Are China and India finally heading for their own Cuban Missile Crisis?

More on the India-China border dispute from the Defence Editor of the UK Sunday Express. The British and Chinese drew the border on small scale maps.

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INDIA’s reluctance to join a military alliance and China’s territorial ambitions – as well as its failures to learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis – could lead to major conflict between the two nuclear states, experts predicted last night.
The warnings follow a border skirmish in the Himalayas in which Chinese troops used nail-studded rods to kill 20 Indian soldiers, including their commanding officer.
In his sharpest rebuke to date, India’s PM Narendra Modi warned China that, while India wanted peace, “on provocation, India will give a befitting reply.”
Privately, Indian diplomats attempted to play down any thoughts of escalation, pointing to this week’s Russia-India-China foreign ministers’ meeting.
“The fact that all both India and Russia are still meeting in this week’s trilateral bodes well for de-escalation and the resumption of relations,” said a highly placed source.
But with border issues not on the agenda, and Covid-19 protocols dictating the…

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The West will remain militarily outclassed by China and Russia until it fully embraces AI, warns top General

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India and China have their first deadly clashes in 45 years

https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/06/18/india-and-china-have-their-first-deadly-clashes-in-45-years

Economist report on border clashes between China and India that have now led to the deaths of over 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese o e

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China on collision course for military conflict “within five years”, experts warn

More on the threat from China, this time from the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of the UK Sunday Express

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THE world could witness armed conflict with China “within the next five years”as an increasingly beliigerent Beijing rejects a post Covid-19 world order, a leading China has warned.
It follows a ramping up of tensions following China’s alleged role in allowing the Covid-19 virus to become a worldwide pandemic, and reports last week that it intends to brand large tracts of the South China as its own Air Defence Identifcation Zone.
Also significant is a small increase in the number of countries supporting Taiwan’s admission to the World Health Assembly – a move which China sees as a crack in its territorial claims perpetuating Taipei’s leaning towards independence
Last week a leaked internal report presented by China’s Ministry of State Security to President Xi Jinping revealed that global anti-China sentiment is at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
According to highly placed sources, Xi has been warned to…

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Beijing’s African port ready for aircraft carriers | The Times

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/beijings-african-port-ready-for-aircraft-carriers-2kdns0xsg?shareToken=d500a9e423022d6e9feb05b1b8991f93

Another article from the London Times about Chinese naval expansion. This one says that a new 330m pier at China’s base in Djibouti in east Africa will accommodate either of China’s two aircraft carriers, the 304m Liaoning and the 315m Shandong, although the third Chinese carrier that is currently under construction is believed to be over 400m long.

The article also states that the Pentagon believes thatChina plans to develop a base near Gwadar in Pakistan, although the Chinese have denied this.

 

 

 

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US ‘would lose any war’ fought in the Pacific with China | The Times

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/us-would-lose-any-war-fought-in-the-pacific-with-china-7j90bjs5b?shareToken=e90adea7c355cbfd7d1f198608975f3b

Article from the 16 May edition of the London Times claiming that Pentagon wargames of a US Cina naval war indicate that by 2030 the USN would be defeated because of new Chinese missiles and ships, including attack submarines and aircraft carriers.

Probably a deliberate leak as part of a campaign to increase spending on the USN.

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1917

I saw Sam Mendes’s Western Front First World War film 1917 soon after its full cinema release in January 2020: there were a number of screenings the previous month. In the UK, it is available to buy as a download from 4 May and on DVD a fortnight later, although it is already available in the USA.

Giving away no more than was in the cinema trailer, the film takes place on 6 April 1917. The Germans have just retreated to the Hindenburg Line, a carefully prepared fortified line that was shorter and stronger than their previous one, meaning that it required a smaller garrison. The Germans had suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front in 1916 and had been forced to take over more of the Eastern Front because of huge Austro-Hungarian losses. The Germans called it the Siegfriedstellung [Siegfried Position].

There have been far fewer English language films about the First World War than the Second and even fewer featuring ordinary British soldiers on the Western Front. Many are about aerial dogfights (Wings and The Blue Max) or set in theatres other than the Western Front (Gallipoli, Lawrence of Arabia and The African Queen). British Western Front ones tend to have a low budget (The Trench), be dominated by  lions led by donkeys cliches (Oh What a Lovely War) or concentrate on doomed public school officers (Journey’s End and Testament of Youth) instead of ordinary soldiers. Aces High manages to be two of these categories, transferring the plot and characters of Journey’s End from the trenches to the Royal Flying Corps.

