Archives For Merchant Raiders

War of 1812

Award winning author George C. Daughan’s latest book, The Shining Sea, is a timely narrative of the voyage of David Porter and the USS Essex from October 1812 until March 1814. As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 continues, Daughan’s book does an excellent job presenting the reader with an exciting tale of adventure on the high seas, a failed attempt at nation-building, diplomacy in South America and the South Pacific and, ultimately, the dangers of man’s hubris. Two particular points where Daughan’s work shines is his thorough but brief background to the War of 1812 as well as his vivid and readable descriptions of Porter’s voyage. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of how the War of 1812 came about, Daughan provides just enough background to bring the reader up to speed and then sets sail on Porter’s epic adventure. By the same token, Daughan avoids the trap of making the work too dense with nautical terminology and sailing jargon and instead focuses on the incredible actions of Porter and his men.

For twenty-first century readers, imagining a world where a merchant raider could disappear into the mists of the sea for months at a time and leave the entire British Admiralty perplexed is something near unthinkable, but this is exactly what David Porter did with the Essex. Porter and his men laid waste to the British whaling fleet in the South Pacific in a feat only rivaled in its completeness by James Waddell fifty years later in the CSS Shenandoah. Also foreign to twenty-first century readers is Porter’s ability to act without constant communication with his chain of communication. In an age when the President can watch a raid in Abottabad, Pakistan in real-time, the ability to act under only the loosest of orders is a stunning reflection of the weight of command and responsibility assigned to ship captains. Functioning as a double-edged sword, this responsibility allows for both innovation but also the opportunity for poor decision making. Daughan’s conclusion to The Shining Sea makes light of this double-edged sword and will leave the reader both entertained and cautioned against man’s failings.

SS Gairsoppa

February 16, 2014 — Leave a comment
sunken silver

SS Gairsoppa

At 10:30pm on February 16, 1941, U-101, captained by Korvetten-Kapitan Ernst Mengersen took up a firing position off the starboard midsection of a lone British freighter slowly making her way through heavy North Atlantic seas. Despite his first spread missing, Mengersen persisted with the attack and fired another torpedo which struck the freighter’s number two hold and caused a massive explosion to rip through the vessel. Less than 20 minutes later the ship slipped beneath the frigid waves of the North Atlantic. Unbeknownst to Mengersen or any of the crew of the U-101, the freighter they had sunk, the SS Gairsoppa, was laden with an incredibly valuable cargo of silver ingots bound from India to the United Kingdom.

Seventy years after the Gairsoppa sinking, an American company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, through a competitive bid was awarded the exclusive salvage contract by the UK government to recover the Gairsoppa’s silver cargo . The UK government’s Ministry of War Transport had paid out a war insurance claim on the silver during World War II and as a result was the legal owner of the silver. Under the contract, which followed standard commercial practices, Odyssey assumed the risk of search and recovery and retained 80% of the net salved value of Gairsoppa silver cargo. During 2012-2013 operations, Odyssey went to work discovering, mapping and recovering the Gairsoppa’s cargo. Over the course of two summers, Odyssey recovered more than 99% of the insured silver bars equaling more than 3.5 million ounces of silver. Although most of the silver was  sent to a UK refinery, investors and shipwreck enthusiasts can purchase 10oz silver ingots and 1/4oz silver Britannias struck by the Royal Mint from silver recovered from the Gairsoppa.

Odyssey Marine

Photo: Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc.

u-boat pastor

Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

These famous words were composed by German theologian, Confessional Church pastor and anti-Nazi Martin Niemoller. Notably, Niemoller was no academic unfamiliar with the hardships of armed conflict for he had served with distinction in the Imperial German Navy in World War I as a U-boat captain. During his time as second officer aboard U-39, the U-boat and her crew sank 35 ships for over 90,000 tons of shipping. Additionally, while aboard U-73, the boat deployed the mine that sank the RMS Titanic’s sister ship HMHS Brittanic. Niemoller was awarded the Iron Cross First Class for his contributions to the Imperial war effort and ended the war with command of his own U-boat, UC-67.

Like fellow theologian and Confessing Church pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Niemoller spoke out against the Nazi regime and was arrested in 1937 by Nazi authorities. Niemoller spent the remainder of the Nazi years in various prisons and concentration camps including Sachenhausen and Dachau for his “crimes.” Later in life Niemoller became an ardent pacifist, campaigned for nuclear disarmament, won the Lenin Peace Prize and even visited North Vietnam’s communist dictator Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. Sadly, Niemoller’s eight years in Nazi prisons had not completely inoculated him to the dangers of authoritarian government or the ugly necessity of war in certain instances.

