Wednesday, 30 July 2008

November's Witch. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzerald

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, nicknamed "Mighty Fitz," "The Fitz," or "The Big Fitz," was an American lake freighter, launched on June 8, 1958. Until the 1970s, she was the largest ship on the Great Lakes. During a Lake Superior gale storm on November 10, 1975, the Fitzgerald sank suddenly, without sending any distress signals, in 530 feet (162 m) of water at 46°59.9′N, 85°06.6′W, in Canadian waters approximately 17 miles (15 nmi; 27 km) from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. All 29 hands in the crew perished, presumably by drowning. The incident is the most famous disaster in the history of Great Lakes shipping, and is the subject of Gordon Lightfoot's hit song, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald."

Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin on the afternoon of Sunday, November 9, 1975 under Captain Ernest M. McSorley. She was en route to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan, with a full cargo of taconite, a low grade of iron ore commonly found in the area around Lake Superior. A second freighter, Arthur M. Anderson, destined for Gary, Indiana out of Two Harbors, Minnesota, joined up with Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, being the faster ship, took the lead while Anderson trailed not far behind.

Crossing Lake Superior at about 13 knots (15 mph/24 km/h), the boats encountered a massive winter storm, reporting winds in excess of 50 knots (58 mph/93 km/h) and waves as high as 35 feet (10 m). Because of the storm, the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie were closed. The freighters altered their courses northward, seeking shelter along the Canadian coast. Later, they would cross to Whitefish Bay to approach the locks.

Late in the afternoon of Monday, November 10, sustained winds of 50 knots were observed across eastern Lake Superior. Anderson was struck by a 75-knot hurricane force gust. At 3:30 PM Fitzgerald radioed Anderson to report a minor list developing and top-side damage including the loss of radar. Visibility was poor due to heavy snow, and the Coast Guard warned all ships to find safe harbor. Fitzgerald's two bilge pumps were running continuously to discharge shipped water. The lighthouse and navigational radio beacon at Whitefish Point had also been knocked out by the storm. Fitzgerald was ahead of Anderson at the time, effectively blind, therefore, she slowed to come within 10 miles range so she could receive radar guidance from the other ship.

For a time Anderson directed the Fitzgerald toward the relative safety of Whitefish Bay. At 5:45PM, Captain McSorley radioed another ship, Avafors, to report that Fitzgerald was suffering a bad list, had lost her radars, and had seas washing over her decks. McSorley described the situation as, "One of the worst seas I've ever been in."

The last communication from the doomed ship came at approximately 7:10 PM, when Anderson notified Fitzgerald of being hit by rogue waves large enough to be caught on radar, that were heading Fitzgerald's way, and asked how she was doing. McSorley reported, "We are holding our own." A few minutes later, she apparently sank; no distress signal was received. Ten minutes later Anderson could neither raise Fitzgerald by radio, nor detect her on radar. At 8:32 PM, Anderson informed the U.S. Coast Guard of their concern for the ship.

Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Battleship HMS Barham

On 25 November 1941, while steaming to cover an attack on Italian convoys, HMS Barham was hit by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-331, commanded by Lieutenant Hans-Dietrich von Tiesenhausen. The torpedoes were fired from a range of only 750 yards providing no time for evasive action, and stuck so closely together as to throw up a single massive water column. As she rolled over to port, her magazines exploded and the ship quickly sank with the loss of over two thirds of her crew.

A sinking ship is a dreadful business, and most often we have only our imaginations to 'see' what it must have been like. In the case of HMS Barham, though, a vast and magnificent Queen Elizabeth class Battleship, built at the John Brown shipyard on the Clyde near Glasgow, same shipyard as made the Cunarder Queen Mary, we have an unimpeachable film record of the deed to help us imagine what war service at sea was really all about.

The British Admiralty was immediately notified of the sinking on November 25, 1941. However, within a few hours they also learned that the German High Command did not know the Barham had been sunk.
Realizing an opportunity to mislead the Germans, and to protect British morale, the Admiralty censored all news of Barham’s sinking and the loss of 861 British seamen.

After a delay of several weeks, the War Office decided to notify the next of kin of Barham’s dead, but they added a special request for secrecy. The notification letters included a warning not to discuss the loss of the ship with anyone but close relatives, stating it was "most essential that information of the event which led to the loss of your son or husband's life should not find its way to the enemy until such time as it is announced officially..."

By late January 1942, the German High Command had realized Barham had been lost. The British Admiralty informed the press on January 27, 1942 and explained the rationale for withholding the news.

