NEWS: New generators and radars for Royal Navy warships

Type 45

Type 45 (commons.wikimedia)

The Royal Navy’s fleet of Type 45s will need to go in to refit to address an ongoing problem with the vessel’s ability to generate power when at combat stations according to the BBC. The demands of using it’s full range of systems such as in a combat scenario have proven too much for the electrical generators and current proposals involve upgrading the six ships’ diesel generators to “add greater resilience to the power and the propulsion system”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told the BBC:

The Type 45 destroyers are hugely capable ships and have consistently made a difference to our safety and security, including HMS Defender’s support to US carrier operations against Daesh in the Gulf. In our defence review last year we committed to improving the Type 45’s power and propulsion system through a series of machinery upgrades during planned maintenance, which will ensure increased availability and resilience over the life of the ships.

HMS St Albans

Type 23 HMS St Albans (royalnavy.mod.uk)

In other news, Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems UK have won a £63m contract to supply the Royal Navy with up to 60 new navigation radars. The contract is part of the Royal Navy’s Navigation Radar Program which looks set to improve the fleet’s navigation systems. Among the ships planned to receive the new solid-state SharpEye radar sets are the fleet of Type 23 frigates as well as the Hunt- and Sandown-class Mine Counter Measure Vessels (MCMVs). The sets will also be fitted to Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, fast patrol boats and some submarines.

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Dreadnoughts

HMS Dreadnought

HMS Dreadnought – so influential it coined a new warship classification

HMS Lord Nelson with 12 inch main guns and 9.2 inch secondary armament.

HMS Lord Nelson with 12 inch main guns and 9.2 inch secondary armament.

The dawn of the 20th century was a messy period of transition for the world’s great navies and the Royal Navy was no exception. Amazingly, modern steam powered warships were still operating alongside warships equipped with a mixture of both steam and sail while the type and number of guns used were a varied mix of large and small. The early 1900s saw the navies of Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia and the USA embark on a re-equipment program to bring their whole fleets up to date and during this period armament in battleships became ever more powerful. Secondary (or intermediate) armament in particular became increasingly heavy with many ships adopting a main armament of 12inch guns and a secondary armament of 9-10inch.

Without a doubt the most influential naval battle before World War One was the Battle of Tsushima between the Japanese and Russian navies in 1905. The battle was the first real test of modern battleships but with no previous experience using such new weapons and ships the battle was largely fought with Nelsonian tactics. The battle was an overwhelming success for the Japanese navy and it established them as the dominant force in the Far East along with Britain’s colonial fleets but it also provided some valuable lessons to assimilate.

One of the biggest lessons from the battle was that the concept of having warships with a powerful secondary armament created fire-control problems. With no systems such as radar warships targeted one another by taking an estimate of the enemy ships position and firing. The splash would be plotted and then adjustments would be made accordingly. What was found at Tsushima was that with two different sized splashes from the different sized weapons the observers often became confused as to which gun produced which splash. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that other ships were firing at the same time and producing their own splashes. Another problem was that the heavier main armament outranged the secondary armament and when firing during the initial encounter at the most extreme ranges they couldn’t put enough firepower on the enemy to destroy them until the secondary armament came in to range.

Admiral FisherIf there was one person who took note of these lessons it was Britain’s Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher. Fisher was one of the most domineering leaders in the Royal Navy’s history and certainly one of the most influential. He pushed forward new ideas with an almost urgent zeal and impressed his views on both the design of new ships and the way they were operated. The lessons of Tsushima were obvious to many even before the battle including Fisher who had informally sketched designs for an all-big gun warship which he named HMS Untakeable. Fisher realized that having all big guns as opposed to a primary and secondary armament had numerous advantages not just with regards of targeting. It would ease the strain on the logistics chain to support the vessel which would only have to produce one type of shell. It would also mean that the all-big bun ship could put superior firepower on to an approaching enemy who could not respond in kind until he got closer to fire his secondary armament. Now that the flaws were proven and Fisher was now First Sea Lord he wanted to address them in a new class of ship that would be the epitome of modern naval design. After several months personally chairing a committee for developing the next battleship class for the Royal Navy the keel of the new ship was laid on October 2nd 1905. Its all-big gun armament comprising of ten 12inch guns was kept a secret however and it was believed by many that the new ship was a development of the previous King Edward VII-class.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world the victors of Tsushima, the Japanese navy, were applying the same lesson to one of their own ships. The Satsuma was to have been equipped with twelve 12inch main guns and work actually began ahead of the British ship with the keel being laid in May 1905. A number of problems with the size, complexity and cost of the gun and placing them on the hull that they were building led the Japanese to drop the idea and in the end eight of the guns were replaced by smaller 10inch weapons resulting in yet another ship with mixed armament. Had the ship been completed with its intended armament however then it is quite possible that the new warship classification could have been the Satsumas instead of the Dreadnoughts.

Had it been completed first the new warships could have been known as Satsumas not Dreadnoughts

Had it been completed first the new warships could have been known as Satsumas not Dreadnoughts

Around the world again the United States Navy actually put forward plans for an all-big gun ship before Fisher and his Dreadnought in the South Carolina-class. This powerful design was equipped with eight 12in guns, two less than Dreadnought but the South Carolina-class was arguably the better fighting ship because of the way the weapons were laid out. Dreadnought’s design had six of her guns in wing turrets which meant they could only fire on targets on that side of the ship. This seriously degraded Dreadnought’s ability to bring its full potential firepower to bear on to a target. The South Carolina’s however had their turrets mounted on the centreline allowing them to fire on either beam meaning more firepower could be brought to bear on a target. This arrangement was eventually copied by all other Dreadnoughts. The South Carolina-class lost the accolade of being the first all-big gun ships due to the time it took to build them which meant Dreadnought came first. Also, while their guns were better arranged than Dreadnought the rest of the design was inferior to the British ship using old fashioned triple expansion engines as opposed to Dreadnought’s turbines which gave it much greater speed.

