Category Archives: World War II at Sea

And Then there Were None: The Doolittle Raid 77 Years Later

Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cole

Today marks the 77th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. 80 US Army Air Corps flyers manning 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers conducted a mission from the deck of the USS Hornet CV-8 which though it caused little damage changed the course of World War Two in the Pacific.

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Orders in hand, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher, U.S.N., skipper of the U.S.S. Hornet (CU-8) chats with Maj. Gen. James Doolittle, U.S. Army. Some of the 80 Army fliers who took part in the historic Japanese raid are pictured with the two fliers.

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Doolittle and his Airmen with Hornet’s C.O. Captain Marc Mitscher 

The genus of the strike came from the desire of President Franklin Roosevelt to bomb Japan as soon as possible during a meeting just prior to Christmas 1941. Various aircraft types were considered and in the end the military chose the B-25 because it had the requisite range and had the best characteristics. Aircraft and their crews from the 17th Bomb Group which had the most experience with the aircraft were modified to meet the mission requirements. Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was selected to lead the mission.

Once the aircraft were ready they and their crews reported to Eglin Field for an intensive three week period of training. Supervised by a Navy pilot the crews practiced simulated carrier take offs, low level flying and bombing, night flying and over water navigation. When the training was complete the aircraft and crews and support personnel flew to McClellan Field for final modifications and then to NAS Alameda California where they were embarked on the Hornet Hornet’s air group had to be stowed on the ships hanger deck since the 16 B-25s had to remain of the flight deck. Each bomber was loaded with 4 specially modified 500 lb. bombs, three high explosive and one incendiary.

Departing Alameda on April 2nd the Hornet and her escorts, Hornet’s Task Force 18 rendezvoused with the Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s Task Force 16 built around the USS Enterprise CV-6. task Force 16 provided escort and air cover during the mission. The carriers, escorted by 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers and accompanied by two oilers hoped to get close enough to the Japanese home islands so that the raiders could reach bases in allied China.

Hornet in Heavy Seas while launching the Raiders

The destroyers and slow oilers broke off on the evening of the 17th after refueling the carriers and cruisers. The two carriers and the cruisers then commenced a high speed run to get into range. However early in the morning of April 18th the ships were sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, the #23 Nitto Maru which was quickly sunk by the USS Nashville but not before it got off a radio message alerting the Japanese command. However the Japanese knowing that carrier aircraft had a relatively short range did not expect an attack. However, realizing the danger that the sighting brought, Mitscher elected to launch immediately, even though it meant that bombers would have to ditch their aircraft or attempt to land well short of the friendly Chinese airfields. The launch was 10 hours earlier and about 170 miles farther out from the Chinese bases than planned.

B-25 Launching from Hornet

Flying in groups of two to four aircraft the raiders struck the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka. Minimal damage was done and only one aircraft was damaged. However they needed to fly nearly 1500 more miles to get to areas of China unoccupied by Japanese forces. Miraculously most of the aircraft and crews managed to find refuge in China. 69 of the 80 pilots and crew members avoided death or capture. Two flyers drowned, one died when parachuting from his aircraft. Eight men were captured. Of those captured by the Japanese three, Lieutenants William Farrow, Dean Hallmark and Corporal Harold Spatz were tried and executed for “war crimes” on October 15th 1942.

Many of the surviving flyers continued to serve in China while others continued to serve in North Africa and Europe, another 11 died in action following the raid. Doolittle felt that with the loss of all aircraft and no appreciable damage that he would be tried by courts-martial. Instead since the raid had so bolstered American morale he was awarded the Medal of Honor, promoted to Brigadier General and would go on to command the 12th Air Force, the 15th Air Force and finally the 8th Air Force.

The raid shook the Japanese, especially the leadership of the Imperial Navy who had allowed American aircraft to strike the Japanese homeland. The attack helped convince Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that an attack on Midway was needed in order to destroy the American Carriers and the threat to the home islands.

When asked by a reporter about where the attack was launched from, President Roosevelt quipped “Shangri-La” the fictional location of perpetual youth in the Himalayas’ made famous in the popular book and movie Lost Horizon.

The raid in terms of actual damage and losses to the attacking forces was a failure, but in terms of its impact a major victory of the United States. The attack was psychologically devastating to Japanese leaders, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, whose personal aircraft was nearly hit by one of the raiders and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who felt personally humiliated and dishonored by the fact that bombers launched from American carriers.

Likewise the raid gave the people of the United States a huge morale boost at a time when very little was going right. It forced the Japanese Navy to launch the attack on Midway that turned out to be a disaster, decimating the best of the Japanese Naval Air Forces and the loss of four aircraft carriers and enabled the US Navy to take the offensive two months later at Guadalcanal.

Franklin Roosevelt Awards Medal of Honor to Jimmy Doolittle 

In the years after the war the survivors would meet to toast each other and to reminisce about their experiences. Those meetings stopped several years ago and in 2017 LTC Dick Cole was the last of Doolittle’s raiders still alive. He passed away just over a week ago on April 9th in San Antonio. A memorial service will be held for him there on Thursday the 18th Of April. He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Now that he and the rest of the Doolittle Raiders have passed away it is up to us to never forget the heroism, sacrifice and service in a mission the likes of which had never before been attempted, and which would in its own way help change the course of the Second World War.

Since most of us have never had to make that choice, and our President dodged the draft under the unusual circumstances often given to the children of the wealthy, we should ask what we would do if we were in Dick Cole’s shoes, or for that matter any of the men involved in the Doolittle Raid.

Since I have been serving as a volunteer since 1981 with multiple combat deployments to my name, and I. All of which I put my life on the line unarmed, and I still serve, so I know what I would do. However, that being said I really do have to wonder about most Americans, including those of my own generation who claim to support the troops without ever serving a day in uniform or even volunteering in the Peace Corps, Americorps, or even with the Red Cross.

The devotion of these men is seldom seen today. Our President routinely mocks those killed, wounded, or taken prisoner in war as “losers” and on the Howard Stern Radio program described avoiding sexually transmitted diseases in the 1980s as his “personal Vietnam.”

But I digress… the Greatest Generation is passing away. They fought fascism, the Nazis, and the Japanese Empire, and then many continued to serve during the Cold War, and in Korea, and some up to Vietnam. It is up to us the living to not disgrace their memory by forgetting them, or even worse, pretending that avoiding STDs is the equivalent of serving in harms way.

I think of the words of the character played by Jose Ferrer in the novel and movie written by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny:

So until tomorrow, either put up, or shut up, especially if you wear the Red MAGA hat. Being a true American Patriot is not based on political ideology, Party, race, or religion. It is all about upholding the foundational principle of the Declaration: “We believe that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

After all, that is the foundational principal of the United States. It is true for all of us, or none of us, for once those rights are denied to anyone, the precedent can be used against any of us. To fall back on a quote from Captain Jean Luc Picard in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

“You know, there are some words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. I fear that today…”

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under aircraft, History, Military, national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, US Army Air Corps, US Navy, World War II at Sea

All the Drowned Sailors: The Sacrifice Of the Yamato, at Okinawa and the Myth Of Trump’s #MAGA

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Those who have read my site since the beginning know that I have written much in terms of Naval History. One of the things that I am drawn to are the great ships that were sacrificed with the crews in futile attempts of salvage victory from defeat, or which were sacrificed in order to save others. Regardless of the circumstance I have a soft spot in my heart for sailors of any nation who pay with their lives when their ships are sunk. This is the story of the IJN Yamato who along with her sister ship, the Musashi were the largest battleships ever constructed.

