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A Very British Deterrent – BBC

The BBC recently broadcast a programme called A Very British Deterrent. UK viewers can watch it until 4 October from the BBC website, which describes it as follows:

‘With Trident renewed for another generation, A Very British Deterrent tells the story of the remarkable events, eye-watering costs, power relationships and secret deals done half a century ago to secure Britain’s very first submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

In today’s turbulent world, it is a story that is more relevant than ever. At the height of the Cold War, a series of political and technical crises came close to leaving Britain without a nuclear weapon of its own. In a time of unprecedented international tension and with the world locked in a terrifying nuclear arms race, one small loch in Scotland became a crucial bargaining chip to keep Britain in the nuclear game.

Using the personal letters of prime ministers and presidents, eye-witness accounts and once-secret documents, this film explores how the British prime minister Harold Macmillan seized every opportunity to further Britain’s nuclear ambitions, was prepared to trade a Scottish base for a new American weapon, and even jeopardised the crucial Anglo-American relationship to keep Britain an independent nuclear power.’

In 1957 only the USA, USSR and UK had nuclear weapons. In October of that year the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. This meant that it was possible to put nuclear weapons into orbit round the Earth.

Macmillan wrote in his diary that this had a similar impact on American confidence to Pearl Harbor, leading to President Dwight D. Eisenhower being for the first time attacked for not being able to defend the country. Macmillan was close to Eisenhower, having been British Minister-in-Residence at his headquarters for a period during WWII.

Three weeks after Sputnik Macmillan visited Eisenhower in the USA, obtaining what he wanted: access to US nuclear secrets. In WWII the USA and UK were full partners in the development of the atomic bomb, but after the war Congress decided that the US should nit share nuclear secrets with anybody.

The UK then developed its own nuclear weapons and by 1957 had bombers armed with hydrogen bombs. The big problem, however, was not the bomb but a delivery system that could penetrate Soviet defences. The UK developed its own missile, Blue Streak, but it took 30 minutes to get its engine ready, compared with a 4 minute warning of a Soviet attack from space. The UK was too small to conceal land based nuclear missiles or to locate them well away from population centres.

The US had a number of nuclear weapon programmes, including a navy one lead by Admiral Arleigh Burke, the Chief of Naval Operations. Burke proposed putting nuclear missiles on nuclear powered submarines rather than land: the Polaris system.

Burke’s British counterpart,  Admiral Lord Mountbatten, the First Sea Lord, saw Polaris as the solution to the UK’s problem and began a correspondence with Burke, who proposed putting a British officer in the office developing Polaris.

An alternative US project was Skybolt, an air launched nuclear missile with a range of 2,000 miles. It would be cheaper than Polaris because it could be fitted to existing bombers.

In March 1960 Eisenhower and Macmillan met at Camp David, officially to discuss future summit meetings involving themselves and other world leaders. The two, however, also had a meeting at the Eisenhower family farm at Gettysburg. According to Eisenhower’s grandson David, who witnessed their arrival, they were not accompanied by anybody else, not even security personnel.

Eisenhower offered Skybolt, but not Polaris, to the UK. In return he wanted a base for US Polaris submarines in Europe and thought that Scotland was the best location. The cancellation of Blue Streak and the acquisition of Skybolt were soon announced, but the US submarine base in Scotland was at first kept secret. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was then holding mass anti-nuclear demonstrations in the UK.

Eisenhower’s chosen site for the submarine base was not in a remote part of Scotland but at the mouth of the Clyde, 25 miles from Glasgow. Macmillan wrote to Eisenhower suggesting a more isolated location but the President wanted a site that offered better access to open seas, good shore facilities and was near an international airport.

Increased international tension meant that Eisenhower wanted to base US Polaris submarines in Scotland as soon as possible. The British felt that this would make it harder to sell to the British population.  Macmillan eventually agreed to the US base at Holy Loch on the Clyde.  He asked that a proposal that US submarines should not be allowed to fire their missiles from within British territorial waters without British consent should be extended to 100 miles. Eisenhower was prepared to offer only a weak assurance about consulting the UK and other allies in the event of a crisis.

