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.

 

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Forgotten Aircraft: Avro’s First Bombers (Part 3)

<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 1)
<Avro’s First Bombers (Part 2)

The Avro 557 AvaAvro 557 Ava N171

World War I had completely changed the world’s perspective on the aeroplane as a weapon of war. Whereas before it was seen as little more than a tool for reconnaissance, now it was directly challenging age-old beliefs about the superiority of armies and navies. Nevertheless, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was still fighting for its continued existence and in order to prove its worth it had to show that it had the potential to truly affect the future battlefield. For Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Hugh Trenchard this was no easy feat as the RAF was constantly strapped for cash in the face of peacetime cuts.

Both the Army and Navy lobbied for abolishment of the RAF now that the war was over and to have their respective air arms reinstated but Trenchard and his political supporters put up a staunch defence. In order to prove the RAF’s worth, Trenchard was careful but ambitious about his service’s reequipment program in the 1920s hoping to make the most out of what little he had. One such role he envisioned the RAF undertaking was the defence of Britain against surface warships using air launched torpedoes. During the war, Britain had suffered humiliating attacks by German battleships which shelled coastal towns like Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby and those who supported the RAF believed that aircraft could prevent further attacks using both speed and firepower to intercept the raiders out at sea. Trenchard went further adding that in his opinion, combat aircraft had the potential to render the battleship entirely obsolete.

In 1922, the Air Ministry issued specification 16/22 aimed at acquiring an aircraft to fulfil the challenging role. Like the specification that produced the Avro Aldershot which was at that time undergoing flight testing, it was conceived around a possible war breaking out with France which was now the only real European superpower able to threaten Britain with Germany being crushed by the Treaty of Versailles and Austro-Hungary having broken up. The specification called for an aircraft capable of carrying a 21-inch (533mm) torpedo to a target around 500 miles from its base allowing it to attack shipping as far as Denmark and the entrance to the Baltic Sea. This was no easy feat since the 21-inch torpedo was over 3,000lbs in weight but Trenchard believed this weapon was the bare minimum needed to sink a battleship. To increase the type’s usefulness, the specification also stipulated that the aircraft was to be used as a bomber and carry the equivalent weight in bombs.

Avro and Blackburn Aircraft were both shortlisted to produce prototypes for testing with Avro’s project being led by the talented Roy Chadwick. Both companies had to work under a strict veil of secrecy however since at that time there were calls for world-wide disarmament and it was believed by some that an aircraft capable of sinking a battleship might be perceived as contrary to this. Initially, Chadwick opted for a single engined design centred around the 1,000hp Napier Cub engine which Avro had been testing on the original Avro Aldershot prototype. Blackburn adopted the same engine for their design but eventually Chadwick dropped it in favour of producing a twin engined design equipped with individually less powerful engines that combined produced even more power; something the Air Ministry was looking more favourably upon.

Chadwick’s design was for a three-bay biplane of wooden construction with a biplane tail that had a triple rudder arrangement. The two uncowled engines were mounted close to the fuselage but forward of the main wing resting on pylons that extended down to their relative undercarriage. Chadwick settled on the Rolls Royce Condor III V12 engine which churned out 650hp to power the type. The aircraft was to have a crew of five with two pilots sat in an open cockpit located at the top of the forward fuselage slightly ahead of the propellers. The navigator/bomb aimer worked in the enclosed cabin during the flight but could occupy a “dustbin” gun turret that retracted down from beneath the aircraft when it was under attack. The aircraft also had two dedicated gunners with one located in the extreme nose and the other in a dorsal position behind the wings. Each gunner was equipped with a single .303in Lewis machine gun.  The main offensive armament was carried on racks underneath the fuselage between the two innermost undercarriage wheels.