As dawn broke on April 7th 1945 the great Super-Battleship Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy and nine escorts steamed toward Okinawa on a suicide mission. It was literally the end of empire and the end of a navy. What had begun on December 7th 1941 was now winding down as the Imperial Navy launched its last offensive operation against the United States Navy.

The Imperial Navy was already at the end of its tether. Following the disasters at the Battle of the Philippine Sea which decimated the carrier air arm of the Imperial Navy; the subsequent losses in the defense of Formosa which used up the majority of any remaining carrier aircraft and crews; and the Battle of Leyte Gulf which decimated the surface forces of the navy what remained was a pitiful remnant of a once dominant fleet.

The great battleship Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were the largest warships ever built until the advent of the USS Enterprise CVN-65. Displacing over 72,000 tons 863 feet long and 127 feet in beam these ships mounted the heaviest artillery battery ever placed on a warship. Their nine 18.1” guns mounted in three triple turrets each weighing over 2500 tons weighed as much or more than the largest destroyers of the time. They could fire their massive shells 26 miles and even had the capability of firing a special anti-aircraft shell known as the Sanshiki or beehive round.the largest anti-aircraft shell ever developed.

Musashi was sunk during the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea at Leyte Gulf on October 24th 1944 after being hit by 19 aerial torpedoes and 17 bombs. Yamato engaged the American Escort Carriers and destroyers of Taffy-3 at the Battle off Samar the following day but was prevented by the audacity of the inferior American destroyers and timidity of the Japanese commander Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita from achieving any notable success.

The remains of the Imperial Navy were hampered by a lack of fuel, air power and training time. When the United States attacked Iwo Jima in February 1945, barely 700 miles from the home islands of Japan not a single Japanese surface ship sortied to challenge the American Navy.

However when the American attacked Okinawa on April 1st 1945 the Imperial Navy launched Operation Ten-Go. In spite of overwhelming American superiority in both naval air and surface forces the tiny task force was to fight its way to Okinawa, beach their ships and once the ships were destroyed the crews were to join Japanese Army forces on the island.

The doomed sortie was in part due to the insistence of the Imperial Army which derided the Imperial Navy for its failures at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf and pressure from Emperor Hirohito who asked “But what about the Navy? What are they doing to assist in defending Okinawa? Have we no more ships?” In response the Naval High command devised what amounted to a suicide mission for Yamato and her escorts. The plan was opposed by many in the Navy and leaders of the task force who saw it as a futile mission. Only the insistence of Admiral Kusaka who told the reticent commanders that the Emperor expected the Navy to make its best effort to defend Okinawa persuaded the Captains of the doomed force to accept the mission. Honor now matter more than lives.

At about 1600 on April 6th the ships of the task force weighed anchor and departed their anchorage at Tokuyama hoping to take advantage of approaching darkness to mask their departure. They were detected and shadowed by American submarines which provided real time information on the course and speed of the Japanese ships to the American leadership.

The next morning the task force was spotted by patrol planes and its position relayed to the American fleet commander, Admiral Raymond Spruance, the victor of Midway. Spruance ordered the six fast battleships, accompanied by two battlecruisers, seven cruisers and 21 destroyers engaged in shore bombardment to intercept the Japanese force. However, Admiral Marc Mitscher of Task Force 58, the fast carriers launched a massive air strike of over 400 aircraft against the Japanese.

At 1232 the first wave of American aircraft began their attacks on the doomed Japanese force. As the succeeding waves of American aircraft attacked Yamato was hit by 15 bombs and at least 8 torpedoes, almost all of which struck her port side created an imminent risk of capsizing. The damage control teams’ counter flooded the starboard engine and boiler rooms which kept the ship from turning turtle, but which also further reduced her speed.

By 1405 the great ship was dead in the water with a heavy list, just minutes before her commander had ordered the crew to abandon ship. At 1420 Yamato capsized and began to sink and at 1423 she blew apart in a massive explosion that was reportedly heard and seen 120 miles away and created a mushroom cloud that reached 20,000 feet.

Captain Tameichi Hara of the light cruiser Yahagi which had already sank described the demise of the great ship in his book Japanese Destroyer Captain:

“We looked and saw Yamato, still moving. What a beautiful sight. Suddenly smoke belched from her waterline. We both groaned as white smoke billowed out until it covered the great battleship, giving her the appearance of a snow-capped Mount Fuji. Next came black smoke mingled with the white, forming to a huge cloud which climbed to 2000 meters. As it drifted away we looked to the surface of the sea again and there was nothing. Yamato had vanished. Tremendous detonations at 1423 of that seventh day of April signaled the end of this “unsinkable” symbol of the Imperial Navy.”

Only 280 men of the estimated 3000 crew members aboard Yamato were rescued by the surviving escorts. Of her escorts, the Yahagi and four destroyers were also sunk. The Americans lost a total of ten aircraft and 12 men. Never again would the surface forces of the Imperial Navy threaten U.S. forces or take any meaningful part in the war.

https://youtu.be/4ZcfU0cGAP0

The sacrifice of Yamato and her escorts was a futile was of lives and though many in Japan revere their sacrifice as noble it served no purpose. The loss of Yamato, named after the ancient Yamato province in a sense was symbolic of the demise of the Japanese Empire.

I cannot help but think of gallantry of the doomed crews of these ships, sacrificed for the “honor” of leaders that did not really value their sacrifice. Likewise, I regret the fact that Naval engineers, and maritime archeologists never got to examine this great ship while still afloat, or even to see how she would have faired as a target ship in the Bikini Atoll Nuclear tests.

I regret that so many sailors died in what was a senseless, and useless from an operation operation of any tactical, operational, or strategic point of view. Likewise I regret that a relatively intact Yamato was never fully examined by non-Japanese maritime engineers and ship designers to examine and learn lessons from. If Yamato had survived the war, been thoroughly examined and the. Been expended as a target ship at Bikini, which in light of the examples of the USS Nevada, USS New York, the DKM Prinz Eugen, and other ships might have assisted Naval engineers even today.

I am a career military man, and sailor. I am a humanist who abhors the indiscriminate and nonsensical sacrifice of lives for so called National Honor or pride. I am also a military and naval historical historian who believes that the preservation and study of such instruments of war save lives.

It is a commentary that is timeless. The useless sacrifice of over 2,800 human beings and the ultimate battleship ever built into, to do nothing more than commiserate over the lives that had not been so sacrificed, and the lessons that might prevent the loss of life in future conflicts.

I wonder if another Naval power, perhaps not the Japanese, but maybe the Americans, Russians, English, Indian, or Chinese aircraft carrier will be the latest to succumb to the myth of the great and allegedly indestructible capital ship.