In 1961 John F. Kennedy became US President. Despite being from a different generation and with a different world view he saw Macmillan as somebody he could turn to in a crisis, speaking to him every day during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Some of Kennedy’s inner circle argued that the US should not favour one of its European allies over the others by supplying the UK with nuclear weapons. They appeared to have an opportunity to achieve their wish when Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, decided that Skybolt was a waste of money. In early December he unformed the British that all five Skybolt tests so far had failed. The British pointed out that they had cancelled Blue Streak and made themselves completely dependent on the US in return for allowing the US the Holy Loch base.

An Anglo-American crisis then developed. Ahead of a meeting with Macmillan at Nassau in late December Kennedy phoned Eisenhower to check what had actually been agreed. Kennedy’s view was that Skybolt and Holy Loch were separate agreements made at the same time.

The talks between the two leaders at Nassau were fully minuted. Kennedy offered the UK Skybolt, which had cost the US $450m so far, for $100m. Macmillan replied that ‘while the proposed marriage with Skybolt isn’t exactly a shotgun wedding, the virginity of the lady must now be regarded as doubtful.’ Macmillan asked for Polaris and its missiles. Kennedy said that a British Polaris fleet must be: ‘assigned to NATO.’ Macmillan asked what ‘assigned to NATO’ meant and Kennedy replied:

‘that it is in the UK’s interests to define assigned as loosely as possible. These missiles and submarines missiles should be available to the UK for national use only in case of dire emergencies.’

Macmillan thought that this meant ‘a question of absolute survival’ and was concerned that it excluded the defence of British ‘supreme national interests’, such as the British controlled oilfields in Kuwait.

On the second day of the summit Macmillan talked in such a way that made it appear that the UK desired a nuclear deterrent so that it could retain international credibility despite being in decline. He then said that unless the nuclear deterrent could ‘be used when they wish by the British government…he would rather ‘drop the whole idea [and] undertake an agonising reappraisal of our military and political priorities’, suggesting that close ties between the UK and USA might end.

On the third day agreement was reached. The British Polaris submarines would be assigned to NATO but the UK would reserve the right to use them independently, when its ‘supreme national interests’ were at stake.

Macmillan had retired by the time of the 1964 UK General Election in which his Conservatives were defeated by Labour. Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, ordered four Polaris submarines, each costing £600m in current money, despite having previously promised to cancel the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. The submarines and warheads were built in the UK and the missiles bought from the USA. They were based as Faslane, close to the US base at Holy Loch. The USN left in 1992 but the British nuclear force remains at Faslane. Since they came into service in 1969 the UK has always had at least one nuclear missile submarine at sea.

A very interesting programme. Macmillan was very keen to maintain an independent British nuclear deterrent. The only major problems that this gave him with Eisenhower was the President’s insistence on having a nuclear submarine base near a large British city. Later, however, the British decided that the naval and logistic arguments for a base on the Clyde outweighed the political ones for a more remote location. Macmillan initially had more difficulties with the Kennedy Administration. In the end, however, the President put the need to maintain good relations with the USA’s closest ally ahead of the desire of many of his advisers not to favour one European ally over the others.


Filed under Political History, War History

SS Sussex Torpedoed by U-Boat 24 March 1916

In February 1916 Germany announced that from 1 March its U-boats would sink defensively armed British merchant ships without warning. Germany had, under pressure from the USA, abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in September 1915. The Germans claimed that British defensively armed merchantmen had been ordered to attack U-boats before being attacked themselves, so could not be regarded as acting defensively. The Admiralty quickly disproved this accusation by publishing the actual orders.[1]

The German position on the issue of unrestricted submarine warfare is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘somewhat confusing’.[2] The naval and military commanders wanted to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare but Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg were concerned about US opinion. The US government opposed the treatment of armed merchant ship as warships.

Following a conference on 4 March the Kaiser accepted that unrestricted warfare was necessary, with a likely start date of 1 April. Until then, Bethmann Hollweg should attempt to persuade the Americans to accept the German view. In the interim U-boats were authorised to sink enemy merchant ships in the war zone and armed ones outside it. Passenger liners, whether armed or not, could not be attacked anywhere by submerged U-boats. Halpern describes this as ‘sharpened’ rather than unrestricted submarine warfare.[3]

Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German battlefleet had not been invited to the 4 March meeting. He resigned as State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, a job mainly concerned with administration and naval building, soon afterwards.

