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“The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age” Stephen Decatur and the Defeat of the Barbary Pirates

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Anyone who has followed my writings on this site knows that I love Naval history, especially that of the United States Navy. It was one of those subjects that I began reading about in grade school. Since I grew up as a Navy brat it is unsurprising that even after a detour of seventeen and a half years in the Army that I ended up in the Navy.

In 1803 the still very young United States Navy was two years into its campaign against the Barbary Pirates who sailed from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco.  The Navy, which had been disestablished after the Revolution was reestablished by Congress to protect American merchant sailors who were constantly being accosted by British, French, and Barbary ships, on March 27th 1793.

For years the United States like other nations had paid tribute to the rulers of the Rulers of the Barbary states for free passage of its ships in the Mediterranean, as well as hefty ransoms to free the sailors that were enslaved following the capture of their ships.  By 1800 tens of millions of dollars had been paid and in that year the amount of tribute paid was 20% of the government’s total revenue.

In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli demanded the payment of $225,000 tribute from the new President of the United States President Thomas Jefferson. In years past Jefferson had advised against payment of tribute believing that such payment only encouraged the Barbary States to continue their actions as he had when the French demanded similar tribute in 1797.  The anti-naval partisans and even his Republican allies had blocked his recommendations even though Secretary of State John Jay and President John Adams agreed with him.

These partisans insisted that tribute be paid irregardless of the effect on European trade or the fate of American seamen because they believed that the Atlantic trade and involvement in the “Old World” detracted from the westward expansion by diverting money and energy away from the west.  When Jefferson refused to pay tribute, Karmanli declared war on the United States by cutting down the flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli.

Jefferson sent a Naval small force to defend protect American ships and sailors and asked Congress to authorize him to do more as he did not believe that he had the Constitutional power to do more without Congressional approval. Despite the fact that Tripoli had declared war on the United States, Congress did not issue a declaration of war, but instead authorized Jefferson to “employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”

Jefferson sent the best of the United States Navy to deal with the situation and US Navy ships soon began to take a toll on the pirate vessels.  The squadron was composed of ships and commanded by officers that would become legend in the history of the Navy. Commanded by Commodore Edward Preble and included the Brig USS Argus, the Frigates USS Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, EnterprisePhiladelphia, Schooner Enterprise and Brig Syren.  Numerous young officers who would distinguish themselves in the following years served aboard the ships of the squadron.

One of the young officers was the 24 year old Captain of the 12 Gun Schooner USS Enterprise Stephen Decatur the son of a Navy Captain who had entered the Naval service as a Midshipman in 1798 and who had risen rapidly through the ranks due to his abilities and leadership. He was among the few officers selected to remain in service following the end of the Quasi-War with France.  By the time that he took command of Enterprise Decatur had already served as the First Lieutenant of the Frigates USS Essex and USS New York.  After an altercation with British officer while wintering in Malta he was sent home to command the new Brig of War USS Argus. He was ordered to bring her to Europe where he handed over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull who would achieve fame in the War of 1812 as Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution.  Decatur was given command of Enterprise on when he detached from the Argus.

On December 23rd 1803 while operating with the Constitution Decatur and the Enterprise captured the small Tripolitan ketch Mastico which was sailing under Turkish colors.  The small ship was taken to Syracuse where Commodore Edward Preble condemned her as a prize of war, renamed her Intrepid and placed Decatur in command.

Normally such a transfer would be considered a demotion for an officer of Decatur’s caliber; but events at Tripoli had forced Preble to make a bold strike at the heart of the enemy.  On October 31st 1803 the Frigate USS Philadelphia one of the most powerful ships in the squadron, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge was lured into shoal water and ran aground on an uncharted shoal and was captured.  Her crew was taken prisoner an imprisoned while the ship was floated off the reef by the Tripolitans. The ship was partially repaired and moored as a battery in the harbor. For the moment the powerful frigate was out of action until her foremast which had been cut down by Bainbridge in his unsuccessful  attempt to float the ship off the shoal could be replaced.

Burning the Philadelphia

The threat posed by such a powerful ship in the hands of the enemy was too great to ignore. Preble ordered Decatur to man the Intrepid with volunteers and make a plan to destroy the Philadelphia while the ship was at anchor and unable to put to sea.  Decatur took 80 men from the Enterprise and was joined by eight more volunteers  from USS Syren including Lieutenant Thomas McDonough who had recently served aboard Philadelphia and knew the ship well. The Intrepid was re-rigged with the

Under the cover of night of February 16th 1804 Decatur took the former Tripolitan ship into the harbor beneath the dim light of the new moon.  The ship was able to slip past the guns of the forts overlooking the harbor using an Arabic speaking Sicilian sailor to request permission to enter the harbor under the ruse that she was a merchant ship that had lost her anchors in a storm.

The request was granted the and Decatur sailed the Intrepid to bring her alongside the Philadelphia without Securing permission from the Tripitolan watch standers aboard Philadelphia to tie up alongside the frigate. When he drew alongside the massive ship Decatur ordered his crew to board the Frigate. After a brief skirmish with the small contingent of sailors aboard he took control, and after ensuring that the ship was unseaworthy, he and his sailors set the frigate ablaze. When he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished he ordered his men back aboard Intrepid and sailed out of the harbor under the fire of Tripolitan shore batteries and gunboats.

