NAVY NEWS, JANUARY 2012
A diary of tragedies
A COUPLE of months ago we praised a book about the deeds of a small group of commandos who ranged behind enemy lines seizing crucial intelligence in WW2. Among their finds was the entire records of the German Navy – records which continue to provide rich pickings for historians seven decades later. Daniel Morgan and Bruce
Taylor have spent ten years poring over those records, mostly held on microfilm by the Naval Historical Branch in Portsmouth. Together with other sources
in German and official and unofficial British, Canadian and American records and accounts, the two authors have produced the monumental U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of Warship Sinkings from Original Sources (Seaforth, £45 ISBN 978-1848-3211-82). It details the destruction of
How the struggle for the Med was won
BACK in 2002 Chatham Publishing brought out in Britain the important study The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940- 1943 which covered this key maritime confl ict from Italy’s declaration of war
109 vessels – mostly British, but also American, French, Canadian, Norwegian, Australian and Soviet inter alia – at the hands of German submarines. Those sinkings are decribed
in first-hand accounts from friend and foe and the logs of the U-boats. The authors detail losses famous, such as Courageous, Ark Royal, Barham, Royal Oak, USS Reuben James, and others largely lost to history. HMS Matabele was sunk by U454 while shepherding a Russian convoy in January 1942; all but two of her 238 crew perished in the bitter Barents Sea (if the cold didn’t kill them, depth charges dropped by HMS Somali and Harrier to destroy the offending submarine did). The last of the lost warships
to feature in this excellent volume, HMS Bullen, had her back broken off Cape Wrath in December 1944. A little over half her ship’s company survived, but not her captain who demanded all his men were rescued before he was plucked from the ocean. The U-boat logs of the attacks are reproduced in extenso here in translation. Generally, they’re rather prosaic – as war diaries tend to be.
But occasionally, U-boat commanders made more flowery entries.
After sinking carrier Courageous – and having evaded all attempts to sink his boat, U29 – Otto Schuhart surfaced at night to inspect the damage. There was little of the latter, but the water was so phosphorescent that the waterline around the submarine made it seem she was “lit up by glowing bulbs” which allowed the crew to see great shoals of fish gathered around them. And Günther Prien’s log of
his attack on the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow is a breathless affair describing “explosions, crashes and rumblings”, columns of water and fire shooting up, and, finally, fragments of the ship flying through the air. Prien continued: “Then the
to its surrender. The book had originally been published in the United States in 1999 and had already been reprinted there. Its great merit was that it was co-authored by an American, Jack Greene, and an Italian, Alessandro Massignani, which meant that the often-ignored Italian perspective was given fair and balanced coverage, writes Prof Eric Grove of the University of Salford. Last year a new edition appeared co-published by Frontline Books (an imprint of the prolifi c Pen and Sword of Barnsley) and the Naval Institute Press of Annapolis Maryland USA (respective ISBNs 978-1-84832-618-7 and 978-1- 59114-561-5).
The new book is no mere In their introduction
the authors point out that “they have made a modest number of corrections, mostly of detail but some of substance”. Quite a large number of pages have clearly been re-set, although the copious end notes and then comprehensive bibliography appear unchanged from the earlier edition. We have to be content with the listing of new sources in the introduction. This is rather a pity, but probably inevitable given the need to control production costs. The authors, who have between them published a large number of works on both naval and military topics, have tried very hard to produce a fair account and they generally succeed. Nevertheless, a British reader
may think that London’s per- spective sometimes gets lost mid- Atlantic. At various
in the section on pre-war British planning against Italy and in the
The Grove Review
British contribution to the Allied landings in 1942-3 there is rather more to be said. One sympathises with the diffi culties of foreigners researching at Kew but attention to the Court Martial into the scuttling of HMS Manchester would have prevented the errors in the description of this unfortunate event in the saga of the Pedestal convoy. Some criticisms of Cunningham are also a little simplistic. Never theless is
perspectives that the book
Italian Royal Navy struggled.
These ranged from chronic shortages of
to inadequate fuel
gunnery. Co-operation with both the Italian Air Force and the German Luftwaffe was very poor, a fundamental problem given the importance of aviation in the Mediterranean campaign.
Matapan in which the Italian Navy lost 2,303 dead and 1,411 prisoners deterred the Italians from further night action, for which the British Royal Navy had the equipment and training but not the Italians. Restrictive orders from above, ‘fl eet in being’
refl ecting a
mentality, often prevented greater Italian efforts. Relations with the Germans
were always uneasy and, although some Italians continued to fi ght alongside the Germans at the armistice, many were only too
The disastrous defeat off which the in its
demonstrates the huge handicaps with
happy to join the Allies, while others were in favour of scuttling their ships.