The only Western Front film to win the Best Film Oscar, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is about the Germans. The two unsuccessful nominees, Wings ((1927-28) and Sergeant York (1941), are about Americans, pilots in the former and a real infantryman in the latter.

The films mentioned above are ones principally about the First World War. Doctor Zhivago and others in are excluded because the war plays a part but other events are more important.

Also, they are all dramas, so Peter Jackson’s excellent They Shall Not Grow Old is excluded as it is a documentary that restored and colourised film shot at the time and added the reminiscences of veterans.

It is refreshing to see a film set on the Western Front that has ordinary British soldiers as its principal characters achieve critical and commercial success. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, winning for Cinematography, Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.

In the film 1917, 1,600 British soldiers, commanded by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), have advanced and are about to attack what they believe to be a retreating enemy. The strength of the enemy defences means that they will be massacred. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) must get a message to stop the attack. Normally, this could be sent by underground telephone lines using a secure system called a Fullerphone. However, the line has been cut.

Consequently, Erinmore must send two runners with the message, Lance Corporals Will Schofield (George Mackay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Blake’s brother is serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. There was some criticism of the film from people who had seen only a trailer that a comment in it by Erinmore seemed to say that Mackenzie’s 1,600 men were all from the 2nd Devonshires. A battalion would then be about 800 men. However, Erinmore’s full comment in the film and in a longer trailer make it clear that Mackenzie is commanding a force of two battalions, so 1,600 men is correct.

There is a plot hole here as great efforts were normally made to repair broken telephone lines. Carrier pigeons were also used to carry messages, although this would presumably require Mackenzie to have first sent one of his pigeons to GHQ, since a GHQ pigeon would not know the location of his HQ. The obvious way of sending the message would be to get an aircraft to drop it. However, that would change the film into another aerial one and probably a rather short one.

The other main plot hole is that the Germans started their withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, Operation Alberich, in February 1917. The Allies were well aware of it, so attackers would not be taken by surprise on encountering the new defences.  The Germans had devastated the countryside between their old and new positions and set many booby traps, which slowed the Allied pursuit and allowed the Germans to safely withdraw. Mackenzie launching an attack without artillery support is also improbable.

Reconnaissance aircraft were being sent out to discover more about it. From 9 April, the RFC suffered such heavy casualties supporting the Battle of Arras that the month became known as Bloody April. The Germans then had better aircraft and were fighting over the own lines so could choose when to engage the enemy and when to break off. However, they failed to stop the British carrying out reconnaissance, artillery observation and tactical bombing missions.

Most of the film shows Schofield and Blake’s journey. They move across a wilderness, evading booby traps and struggling to cross a river because the bridge has been destroyed. As the area they are crossing was behind German lines until recently but is now a very wide no man’s land, they encounter Germans, British soldiers with other missions and, less plausibly, a French civilian woman. The battlefield is shown as sometimes being empty and quiet but then suddenly becoming deadly.

It is a good, well made film that deserves its critical and commercial success. but it should not be taken to be historically accurate.

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Top Secret: London Science Museum

I recently attended Top Secret, an exhibition at the Science Museum in London about codebreaking, ciphers and secret communications. It has now finished but will open again at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in October 2020.

The exhibition was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the foundation of GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters], the UK’s Intelligence, Security and Cyber agency. The exhibits came mostly from the historic collections of the Science Museum and GCHQ, with most of the latter never having previously been shown to the public.

Definitions 

Code:  A process that replaces a word or phrase with an arbitrary symbol of group of characters (numbers or letters).

Cipher: A repeatable, standardised process that replaces one character with another to encrypt a message.

Cipher machine: A machine that automatically encrypts a message one character at a time using a cipher.

Key: Use of ciphers is governed by secret settings called a ‘key’ shared between authorised users to make sure only they can decipher the message.

The exhibition generally talked about code-breakers and decoding. I have followed this terminology.

Pre 20th Century

The exhibition began by describing the history of codes and ciphers. In 405 BCE, the Spartan general Lysander is said to have received a secret message that was revealed by winding a piece of parchment round a rod of a particular thickness.

By 50 BCE, simple ciphers that replaced each letter of a word with another were being  used. These were named Caesar Ciphers after the Roman general Julius Caesar, but their use predated him.