In February 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched and immediately rendered every other capital ship in the world obsolete. She was so instrumental in changing the nature of battleship design and technology that in the ultimate accolade the new type of ship became known as the Dreadnoughts. For the ships that came before it with their mixed calibres they found themselves with the less than flattering designation of pre-Dreadnoughts. While no specific criteria was laid down for what constituted a member of the Dreadnought community three factors had to be present in the design.

  • Weapons; main armament had to comprise all-big guns. This meant no mixing of size or indeed calibre (length) of the weapon. This latter requirement has proven the source of much debate amongst naval historians over whether the Japanese Settsu-class, the immediate follow-on to the Satsuma-class and considered by many to be Japan’s first Dreadnought, is a “true” Dreadnought. While she had an armament of twelve 12inch guns they were of two different calibres (8×45 and 4×50) meaning the guns had notably different performances. The term “all-big gun” is a little misleading as Dreadnoughts did have secondary weapons usually in the 3-6inch categories and these were intended for defence against fast attack craft such as torpedo boats.
  • Armour; it would make sense that if a country is going to build Dreadnoughts then it is likely to face a Dreadnought from a hostile country. Heavy armour was therefore a necessity. Despite their firepower Dreadnoughts were seldom agile and it meant that if two contemporary designs were to face one another then both would take damage during the exchange. Warships that would meet the other two criteria but trade armour for agility became known as Battlecruisers, an entirely separate naval concept.
  • Advanced fire-control; one often overlooked advance HMS Dreadnought brought to the arena was that of genuine fire-control techniques. HMS Dreadnought featured a heavy fighting top consisting of a large optical rangefinder mounted on a tripod. The rangefinder was 9ft long and provided the observer with a fairly accurate sense of direction and distance based on the size of the enemy ship as it appeared to him. This was however reliant on knowing the dimensions of the enemy ship so as to make the necessary calculations before firing but it dramatically reduced the number of wasted shells used to train on to a target and offered a much greater chance of getting that vital first hit on the enemy.

HMS Dreadnought might have given Britain the lead but it sparked a frenzied arms race that produced a number of Dreadnoughts among the world’s naval powers who felt they had to have at least one in their fleet in order to maintain prestige. This lead to a number of impressive and not so impressive ships.

  • Germany arguably built some of the finest Dreadnoughts of the era even if their first Dreadnought, the Nassau-class, was armed with 11.1inch guns as opposed to what was clearly becoming the standard 12inch weapon on others. Where German Dreadnoughts excelled was in their armour which meant that at the Battle of Jutland, the greatest clash of Dreadnoughts in World War I, German ships were often able to take severe punishment and remain afloat.
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire only ever built one class of Dreadnought, the Teghetoff-class. These were smaller than most other Dreadnoughts of the era but packed a similar punch with twelve 12inch guns in a rather neat configuration that made good use of space. Much like the Austro-Hungarian Navy at large the ships had a rather unspectacular wartime career.
  • Spain has the unfortunate title of building the smallest and slowest Dreadnoughts in the Espana-class. They were also quite under-armed mounting only eight 12inch guns. The three ships were repeatedly damaged in accidents and in combat during the Spanish Civil War leaving their memory somewhat blighted.
  • Equally depressing is the story of the once powerful Imperial Russian Navy and their only Dreadnoughts of the Gangut and Marut-class comprising four vessels in total. The Imperial Russian Navy never seemed to recover from its loss at Tsushima its Dreadnought program reflected this. These four Dreadnoughts were seriously outnumbered by Germany and her allies and played only a limited role in World War I before falling in to Bolshevik hands after the revolution and they were seldom used again.
  • One of the most controversial Dreadnoughts leading up to the First World War was Brazil’s two British-built Minas Gerais-class vessels. Argentina, Brazil and Chile have a long history of naval competition and this has lead to them being referred to as the “ABC” powers in naval circles. The Minas Gerais was the first Dreadnought ordered by a South American country sparking an immediate arms race but also upon its completion it was by far and away the most powerful battleship in the world with twelve 12inch guns and very thick armour plating.

Leading up to and during the war Dreadnoughts became more powerful and better designed. The term “Dreadnought” was largely killed off however after war by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 which imposed limits on warships. To be labelled a Dreadnought was to imply an extremely powerful ship which was actually what the signatories of the treaty were trying to avoid. Also, the older generation of pre-Dreadnoughts were now being scrapped and so there was no need to distinguish the two types anymore which meant that the blanket term of “Battleship” returned. Nevertheless the ships that followed were true Dreadnoughts in concept and culminated in some of the most awe-inspiring Battleships/Dreadnoughts ever such as the American Iowa-class.

Bombardment of Alexandria 1882

Bombardment_of_Alexandria

Up until the Second World War, Egypt had been one of the most important North African posts within the British Empire. It had gained a new importance with the opening of the French-financed Suez Canal on the 17th September 1869 which took off over 4,000 miles of the journey to India and Britain’s Far East possessions. Britain was initially against the opening of the canal for fear it may be used by France to challenge her regional superiority however it was a British warship, HMS Newport, that was the first ship through the canal.

Britain too had strong interests in Egypt and financed many projects that returned a profit for the treasury including the construction of an extensive railway system. At this time Egypt was under the leadership of the Khedives from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. Seeing profit in working with the European powers the family cooperated with the British and French by authorizing such large scale projects such as the Suez Canal and the rail network as well as providing large numbers of slaves to work on them.

