Archives For Warships

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.

Royal Navy

HMS Liverpool
CC Image Courtesy of Jonathan Jordan on Flickr

On Friday, the UK Ministry of Defence announced the solicitation of bids for the scrapping of two of its Type 42 destroyers, HMS Liverpool and HMS Manchester. Both ships were launched in 1978, commissioned in 1982 and saw service the First Gulf War. The scrapping of their sister ship HMS Edinburgh was announced last year and drew record crowds when she was open for tours in Liverpool for the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in May 2013.

Today the Type 42s have been replaced by the Type 45s in their fleet air defense role. Unfortunately for the United Kingdom, NATO, the US and all who rely on the US, the UK and their allies to ensure the freedom of the seas, the vessels are being replaced at a ratio of 2:1 with only six joining the fleet. While only two of the six Type 45s have officially joined the Royal Navy’s fleet, one, HMS Dauntless has already been deployed to the Falklands to ensure the continued liberty of the Falkland Islands. While the Type 45s are vastly more capable than the Type 42s they replace, the Royal Navy will lose the quality that comes with quantity and be forced to further rely on allies and “hope” as a strategic defense policy. All the while, many of the Royal Navy’s vessels, including the carrier HMS Ark Royal, face transformation from mighty vessels of war to lowly razor blades.

L'Insurgente

USS Constellation Defeats L’Insurgente

Though largely forgotten today, in the closing years of the 18th century, the newly formed United States Navy fought an unofficial war with the French Navy. Dubbed the Quasi-War, the conflict gave the fledgling US Navy the opportunity to cut its teeth in preparation for later conflicts with the Barbary Pirates and the Royal Navy. Fittingly, the US Navy’s first victory also belonged to its first warship, USS Constellation.

While sailing off the coast of Nevis in the Caribbean on February 9, the Constellation came upon an unidentified frigate and immediately gave chase. Over the course of the next hour and a half the two vessels danced across the sea in a deadly waltz. As the vessels attempted to outmaneuver one another, a gale came up and damaged the L’Insurgente’s main topmast which enabled the undamaged Constellation to gain on the French ship. In an engagement lasting less than an hour and a half, the Constellation made quick work of the French and the L’Insurgente struck her colors. Marking the first victory of the US Navy, the French vessel was commissioned the USS Insurgent and the Constellation’s commander, Commodore Thomas Truxton, and her crew were celebrated as heroes upon their return.

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.

Battle of Diu

February 3, 2014 — Leave a comment
chaul

Diu Island
CC Image Courtesy of Vipul.Photography on Flickr

As the 1400s drew to a close, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama and his intrepid crew continued to push their voyages ever farther eastward. Desiring to secure glory and spices for their tiny nation, the Portuguese began to establish small outposts in India and along the East African coastline. Inevitably this led to clashes with the various powers already in the region. Egyptian, Ottoman, Indian warlords (specifically the Zamorin of Calicut) and even Venetian forces opposed Portuguese expansion as it threatened their monopolistic grip on the lucrative spice trade.

Slowly the conflict simmered and built towards a climactic battle which finally occurred on February 3, 1509 off the coast of Diu, an important port on the Indian coast. A fleet of 18 Portuguese warships along with ~1,900 troops sailed into the harbor of Diu where they were opposed by nearly a hundred Egyptian, Ottoman and Indian vessels. Despite being numerically inferior, the Portuguese warships were better equipped and more technologically advanced than the Egyptian, Ottoman and Indian dhows and galleys. Taking advantage of this technological superiority, the Portuguese used their artillery to pound the allied forces into submission. The Portuguese victory allowed the country to continue to expand its fledgling trade empire and its effects echo even today as Portuguese is spoken in Goa and other Indian ports.

On the night of December 19, 1941, a half dozen Italian frogmen slipped into the British naval anchorage at Alexandria, Egypt. Sitting astride human torpedos, the frogmen quietly went to work placing explosive charges under British warships including the battleships HMS Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. Although all six of the frogmen were captured as they tried to make their escape, their charges successfully detonated around 0600. The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both settled quickly on the shallow bottom of Alexandria’s harbor while a Norwegian oiler, M/V Sagona and the Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Jervis, she was refueling were also severely damaged.

Despite these successes, the raid was not nearly as successful as the Italians had hoped for two reasons. First, the original assault plan had called for the initial charges to sink the tankers in the harbor and spread fuel oil across the surface of the anchorage’s water. Secondary incendiary devices were then to ignite the fuel oil and turn the harbor into a blazing inferno. The Sagona’s oil tanks, though, miraculously failed to rupture and the incendiary devices, despite exploding as planned, had nothing to ignite. Second, because the two battleships sank on an even keel, post-raid aerial reconnaissance mistakenly thought the ships had not been damaged at all. As a result, the Italians failed to take advantage of a vastly changed strategic situation in the Mediterranean with the British battle fleet seriously weakened.

The Valiant and Queen Elizabeth both underwent repairs in South Africa and the US respectively and returned to the war effort in 1943. Both served in the Pacific Theater before returning to the UK where the Valiant was scrapped in 1945 and the Queen Elizabeth in 1948. A new Queen Elizabeth is set to join the Royal Navy in 2017 for sea trials and the ship will mark the return of carrier borne fixed wing aviation to the Royal Navy.

Book Review – Mayday

December 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

naval power

Seth Cropsey’s Mayday is a well argued account of the decline of America’s seapower. Cropsey, a former Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy for four presidential administrations, is highly qualified to comment on the state of American naval power and makes a compelling case for America’s (and the rest of the free world’s) need for alarm. Cropsey opens his argument with a survey of current American naval power and the crumbling edges of America’s superpower status. Any significant exposition on modern naval doctrine would be incomplete without a discussion of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Cropsey devotes an entire chapter to Mahan, his theory and its continued relevance to American naval strategy today.

The latter half of the book nicely pulls together various threats to American naval power from China’s emerging regional dominance, piracy, Islamic fundamentalism, increased costs of weapons systems and America’s growing debt problem. Instead of simply bemoaning the loss of American naval dominance and its dire consequences to the freedom of the seas, Cropsey examines multiple proposals for a new way forward and offers several solutions to halt the decline in America’s seapower. Overall, Mayday delivers an evenhanded analysis of the crossroads faced by America’s politicians and naval strategists that is well worth a read.

khukri

Today marks the thirty-second anniversary of the first, and thus far, only sinking of an Indian naval vessel. On December 3, 1971, tensions between India and Pakistan reached a fever pitch and the countries began a thirteen day shooting war. On December 9, Indian early warning posts detected a submarine patrolling close to the harbor of Diu and a squadron of frigates was dispatched to dispense with the trespasser.

The submarine in question was the Pakistani Hangor, a sub completed by the French in 1970 for Pakistan’s Navy. Sallying forth against the Hangor were the two British built frigates, Khukri and Kirpan. The Hangor launched two (although some sources claim three) homing torpedoes which struck the Khukri and sent her to the bottom in short order. Despite being attacked with depth charges, the Hangor successfully returned to Pakistan where she served until 2006 when she was transformed into a museum ship. The Khukri was the first ship sunk by a submarine since World War Two and would remain so until the HMS Conqueror sank the ANA General Belgrano during the Falklands War. All told 194 Indian sailors lost their lives and hostilities ceased just 7 days later.

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.