The Germans had 52 U-boats in March 1916, compared with 29 or 30 when they began unrestricted submarine warfare a year before. Of these 16 were in the North Sea, 20 small and short ranged ones with the Flanders Flotilla, 4 in the Baltic, 7 in the Adriatic and 5 at Istanbul. It was expected that another 38 would be completed by August.[4]

Several Dutch merchant ships were sunk in March, including the 13,911 liner Tubantia, the largest neutral ship sunk during the war. The Dutch were angered by these losses, but the attitude of the USA was far more important to the Germans.[5]

On the afternoon of 24 March the 1,353 ton French packet Sussex was torpedoed and badly damaged by UB29 (Oberleutnant Herbert Pustkuchen) whilst making her regular run from Folkestone to Dieppe with over 325 passengers. The Germans claimed at first that she had hit a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found after she had been towed into Boulogne.[6]

The 50 dead included some of the 25 Americans on board. Pustkuchen claimed that he assumed from her crowded decks that she was a troopship.[7] British troopships then crossed at night between Folkestone and Boulogne.[8] The Germans may not have known that and Pustkuchen, with the very limited view offered by a periscope, may have genuinely thought that he was firing at a troopship. His action, however, created a major diplomatic incident with the USA.

On 19 April US President Woodrow Wilson told Congress that that unless the Germans abandoned ‘their present method of warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Government altogether.’[9]

On 20 April the Germans agreed to stop sinking merchant ships without warning. Four days later Admiral Reinhard Scheer, the recently appointed C.-in-C. of the High Seas Fleet, recalled all his U-boats from the North Sea on the grounds that there was no point in sending boats on dangerous missions when their actions were so restricted. This left only the short ranged boats of the Flanders Flotilla operating against Allied shipping in British waters.[10]

The following table shows Allied shipping losses to U-boats since the end of the period of unrestricted submarine warfare. Sinkings rose in April and May and then fell again, especially outside the Mediterranean, to which several U-boats were transferred in September 1915 so that they could raid Allied commerce in an area where the risk of killing Americans was reduced, although not eliminated. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[11]

Merchant shipping Losses to U-boats
Total Mediterranean
Month Ships Gross tons Ships Gross tons
Oct-Dec 1915 140 361,326 80 293,423
January 1916 25 49,610
February 1916 44 95,090
March 1916 69 160,536
April 1916 83 187,307
May 1916 63 119,381 37 72,092
June 1916 63 93,193 43 67,125

Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 308.

The Germans thought that unrestricted submarine warfare was their best chance of forcing Britain out of the war. However, it also risked bringing the USA into the war on the Allied side. In 1916 they had too few U-boats to achieve the former but pursuing this strategy could still cause the latter.


[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xv, Home Waters part vi, October 1915 to May 1916. p. 94.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 305.

[3] Ibid., p. 306.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 307.

[6] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[7] Halpern, Naval, p. 307.

[8] Naval Staff vol. Xv. p. 139.

[9] Quoted in R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 88.

[10] Ibid., p. 89.

[11] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

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Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website uboat.net lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference Germans was that killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] 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. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.


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The Burning of the White House and the Star Spangled Banner

On 2 June 1814, 2,500 men from Wellington’s army under the command of Major General Robert Ross, like many of his men a Peninsular War veteran, left Bordeaux, arriving at Bermuda on 25 July. Another battalion of 900 men was then added to Ross’s force.

Ross’s force and its naval escort then proceeded to Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay where it joined a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had been appointed to command of the Royal Navy’s North American Station in March. The combined fleet included more than 20 warships, four of them ships of the line, and a large number of transports. Ross’s force was increased to over 4,000 men by the addition of 700 marines.[1]

Cochrane sent frigates up the Potomac and towards Baltimore in order to confuse the Americans before entering the Patuxent. On 19 August Ross’s force made an unopposed landing at Benedict, 50 miles from Washington.. However, the difficulty of including horses in an amphibious operation meant his force lacked cavalry and had only one 6 pounder and two 3 pounder guns, which had to be man-handled.

