Friday, 15 August 2008

The Four Horsemen, the four Admirals.

The story of the war at sea during the second world war is really a story of four admirals. On the German side, Gossadmirals Raeder and Doenitz, and on the British side, Admirals of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound and Viscount Cunningham. All four are vital in understanding the unfolding of events as they took place at sea in the years between 1939 and 1945.

I would like to pause for a moment on Grossadmiral Raeder in particular since he is emblematic of the deterioration within the German leadership that took place after his resignation in 1943. Admiral Raeder was head of the German Navy prior to war commencing when Admiral Doenitz was first promoted to Flag Rank in 1939, and appointed commander of submarine operations under the direction of Grossadmiral Raeder.

In many ways the nature of the German war was the internecine struggle between Raeder and Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, for whom could wrest control of the largest number of funds to advance their respective services. Grossadmiral Raeder was convinced of the importance of submarine warfare to the tide of the war, and Goering wanted to build the Luftwaffe into the formidable force it became in anticipation of the Invasion of England.

As history unfolded, the Battle of Britain resulted in Goering's Luftwaffe being soundly defeated after which Hitler decided to embark upon his ultimately disastrous Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Russia. Grossadmiral Raeder was vehemently opposed to Operation Barberosa and was very vocal in his feelings on the subject, a fact over which he was to resign in 1943 to be replaced by the more compliant, and feverishly devoted Admiral Doenitz. The rest, as they say, is history.

Erich Johann Albert Raeder (April 24, 1876–November 6, 1960) was a naval leader in Germany before and during World War II. Raeder attained the highest possible naval rank—that of Großadmiral (Grand Admiral)—in 1939, becoming the first person to hold that rank since Alfred von Tirpitz. Raeder led the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) for the first half of World War II, but resigned in 1943 and was replaced by Karl Dönitz. He was sentenced to life in prison at the Nuremberg Trials, but was later released and wrote his autobiography.

Although Raeder generally disliked the Nazi Party, he strongly supported Adolf Hitler's attempt to rebuild the Kriegsmarine, while apparently disagreeing equally strongly on most other matters. On 20 April 1936, just a few days before Raeder's sixtieth birthday, Hitler presented him with the rank of Generaladmiral (General Admiral). In his quest to rebuild the German Navy, Raeder faced constant challenges from Hermann Göring's ongoing quest to build up the Luftwaffe.

Nevertheless Raeder was promoted to Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) in 1939, and later that year suggested Operation Weserübung, the invasions of Denmark and Norway in order to secure sheltered docks out of reach of the Royal Air Force, as well as provide direct exits into the North Sea. These operations were eventually successfully carried out, although with relatively heavy losses.

Raeder was not a strong supporter of Operation Sealion, the planned German invasion of the United Kingdom. He felt that the war at sea could be conducted far more successfully via an indirect strategic approach, by increasing the numbers of U-boats and small surface vessels in service. This, in addition to a strategic focus on the Mediterranean theater including a strong German presence in North Africa, plus an invasion of Malta and the Middle East.

He argued strongly against Operation Sealion because of his doubts about a decisive German air superiority over the English Channel and the lack of regional German naval superiority. Air superiority was a prerequisite to successfully preventing destruction of the German invasion fleet by the Royal Navy. Since such requirements were not met, the invasion was postponed indefinitely due to the Luftwaffe's failure to obtain air superiority during the Battle of Britain. Instead the German war machine was diverted to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which he vigorously opposed.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The German Admiral

"The Bull of Scapa Flow." Captain Gunther Prien of the U-47 and the sinking of HMS Royal Oak.

One of the many facts about the Kreigsmarine forgotten or overlooked with the passage of time is that the German Navy would not accept members of the SS or the Nazi party into its ranks. If one had past associations with either, they needed to be formally renounced prior to being accepted into the German Senior Service. So it was with Guther Prien, Captain of the U-47, and leader of one of the most daring raids in the history of submarine warfare.