It is a question worth asking as the United States Navy struggles to regain pure-eminence in the Pacific against the Chinese, in the Arctic against Chinese and the Russians, and against less than peer competitors in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. When Yamato was sunk the Japanese were no longer under the illusion that they were the greatest sea power ever; if a United States Navy Aircraft were to be sunk in the North Atlantic, the Northeast Pacific, the Persian Gulf, or the Mediterranean it would be more than a military defeat, it would be a national catastrophe. Trust me, I have played the war games at the Joint Forces Staff College. I cannot go into detail about the war game scenarios, but the were favorable to the United States and its allies.

If any of our Nimitz class carriers were sunk along with the majority of their escorts it would be a crisis like we have not experienced since Pearl Harbor. Thus, Yamato, and her escorts serve as a lesson for all who believe in the myth of American Naval and Military superiority. In January of 1019, this year the Chinese boasted that they could not just sink one, but two Nimitz Class carriers in the South China Sea https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/8098177/chinese-admiral-south-china-sea-sink-us-aircraft-carriers/

That possibility has to be acknowledged, and even if one were sunk or seriously damaged it would be a disaster for United States Strategic interests; not Just in the South China Sea, but also Northeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, or the North Atlantic. The United States has not experienced such Naval disasters since 1941 and 1942 at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Navy, trust me; I have serve for almost 38 years in the Army and the Navy and I am a historian. If we to experience such losses it would be a strategic disaster that would collapse the confidence of an American public in the myth of American military superiority. There is no amount of #MAGA that can change that. The economy would collapse and the dream world that Americans have lived I would be destroyed. We would have to start again from scratch, like the Japanese in 1945 or the Chinese in 1274 and 1281, or more recently the defeat of the Russian Fleet, operation far from home at Tsushima in 1905 by Admiral Togo and his Japanese Fleet.

This my friends is history, and this is reality when a nation is led by a man with the stupidity of Czar Nicholas, the hubris of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the racist, non-historical, and not strategically grounded ideology of Adolf Hitler, and their present day manifestations in President Donald Trump.

Until tomorrow

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, US Navy, White nationalism, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

The Last Of the Carriers that Held the Line Found: USS Hornet Discovered 17,000 Feet Below the Pacific

Quadruple 1.1 inch Anti-Aircraft Gun Mount on USS Hornet 

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The crew and research teams on the late Paul Allen’s research vessel, the RV Petrel made a tremendous maritime discovery in late January near where Hornet sank following massive damage sustained during the Battle Of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26th 1942.

 

USS Hornet CV-8 Building at Newport News VA

 

Hornet as Completed off Hampton Roads shortly after Her Commissioning

The USS Hornet CV-8 was the third ship of the Yorktown Class and is sometimes referred to as her own one ship Hornet Class.  Laid down on 25 September1939 under the Naval Expansion act of May 17th 1938, Hornet was part of the pre-war naval build up authorized by President and Congress.  The previous Yorktown design was used to speed construction.  Hornet was slightly modified from her sisters Yorktown and Enterprise being 15 feet longer, 5 feet wider in the beam and displacing about 1000 tons more than her near sisters.  Her anti-aircraft armament was also slightly improved.  As with her near sisters Hornet had good protection except that her underwater protection was weak.  However, as would be born out in combat Hornet like her sisters would prove to be extraordinarily tough.

Hornet in Rough Seas Preparing to Launch the Doolittle Raid

Hornet was launched on 14 December 1940 and commissioned 25 October 1941 with Naval Aviation pioneer Captain Marc A Mitscher Commanding. Hornet conducted her initial training and air group qualifications while operating out of Norfolk.  On February 2nd two Army Air Corps B-25 Medium Bombers were loaded aboard.  As Hornet put to sea the bombers were launched to the astonishment of the crew. Hornet departed Norfolk for the Pacific where she embarked 16 B-25s under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle.  Hornet’s own air group was stowed in the hanger bay.  On April 2nd Hornet departed from San Francisco for a rendezvous with Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 16 and her sister ship Enterprise.  As the ship departed Mitscher informed the crew of their mission.  Hornet would launch Colonel Doolittle’s aircraft against the heart of the Imperial Japanese Empire, Tokyo.

Hornet Launching B-25

The plan was for the task force to sail to 400 miles from Japan and launch the bombers. Enterprise  was to provide air cover for the task force while Hornet’s air group was inaccessible while the bombers remained aboard.  On the morning of 18 April the task force was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat.  The craft was quickly dispatched by the heavy cruiser USS Nashville  but not before the craft had reported the presence of the task force.  Though the task force was still 600 some miles from Japan Halsey ordered that Doolittle’s aircraft be launched against Tokyo.  The attack while militarily insignificant came as a major surprise to the Japanese who anticipating a raid by naval aircraft believed that any attack could not take place until the following day.  Even more significantly the attack stunned the Japanese military establishment, especially the Navy. The attack would provoke Admiral Yamamoto to attack Midway in order to draw out the American carriers and destroy them.

Hornet Arrives at Pearl Harbor Before Midway

Hornet along with Task Force 16 sailed back to Pearl Harbor arriving a week later and the mission would remain secret for over a year.  The task force steamed to assist the Yorktown and Lexington at the Battle of Coral Sea but that battle was over before they could arrive.  The task force returned to Pearl Harbor on the 26th of May and sail on the 28th for Midway.  Hornet’s air group was plagued with bad luck.  Torpedo Squadron 8, or Torpedo 8 commanded by LCDR John Waldron found and attacked the Japanese task force losing all aircraft and all pilots save one.  6 new TBF Avengers from her air group operating from Midway met with heavy losses in their attack against the Japanese.  Only one pilot from Torpedo 8 with Waldron’s group survived, Ensign George Gay.  Hornet’s dive bombers followed bad reports of the location of the Japanese carriers and took no part in the action.  Many would have to ditch in the ocean as they ran out of fuel.  Hornet’s air group would help sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Mikuma and heavily damaged Mogami on the 6th.  The Battle of Midway was one of the major turning points of the war.  The Japanese had lost six carriers which had attacked Pearl Harbor along with their aircraft and many of their highly trained pilots and flight crews. Coupled with their losses at Coral Sea the Japanese suffered losses that they could ill afford and could not easily replace.

Following Midway Hornet had new radar installed and trained out of Pearl Harbor until order to the Southwest Pacific to take part in the struggle for Guadalcanal.  By the time she arrived she was the only operational American carrier in the Pacific. Enterprise had suffered bomb damage at the Battle of Easter Solomons on August 24th; Saratoga was damaged by a submarine torpedo on August 31stand the Wasp was sunk by a submarine on September 15th.  In the space of 3 weeks the United States Navy had lost 3/4ths of its operational carriers in the waters off of Guadalcanal. Hornet now faced the Japanese alone, providing much of the badly needed air support for the Marines fighting ashore.