The mission complete Decatur sailed Intrepid back to Syracuse where he was greeted as a hero and became one of the Navy’s legends.  Pope Pius VII publicly proclaimed that “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast, than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most heroic sailors that ever lived and no stranger to daring, said that Decatur’s accomplishment was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.

Decatur leading American Sailors in hand to hand combat against Barbary Pirates at Tripoli 1804 his younger brother Lieutenant James Decatur was killed aboard another gunboat in the action

Decatur would return to command the Enterprise in 1804 and would prove himself again against the forces of Tripoli. He distinguished himself  in the years to come against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War.

In that final Barbary war, Decatur’s squadron decisively defeated the Algerian fleet capturing the Frigate Mashouda and killing the highly successful and chivalrous commander of the Algerian raiding squadron, Rais Hamidu.

Following the defeat of the Algerian fleet, the  Pashas of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli all made peace and reimbursed the Americans for the financial damage that they had done.  His victory ended the terror that the Barbary States had inflicted on Europeans for centuries and helped bring peace to the Mediterranean.  More than any one man Stephen Decatur was responsible for the end their reign of piracy and terror in the Mediterranean.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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“The most bold and daring act of the age” Stephen Decatur and the Burning of the USS Philadelphia at Tripoli

 

“Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Stephen Decatur

This is the latest of a series of articles that I am writing this month in celebration of the brave men and proud ships of the United States Navy on its 236th Anniversary. Thursday October 13th is that day and I ask my readers to wish any United States Navy Sailor that you know a “Happy Birthday” and thank them for their service in this time of war.

Peace

Padre Steve+

In 1803 the United States Navy was two years into its campaign against the Barbary Pirates who sailed from Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco.  For years the United States like other nations had paid tribute to the rulers of these states for free passage of its ships and hefty ransoms to free the sailors that were enslaved following the capture of their ships.  By 1800 tens of millions of dollars had been paid and in that year the amount of tribute paid was 20% of the government’s total revenue.

In 1801 the Pasha of Tripoli Yusuf Karamanli demanded the payment of $225,000 tribute from the new President of the United States President Thomas Jefferson. In years past Jefferson had advised against payment of tribute believing that such payment only encouraged the Barbary States to continue their actions.  The anti-naval partisans and even his Republican allies had blocked his recommendations even though Secretary of State John Jay and President John Adams agreed with him. These partisans insisted that tribute be paid irregardless of the effect on European trade or the fate of American seamen because they believed that the Atlantic trade and involvement in the “Old World” detracted from the westward expansion by diverting money and energy away from the west.  When Jefferson refused the demand and put his beliefs into practice Karmanli declared war on the United States by cutting down the flag at the US Consulate in Tripoli.

Jefferson sent a small force to defend protect American ships and sailors and asked Congress to authorize him to do more as he did not believe that he had the Constitutional power to do more. Congress did not issue a declaration of war but authorized Jefferson to “employ such of the armed vessels of the United States as may be judged requisite… for protecting effectually the commerce and seamen thereof on the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and adjoining seas.”

Jefferson sent the best of the United States Navy to deal with the situation and US Navy ships soon began to take a toll on the pirate vessels.  The squadron was composed of ships that would become legend in the history of the Navy. Commanded by Commodore Edward Preble and included the USS Argus, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, Enterprise, Intrepid, Philadelphia and Syren.  Numerous young officers who would distinguish themselves in the following years served aboard the ships of the squadron.

One of the young officers was the 24 year old Captain of the 12 Gun Schooner USS Enterprise Stephen Decatur the son of a Navy Captain who had entered the Naval service as a Midshipman in 1798 and who had risen rapidly through the ranks due to his abilities and leadership. He was among the few officers selected to remain in service following the end of the Quasi-War with France.  By the time that he took command of Enterprise Decatur had already served as the First Lieutenant of the Frigates USS Essex and USS New York.  After an altercation with British officer while wintering in Malta he was sent home to command the new Brig of War USS Argus. He was ordered to bring her to Europe where he handed over command to Lieutenant Isaac Hull who would achieve fame in the War of 1812 as Commanding Officer of the USS Constitution.  Decatur was given command of Enterprise on when he detached from the Argus.

On December 23rd 1803 while operating with the Constitution Decatur and the Enterprise captured the small Tripolian ketch Mastico which was sailing under Turkish colors.  The small ship was taken to Syracuse where Commodore Edward Preble condemned her as a prize of war, renamed her Intrepid and placed Decatur in command.

Normally such an event would be considered a demotion for an officer of Decatur’s caliber but events at Tripoli had forced Preble to make a bold strike at the heart of the enemy.  On October 31st 1803 the Frigate USS Philadelphia one of the most powerful ships in the squadron under the command of Captain William Bainbridge ran aground on an uncharted shoal and was captured.  Her crew was taken prisoner and the ship floated off by the Tripolians partially repaired and moored as a battery in the harbor until her foremast could be remounted having be cut away by Bainbridge in his  unsuccessful  attempt to float the ship off the shoal.

Burning the Philadelphia

The threat posed by such a powerful ship in the hands of the enemy was too great to ignore. Preble order Decatur to man the Intrepid with volunteers to destroy the Philadelphia at anchor.  Decatur took 80 men from the Enterprise and was joined by eight more volunteers  from USS Syren including Lieutenant Thomas McDonough who had recently served aboard Philadelphia and knew the ship well.