Jeremy Black notes that:

‘the British could not only take Washington without fatal effects to the American war effort…but…the Americans had the opportunity to withdraw from Washington without losing their capacity to maintain their forces.’[2]

At Bladensburg on 24 August, Ross attacked a larger American force commanded by Brigadier-General William Winder, a lawyer before the war. He had been captured at the Battle of Stoney’s Creek in July 1813, and had only recently been released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Alfred Mahan quotes the subsequent US Court of Enquiry as saying that Winder had 5-6,000 men, all but 400 of them militia. The Navy had provided 120 marines under Captain Miller and the 500 sailors of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, but Barney had to leave some of his men behind to burn their vessels.[3]

Theodore Roosevelt says that the militia fled so quickly that only 1,500 British troops got into action, to be faced by 78 marines under Miller and 370 sailors under Barney with two 18 pounder guns and three 12 pounders.[4]

Mahan gives British casualties as being 64 killed and 184 wounded. He says that only 10 or 12 Americans were killed and 40 wounded ‘by the estimate of their superintending surgeon.’[5] Wikipedia quotes sources giving a range of 10-26 Americans killed, 40-51 wounded and 100-20 captured.  The small number of losses suffered by the losing side indicates how few Americans stood and fought. This should be blamed on politicians who did not make proper provision for the defence of their capital, rather than on poorly equipped, inexperienced and badly led citizen soldiers.

The British entered Washington the same night without further fighting. Rear Admiral George Cockburn ordered the destruction of the public buildings and military facilities, including the White House. Black comments that this was done:

‘in retaliation for American destructiveness at York in 1813, an attempt at equivalence not generally mentioned in American public history where the emphasis, instead, is in damage by the British.’[6]

It is often claimed that the White House is so called because it was painted white to hide the scorch marks from the burning. In fact it is built of white-grey sandstone;  the name was used unofficially from about 1810, when it was officially named the Executive Mansion, but it did not become the official name until 1902: see the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s website.

Ross ordered that private property should not be destroyed. This was obeyed, with the exception of a small number of buildings whose occupants resisted the invaders. British looters were flogged.

The Americans themselves burnt the Navy Yard, its stores and supplies and two warships that were almost complete: the 44 gun frigate USS Columbia and the 18 gun USS Argus. The damage from this destruction alone was estimated to have cost $500,000.[7]

The invaders re-embarked on 30 August and landed at North Point, 10 miles from Baltimore. A force of Maryland militia confronted Ross and his advance guard. The British attacked and the Americans, assuming that they were heavily outnumbered, retreated, but Ross was killed.

The British, now under Colonel Arthur Brooke, another veteran, continued to advance, but met more Americans. The British defeated them, but Brooke halted his force a mile and a half from Baltimore as the British believed that the army could not advance further until the navy had overcome Fort McHenry. Baltimore’s defences had been greatly improved by Major General Samuel Smith, a rich merchant who commanded the Baltimore militia and was a Republican Senator.

The naval bombardment was carried out by the rocket ship HMS Erebus and the bomb ketches Devastation, Aetna, Meteor, Terror and Volcano, each carrying a 13 inch mortar with a range of two and a half miles. The bombardment lasted from dawn on 13 September to 7:30 am on 14 September. From 1,500 to 2,000 rockets and bombs were fired, but relatively little damage was done. Only four Americans were killed and 24 wounded.

The British ships stayed out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, with the exception of a short period on the afternoon of 13 September, when they closed the range, before withdrawing again after being damaged by American fire. Ships of that period were vulnerable to forts, so the British were forced to stay at a range where they could do little damage. A night time amphibious assault also failed.

Brooke’s men re-embarked at North Point on 15 September and were taken to Jamaica. From there, they could threaten the Gulf Coast of the USA. The British defeat at Baltimore did not end their blockade of the USA.

The American victory was celebrated by Francis Scott Key in a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was then set to the tune of a British song called The Anacreontic Song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club for amateur musicians. It was renamed The Star Spangled Banner and became the US national anthem in 1931.

HMS Terror was used as a polar exploration ship from 1836; bomb vessels had to be strongly built, so were particularly suited to operating in ice. She was fitted with a steam engine before being sent on the expedition led by Sir John Franklin that set off in 1845 to try and find the Northwest Passage.

The HMS Erebus that accompanied her was not the ship of the same name that had taken part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The entire expedition was lost, but in September 2014 the underwater wreck of Erebus was found.



[1] Troop and ship numbers are from A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol, ii, p. 184

[2] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 167.

[3] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, pp. 185-87

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 44.

[5] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 189.

[6] Black, War of 1812, p. 174.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, location 6238.