After joining the Navy, Gunther Prien progressed steadily in rank, from Fähnrich zur See (midshipman) in 1933, to Oberfähnrich zur See (senior midshipman) in 1935, Leutnant zur See (sub-lieutenant) also in 1935, then Oberleutnant zur See (lieutenant) in 1937. He was appointed to the command of the new Type VIIB U-47 on her commissioning (17 December 1938) and promoted to Kapitänleutnant (lieutenant) on 1 February 1939.

On 14 October 1939 Prien risked shallow water, unknown shoals, tricky currents and detection by defenders to penetrate the Royal Navy's primary base, Scapa Flow. Although most of the Home Fleet was at sea, Prien sank the battleship Royal Oak and returned home to instant fame. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, the first member of the Kriegsmarine to receive this award.

The mission into Scapa Flow called for volunteers only; Prien had no hesitation in accepting the mission. In a token to the voluntary nature of the mission, Prien spoke to his crew whilst U-47 was lying off Scapa Flow, and having briefed them, he announced that anyone not wishing to volunteer could leave the boat immediately. Unsurprisingly no one accepted the offer to disembark in the middle of the North Sea. Prien received the nickname Der Stier von Scapa Flow ("The Bull of Scapa Flow"); the emblem of a snorting bull was painted on the conning tower of U-47 and soon became the emblem of the entire Unterseebootsflottille.

The British were initially confused as to the cause of the sinking, suspecting either an on-board explosion or aerial attack. Once it was realised that a submarine attack was the most likely explanation, steps were rapidly made to seal the anchorage, but U-47 had already escaped and was on its way back to Germany. The BBC released news of the sinking by late morning on 14 October, and its broadcasts were received by the German listening services and by U-47 itself. Divers sent down on the morning after the explosion discovered remnants of a German torpedo, confirming the means of attack. On the 17 October First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill officially announced the loss of Royal Oak to the House of Commons, first conceding that the raid had been "a remarkable exploit of professional skill and daring", but then declaring that the loss would not materially affect the naval balance of power. An Admiralty Board of Inquiry convened between 18 and 24 October to establish the circumstances under which the anchorage had been penetrated. In the meantime, the Home Fleet was ordered to remain at safer ports until security issues at Scapa could be addressed.

The Nazi Propaganda Ministry was quick to capitalise on the successful raid, and radio broadcasts by the popular journalist Hans Fritzsche displayed the triumph felt throughout Germany. Prien and his crew reached Wilhelmshaven at 11:44 on 17 October and were immediately greeted as heroes, learning that Prien had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class, and each man of the crew the Iron Cross Second Class. Hitler sent his personal plane to bring the crew to Berlin, where he further invested Prien with the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. This decoration, made for the first time to a German naval officer, later became the customary decoration for successful U-Boat commanders. Dönitz was rewarded by promotion from Commodore to Rear-Admiral and was made Flag Officer of U-Boats.

The British Admiralty's official report into the disaster condemned the defences at Scapa Flow, and censured Sir Wilfred French, Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland, for their unprepared state. Admiral French was placed on the retired list, despite having warned the previous summer of Scapa Flow's deficient anti-submarine defences, and volunteering to bring a small ship or submarine himself past the blockships to prove his point.

On Churchill's orders, the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow were sealed with concrete causeways linking Lamb Holm, Glimp Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay to the Orkney Mainland. Constructed largely by Italian prisoners of war, the Churchill Barriers, as they became known, were essentially complete by September 1944, though they were not opened officially until just after VE Day in May 1945. They now form part of the transport infrastructure of the Orkneys, carrying the A961 road between the islands.

"Old Unsinkable". HMS Ark Royal (pennant 91) 1938-1941

HMS Ark Royal, the third Royal Navy warship to bear that name, was unique in many respects. First and foremost, she was the first aircraft carrier constructed with the flight deck and hangers as an integral part of the ships structure, rather than welded on a pre-existing superstructure as was the case previously. She was instrumental in the sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck, and was the flagship of Force H, under Admiral Sir James Somerville, Royal Navy.