The cross-cutting loyalties of the Italian Navy might have been more fully covered at the end of the book, which tails off a little scrappily after its comprehensive coverage of earlier events. An additional
chapter or two on
events in the theatre after Italy changed sides would also have added to the book’s value but a 340 page book is perhaps long enough.
The authors rightly put emphasis on the exploits of the less-conventional capabilities of the Italian Navy. The success of the Maiale human torpedoes in changing the balance of naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of 1941 when they
Elizabeth and Valiant to the bottom of Alexandria harbour was especially noteworthy. They
always succeed, however, and it is hard to agree with the authors that the Italians should have
concentrated on such forces in a kind of jeune ecole naval policy. They point to the success of the Italian battleships in safeguarding supplies to North Africa in 1941- 2.
The authors clearly think that
the Axis made an error in not making an amphibious attack on Malta. In this they self- consciously take issue with other studies,
offi cial history and MacGregor Knox’s
published in 2000. These works stress
including the Italian Hitler’s Italian Allies problems the Axis had in
planning and executing joint and combined operations. Moreover I am far from sure
that Malta was quite such the sitting duck in August 1942 as Greene and Massignani argue; an
attack on Malta would probably have been a humiliating and unnecessary disaster. Keeping Malta in British hands
was indeed a wonderful way of infl icting maritime
the Allies as huge resources were invested in preventing the loss of another Imperial
to ‘fortress’ and
the probable resulting fall of the Churchill government. The co-authors are right characterise the
convoy in June 1942 as an Italian victory when an Italian cruiser and destroyer force supported by aircraft got the better of the surface escort and only two freighters reached Malta. Crucially, the Italian surface forces prevented the damaged American tanker Kentucky from reaching Malta to sustain the island’s fuel requirements. No wonder the subsequent Pedestal convoy was given the escort it was. On this occasion the Axis
scored great successes again but the vital tanker, Ohio this time, got through making it a clear Pyrrhic victory for the British rather than the ‘defeat’ the authors at one point claim.
fi rm advocates of the importance of
Greene and Massignani are Malta
supplies to North Africa, although they do not cite Dr Douglas Austin’s important work on this subject which would have further supported their thesis. I remain unconvinced, however, especially as the co-authors admit that with Rommel in Egypt in 1942 the problem was much more getting supplies to the front rather than to African ports. The authors modestly admit
that they are more concerned with creating a basis for debate than offering clear conclusions. They have certainly succeded in this aim and the new book is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the naval history of World War 2. Even those who possess the older edition should read the new one and at a very reasonable £16.99 there is no excuse for not doing so.
A celebration – and indictment
MENTION the name John Nott in Naval circles and 30 years after his infamous White
Paper Duncan ‘The Way Forward’, people will still
roll their eyes. In the aviation world, the name Sandys
‘sands’) provokes a similar reaction. His 1957 White Paper did for aircraft what Nott intended to do to the Fleet a generation later – wield a bloody great axe through it.
Sandys demanded that the
bay bursts into life, lights come on in the destroyers and morse signals start frantically tapping from all quarters.” He lamented that his torpedo tubes were empty – and that “the devil himself has taken three of our eels”; three eels (torpedoes) had failed to explode... Overall, this is an indispensable reference work for anyone studying either the U-boat campaign or WW2 at sea. It is clear, insightful, never judgmental, copiously illustrated, fascinating – and harrowing, for the fate of the men in the ships the submarines attacked was invariably grim. In short, no future book on
the Battle of the Atlantic should be written without referring to Morgan and Taylor’s work.
myriad of smaller British aircraft manufacturers – fabled names such as Supermarine, de Havilland, Avro, Fairey – join forces, merging to form larger companies such as BAC (forerunner of British Aerospace) and Hawker Siddeley. He also believed missiles, not
jets were the future and cancelled a string of projects, among them a Mach 3 jet for the RAF (the Avro 730) to replace the V-bombers and a Mach 2 jet/rocket fighter for the Fleet Air Arm (the SR177). Sandys only spared the English Electric Lightning because the project was too far
it went on to become Britain’s greatest fighter of the Cold War age.
