Archives For Royal Navy

China submarine

In his new book, Poseidon, expat journalist and diver Steven Schwankert brings alive the unfortunate sinking and mysterious salvage of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Poseidon. Over the course of several years, Schwankert meticulously researched the history of the Poseidon via trips to UK archives, Chinese museums and libraries and even a dive on the wreck of her sister ship in the Ionian Sea. Schwankert’s research shows in the compelling manner in which he unfolds the story of the Poseidon, her crew and their fate, and the subsequent history of the vessel in the context of greater Chinese/world history.

The book especially shines in Schwankert’s dogged determination to get to the bottom of the story. His investigative efforts bear fruit in the later pages of the book as he brings to life the terrestrial surroundings of Poseidon’s sinking on Liu Gong Island. Readers will be engrossed by the dramatic escape of some of Poseidon’s trapped crew members and the mysterious disappearance of the wreck from the sea floor. Poseidon helped make a trans-Pacific flight pass by in almost no time at all and is well worth the read. China history buffs, maritime historians, lovers of detective novels and any fan of Dirk Pitt will enjoy the tale told by Schwankert in Poseidon.

Robert Holland

Robert Holland’s Blue-Water Empire is a phenomenal history of British engagement in the Mediterranean world from 1800 to the present. Holland takes the reader around the entire circumference of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Malta to the Ionian Islands to Cyprus to Suez and leaves the reader struck by the influence the United Kingdom exerted in places many could not even locate on a map. Instead of focusing explicitly on social, political, military, diplomatic or economic history, Blue-Water Empire masterfully weaves them all together to present a comprehensive account of Great Britain’s strategy (or lack thereof) in colonizing and policing the Mediterranean over the course of three centuries.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how Great Britain’s actions in the Mediterranean continue to echo today. For example, Holland carefully analyzes the trajectory of Cyprus under British rule and the air fields retained by the United Kingdom after her political withdrawal from the island. Those same air fields at Akrotiri and Dhekelia have been used as staging grounds for any action against Syria in 2013 or 2014. Also addressed in the book is the perennial question of how best to deal with the flood of refugees that accompanies unrest in North Africa or the Middle/Near East. Not only has the Arab Spring resulted in the destabilization of the region, but it also has driven refugees to seek asylum in places like Malta and Italy. Tragically, many of those refugees have died en route as their vessels are overcroweded and unseaworthy and subsequently sink.

Overall, Blue-Water Empire will not only entertain the casual reader, but will also inform the curious as to some of the origins of today’s headlines.

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

royal navy

Scapa Flow Anchorage
CC Image Courtesy of John Haslam on Flickr

On the night of October 13, 1939, Kriegsmarine Kapitanleutnant Gunther Prien and the crew of U-47 launched one of the most daring submarine raids of World War II. With hostilities barely a month old, the Kriegsmarine dispatched Prien to the Royal Navy’s vaunted Scapa Flow anchorage with orders to penetrate the harbor and sink one of the Royal Navy’s capital ships. Scapa Flow, situated in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, provided the Royal Navy with a vast secure anchorage in which it could maintain its Home Fleet. Basing the Home Fleet in Scapa Flow allowed the Royal Navy to more effectively deny the Kriegsmarine access to the Atlantic via the North Sea. A succesful strike within the protected confines of Scapa Flow would not only cause serious consternation in the British Admiralty, but it would also serve as a propaganda coup for the Kriegsmarine as Scapa Flow was the site of the internment and scuttling of the German Imperial High Seas Fleet following World War I.

Prien and his crew deftly negotiated the outlying islands, blockships and harbor defenses and shortly after midnight on the morning of October 14, arrived within the anchorage. By an act of Divine Providence, the Royal Navy had recently removed its most important capital ships from the anchorage and Prien was forced to settle upon a World War I vintage Revenge class battleship, the HMS Royal Oak, as his target. Two years later, a similar act of Divine Providence would occur when the US Navy’s aircraft carriers were notably absent from Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Prien lined up his boat and launched a salvo of four torpedoes, only one of which found its mark. After two more attempts, Prien’s torpedoes finally struck home and the Royal Oak swiftly capsized and disappeared beneath the cold waters of Scapa Flow.

A combination of Prien’s skill and confusion within the anchorage allowed the U-47 to successfully escape. Upon their arrival back in Germany, Prien and his crew were feted and presented with Iron Crosses for their incredible feat. Britain, meanwhile, mourned the loss of 833 of Royal Oak’s crew, many of whom were mere boys in training. Although the strike was successful, it failed to accomplish anything strategically significant. The Royal Oak, while an important capital ship, was already obsolete and not essential to Britain’s continued naval dominance. Nor did the strike enable the Kriegsmarine to have a clearer route to the North Atlantic. The Royal Oak was never salvaged and today still lies at the bottom of Scapa Flow.

british battleship

3-D Sonar Imagery of Wreck of HMS Royal Oak
Photo: Divernet

British warshipOne of the worst maritime disasters to strike Great Britain and the Royal Navy in home waters occurred off Portsmouth on August 28, 1782. The HMS Royal George, a 100 gun ship of the line, had just returned from North American waters and was preparing to accompany HMS Victory to Gibraltar when it capsized just off the entrance of Portsmouth harbor. Compounding the disaster was the fact that more than hundreds of women and children had boarded the vessel to visit with friends and family. The Royal George had been careened on its side for maintenance and the sea quickly engulfed the vessel through open gun ports. More than 900 died in the tragic accident including 360 women and children.