Avro 557 Ava (1)

The first prototype of the new aircraft was completed in 1924 and given the in-house number 557 and the serial number N171 before the name “Ava” was assigned to it. The origin of the name is unclear but it is likely a derivative of the Latin word “Avis” which means “bird”. Avro test pilot Bert Winkler was at the controls during the type’s first flight and being a man of rather short stature, he had to be propped up in the seat with a few cushions to allow him to see forward over the nose. Not long in to the test program, the central rudder was removed as it was deemed unnecessary. Work also began on a second prototype, N172, which was to be of all-metal construction reflecting this growing trend amongst aircraft manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Blackburn Aircraft had begun test flying their own aircraft to meet the Air Ministry’s specifications known as the Cubaroo – a name likely inspired by its powerful Napier Cub engine. Despite the Air Ministry emphasizing a preference for a twin-engined design, Blackburn submitted their single-engined Cubaroo which was at that time the largest single-engined military aircraft in the world. Despite this fact, flight trials showed that it had good flight characteristics although Blackburn would suffer a temporary setback when the prototype crash landed in January 1925.

As work on both aircraft continued, the grey clouds of cancellation began to form over their respective aerodromes. Naval observers of the project argued that these relatively large and lumbering aircraft would offer an easy target to the newer anti-aircraft guns being fielded aboard surface warships around the world. They also argued that they would be vulnerable to interception by modern carrier aircraft equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Fairey Flycatcher which was significantly faster than either the Ava or the Cubaroo when carrying their torpedo.

Avro 557 Ava N172In 1924, the Fleet Air Arm was formed within the RAF to handle shipboard operations and this new branch argued for smaller torpedo-carrying carrier aircraft to fulfil essentially the same role as was envisioned for the Ava and Cubaroo. These aircraft would be equipped with the 1,800lb Mark.VIII torpedo so could be smaller, faster and tougher to shoot down with defensive fire. The Air Ministry agreed and had rescinded specification 16/22 by 1926 rendering both the Ava and the Cubaroo surplus to requirements. With the veil of secrecy having been lifted, Avro demonstrated N171 during the 1926 Hendon Air Pageant while at the same time continued work on the second prototype which would not be completed until 1927, flying for the first time on April 22nd. In terms of design, the only difference between the two prototypes was that the second prototype had more rectangular shaped wing tips than the first prototype.

Avro quickly began scouring the Air Ministry’s order books for a requirement that the all-metal Ava could possibly fulfil and settled on the recently issued B19/27 which was designed to produce a replacement for the Vickers Virginia and Handley Page Hinaidi bombers. With some more development, the Ava could just about squeeze in to this requirement which demanded a night bomber capable of carrying a 1,500lb bombload, 920 miles from its base at an average speed of 115mph. However, Avro faced stiff competition from Bristol, Fairey, Handley Page and Vickers all of whom were working on newer designs with Fairey even offering up a new monoplane design in the shape of the Fairey Hendon. The Air Ministry weren’t interested and the Ava joined the list of Avro’s failed attempts to produce an operational bomber.

SPECIFICATIONS

Crew: 5
Length: 58 ft 3 in (17.75 m)
Wingspan: 96 ft 10 in (29.51 m)
Height: 19 ft 7¾ in (5.99 m)
Empty weight: 12,760 lb (5,788 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 19,920 lb (9,036 kg)
Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Condor III water cooled V-12, 650 hp (485 kW) each
Maximum speed: 115 mph [3] (100 kn, 185 km/h)
Armament;
3 × 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis Guns (Nose, dorsal and retractable ventral positions)
1 × 21 in (553 mm) torpedo or 4 × 550 lb (250 kg) bombs

The Amphion Tragedy

thomas-tegg-hms-amphion-1796-1780-frigate

Thomas Tegg’s depiction of the blast

It had been a busy few days for Captain Israel Pellow and the 219 officers and men that made up the crew of HMS Amphion, an Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate sporting an armament of no less than 32 guns. In the early afternoon of the 22nd September 1796, the ship was alive with the kind of activity associated with the eve of departure from port. In 1796, HMS Amphion was a 16-year old warship and had seen action against American revolutionary forces having participated in a successful raid on New London in Connecticut on September 10th 1781.  The warship had also seen action against the French having recaptured the British sloop Bonetta, which had been captured at Yorktown.

