January 28th 1941 – Italian submarine sinks British steamer Urla west of Ireland

The discussion of Britain’s battle with Italy during World War Two is often confined to the Mediterranean and North African theaters. However, Mussolini’s forces also attacked Britain directly and even committed aircraft to support the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. An even less-known fact is that Italian submarines supported the German Kriegsmarine in their siege of Britain in an effort to strangle her of vital war supplies from across the Atlantic.

One such Italian submarine was the Marconi-class Luigi Torelli which was launched five months before Italy would declare war on Britain and France in support of Germany. After completing its shakedown cruise and the training of its crew the Luigi Torelli sailed for German-occupied Bordeaux to join up with the small Italian submarine flotilla based there. Italian fortunes in the Atlantic didn’t often mirror their German counterparts but the Luigi Torelli would prove an exception when over the course of January 15th-16th 1941, the submarine attacked and sank three ships from a convoy over 400 miles west of Rockall; a British islet west of Scotland and south of Iceland. A fourth ship was attacked but escaped destruction.

Four days before this incident, the 17-year old 5,198-ton steamer Urla departed Halifax in Canada with convoy HX 102 carrying a load of steel and lumber bound for Manchester. The crossing was not an easy one for the 42 men of the Urla which struggled to keep pace with the rest of the convoy. The North Atlantic weather had battered HX 102 and a number of ships had to turn back to Canada to join HX 103 when the weather improved. The Urla pressed on but soon found itself straggling behind the others by the time the convoy approached the British Isles toward the end of the month.

Urla Luigi Torelli north atlantic submarine sinking italian navyOn January 28th, the Urla had the misfortune to stumble across the Luigi Torelli on patrol to the west of Ireland (Right). The Italian submarine fired on the Urla, scoring a direct hit on the ship which soon began to sink but incredibly not before all 42 crewmembers managed to safely launch their lifeboats.

While the war was over for the Urla, it was far from over for the Luigi Torelli. The Italian submarine would be on the receiving end of an attack when on the night of June 3rd 1942, it was bombed by an RAF Vickers Wellington using its powerful Leigh light searchlight 70 miles off the Spanish coast. It suffered considerable damage but managed to reach the port of Avilés in the north of neutral Spain but was damaged again shortly after in an attack by a Royal Australian Air Force Short Sunderland as it attempted to reach Bordeaux forcing it back to Spain for more repairs.

In 1943, the submarine was one of four Italian boats assigned to join a German mission to the Far East to sneak through Allied naval patrols to acquire vital war material from the Japanese in Asia. During the mission, the Italian government joined with the Allies and the submarine was interned by the Japanese. It was then taken on charge by a mixed German-Italian crew to combat the Allies in the Far East under the German flag as U.IT.25. It served the German Navy in the Far East up until Germany’s surrender in 1945 after which the submarine was then taken on by the Japanese as I-504. The submarine and her Italian sister Comandante Cappellini were the only two ships to fly the flags of all three main Axis powers during the course of World War II.

With the war nearly over, the service life of I-504 was relatively short. Based in Kobe, Japan it was damaged in a major air raid on the city by USAAF B-29 Superfortress bombers on July 15th 1945; less than 24 hours after its new Japanese captain had assumed command. The I-504 is credited as probably the last warship of the Axis powers to score a victory over the Allies when in the waning days of the war its deck guns shot down a B-25 Mitchell bomber that was raiding the harbour.

On August 30th, the I-504 was formally surrendered to the Allies ending the submarine’s war for good. On April 16th 1946, the submarine was taken out in to the Kii Channel east of the city of Tokushima and scuttled. A sad end to the story of an incredible warship.

 

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January 18th 1813 – First Battle of Frenchtown

With Great Britain embroiled in war with Napoleon’s France, the Royal Navy enforced a blockade aimed at choking France’s economy and neutral ships were not exempt from interception. This especially angered the United States who declared the blockade illegal and were increasingly concerned with American citizens finding themselves press-ganged into manning the blockade. Both American and British forces in Canada found themselves engaged in brief skirmishes such as one between between HMS Leopard and the USS Chesapeake in 1807 after the Leopard tried to board the American ship to search for British deserters.