For nearly 50 years the ship lay intact in shallow waters near the entrance until two enterprising divers contrived a plan to remove the ship’s remains which were now a hazard to navigation. From 1834 to 1836, the divers, brothers Charles and John Deane, attempted unsuccessfully to salvage the vessel. Although failing, the brothers did discover the wreck of the Mary Rose which would later be successfully raised and preserved in the early 1980s. Several years later, from 1839-1844, the Royal Engineers performed salvage efforts on the vessel and raised many of her bronze cannon and other items. These cannon were later melted down and used to craft part of Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. As a final exclamation mark in the story of the Royal George, the Royal Engineers detonated a massive controlled explosion that shattered windows ashore as far as two to three miles away from the wreck site.

HMS Fury

August 25, 2013 — Leave a comment
HMS Fury

HMS Fury’s Sister Ship Trapped in Ice

The search for the fabled Northwest Passage captivated European explorers for much of the 1500s through the early 1900s. Alas, like Ponce de Leon’s mystical Fountain of Youth, the Northwest Passage proved elusive and commercially non-existent. Not until Roald Amundsen’s journey through the passage from 1903 to 1906 was someone able to complete the journey completely by sea.

Among the numerous expeditions sent to explore the far reaches of the Arctic Sea were two led by Royal Navy officer Sir William Edward Parry. For seaborne transportation Parry relied on two bomb ketches – the sister ships HMS Hecla and HMS Fury. Only a few months before the expedition’s return to England in October 1825, the Fury was severely damaged by ice floes which had trapped the ship. Despite numerous efforts to rescue the vessel, the Fury had to be abandoned on August 25, 1825.

Before she was abandoned, though, the vessel’s extensive stores were moved ashore and deposited into a supply cache. Four years later those supplies would save the life of Arctic explorer John Ross and his team before they were rescued. The site of the Fury’s loss is now called Fury Beach; however, it remains unclear if the Fury slipped beneath the waves when the ice floes parted or if she drifted off to sink into the clutches of the Arctic Sea in another location.

Battle of the Nile

August 1, 2013 — 3 Comments
Aboukir Bay

Battle of the Nile by Thomas George Webster
CC Image Courtesy of Black County Museums on Flickr

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

Two hundred fifteen years ago today, Admiral Horatio Nelson pounced upon the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Egypt. By early morning the next day, Nelson and his fleet had captured or destroyed nearly every French ship and ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s dreams of a French Egypt and the destruction of Britain’s colonial holdings in India. Alternatively called the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the action would later be immortalized in the poem Casabiana by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, the first stanza of which is above.

For two months in the summer of 1798, Nelson fruitlessly tracked the French fleet across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the French used the time to capture the island of Malta and land an army of troops and scholars in Egypt. Although the French troops eventually were defeated, the scholars scored a victory for the ages when they discovered the Rosetta Stone.

After finally catching up with the French fleet in Egypt, Nelson wasted no time in daringly dividing his forces and launching an attack on the French fleet. Dividing his forces allowed the British fleet to engulf the French in a deadly crossfire and after three hours much of the French fleet had been destroyed. Capping the battle was the violent destruction of the French flagship L’Orient caused by a fire reaching one of the ship’s magazines.

A Very Strange Way to go to War

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the triumphant return of the SS Canberra to Southampton upon the successful conclusion of the Falklands War. In his new book, A Very Strange Way to Go to War, author Andrew Vine replays for the reader the high drama of the sailing of the Canberra, a modern day cruise ship, into the very teeth of enemy action. Readers are walked through the early days of the P&O liner Canberra and her transition from ocean liner to cruise ship and her convergence with the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy as the Falklands were invaded.

Vine strings together a fascinating tale of the preparations aboard the Canberra for her use as a troop ship for Royal Army Paras as well as Royal Marines and subsequent sailing into the combat zone surrounding the Falklands. Among the strengths of Vine’s writing are his ability to paint a broad picture of the Falklands conflict for readers who may be unfamiliar with its details 31 years on while still integrating micro-level social history from interviews with participants in the action. Vine’s writing makes for very interesting reading, and while the book might have benefitted from being fifty pages shorter, A Very Strange Way to Go to War remains an excellent book both for those looking for a unique history of the Falklands War or maritime history.

Dornier 17

A joint team from salvage company SeaTech and the Royal Air Force Museum have successfully recovered an intact Dornier 17 medium range bomber from the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel. The plane was first located in 2008 and in the intervening years efforts have been made to bring together a team to recover and restore the aircraft.

Dornier 17s were medium range bombers developed for the Nazi Luftwaffe and put into service 1937. The plane is one of the lesser known Luftwaffe designs as it was largely obsolete by 1942. Powered by two 1,000hp 9-cylinder engines, the plane could reach speeds of 265mph while delivering a 2,200 lb. bomb load. There are currently no surviving examples of a Dornier 17 as most were melted down after they were shot down or confiscated after the war.

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.