Around 850 BCE, the Arab scholar and mathematician al-Kindi became the first person to describe a system of deciphering encrypted messages based on how often a language uses each letter, now known as frequency analysis.

The British government was intercepting and reading encrypted messages long before the foundation of GCHQ. Information found in decoded messages implicated Mary Queen of Scots, exiled in England, in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth of England and put Mary on the English throne. Mary was executed as a result. 

After the War of the Three Kingdoms, also known as the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s government protected itself against plots to restore the monarchy by intercepting and decoding letters from Royalist supporters.

In 1844, the British intercepted and decoded letters from Guiseppe Mazzini, the leading campaigner for Italian unification, who was then living in London. The decoded messages were shown to the government of Austria, which then controlled northern Italy, with the rest of the country being divided into small states.

The bulk of the exhibition was concerned with the 20th and 21st centuries.

First World War

During the First World War, underground telephone networks were laid throughout the trench systems. It was initially possible for the enemy to overhear conversations. However, the Fullerphone, invented by Captain, later Major General Algernon Fuller of the Royal Engineers allowed secure communications and avoided interference between different lines.

German Zeppelins were detected by their radio signals, thanks to a network of Marconi direction finders.

In 1914, Britain had a global network of communications cables. So did Germany, but at the outbreak of war, the Royal Navy cut the German cables. This meant that Germany had to communicate with its overseas embassies by radio, which the British were able to intercept and decode.

The Germans were allowed to use a Swedish cable to the USA and also, for the express purpose of discussing a US attempt to mediate peace, a US one. Both these, however, passed through the UK, enabling the British to intercept them. In particular, the British decoded the Zimmermann Telegram. It proposed that if the German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare caused the USA to declare war on  Germany, Mexico should join the war against the USA and would regain the territory that it had lost to the USA in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 after a victorious war.

Code-breaking during the First World War had been carried out by people from many walks of life, who mostly returned to their pre-war jobs at the end of the war. However, the importance of code-breaking and security in the war led Britain to in 1919 establish the Government Code and Cipher School, renamed GCHQ in 1946.

Attempts were made in the 19th and early 20th century to produce mechanical cipher machines, but these were too easy to break. By the 1920s, more secure electro-mechanical machines were available.

Second World War

In World War II, the Germans had two code machines: the Enigma and the more secure Lorenz. The Enigma was a military version of a machine originally built for commercial use.

Before the war, Marian Rejweski, a Polish code-breaker, worked out the Enigma’s internal wiring, making it possible to decipher its messages, although it was still necessary to work out the settings, which were changed frequently. The Poles shared the results of their work with the British and French, enabling the British code-breakers at Bletchley Park to start reading Enigma messages far more quickly than if they had had to start from scratch.

The messages were intercepted at one of about 40 Y stations around Britain, transcribed, mostly by women and then sent to Bletchley Park to be decoded.

The settings of the Enigma machines changed daily, meaning that it was necessary to work out the rotor settings before decoding messages. Rejweski built an electro-mechanical machine called a Bomba to help with this process. The British version, developed by Alan Turing with Gordon Welchman contributing an important refinement, was called a Bombe.

The British used a modified Enigma machine called a Typex for their coded messages. It remained secure throughout the war. Once the Enigma settings had been worked out by hand and the Bombes, the message was put through a Typex modified to be used as an Enigma receiver.

The Germans had over 100,000 Enigma machines but only about 200 more sophisticated 200 Lorenz machines. The latter were used for the most secret communications between senior commanders. It had 12 rotors and 501 pins, compared with three rotors in an early Enigma machine, increasing to four for naval machines from late 1941. This hugely increased the number of possible settings, making it very difficult to break Lorenz messages. However, a breakthrough was made in August 1941 when a Lorenz operator sent a message twice with only minor changes and using the same settings.

Lorenz                                                                 Enigma

Lorenz v Enigma

Lorenz (left hand column) v Enigma (right)

In 1943, Tommy Flowers, a Post Office Engineer [the British telephone network belonged to the Post Office until privatisation in the 1980s], came up with the idea that an entirely electronic machine could automate the process of working out the Lorenz settings. Many code-breakers were sceptical about using an entirely electronic machine because it would require thousands of unreliable glass valves.

Flowers, however, had the machine, called Colossus, operating by January 1944 and 10 such machines were in use by September 1945. The government regarded these early computers as being too valuable to reveal. Eight were dismantled for parts and GCHQ continued to use the other two for unknown purposes until the mid 1950s. Only a few parts remain today.