Confederate warship

CSS Shenandoah Captures Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean

A central tenet of the nascent Confederate Navy’s strategy during the American Civil War was to make Yankee merchants howl from the loss of their vessels and cargos. In order to achieve this aim, the Confederates commandeered suitable vessels in Southern ports to convert to armed merchant raiders, issued letters of marque and reprisal and procured vessels abroad. Because the Confederacy was not recognized as a sovereign nation by Great Britain or France, the ships procured or built there had to be built ostensibly as merchant vessels and later outfitted with armaments after leaving British territorial waters. Among the ships acquired by Confederate agent James Bulloch was the steamer Sea King.

Launched in Glasgow in August 1863, the Sea King was a 1,160 ton steamer equipped with auxiliary sails. After being purchased by Bulloch, the Sea King put to sea in October and rendezvoused with another ship off Madeira. On October 19, 1863 after several days of transfering cargo and mounting her guns, the Sea King was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah after the beautiful and bountiful Virginia valley. The ship’s design was perfect for raiding merchant vessels as she could raise and lower her steam funnel at will in order to change her identity from steam vessel to sailing vessel.

From the Madeiras, the Shenandoah and her new captain, commander James Iredell Waddell sailed through the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and captured nine US vessels. Shenandoah called at Melbourne, Australia where she re-provisioned and added forty more men to her crew. After departing Melbourne, Shenandoah ravaged her way north through the Pacific Ocean capturing four more Yankee vessels en route to the lucrative North Pacific whaling fleet. Unbeknownst to the Shenandoah and her crew, the Confederacy had effectively collapsed with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. The news, though, would not reach the Shenandoah until after she had wreaked havoc among the American whaling fleet, capturing 24 ships in a period of 7 days from June 22 to June 28, 1865.

After learning of the Confederacy’s surrender on August 2 from newspapers aboard an English merchantman, Waddell successfully returned his ship to Liverpool where he struck the Confederate naval ensign and turned her over to the Royal Navy. An excellent account of the voyage, Last Flag Down, was published in 2007 by a descendant of one of the Shenandoah’s officers.

Brummer & Bremse

October 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

german cruiser

During World War One, Germany’s Kaiserliche Marine often sallied forth with light units and sometimes even battle cruisers to harass English fishing and merchant vessels and to bombard English coastal towns. One of these minor raids occurred early in the morning on October 17, 1916 when the German cruisers SMS Brummer and SMS Bremse chanced upon a convoy of twelve merchantmen escorted by 2 armed trawlers and 2 destroyers – the HMS Strongbow and Mary Rose. The Brummer and Bremse had been designed as minelaying light cruisers and were among the most modern ships in the German cruiser fleet at the time of the action.

Mistaking the German ships for British cruisers, the Strongbow and Mary Rose failed to engage the Brummer and Bremse until they were fired upon at the relatively close range of 2,700m. By comparison, the opening salvos of the Battle of Jutland earlier in the year had occurred at 14,000m. The two British destroyers were quickly sunk (the Mary Rose joining her earlier namesake in Davy Jones’ Locker) and the German cruisers proceeded to attack the now vulnerable merchantmen. The Brummer and Bremse sank 9 of the vessels before breaking off the engagement to avoid any Royal Navy response. The cruisers successfully returned to port and survived the war only to be scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919.

Scapa Flow

SMS Brummer on the Scapa Flow seafloor
Sonar Image Courtesy of UK Department for Transport

The Hunt for Hitler's Warship

Regnery History, a relatively new imprint of Regnery Publishing, has brought readers yet another fantastic offering in Patrick Bishop’s The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Previous books from Regnery History reviewed here include Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron and Fatal Dive. Over the span of ~400 pages, Bishop familiarizes readers with the epic saga of the Nazi battleship Tirpitz from her gestation in Wilhelmshaven to her cataclysmic death at the hands of British bombers in November 1944.