Under the cover of night of February 16th 1804 Decatur took the former Tripolian ship into the harbor beneath the dim light of the new moon.  Posing as a Tripolian ship he was able to slip past the guns of the forts overlooking the harbor using a Sicilian sailor who spoke Arabic to request permission. This was granted and Intrepid approached Philadelphia and when close enough ordered his crew to board the Frigate. After a brief skirmish with the small contingent of sailors aboard he took control of the vessel and set it ablaze. When he was sure that the fire could not be extinguished he ordered his men back aboard Intrepid and sailed out of the harbor under the fire of the shore batteries and gunboats.

Decatur sailed Intrepid back to Syracuse where he was greeted as a hero and became one of the Navy’s legends.  Pope Pius VII publicly proclaimed that “the United States, though in their infancy, had done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast, than all the European states had done for a long period of time.” Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, one of the most heroic sailors that ever lived and no stranger to daring said that Decatur’s accomplishment was “the most bold and daring act of the Age.

Decatur leading American Sailors in hand to hand combat against Barbary Pirates at Tripoli 1804 his younger brother Lieutenant James Decatur was killed aboard another gunboat in the action

Decatur would return to command the Enterprise in 1804 and would prove himself again against the forces of Tripoli. He distinguished himself  in the years to come against the Royal Navy in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War. Decatur’s squadron decisively defeated the Algerian fleet capturing the Frigate Mashouda and killing the highly successful and chivalrous commander of the Algerian raiding squadron Rais Hamidu.  The Pashas of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli all made peace and reimbursed the Americans for the financial damage that they had done.  His victory ended the terror that the Barbary States had inflicted on Europeans for centuries and helped bring peace to the Mediterranean.  Stephen Decatur more than any one man ended their reign of terror against Christian Europe.

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Four of a Kind: The Illustrious Class Aircraft Carriers

HMS Illustrious in 1944

In the mid-1930s the Royal Navy recognized the need to develop and built new Fleet Carriers. The Illustrious Class of four ships was ordered as part of the 1936 Naval Program.  The four ships of the class HMS Illustrious, HMS Formidable, HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable were some of the most important ships to see service in the Royal Navy in the Second World War and would see action in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific.  They were tough ships and all sustained serious damage at least once in their careers that might have sunk other ships.  Different in concept than the Royal Navy’s only modern carrier the Ark Royal they displaced more than the U.S. Navy Yorktown Class and just somewhat less than the following Essex Class ships although they were over 100 feet shorter in length as compared to the American ships.

The class was built with an armored flight deck which covered the hangar deck with both as an integral part of the ship’s structure and defense.  The American ships hanger and flight deck were part of the superstructure with the armored deck being that of the hangar deck itself.  This provided advantages in protection against bombs and later Kamikazes but there was a trade off in both aircraft capacity and the ability for the ships to handle the larger aircraft that came into service following the Second World War.  As designed the ships carried just 36 aircraft as compared with the 80-100 aircraft of the American ships and the 72 that the Ark Royal was rated at.  Later in the war the Royal Navy adopted the American practice of an air park on the flight deck which increased their capacity to up to 70 aircraft. The last ship of the class, the Indomitable was built to a modified deign with an expanded two deck hangar with increased aircraft capacity similar to that of the Ark Royal.  An additional drawback to the design was that any bomb which penetrated the armored flight deck exploded inside the hangar causing deformation to the actual ship’s structure.

British defensive doctrine for these carriers was focused on the passive protection provided by the armored flight deck and by a far heavier anti-aircraft battery than the Yorktown Class and comparable to the Essex Class. This was a different doctrine than that of the Americans and the Imperial Japanese Navy which embarked large air groups believing that the aircraft were integral to the defense of the ship.

The ships displaced 28,919 tons full load and were capable of steaming at 30.5 knots with an operational range of 11,000 nautical miles at 14 knots, far more than any previous Royal Navy carrier but far less than the Essex class which could steam 20,000 nautical miles at 15 knots. The Essex Class ships were had a greater displacement as well as a higher top speed of 33 knots.  The Illustrious class was best suited for operations in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and less suited to the vast expanse of the Pacific where they would spend the last year of the war.

Illustrious under attack by German Bombers

HMS Illustrious: Illustrious was laid down in April 1937, launched in April 1939 and commissioned in May 1940. Upon commissioning she and her air group deployed to the Mediterranean where in the dark days following the fall of France they escorted vital convoys, supported the Royal Army in the war in North Africa and conducted strikes against Italian shore installations and fleet units.  Illustrious launched the first major raid against an enemy shore base by carrier aircraft on 11 November 1940. Her aircraft from number 813, 815, 819 and 823 Squadrons made a night attack on the Naval Base at Taranto sinking the battleship Conte di Cavour and heavily damaging the battleships Andrea Doria and the new battleship Littorio and moderate damage to the Caio Dulio This strike helped cripple Italian naval power and helped give the Japanese inspiration for the Pearl Harbor attack.    On 10 January she suffered severe damage from 6 bomb hits while escorting a convoy near Malta. She was attacked again at Malta causing more damage and she was withdrawn from action and sent to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for repairs. The damage was severe enough to keep her out of the war until May of 1942.  One of her shafts was so badly damaged that it had to be cut away and could not be replaced which reduced her speed to 23 knots. On her return to action she covered the landings against the Vichy French island of Madagascar and the Sicily landings. In 1944 she was in action with the Far East Fleet conducting raids against Japanese held islands in Indonesia and in 1945 was in action as part of the British Pacific Fleet where she saw action at Okinawa where she was hit by two Kamikazes and Formosa where a near miss close aboard by a Kamikaze caused severe damage below her waterline.  She sailed home where she underwent repair until 1946 when she was returned to duty as a training carrier in which capacity she served until she was decommissioned and scrapped in 1954.