Amongst the Lorenz messages decoded after the introduction of Colossus was one that revealed that the German High Command had fallen for the Allied deception plan that the June 1944 landing in France was to take place in the Pas-de-Calais rather than in Normandy.

As well as breaking enemy communications, GCCS was responsible for keeping British government communications secure. The exhibition included a 1941 secure telephone, known as a Secraphone, used by Winston Churchill. This was an early model that could deter only a casual listener, more secure versions were introduced later in the war.

 

Cold War

GCHQ, as GCCS became in 1946, continued in the same roles in peacetime. A secure telephone used by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan to communicate with US President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis scrambled calls so that anybody listening in could not understand what was being said. Secure briefcase telephones that could be used by leaders when away from their offices were later developed. The example on display was used by Margaret Thatcher during the 1982 Falklands War to inform the Ministry of Defence of a change in Britain’s rules of engagement, resulting in the sinking of the Argentinian cruiser ARA General Belgrano.

In 1961, five members of what became known as the Portland Spy Ring were arrested. Three of them, a couple calling themselves Helen and Peter Kroger and a man going under the name of Gordon Lonsdale were KGB agents operating under deep cover. The Krogers were actually called Morris and Lona Cohen whilst Lonsdale was really Colonel Konon Molody of the KGB. The other two, Henry Houghton and Ethel Gee, were British citizens employed at the Royal Navy’s Underwater Detection Establishment.

Houghton and Gee copied secret documents, which they then passed to Lonsdale-Molody. He gave them to the Krogers, who transmitted them to the USSR using a powerful transmitter. They thought that the powerful radio signals from a military base near their bungalow in Ruislip in west London would probably mask their transmissions but GCHQ was able to monitor them and prove that they were in communication with the USSR.

The Krogers' transmitter

The Krogers’ Radio Transmitter,

All five were sentenced to long terms in prison. Lonsdale-Molody and the Kroger-Cohens were swapped for British agents arrested in the USSR. Houghton and Gee were released after serving nine out of 15 years and then married

By the 1970s some countries, notably the USA and the USSR had spy satellites orbiting the Earth. The UK had a network of military communications satellites called Skynet: the first was launched in 1969, 15 years before the first Terminator film featuring Skynet as the villain. However, for spy satellites the UK relied on the USA.

During the 1982 Falklands War, US spy satellites had other priorities in South America. The UK therefore decided to launch its own spy satellite, called Zircon under the guise of it being Skynet IV. The journalist Duncan Campbell found out and made a TV documentary revealing the existence of Zircon. Police raids and a court injunction delayed transmission and had been cancelled on cost grounds by the time that the programme was shown. The case did bring more public attention onto GCHQ.

Today

As well as gathering signals intelligence, GCHQ today is concerned with combating cyber attacks on the UK. In May 2017, a ransomware virus called WannaCry infected the computers of thousands of people and organisations, including those of the British National Health Service. The UK and other countries believe that it originated in North Korea. The exhibition concluded with a number of recordings in which anonymous GCHQ employees talked about their work/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Royal Navy Attacks on Kronstadt, Russia, 1919 and 3 VCs

In 1918, the leading British secret agent in Petrograd, as St Petersburg was then known, was Paul Dukes, code number ST/25. In order to provide a courier service for Dukes two Coastal Motor Boats were based, with the consent of the Finnish authorities, at the Terijoki yacht club on the Finnish of part of the Gulf of Finland, 25 miles from Petrograd and the adjacent Bolshevik naval base at Kronstadt. Augustus Agar, a 29 year old Royal Navy Lieutenant was given command of the CMBs. He was code numbered ST /34.[1]

The first CMBs, called 40 footers although they were actually 45 feet long, had a speed of 24.8 knots, an armament of a stern launched 18 inch torpedo and two or four .303 inch Lewis machine guns and a crew of two or three. Later 40 footers had more powerful engines, giving them a maximum speed of 35.1 – 37.8 knots. The subsequent 55 footers were armed with one or two 18 inch torpedoes, four Lewis guns and four depth charges. They had a crew of three to five and could make 35.25 – 41.2 knots. The later 70 footers were minelayers with six  Lewis guns, seven mines or 3 torpedoes, four depth charges, a crew of three to five and a maximum speed of 26 -36 knots depending on their engines.[2]