The minister – Churchill’s son-
in-law and reputedly the lover of the Duchess of Argyll in a scandalous divorce case – also got rid of the RNVR air branch (although, on the plus side he
did the Fleet Air Arm a favour by cancelling the Short Seamew, a
anti-submarine plane described unlovingly as “a camel amongst race horses”). The special,
cheap, unwieldy and ugly
illustrated edition of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Empire of the Clouds (Faber and Faber, £25 ISBN 978-0- 571-27889-3) is a wonderful homage to what was – and a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. For while
many of the RN’s cancelled post-war projects
beyond the sketch and design
or perhaps a few models,
stage, and demonstration prototypes
models of cancelled aircraft abound in the 50s and 60s. In the first 15 or so years after
WW2, Britain’s aviation industry produced aircraft which still evoke powerful memories more than half a century later. This is an era when the Comet
By the time the Harrier, “the last great
produced unaided” was entering service at the end of the 1960s, the days of an independent UK aircraft industry were all but over: international collaboration was the order of the day – Concorde, the Jaguar, Puma and Lynx helicopters and, in time,
and Typhoon. the Tornado
governments who dithered, made some very bad decisions and spent millions on projects which never saw the light of day – it’s not a new phenomenon. More than £20m was
written off in the mid-60s (around £300m today) when a supersonic version of the Harrier was canned. That project, the P1154, was far from unique... Indeed, the author says
was born. The Harrier. The Buccaneer. The Sea Vixen. The Lightning. An era when barely had an aircraft entered service (for example the Supermarine Attacker, 1951) than it was withdrawn (the Fleet Air Arm scrapped its Attackers in 1954), surpassed by technological
post-war aero industry was dogged by “managerial, military and political incompetence that would have disgraced a banana republic.” Luckily, it was blessed with
brilliant engineers and fearless pilots (in the early 50s the latter earned around £40 per week – around £900 today – twice as much as equivalent Fleet Air Arm
Empire of the Clouds is a pretty scathing indictment of
successive aircraft Britain
fliers of the day). So as well as being an indictment and lament, Hamilton-Paterson’s book is also a celebration of great designs – and great designers – and brave men. Test pilots paid a fearful price for pushing the boundaries:
in 1952 – an age when only British aircraft were on display –
the de Havilland company
was demonstrating its DH110, a strange-looking swept wing jet with a distinctive twin boom. The aircraft broke apart in
mid-air, its debris smashing into the crowd. More than two dozen people, including the jet’s two crew, were killed.
Barely had the wreckage
been swept away and the bodies recovered than the air show went on. In time, the DH110 would be redesigned. It would go on to become a Fleet Air Arm legend, the Sea Vixen, serving throughout the 60s and into the early 70s. None of the families of the victims sued the airshow organisers or de Havilland. In an age when British aircraft kept pace with the USA and USSR, it would, writes the author, “have seemed downright unpatriotic” to do so.
In the intervening six decades one feels at times it’s not just an aircraft industry that we’ve lost.
one eight-month period spanning 1956 and 1957, there were 34 accidents and 42 test aircrew killed – one death every six days. At Farnborough air show
First-hand footage from the front line
IF U-Boat Attack Logs has whetted your appetite for German submarine operations, there’s some fascinating footage to be found in Warships Attack Convoys (Pen and Sword, £14.99). For despite the title, the 55-minute DVD features U-boat operations – as well as merchant raiders – in the bitter struggle against Britain’s supply lines.
In the first half of the war in particular, the German Navy sent dedicated Propaganda Kompanie journalists and cameramen to sea to record the actions (they included the future author of the famous submarine novel Das Boot, Lothar-Günther Buchheim). Their words and images filled
the Third Reich propaganda sheets such as Signal and Die Kriegsmarine (the official magazine of the German Fleet – a cross between a Nazified version of Navy News and Picture Post) as well as the weekly newsreel, the Wochenschau. The PK-men were invariably on the very front line – and paid a high price accordingly. But they also brought back some particularly vivid images and footage.
Five-minute newsreel items – with the harsh, steely commentary translated into English – form much of this DVD.
There’s some excellent footage of an attack by the ‘Stukas of the sea’ E-boats (Schnellboote – fast boats – in their native tongue), destroyers struggling through some very rough seas (proof that, however odious the flag they fought for, German sailors were as much victims of the elements as their British counterparts), and U99 on patrol in the autumn of 1940. The latter was commanded by U-boat ace Otto Kretschmer who was only the second man to be awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves – a fact recorded in the newsreel excerpt here.
And, if you take away the bombastic music and propaganda tunes which often threaten to drown out the narrator, the production values of these items for the weekly newsreel aren’t too far removed from what you’ll see on today’s news bulletins.
The second half of the DVD is a 25-minute contemporary film featuring some particularly rare footage of the actions of an auxiliary cruiser – armed merchant raider – which struck at Allied shipping using a civilian disguise to lull vessels into a false sense of security.
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