At a seance in Portsmouth in late November 1941, Helen Duncan, a Spiritualist medium from Callander, Scotland, announced that she had contacted a dead sailor who had told her that his ship, HMS Barham, had recently been sunk. Duncan was not arrested in the aftermath of the Barham incident, but in 1944 was arrested during a seance and convicted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735 and sentenced to 9 months in prison.

Here she is, in all her beauty and strength.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The Cruelest Night: Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

What do we think of when we think of ships that sink at sea? Titanic, of course. Lusitania, perhaps. Certainly to my mind the USS Indianapolis has a special place in the history of awfulness at sea, where one by one, six hundred sailors where eaten by ravenous Pacific sharks, but all these three mighty disasters combined fail to match the death toll achieved by the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the closing days of World War Two.

When this ship sank in the Baltic after being torpedoed by Soviet Submarine S-13, commanded by the drunkard, coward, liar and infamous scumbag Captain Alexander Marinesko, about whom more later, she was carrying 10,582 passengers and crew, including 8,956 refugees. Of these, 9,343 men women and childred died. Nine thousand three hundred and forty three dead in the sinking of a single ship.

It has been refered to as 'Germany's Dunkirk'. The Soviet army was advancing relentlessly on Berlin and with their push westward there were a collossal number of wounded German soldiers and refugees. It was these casualties of war that ships like the Wilhelm Gustloff were to evacuate from eastern Baltic ports to the relative safety of the western Baltic.

Many of these German refugees lived in East Prussia, a part of Germany that the Communist and democratic Allies had agreed would be taken from Germany and given to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Others lived in Danzig and the surrounding area, which the democrats and Communists had decided would be taken from Germany and given to Poland. All of these refugees were fleeing in terror from the Reds, who already had demonstrated in East Prussia what was in store for any German unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.

As Soviet military units overtook columns of German civilian refugees fleeing to the west, they behaved in a way which has not been seen in Europe since the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages. Often the men, most of them farmers or Germans who had been engaged in other essential occupations and thus exempted from military service, were simply murdered on the spot. The women were, almost without exception, gang-raped. This was the fate of girls as young as eight years old and old women in their eighties, as well as women in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Women who resisted rape had their throats cut or were shot. Very often women were murdered after being gang-raped. Many women and girls were raped so often and so brutally that they died from this abuse alone.

Sometimes Soviet tank columns simply rolled right over the fleeing refugees, grinding them into the mud with their tank treads. When Soviet Army units occupied East Prussian villages, they engaged in orgies of torture, rape, and murder so bestial that they cannot be described with meaningful clarity. The words may exist but the imagining of their meaning cannot. Sometimes they castrated the men and boys before killing them. Sometimes they gouged their eyes out. Sometimes they burned them alive. Some women after being gang-raped were crucified by being nailed to barn doors while still alive and then used for target practice.

This atrocious behavior on the part of the Communist troops was due in part to the nature of the Communist system, which had succeeded in overthrowing Russian society and the Russian government in the first place by organizing the scum of Russian society -- the losers and ne'er-do-wells, the criminals, the resentful and the envious -- under the Jews and setting them against the successful, the accomplished, the refined, and the prosperous, promising the rabble that if they pulled down their betters then they could take the place of the latter: the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

It was the members of this rabble, this scum of Russian society, who became the bosses of local soviets and collectives and workers' councils -- when the positions had not already been taken by Jews. The Soviet soldiers of 1945 had grown up under this system of rule by the worst; for 25 years they had lived under commissars chosen from the dregs of Russian society. Any tendency toward nobility or gentility had been weeded out ruthlessly. Stalin had ordered the butchering of 35,000 Red Army officers, half of the old Russian officers' corps, in 1937, just two years before the war, because he did not trust gentlemen. The officers who replaced those shot in the 1937 purge were not much more civilized in their behavior than the commissars.

An even more specific and immediate cause of the atrocities committed against the German population of East Prussia was the Soviet hate propaganda which deliberately incited the Soviet troops to rape and murder -- even to murder German infants. The chief of the Soviet propaganda commissars was a hate-filled Jew named Ilya Ehrenburg. One of his directives to the Soviet troops read:

Kill! Kill! In the German race there is nothing but evil; not one among the living, not one among the yet unborn but is evil! Follow the precepts of Comrade Stalin. Stamp out the fascist beast once and for all in its lair! Use force and break the racial pride of these Germanic women. Take them as your lawful booty. Kill! As you storm onward, kill, you gallant soldiers of the Red Army.

