9-cylinder FIAT marine diesel engines, 7200 hp, twin screws, 1250 tons fuel oil
Speed:
19.5 knots (maximum) 17.0 knots (cruising)
Capacity: 2418 GRT (refrigerated, four holds), 12 air-conditioned cabins (two luxury, 10 twin steerage, 32~ passengers)
Complement: 120
Wartime Armament:
4 x 120 mm (4.7 in) guns
2 x 13.2 mm anti-aircraft guns
3 x Breda 37mm guns (added 1944)

(1952)
Displacement: 5,182 standard, 5,700 full
Length: 384.8 ft
Beam: 51.2 ft
Depth: 148.f ft
Propulsion:
2 × Burmeister & Wain diesel engines, 7200 hp, twin screws,
Speed: 17 kts
Armament:
4 x 1 – 88/45 SK C/32
4 x 1 – 40/60 Mk 3 Bofors
6 x 4 – 20/65 Oerlikon
Mines

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

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Warship Wednesday (on a Monday), Dec. 7, 2020: Battle Tug Edition

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday (on a Monday), Dec. 7, 2020: Battle Tug Edition

Photographed by Vernon M. Haden, San Pedro California. Donation of Ted Stone, 1977. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 85837

Here we see, resplendent with her peacetime fancy hull number and with her #1 3″/50 mount trained rakishly to port and #2 mount to starboard, the “Old Bird” Lapwing-class minesweeper USS Vireo (Minesweeper No. 52) with assembled officers, crew, and mascot, circa winter 1934. Don’t let this seeming refugee from a TinTin comic fool you, Vireo always seemed to be there when it counted, even when she couldn’t always tip the scales when needed.

Inspired by large seagoing New England fishing trawlers, the Lapwings were 187-foot ships that were large enough, at 965-tons full, to make it across the Atlantic on their own (though with a blisteringly slow speed of just 14 knots).

They could also use a sail rig to poke along at low speed with no engines, a useful trait for working in a minefield.

Lapwing-class sister USS Falcon AM-28 in Pensacola Bay 1924 with the Atlantic submarine fleet. Note her rig

Not intended to do much more than clear mines, they were given a couple 3″/23 pop guns to discourage small enemy surface combatants intent to keep minesweepers from clearing said mines. The class leader, Lapwing, designated Auxiliary Minesweeper #1 (AM-1), was laid down at Todd in New York in October 1917 and another 53 soon followed. While five were canceled in November 1918, the other 48 were eventually finished– even if they came to the war a little late.

Speaking of which, our subject, the first on the Navy List named for the small green migratory bird, was laid down on 20 November 1918 by the Philadelphia Navy Yard and commissioned on 16 October 1919, with Navy Cross-recipient, LT Ernest Robert Piercey, USN, in command– the first of her 21 skippers across an unbroken span.

USS Vireo (AM-52) Anchored in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 1920. NH 43603

Vireo would spend a decade on the East Coast performing the typical routine duties of a peacetime minesweeper– pulling targets; transporting men, mail, and materiel; repairing buoys and beacons; and operating with the fleet on annual maneuvers.

This was broken up by towing several former German warships to sea off the Virginia capes in the summer of 1921, where they were sunk by Army aircraft in attempts by Billy Mitchell to prove that capital ships were vulnerable to attack from the air– an ironic footnote to her story that you will get later.

Phosphorus Bomb Test 1921 Sinking of the Cruiser Frankfurt and SMS Ostfriesland

Phosphorus Bomb Test, 1921 Sinking of the Cruiser Frankfurt and SMS Ostfriesland

It was about that time that the Navy figured out these economical little boats with their shallow draft (they could float in ten feet of seawater) could be used for any number of side jobs and started re-purposing them.

Six of the “Old Birds” were reclassified as salvage ships (ARSs) while another half-dozen became submarine rescue ships (ASRs). The Coast Guard picked up USS Redwing for use as a cutter during Prohibition while the U.S. Coast & Geographic Survey acquired USS Osprey and USS Flamingo and the Shipping Board accepted USS Peacock as a tug.

USS Vireo (AM-52) In the harbor, March 1922. USS Rail (AM-26) is in the left background. NH 50207

A few were retained as minesweepers in the reserve fleet, some used as depot ships/net layers, one converted to a gunboat, another to an ocean-going tug, three were sunk during peacetime service (USS Cardinal struck a reef off Dutch Harbor in 1923 while USS Curlew did the same off Panama in 1926 and USS Sanderling went down in 1937 by accident in Hawaii) while nine– including past Warship Wednesday alumni Avocet and Heron included– became seaplane tenders.