Tewfik Pasha

Tewfik Pasha & Ahmed ‘Urabi

In 1879 the throne passed to Tewfik Pasha and he continued the policy of cooperation but a growing nationalist movement was under way in his country that resented the influence the foreigners were having on Egypt. Leader of this movement was Ahmed ‘Urabi (sometimes known as Ahmad Arabi or Arabi Pasha), an officer in the Egyptian Army who led a mutiny against Tewfik’s rule. Tewfik tried to counter this uprising for fear of looking weak in front of his naturally nervous foreign supporters but the sides in Egypt were rather equally divided. Tewfik therefore agreed to reform his cabinet with a number of ‘Urabi’s supporters holding positions. This did little to curb ‘Urabi’s nationalist movement however and by 1882 he was the de facto head of the Egyptian government.

In June 1882 Urabi’s displeasure at foreign nationals took fruition as he organized a force to march on the port city of Alexandria where a large number of British and French were living. By this time Britain had purchased the Khedive’s share in the Suez Canal and was an equal partner to France in its operation. In what was labelled as anti-Christian rioting by the British press the nationalist supporters forced out British, French and any other non-Egyptian or non-Muslim from the city. Knowing the European powers were responding by sending warships to Alexandria, ‘Urabi then began fortifying the city in preparation for what seemed to be an inevitable confrontation.

The warships sent to Alexandria were of an Anglo-French force and their standing orders were to protect British and French citizens; orders which were open to interpretation with regards to execution. Leading the British fleet was Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Seymour aboard his flagship, HMS Invincible, who had held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet since 1880. He had therefore kept abreast of events in Egypt and upon learning of the increasing fortifications at Alexandria believed that they would be used to fire on their warships the moment they entered harbour. He therefore issued an ultimatum on the 10th July 1882 to ‘Urabi’s forces demanding they withdraw from the fortifications or they would be bombarded.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible – Admiral Seymour’s Flagship

It was at this point that the united front Britain and France were portraying collapsed. Political unrest in France meant that the French Navy was hoping to avoid a fight in case it had to be recalled home and were furious that Seymour had taken it upon himself to issue the ultimatum. They informed him that if the British fully intended to commit to a bombardment that the French fleet would have no part in it and would retreat to Port Said until the exchange stopped. This left Seymour and his force of 16 warships to carry out the bombardment alone. When ‘Urabi learned of this he felt his position had been reinforced believing that either the British were bluffing or that his own forces could repel the ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Either way the ultimatum passed and the nationalist forces remained in place. An incensed Seymour, whose honour was now at stake and was still acting under orders that allowed him to do what he felt was necessary, signalled from Invincible for the bombardment to commence at 0700 on July 11th 1882.

From an historical point of view Seymour’s fleet was a fascinating one as it aptly displayed the changing nature of warship design and technology of the era. Gone were the magnificently crafted wooden ships-of-the-line with their immense sails and two decks of muzzle loaded cannon balls. On the surface Seymour’s ships certainly resembled those days but now they were clad in iron armour and had much improved weapons but perhaps even more significantly they were all now powered by a mix of traditional sail and the revolutionary steam power. At the time the Admiralty saw the advantages in steam such as speed and manoeuvrability but didn’t trust its reliability and disliked the limited range compared to sail. Therefore sailing rigs were retained for long distances (with the steam used when the wind was low or combat was expected) and as a back up should the steam engines fail which was surprisingly often in those early days. Some ships such as HMS Monarch also had the first large naval turrets for ocean going use. An interesting addition to the fleet although one which played little part in the bombardment was HMS Hecla, a high speed torpedo boat!

HMS Alexandra

HMS Alexandra

Upon the passing of the deadline, Seymour ordered HMS Alexandra to commence the first attack by shelling the fort at Ras-el-tin. The Alexandra was a central battery ironclad armed with two 11-inch and ten 10-inch guns. Alexandra closed in and fired on the fort which in turn retaliated and was followed with shelling by HMS Sultan and Superb. The obvious advantage enjoyed by a warship over a fort is that it can remain mobile and therefore provide a difficult target. However during the bombardment of Ras-el-tin it was found that the gun crews had difficulty in properly aiming at the fort with shells landing short, too far or on parts of the fort already hit. Therefore by 0940hrs the order was given to bring the ships to a halt and fire a planned-out artillery barrage at the fort. While this improved accuracy it also made the warships more vulnerable and Alexandra took several hits. It would not be until the arrival of HMS Inflexible that the fort’s guns were finally suppressed. It was not the best start.

Further along the coast, HMS Invincible and HMS Temeraire began their attack on the fortifications around the Mex Citadel. Temeraire fired salvoes of 10- and 11-inch ammunition from her rifled guns with a fair degree of accuracy. Invincible supported the attack but occasionally turned guns on the troublesome Ras-el-tin fort to support Alexandra. Meanwhile a small number of the main force fired from long ranges with mixed success. Then disaster struck as Temeraire hit a previously uncharted reef grounding her but fortunately not causing any significant damage to the hull. She was nevertheless a sitting duck to the shore batteries who sensed an opportunity.

HMS Condor

HMS Condor

The grounding was witnessed by HMS Condor, commanded by Lord Charles Bereford, who ordered his ship to steam to Termeraire’s assistance. HMS Condor was categorized as a composite gun vessel which is broadly equivalent to a modern day gunboat in that her size and armament was relatively light and more suited to security missions than bombarding Egyptian forts. Her armament comprised of one 7-inch muzzle loaded gun and two 64-pdr muzzle loaded guns. She displaced just 774 tons compared to Temeraire’s 8,500 tons but nevertheless the two crews persisted and together they pulled Termeraire off the reef and continued their attack on the forts.