Not every Russian soldier was a butcher or a rapist, of course: just most of them. A few of them still had a sense of morality and decency which even Jewish Communism had not destroyed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of these. He was a young captain in the Red Army when it entered East Prussia in January 1945. He wrote later in his Gulag Archipelago: "All of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped and then shot. This was almost a combat distinction."
In one of his poems, Prussian Nights, he describes a scene he witnessed in a house in the East Prussian town of Neidenburg:

Twenty-two Hoeringstrasse.
It's not been burned, just looted, rifled.
A moaning by the walls, half muffled:
The mother's wounded, half alive.
The little daughter's on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it?
A platoon? A company perhaps?
A girl's been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse ...
The mother begs, 'Soldier, kill me!'

And so, German civilians were fleeing in terror from East Prussia, and for many of them the only route of escape was across the icy Baltic Sea. They packed the port of Gotenhafen, near Danzig, hoping to find passage to the west. Hitler ordered all available civilian ships into the rescue effort. The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of these. A 25,000-ton passenger liner, it had been used before the war by the "Strength through Joy" organization to take German workers on low-cost vacation excursions.

No mention of the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff would be complete without a brief examination of the commanding officer of the submarine who sank her. As previously described, the 1937 Stalinist purges of the Russian officer corps resulted in particularly unsavoury characters having positions of leadership and responsibility that, ordinarily, such individuals could never aspire to. So it was with Alexander Marinesko.

Alexander Ivanovich Marinesko was a Soviet sailor and, during World War II, the captain of the S-13 submarine, which sank the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff.
Born in Odessa, Marinesko was the son of a Romanian sailor and a Ukrainian woman. His father has fled to Russia after beating an officer and has settled in Odessa, changing the last letter "u" of his name to "o". Alexander trained in the Soviet Merchant Navy and the Black Sea Fleet, and was later moved to a command position in the Baltic Fleet. In the summer of 1939 he was appointed commander of the new submarine M-96. When she entered service in mid-1940, she was declared to be the best submarine of the Baltic Fleet, and Marinesko was awarded a golden watch.

After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, the high command of the Baltic Fleet decided that the M-96 should be sent to the Caspian Sea to serve there as a training boat. But this could not be realized because of the German blockade of Leningrad. On 12 February 1942 a German artillery shell hit the M-96 causing considerable damage. The repair required more than four months. Because of the long inactivity, the level of battle training of the crew was low. Marinesko began to find consolation in alcohol, and he was expelled as candidate member of the Communist Party.

During a patrol near the Finnish coast, on August 14, 1942 Marinesko spotted the German heavy artillery barge. He launched a torpedo and later reported that he has observed the sinking of the barge. But this was lie. In 1946 the "sunken" barge was turned over to the Soviet Baltic Fleet as war prize and it was found that her displacement was not 7,000 BRT as claimed by Marinesko, but only 400 BRT. Then Marinesko exposed his submarine to real risk by prematurely returning without any warning to his base. Soviet patrol boats attacked M-96, and a tragedy was avoided by sheer luck.

In October 1942 M-96 had to disembark a commando detachment on the coast of the Narva Bay. Its task was to attack a German staff and capture an "Enigma" coding machine. However, only half of the group returned, without the machine. But because Marinesko has performed his task successfully, he was decorated with the Lenin order and he was promoted to "Kapitan treti rang" (Major). He was again admitted as candidate-member of the Communist Party.

In the beginning of 1943 Marinesko was appointed commander of the modernized submarine S-13. Of the 13 units of the type S, only this boat survived the war. Leaving her base in the Finnish town of Hanko in October 1944, S-13 took position near the Hela peninsula, where the main German communication lines passed. Marinesko soon spotted the small transport ship "Siegfried" (563 BRT) and launched four torpedoes, that all failed. Then he surfaced and opened fire at the ship with his cannons. He reported 15 hits and that, as a result, the ship has sunk. He stated that the displacement of this ship was 6,000 BRT. In fact, the "Siegfried" was hit severely, but she managed to reach the harbour of Danzig.

After spending the new Year's night 1945 in Hanko with a Swedish woman, owner of a restaurant, Marinesko disappeared for several days. It was proposed that he be court-martialed as a deserter, and this could be fatal for him. Moreover, during Communist times the friendship between Soviet citizens and foreigners was not allowed. But the commander of the Baltic Fleet Admiral V.F. Tributz realized that in such case the S-13 would not be operational for a long time. Therefore, Marinesko was sent on a new mission to prove his abilities.

Marinesko left Hanko on January 11, 1945 and took position near Kolberg on January 13. In the next days his submarine was attacked several times by German torpedo-boats. Then on January 30 followed the "torpedo attack of the century", the sinking of the liner Wilhelm Gustloff.