Grumman Marlett (F4F Wildcat) on flight deck of HMS Formidable

HMS Formidable: Formidable was laid down in June 1937, launched in August 1939 and commissioned in November 1940.  She actually “launched herself” a half hour before her Christening ceremony which gave her the nickname “The ship that launched herself.”  Formidable saw action in the Mediterranean in 1941 and was heavily damaged by two 1000 kg bombs while escorting a Malta Convoy. This put her out of action for 6 months as she was repaired at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.  On her return she saw service first in the Indian Ocean and then in the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and the Italian Campaign. She also saw service in the Arctic sinking U-331 and in raids against the German Battleship Tirpitz.  She was in action in 1945 against the Japanese with the British Pacific Fleet where she relieved Illustrious after that ship was withdrawn from action. On 4 May 1945 while supporting operations off Okinawa she suffered massive damage from a Kamikaze, temporary repairs kept her in action until hit by another Kamikaze on 9 May. She was withdrawn from action and a fleet review determined that she was not economically repairable in the austere post war years. She was placed in reserve in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1953 with the scrapping taking place in 1956.

HMS Indomitable

HMS Indomitable: Indomitable was built to a modified design which allowed her to operate far more aircraft than her sisters. She was laid down in November 1937, launched in March 1940 and commissioned in October 1941. She was slated to accompany the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to the Far East and the defense of Singapore but ran aground on a coral reef during her shakedown cruise in the Jamaica which prevented that deployment.  After repairs she operated with the Far East Fleet in the Indian Ocean and took part in the invasion of Madagascar in November 1942.  In July of 1942 she took part in the Malta resupply mission Operation Pedestal where she was heavily damaged by two 500 kg bombs which penetrated her flight deck. She was withdrawn to the United States for repairs which lasted until February 1943 when she returned to the Mediterranean.  She took a torpedo hit from a German Ju-88 bomber on 15 June 1943 during the build up to the invasion of Sicily and again returned to the United States for repairs which were completed in February 1944. She then took part in operations with the Far East Fleet in the Indian Ocean before joining the British Pacific Fleet in 1945. She received minor damage from a Kamikaze hit on 4 May 1945 while operating near Okinawa. She finished the war in good shape compared to Illustrious and Formidable but was damaged by an internal fire and explosion in 1947 the damage from which was never repaired. She remained in service until she was placed in unmaintained reserve in 1953 and scrapped in 1955.

HMS Victorious

HMS Victorious: The Victorious was probably the most celebrated aircraft carrier in the history of the Royal Navy. Her World War Two service was remarkable by any standard and she was the only ship of her class to be modernized to carry jet aircraft following the war being refitted in much the same way as the American Essex Class ships were in the 1950s with an angled flight deck.  She was laid down in May 1937, launched in September 1939 and commissioned on 14 May 1941. Within 10 days of her commissioning she was taking part in the Hunt for the Bismarck and her Swordfish torpedo bombers scored one torpedo hit on that ship.  She saw much action in the North Atlantic and Arctic escorting convoys and deterring forays of German raiders into the Atlantic. She served in the Mediterranean during some Malta operations including Operation Pedestal and the Operation Torch landings in North Africa.  Due to the shortage of U.S. Carriers from heavy combat in the South Pacific in 1942 Victorious was “loaned” to the U.S. Navy deployed to operate with the U.S. Pacific Fleet following refits to operate U.S. built aircraft. She operated in the South Pacific from March to September of 1943 with the USS Saratoga in operations against the Japanese to include the New Georgia landings. She returned home and took part in raids against the Tirpitz which put that ship out of action for several months. She deployed to the Far East in 1944 and support operations in the Indian Ocean before being transferred to the British Pacific Fleet.

Victorious on Fire off Okinawa

She was involved in extensive Pacific operations including Okinawa and the raids on mainland Japan. She was stuck on a number of occasions by Kamikazes but remained in action.  After the war she was modernized and remained in service until 1969 when the Royal Navy decided that it was going to end its fixed wing operations and decommission its remaining attack aircraft carriers. She was broken up at Faslane beginning in 1969.

The modernized HMS Victorious

The Illustrious Class ships were great ships which performed admirable work in the Second World War. They and their brave crews continued the proud tradition of the Royal Navy. It is my hope that at least the new Queen Elizabeth Class carriers will be renamed for a ship of this class, preferably Victorious.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Early British Aircraft Carriers: HMS Argus, Furious, Eagle, Courageous, Glorious, Hermes and Ark Royal

The British Royal Navy was the first to grasp the importance of the aircraft carrier and the first to embark on a carrier construction program and establish a Fleet Air Arm. Between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second the Royal Navy would build 7 carriers.  These ships in almost all cases were somewhat experimental as the Royal Navy experimented with flight deck and island designs, arresting systems, catapults and designs. The initial ships were all converted from other types with only two the Hermes and Ark Royal being built from the keel up as carriers.

