Archives For 20th Century

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Eric Jay Dolin, whose previous work includes Leviathan and When America Met China, has generated yet another meticulously researched and well narrated piece of nautical history. Focusing on America’s lighthouses from inception to the current day, Brilliant Beacons is a sweeping, majestic piece that encompasses technology, material culture, engineering, personal histories and the strategic role lighthouses have played in America’s development and growth over the last three plus centuries.

Writing with the passion of someone who has long had a love affair with the sea and her incredible stories, Dolin draws the reader in with the origins of American lighthouse design and tirelessly waltzes through topics that lesser authors would render dry and boring. This is the second of Dolin’s books reviewed on this site and both have held particular meaning for me. The first being When America Met China, which, for someone who majored in Chinese language at America’s ninth oldest university, was of particular interest and is a phenomenal read. Having grown up in North Carolina, I have always had an affinity for lighthouses, especially given that I was a young teenager when the iconic Cape Hatteras light house was moved 1,500 feet to save it from being engulfed by the ravaging waves of the Atlantic. Thus, the subject of Brilliant Beacons more than intrigued me and, while I didn’t have the opportunity to read it at the beach, I read the first 25% from my home overlooking the Port of Tampa and the remaining 75% on a round-trip flight to New York City, a city forever linked with the sea.

Overall, Dolin’s narrative style enables the reader to make quick work of the book’s 400 plus pages. Saying Brilliant Beacons is the perfect beach read might sound a little cliche, however, the book is both illuminating and entertaining and the timing of its release at the height of the summer months could not have been better planned. Pick up Dolin’s latest and read away, you will be glad you did.

 

Capture

News is slowly seeping its way into the press regarding the incredible discovery and excavation of the SS City of Cairo, a World War II British Merchant Navy vessel sunk in the South Atlantic at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic. The stories surrounding the City of Cairo are numerous with an entire book, Goodnight, Sorry for Sinking You, having been written about her sinking and the travails of her survivors. The City of Cairo was traveling from Bombay, India to the UK with stopovers in South Africa and Brazil and among her cargo of 7,422 tons were 2,000 boxes of silver Indian rupees stowed in the Number 4 hold.

In addition to the general cargo and precious metals, the City of Cairo carried 150 passengers with a total complement of 311 souls aboard. Sighted by U-68, a German U-boat captained by Karl-Friedrich Merten, the City of Cairo was quickly dispatched on the night of November 6, 1942 by two torpedoes. Six lives were lost in the initial evacuation into six overcrowded lifeboats. Interested in learning what vessel he had sunk and what she was carrying, Merten surfaced his U-boat to speak with the survivors. He directed them to the closest land and closed with the now semi-famous words, “Goodnight, sorry for sinking you.”

The survivors then began what would become an epic and tragic fight for survival. Unfortunately, the boats rapidly lost touch with one another in the vastness of the South Atlantic. One group consisting of three boats with 155 survivors was picked up on November 19th after thirteen harrowing days at sea. The group had nearly made it to their destination of St. Helena which was 500 miles from the point of sinking. Another group of only 2 survivors was picked up on December 27th only 80 miles from the coast of Brazil. The original group of 17 had sailed nearly 2,000 miles before being rescued. The third group of three survivors were rescued by a German blockade runner, Rhakotis on December 12th. One of the survivors perished aboard the Rhakotis. For the two survivors, their story became even stranger when, on January 1, the Rhakotis was herself intercepted and sunk by Allied warships. Thankfully, the two were rescued and brought home safely to the United Kingdom. In all, 104 persons died as a result of the sinking.

Public information is very limited as the salvors have sought a low profile with the project, but the salvage company Deep Ocean Search is claiming to have recovered 100 tons of silver coins from the wreck of the City of Cairo over the last few years. If true, then it is quite an accomplishment as the wreck lay in 17,000 feet of water and days of sailing from the closest port. The photos of the wreck and coins provided by Deep Ocean Search are quite stunning. There has been no word on whether the company intends to make the coins available for sale or is melting them for sale into the precious metals market.

HMS Wellesley

As bombs rained down on London, Liverpool and other British cities during the dark days of the Blitz, one bomb not only made waves, but also revealed that truth is often stranger than fiction. Floating on the River Thames on the night of September 23, 1940 was the training ship Cornwall, a former British wooden hulled ship of the line converted to training duties for youngsters. During that night’s Luftwaffe raid, though, the ship was severely damaged and eventually sank to be refloated and broken up for scrap in 1948. In sinking, the ship became the last Royal Navy ship of the line to be lost to enemy action as well as the only one to be sunk in an air raid.

Although the Cornwall met a rather ignominious end at the bottom of the Thames, the ship was once a jewel in the British fleet. Laid down in 1812 and commissioned in 1815 as HMS Wellesley, the ship was built out of teak which made her incredibly resistant to rot. The ship spent much of her time in active service in the Indian Ocean and Far East. In 1839, the Wellesley led the successful attack on and capture of Karachi and was subsequently heavily involved in the First Opium War. By 1854 the ship was retired to guard duty and was opened on May 5, 1859 as a reformatory ship for 260 boys under the School Ship Society. The next 80 years saw her continue in this role as she bounced between ports in the UK. Sadly, the ship was the subject of some scandal when, in 1903, seven boys contracted typhoid from cheap blankets that had been sold to the ship unwashed and infected by army hospitals.

luftwaffe sinks british ship

TS Cornwall Bombed Out By Luftwaffe

Winston Churchill

Richard Freeman’s latest publication, ‘Unsinkable’, is a critical look at Winston Churchill’s role in the Great War. Freeman advances the position that Churchill is given less credit than he deserves for his role in Great Britain’s victory in World War One. The book follows Churchill from his initial days in the Admiralty to his time in Flanders as an infantry officer to his ultimate role as Minister of Munitions at the end of the war. Freeman makes a very compelling case based upon historical evidence and documents not declassified until after the war that Churchill was made the scapegoat for the Gallipoli disaster and that he was the victim of political infighting and poor political choices on his own part.