With the bulk of the Royal Navy force firing at long ranges to distract or suppress the guns of the main fortifications, three ships – HMS Condor, HMS Monarch and HMS Penelope – were ordered to close in on the nearby forts at Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout. Firing from a much shorter range they produced more accurate results. At this point Admiral Seymour’s flagship, HMS Invincible, had strayed into range of the guns at Fort Marabout and sensing an opportunity the Egyptian gunners fired relentlessly at the large British battleship. HMS Condor decided to go to her flagship’s aid and steamed inland to offer an easier target while at the same time firing accurate shells at each of the fort’s gun emplacements. Having saved a second ship and successfully suppressing the gun emplacements at Fort Marabout, Seymour signalled from Invincible “Well done Condor.”

Bombardment of AlexandriaIt was now early afternoon and both sides were trying to take stock of the situation. The forts at Ras-el-tin, the Mex Citadel, Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout had all taken a heavy pounding and were either destroyed or their occupiers had retreated. At 1330hrs HMS Superb was shelling a fifth fort, Fort Adda, when a direct hit on stacked ammunition caused an immense explosion that put the entire fort out of action. In the chaos of the fighting the Egyptians had observed several British ships such as the Alexandra receive hits and somehow came to the conclusion that three British warships had been sunk. While the Royal Navy had taken hits from defensive batteries the entire force was still operational.

The British did have a problem however; they had expended a large quantity of their ammunition. Having suppressed the main fortifications he had intended to, Seymour elected to pull his ships back to the open sea and assess the overall condition of his fleet. Despite some casualties the fleet had come out of the action relatively intact. With the fires from the damaged or destroyed forts still burning Seymour decided to wait until the next day to launch a reconnaissance operation to asses the results of the bombardment.

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire was chosen to lead the reconnaissance mission and in the early hours of the morning of the 12th July 1882 the ship returned to the waters off Alexandria. Her lookouts observed that some of the defences were being rebuilt by ‘Uradi’s men and upon reporting this back to Seymour he ordered that Tameraire and Inflexible should return and bombard them again. At 1030hrs the two ships fired on the rebuilt defences. ‘Urabi’s men were not as determined to resist for a second day and within twenty minutes flags of truce appeared on the shore and the bombardment stopped.

An Egyptian boat carrying representatives of ‘Urabi’s government sailed out to the British fleet to begin negotiations. These negotiations failed miserably as neither side were willing to submit. Therefore in late afternoon the bombardment resumed however the spirited defence the British had encountered the day before had gone and many of the forts, against ‘Urabi’s wishes, flew the white flag and were therefore not attacked. As late afternoon gave way to night large numbers of ‘Urabi’s men abandoned their posts believing a British invasion was imminent. With no law in place in Alexandria they went on an orgy of looting and arson.

Seymour had a contingent of Royal Marines at his command but refused to land them until the situation on shore had been established. It would not be until two days later, the 14th July 1882, that he finally took his ships inland and landed his troops. Instead of fighting ‘Urabi’s men the Royal Marines found themselves fighting off bands of looters. Nevertheless Seymour had achieved his goal of securing Alexandria.

There was much criticism of Seymour’s actions after the event. Some were furious that he took it upon himself to effectively make up Britain’s foreign policy, that of armed intervention, regarding Egypt on his own. Some also accused him of exaggerating the strength and threat the fortifications presented to British interests in the region. Others however have argued in his defence stating that even if he had attempted a more diplomatic approach it would only have delayed the inevitable confrontation by which time ‘Urabi’s men would have been even stronger. Either way the event cost Seymour’s force ten men dead and 27 wounded. The number of Egyptians killed in the bombardment and in the chaos of the following two days before Royal Marines restored order is thought to be much higher.

If a hero was to emerge from the whole affair then the title has to go to Lord Charles Bereford, captain of HMS Condor who rescued the grounded Temeraire and then came to the defence of the flagship Invincible. Proof that even in the Victorian era it was not always the biggest ships that had the glory. Despite resistance from the British government under William Gladstone, British troops were eventually landed in Egypt and ‘Urabi’s revolt was crushed once and for all. Tewfik Pasha was restored as head of the Egyptian government and Egypt became a British protectorate. Among the officers of the Army embarked upon this mission was a brash young Lieutenant named Winston Spencer Churchill.

The Cressey Catastrophe

HMS Cressey

HMS Cressey

For over two thousand years the British Isles had been subject to invasion be it from legions of Roman soldiers, Nordic Vikings or the Spanish Armada. It was therefore embedded on the British psyche that a strong navy was essential for the island nation to survive. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the Royal Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets Britain was the dominant naval power in the world and for the first time in its history the island nation was safe. The situation remained largely unchanged for over a hundred years and so entire generations grew up believing that thanks to the Royal Navy Britain was impervious to invasion even as the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, began building his own fleet to challenge it.

Cressey-class HMS Aboukir

Cressey-class HMS Aboukir

Among the home fleet were a force of cruisers known as the Cressey-class. Built between 1899 and 1901 the Cressey-class cruisers displaced 12,000 tons and were well armoured for their day with some sections having as much as 152mm of steel protecting it. They were powered by two 4-cylinder triple expansion steam engines driving two shafts that propelled them to a speed of 21 knots. Main armament was two 9.2inch Mark X which could fire a 380lb shell out to a range of 29,000 yards and these were backed up by 12 6-inch and 12 12-pounder guns. Each Cressey-class ship had a crew complement of up to 760.