Agar had qualified as a pilot before the war, but did not serve with the Royal Naval Air Service. He served pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Hibernia, including at Gallipoli, and then in the elderly cruiser HMS Iphigenia, which acted as a depot ship for minesweepers covering the supply routes to Archangel and Murmansk in North Russia. In May 1918, he was assigned to a flotilla of CMB operating from the Essex coast. [3]

Agar successfully landed a courier near Petrograd in June. Dukes then ordered that there should be no more missions until mid-July because of the short nights. Agar then signalled Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming RN, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, requesting permission to take action in support of an anti-Bolshevik Russian garrison that was being bombarded by Bolshevik naval forces. Cumming replied that the CMBs were to be used only for intelligence purposes unless otherwise ordered by the Senior Naval Officer Baltic.[4]

The SNO was Admiral Walter Cowan, an aggressive officer, and Agar was confident that Cowan would retrospectively support any action that he took. On 16 June, his first attempt to attack the Kronstadt Island naval base next to Petrograd had to be abandoned  after one of the CMBs broke down. The next night Agar, commanding the 40 footer CMB4, succeeded in sinking the 6,650 ton cruiser Oleg. On 19 August 1919 the award of the Victoria Cross to Agar was announced. See Naval-History.net for the citation.

Agar made two unsuccessful attempts to pick up Dukes. The first time, a Bolshevik patrol spotted Dukes’s courier. The second attempt failed because their rowing boat sank.[5]

On the night of 17-18 August, Agar in the 40 footer CMB7 led a flotilla of 55 footer CMBs into Kronstadt. He piloted the other boats into the harbour under heavy fire and then covered their withdrawal, again under heavy.

The 55 footers were of two types. The A boats carried one 18 inch torpedo and were capable of 35.25 knots. The BD type had two 18 inch torpedoes and a maximum speed of 35.1 knots.[6]

The flotilla was commanded by 34 year old Commander Claude Dobson, DSO in CMB 31BD. He had previously served in submarines and CMBs. He directed the attack and then torpedoed the 17,400 ton pre-dreadnought battleship Andrei Pervozvanny, before retiring under heavy fire.

Lieutenant Archibald Dayrell-Reed, captain of CMB 88BD was shot in the head and the boat thrown off course. Second in command 26 year old Lieutenant Gordon Steele took the wheel. moved Dayrell-Reed away from the steering and firing position and torpedoed the Andrei Pervozvanny. He then manoeuvred to get a clear shot at the 23,360 ton dreadnought Petropavlovsk, which was partly overlapped by the Andrei Pervozvanny and further obscured by smoke coming from her. However, he managed to fire a torpedo her and to turn away in a tight space, firing his machine guns as his boat exited the harbour under heavy fire. The elderly Russian cruiser Pamiat Azova, which was being used as a torpedo boat depot ship, was sunk by the CMBs.

The Andrei Pervozvanny was not repaired and was scrapped in 1923. The British claimed to have sunk the Petropavlosk in shallow water but the Soviets insisted that she was not damaged. She was renamed Marat and recommissioned in 1922. She was badly damaged by German dive bombers in 1941 at Kronstadt but enough of her hull remained above water for her to be used as a gun battery.[7]

CMB25BD, captained by 25 year old Russell McBean, who had been an early volunteer for CMBs and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after the second Ostend Raid, also torpedoed the Andrei Pervozvanny, before withdrawing under heavy fire.

Acting Sub Lieutenant Edward Bodley, RNR’s CMB72A attacked a Bolshevik destroyer, but the CMB’s steering broke down. It encountered Acting Sub Lieutenant Francis Howard’s CMB86BD, whose engines had broken down and it took in tow.

The other three CMBs were lost: 25BD, 31BD and 72A. Four officers, including Dayrell-Reed, and four petty officers and ratings were killed. They are listed on Naval-History.net.

Dobson and Steele were both awarded the VC and Agar, McBean and Bodley the Distinguished Service Order. Their citations, published on 11 November 1919 are available on Naval-History.net: VC here and DSO here. Six other officers, including Howard, were awarded the DSC.  The award of Distinguished Service Medals to a number of petty officers and ratings for operations in Russia at the same time, but no details of how, where and when they were earned was given.

Agar was a Captain in 1939, commanding the cruiser HMS Emerald. She and her sister ship HMS Enterprise transported five tons of gold to Nova Scotia in order to pay for war materials before the later introduction of Lend Lease. He then commanded a destroyer flotilla and was chief staff officer, coastal forces, before in August 1941 taking command of the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire.