The deteriorating international situation by 1933, typified by Germany's rearmament and Japan and Italy's expansionist aims, convinced the British government to allocate funds to resume the long-delayed construction programme.
Funding was announced in the 1934 budget proposals, and plans for the new carrier were finalised by November 1934. The plans were tendered in February 1935 to Cammell Laird and Company, Ltd., which calculated that the cost of the hull would come to £1,496,250, while the main machinery would cost approximately £500,000. The overall cost was estimated to be over £3 million, making Ark Royal the most expensive ship by then ordered by the Royal Navy. Construction began on Job No. 1012 when Ark Royal’s keel was laid down on 16 September 1935.

Ark Royal spent nearly two years in the builder's yard before being launched on 13 April 1937 by Lady Maud Hoare, wife of Sir Samuel Hoare, then First Lord of the Admiralty.

The bottle of champagne she threw against Ark Royal’s bows did not smash until the fourth attempt.

The carrier spent a year fitting out, was handed over to her first commander, Captain Arthur Power, on 16 November 1938, and was commissioned into the Royal Navy on 16 December. She was originally intended for service in the Far East, but events in Europe during her construction and fitting out, including the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, caused the Admiralty to instead mark the carrier for deployment with the Home and Mediterranean Fleets.

After her crew joined her at the end of 1938, Ark Royal began an intensive period of trials and tests to prepare her for service with the Home Fleet. During these trials, Ark Royal proved capable of sailing above her theoretical speed, reaching over 31 knots, an astonishing speed for a warship of her size.

On 10 November, 1941, Ark Royal ferried more aircraft to Malta, before making the return voyage to Gibraltar. Admiral Somerville had been warned of U-boats operating off the Spanish coast and reminded the ships of Force H to be vigilant. Also at sea was Friedrich Guggenberger's U-81, which had received an intelligence report that Force H was expected to be returning to Gibraltar. At 15:40 hours, the sonar operator aboard the escorting destroyer HMS Legion detected an unidentified sound, but assumed it was the propellers of a nearby destroyer.

One minute later, Ark Royal was struck amidships by a single torpedo, between the fuel bunkers and bomb store, and directly below the bridge island. The impact and subsequent explosion caused Ark Royal to shake violently, hurled fully loaded torpedo-bombers into the air, and killed a man. A 130 feet (40 m) long by 30 feet (9.1 m) deep hole was created on the starboard side of the carrier, which allowed the starboard boiler room, main switchboard, oil tanks, and over 106 feet (32 m) of the ship's starboard bilge to flood immediately. The starboard power train was knocked out, causing the rear half of the ship to lose power, while communications were severed shipwide.

HMS Legion moves alongside the damaged and listing HMS Ark Royal in order to take off survivors.

Immediately after the torpedo strike, Captain Maund attempted to order the engines to full stop, but had to send a runner to the engine room when it was discovered communications were down. The hole in the hull was enlarged by the ship's motion, and by the time Ark Royal came to a stop she had taken on a considerable amount of water and began to list to starboard, reaching an angle of 18 degrees from centre within 20 minutes. Considering the lean of the carrier, as well as the fates of British aircraft carriers HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious, which had sunk rapidly with heavy loss of life, Maund gave the order to abandon ship. The crew were assembled on the flight deck to determine who would remain onboard to try and save the ship while HMS Legion came alongside to take off the rest of the crew; as a result, comprehensive damage control measures were not initiated until 49 minutes after the attack.

The flooding spread unchecked during this time, and was exacerbated by several covers and armoured hatches left open during the evacuation of the lower decks. Water spread to the centreline boiler room, which started to flood from below, and power was lost shipwide when the boiler uptakes became choked; Ark Royal had no backup diesel generators. About half an hour after the explosion, the carrier appeared to stabilise. Admiral Somerville, determined to save Ark Royal, ordered damage control parties back to the carrier before taking the battleship HMS Malaya to Gibraltar to organise salvage efforts. The damage control parties were able to re-light a boiler, restoring power to the bilge pumps. The destroyer HMS Laforey came alongside to provide power and additional pumps, whilst Swordfish aircraft from Gibraltar arrived to supplement anti-submarine patrols around the stricken carrier. The tug Thames arrived from Gibraltar at 20:00 hours and attached a tow line to Ark Royal, but progressive flooding caused the angle of list to increase rapidly. Water had reached the boiler room flat, an uninterrupted compartment running across the width of the ship, forcing the shutdown of the restored boiler.