Such was the rapid pace of the arms race between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War that these ships were soon declared obsolete in the face of new equivalent German cruisers and so became part of the Royal Navy Reserve going to sea occasionally for training purposes. The outbreak of war saw the activation of the Royal Navy Reserve and the Cresseys formed the 7th Cruiser Squadron assigned to patrol the North Sea entrance to the English Channel. The inexperience of the reservist crews and the fact the Cresseys were slower than their German counterparts sparked widescale criticism of their use in this way from analysts and the more realistic members of the Admiralty. However the Royal Navy at large was gearing up for its Second Battle of Trafalgar in which the premier ships of both sides would meet in honourable combat for control of the sea. The Cresseys therefore had to perform the more mundane patrol taskings and there were those who believed that when the Germans learned of these ships it would actually encourage an attack. The 7th Cruiser Squadron therefore earned the unflattering nickname of the Live Bait Squadron.

HMS Euryalus

HMS Euryalus – Rear Admiral Christian’s flagship

In mid-September 1914 four of the Cresseys (Aboukir, Cressey, Euryalis and Hogue) and a variety of supporting ships were at sea under the command of Rear-Admiral Arthur Christian aboard Euryalus. Severe weather was hampering their progress and while this was of little concern to ships the size of the Cresseys it was more worrying for the relatively tiny destroyers. On the 17th September Christian decided that the weather was too bad for them to remain at sea and ordered them to return to port leaving the four Cresseys to continue the patrol. The weather remained poor and the ships had to work hard to keep at sea. Then on the 20th September Christian was given some unfortunate news from his flagship’s engineering crews. HMS Euryalus had expended a considerable amount of its fuel and needed to return to port soon. Frustrated by this development he considered transferring his flag to one of the other cruisers however the weather was proving so fierce that it was almost impossible to launch a sea boat and therefore he signalled to Captain J. Drummond aboard HMS Aboukir that he was to assume command of the squadron while Euryalus returned to port. The three remaining Cresseys continued their war patrol alone.

On the morning of September 22nd 1914 the weather began to settle and after days of rolling and pitching the three crews looked forward to a welcome respite as they patrolled an area known as the Broad Fourteens located around 18 miles from the Dutch coast (then a neutral country in the fighting). Unknown to them however another crew nearby were pleased to have a rest from the storm – the crew of German submarine U-9 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. U-9 had attempted an attack on British transports a few days earlier but the storm had forced Weddigen to call off the operation and now he and his men were returning to their home port.

U-9

U-9

At 06:00 U-9 had surfaced to replenish its batteries when lookouts spotted the shape of the three Cresseys in the distance travelling at a rather conservative 10 knots. Sensing an opportunity, Weddigen ordered U-9 to submerge and he plotted an attack. At 06:20 he fired a single torpedo at the lead cruiser, Aboukir, striking the British ship on the starboard side. The resulting explosion tore a hole big enough to flood the engine room and Aboukir ground to a shuddering halt before beginning to list to starboard. Drummond was overwhelmed. He had no idea what had caused the explosion and suspected they had blundered in to a minefield. Despite counter flooding the ship continued to list and it became obvious that the Aboukir was lost. Hogue and Cressey were therefore signalled to assist in recovering the Aboukir’s crew.

Weddigen couldn’t believe his luck!

HMS Hogue

HMS Hogue

After his initial attack Weddigen had surfaced once more and observed the two other ships going to the aid of their comrade. After 25 minutes he saw Aboukir finally slip below the surface taking 527 men with her and both Hogue and Cressey were launching boats to rescue the men in the water. Weddigen decided to take full advantage of the situation and fired a pair of torpedoes at the nearest ship, Hogue. The firing of the torpedoes raised the forward hull of the submarine out of the water and lookouts aboard Hogue spotted her. The British, finally realising they were under submarine attack, began firing on the submarine but it was too late and at 07:05 the torpedoes struck Hogue. The damage inflicted was even greater than that upon Aboukir and just 10 minutes later she sank beneath the surface.

Horrified at what was happening, HMS Cressey went after U-9 looking for revenge firing a salvo of gunfire in the submarine’s direction. Going to full power Cressey then attempted to ram U-9 but failed. Weddigen responded by firing his two aft torpedoes at the ship one of which missed but the other struck the British vessel although the damage was not fatal. Seeing this Weddigen turned U-9 around and he fired his last two bow torpedoes at the cruiser. The torpedoes impacted on the Cressey’s starboard side. Heavy flooding caused the ship to turn turtle and she remained upside down for nearly an hour before slipping beneath the waves thus closing this tragic chapter of the Royal Navy’s history. In all 1459 men were killed while 837 were rescued by British and Dutch ships.

Back home, the British press were furious. Having saturated the British public with the belief that the Royal Navy was invincible the loss of the three cruisers in such spectacular fashion shook the population to its core and there were calls for someone to answer for the tragedy.

There were several factors that attributed to loss.

  1. A large portion of the blame was attributed to Rear Admiral Christian in that he had not made clear to Drummond when he handed over command of the squadron just how much much authority he had. On the morning of the attack the weather had calmed but Drummond did not know if he had authority to order the destroyers to sea and provide a defensive screen for the cruisers against submarines.
  2. The British completely failed to recognise the threat posed by the German U-boats. The first few months of the war had been disastrous for Germany’s submarine force and this lead many in the Royal Navy to believe that they were a null threat. A damning fact emerged after the incident that the three cruisers were sailing in a straight line at the time of the initial attack on Aboukir despite standing orders that all large warships must patrol in a zig-zag pattern to make them more difficult targets for torpedo attack.
  3. Inexperience of the three reserve crews played a significant part in the incident primarily over what happened immediately after the first torpedo struck Aboukir. It was not until U-9 was sighted that anyone aboard the three ships considered the possibility of a submarine attack. Therefore no measures were taken that could have saved Hogue and Cressey.
SM_U9_Postcard

Propaganda postcard of the incident with Weddigen’s portrait in top left corner

Weddigen and his crew returned to Germany as heroes; the entire crew were awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal for the action. The British propaganda machine made much of the fact that Hogue and Cressey were attacked rescuing survivors from Aboukir but in the eyes of his people he remained a hero until two years later while in command of another U-boat, U-29, he was killed when his vessel was rammed by the legendary British battleship HMS Dreadnought.