HMS Furious

HMS Furious: Furious was built as a Courageous class large light cruiser and mounted two 18” guns in single turrets. A flying off platform was added as was a second flight deck aft following the removal of those guns. She operated Fleet Air Arm Sopwith Pups but aircraft that attempted to land on her aft deck encountered severe turbulence caused by the air currents coming around the superstructure and funnel gasses. She was the first ship to land an aircraft underway on August 2nd 1917 during her trials however the pilot Squadron Commander Edwin Dunning was killed when his Pup’s engine choked on a later attempt. After the war Furious was laid up until she was taken in hand for conversion to an Aircraft Carrier between 1921 and 1925.  When she was completed she could operate a 36 aircraft air group. Between the wars she supported Fleet operations and was used in the testing and evaluation of aircraft. She conducted the first night landing on a carrier when she landed a Blackburn Dart on 6 May 1926. She received a number of overhauls and modernizations. During the war she supported numerous fleet operations including the North Africa landings, operations in the Mediterranean and operations against German fleet units in Norway including the Battleship Tirpitz. Her limitations began to show and she was placed in reserve in September 1944 and paid off in April 1945. She was subsequently used to evaluate the effects of explosives on her structure. She was sold for scrap in 1948.

HMS Argus 1918

HMS Argus: The Argus was converted from the Italian Ocean Liner Conte Rosso which was purchases by the Royal Navy with the intent of converting her into an Aircraft Carrier.  She was built with a flush unobstructed flight deck after the Royal Navy’s unsuccessful divided flight deck experiment used on the HMS Furious following her conversion from a Light Battle Cruiser to a carrier. Argus was launched in 1917 and commissioned just prior to the end of the war on September 19th 1918.  Argus was small (15,775 tons) She was only capable of 20 knots and carried 18 aircraft. Like the USS Langley she was not a true frontline though she was used in that role as well as a training ship until the end of the 1920s when she was withdrawn from frontline service. Since she was built before the Washington Naval Treaty she was considered an experimental ship and not counted against Britain.  By the 1930s she was regulated to serving as a tender for remote controlled DH.82B Queen Bees.  During the early part of World War II the Royal Navy suffered heavy losses and the Argus assumed front line duties escorting convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and ferrying badly needed aircraft to Malta for the Royal Air Force. She finally was withdrawn from service in 1944 and used as an accommodation ship until scrapped in 1946.

HMS Eagle 1942

HMS Eagle: Eagle was laid down as the Chilean Battleship Admirante Cochrane prior to World War I and her construction was suspended until the Royal Navy purchased her for completion as a through deck Aircraft Carrier. She was 667.5 feet long and displaced 26,000 tons full load and carried up to 21 aircraft.  She conducted sea trials but was taken back to the shipyard for improvements including an all oil-fired plant, anti-torpedo bulges and a longer island structure. She was commissioned in 1924 an saw much service through the 1920s and 1930s serving in the Mediterranean and the Far East until the outbreak of the Second World War.  With the outbreak of hostilities she was recalled from the Far East where she spent most of her time in the Mediterranean escorting convoys, launching airstrikes against Italian bases and fleet units sinking the submarine Iride and the depot ship Monte Gargano in the Gulf of Bomba on 22 August 1941.

HMS Eagle burning and sinking

She was damaged by near misses by Luftwaffe bombers in October returned to England for repairs before returning to the Mediterranean in February 1942. She and her aircraft were very important in the defense of Malta until she was sunk during another Malta relief mission Operation Pedestal by the German U-Boat U-73 on 11 August 1942.  Hit by 4 torpedoes she sank in 4 minutes with the loss of 160 officers and crew.

HMS Hermes

HMS Hermes: The Hermes was the first carrier built as such from the keel up using a cruiser type hull.  The design of the Japanese carrier Hosho was influenced by Hermes which was launched before Hosho was laid down although Hosho commissioned earlier. Hermes was a pioneer design with a full length flush flight deck and starboard side island structure. She was limited by her small size and slow speed although she could embark almost as many aircraft than could the much larger Eagle. She did have significant limitations including protection, endurance, only 6,000 miles at 18 knots and small air group size which varied from 15-20 aircraft. She primarily served on the China Station until placed in reserve in 1937. In 1939 she was reactivated briefly serving with the Home Fleet before being assigned to the South Atlantic Station. She sailed with HMS Prince of Wales for the Far East in late 1941 but did not accompany the Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore where they would be sunk when trying to intercept a Japanese convoy on December 8th 1941.

HMS Hermes sinking after Japanese air attack new Ceylon

She remained at Ceylon and escaped from the harbor before the Japanese carrier’s arrived, however returning to port she was spotted by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft and attacked by 70 Japanese attack planes which hit her 40 times sinking her with the loss of 307 of her 664 man crew on 9 April 1942.