The book’s 240 pages fly by as Freeman, in writing ‘Unsinkable’, has delivered a highly readable book, even for those not necessarily interested in the inner workings of British politics during World War One. Overall, Freeman should be credited with producing an excellent addition to the vast array of literature about that indefatigable lion of late 19th and early 20th century British life, Winston Churchill.

aircraft carrier

USS Wasp Ablaze – 9/15/1942

On September 15, 1942, a powerful task force of US naval vessels steamed towards Guadalcanal Island in the South Pacific. Consisting of the aircraft carriers USS Wasp and Hornet, the battleship USS North Carolina and ten other vessels, the task force intended to land a regiment of US Marines on Guadalcanal to reinforce the US troops already vying for control of the island. As mid-afternoon approached, a Japanese submarine, I-19, maneuvered within firing range of the squadron and loosed a volley of six torpedoes at the Wasp. Despite attempting to outmaneuver them, three of the torpedoes slammed into the Wasp while a fourth missed and struck the North Carolina. A mighty conflagration quickly ensued as the torpedoes had detonated close to the ship’s fuel stores and magazines. Damage control efforts and maneuvering into the wind proved fruitless and within 35 minutes of the torpedo strikes, the order for abandon ship was given. When the Wasp finally slipped beneath the Pacific Ocean’s waves, 193 souls followed her leaving approximately 1900 survivors with 366 of them wounded.

Unfortunately for the Wasp and her crew, the Wasp had been built on the tail end of the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. As a result, the ship had minimal armor and suffered from a poor design for ammunition and gasoline storage in order to fit the ship into the tonnage restrictions left to the US Navy under the treaty. Sadly, the US Navy lost 193 good men, 45 aircraft and a valuable ship to the good intentions of a treaty designed to prevent conflict – a treaty which proved to do nothing but force allied naval forces to fight with one hand behind their back for the first years of World War Two.

CC Image Courtesy of UK MOD on Flickr

CC Image Courtesy of UK MOD on Flickr

Yesterday the Royal Navy decommissioned its last Invincible class aircraft/helicopter carrier, HMS Illustrious, better known to her crew as “Lusty“. Laid down in 1976, Illustrious was the second of the three Invincible class carriers with her sister ships being HMS Invincible and HMS Ark Royal. While the ship was being fitted out, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands and the carrier was rushed into service – so rushed in fact that she was commissioned at sea on June 20, 1982 as she sailed to the relief of the occupied Falklands. The Falklands War also changed the role the Invincible class carriers were originally conceived to fulfill. Instead of operating in a primarily ASW role, the Falklands forced the Royal Navy to adapt the carriers to embark a larger fixed-air complement in order to provide air cover for both land and sea operations.

Illustrious served not only in the Falklands, but also supported British and Coalition forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The ship will avoid the fate of being scrapped like her sisters. Plans are being made for preservation in some form as a tourist attraction, museum, or floating hotel/conference center much like the plans in consideration for the SS United States. While the Royal Navy’s floating fixed wing capability was scrapped several years ago with the retirement of its Harrier fleet, the decommissioning of the Illustrious truly ends, for now, the Royal Navy’s ability to field a floating fixed wing airstrip. Until the commissioning of the HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2017, the Royal Navy must rely on its sole aircraft carrier HMS Ocean for air support of both maritime and land operations.

SS John Barry

August 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

John Barry

On the night of August 28, 1944, the American Liberty ship SS John Barry silently glided through the waves on its way to Saudi Arabia loaded with a secret cargo of silver. Unfortunately for the Barry and her crew, the Nazi U-boat U-859 detected the ship and successfully torpedoed her, sending her to the bottom of the Arabian Sea along with millions of silver riyal coins (shown above). Rumors quickly arose that the ship had not only been loaded with 3,000,000 silver riyals for ARAMCO, but also with tons of silver bullion destined for the USSR via India.

Due to the ship’s depth (8,500 feet) the wreck was left undisturbed until a consortium of Americans assembled a hodgepodge of recovery components primarily scavenged from the oil and gas industry. After winning a bid to recover the wreck from the US government, the consortium, dubbed “The John Barry Group” successfully located the Barry in 1994 and used a grap to bring up 1,300,000 (17 tons) of silver riyals before they ceased operations. Although no sign of the Soviet silver shipment was found, some experts still believe there is a high likelihood the Soviet silver is aboard the vessel and was not located due to the primitive technology employed by The John Barry Group. Stalin’s Silver, by John Beasant, presents a well-written account of both the recovery and the rationale for why more silver may be located aboard the Barry. Sadly, due to bureaucratic intransigence, the US government has not re-opened the vessel to a recovery bid process and, until then, neither will the mystery be solved nor the American taxpayer enriched by the recovery fees paid to the US government by a successful salvor.