Hornet Under Attack: Note “Val” Dive Bomber about to crash ship

The Enterprise rejoined Hornet following hasty repairs off the New Hebrides Islands on October 24th.  On the 26th they joined battle with a Japanese task force of 4 carriers centered on the veterans Shokaku and Zuikaku. The Hornet’s aircraft attacked and seriously damaged Shokaku even as Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers launched a well coordinated attack against Hornet. Hornet was hit by three bombs, two torpedoes and had two bomb laden Val dive bombers.  On fire and without power her damage control parties fought to regain control of the ship and extinguish the fires that blazed aboard her.

Hornet’s Damaged Island and Main Mast

Assisted by the heavy cruiser Northampton which took her in tow her crew brought the fires under control and were close to restoring power when another Japanese strike group found her and put another torpedo into her.  This hit sealed the fate of Hornet. 

USS Northampton Preparing to take Hornet under Tow 

With this hit Hornet’s list increased and she was abandoned even as she was hit by another bomb.  With Japanese ships in the area it was decided to scuttle the ship. Escorting destroyers hit her with 9 torpedoes and over 400 rounds of 5” shells.  As Hornet blazed in the night her escorts withdrew and a Japanese surface force arrived. The destroyers Makigumu and Akigumo finished the heroic but doomed ship off with four of their 24” “Long Lance” torpedoes. She sank beneath the waves at 0135 hours on October 27th.

140 members of her crew went down with their ship.

Hornet Being Abandoned by Her Crew

In her last fight Hornet’s aircraft along with those of Enterprise mauled the air groups of Shokaku and Zuikaku, again inflicting irreplaceable losses among their experienced air crews.  In the battle Hornet  was hit by 4 bombs, two aircraft, 16 torpedoes and over 400 rounds of 5” shells, more hits than were sustained by any other US carrier in a single action during the war.  She was stuck from the Navy list on 13 January 1943 and her gallant Torpedo 8 was awarded the Navy Presidential Unit Citation “for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service beyond the call of duty” in the Battle of Midway.  Her name was given to the Essex Class carrier CV-12.

The new Hornet served throughout the war and served well into the Cold War.  She now rests as a Museum ship at Alameda California. There is currently no Hornet in commission today. With two new Gerald Ford Class carriers approved, one to be named Enterprise, it might be a a good thing to name the next of the class Hornet. 

The USS Hornet Association website is here:  http://www.usshornetassn.com/

The Museum site is here: http://www.uss-hornet.org/

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under aircraft, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

Remembering the Four Chaplains Of the Dorchester

four chaplains

The Four Chaplains

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am writing a brief remembrance of four men who I never met but whose lives helped guide me into my vocation as a Priest and Chaplain. I think I first read about them in junior high school and at that time I had never thought about becoming a minister, priest, or chaplain. To be sure, ever since I was in early grade school I wanted to be in the military but it would not be until my senior year of high school that I felt a call to become a Navy Chaplain. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first a brief op-ed on religion in the United states.

In this day and age where fanatical religious extremists of many faiths seek to divide society, launch wars of religion, discriminate against non-believers or even people who believe differently than them, or hold different philosophical or political beliefs, it is important as Americans to find something that holds us together. The fact that our founders were profoundly against establishing or favoring any particular faith or denomination, there are those today who militantly fight to establish an Evangelical Christian theocracy that has no basis for existence based on the testimony of the Founders, and the earliest proponents of religious liberty in the United States including Virginia Baptist John Leland who helped influence James Madison in crafting the First Amendment of the Constitution wrote:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

Sadly, men like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and a host of others use their theocratic political judgments to condemn people of good faith in this life and the next. Aided by men like President Trump they stand in opposition to Leland and the others like him who understood that the American experiment in religious liberty could not be tied to fixed dogma or a particular religion or denomination.

But I digress, you can read previous articles on this site in which I quoted Leland and other defenders of real religious freedom. For me it’s a matter of my Christian faith. So back to the story of the four Chaplains of the U.S. Army Transport Dorchester.

The four men that I never met were Army Chaplains. These are their stories.

George Lansing Fox was a 42 year old Methodist minister from Lewiston, Pennsylvania who had served as a medic in the First World War in which he was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and the French Croix De Guerre. Thirty-one year old Reformed Rabbi Alexander Goode of Brooklyn, New York was the son of a Rabbi who before the war had applied but not been accepted as a Navy Chaplain. After Pearl Harbor he volunteered and was commissioned as an Army Chaplain. Clark V. Poling was a Baptist minister serving as pastor of a Reformed Church when the war broke out. His father had served as a Chaplain in the First World War and Poling, the married father of one child became an Army Chaplain in 1941. Father John Patrick Washington of Newark New Jersey was a Roman Catholic Priest who entered active duty in May 1942. The four men attended the Army Chaplain’s School, then at Harvard and were united for the journey across the Atlantic aboard the transport ship SS Dorchester.

U.S. Army Transport Dorchester

On the night of February 3rd 1943 the Dorchester was torpedoed by the German submarine U-223. She went down in 20 minutes, of the 904 men aboard the ship only 230 survived. Despite the fact that the ship’s captain had ordered a high state of readiness and that all hands wear life jackets at all time, “Many soldiers sleeping deep in the ship’s hold disregarded the order because of the engine’s heat. Others ignored it because the life jackets were uncomfortable.”

When the ship was hit by a torpedo power went out and the four chaplains worked amid the chaos to calm the situation and assisted the soldiers, sailors, and merchant mariners aboard the ship as they tried to abandon ship. The four chaplains handed out life jackets until the supply ran out and then gave their own life jackets to soldiers that had none.

In doing so they signed their own death sentence, the water temperature was just 34 degrees, the air temperature was 36 degrees, many who survived the sinking died of exposure within minutes of the sinking, rescue ships found hundreds of bodies floating in the water. As the ship went down they died together, praying with arms linked after giving away their life jackets as the troop transport that they were on sank beneath the waves into the icy depths of the North Atlantic. A survivor wrote:

“As I swam away from the ship, I looked back. The flares had lighted everything. The bow came up high and she slid under. The last thing I saw, the Four Chaplains were up there praying for the safety of the men. They had done everything they could. I did not see them again. They themselves did not have a chance without their life jackets.”

Other survivors reported hearing the prayers of the chaplains in English, Latin, and Hebrew as the ship went down. Their bodies were never recovered. They have been remembered as heroes. In 1960 Congress named February 3rd as Four Chaplains Day. The U.S. Post Office commissioned a stamp in their honor in 1948. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated in the basement of Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1951. President Harry Truman spoke at its dedication noting:

“This interfaith shrine… will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

The chapel was moved to Temple University in 1953 and to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 2001.

 

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Father John Patrick Washington (Top Left), Reverend Clark V. Poling (Top Right), Rabbi Alexander Goode (Bottom Left), and Reverend George Lansing Fox

Of course my journey in finding that call and answering it had a number of detours in which I first rejecting following the call. Instead, when I was in college I simply enlisted in the Army National Guard, entered ROTC and then was commissioned as an Army officer. After a number of incidents on active duty which renewed that sense of call I left active duty to go to seminary, went back into the National Guard and in September of 1992 became an Army National Guard and civilian hospital chaplain.  On February 9th 1999 I resigned my commission as a Major in the Army Chaplain Corps to become a Navy Chaplain, and in the process accepting a reduction in rank.