As for Vireo, she was one of the few who was never sidelined. Tasked to support the Puerto Rican – Nicaraguan Aerial Survey, serving as an ersatz seaplane tender to three Loening amphibian airplanes, in early 1931 then detailed transferred to the Pacific Fleet, she remained busy her entire career.

Group photograph of the officers and the sailors of the Puerto Rican-Nicaraguan Aerial Survey group in front of Vireo, 24 January 1931 in their whites. Note the officers with their swords, and chiefs in double-breasted jackets. She has the traditional U.S. aviation roundel on her bow, typical of seaplane tenders in this era, but does not have her twin 3-inch guns mounted which are in the photo at the top of this post. National Archives photo 80-G-466337

USS Vireo Docked in San Juan, 6 February 1931, a better view of her seaplane tender markings

USS Vireo (AM-52) in a West Coast port, 1932. Note she has dropped the tender premise and is back to being a sweeper now, with her big hull number back. NH 50320

In 1940, with the fleet’s general shift from California to Hawaii as part of the decay of relations with the Empire of Japan, Vireo moved to Pearl Harbor and was involved in the pre-war buildup on Palmyra and Johnston Island.

The Day that would live in Infamy

On 7 December 1941, Vireo along with three sisterships, Rail (AM-26), Bobolink (AM-20), and Turkey (AM-13) were tied up at the coal docks at Pearl Harbor in upkeep status. Three other sisters converted as seaplane tenders and submarine rescue ships, Avocet (AVP-4), Swan (AVP-7) and Widgeon (ASR-1) were at the submarine rail. Meanwhile, a seventh sister, Grebe (AM-43), was in overhaul.

From the ship’s action report, signed by skipper LCDR Frederick Joseph Ilsemann, about that Infamous Day 79 years ago, in which Vireo claimed at least one of the 29 Japanese aircraft swatted down during the attack:

About 0800 an explosion was heard. This was investigated. Immediately planes bearing the Japanese insignia was seen. General Quarters was immediately sounded and at about 0815 a second group of enemy planes flew over toward Hickam Field. This vessel immediately opened fire and expended 22 rounds of 3″ A.A. ammunition.

About 0830 this vessel brought down one enemy plane flying forward of the bow, toward seaward, over Hickam Field, from left to right. The bursts of #2 A.A. gun of this vessel were definitely spotted in the path of this plane and the plane was seen to land in the vicinity of Hickam Field. 400 rounds of .30 caliber Machine Gun ammunition was expended. Battery consists of 2-30 caliber machine guns, and 2-3″/50 A.A. guns.

There was no damage to this vessel nor loss of life. At 0830 there was one personnel casualty to the radioman, PRICE, Aubrey Evan, RM2c, USN, on watch at the telephone on dock astern of this vessel. He received a shrapnel wound in jawbone and neck. This casualty was immediately transferred to the hospital at Pearl Harbor and returned to duty this date.

This vessel was immediately put into Condition ONE at General Quarters, engines put together and ship made ready for getting underway.

During the action, the conduct of all officers and the crew was commendable. Everyone did his job 100%. There was no hysteria but commendable coolness and control.

At 1348 this vessel received orders to get underway and to report to Commander Base Force at Ten-ten dock. This vessel was ordered to West Loch to bring u 5″, 3″, and .50 cal. ammunition for the U.S.S. California which was badly in need of ammunition. At 1455 while waiting for ammunition to arrive at the Ammunition Depot, West Loch, hauled an ammunition lighter loaded with 14″ powder away from Ammunition Depot dock, where it was a menace, and moored it alongside the old Navajo. Returned to Depot, picked up ammunition and delivered it to U.S.S. Argonne at 1730.

At 2100 moored alongside U.S.S. California and commenced salvage work.

View of USS California (BB-44), taken a day or two after the Japanese raid. USS Bobolink (AM-20), at left, USS Vireo (AM-52), and YW-10 are off the battleship’s stern, assisting with efforts to keep her afloat. The “birds” would stay at California’s side for three days. Morison noted in his book, “Although minesweepers Vireo and Bobolink closed the battleship and applied their pumps, and numerous ‘handy billies’ (portable gasoline-driven pumps) were obtained from other vessels, California slowly settled.” Collection of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN(Retired), 1975. NH 95569

Tragically, late that night Vireo was one of the ships that filled the skies over Pearl Harbor with ack-ack on the report of approaching unidentified aircraft.