On 5 April 1942 Dorsetshire and her sister ship HMS Cornwall were sunk by Japanese dive bombers in the Indian Ocean. Agar survived but was wounded in the leg, swallowed oil and suffered from the bends, which damaged his lungs. He recovered from the leg wound but was unfit for further sea service. He was President and Captain of the Royal Naval College, Greenwich with the rank of Commodore from 1943-46. He then retired and became a farmer, dying in 1969.

His medals are in the Imperial War Museum in London and CMB4 is in the IWM’s Duxford branch.

Dobson reached the rank of Rear Admiral retiring in 1935 and dying in 1940. His VC is held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Steele was Captain Superintendent of HMS Worcester, a training college for Royal and Merchant Navy Officers from 1929 to 1957, apart from World War II, when he returned to the RN. He was featured in the TV programme This is Your Life in 1958, when he once again met Bodley, who had retired as Commodore of the P&O Line the year before. Steele’s VC belongs to Trinity House. He died in 1981.

MacBean retired from the RN as a Captain after the Second World War and died in 1963.

 

 

[1] K. Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949, pp. 175-76.

[2] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921, p. 100.

[3] H. C. G. Matthew et al, “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, Oxford University Press <<http://www.oxforddnb.com/subscribed>&gt;. Accessed 17 June 2019.

[4] Jeffery, MI6, p. 176.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 100.

[7] Ibid., p. 303.

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Harold Auten VC

Harold Auten was born in 1891. He joined the P&O Line as an apprentice in 1908. He became a member of the Royal Naval Reserve two years later and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant just before the outbreak of the First World War. He was one of the early recruits to the Royal Navy’s force of Q-ships, apparently innocuous merchantmen that carried heavy but concealed armaments in order to lure German U-boats to their doom. He served first on the former collier Zylphia as First Lieutenant.

Whilst serving on the Zylphia, he paid a Portsmouth second hand clothes shop £60 for 80 suits, a scruffy work one and a smarter shore going one for each crewman. He also came up with the idea of making it appear that his ship was on fire by putting a tub full of dried seaweed on her deck and setting it alight.[1]

In June 1917, the Zylphia was torpedoed by a U-boat that did not fall for her trap but remained submerged. She was taken under tow but sank just off the Irish coast at 2320 on 15 June 1917.[2]

By then, however, Auten had become First Lieutenant of HMS Heather, an Aubreitia class sloop. This class were warships designed to resemble merchantmen rather than being armed merchantmen.  Auten took command of her after her captain, Lieutenant-Commander William Hallwright, was killed in an action with a U-boat on 21 April 1917. In this case, the U-boat shelled the sloop, which then launched her “panic party. ” This was a group of sailors who pretended to be abandoning ship in a hurry in the hope of tricking the Germans into thinking that their opponent was a helpless merchantman not worth wasting a torpedo on. The captain of this U-boat was, however, not fooled. He dived his boat and made off.[3]

The Aubreitias did not make good decoys. They did not look like merchantmen if viewed from the bow or quarter and their 92 man crews were too big to carry out a convincing abandon ship routine.[4]

Auten, who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on 6 April 1918, realised this and successfully persuaded Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, commanding the naval forces defending the Western Approaches to put him in command of the Stock Force, an almost new  collier. She was armed with two 4 inch guns, two 12 [76mm] pounders, a 3 [47mm] pounder  and two fourteen inch torpedo tubes.[5]

On 30 July 1918, HMS Stock Force received a radio message stating that a U-boat was operating between the Channel Islands and South Devon.  She first encountered two French seaplanes, which tried to persuade her to steer away from danger, not realising that she was a Q-ship deliberately steering into danger.[6]

The seaplanes eventually left and Stock Force continued on her way until she was struck by a torpedo, which disabled her. The panic party was launched and the U-boat surfaced about half a mile away, a highly risky action by that stage in the war. It is especially strange considering that she was SM UB-80, whose captain, Kapitänleutnant Max Viebeg, had been awarded the Pour-le-Merite, Germany’s highest decoration, and was responsible for the destruction of 51 ships with a total tonnage of 80,000 tons over the course of the war.[7]

