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.

 

Interview with Air Vice-Marshal Don ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett CB CBE DSO

In the fourth of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, Air Vice-Marshal Don ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett CB CBE DSO is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, December 1980.

During the interview, Air Vice-Marshal Bennett discusses his experiences in the field of aerial navigation which eventually led to the formation of the legendary Pathfinder squadrons during WWII. Air Vice-Marshal Bennett transferred to the RAF from the Royal Australian Air Force in 1931 in order to broaden his flying experience. Although a gifted pilot in single-seat fighters, he had the ambition to fly large aircraft and subsequently transferred to Calshot to fly the Southampton, then the largest aircraft in the RAF.

During his time on the Flying Boats, he developed a passion for navigation, becoming an instructor before leaving the RAF to join Imperial Airways where he helped to develop many of the pioneering techniques that would later become commonplace. He re-joined the RAF in 1941, going on to command 77 Squadron, 10 Squadron and subsequently No. 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group. When he was promoted to Air Vice-Marshal in December 1943 he was the youngest person ever to hold the rank. He was considered by many to be ‘one of the most brilliant technical airmen of his generation: an outstanding pilot, a superb navigator who was also capable of stripping a wireless set or overhauling an engine’.

His book, The Complete Air Navigator: Covering the Syllabus for the Flight Navigator’s Licence, was considered by many to be the seminal text on the subject of aerial navigation when it was published in 1936. Viewers are asked to make allowance for the 1980s video quality as the subject matter is outstanding and adds significantly to the understanding of the history of the RAF.

Source – RAF YouTube site

Women’s Royal Air Force Recruitment Posters

When the Royal Air Force was formed on April 1st 1918 the new service inherited the female air elements of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) survived until 1920 by which time the level of disarmament meant that the trades the women undertook were now replaced by the surplus of men who had become available.

Women were called back to serve in the RAF as war loomed once again in 1939 in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The WAAF served throughout World War II and briefly beyond until 1949 when the service was renamed back to the Women’s Royal Air Force on February 1st 1949. It was the passing of the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act in 1948 that created the opportunity for a permanent peacetime role for women in the Armed Forces, in recognition of their invaluable wartime contribution. Around 80% of RAF trades in 1949 were open to members of the WRAF and this would rise over time.

On April 1st 1994, in recognition of the increasing number of roles women undertook in the RAF, the WRAF was disbanded and its members formally merged with the full-time RAF. In the 21st century, there are no boundaries on gender in the RAF with female aircrew having served in combat over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

 

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.

Group Captain Leonard Cheshire interview

In the third of the RAF Centre for Air Power Studies rarely-seen before historic ‘leadership’ themed videos, inspirational wartime leader and world-renowned humanitarian, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, Baron Cheshire VC OM DSO** DFC is interviewed by Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Tony Mason CB CBE DL at the RAF Staff College, Bracknell, February 1978. During the interview Group Captain Cheshire discusses his now legendary record of achievements throughout his service during WWII.

Group Captain Cheshire received a commission as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on November 16th 1937. Although he demonstrated considerable prowess in training as a single seat pilot, by a vagary of the system he was destined to be posted to Bomber Command. During the War his command appointments included 76 Squadron, 617 Squadron, and RAF Marston Moor and he was, at one time, the youngest group captain in the RAF. By July 1944 he had completed a total of 102 missions, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation simply states: ‘Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader’.

After the war, Cheshire founded the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability and devoted the remainder of his life to pursuing humanitarian ideals. His obituary in the Independent (1992) declares that ‘LEONARD CHESHIRE was one of the most remarkable men of his generation, perhaps the most remarkable’.

November 2nd 1951 – Ist Infantry Division flown in to Egypt

Up to 6,000 British troops from the 1st Infantry Division were flown in to the Suez Canal Zone of Egypt as Egyptian resentment to the British presence in the area continued to grow. Royal Air Force Handley-Page Hastings and Vickers Valetta aircraft brought in most of the 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards from Tripoli in Libya as part of an effort to try to quell anti-British disturbances in the region although this would ultimately have the opposite effect.

In October 1951, the Egyptian government had dissolved the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, the terms of which granted Britain a lease on the Suez base for an additional 20 years. However Britain refused to withdraw her garrison from Suez citing that the original agreement still stood. Local Egyptians began to refuse to cooperate with British forces and there were numerous strikes amongst Egyptian workers servicing British assets along the canal.

In the first week of November additional men and equipment would arrive from the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards and 1st Battalion, The Cameron Highlanders. Three weeks later, Britain was forced to move out thousands of its citizens trapped in their homes by sporadic gun battles between British soldiers and Egyptian security forces however British forces remained.

On January 25th 1952, British forces attempted to disarm Egyptian police officers at the barracks in Ismailia following repeated clashes. The police refused and in the gun battle that followed, 41 Egyptians were killed. This sparked anti-Western riots in Cairo which saw the deaths of several foreigners, including 11 British citizens, in retaliation. This proved to be a catalyst for the removal of the Egyptian monarchy which opened the door for a military coup by the Egyptian nationalist ‘Free Officers Movement’ on July 23rd 1952. Among its ranks was future Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.