In the nearly 37 years that I have served in the military of which almost 26 have been spent as a chaplain I have had the privilege of serving with many fine ministers of many denominations, priests, rabbis, and even an imam.  Of course I have served alongside some chaplains who regardless of their faith or denomination were simply assholes, but that being said I truly do appreciate those men and women from so many faiths and denominations who have cared for me. I do think that any of them could have linked arms with me and prayed after doing the last best things that we could do for the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who entrust themselves to our care.

Despite what some senior chaplains in both the Army and Navy had done to me at different points; when I think of those men and women who regardless of their beliefs or the beliefs of the religious organizations that endorse them for the chaplaincy, I realize just how blessed that I am.

In the day that we live I can still stand with Harry Truman when he praised these chaplains. Now I am sure that there are quite few people who would say that either Goode, Fox, Poling, or Washington are already in Hell; but I don’t believe that. I understand from Scripture and the teachings of Jesus that God looks on the heart, and that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors. I think that Jesus said that in doing those things that people fulfill the entire law.

Thus I thank God for the Chaplains of various denominations, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims who I would be blessed to link arms with to care for those in our care.

So today, I ask my readers to share this message with others.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Wings of Gold: U.S. Navy Carrier Aircraft 1941-1945

F4F-4 Wildcat of VF-41 in 1942

In 1941 with war raging in Europe and with the Japanese continuing their war in China and occupying French Indo-China the United States rushed to build up its Naval Air Arm and the Arm Air Corps.  New models of aircraft of all types were being rushed into production to replace aircraft already known to be obsolescent.  The Navy brought aircraft already accepted into full production even as it planned more advanced models.  The events in Europe and Asia demonstrated that new fighter designs were needed quickly.

As 1940 dawned the standard fighter aircraft found on U.S. Navy carriers were the F2-A Brewster Buffalo, the Grumman F-3F biplane.  In February 1940 the Navy accepted its first F4F-3 Wildcat which in an earlier for had been rejected in favor of the Brewster Buffalo.  The new Grumman fighter was powered by a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double row radial engine, mounted 4 .50 cal. Machine guns and was heavily armored.  It had a maximum speed of 331 mph range of 845 miles and ceiling of 39500 feet. This would serve it and its pilots well as they aircraft was incredibly tough, often amazing experienced Japanese pilots in their A6M2 Zeros in their ability to suffer heavy damage and remain in the air.  The plucky Wildcat would become the main line of defense in the Pacific against the advancing Japanese Imperial Navy in the months following Pearl Harbor.

The early F4F-3s were superseded by the F4F-4 model which incorporated folding wings, additional armor and an extra two machine guns.  This decreased its maximum speed to 320 mph, rate of climb and ceiling but nonetheless the aircraft gave a good account of itself in Navy and Marine Corps service.  F4F-3’s and F4F-4s served in the British Royal Navy where it was called the Martlet until the end of the war.  When Grumman closed out F4F production in 1943 to concentrate on its replacement the F6F Hellcat production was continued by General Motors and Eastern Aircraft as the FM1 and FM2 Wildcat. The FM1 was identical to the F4F-4 but armament was reduced to 4 machine guns and bomb racks for two 250 lb bombs or depth charges were added.  The FM2 was based on an updated version of the F4F and had a more powerful engine as well as a higher tail assembly to account for the increased torque of the engine.  These aircraft served aboard the tiny Escort Carriers and performed valiantly, especially in the Battle off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  A total of 7860 Wildcats of all varieties were built.  They accounted for 1327 enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of only 191 Wildcats.

Aces Capt Joe Foss USMC and CAPT David McConnell USN both Medal of Honor Winners and CDR Jimmy Thatch (below)

The top aces who flew the Wildcat were all Marines, CAPT Joe Foss (26 victories) MAJ John Lucian Smith (19 victories) and MAJ Marion Carl (16 victories in the F4F and 2 in the F4U Corsair). Foss and Smith both won the Medal of Honor.  Foss would go on to become Governor of South Dakota and the first Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. Smith retired as a Colonel in 1960 and Carl as a Major General.  Other distinguished F4F aces included LT Butch O’Hare, the first U.S. Navy ace and Medal of Honor winner and LCDR Jimmy Thatch who developed the highly successful “Thatch Weave” which enabled the U.S.pilots whose machines were slower and less maneuverable than the speedy and nimble Zeros to achieve good success against their Japanese foe.  Thatch retired as an Admiral in 1967.  O’Hare rose to become commander of the Enterprise Air Group and was killed in action in November 1943. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for this brave aviator.

F6F Hellcat

The Grumman F6F Hellcat took over front line fighter duties on the Fleet Carriers from the Wildcat in early 1943 and established itself as the dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Although it had a resemblance to the F4F the F6F was a totally new design built on combat experience against the Japanese.  The aircraft was built around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine which produced 2000 hp.  The Hellcat mounted six .50 caliber machine guns and had a rate of climb of 3500 feet per minute and a 37300 ft operational ceiling.

Faster than the Zero and other Japanese fighters and piloted by more experienced pilots the Hellcats took a brutal toll of Japanese aircraft.  They accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other with 5163 confirmed kills with a loss of 270 aircraft an overall 19:1 kill ratio. They were piloted by 305 Navy and Marine Corps aces including Meal of Honor winner Captain David McConnell the Navy’s Ace of Aces, and highest surviving United States ace of the war that scored all 34 of his victories in the Hellcat.  The greatest achievement of the Hellcats were when they swept the rebuilt Japanese Naval Air Arm from the skies in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. By November 1945 12275 Hellcats had been built with 1263 going to the British Royal Navy. After the war the Hellcat was replaced by the F8F Bearcat as the primary fighter and served in a night fighter and trainer role until the 1950s.  The French Navy used the Hellcat in to provide heroic close air support to beleaguered French Soldiers in Indochina.

USMC F4U-4 Corsair providing close air support

Flying alongside the F6F was the Vaught F4U Corsair. The Corsair first flew in 1940 and the Navy was slow to adopt it due to difficulties in carrier operations and negative reviews of Navy pilots.  However Marine Corps aviators flying the Corsair had great success and legendary aviators like MAJ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and VMF-214 the Black Sheep.  The Navy would adopt the aircraft later in the war as the Corsair’s carrier operation deficiencies were remedied, but its real success was a land based aircraft operated by the Marines.  Likewise the first squadrons to operate the aircraft successfully from carriers were the Marine Corps VMF-124 and VMF-213.

Early F4U-1

The Corsair mounted the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine as the F6F but had a highly streamlined gull wing design as well as a turbo-charger which allowed it a top speed of 425 mph.  Later models such as the F4U-4 had a top speed of 445 mph. The F4F was armed with six .50 cal machine guns as well as rockets and a bomb load of 2000 pounds and the F4U-4 could carry 4000 pounds of ordnance.