At about 2110 anti-aircraft fire commenced and a plane was seen shot down and an aviator fell astern of this vessel. This vessel immediately rescued the aviator and identified him as an Enterprise aviator who had been shot down. A dispatch was immediately sent to assure control that planes in the air were Enterprise planes. The aviator was transferred to the U.S.S. California and then to the hospital.

Ensign Eric Allen, Jr., USN (1916-1941) USNA class of 1938. On 12 August 1940, the day after he reported to NAS Pensacola to commence his flight training. He had just come from a tour of duty in USS TRENTON (CL-11). Ultimately assigned to VF-6 in ENTERPRISE (CV-6). He was shot down by U.S. anti-aircraft fire on the night of 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor; picked up by USS VIREO (AM-52), he died at the Ford Island Dispensary soon thereafter. NH 96617

Over the next several months, Vireo supported the Pearl Harbor salvage effort whenever she was not off conducting minesweeping and patrol operations in the Greater Hawaii area, including runs to Johnston Island and the Port of Hilo.

Midway

With a huge naval clash on the horizon, on 28 May 1942, under secret orders, Vireo left Pearl at nine knots to escort the tanker Kaloli (AOG-13) to Midway Island. During the voyage, Vireo was reclassified as an ocean-going tug (AT-144) and would arrive at the atoll on 3 June, ordered to hold up off Hermes Reef and await orders.

The next day saw the pivotal stage of the battle there, with the Japanese losing four carriers in exchange for Yorktown (CV-5) which was left dead in the water. With the carrier ordered largely abandoned, Viero was called into action to take the stricken American flattop in tow, arriving at 1135 on 5 June and getting underway by 1308– at three knots, a 1,350-ton minesweeper hauling a crippled 30,000-ton leviathan. The next day, the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) came alongside Yorktown to help with the salvage task while five other tin cans provide a screening force.

That is when Japanese Type KD6 submarine I-168 came on the scene.

As noted by Combined Fleets:

I-168 arrives and sights the carrier and her screen. For seven hours, LCDR Tanabe Yahachi skillfully makes his approach, steering by chart and sound with only a few periscope sightings. Undetected, he penetrates the destroyer and cruiser screen. At 1331, from 1,900 yards, he fires two torpedoes at the overlapping formation, followed by two more three seconds later. The first torpedo hits HAMMANN, breaks her back and sinks her in about four minutes. As she goes down, her depth charges explode and kill 81 of her 241-strong crew. At 1332, the next two torpedoes strike YORKTOWN starboard below the bridge. The fourth torpedo misses and passes astern.

Battle of Midway, June 1942 Diorama by Norman Bel Geddes, depicting the explosion of depth charges from USS Hammann (DD-412) as she sank alongside USS Yorktown (CV-5) during the afternoon of 6 June 1942. Both ships were torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 while Hammann was assisting with the salvage of Yorktown. USS Vireo (AT-144) is shown at left, coming back to pick up survivors, as destroyers head off to search for the submarine. 80-G-701902

DANFS:

Vireo freed herself from the carrier by cutting the towing cable with an acetylene torch and then doubled back to commence rescue operations.

Up her sides clambered carriermen and destroyermen alike, while she maneuvered near the carrier’s canting stern to take on board members of the salvage party who had chosen to abandon the carrier from there. She then proceeded to secure alongside the wounded flattop in the exact spot where Hammann had met her doom. Yorktown rolled heavily, her heavy steel hide pounding the lighter former minecraft’s hull with a vengeance as the ships touched time and time again during the rescue operations. This mission completed, battered Vireo stood away from the sinking carrier, which sank shortly after dawn on the 7th.

Her rudder damaged by Hammann’s depth charge seaquake, Vireo ran aground on her way back to Midway harbor and after she made it back to Pearl under her own power, she was given a complete overhaul and drydocking.