On June 18th 1812, the 4th President of the United States, James Madison Jr, bowed to pressure from those in Congress who wanted war with Britain and signed the declaration. While it would last until February 18th 1815, the war is still remembered as the War of 1812. With the majority of British forces committed to fighting Napoleon in mainland Europe, the British had little choice but to initially adopt a defensive strategy against the Americans until they could bolster their numbers with troops from Europe and the enlistment of local native American tribes to carry out a guerrilla-style campaign against American troops.

On August 16th 1812, British Major General Henry Proctor succeeded in forcing the American contingent at Fort Detroit to surrender. This was a major concern for the Americans and so President Madison assigned General William Henry Harrison the task of retaking Fort Detroit during a winter offensive. Harrison split his army into two contingents. The first he commanded personally and marched his men to Upper Sandusky in modern-day Ohio.

The second contingent was led by Brigadier General James Winchester and consisted of 2,000 untrained regulars and volunteers mostly from Kentucky. As his men marched they were met by citizens of nearby Frenchtown which at that time was under occupation by a small British force from the Essex Militia and a native force from the Potawatomi tribe. Disobeying his orders to wait for Harrison and his men, Winchester ordered Lieutenant Colonel William Lewis to lead over 600 American troops to attack the British and their allies at their base across the frozen River Raisin.

Lewis attacked on January 18th and a brisk battle took place before the Americans forced the British and the Potawatomi to retreat. A Canadian militia group counterattacked later in the day but were unable to force Winchester back across the frozen river. During their retreat, the Potawatomi troops fell upon the settlement at Sandy Creek and destroyed it killing two of its inhabitants in the process.

Winchester was pleased with his victory although Harrison was concerned that his force was still outnumbered by British forces in the region. Upon hearing that Frenchtown had been taken, British Brigadier General Henry Procter marched 597 men from the 41st Regiment of Foot and Royal Newfoundland Fencibles along with around 800 native troops from the occupied Fort Detroit. Supported by Canadian artillery, Proctor’s men recaptured Frenchtown after a pitched battle on January 22nd.

The next day, a number of the captured American soldiers were massacred by native troops including a number of wounded soldiers who were burned to death inside the buildings where they were being kept. The native Americans then marched the survivors to Fort Malden in Ontario. Any American who couldn’t keep up was killed at the side of the road. The exact number of prisoners killed is not known but it is believed to be up to 100.

 

December 10th 1899 – “Black Week” in South Africa

The Second Anglo-Boer War (sometimes referenced simply as the Boer War in the UK although there was an earlier conflict fought between 1880 and 1881) was fought between the British Empire in Africa and the Boers, a combined force from the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State. The Boer Republics declared war on Britain on October 11th 1899 after years of escalation and fears of Britain attempting to annex their territories for their gold and diamond deposits. The war would last until May 31st 1902 with a British victory and the absorption of their defeated foe’s lands in to the British Empire.

In 1899, Britain was overconfident regarding the state of her imperial security in the south African region and as such was woefully under-prepared for when the Boers struck. The Boer forces moved through much of the sparsely defended countryside while laying siege to the fortified British positions in towns like Kimberley and Ladysmith.

Then in one disastrous week beginning on December 10th 1899, the British Army suffered three devastating defeats by the forces of the Boer Republics. This week would become known as “Black Week”. The first came at Stormberg where Sir William Gatacre’s exhausted forces were beaten after undertaking a night march through heavy rain.

Second 2nd Anglo Boer War South Africa Black Week 1899 1902The next day on December 11th, an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley was also defeated by Boer forces at Magersfontein. Among the 1,000 British casualties at Magersfontein was Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope CB CMG whose loss exacerbated the sense of disaster regarding the battle in Africa and back home.

On the following Friday, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC GCB GCMG was defeated attempting to relieve the town of Ladysmith. The battle at Colenso cost over 1,000 British casualties and forced Redvers in to retreat. This defeat brought an end to the “Black Week” and proved a wake-up call to the British who began a massive build-up of reinforcements.

There were several factors that led to these disasters. Firstly, the British forces in Africa were used to fighting rebel tribesmen armed with spears rather than a well disciplined force armed with equivalent weapons to themselves. The British also struggled to organise themselves effectively beyond the immediate battlefield which meant opportunities to take advantage of weaknesses in the Boer lines were missed. Finally, the Boers were fighting in territory they had grown up in whereas much of the British force consisted of troops brought in from across the Empire such as Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain itself.