It is now assumed that the Wilhelm Gustloff was evacuating mostly civilians, and there are different opinions about this hit, ranging from praise to accusations of a war crime. Defenders of Marinesko maintain that the ship was armed, was not marked adequately as a hospital ship and was carrying more than 1,000 military forces, including submarine trainees, female naval auxiliary aides, crews serving several anti-aircraft guns on the ship, Croat volunteers: therefore strictly within in the law it passes as a legal military target. However, of the more than 10,000 people on board, most were civilians and refugees fleeing the advancing Russian on the Eastern Front - of these around half were woman and children. With 9,343 fatalities the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was the single worst shipping disaster in history.

Only days later, on February 10, Alexander Marinesko sank with two torpedoes a second big German ship, Steuben, this time carrying mostly wounded military personnel, with an estimated total number of 3,000 casualties. Marinesko has maneuvred submerged for four hours, following the enemy by sonar. He was convinced that the target was the light cruiser Emden (This showed again his poor spotting ability). This way, Marinesko became the most successful Soviet submarine commander in terms of Brutto Register Tonnage (BRT) sunk with 42,000 BRT to his name.

However, Marinesko was not awarded for this the Hero of the Soviet Union title: his commanders refused to trust reports regarding the scale of the hit; in addition, he was deemed a controversial person, "not suitable to be a hero". Instead, after the hits were confirmed, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Marinesko felt personally insulted, and when staff officers came to present him the order on his submarine, he gave the order to submerge her.
During his next mission from April 20 to May 13 Marinesko did not conduct a single attack, although he was sent to an area with intensive traffic of enemy ships. This mission was evaluated as unsatisfactory.

Due to problems with discipline and his alcoholism, in September 1945 Marinesko was removed from submarine command and transferred to shore duty, with a lowered rank, and in November he was discharged from the Navy. In the next years Marinesko ruined himself totally. In 1949 he managed to distinguish himself further, if that were possible, with a two year stretch for theft in a Kolyma prison camp. He died in 1963 in Leningrad of an ulcer.

Dedicated to the memory of the 9,343 who died in the infamous sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. She sank in freezing Baltic winter waters on the night of January 30th, 1945. It remains the greatest maritime disaster in recorded human history.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Remembering USS Indianapolis.

Captain Charles Butler McVay, USN, commanding.

There is an English idiom that suggests worse things happen at sea. Nowhere is that more apt than in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in July of 1945. She was the second last US vessel to be sunk in the war and the circumstances of her sinking, or rather, the survival of her ship's company in the days following her sinking by Japanese submarine, are so dreadful as to give real meaning to the phrase, "worse things happen at sea." They could have been written for the USS Indianapolis alone.

The world's first operational atomic bomb was delivered by the Indianapolis, (CA-35) to the island of Tinian on 26 July 1945. The Indianapolis then reported to CINCPAC (Commander-In-Chief, Pacific) Headquarters at Guam for further orders. She was directed to join the battleship USS Idaho (BB-42) at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare for the invasion of Japan. The Indianapolis, unescorted, departed Guam on a course of 262 degrees making about 17 knots.

At 14 minutes past midnight, on 30 July 1945, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf, she was hit by two torpedoes out of six fired by the I-58, a Japanese submarine. The first blew away the bow, the second struck near midship on the starboard side adjacent to a fuel tank and a powder magazine. The resulting explosion split the ship to the keel, knocking out all electric power. Within minutes she went down rapidly by the bow, rolling to starboard.

Of the 1,196 aboard, about 900 made it into the water in the twelve minutes before she sank. Few life rafts were released. Most survivors wore the standard kapok life jacket. Shark attacks began with sunrise of the first day and continued until the men were physically removed from the water, almost five days later.

Shortly after 11:00 A.M. of the fourth day, the survivors were accidentally discovered by LT. (jg) Wilbur C. Gwinn, piloting his PV-1 Ventura Bomber on routine antisubmarine patrol. Radioing his base at Peleiu, he alerted, "many men in the water". A PBY (seaplane) under the command of LT. R. Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report. Enroute to the scene, Marks overflew the destroyer USS Cecil Doyle (DD-368), and alerted her captain, of the emergency. The captain of the Doyle, on his own authority, decided to divert to the scene.

Arriving hours ahead of the Doyle, Marks' crew began dropping rubber rafts and supplies. While so engaged, they observed men being attacked by sharks. Disregarding standing orders not to land at sea, Marks landed and began taxiing to pick up the stragglers and lone swimmers who were at greatest risk of shark attack. Learning the men were the crew of the Indianapolis, he radioed the news, requesting immediate assistance. The Doyle responded she was enroute.

