Archives For WWI

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.

On the night of June 9, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Navy dispatched a task force of two dreadnoughts from their naval base at Pola to loosen the strangle hold the Allied navies had on the Austro-Hungarian coastline. The two dreadnoughts, Svent Istvan and Tegetthoff were to rendezvous with two other units and engage their Italian counterparts the next day. Unfortunately for the Austro-Hungarians, two Italian patrol boats spotted the Svent Istvan and Tegetthoff as they steamed down the coast early in the morning on June 10. The two patrol boats launched a torpedo attack on the two vessels and one of the boats, MAS 15, successfully struck the Szent Istvan with two torpedoes amidships.

The Austro-Hungarian crew worked frantically to repair the damage, but were unable to control the flooding either via counter-flooding or plugging the holes. The ship quickly lost power as the boilers were doused by the rising seawater. Despite additional efforts to ground the ship and to keep the ship aright by swinging her turrets around, the ship capsized three hours later and plunged to the bottom of the sea. Due to its having taken three hours to sink, the death toll was relatively low with only 89 crew members losing their lives. With its sinking, the Svent Istvan gained the ignominious distinction of being the only dreadnought to have been caught on film while sinking during World War I.

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.

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

U-Boat

September 2, 1917 brought happy hunting to Commander Georg Schmidt and his crew aboard the U-28 as they came upon a convoy of helpless Allied merchantmen. Commander Schmidt navigated the U-28 among the Allied vessels and opened fire on the British steamer SS Olive Branch. All but one of the crew aboard the Olive Branch were able take to lifeboats and they immediately put as much distance as possible between themselves and their former ship. The crew knew something the doomed U-28 didn’t – that the Olive Branch was loaded to the gunwales with a load of highly volatile ammunition.

As more of the U-28’s shells found their mark, one struck the Olive Branch’s less than peaceful cargo and a spectacular explosion destroyed the Olive Branch and heavily damaged the U-28. Instead of extending an olive branch to the now shipwrecked German crew of the U-28, the convoy sailed on and all 39 hands aboard the U-28 were lost to the clutches of the Arctic Ocean.

battle of the atlantic

Blackett’s War documents the application of science to the Battle of the Atlantic and the outsized impact a small collection of British scientists had on its outcome. Author Stephen Budiansky charts the life of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Blackett, a British naval officer turned scientist, from his service in World War I to his 1930s academic life and conversion from civilian scientist to architect of a scientific method of fighting the Battle of the Atlantic. In the first section of the book, Budiansky follows Blackett’s World War I and inter-war experiences as well as those of the United Kingdom as a whole. In particular, Budiansky focuses on the deployment of the submarine as an unconventional offensive weapon and how it nearly brought Britain to her knees in World War I.

As the tale progresses, other scientists and historical events are woven into the story to add context and depth to the fascinating melding of ruthless warfare with statistical analysis, cryptography and electronic detection and countermeasures. While this often helps advance the storyline, at times it becomes difficult to keep track of the countless characters and events. If there is any flaw in the book, it is that the inclusion of these characters renders the title slightly misleading. The book is less about Patrick Blackett than it is about the scientific teams on both sides of the Atlantic that fought both their own civilian and military bureaucracy and the Kriegsmarine to win the naval war. Overall Blackett’s War is an intriguing read that provides a unique blend of scientific and military history.