Bishop brings to life the tireless efforts of the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Air Force and Norwegian Resistance to reduce Nazi Germany’s last remaining battleship Tirpitz to a worthless heap of scrap iron. The reader is also introduced to life aboard the Tirpitz through Bishop’s interviews with surviving crew and archival research. This aspect helps round out the work and present readers with a better understanding of both the dread struck in British military planners’ minds by the Tirpitz as well as the fear and trepidation experienced within the ranks of the Kriegsmarine at the prospect of the loss of the Tirpitz in a surface action.  Unlike Hunting Tirpitz, which I reviewed earlier last year and is essentially a compendium of after-action reports by the British Admiralty, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship, is an engaging work designed to bring the story of the sacrifices of British and Norwegian sailors and airmen to life for modern audiences.

confederate fort

Fort Fisher
CC Photo Courtesy of NC Culture on Flickr

At the beginning of 1865, General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was slowly suffocating the Confederacy and only one major port, Wilmington, NC, remained open in defiance of the Yankee invaders. Wilmington’s location made it one of the South’s most successful ports for blockade runners. The city itself lay 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean and blockade runners had two islets from which to enter the Atlantic and evade the Union blockade fleet.

Early in the war, Confederate forces recognized the importance of securing the mouth of the Cape Fear. By 1865, what had begun life as a small artillery battery had become Fort Fisher, one of the largest coastal emplacements of the 19th century, and had been dubbed the Gibraltar of the South. Fort Fisher was shaped in the form of an L with a northern land face and a westward facing sea face.

In addition to its fearsome batteries of heavy guns, the fort’s commander, Colonel William Lamb, created a roving artillery unit equipped with advanced breech-loading Whitworth cannon. Colonel Lamb utilized the squadron to drive off Union warships that sought to attack blockade runners steaming through the surf zone or beached during an unsuccessful run.

On December 24, 1864 the Union Army and Navy attempted a combined operations attack on the fort, but were driven off thanks to the effective command of Colonel Lamb and the incompetence of the Union ground commander, Major General Benjamin “Spoons” Butler. Less than a month later, on January 12, 1865 a larger, better equipped Union force arrived off Fort Fisher determined to carry the fort regardless of the cost. On January 15, after a 60 hour bombardment, 8,000 Union troops surged forward and captured the fort after a fierce 6 hour battle. Fort Fisher’s capture sealed the fate of Wilmington and ensured that no more foreign war material would reach General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered troops in Petersburg, Virginia.

Today the sea has claimed much of the fort and what little remains is a museum and historic site run by the state of North Carolina. Visitors to the museum should be sure to stop in at the world-class Fort Fisher Aquarium just down the road.

german battleship

Scharnhorst fires on HMS Glorious
Photo: US Navy

The Nazi battleship Scharnhorst lived a charmed life from the early days of World War II until Christmas 1943. The ship was among the most powerful of the Kriegsmarine’s most powerful surface units and, until the launch of the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, she and her sister ship Gneisenau were the pride of the Kriegsmarine. Often operating as a pair, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy. In the opening days of World War II, the ships sank the armed British merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi and later sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (see photo above) during the 1940 invasion of Norway.

The sister ships also broke out into the North Atlantic and sent several Allied merchantmen to the bottom of the sea. After the loss of the Bismarck, the decision was made to withdraw Nazi surface ships from the French coast. In early February 1942, the ships, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, made a daring dash up the length of the English Channel. The Scharnhorst was then re-deployed to the northern waters of Norway in order to threaten Allied convoys supplying the Soviet Union.

On Christmas Day 1943, the Scharnhorst along with several destroyer escorts set sail from Norway to intercept an Allied convoy. Unbeknownst to the Kriegsmarine, the Royal Navy had intercepted and decoded the Scharnhorst’s orders and therefore laid a trap for the ship. Three Royal Navy cruisers screened the convoy from Scharnhorst while a squadron led by the battleship Duke of York raced to cut off the Nazi force from safety in Norwegian waters. After a fruitless pursuit of the convoy, the Scharnhorst cut off contact and began to return to base on December 26. In a three hour battle, the Scharnhorst was battered by the Royal Navy squadron and finally sank with only 36 survivors out of a crew of 1,968.

The wreck of the Scharnhorst was discovered in 2000 by the Norwegian Navy and further investigation revealed the extent of the damage inflicted by the Royal Navy. A total of 2,195 shells were fired at the ship along with 55 torpedoes. Eleven of the torpedoes found their mark and the torpedo and shell damage was extensive. The entire bow section of the ship was blown off the ship, most likely the result of an explosion in a forward magazine. Go here for a gallery of images from the Norwegian Navy’s investigation as well as period photos of the Scharnhorst.