Filed under War History

Lundy’s Lane and the Niagara Front in 1814

Major General Jacob Brown, commanding the US Left Division, failed to follow up the US victory at Chippawa on 5 July

1812. He allowed the defeated British, commanded by Major General Phineas Riall, to retreat to Fort George near the mouth of the River Niagara on Lake Ontario.

Brown advanced to Queenston, a few miles south of Fort George, but his force, whose largest guns were 18 pounders, was too weak to assault it. He hoped that 24 pounders might be brought from Sacket’s Harbor, but British control of the lake made this impossible. On 24 July the Americans withdrew behind the River Chippawa in order to re-supply before moving on the Burlington Heights.

Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, ordered a British force under Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker to advance from Fort Niagara along the east bank of the Niagara with the intention of threatening Brown’s lines of communication. Riall was to demonstrate on the west bank

Drummond left York for Fort George on the evening of 24 July, arriving at before daybreak the next day. He had intended to remain there for a day, but on arriving learnt that the Americans had withdrawn and that Riall had advanced after them. He therefore decided to follow with reinforcements.

Brown became aware of Tucker’s advance and decided that his best course of action was to move towards Queenston in order to force Tucker to return to Fort George. His leading unit was the 1st Brigade under Brigadier-General Winfield Scott.

The two armies met at Lundy’s Lane on the evening of 25 July. Both sides aimed to defeat the enemy, rather than to capture territory, but tactically it was a battle for the hill on which the British artillery was positioned. The action is sometimes called the Battle of Niagara Falls.

The position of the guns was crucial and the British ones inflicted heavier casualties because of their higher position. The Americans eventually took the hill and beat off a series of British counter-attacks, but were forced to withdraw overnight because of shortages of ammunition and water.

Donald Graves gives the following figures for troop strengths:

US: 2,508 infantry, 200 artillerymen and 70 cavalry totalling 2,778 men. The Left Division had 14 guns: five 18 pounders, three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. However, probably only nine were present: three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. On 23 July the Left Division had 5,009 men, but many were in garrisons and some were guarding the camp.[1]

Anglo-Canadian: 2,226 British regulars, 852 Canadian regulars and 550 Militia totalling 3,638 men Probable artillery strength was a rocket section and eight guns: two 24 pounders, five 6 pounders and one 5.5″ howitzer.[2] Many accounts of the battle mention the rockets, but Graves says that ‘there is little evidence that these dramatic projectiles caused much damage.’[3]

Drummond had 2,200 men on the field at the start of the battle, and thought wrongly that he faced 4-5,000 Americans.[4]

Official US casualties totalled 860: 173 dead, 571 wounded and 117 missing. Graves notes that many British and Canadian historians think that the true US casualties were higher.[5] However, he argues ‘that Brown’s return was probably as accurate as it could be.’[6]

Official British casualties totalled 878: 84 dead, 559 wounded, 193 missing and 42 captured. This return includes 142 casualties for the Militia, 75 of which were missing. A later return for the Militia one gives 97 casualties, including 36 missing, so some missing may have returned to the ranks. The US claimed 169 prisoners. Graves thinks actual British casualties were probably about 800.[7]

The wounded included Brown, Scott, Drummond and Riall. Riall was captured, lost his left arm and recuperated alongside Scott, who did not serve again in the war.

Jeremy Black notes that ‘both sides claimed victory and produced conflicting contemporary accounts.’[8] Casualties were similar on both sides, but the British were entitled to claim victory on the basis of possession of the ground after the battle.

Brigadier-General Eleazer Ripley, the surviving senior US officer, did not attack again the next morning, but retreated to Fort Erie. The US no longer threatened Canada and had lost the initiative.

The British besieged Fort Erie, but an attack by Drummond on the night of 15 August was defeated: casualties were about 900 attackers and 90 defenders. Brown launched a sortie on the night of 17 September. His men were outnumbered 3,000 to 4,000, but inflicted casualties of about 600 men for the loss of 500 of their own and captured or destroyed much of the British artillery.[9] This American victory forced the British to end the siege.

4,000 US troops under Major General George Izard were moved from Plattsburg to the Niagara front, arriving on 12 October. Izard had 7,000 men, but was reluctant to attack Drummond’s defensive position. The US won a small engagement at Cook’s Mill on 18-19 October, but Drummond did not react; Izard then withdrew to the US shore of the Niagara.