HMS Glorious and a destroyer taken from Ark Royal at close of Norwegian campaign

HMS Glorious: The Glorious was one of the three Courageous class Battlecruisers designed and built in World War One. Her sister ship HMS Furious had already been taken in hand for complete conversion to an aircraft when the Washington Naval Treaty was ratified. Under the terms of the treaty the Royal Navy had to significantly reduce its number of capital ships.  With their large size and high speed the Courageous class ships, like the American Lexington class were ideal candidates for conversion to aircraft carriers.  Glorious underwent conversion from 1924 until 1930 when she was recommissioned.  With an overall length of 786 feet and full load displacement of 27,859 tons she could carry 48 aircraft and steam at 30 knots. She would spend much of her career in the Mediterranean and undergo modernization from 1934-1935.  At the outbreak of the war she was in the Mediterranean and would take part in the hunt for the German Pocket-Battleship Admiral Scheer in the Indian Ocean until being brought back to the Home Fleet for operations in the Norwegian Campaign.

HMS Glorious sinking picture taken from Scharnhorst

As the British withdraw was completed her Commander requested to steam independently to Scapa Flow to hold a courts martial proceeding against his former Air Group Commander. Sailing with two escorting destroyers Glorious was sighted by the German Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on June 8th 1941.  Unprepared with no Combat Air Patrol up or aircraft at the ready Glorious and her two escorting destroyers were sunk by the German warships. Only 43 of her complement and air group of nearly 1400 men survived.

HMS Courageous entering Malta

HMS Courageous: Courageous like her sister HMS Glorious was taken in hand for conversion to an aircraft carrier in 1924 was recommissioned as such in 1928.  She would serve primarily with the Atlantic and Home Fleets between the wars and upon commencement of hostilities.

HMS Courageous sinking after being torpedoed by U-29 17 September 1939

He became part of a U-Boat Hunter Killer Group and on the 17th of September 1939 barely 2 weeks after the start of the war she was sunk by two torpedoes fired by the U-29 taking with her 518 of her crew including her Captain.  Her loss sent a shudder through the Admiralty and resulted in Fleet Carriers being pulled from this type of duty.

HMS Ark Royal

HMS Ark Royal: Ark Royal was the first truly modern Royal Navy carrier. Designed from the keel up as such she incorporated arresting gear and steam catapults. She also was built with two hangar decks as well as elevators that were integral to the hull and thus protected by the ship’s armor belt. Designed to operate 72 aircraft she normally operated 50-60 as the size and weight of aircraft had increased during the time of her construction and commissioning. Displacing 27,800 tons fully loaded she was 800 feet long and had a top speed of 31 knots and range of 7600 nautical miles (8700 miles) at 20 knots being the only British carrier of the era to compare favorably with her American and Japanese counterparts.  Commissioned in December of 1938 Ark Royal which was intended for service in the Far East was deployed with the Home Fleet and in the Mediterranean until the outbreak of the war. Initially employed on Hunter Killer duty she and her escorting destroyers sank the U-39 on 14 September 1939 followed by the hunt for the Pocket Battleship Graf Spee. She saw action in Norway and was a bulwark of British strength in the Mediterranean where she took part in the attack on the French Fleet at Mes-el-Kébir following the French surrender to Germany and the refusal of the French Commander to either scuttle the fleet or bring to British controlled waters.  She was engaged in numerous engagements and operations including the support of Malta, operations against the Italian Fleet and air strikes on Italian shore installations. She survived frequent air attacks by the Luftwaffe during these operations.  When the Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic Ark Royal was dispatched with Force H to assist in the hunt. Ark Royal’s Fairly Swordfish torpedo bombers found the Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and on their last chance to damage the German behemoth stuck her with a torpedo which jammed the Bismarck’s rudders allowing British Battleships to sink her the following day. She returned to the Mediterranean after this where she was again engaged in protecting convoys bound for Malta. While returning with Force H to Gibraltar following one of these runs on 10 November 1941 she was attacked by U-81 which scored a hit with one torpedo. A combination of poor command response, for which her Captain was found guilty of at court-martial as well as design flaws related to her electric power plant which made damage control nearly impossible once power was lost were responsible for her sinking.

The Royal Navy helped pioneer the development of the aircraft carrier but most of their early ships had significant limitations in design, obsolescent aircraft and poor employment which were responsible for the losses of several of the ships.  However they did contribute to Britain’s ability to survive during the early years of the war.  The ships officers and men of these ships company as well as their air groups helped maintain the sea lanes which kept her in the war and allowed her forces to continue to fight in North Africa during the darkest days of the war.  One can never minimize their service or sacrifice in the especially in the early days of the war.

Today the Royal Navy has no Aircraft Carriers in commission. The last the Ark Royal was paid off this year and it will be nearly a decade before the new Queen Elizabeth class enters service. Until then the Royal Navy will have no capability to project air power in support of any contingency.  Let us hope for Britain that no such contingency arises.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Workhorses: The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers

The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers were the most modern cruisers in the US inventory when war broke out in on December 7th 1941.  The ships were built under the provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.  Displacing 9700 tons to remain within treaty limitations they mounted a powerful armament of fifteen 6” guns mounted in 5 turrets, three forward and two aft.  Their design, especially their armament was designed in response to the large Mogami Class light cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy which initially mounted the same main battery before being converted to Heavy Cruisers.  The layout of the main battery in both classes of cruisers was identical.