Graf Spee sinking

Sinking of the Graf Spee

At the outset of World War II, the Nazi Kriegsmarine didn’t just deploy their merchant raiders and U-boats, but also tasked capital ships with the destruction of Allied shipping. One such ship was the Graf Spee, a pocket battleship constructed during the 1930s before Nazi Germany renounced the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. Germany’s pocket battleships were designed as a re-incarnation of the World War I battlecruiser concept – better armed than heavy cruisers and faster than battleships. The strategic concept was that each ship could operate independently against Allied merchant shipping and choose fight or flight when faced with the threat of engaging a warship.

The Graf Spee was named for Admiral Graf von Spee who had defeated a British squadron at the Battle of Coronel (November 1, 1914) only to have his squadron destroyed by a superior British force a month later at the Battle of the Falklands. Admiral von Spee was lauded by both sides of the conflict as a brilliant tactician and consummate naval officer and gentleman. After his death at the Battle of the Falklands, Admiral von Spee was quickly enshrined in the then small pantheon of Germany’s naval heroes. In addition to the Graf Spee, Germany built two other pocket battleships – the Deutschland and Admiral Scheer – both of which ended the war as floating artillery batteries and were destroyed in the waning weeks of the war.

Commanded by Captain Hans Langsdorff, the Graf Spee found herself in the South Atlantic at the outbreak of the war. Captain Langsdorff and his crew quickly got to work dispatching Allied shipping and sank 50,000 tons of British shipping before being engaged on December 13, 1939 by a trio of British cruisers – Achilles, Ajax, and Exeter. In the subsequent battle, dubbed the Battle of the River Plate, the Graf Spee seriously damaged the Exeter but was herself damaged and Captain Langsdorff sought shelter to perform repairs in Montevideo, Uruguay. Fearing a superior British force had gathered outside Montevideo, Captain Langsdorff and a skeleton crew sailed the Graf Spee into the river estuary on December 18 and scuttled the ship to prevent her from falling into Allied hands. Captain Langsdorff then committed suicide and the crew were interned in Uruguary.

The destruction of the Graf Spee and her limited contributions to the war effort enraged Adolf Hitler who instructed the commander of the Kriegsmarine, Admiral Raeder, to issue an order stating, “The German warship and her crew are to fight with all their strength to the last shell; until they win or go down with their flag flying.” For the Allies, the victory provided a healthy morale boost after the loss of Poland earlier in the year.

HMAS Sydney

CC Image courtesy of Horatio Kookaburra on Flickr

German naval strategy during World War II was similar to that employed in World War I – strangle the United Kingdom by sinking or disrupting its merchant shipping. In addition to the ubiquitous U-boat, the Kriegsmarine utilized surface warships and camouflaged merchant vessels to target Allied shipping in all theaters of the war. One such camouflaged merchant vessel was the HSK Kormoran. Formerly the merchantman Steiermark, the ship was converted in 1940 to carry mines and hidden armaments as well as two float planes. Departing Germany in December 1940, Kormoran captured or sunk 11 merchant ships as it cruised through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

The Kormoran’s luck ran out, though, when it happened upon the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney on November 19, 1941. Sydney was returning to port from escorting a troopship and decided to investigate what appeared to be a suspicious vessel. The two ships exchanged signals until the Kormoran, posing as the Dutch ship Straat Malaka, failed to identify itself by the Straat Malaka’s secondary secret signal. Realizing he could no longer keep up the ruse, Kormoran’s captain ordered the Dutch ensign struck, raised the German naval ensign and opened fire. The two ships engaged in their deadly duel for about an hour at which point the heavily damaged Sydney, struck by hundreds of rounds of 5.9 inch shells as well as several torpedoes, drifted off to the southwest.

The Sydney disappeared with its entire crew complement of 645 officers and sailors. The Kormoran, irreparably damaged by Sydney’s broadsides, was ordered scuttled by her captain and the crew took to the lifeboats. Only 317 of the Kormoran’s 400 man crew were rescued. While Sydney’s sinking of the Kormoran was a pyrrhic victory for her crew, it helped eliminate the threat of continued predation on Allied merchant shipping and the lives of Sydney’s crew were not lost in vain. On March 12, 2008, searchers from the Finding Sydney Foundation located the wreck of the Kormoran in 2,500 meters of water. Five days later, the wreck of the Sydney was finally located approximately 11 miles from the Kormoran. Today, a new HMAS Sydney proudly serves the Royal Australian Navy and its replacement will be christened with the same name when it enters service in 2017.