The panic party drew the UB-80 to a position 300 yards from Stock Force and in the arc of fire of both her 4 inch guns. They opened fire, wrecking UB-80’s conning tower and scoring numerous hits on her hull. She slipped below, stern first, but survived and returned to port thanks to the strength of her double hull. She was repaired quickly enough to sink a merchantman on 6 September and another 3 days later.[8]

Stock Force was also sinking. Her engines were still working, so Auten headed towards Plymouth. On the way, Stock Force encountered two trawlers who were heading towards the sound of the guns. Auten transferred the wounded to them and tried to get his ship back to port, but she foundered eight miles off the English coast.[9]

Auten was awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation, not published until after the war because of the secrecy of Q-ship operations, but now available on Wikipedia, said that:

H.M.S. “Stock Force,” under the command of Lieutenant Harold Auten, D.S.C., R.N.R., was torpedoed by an enemy submarine at 5 p.m. on the 30th July, 1918. The torpedo struck the ship abreast No. 1 hatch, entirely wrecking the fore part of the ship, including the bridge, and wounding three ratings. A tremendous shower of planks, unexploded shells, hatches and other debris followed the explosion, wounding the first lieutenant (Lieutenant E.J. Grey, R.N.R.) and the navigating officer (Lieutenant L.E. Workman, R.N.R.) and adding to the injuries of the foremost gun’s crew and a number of other ratings. The ship settled down forward, flooding the foremost magazine and between decks to the depth of about three feet. “Panic party,” in charge of Lieutenant Workman, R.N.R., immediately abandoned ship, and the wounded were removed to the lower deck, where the surgeon (Surgeon Probationer G.E. Strahan, R.N.V.R.), working up to his waist in water, attended to their injuries. The captain, two guns’ crews and the engine-room staff remained at their posts.

The submarine then came to the surface ahead of the ship half a mile distant, and remained there a quarter of an hour, apparently watching the ship for any doubtful movement.

The “panic party” in the boat accordingly commenced to row back towards the ship in an endeavour to decoy the submarine within range of the hidden guns. The submarine followed, coming slowly down the port side of the “Stock Force,” about three hundred yards away. Lieutenant Auten, however, withheld his fire until she was abeam, when both of his guns could bear. Fire was opened at 5.40 p.m.; the first shot carried away one of the periscopes, the second round hit the conning tower, blowing it away and throwing the occupant high into the air. The next round struck the submarine on the water-line, tearing her open and blowing out a number of the crew.

The enemy then subsided several feet into the water and her bows rose. She thus presented a large and immobile target into which the “Stock Force” poured shell after shell until the submarine sank by the stern, leaving a quantity of debris on the water. During the whole of the action one man (Officer’s Steward, 2nd Class, R.J. Starling) remained pinned down under the foremost gun after the explosion of the torpedo, and remained there cheerfully and without complaint, although the ship was apparently sinking, until the end of the action.

The “Stock Force” was a vessel of 360 tons, and despite the severity of the shock sustained by the officers and men when she was torpedoed, and the fact that her bows were almost obliterated, she was kept afloat by the exertions of her ship’s company until 9.25 p.m. She then sank with colours flying, and the officers and men were taken off by two torpedo boats and a trawler.

The action was cited as one of the finest examples of coolness, discipline and good organisation in the history of “Q” ships.

Starling was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and Grey, Strahan and Workman the DSC. Tony Bridgland sates that ‘[m]any awards were made for the bravery in the first and last action of Stock Force,’ but I have not been able to find out how many or to whom.[10] Naval-History.net lists all British sailors awarded medals but the secrecy behind Q-ship operations means that the citations for Q-ship sailors omit the name of their ships. Its lists of men killed does not include anybody from HMS Stock Force.

Auten moved to New York after the war, working for the Rank Organisation in the film industry. He later owned a hotel and cinema in Bushkill, Pennsylvania. He remained in the RNR and was employed in organising convoys during World War II, initially with the rank of Commander and later Acting Captain. He was awarded the US Legion of Merit and the Dutch Order of Nassau as a result. He died in 1964. His medals are on display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

 

[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 16, 18.

[2] Ibid., pp. 96-99.

[3] Ibid., p. 135; R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1931), p. 171; R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 95.

[4] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 95.

[5] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 135-36; Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 316.

[6] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 137-38.

[7] Ibid., pp. 138-39.

[8] Ibid., p. 139; Gibson, Prendergast, German, p. 316.

[9] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 139-40.

[10] Ibid., p. 140.

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