Pre-war shot of Honolulu, typical of Brooklyn Class

Authorized in by Congress in 1933 the ships were designed with a large transom which housed the aircraft hangar with twin catapults and crane. This was a departure from previous US cruisers which housed the aircraft and their volatile fuels midships which would prove a liability in combat against the Japanese in the Solomons campaign.  The new hangar design was carried forth on all new cruisers and battleships built by the US subsequent to the Brooklyn Class.

There were 9 ships in the class, one of which the Wichita was completed as a Heavy Cruiser mounting nine 8” guns in triple turrets and is considered a separate one ship class.  In addition to their main battery they mounted eight 5” 25 caliber dual purpose guns and a light AA battery which was continuously increased throughout the war. Their steam turbines produced 100,000 shaft horsepower to give the ships an official speed of 32.5 knots which was exceeded by some of the ships.

The ships Brooklyn CL-40, Philadelphia CL-41, Savannah CL-42, Nashville CL-43, Phoenix CL-46, Boise CL-47, Honolulu CL-48, St. Louis CL-49 and Helena CL-50 were involved in some of the most intense combat of the war serving in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Of the ships one, the Helena was lost in surface combat and several others taking severe damage without sinking.  Half of the surviving ships of the class would serve in foreign navies for many years following the war a testament to their toughness and utility.

The lead ship of the class the Brooklyn served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean where she engaged Vichy warships during the invasion of North Africa and took part in the landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France where she provided naval gunfire support to troops ashore. Following the war she was decommissioned in January 1947 and transferred to the Chilean Navy in 1951 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. She was renamed O’Higgins and served until decommissioned in January 1992 and sold for scrap. She sank while being towed to India for scrapping in November 1992.

Philadelphia had a similar career to Brooklyn. Launched in 1936 and commissioned in 1937 she too served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France.  She was decommissioned in February 1947 and transferred to Brazil in 1951. Renamed Barroso she served until 1973 and sold for scrap.

Late war view of St Louis

Savannah was launched in May 1937 and commissioned in March 1938 and like Brooklyn and Philadelphia served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting amphibious landings, searching for German commerce raiders and blockade runners and supporting various escort missions. At Salerno she was struck and severely damaged by a German FX-1400 radio guided bomb which struck her number 3 gun turret penetrating to the lower handling room where it exploded tearing a large hole in the ship’s bottom and opening a seam in the ship’s side.  Her crew performed heroically to control the damage and get the ship to Malta but she lost 197 sailors in the attack. Following temporary repairs she returned to the United States for repairs and modernization which were complete in September 1944. She served in a number of capacities in the Atlantic and was decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Navy List in March 1959 and sold for scrapping in January 1966.

Nashville was launched in October 1937 and commissioned in June 1938 initially serving in the Atlantic until her transfer to the Pacific Fleet in February 1942.  While in the Atlantic she took part in the Neutrality Patrols and following the commencement of hostilities continued convoy escort duties.  Her first mission in the Pacific was to escort the Carrier Hornet CV-8 on her mission to launch Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Army Air Force B-25s on the Tokyo raid.  Nashville sank a scout vessel which had discovered the task force.  On return from the mission she was assigned to the defense of the Aleutians until November 1942.  She then was transferred to the South Pacific where she participated in raids and bombardments of Japanese shore installations until while shelling Vila Airfield on Kolombangara on the night of 12 May 1943, she had an explosion of powder charges in one of her forward turrets, killing 18 and injuring 17.  The damage required her to be sent to Bremerton for repair and modernization and she would return to duty in August to join carrier task forces in raids in the Central Pacific before again moving to the South Pacific where she participated in the New Guinea campaign and as well as other missions until May of 1944.  She took part in the invasion of Leyte and the Battle of Leyte Gulf guarding beachheads and transports and fending off Kamikazes while providing naval gunfire support to troops ashore. While conducting similar operations off Negros Island she was struck by a Kamikaze with two bombs aboard. Nashville was struck on one of her port 5” mounts the bombs exploding above her deck. The blazing aviation fuel and explosions killed 139 crew members and wounded 190.  Following repairs at Bremerton she went back to the Southwest Pacific lending her battery to landings at Brunei Bay, Borneo, and protecting carriers in the Makassar Straits.  She was decommissioned in June of 1946 and sold to Chile in January 1951 where she was renamed Captain Prat where she served until she was decommissioned in May 1982 and sold for scrap in April 1983.

Phoenix was launched in March of 1938 and commissioned in October of the same year. She became part of the growing Pacific Fleet and was the first modern light cruiser assigned in the Pacific. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and would serve throughout the war in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific and was engaged in heavy operations around New Guinea and other islands in the area frequently involved in shore bombardment, amphibious assaults and raids and having to engage attacking Japanese aircraft.  In September 1944 she was assigned to the covering force of old battleships assigned to 7th Fleet for the invasion of the Philippines.  As part of this force under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf she took part in the destruction of the Japanese Southern Force at the Battle of Surigo Strait where her gunners aided in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Fuso. Phoenix continued operations with 7th Fleet in the Southwest Pacific supporting shore operations and fighting off swarms of Kamikazes without damage to herself. Following the war she was decommissioned in July 1946 and transferred to the Argentinean Navy in April 1951 where she was renamed 17 de Octubre and later General Belgrano. She received a number of modifications while in Argentine service including ASW helicopters and the Sea Cat Air Defense missile system.  Still in active service at the time of the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 she was sent to sea with two destroyers.  She was discovered by the British attack submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sunk on May 3rd 1982 with the loss of 323 men, ending a 44 year career of service to the United States and Argentinean Navies.