Less than 10000 of the over 64000 combat sorties flown by F4Us were flown from carriers, the vast bulk of the sorties coming from land based Marine Corps squadrons.  The Corsair was often used as a fighter bomber where its capabilities to drop sizable amounts of ordinance including rockets, bombs and the nearly developed Napalm in a close air support role cemented the importance of Marine Air for future generations.  They were beloved by the Marine Corps and U.S. Army infantrymen in their brutal battles with the Japanese on many hellish island battlefields.  Corsairs accounted for 2140 confirmed kills during the war against a combat loss of 189 aircraft. The aircraft remained in production until 1952 with 12571 aircraft of all variants being built.  Many Japanese pilots considered the Corsair to be the best fighter of the war.

During the war many Corsairs served in the British Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force with good success, and after the war the French Navy had success with them in a close air support role in Indochina and Algeria.  Following the war the Corsair remained in service for many years in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the French Navy and other smaller navies and air forces until the 1960s.

The Douglas SBD Dive Bomber was arguably the most effective Naval dive bomber of World War II, and possibly the best single engine dive bomber of all time. Other aircraft may have been faster or carried a larger bomb load, but the SBD, which served at a time when the U.S. Navy did not have air superiority and battled seasoned Japanese pilots and aircrews, achieved remarkable results,

The SBD was developed from the Northrop BT-2, after Douglas took over Northrop. The first model of the Dauntless, the SBD-1 began operations with the U.S. Marine Corps In 1940, the SBD-2 with the U.S. Navy in 1941. The SBD-3 which included more armor for the crew, and self sealing fuel tanks began entering service in late 1941.

The SBD combined a heavy bomb load, excellent bombing optics, great defensive armament, rugged construction, excellent handling characteristics and maneuverability, and superb dive bombing capabilities. It became the workhorse of the U.S. Navy between 1941 and 1944, flying about 25% of all missions flown from Navy carriers during that time. SBDs sank or damaged six Japanese Aircraft carriers, one Japanese and one French battleship, 14 cruisers, 6 destroyers, and many other ships including transports and submarines. It was the Dauntless which turn the tide of the Pacific war when at Midway they sank the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu and the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The SBD also accounted for more enemy aircraft in aerial combat than were lost to enemy aircraft, an amazing accomplishment by any bomber of any type.

In late 1944 after the Battle Of the Philippine Sea the Dauntless was phased out of U.S. Navy squadrons by the SB2C Helldiver. Though the Helldiver was bigger, faster, and carried a higher bomb load, many pilots preferred the Dauntless due to its superior handling characteristics, especially at low speeds, essential to landing on a carrier. It is hard to believe that the United States would have prevailed in 1942 without the Dauntless.

It was used in combat by other allies, a variant, the A-24 Banshee was built for the U.S. Army Air Force. The French operates it from the carrier Arromanches in Indochina until 1949.

SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber above and at Midway below

TBF Avenger above and below

The TBF Avenger torpedo bomber was developed as a replacement for the TBD Devastator by in 1940 by Leroy Grumman of Grumman aircraft. Production began in 1941 and the first combat by the aircraft was at the Battle of Midway. During that battle, 6 aircraft from VT-6, based at Midway while the rest of the squadron flying TBD Devastators from the USS Hornet attacked the Japanese carrier strike force. All of the TBD were shot down, as well as 5 of the 6 TBFs.

Despite the inauspicious start the TBFs became one of the deadliest aircraft of the Second World War. They helped sink the largest Battleships ever constructed, the Japanese Musashi and Yamato, as well as many other warships and auxiliaries. They conducted bombing missions of land targets, and operated from Escort Carriers in Anti-Submarine Warfare operations and supporting invasions and shore operations. The Avenger was particularly effective in the ASW role and was credited with sinking about 30 German U-Boats and Japanese submarines during the war.

The TBF was the largest single engine aircraft of the war, only the P-47 Thunderbolt was anywhere close to its size. Despite this the TBF was able to operate from the smallest aircraft carriers. Powered by a 1900 HP Wright R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone 14 Cylinder radial engine it could cruise at over 30,000 feet at a top speed of 275 MPH while carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs or a Mark 13 Aerial Torpedo. They also carried racks for 5″ High Velocity Aircraft Rockets and depth charges.

After the war it served in a variety of roles in the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, Canadian Navy, French Navy, and other militaries until the 1960s. In peacetime it was used for many years as a fire fighting aircraft in the United States and Canada.

LTjg. George H. W. Bush in the cockpit of his Avenger

The most famous man to pilot a TBF/TBM was LTjg George H. W. Bush, later the President of the United States whose aircraft was shot down over Chuchi Jima In 1944.

SB2C Helldiver above and in French Service below

The replacement for the Dauntless was the SB2C Curtiss Helldiver. The Helldiver was bigger and faster than the Dauntless but for its size it was underpowered, and had a shorter range that the beloved Dauntless. The Helldiver had very poor performance in flight, had unreliable electrical and hydraulic systems and frequently was poorly manufactured. The defects made it less than popular among the aircrews which had previously flown the Dauntless who came to call it the Beast. The problems would lead to a Congressional investigation headed by Senator Harry Truman. During the hearings Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, Artemis Gates said: “When we needed the SB2C Helldiver neither we nor it was ready.”

The British Royal Navy and Australian Air Force evaluated the Helldiver and rejected it for service, cancelling their orders for it.

Despite the many flaws of the aircraft the superbly trained pilots and air crews made the most of it, sinking hundreds of Japanese ships and watercraft. From late 1944 until the end of the war it established a good combat record, though it never had to fight against the well trained Japanese pilots that the Dauntless aircrews had to face.

However, the Navy, and most air forces were moving away from the dive bomber as an attack aircraft. The U. S. Navy found that its F6F Hellcats, and F4U Corsairs could carry as heavy as payload in rockets and bombs as the Helldiver though the ordnance decreased their range. But even so the fighters were far better able to defend themselves against enemy fighter aircraft.

The aircraft served in the U. S. Navy and Naval Reserve until 1950. It also served in Greece where it was used in counter-insurgency (COIN) missions during the Greek Civil War, and by the French Navy during the Indochina campaign, including providing closer air support to French troops at Dien Bien Phu. The Italian Air Force was the last to operate the Helldiver, retiring it in 1959.

With the advent of rockets the dive bomber was replaced by single seat fighters and attack aircraft. The Helldiver was the last purpose built dive bomber. In the U.S. the Hellcat, Corsair, the postwar F8F Bearcat, the P-51 Mustang, and the P-47 Thunderbolt took over ground attack missions. The A4D Skyraider was designed as a ground attack aircraft, and eventually jet powered fighter-bombers would enter service.

These amazing aircraft and the men that flew them established a tradition of excellence that the Naval Aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continue today.

Peace

Padre Steve

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The Death Ride Of the Scharnhorst at North Cape

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today was the Second Day of Christmas or as it is also known, the Feast of St. Stephen.

Christmastide is a joyous time for many, but in the course of history there have been times that military men have fought and died in hopeless battles far from their families. Thus it is often a time of sorrow, especially for those that die alone. Among those who died alone in the Arctic darkness of December 26th 1943 were the officers and crew of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst.