Laying in Plymouth harbour alongside a sheer-hulk, a type of floating crane, that was assisting in repairs and refitting the sailing vessel, the number of persons onboard had swelled to well over 300 as family members visited their husbands, fathers and brothers before they sailed the following morning. Captain Pellow on the other hand was waiting for another type of visitor to come aboard his vessel. A 64-gun Dutch warship, the Overyssel, was also in Plymouth and expected to sail the next day as well. Pellow had invited her captain, William Swaffield, to dine aboard the British warship that afternoon with him and his first Lieutenant. The Dutch ship’s captain accepted and the three men had sat down together in the captain’s cabin aboard Amphion before 1600hrs to dine together.

Suddenly and without prior warning, Pellow and his guests were hurled out of their seats as the ship shook violently and roared with the deep, booming sound of an explosion. The three men were badly dazed and confused by the violence of the blast and as the floor beneath them began to change angle it was clear that some terrible calamity had befell the ship. Pellow and the First Lieutenant, both barely able to stand from their own injuries, made a desperate bid for survival by throwing themselves out of the galley window unsure if they were fit enough to swim or not but certain they would die if they remained. Pellow managed to clamber on to a chain from the sheer-hulk and as luck would have it a boat that had rushed to the scene spotted and then rescued the two men but their dinner guest, Captain Swaffield, failed to materialise. A Royal Marine who was guarding the door to the cabin also survived but had no recollection of events from the initial blast up to when he too was rescued by a boat in the water making his own escape a complete mystery.

The blast originated on the aft gun deck and was so powerful that it threw mangled bodies and splintered timber high in to the air and even sent four of the ship’s 32 guns over the side and on to the sheer-hulk. The majority of those who perished were killed in the initial blast which caused scenes of appalling horror aboard the warship with sailors and their family members overcrowded on her decks being cut down by flying debris. In one horrifying scene, a wife of one of the sailors had the lower half of her body blown clean off. Her upper half was found still clutching her infant that was, amazingly, still alive and rescued by one of the other survivors who managed to get them both off before the vessel went down.

Exact figures are difficult to ascertain given the fact that families were allowed onboard to say goodbye to their loved ones but most sources agree that at least 300 perished in the blast including women and children. The remains of the warship sank alongside the sheer-hulk in over 60ft of water with pieces of the warship and some of her crew still washing up on the shore months later. Captain Swaffield’s body was found a whole month later sporting a massive skull fracture which was presumed to have occurred during his escape attempt.

Lacking the modern forensic technology of today, the precise cause of the blast will never truly be known. However, an investigation in to the ship’s company following the blast revealed that at least one gunner was known to be pilfering supplies of gunpowder for sale on shore. When questioned about the sailor, one survivor remembered seeing him drunk shortly before the blast occurred leading many to believe that he had gone down to the gunpowder stores possibly to steal more of the powder to sell or trade for liquor. Either through smoking or dropping a lamp in his drunken state, he detonated the gunpowder.

The horrific scene of the mother and child was later remembered in a poem by English poet Felicia Hemans;

Till then we had not wept—
But well our gushing hearts might say,
That there a Mother slept!
For her pale arms a babe had prest
With such a wreathing grasp,
The fire had pass’d o’er that fond breast,
Yet not undone the clasp.
Deep in her bosom lay his head,
With half-shut violet eye—
He had known little of her dread,
Nought of her agony.
Oh! human love, whose yearning heart,
Through all things vainly true,
So stamps upon thy mortal part
Its passionate adieu:
Surely thou hast another lot,
There is some home for thee,
Where thou shalt rest, rememb’ring not
The moaning of the sea.

 

 

 

January 26th 1932

HMS M2 submarine aircraft carrier

On January 26th 1932 one of the most unique submarines in Royal Navy service, HMS M-2 left Portland for an exercise in West Bay off the Dorset coast. What made this vessel unique was that she was able to launch a single Peto light observation aircraft. At 1011hrs the submarine signalled that she was beginning her dive. Just over an hour later a passing merchant ship observed a submarine diving stern first but the crew, unfamiliar with how submarines worked, failed to realize just what they were seeing – the sinking of HMS M-2.