Boise was launched in December 1936 and commissioned in August 1938. Following her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. On December 7th 1941 she was in the Philippines after having completed a convoy escort mission.  She was sent south to join the rest of the Asiatic Squadron and our Australian, British and Dutch Allies to for the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australia) task force opposing the southern advance of the Japanese aimed at Java and the Dutch East Indies.  She struck an uncharted shoal on January 29th while conducting operations in the Sape Strait forcing her to return to the United States for repairs. This probably prevented Boise from sharing the fate of most of the rest of the squadron including the HMS Exeter, USS Houston, HMAS Perth and Dutch light cruisers DeRuyter and Java, most of which were sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February. After repairs she returned to the South Pacific where she took part in a number of actions including the Battle of Cape Esperance where she helped sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki. She was damaged in this action and returned to Philadelphia for repairs.  Following her repairs she was dispatched to support the landings on Sicily before returning to the Pacific where she served from January 1944 to June of 1945 conducting almost non-stop operations around New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines. She returned to San Pedro for overhaul and was there when the war ended. She decommissioned in July 1946 and sold to Argentina in January 1951 and commissioned as Nuevo de Julio in 1952.  She served until 1978 when she was decommissioned and was sold for scrap in August 1981.

Honolulu had one of the most active careers while engaged in operations against Japanese Naval units with far less time devoted to gunfire support missions.  She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and following that took part in convoy escort missions until she went north to screen Alaska from Japanese attack in May 1942 a task that she engaged in until November.  She then reported to the South Pacific and was part of operations against the Japanese Fleet in the Solomons. She took part in the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Battle of Kula Gulf where she helped sink a destroyer and the Battle of Kolombangara where she was instrumental in sinking the Sendai class light cruiser Jintsu and a destroyer. She then supported amphibious operations in the Central Pacific including Saipan and Guam and the Leyte Gulf landings in the Philippines.  While operating off Manus Island she was stuck by an aerial torpedo receiving heavy damage which required her withdraw to the United States for major repairs which were still being completed when the war ended. She decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Naval Register in November 1959 and sold for scrap.

St. Louis was launched in April 1938 and commissioned in May 1939. After time conducting neutrality patrols at the onset of the war in the Atlantic she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in November 1940. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and was one of the few major fleet units to get underway and out to sea during the attack.  She supported carrier operations and convoy escort missions until she was sent north to that Aleutians where she operated until October when she returned to the States for a brief overhaul before being assigned to operations in the Solomons. Operating on a nearly nonstop basis against the Tokyo Express she took part in the Battle of Kula Gulf and the Battle of Kolombangara where she received partial credit for the sinking of the Japanese light cruiser Jinstu. During the battle she was torpedoed in the bow and after temporary repairs returned to the Mare Island. Following repairs St. Louis returned to the Solomons in November 1943. She was struck by a bomb which killed 20 crew members on January 14th requiring her to return to Purvis Bay for repairs. The repairs complete she returned to the Solomons until June when she took part in the invasion of the Marshalls at Guam and Saipan. She damaged her number three propeller and had to return to the States for repair following the Guam bombardment.  Upon her return she served at Leyte Gulf until she was hit by two Kamikazes in a short span receiving heavy damage and resulted in the loss of 15 sailors killed, 1 missing and 43 wounded.  She again sailed for repairs and returned to action against the Japanese home islands and Okinawa. Following this she supported operations against Japanese installations on the Asian mainland.  Following the war she took part in the Yangtze River patrol force and then returned to the United States in January 1946.  She was decommissioned in June 1946 and transferred to Brazil in January 1951 being commissioned as Tamandare. She was decommissioned in June 1976 and sold for scrapping in 1980. While being towed to Taiwan for scrapping she sank on August 24th 1980.

Helena firing at Kula Gulf just before being torpedoed and sunk

The Final ship in the class, Helena was launched in August 1939 and commissioned in the following month.  She was at Pearl Harbor and mooed at the 1010 Dock where she was hit by a torpedo and damaged. After repairs she reported to the South Pacific and the Guadalcanal campaign.  She escorted carriers. Helena had the most modern surface search radars and at Battle of Cape Esperance in Iron Bottom Sound, Helena had sunk cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki.  She then took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which a weaker American force turned back a Japanese force with heavy losses on both sides including the Japanese Battleship Hiei and the American cruisers Atlanta, Juneau and 4 destroyers. Helena continued operations in the Solomons and at the Battle of Kula Gulf was sank by Japanese torpedoes fired by destroyers on July 5th 1943.  168 of her sailors were lost in the action. Helena was the first US Navy ship to be awarded the Naval Unit Commendation.

The General Belgrano ex-USS Phoenix sinking after being torpedoed by HMS Conqueror at the Battle of Falkland Islands

The class found its niche in the war primarily in shore bombardment and Naval Gunfire Support as well as in the sharp surface actions in the South Pacific. Only one, Helena was lost.  Six were transferred to South American Navies making and served for many years in those navies. None survive today but the ships were instrumental in the success of many operations.

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