While the whole incident was a tragedy for the Royal Navy it did demonstrate the awesome power of the submarine and this changed the face of naval warfare forever.

Torpedo Boat Destroyers – The First Destroyers

HMS DaringIn the 21st century the term “destroyer” in naval circles covers a wide array of warships of various capabilities and sizes. However when the term was coined in the last decade of the 19th century the vessel had a very specific type of role.

For centuries, during the age of sail, the European Imperial powers built bigger and grander warships to overwhelm enemy vessels and project their power abroad. Then in the second half of the 19th century technology began to change the face of naval warfare beyond recognition thanks to steam power, electricity and larger guns mounted in turrets. Even with these new technologies the Imperilaist powers continued their mad pursuit of bigger and better but another weapon threatened to throw everything off balance – the self propelled torpedo.

The torpedo was invented in Britain in 1866 by Robert Whitehead. The term had previously been used to describe a type of anti-ship mine which is why the American David G. Farragut is remembered for saying “Damn the torpedoes” during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the American Civil War; he was referring to an enemy minefield. It would actually be the Austrian government who would commission Whitehead to design and develop the weapon with the Royal Navy only becoming interested in 1870. The torpedo was a small weapon with big potential in that it was a self-propelled warhead that when it exploded against the hull of a ship could tear a massive hole in it especially in the early days when warships weren’t armoured against such weapons. Another effect it had was that when the warhead detonated it created a vacuum in the sea that was quickly filled with sea water that would slam against the weakened hull thus increasing its effectiveness beyond its own warhead.

whitehead torpedo

The world’s navies took a long time to appreciate the torpedo as a credible weapon; it was an extremely troublesome and imprecise weapon in those early days but perhaps most importantly to Victorian minds the torpedo launchers didn’t look as impressive as big guns. Nevertheless some naval strategists rallied around the new weapon and proposed that its effectiveness would be best used by a fleet of small warships operating close to the coast to protect against raiding and bombardment from naval vessels. Thus the torpedo boat was born and while the Royal Navy were initially hesitant over the use of such vessels, British shipyards produced some of the best for sale to other countries most notably in South America. The Royal Navy did commission its own torpedo boats starting with HMS Lightning in 1876 but the jury was still out at that time.

All that would change in 1891 during the Chilean Civil War. A pair of torpedo boats attacked and sank the rebel ironclad frigate Blanco Encalada in a daring attack. Several other large ships were sunk this way and finally the world’s navies began to appreciate the new weapon. New warships were designed to specifically counter the torpedo boats. The first were the “torpedo cruisers” which were effectively light cruisers with smaller calibre weapons that were more effective in destroying the small torpedo boats. These vessels were largely a failure however because they were too slow to be able to intercept the torpedo boats and lacked the range to properly support the fleet. Therefore a new warship type was proposed that was smaller yet again but fast and potently armed. These were the torpedo boat destroyers.

HMS Havoc - one of the first batch of 6 Royal Navy destroyers

HMS Havoc – one of the first batch of 6 Royal Navy destroyers

In 1892 the Royal Navy ordered its first torpedo boat destroyers and these would be powered by water tube boilers that would allow them to achieve the speed and range necessary to effectively counter the torpedo boats. The first torpedo boat destroyer, and indeed the first destroyer, for the Royal Navy was HMS Daring commissioned in 1895. Displacing just 290 tons she was armed with a 12-pounder main gun and three 6-pounder secondary guns plus three torpedo tubes. The class was a great success and more types followed.

The torpedo boat destroyer was required to provide a defensive screen against torpedo boats for the main fleet. If a torpedo boat attacked then it would use its lighter weapons which were quicker to reload than the main fleet’s guns to destroy them. Should a big ship attack the fleet then the torpedo boat destroyer could assist by attacking with its own torpedoes although this would have to be done as part of a coordinated effort with the big gun ships as the torpedoes still had a short range requiring the torpedo boat destroyer to get in close before firing.

As the 19th century passed in to the 20th century the torpedo boat destroyers began to take on other roles such as reconnaissance, minelaying, escort, fisheries protection and training duties. They were also among the first vessels to be used to hunt an even newer invention – the submarine. This meant that the term “torpedo boat destroyer” was no longer valid and it was therefore shortened simply to “destroyer”.

Battlecruisers

HMS Hood

HMS Hood – arguably the most famous Battlecruiser

The term “Battlecruiser” was a classification of warship that emerged in the early 1900s. At the time the Battleship was the epitome of sea power and in the build up to World War One a rapid arms race saw the building of bigger and better battleships culminating in the all-big gun Dreadnoughts. Battleships were the spiritual successors of the old Ship-of-the-line and had heavy firepower and armour but this resulted in a significantly reduced top speed compared to other types of warships such as Cruisers.