For more on the history of this unique vessel and Britain’s efforts to develop a submersible aircraft carrier CLICK HERE

Britain’s Forgotten Tank War

Mark V tank

Saturday February 8th 1919

For a force so buried in traditions of uniformity the men assembled on the parade ground at Erin, France seemed somewhat out of character for the British Army. Certainly their uniforms were well presented, their boots cleaned and their caps on straight but where they differed to most British units was the fact that their epaulettes all represented different tank battalions as if this formation was made up of spares. The three officers and twenty-six NCOs were anything but spares however. They were in fact volunteers who were about to embark on an expedition to the other side of the world to take part in the colossal Russian Civil War and who were now parading for the first time with the men that would go with them.

To modern eyes it’s difficult to fathom why after four years of brutal bloodshed on the western front of World War One these men found themselves volunteering to go to war again. For some it was a sense of adventure. Others were politically motivated by the fear of bolshevism. A small few, the ones who had seen the most action, decided that fighting an enemy was easier than adapting back to a peacetime existence.

Over the next week this new unit in the British Army worked on their Mark V and Whippet tanks to get them ready to be shipped back to Britain where they would be loaded on to a ship to take them to Russia. There were just six of each and their crews had to make sure that four months of peace hadn’t dulled their skills. On the 12th of February the tanks were loaded on to a train bound for Calais where on the 14th the tanks and their crews left France. Back in Britain there was little time to relax or spend time with loved ones as the orders came instructing them to sail for Russia within a week. The ship that was to carry them was the SS St Michael and she sailed from the Royal Albert Docks on Saturday 2nd March 1919 on a course to the Russian port of Novorossysk via the Mediterranean.

It was a rather arduous 20 day journey and when the Russian harbour city was in sight it must have been a welcome relief for the tank crews. Their first sight of the harbour produced a very favourable impression with glistening sunshine juxtaposed against white capped mountains in the distance although attempts by the British to adequately pronounce its name resulted in them calling it “Nova Rossick!” The beautiful scene before them hid the horror of the Russian Civil War that was taking place ahead of them. It has long been said that Russia (meaning the Soviet Union as a whole) has long been a nation of sorrow with histories of brutal winters, unfair aristocratic practices and even cannibalism rife in the countryside.

Admiral Kolchak - Leader of the "White" Russians

Admiral Kolchak – Leader of the “White” Russians

The Russian Civil War effectively began with the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, took power. Believing in the communist works of Karl Marx they attacked every facet of the old Tsarist ways. This in turn divided the country in to fundamentally different factions; the Bolshevik “Red” Russians and the anti-Bolshevik “White” Russians under the leadership of Russian Admiral Alexander Kolchak. Britain, among other countries such as France and the United States, committed volunteer troops and even warships to fight alongside the “White” Russians in an effort to curb the spread of communism which was feared by many in the west. In fact the Irish uprising of 1916 was viewed by some as the first steps towards a communist Ireland and that a revolution in mainland Britain was next. The biggest problem the “White” Russians faced however was the lack of a unifying ideology. Whereas the “Red” Russians were united in the idea of an equal, socialist future the “White” Russians were composed of pro-Tsarist elements mixed with those wanting a democratic and capitalist based future. There were even moderate socialist elements within their ranks who believed that socialism was the way forward but not to the extremities that the Bolsheviks were taking it. The only thing that did unite them was a loathing for the Bolsheviks. This was the war the British volunteers found themselves in.

Upon arriving in Novorossysk the tanks and their crews were greeted by their “White” Russian allies who looked very much worse for wear with their dirty uniforms. Communication was always a frustrating affair but nevertheless both sides persevered and the unloading of the tanks and equipment began. The task took seven days to complete thanks to there being only one crane sufficient for the task of unloading the heavy Mark V tanks. After a few days the Russians put together a ramp for the smaller Whippets which greatly speeded things up. Any hope of the whole affair being kept quiet was completely destroyed by the rather talkative “White” Russians and huge crowds appeared at the docks in an almost chaotic scene to watch the amazing new war machines being unloaded. Many of the Cossack soldiers even rushed to kiss the vehicles believing they would be their saviour.