Schlachtschiff

The Scharnhorst along with her sister ship Gneisenau were the product of the naval architects of Germany who in the early 1930s designed some of the most beautiful as well as deadly warships of the Second World War.  Following Germany’s rejection of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles the Kreigsmarine enacted a building program to enlarge and modernize the German Navy which then was composed of obsolete pre-Dreadnaught battleships and a few modern light cruisers and destroyers.   The first major units constructed were actually begun by the predecessor to the Kreigsmarine, the Reichsmarine Of the Weimar Republic.  These were the Deutschland class Armored Ships, sometimes called “Pocket Battleships” and later reclassified as Heavy Cruisers. These ships were designed to replace the old pre-Dreadnaught battleships and incorporated electric welds to reduce displacement, diesel engines for extended cruise range to enable them to serve as commerce raiders and a battery of six 11” guns.  While an advance over anything in the German inventory they were outclassed by the British battle cruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse.

However, the first true capital ships built by the Kriegsmarine were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau They were classed as battleships by the Germans, but in reality they were battle cruisers because of their light main battery of 11” guns as opposed to the 14”, 15” or 16” batteries of other nations battleships.  In fact, their main battery was Despite this in displacement and armor protection of the ships was comparable to other battleships of the era and their designed speed of 31.5 knots was superior to almost all other battleships of the era including the British King George V Class and the US Navy’s  North Carolina class.  Only the massive battlecruiser HMS Hood was their superior in speed and firepower.

As built Scharnhorst and Gneisenau displaced 31,000 toms, however at full combat load they both weighed in at nearly 38,000 tons and were 772 feet long.  They had an armor belt that was nearly 14 inches thick.  Armed with a main battery of nine 11” guns and a secondary armament of twelve 5.9 inch guns they also mounted a powerful for the time anti- aircraft battery of fourteen 4.1 inch guns, 16 37mm and 16 20mm anti-aircraft cannons.  Additionally they mounted six 21” torpedo tubes and carried three Arado 196 A3 scout planes.  The main battery was eventually to be replaced by six 15” guns but this never occurred; Gneisenau was taken in hand to mount the new weapons but the conversion was never completed due to Hitler’s anger after the failure of a German task force during the Battle of the Barents Sea in December 1942.

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Scharnhorst firing at HMS Glorious 

Laid down on 15 June 1935 and launched 3 October 1936 Scharnhorst was commissioned 7 January 1939.  Her sister Gneisenau was laid down 6 May 1935, launched 8 December 1936 and commissioned 21 May 1938.  Upon the commencement of the Second World War the two sisters began a reign of destruction on British shipping. In November they sank the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Rawalpindi During Operation Weserübung the pair surprised sank the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers, the only time a Fleet carrier was caught and sunk by battleships during the war.   From January to March 1941 they conducted Operation Berlin against British merchant shipping in the North Atlantic sinking 22 ships before returning to base.

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Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during Operation Cerebus

While in the port of Brest Gneisenau was bombed and torpedoed requiring extensive repairs.  Due to the exposed location of the port the German high command decided to return the ships to Germany along with the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen.  The operation was called Operation Cerberus and it took place from 11-13 February 1942. The ships made a dash up the English Channel which was unsuccessfully contested by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. However, both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were damaged by mines and needed subsequent repairs.  While undergoing repairs in Kiel Gneisenau was further damaged by the Royal Air Force requiring repairs in or to steam to the port of Gotenhafen for repair and conversion.  Although some work was completed she was decommissioned and sunk as a blockship on 23 March 1945.  Following the war she was raised by the Poles and scrapped.

Scharnhorst was repaired following Operation Cerberes and in March 1943 was transferred to Norway where along with Tirpitz, Admiral Scheer, Lutzow (the former Deutschland), Admiral Hipper and Prinz Eugen she became part of a “fleet in being” poised to strike the Allied convoys bound for Russia.

 

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Admiral Bruce Fraser

The German surface ships were a potent force that if the circumstances allowed could devastate the Russia bound convoys and the Commander of the British Home Fleet, Admiral Bruce Fraser was determined to entrap and destroy any of these ships that threatened any convoy. As such in December 1943 Fraser formed a task group built around the HMS Duke of York to be ready to pounce on any German raider that threatened the convoys. His intent was to catch any of these ships, especially Scharnhorst and trap them between the convoys and their base, in conduction with a second task group centered around the cruisers HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk, and HMS Sheffield, Known as Force One, and destroy the German battleship.

The key to British the British operation was Enigma the German code machine and cipher system which they had acquired from captured U-Boats, and which British code-breakers had mastered. The Germans decided to send Scharnhorst and five destroyers to locate and destroy convoy JW-55B which had been spotted by Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft. Because of Enigma, Fraser knew that Scharnhorst would attempt to intercept the convoy and put his plan to set the trap in motion.

Battle_of_North_Cape_26_December_1943_map

Scharnhorst and her escorts set sail on Christmas Day 1943 under the command of Rear Admiral Erich Bey to conduct Operation Ostfront. But Bey was new to command, he had been promoted to Konteradmiral on the day the force sailed, having taken the place of Admiral Oskar Kummetz who had left for Germany to take a long convalescent leave. Bey was an experienced commander, but all of his experience was on destroyers. He was a torpedo expert, but had never served aboard a battleship, or even a cruiser, and he was a a novice when it came to the large caliber guns aboard the Scharnhorst. His position was made worse by the fact that the task force staff had been thinned out by the Navy for few expected it to be sent in combat.

However, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, had decided that given the right conditions, specifically that an exposed convey without heavy support which could be engaged with a high degree of success could be attacked. This convoy was JW-55B, which had been spotted by a German weather observation aircraft on the 22nd Of December. However, the weather was so foul that no further spotting of it or any other British ships was made. There was no question that further air reconnaissance was possible, Berlin was satisfied that the convoy had no support, as German Historian Wolfgang Zank wrote that Berlin followed its motto: “Was nicht gemeldet wird, ist auch nicht da” or “What isn’t reported, isn’t there.” 

Bey wasn’t convinced while still transiting Alta Fjord, he radioed Berlin to inform the high command of how the weather would interfere with the operations of his five destroyers, after all he was a destroyerman and had commanded destroyers in such weather. He was attempting to get the mission called off, but Berlin insisted on the attack. Dönitz replied “I believe in your attacking spirit. Sieg Heil!” With no recourse, Bey put to sea.

However, his destroyers could not keep pace with Scharnhorst so Bey detached them and sailed alone to fight the enemy.

Since Fraser knew that the Germans were coming he had the convoy to temporarily reverse course. This action caused Bey to find nothing where he expected the convoy to be, but he did encounter and engage at long range Fraser’s cruisers including HMS Norfolk, HMS Sheffield both veterans of the the hunt for and sinking of the Bismarck and the HMS Belfast. Scharnhorst’s guns damaged the heavy cruiser Norfolk, but the radar directed fire of the British cruisers landed a hit which knocked out her search radar leaving the German ship virtually blind as the weather worsened and darkness set in.