USS Vireo (AT-144) At Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following repairs from Battle of Midway and overhaul, 20 August 1942. Catalog #: 19-N-34748

James Claude Legg, Lieutenant USN ID photo taken circa 2 May 1942. Lieutenant Legg commanded USS VIREO (AT-144) during the Battle of Midway, earning a Navy Cross for his performance of duty in towing the damaged USS YORKTOWN (CV-5). From service record book in NMPRC, St. Louis, MO., 1984. Catalog #: NH 100171

As for I-168, the Japanese boat would never see the end of the war, presumed lost with all 97 hands in the area north of Rabaul after she is hit by four torpedoes from USS Scamp (SS-277) in 1943.

The Rest of the War

Overhauled and assigned to ComAmphibForSoPac, the now green-camouflaged painted Vireo set out for the Guadalcanal area on 12 October, to take part in resupply operations for the Marines of the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field. The little convoy, consisting of the freighters Alchiba (AKA-23) and Bellatrix (AKA-20), was screened by the gunboat Jamestown (PG-55) along with the destroyers Meredith (DD-434) and Nicholas (DD-449), with the freighters and Jamestown each pulling “a barge carrying barrels of gasoline and quarter-ton bombs” without any air cover whatsoever at 10-knots.

I repeat, pulling “a barge carrying barrels of gasoline and quarter-ton bombs” without any air cover whatsoever at 10-knots.

On the 15th, the world’s most flammable convoy was warned that a Japanese carrier task force was headed its way and was ordered to turn around with Meredith and Vireo breaking off in one element with a fuel barge in an (expendable) effort to keep the Marines flying. They got close, within 75 miles of Guadalcanal, before they spotted Japanese scout planes.

The skipper of the destroyer, LCDR Harry Hubbard, feeling the slow minesweeper-turned-tug was a sitting duck, ordered the ship abandoned and, with the vessel’s fuel barge tied to it, was going to send her to the bottom so that she wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Japanese then beat feet. That’s when 38 aircraft (21 low-level bombers and torpedo planes, 8 dive bombers, and 9 fighters) from the carrier Zuikaku arrived on the scene and, concentrating on Meredith, sent her to the bottom with no less than 14 bombs and 7 torpedoes– enough ordnance to sink the Bismarck!

Remarkably, the abandoned Vireo, saved from one of Meredith’s torpedoes by none other than the Japanese, was still afloat.

From RADM Samuel J. Cox’s H-Gram 011:

However, Vireo was drifting away, and only one raft-load of Meredith and Vireo survivors reached the tug, where they were later rescued. The other rafts, filled with burned and mangled Sailors, became a preview of what would happen to Sailors on the USS Juneau (CL-52) and USS Indianapolis (CA-35) later in the war. As the rafts and wreckage drifted for three days and three nights, numerous Sailors died from wounds, exposure, salt-water ingestion (and resulting mental incapacity and hallucinations), and from particularly aggressive shark attacks. One shark even jumped into a raft and ripped a chuck from an already mortally wounded Sailor. There was not enough room on the rafts, so the less-injured Sailors treaded water, hanging on to the rafts, and had to fight off the sharks as best they could. Most of the injured, including burned and blinded Hubbard, perished in the rafts.

Finally, the destroyers USS Grayson (DD-435) and USS Gwin (DD-433) found 88 survivors of Meredith and Vireo adrift. (About another dozen had earlier been found on the Vireo.) However, 187 from Meredith and 50 from Vireo died in a desperate attempt to get fuel to the Marines on Guadalcanal.

Grayson recovered Vireo and the other barge and returned them to Espiritu Santo. During her return, the Vireo was manned by a salvage crew from the Grayson and survivors from Meredith and Vireo. The intact fuel barge, recovered by the tug Seminole, was delivered to Henderson Field under escort by Grayson and Gwinn, meaning the mission was ultimately somewhat successful if pyrrhic.

With a largely new crew, Vireo remained at the sharp end, coming to the assistance of the cruisers Pensacola (CA-24) and Minneapolis (CA-36) following damage they received at the Battle of Tassafaronga.

Near the USS Aaron Ward (DD-483) when that Gleaves-class destroyer was hit by three Japanese bombers in April 1943, Vireo came tried unsuccessfully to rescue the crushed tin can but had to break the tow when she dived to the bottom just short of Tulagi.

Nonetheless, Vireo continued in her role and came to the assistance of the Battle of Kula Gulf’s “cripples division,” the broken cruisers Honolulu (CL-48), St. Louis (CL-49), and HMNZS Leander, towing the bowless Honolulu in to Tulagi.