All these lessons would be learned and through 1900 and 1901 the Boers would be beaten back until their final defeat in 1902.

Llandudno Home Front Museum

The Llandudno Home Front Museum aims to allow the people of today the chance to experience the sights and sounds of civilian life during the second world war.

All photos kindly donated to Defence of the Realm by Hayley Butler.

If you would like to visit the museum you can view their own website by clicking here.


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Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 259th Birthday

Today marks the 259th birthday of one of Britain’s most famous sailors. Horatio Nelson was born on September 29th 1758 in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine Suckling.

On January 1st 1771, he began his naval career by reporting for duty aboard HMS Raisonnable then under command of his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He joined the ship’s company as an ordinary sailor but was soon appointed a midshipman and began his officer training. Nelson would serve on a number of ships during his career and would participate in several expeditions including an effort to find the fabled Northwest Passage; a route through the Arctic to India. In 1778, Nelson received his first command namely the 12-gun brig HMS Badger.

During his career he saw action in the American War of Independence and in the Wars of the Second and Third Coalitions against post-revolutionary France. It was during this last conflict that Nelson led a British fleet in the battle that would make him a legend – the Battle of Trafalgar.

On October 21st 1805, the now Vice-Admiral Nelson led twenty-seven British ships of the line from his flagship, HMS Victory and defeated thirty-three French and Spanish warships under the French Admiral Villeneuve in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war and ended French ambitions to invade England but it would cost Nelson his life when he was shot by an enemy sniper.

Admiral Horatio Nelson nelson's columnIn 1809, Nelson was commemorated with a large granite pillar capped by a statue of his likeness at the top in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, Ireland. In 1843, the similar Nelson’s Column was erected in Trafalgar Square, London and has become an important symbol of the city. In 1966, over 40 years after the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the UK, Irish Republicans bombed the pillar in Dublin which sent the statue at the top crashing to the ground. It was never rebuilt.

Earlier this year, in the wake of a wave of protests in the US against statues to Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, Journalist Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian newspaper;

It is figures like Nelson who immediately spring to mind when I hear the latest news of confederate statues being pulled down in the US…The colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised.

Her article called for Nelson’s Column and a number of other statues of British Empire figures to be taken down but she has been met with strong opposition.

 

Interview with Wing Commander Roland Prosper Beamont

In this interview, Wing Commander Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, CBE, DSO*, DFC* talks about his experiences during the Second World War with Group Captain (Retd) J P (Phil) Dacre MBE DL RAF at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell in April 1991.

Wing Commander Beamont served as a fighter pilot with Fighter Command from the start of the War until he was shot down and captured in October 1944 on his 492nd operational mission. After the War, Wing Commander Beamont went on to become a leading test pilot on aircraft such as the Meteor, Vampire, Canberra, Lightning and even the ill-fated TSR.2 as well as writing several books. He passed away just over ten years after this interview on November 19th 2001.

September 23rd 1938 – British Anti-Aircraft Units Mobilise During Munich Crisis

On September 22nd 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler to discuss the issue of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After the political map of Europe was redrawn following World War I, many ethnic German speakers found themselves living in Czechoslovakia and Hitler had vowed to return them to the Fatherland. Chamberlain had agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland but Hitler made demands that he wanted to seize Czechoslovakia completely.

Naturally, Czechoslovakia was opposed to this as were most European powers and began to mobilise for war. As the situation deteriorated, Britain began making preparations for war and on September 23rd 1938 the anti-aircraft units of the Territorial Army were activated.

Among the units mobilised were;

  • 26th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting London with just 41 AA guns
  • 35th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting the important naval base at Portsmouth
  • 42nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Glasgow
  • 43rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting Teeside
  • 54th Anti-Aircraft Brigade protecting towns and cities in the West Midlands

Many of these units found themselves armed with little more than World War I Lewis machine guns until heavier weapons could be distributed to them.

The crisis was eventually resolved as far as Britain was concerned with the Munich Agreement  and Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to Hitler’s will. The Czechoslovak government could not hope to fight the Nazis alone and reluctantly agreed although they felt betrayed by Britain and France.

On September 30th 1938, Chamberlain returned to Britain and gave one of history’s most notorious speeches proclaiming “peace in our time” however the Territorial Army anti-aircraft units would remain mobilised right up until the following September when peace was finally shattered in dramatic fashion.