Bey, thinking he had shaken his pursuers, set course for Alta Fjord at full speed, however, Belfast had maintained contact and Fraser with Duke of York closed the distance and at 1617 her radar picked up the German at a range of 45,500 yards. By 1632 she was 29,700 yards away. Scharnhorst was oblivious to the danger, and at 1648 Belfast illuminated the German ship and Duke of York opened fire at just under 12,000 yards scoring hits which disabled Scharnhorst’s forward turrets and destroyed her airplane hanger. Bey changed course and increased speed, briefly opening the range and momentarily giving the Germans hope, but that was not to be.

At 1820 Duke of York struck a devastating blow on the German ship. A 14” shell pierced the armored belt and exploded in Scharnhorst’s number one boiler room reducing her speed to just 10 knots. Quick repairs were made enabling the ship to steam at 22 knots, but now she was vulnerable to torpedo attacks by the British destroyers.

When he did not find the convoy in the expected location Bey detached his destroyers to expand the search area, leaving Scharnhorst alone to face the enemy.

Rear Admiral Erich Bey

At about 0900 on December 26th 1943 the cruisers of Force One discovered Scharnhorst and the  Battle of North Cape was on. Though little damage was suffered in the first engagement, the radar of Scharnhorst was knocked out, leaving her not only without air support or escort, but blind.

HMS Duke of York firing her main battery

Scharnhorst attempted to flee, but Fraser’s Duke of York  and her four escorting destroyers destroyers intercepted her. Without radar in the blinding snow squalls Scharnhorst was surprise by their appearance. Duke of York’s first radar direct salvos knocked out her forward main battery but the German ship appeared to be making a getaway when a shell from Duke of York hit her number one boiler room and reduced her speed to barely ten knots. Although the German engineers and damage control teams made some repairs and were able to bring her speed back up to 22 knots, the British ships rapidly made up the distance enabling the British destroyers to launch torpedo attacks.

Knowing the ship was doomed Admiral Bey dispatched a message to the high command of the Kriegsmarine: “We will fight on until the last shell is fired.” 

While Scharnhorst attempted to fight off her attackers and escape she was struck by torpedoes from several destroyers as being punished at distance of under 10,000 yards by Duke of York’s 14″ shells, as well as the 6″ shells of HMS Belfast and HMS Jamaica. Savaged by at least 13 hits by Duke of York’s 14” shells and numerous torpedo hits, incapable of further resistance, the German ship capsized and sank, her massive screws still turning at 1945 hours with the loss of all but 36 of her 1968 man crew. Admiral Bey was not among the survivors, though he was spotted in the water

As she sank bow first survivors attempted to abaneon ship. Günter Sträter, who survived amd was rescued noted:

“In the water now the sailors were looking to get the rafts”,… those  who found a place on the rafts sang both verses of the song: ‘On a sailor’s grave, there are no roses blooming.’ I did not hear cries for help. It all happened exactly and without panic. “

Survivors were rescued by the British destroyers HMS wreck was discovered on October 3rd 2000 some 70 miles north of North Cape Norway. Of the ships engaged, only HMS Belfast survives, as a museum ship in the Thames River in London.

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Survivors of Scharnhorst 

Admiral Fraser praised the gallantry of the German ship to his officers later that night saying: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”

After the battle Grand Admiral Erich Raeder who had authorized the sortie was relieved as commander in chief of the navy and was replaced by Grand Admiral Karl Donitz who commanded the U-Boat forces. Hitler was furious and ended most surface naval operations.

800px-Scharnhorst-WHV-April-2011

Memorial to Scharnhorst and her crew at Kiel and the HMS Belfast

I have written many times about the tragedy of war, on land and at sea. Having served in combat zones on land and having been shot at by the enemy, as well as having served at sea on a cruiser I have a sense of what these men must have gone through on that final day of their lives. Though I am a realist and know that such tragedies will likely occur again, in fact I expect them and predict that the United States Navy will see its share of nautical disasters when it faces well equipped and trained opponents.

All that being said, I really do pray for the day that war will be no more and that those who serve in harm’s way will never have to do so again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea

A Futile Sacrifice: The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Throughout history there have been times that commanders have sacrificed themselves and the forces under their command for no good reason. One of the most futile of these instances occurred on December 10th 1941 when Force Z, commanded by Admiral Tom Phillips went into action against Japanese Air Forces off the Malay coast.

HMS Repulse (above) and HMS Prince of Wales (below)

The task force, composed of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse had only recently arrived in the Far East. They had been ordered there by Winston Churchill, against the advice of the Admiralty, and other leaders of the Commonwealth. They were to be accompanied by the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. However, the new carrier had been damaged by grounding at Jamaica in November 1941. Even without the grounding incident it is unlikely that Indomitable could have reached Singapore in time to join the task force and provide it with the air cover necessary for its survival.

Admiral Tom Phillips (R) at Singapore

The Commander of Force Z, Admiral Phillips was considered by many in the Royal Navy to be a “desk Admiral.” He had held few sea commands and never commanded a surface force in combat. However, he had served as Naval Advisor to King George VI, and had gained the attention and favor of Winston Churchill while serving as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Churchill had him appointed as Acting Vice Admiral and later Acting Admiral to command what would become known as Force Z.

His task force arrived at Singapore on December 2nd 1941. When the Japanese attacked on December 8th (to Americans December 7th due to the International Date Line) Phillips decided to sortie to intercept and sink Japanese transports and their escorts. In doing so Phillips fell into a Japanese trap and made it worse by valuing radio silence over air support. He refused to contact or coordinate his moments with the one fighter squadron assigned to support him, No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

No. 453 Squadron (RAAF) Brewster Buffaloes

Disregarding the experience of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, Phillips held air power in contempt, believing it not to be a threat to surface forces, and committed his task force to battle without air support. The result was predictable. Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom of the ocean in under two hours. Hundreds of sailors lost their lives, including Admiral Phillips. They sank no enemy transports, no enemy warships, and downed no enemy aircraft. But even with the support of the 10 Brewster Buffaloes of 453 Squadron, it is highly unlikely that the ships could have survived the Japanese onslaught; Phillips’s decision to sail into harm’s way doomed the fleet, just as much as Churchill’s decision to send it to Singapore did.

It was a complete waste of lives and two fine fast Battleships which could have provided excellent service with Aircraft Carriers of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, had they been sent to Australia and then on to the South Pacific rather than Singapore. But Churchill could not see this, and Phillips was even more myopic. Phillips had never served in combat and his task for would have been better served by a commander like Admiral James Somerville who had commanded a force of carriers, fast Battleships, and cruisers in combat against an enemy who often had air supremacy.

HMS Prince of Wales being Abandoned

Phillips, to be sure was a gallant an honorable man, but he was not up to the task that he was appointed by Churchill to accomplish. As a result, the Royal Navy lost both the Prince of Wales and Repulse, as well as hundreds of gallant and experienced sailors.

As for me, a historian and Naval Officer, it is one of the few operations of the Second World War that brings my anger to a boiling point every time that I think about it. There was no strategic, operational, or tactical benefit to it. Churchill would have been better off to keep the ships in the Atlantic or the Western Indian Ocean. He might have received some political criticism, but what would have that been to the loss of these ships for no strategic, operational, or tactical gain?

So, with that in mind and with the possibility that the Chinese Navy could surprise the United States Navy in the South China Sea, I bid you an unsettled night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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