On 5 November Fort Erie was abandoned and destroyed. This largely ended operations on the Niagara Front and the US threat to Canada. However, the performance of Brown’s Left Division was important for American morale and the future of the US Army. It would, according to Alfred Mahan, ‘have been a calamity…had the record for that generation closed with the showing of 1812 and 1813.’[10]

Graves describes the Left Division as being the ‘best led, best trained and most experienced military force [the USA] was to field during the war…With some truth it can be said that the birth of the modern US army occurred not at Valley Forge in 1777-1778 but along the Niagara in 1814.’[11]

[1] D. E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814, Rev. ed. (Toronto: Robin Brass, 1997), pp. 257-58.

[2] Ibid., pp. 261-63.

[3] Ibid., p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 121.

[5] Ibid., p. 196.

[6] Ibid., p. 271.

[7] Ibid., p. 195.

[8] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 156.

[9] Troop strengths and casualties in this paragraph are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. xxi

[10] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905), p. 169. vol. ii,

[11] Graves, Where, p. ix.



Filed under War History

Battle of the Chippewa, July, 1814- when Cousin Jonathan finally received some respect

Excellent blog post about the Battle of the Chippewa 200 years ago from Bruce at History Stuff That Interests Me.

History That Interests Me

This coming Christmas Eve the United States and Great Britain will be celebrating the end of the War of 1812. It was on December 24th, 1814 that the two powers signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict.

It is unclear at this point whether President Obama and PM David Cameron intend to mark the occasion with a grand ceremony. I doubt it. In fact, I bet that many Americans or Brits are even aware that 200 years ago the two countries fought a bitter little war that lasted about 30 months.

While barely remembered in Britain and the US the event has been extensively celebrated in Canada who see it as a type of independence day-an independence not from Britain but from the US because the US took the occasion of the war to invade Canada more than once in an attempt to make it part of the…

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Filed under War History

The Silent War Part 1 – BBC

On 5 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the first episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. The BBC website describes the first episode, titled Know Your Enemy, as follows:

For decades, Britain and America’s Cold War submarines waged a secret war of espionage against the Soviet navy. Deep in the ocean, crews were locked in a game of cat and mouse as each side battled to gain the tactical and technological advantage.

After decades of silence, submariners from both the east and west are now allowed to talk more openly than ever before about how they plotted to win the war beneath the waves. The west’s superior technology allowed them to secretly shadow the Soviet fleet, at close quarters, giving them vital intelligence and the upper hand if war broke out.

Shadowing submarines was dangerous. The film explores close encounters between western and Soviet forces that put the lives of submariners at risk. Candid interviews with British, American and Russian submariners reveal the pressures of lengthy underwater patrols that drove them to the edge of their physical and mental limits.

1950s submarines were little advanced from those of WWII. They were still powered by diesel-electric engines on the surface and rechargeable batteries underwater, limiting the time that they could stay submerged and the speed that they could travel at when underwater. Water supplies were restricted, meaning that even junior officers such as Sandy Woodward, later commander of the RN task force that recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982, were unable to wash whilst at sea. Much of their time was spent giving anti-submarine training for their own side.

NATO was heavily outnumbered on the ground, and had little hope of resisting a Soviet land offensive by conventional weapons. Dr Owen Cote of MIT pointed out that this meant that nuclear weapons were to NATO an ‘incredibly attractive’ way of deterring the Soviets and preserving the status quo. In the 1950s these would be delivered by aircraft or land based missiles. However, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, by the USSR in 1957 left the USA vulnerable to nuclear attack, meaning that its land missiles could be destroyed before they could be launched.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower therefore decided that submarine based nuclear ballistic missiles were required, but the necessary technology did not then exist. Nuclear powered submarines were developed, which were armed with Polaris nuclear ballistic missiles capable of destroying a Soviet city from over 2,000 miles away. They were twice as fast underwater as diesel-electric submarines, and could stay submerged indefinitely. They produced their own water, and the only constraint on their time at sea was food supply. One US nuclear submariner told his wife that in wartime he would be safer on his submarine than she was at home.

