Archives For Royal Navy

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.

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.

Amethyst Incident

Sunset on the Yangtze River
CC Image Courtesy of Dan Nelson on Flickr

On April 20, 1949, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Amethyst was cruising up China’s mighty Yangtze River as hundreds of western gunboats had done over the previous century. The Amethyst had been ordered to relieve HMS Consort which was guarding the British Embassy and British interests at the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing. Around 9:30am, without warning, a People’s Liberation Army artillery battery opened fire on the vessel. The PLA battery rained a deadly barrage of shells on the ship, quickly disabling her and mortally wounding her captain, Lieutenant Commander Bernard Skinner. The vessel quickly found herself aground and unable to return fire due to the geometry of her grounding and damage sustained in the initial barrage to her fire control mechanisms. Non-essential personnel were ordered to evacuate the frigate, but the PLA began targeting the small boats with artillery and snipers. By the time the firing ceased at 11am, 22 Royal Navy sailors and officers lay dead with another 31 wounded.

HMS Consort arrived at 11am to lend her support and quickly suppressed the PLA fire. Unable to take the Amethyst in tow, the Consort concentrated on lashing out at the gathering horde of PLA soldiers. Another ten sailors were killed and three wounded during the Consort’s efforts. Not until later that night was Amethyst refloated, however, she was unable to escape and thus began a tense ten week siege during which the PLA refused to allow supplies to reach the vessel.

Finally, on the night of July 30th, the Amethyst slipped her chains and snuck down the Yangtze behind a passenger ship. Sadly the PLA, in their efforts to sink the Amethyst, sank the passenger ship with heavy civilian casualties. After a short sail of two days under escort from another Royal Navy vessel, the Amethyst arrived in the British colony of Hong Kong. The Amethyst had been trapped 101 days and upon her arrival famously signaled “Have rejoined the Fleet south of Woo Sung. No damage or casualties. God Save the King.”

For those to whom the British Empire represented, despite its flaws, a force for the rule of law and economic development, the Amethyst Incident represented the beginning of the sunset on Her Majesty’s Government’s influence in China. For those who viewed the expulsion of foreigners as the beginning of a great socialist experiment, the incident instilled pride which, unless one were a party elite, was crushed in the years following “Liberation” as Frank Dikotter has so eloquently elucidated in his latest book The Tragedy of Liberation.

MV Dara

April 8, 2014 — Leave a comment

terrorist bomb

Before the advent of cheap air transportation to and from the Middle East, medium size liners such as the M/V Dara transported both cargo and passengers to and from Europe, India and the Middle East. The Dara, soon to become like another British India Steam Navigation vessel, specialized in moving ex-pat workers between worksites in the Middle East and Bombay. During a port stop in Dubai on April 7, 1961, a brisk storm beset the port forcing the Dara to stand out to sea in the middle of unloading. In doing so, the ship carried with her passengers and non-passengers alike.

Early the next morning, around 4:40 am an explosion ripped through the bowels of the ship sparking a serious fire that swept through the ship. Panic ensued among those aboard and 238 passengers, crew and shore staff died in the mad scramble to get aboard lifeboats. Vessels from multiple navies along with a civilian salvage tug responded to the explosion and the vessel remained afloat for some time. While under tow, though, the ship slipped beneath the waves in only 100 feet of water. Thus the Dara has become a semi-popular wrecksite as its topmost wreckage is only a few feet below the waves.

Although an exact reason for the explosion has never been ascertained, it is widely believed Omani rebels slipped an anti-tank mine aboard the vessel. Not only was this a common bomb technique among the Omani rebels who had been driven out by the British in 1959, but also Royal Navy divers found evidence of an anti-tank device aboard the wreck. Despite this evidence, it has never been conclusively been proven who was responsible for the deadly attack.

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.