Another photograph showing the degree of the list.

The angle of list reached 20 degrees between 02:05 and 02:30 hours, and when 'abandon ship' was declared at 04:00 hours, had reached 27 degrees. Ark Royal's entire complement had been evacuated to Legion by 04:30 hours; with the exception of Able Seaman Mitchell, there had been no fatalities. The 1,487 officers and crew were transported to Gibraltar. The angle of list reached 45 degrees before Ark Royal capsized and sank at 06:19 hours on 11 November. Witnesses reported that the carrier rolled to 90 degrees, where she remained for about three minutes before completely inverting. Ark Royal then broke in two, with the aft section sinking within a couple of minutes, followed quickly by the bow.

HMS Ark Royal sank just 30 miles from Gibraltar on November 14, 1941. Of 1575 Officers and men aboard, only one man died.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Operation Drumbeat. U-166 and the Robert E. Lee

Much is known of the submarine warfare of the Atlantic during WW2 but little is known about German submarine activity of the Gulf of Mexico, even though they were some of the most successful operations of the entire war. Enormous oil tankers would emerge from the oil terminals of the Mississippi Delta and make their way into the Atlantic by way of the Gulf of Mexico, carrying their cargo of oil, the life blood of the war effort. German U-boats were sent by Admiral Doenitz right into the Gulf in order to sink as many of them as was possible. They had a field day.

Twenty-four German submarines entered the Gulf of Mexico between 1942 and 1943 and sank fifty-six merchant ships, damaging fourteen others. In May, 1942 alone, the blitz of the "Gulf Sea Frontier" gave German U-boats their greatest victories to date.

One of these, U-Boat U-166 and the steamer Robert E. Lee are forever locked in the poetic dance of death that ended in them both lying next to each other in the murky depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

The cargo-passenger liner Robert E. Lee was fairly typical of the small liners that earned their living making short runs between U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico and destinations throughout the Caribbean.

Like many U.S.-flagged ships, Robert E. Lee found herself pressed into wartime service after Pearl Harbor. Repainted in an overall haze gray scheme to reduce her visibility, in July 1942 she sailed from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, carrying 270 passengers. Several of those aboard were survivors of other ships torpedoed by German U-Boats. The conditions aboard were appalling. In the heat of the summer, without air conditioning and overcrowded, the ship plodded north into the Gulf of Mexico. There was a shortage of fresh food and water on board, During the night, the ship was obliged to run "blacked out," which necessitated shutting the cabin portholes and with them, all effective ventilation.

With conditions aboard Robert E. Lee deteriorating by the hour, the ship's master, Captain Heath, tried to divert the ship to Tampa, Florida, to put his passengers safely ashore. But when he couldn't obtain a pilot to steer the ship into the harbor, he was forced to turn once again for New Orleans. With PC-566 as escort, Robert E. Lee began steaming west-northwest, on a voyage she would never complete.

U-166, under the command of 27 year old Oberleutnant zur See (First Lieutenant) Hans-Günther Kuhlmann, torpedoed the Robert E. Lee and she quickly sank. Kapitan Kuhlmann was an avid photographer and these, along with many other stunning images were recently uncovered in 2001 by a film crew gathering material for a documentary on the war service of Gulf of Mexico U-boats. Frau Kuhlmann had stored them all away thinking they were of little value. They are, of course, invaluable is providing a pictorial reference to the scope and daring of the Kreigsmarine during the second War.

The U-166 was the only German U-boat sunk in the Gulf. The U-166 was discovered in May 2001 during a routine pipeline survey conducted by C&C Technologies for BP and Shell. The submarine lies in 5,000 feet of water within a mile of her last victim, the passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee. Popular belief has long held that the U-166 had been sunk by a torpedo dropped from a U.S. Coast Guard Utility Amphibian J4F aircraft over 100 miles away from its actual location on August 1, 1942. It is now believed that the sub was sunk two days earlier by depth charges from the Robert E. Lee’s naval escort, the U.S. Navy sub-chaser, PC-566. Another German submarine, the U-171, which was operating in the Gulf at the same time, may actually have been the vessel spotted by the J4F aircraft.