The USSR needed to develop its own nuclear missile submarines, but struggled to do so. In the interim it tried to establish a land base for nuclear missiles closer to the USA, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet forces sent to Cuba included four Foxtrot class submarines, which were powered by diesel-electric engines, but each armed with a torpedo with a nuclear warheads. They were detected by SOSUS, a system secretly laid by the USA in the Atlantic to detect submarines. The USN harassed them, forcing them to surface. They would have been destroyed had it been a shooting war, and returned home in disgrace.

This experience convinced the Soviets that they needed nuclear powered missile submarines of their own, building 34 of the Project 667A class in five years. Both sides could destroy the enemy’s land based bombers and missiles, but not its nuclear missile submarines. They were the ideal weapon for the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which meant that neither side would attack the other because it would be destroyed in retaliation. In what was an ideological conflict neither planned to attack, but both feared that they would be attacked. Cote argued that nuclear missile submarines actually made the world more secure, because they deterred both sides from attacking.

Britain launched its first ballistic missile submarines in 1966. Its submarine service worked extremely closely with the American one, with submarines from both countries being based on the west coast of Scotland. Submarines from all three navies went on long patrols, trying to remain undetected. Only a very few officers knew exactly where they were. British captains had sealed orders telling them when to fire. Soviet ones did not know which enemy cities their missiles were aimed at.

By 1970 NATO was concerned at the growing size of the Soviet Navy, fearing that there was no reason for the USSR, which had invaded Czechoslovakia two years before, to have such a large fleet unless it intended to use it. A plan to detect and track all Soviet missile submarines so that they could be destroyed before launching their missiles in the event of war was therefore devised.

Soviet missiles had a range of only 1,300 miles, compared with 2,500 for the Polaris ones used by the RN and USN, so Soviet submarines had to cross the Atlantic in order to be in a position to fire on the USA. SOSUS could detect them, and was now so sophisticated that it could identify different types of submarine. However, NATO needed to know the as much as possible about the acoustic signatures of the Soviet submarines.

In order to obtain this information hunter killer submarines were used to closely track Soviet submarines. The hunter killer boats were also nuclear powered, but armed with only torpedoes, so were smaller and stealthier than the missile submarines. The programme implied that they were a new type, but in fact they predated the missile boats. From 1975, however, the RN and USN hunter killers were given a new role, which was to track Soviet missile submarines in the Atlantic.

The Soviet submarines were first detected by SOSUS. An RN or USN hunter killer submarine would then be ordered to get as close to the Soviet boat as possible, exploiting its advantages of being quieter and having twice the detection range. The objective was to gather as much information as possible about the acoustic signature of the Soviet submarine.

This was dangerous work because the two submarines were so close to each other. One British boat was badly damaged in a collision with what its crew were told was an iceberg. Lord Owen, a former government minister, admitted that it was a Soviet submarine, but the Ministry of Defence has never officially confirmed this. Crews from all three navies were banned from talking about their missions at the time.

NATO was also concerned by the Kiev, the USSR’s first aircraft carrier, which was armed with eight cruise missiles with nuclear warheads as well as aircraft, and was faster than any submarine. In 1977 HMS Swiftsure, Britain’s newest submarine, was sent north to the Barents Sea to gather information on her acoustic signature. This was a difficult and dangerous mission as Swiftsure had to go into the Soviet Northern Fleet’s home waters.

Submarines have their interior lit by only dim red lighting when it is dark outside as it is essential that the light at the bottom of the periscope is at least as dark as that at the top, or else it will be impossible to see anything after dark. As there is only an hour’s daylight per day so far north at that time of the year Swiftsure had only red lighting all day for almost two months.

Her task was made even harder because the Soviets were conducting a major naval exercise when she entered the Barents Sea. However, she was able to get close enough to Kiev to take photographs through the periscope, and to obtain full details of her acoustic signature. This would have enabled NATO to detect and sink her before she got close enough to Europe to fire her missiles in wartime.

This fascinating programme concluded by arguing that the RN and USN hunter killer submarines for two decades obtained vital intelligence that gave NATO ‘a priceless strategic advantage.’ The second episode, to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9 pm on Thursday 12 December, covers the Soviet fight back, weapons under the ice and a disaster at sea.

No overseas co-producers were listed, so those outside the UK will have to hope that their local stations buy it.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated at 11:20 pm on BBC2 on 11 December and at 3:15 am on BBC2 on 22 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do so. The second episode is on BBC2 at 9:00 pm on Wednesday 12 December.


Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History