These first tanks formed what was now called the South Russian Tank Detachment and they were followed by more vehicles arriving in the following weeks. The unit was under the command of Major E.M. Bruce and at its peak strength the South Russian Tank Detachment had 57 Mark Vs and 17 Whippets and these were based at Ekaterindor where the British began training the “White” Russians to operate them. The British had decided against committing their own forces in to the battle for fear of being dragged in to yet another great war. However the Russians proved very poor at learning how to operate the new weapons and soon British crews found themselves having to commit to battle. When they did the tank proved what a decisive weapon it could be. The Russian Civil War was fought using very old fashioned techniques that pre-dated World War One. Large numbers of cavalry on horseback armed with bolt-action rifles (and even swords!) were seen as the primary means of attack. It was in June 1919 that the British took their tanks to fight the “Red” Russians. “White” Russian operations had been adequate but not spectacular but now it was the expert’s turn.

White Russian forces with a Mark V tank

White Russian forces with a Mark V tank

Mid-June 1919. “White” Russian forces launched an assault on the strategic city of Tsarytsin located on the banks of the river Volga. After two major offensives by the “White” Russians the city remained in Bolshevik hands and so it was decided to commit tanks to the fight. Three Mark Vs and three Whippets were deployed to the battlefield one of which (a Mark V) had an all-British crew under the command of one Captain Walsh. Walsh led the formation of tanks towards Bolshevik defences that comprised a row of barb wire in front of a single hastily dug defensive trench. The tanks mowed down the barb wire and then simply passed over the trench; the terrified Bolsheviks trying to retaliate but lacking anything to penetrate the tank’s armour and so were forced to flee. Using tactics perfected during the fighting on the western front less than a year earlier the tanks then turned and trundled their way along the trench destroying anything that opposed them. This in effect opened up a vast hole in Bolshevik defences for the “White” Russian cavalry to take full advantage of.

Unfortunately the supply chain was not as fast as the tanks and the six of them quickly ran out of fuel. Nevertheless the “White” Russian forces consolidated their positions protecting the tanks and their crews. It would take a full two days for enough fuel to reach them to get all the tanks going again and by this time Bruce himself had arrived to take command. Under Bruce’s command the tanks charged for the centre of Tsaritsyn and along with the “White” Russian cavalry fought a running gun battle with the Bolsheviks until the city fell and with it over 40,000 Bolshevik troops were captured. With the city in “White” Russian hands Bruce and his men returned to their training role at Ekaterindor. One of the masterminds behind the concept of armoured warfare, Sir B.H. Liddel Hart, later described the incident as ‘one of the most remarkable feats in the history of the tank corps.’

Tsaritsyn would not stay under “White” Russian control for long. Its workers had largely fallen under the Bolshevik spell and rose up against the occupational army. They were led by an influential and committed communist by the name of Josef Stalin and after eight months of bitter fighting he proclaimed the city under Bolshevik control once more. The city would later bear his name in honour of this glorious achievement – Stalingrad.

Mark V tank 2The story of Tsaritsyn summed up the whole conflict for the “White” forces and their foreign allies. It was a series of runaway victories that in the end amounted to nothing and as 1919 came to close it was clear that the Bolsheviks had stolen the initiative on all fronts. A new tank detachment, the North-Western, was formed to quickly train more Russian crews for fighting on this front and despite some impressive feats they could do little to stop the immense tide of the Bolsheviks. The British troops withdrew from the short lived North-Western Tank Detachment which then remained an all “White” Russian force until the end of the war.

Meanwhile the South Russian Tank Detachment was looking increasingly vulnerable and so London ordered that all British troops should withdraw. A small detachment, the third British tank detachment committed to the Russian Civil War, arrived in August 1919 but their primary goal was to cover the British withdrawal. Once this was complete the British handed over the last of the tanks and bid their “White” allies goodbye in October 1919.

The tanks continued to perform well against the Bolsheviks but the lack of spares and fuel meant they quickly ground to a halt. Many crews destroyed their tanks rather than let them fall in to the hands of the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless a few did survive and were among the first tanks of the post-Civil War Red Army. In one final twist to this story, in 1941 the city of Stalingrad (formerly Tsaritsyn, the city that was captured almost single-handedly by Bruce in 1919) was under siege yet again this time by German tanks. To help bolster defences the Soviets used every weapon they could get their hands on including three rather old rhomboidal shaped tanks of an earlier era – Mark Vs left over by the British.