USS Honolulu (CL-48) in Tulagi Harbor, Solomon Islands, for temporary repair of damage received when she was torpedoed in the bow during the Battle of Kolombangara. USS Vireo (AT-144) is assisting the damaged cruiser. 80-G-259446 (More detail on the curious sign, penned by Captain Oliver O. “Scrappy” Kessing, USN, commander of the Tulagi Naval base, here)

Then came the support of the liberation of the Philippines, and other hairy stops on the island-hopping campaign to Tokyo (see= Okinawa, see= kamikazes).

VJ Day came with Vireo in the PI, as her war history notes:

The news of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and the Japanese left everyone aboard just a little bit bewildered, anxious to get started home, and with rosy visions of the plastic post-war world. This missive leaves the Mighty V at Manila, the burned and ruined Pearl of the Orient, the Japs defeated, the Vireo still very very much afloat and still towing strong.

Jane’s 1946 entry on the three Old Birds still around which were classified at the time as tugs, Owl, Vireo, and Woodcock. They would soon be retired.

When the war came to an end, the old tug, surplus to the needs of the Navy, arrived at San Francisco on 5 February 1946 and reported to the Commandant, 12th Naval District, for disposition. That disposition was that she be declared surplus and disposed of, stricken 8 May and transferred to the Maritime Commission the next year. Her ultimate fate is unknown, but there is a report that she was headed to Latin America in early 1947, intended to be converted for service as a Panamanian-flagged lumber boat carrying hardwoods between Long Beach and Panama.

Epilogue

As for the rest of her class, other “Old Birds” served heroically in the war.

Pearl Harbor vet Avocet would spend most of the war in Alaskan waters, caring and feeding PBYs while fending off Japanese air attacks during the Aleutians Campaign. Heron received the Navy Unit Commendation for saving the damaged destroyer USS Peary (DD-226) in the Molucca Strait and repeatedly fighting off a horde of attacking Mavis seaplanes in the process. Six of the class– Tanager, Finch, Quail, Penguin, Bittern, and Pigeon, were lost in the Philippines invasion as part of the doomed Asiatic Fleet. Scuttled at Corregidor, a 36-foot whaleboat from Quail filled with 18 officers and men, but sailing with virtually no charts or navigational aids, transversed 2,060 miles of often Japanese-held ocean reaching Australia after 29 days. The Germans sank USS Partridge at Normandy and sent both Gannet and Redwing via torpedoes to the bottom of the Atlantic.

Most of the old birds remaining in U.S. service were scrapped in 1946-48 with the last on Uncle Sam’s list, Flamingo, sold for scrap in July 1953.

Some lived on as trawlers and one, USS Auk (AM-38) was sold to Venezuela in 1948, where she lasted until 1962 as the gunboat Felipe Larrazabal. After her decommissioning, she was not immediately scrapped and is still reported afloat but abandoned in a backwater channel. She is likely the last of the Lapwings.

Vireo’s name was recycled for a Bluebird-class minesweeper (MSC-205) which, commissioned at the naval station at Tacoma, Wash., on 7 June 1955. The little boat would see some hot action in Vietnamese waters during Operation Market Time, engaging in surface actions with North Vietnamese smuggling trawlers. She was decommissioned in 1975 and went on to serve the nation of Fiji as the Kuva for another decade.

USN 1131998 USS VIREO (MSC-205)

There has not been a Vireo on the Navy List since 1975, a shame. However, much of the ship’s WWII war diaries are available in digitized format in the National Archives

Corsair Armada released a scale model of this hard to kill old bird.

Specs:

Seagoing Minesweeper plan 1918 S-584-129

Displacement: 950 tons FL (1918) 1,350 tons (1936)
Length: 187 feet 10 inches
Beam: 35 feet 6 inches
Draft: 9 feet 9 in
Propulsion: Two Babcock and Wilcox header boilers, one 1,400shp Harlan and Hollingsworth, vertical triple-expansion steam engine, one shaft. (1942: Two Babcock and Wilcox header boilers, one 1,400shp Chester Shipbuilding 200psi saturated steam vertical triple expansion reciprocating engine.)
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph); 12~ by 1936. 14 again after 1942.
Range: 1,400 nm at 14 knots on 275 tons fuel oil
Complement: 78 Officers and Enlisted as completed; Up to 85 by 1936
Armament:
(1919)
2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts
(1928)
2 x 3″/50 DP single
2 x .30-06 Lewis guns
(1944)
2 x 3″/50 DP single
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts

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