Admiral FisherIn 1905, Baron John Fisher of the Royal Navy was appointed Admiral of the Fleet and immediately set about implementing his own ideas of how warships should not only be used but built. He proposed building a warship that would have the equivalent firepower of a Battleship but have the speed and agility of a Cruiser. In the 1900s this could only realistically be achieved by sacrificing armour in order to reduce the ship’s weight. Fisher argued that the resulting warship would be able to outgun any Cruiser that could catch it and outrun any Battleship that could challenge it. Effectively the new type would have the best of both types and so the term “Battle(ship)cruiser” was coined. The Battlecruiser would therefore operate in small squadrons or flotillas independent of the main fleet and its slower Battleships and wage war against patrol vessels, destroyers, cruisers and merchant ships.

Fisher’s vision was realized in the Invincible-class launched in 1908 and considered by many to be the first Battlecruiser. In reality it was the first purpose built Battlecruiser as there had been several ships built previously that would later fall in to the category of Battlecruiser. This included the Japanese Tsukuba-class built a year earlier and was originally categorized as a Battleship but its performance was more in line with the newer warship type.

At the time of the launch of the Invincible-class the Dreadnoughts were the undisputed kings of the seas. Fisher compared the performance of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought to his first Battlecruiser and was pleased with the results. Both vessels were armed with 12inch guns, eight in Invincible and ten in Dreadnought, but Invincible was faster by around 5 knots. This gave the ship the ability to sail away from any unfavourable action with the more powerful warship. In a one-on-one engagement it seemed Fisher had been proven right and he therefore instigated a building program of several new classes of Battlecruiser. Germany and France had seen the advantage of this type of vessel too and began building their own Battlecruisers. The Battlecruiser was here to stay it seemed.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible – the first purpose built Battlecruiser

As the Battlecruiser became a regular sight in the ranks of the Royal Navy an unexpected problem was creeping in totally unnoticed. The new Battlecruisers looked every bit as powerful as their Battleship counterparts but with an ability to steam faster they developed an aura of prestige. This resulted in overconfidence in their effectiveness and the almost total ignorance of their lack of armour. Some even argued that the Battlecruiser was superior to the Battleship thanks to its agility and should be used to attack the lumbering Dreadnoughts. Even Fisher who had conceived of their use fell in to this trap.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 the Battlecruiser was about to have its finest hour in the Battle of the Falkland Islands when Admiral Graf von Spee commanded a flotilla that attempted to destroy the Royal Navy supply base at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. His flotilla consisted of two armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and three auxiliaries. The British Battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible dashed south with a few support ships and battled von Spee’s force on the 8th December 1914. The result was an overwhelming success for the Battlecruisers that outgunned anything in the German flotilla. The Germans lost all but one of their ships, a single auxiliary survived the encounter, while the Royal Navy ships suffered only light damage.

Seydlitz Battlecruiser

Germany’s SMS Seydlitz – one of the best Battlecruisers of the war

This action was precisely what the Battlecruiser was designed for but it only furthered the myth of the Battlecruiser’s power however and by the time of the Battle of Jutland on the 31st of May 1916 Battlecruisers were being used the same as Battleships. This was true for Britain, France and Germany and it would have disastrous results as most of the major casualties at Jutland on both sides were Battlecruisers. One of the best Battlecruisers of the entire war was Germany’s SMS Seydlitz and it survived one of the heaviest bombardments of any ship that destroyed most of the machinery and superstructure. Only a truly Herculean effort by the crew saved the ship and she returned home to be repaired and then eventually scuttled after the war. While the battle was a success for the Royal Navy it had shattered the Admiralty’s belief in the Battlecruiser concept and priority now switched back to building Battleships.

The end of World War One saw the end of the term Battlecruiser, at least in new ships, with HMS Hood being the last British Battlecruiser. Vessels of a similar nature continued to be built however especially in light of the Washington Treaty of 1922 which limited warship displacement and armament. This saw the era of the pocket-Battleship which had the firepower, speed and armour (in varying degrees) of a full Battleship but were smaller than their World War One predecessors. The entire Battlecruiser concept was eventually negated by the arrival of so-called Fast Battleships that were fully fledged Battleships that were powered by new steam turbine engines that produced speeds equivalent to the Battlecruisers.

Kirov class battlecruiser

Kirov-class Battlecruiser

In a bizarre twist however the Battlecruiser was resurrected albeit in a totally new concept in 1980 with the appearance of the awe-inspiring Kirov-class in the Soviet Navy. There has been no western equivalent to this incredible surface combatant that combined the displacement of a Battlecruiser with a bewildering array of weaponry ranging from close-in gatling guns right the way up to nuclear armed surface-to-surface missiles. The Soviet and Russian navies have never really been able to adequately explain the thinking behind this incredible vessel although it was likely expected to battle its way through a carrier groups’ defences and fire its long range missile at the carriers. Arguments rage even today over just how successful this class of ship would have been had the Cold War turned hot in the 1980s. Perhaps an important lesson is to be applied from the history of the Battlecruiser in that while the Kirovs looked impressive their effectiveness in a modern (perhaps even nuclear) war might not be as hoped.

A U-Boat in the Royal Navy (Part 2)

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U570 Beached

Part 2 – Testing, Secrets & Honour

When Hitler learned the news of U-570’s capture he was understandably furious and declared that the U-Boat was now the most dangerous submarine of the war because of the secrets it could reveal. The British were eager to secure the vessel in port for fear of their war prize being lost to the weather or an enemy attack. To protect against the Germans sinking U-570 the RAF flew continuously around the U-Boat and her escort. U-570 was towed successfully to Iceland arriving at Þorlákshöfn on 29th August 1941. It was decided that the U-Boat should be beached (see above image) as it was feared that the damage sustained in the RAF’s attack would make docking dangerous. The plan was to assess and hopefully repair the damage enough to make her seaworthy and then take her back to the UK. In the meantime Jochiam-Rahmlow and his crew were interned and interrogated.