As complete darkness fell, Marks waited for help to arrive, all the while continuing to seek out and pull nearly dead men from the water. When the plane's fuselage was full, survivors were tied to the wing with parachute cord. Marks and his crew rescued 56 men that day. The Cecil Doyle was the first vessel on the scene. Homing on Marks' PBY in total darkness, the Doyle halted to avoid killing or further injuring survivors, and began taking Marks' survivors aboard.

Disregarding the safety of his own vessel, the Doyle's captain pointed his largest searchlight into the night sky to serve as a beacon for other rescue vessels. This beacon was the first indication to most survivors, that their prayers had been answered. Help had at last arrived. Of the 900 who made it into the water, only 317 remained alive. After almost five days of constant shark attacks, starvation, terrible thirst, suffering from exposure and their wounds, the men of the Indianapolis were at last rescued from the sea.

Even though the USS Indianapolis was one of the most highly decorated ships of the USN, having won ten battle stars for distinguished service in the Pacific, Captain McVay was court martialled for failing to zigzag and thus endangering his ship. It was no conincidence that of the 700 ships lost by the USN during the WW2, the losses among the surviving crew of the Indianapolis were the highest in the history of the United States Navy, relating to a single ship.

The court sentenced Captain McVay to lose 100 numbers in his temporary rank of Captain and 100 numbers in his permanent rank of Commander, thus ruining his Navy career. In 1946, at the behest of Admiral Nimitz who had become Chief of Naval Operations, Secretary Forrestal remitted McVay's sentence and restored him to duty. McVay served out his time in the New Orleans Naval District and retired in 1949 with the rank of Rear Admiral. Though exonerated of all blame in the sinking by President Clinton in October 2000, he was never forgiven by certain relatives of the fallen. Captain McVay took his own life in 1968.

As regular visitors to my blog will know, I like to embellish my posts with audio visual material wherever feasible, but in the case of the USS Indianapolis may I commend to you this superb archive, thanks to the Discovery Channel, of recordings made by men who survived this most ghastly of all naval ordeals. For best results, click the link in the dark blue panel on the left entitled, "Hear the story in the words of survivors".

Of a ship's company of 1196 men, between 800 and 900 men made it into the water after her sinking. Following 4 days and 5 nights of the most unimaginable horror, 316 men were plucked from the sea. Shark attack was the principle cause of death.

The American Cruiser USS INDIANAPOLIS sank on July 30th, 1945.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Finding HMAS Sydney

I have long memories of HMAS Sydney, first formed when living in Sydney many years ago and walking past a gun from the ship mounted in Hyde Park in Sydney. Shortly after returning to Sydney from fabulously successful action in European waters during WW2, the entire ship's company was marched through the streets of Sydney, led by her Captain, John Augustus Collins, RAN, a man who, according to the newsreels of the time, looked like his chest was about to burst with pride. School children in Sydney were given a holiday especially so they might see the mighty ship's crew on parade. It was February 11th, 1941.

Days later, on February 27th, HMAS Sydney departed Sydney for the west under the command of a new commanding officer, Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN, an officer who'd been previously cautioned about his tendency to close too tight with unidentified ships, a fact that would lead directly to the German raider firing on her from point blank range. She was a siting duck.

Much speculation has ensued over the years since her sinking, helped in no small way but the unlikely fact of not one single survivor. Such things are grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists, but the recent finding of the wrecks of the Kormoran, and then of HMAS Sydney just a few days later on March 16th of this year, 2008, some 81 nautical miles of the coast of Shark Bay in Western Australia has helped heal long open wounds. The loss of any warship is a tragedy of enormous proportion, but for a small, immensely proud nascent nation as was Australia in the early years of WW2, it was an unmitigated disaster on a truly dreadful scale. There were men and boys in HMAS Sydney from virtually every major city and town in Australia. Her loss was, quite simply, a national catastrophe. She lies just 12.2 nautical miles from the wreck of the Kormoran.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Queen Victoria...the bottle didn't break.

When Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, named the newest Cunarder, Queen Victoria, the champagne bottle didn't break. Sailors everywhere will tell you that this is an omen of unspeakable torment and ill fortune. Seems it hasn't taken long for the magic to work.

In addition to this, there's been an outbreak of the dreaded Norovirus, scourge of the cruise industry, a rather ugly ruckus where a number of gay passengers where put off following a complaint by a number of 'Grill' passengers (sharp intake of breath) as to some shenanigans in the spa. Ooh err.

Crowning achievement, though, and the event almost certain to ensure Camilla is kept at least a hundred miles from Southampton in the future, is that Queen Victoria smashed into the berth in Malta in May 2008, causing £50 million pounds worth of damage.

Cunard, what ever were you thinking.