The job of making the submarine seaworthy again was given to Leiutenant Geroge Colvin, himself a submarine commander having commanded HMS Sunfish. In his report he described the conditions he encountered;

The submarine was then lying broadside on to the surf and listing heavily to starboard… The interior of the submarine was unlit and was in a chaotic state; leaks of oil and water from the broken gauge glasses of internal tanks had combined with vast quantities of provisions, flour, dried peas and beans, soft fruit, clothes, bedding, and the remains of scores of loaves of black bread to form a revolting morass that in places was knee-deep. It was subsequently discovered that in this ship the crew’s W.C. had been converted into a food locker and overturned buckets of excrement added to the general noisome conditions.

—Lieutenant GR Colvin, RN, Ex-German Submarine “U 570” – Report of Proceedings (3 October 1941)

Much to the surprise of the British engineers who went aboard the actual extent of the damage the U-Boat had sustained had been vastly overestimated. The British had assumed that since the U-Boat crew decided to surrender that the damage was quite extensive but aside from a few cracked pipes and a leak in the ballast tanks the vessel was in reasonably good shape. Colvin did make one important note in his report and that was that no damage control efforts appeared to have been undertaken. Colvin and his compatriots began to believe that the U-Boat crew had given a rather poor show of themselves; something that flew in the face of the perception of U-Boat crews being cold and calculated even under pressure. The interrogation of the crew revealed the chaotic situation the inexperienced crew found themselves in that resulted in the decision to surrender.

cb4041

It was established by interrogation of prisoners that, at the moment of the attack, confusion reigned within the U-Boat. The detonation of the depth charges, the smashing of instruments, the formation of gas, thought by the crew to be chlorine gas, and the entry of a certain amount of water apparently convinced Rahmlow that his boat was lost, for he ordered the crew to don life-jackets and mount the conning tower.

Colvin’s team successfully refloated the vessel, cleared much of the mess and restored lighting. It was then pulled off the beach and was towed along the coast to the British naval base at Hvalfjörður where she was docked to the depot ship HMS Hecla for more substantial repairs. While these repairs were underway British Intelligence agencies swooped in on their latest find, analysing everything down to individual screws in the bulkhead in search of weaknesses that could be exploited. Although not in the war yet two U.S. Navy officers arrived to take a look at it but suspected that the most important parts i.e. the coding machines had been removed already.

The two officers reported;

A large cabinet had been removed from the forward corner of the control room by admiralty personnel soon after the capture and sent to England. . . . In view of the vagueness of the information on the site as to the exact nature of this instrument it is considered important that accurate information be obtained from the Naval Attaché London.

There was some truth in this as the Admiralty did indeed remove some components of the decoding device but U-570’s contribution to cracking the fabled Enigma code was quite small as Jochiam-Rahmlow’s crew had quite effectively destroyed a great deal of it before capture.

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Repairs took almost a full month to the point where the vessel was declared seaworthy albeit without its ability to dive due to damage to a hydroplane and on the 29th September 1941 U-570 left Iceland under its own power and with a substantial escort. The Royal Navy prize-crew manning the vessel was lead by Colvin as he now had extensive experience of the workings of the vessel. It was reported that during the journey to Britain an RAF Hudson flew over the U-Boat and signalled with its lamp that the crew claimed ownership. Whether this crew had anything to do with capturing the U-Boat is unclear but it was a morale boosting gesture for both sailors and aircrew. The captured U-Boat arrived at the Vickers shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness where she was to be put in drydock for an even more detailed examination and the careful disarming and removal of her torpedoes as these too were of interest to intelligence agencies. Her arrival was a golden opportunity for the British propaganda machine eager to give the bombed-out British public news of any kind of triumph. British Pathe news filmed the arrival of the submarine on October 3rd 1941.

While the news certainly raised spirits among the British public there was a small group on British soil who were infuriated by it. Grizedale Hall in Cumbria is a large country house in the idyllic Lake District but between 1939 and 1946 it was known as the “U-Boat hotel” as it housed a large number of German U-Boat officers including the U-Boat ace Otto Kretschmer. These were committed Nazis many of whom had narrowly escaped death as their U-Boats sank beneath them.

Grizedale_Hall,_Satterthwaite,_Cumbria

It was against this backdrop that three of U-570’s officers found themselves when they reached Britain to begin their time as Prisoners of War. Interestingly, Jochiam-Rahmlow was sent to a different camp which left his second officer, Bernhard Berndt, the most senior member of the group. The reception from the other PoWs was hostile to say the least and when Berndt tried to explain what had happened the other prisoners decided to put the three of them on trial in a Court of Honour. The court, illegal under the rules of a British internment camp and therefore kept a secret from the guards, also put Jochiam-Rahmlow on trial in abstentia. Berndt tried to explain the chaos and panic experienced by the very rookie crew but the defence fell on deaf ears. He and Jochiam-Rahmlow were found guilty of cowardice but what their punishment was to be exactly is uncertain as on the night of the 18th October 1941 Berndt escaped. The more romantic claims made about the escape attempt have it that Berndt intended to return to U-570 and destroy her through sabotage in order to redeem himself. It is more likely however that he feared for his life following the guilty verdict reached by the court.

Either way his escape was short lived as he was caught by members of the Home Guard who intended to take him back to Grizedale Hall. When he learned of this Berndt attempted to escape again. This time he was less than successful and was shot by his captors running away. He died instantly and in doing so became the only casualty of the entire U-570 affair.

Part 3 – The Royal Navy’s U-Boat (Coming Soon)