Tag Archives: USN

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

Japanese attack on Shanghai 8 December 1941

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is extremely well known, but far fewer people know that the Japanese also attacked British and US warships at Shanghai without declaring war. This took place on the same day, although it was 8 December in Shanghai because it was on the other side of the International Date Line.

Britain and the USA both then maintained small naval forces on the Yangtze River in order to protect their interests in China. These included the Shanghai International Settlement, an autonomous district of the city inhabited by Westerners. It was originally protected by British soldiers, US Marines and Royal Navy and United States Navy gunboats, but most of these had been withdrawn by December 1941.

Japan and China had been at war with each other since 1937, when China began to fully resist Japanese encroachments into her territory that had begun in 1931.

By 8 December 1941 the British and US military presence in Shanghai had been reduced to the gunboats HMS Peterel and the USS Wake, which both had skeleton crews as they were being used primarily as communications stations. Even at full strength they would have stood no chance against the Japanese forces present, which included the cruiser HIJMS Izumo;

The Wake displaced 350 tons, normally carried a crew of 59 and was armed with two 3″ guns and eight 0.3″ machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 14, most of them reservist radiomen. Her captain was Lt Cdr Columbus D. Smith, USNR.

Peterel displaced 310 tons, normally carried a crew of 55 and was armed with two 3″ AA guns and eight machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 21 British sailors, plus 19 Chinese locals. Her captain was Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR, a 62 year old New Zealander. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he would have been a merchant navy officer in peacetime.

Neither ship could use her 3″ guns because their crews were small and consisted mostly of radiomen rather than gunners. They could fire the machines guns, but lacked the specialist training needed to operate the bigger guns.

Izumo, sometimes called Idzumo, was an elderly ship that had fought at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. She displaced 9,750 tons and in December 1941 was armed with four 8″ guns, eight 6″ guns, four 3″ guns and one 3″ AA gun. The website linked at the start of this paragraph gives her armament when built.

The Japanese attacked Wake 2 hours after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had not been informed of events in Hawaii, so was taken by surprise and her crew captured.

Peterel was warned by the British Consulate of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so was at action stations. Polkinghorn had orders to scuttle her if the Japanese attempted to capture her, and she was rigged with demolition charges.

A launch full of Japanese Marines approached Peterel. Polkinghorn, trying to win time in order to scuttle his ship and destroy his code books, allowed their officers on board and invited them to discuss matters. They refused to talk, so he ordered them to ‘Get off my bloody ship!’

The Japanese officers returned to their launch, and Izumo, other Japanese warships and shore batteries opened fire. Peterel could return fire only with machine guns, but killed several Japanese, presumably in the launch. Her crew was ready to repel borders with pistols and cutlasses, in the style of Nelson’s navy.

Peterel was sunk, and her crew abandoned ship. Six were killed, some in the water, but 12 managed to get to a Norwegian officered and Panamanian flagged merchant ship, the SS Marizion. The Japanese took them off, and they became PoWs, along with two of the three crewmen who were ashore at the time. Two of the PoWs died in the appalling conditions of Japanese prison camps.

The third man, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist James Cuming joined an American Chinese spy ring and remained at liberty for the rest of the war.

This account of the sinking of Peterel  is based on an account on the website of the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War, a list of casualties and survivors given on the website of the Force Z Survivors Association and a newspaper obituary of Peterel’s last survivor, Able Seaman James Mariner, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. It describes him as being the first British serviceman to fire on the Japanese during WWII

Lt Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross when he returned from captivity after the war. Other members of the crew may also have deserved medals, but the RN is not generous with gallantry awards, and often decorates the captain of a ship as a tribute to the entire crew. Britain has no award equivalent to a US Presidential Unit Citation.


Filed under War History

HMS Shannon Captures the USS Chesapeake, 1 June 1813.

Admiral Sir John Warren took command of Royal Navy forces in North America and the Caribbean in September 1812. By the end of March 1813 he had blockaded the Chesapeake and the Delaware. On 23 March the Admiralty sent him orders to expand the blockade to cover all the American coast.

The British objectives were to defend their trade and to end the war by economic means. Warren would soon have ten 74 gun ships of the line, 30 frigates and 80 smaller ships, which the Admiralty believed would allow him to carry out these tasks, allowing for a third of his ships being under repair and refit at any time. An attack on New Orleans would have made strategic sense, but Warren had only two battalions of Royal Marines, each of 6-700 men. [1]

The British did carry out limited amphibious operations; an attack on the Delaware from 29-31 May resulted in the capture of destruction of over 20 ships.

The US 44 gun frigates were more powerful than any of Warren’s frigates, but would have stood no chance against a British 74. This meant that much of the United States Navy was trapped in harbour. In April the USS President and Congress managed to exit Boston in fog, but had taken only a dozen prizes by September, when they returned to Newport; much of British commerce was sailing in well escorted convoys. In late May the USS United States, Macedonian and Hornet tried and failed to get out of New York

James Lawrence had commanded the USS Hornet when she sailed with the USS Constitution in the cruise that resulted in the capture of HMS Java. On 24 February 1813 the Hornet encountered the brig HMS Peacock. Both ships were armed principally with carronades, which were very powerful but short range guns, so a short range battle ensued.

As with most naval actions in the War of 1812, the more powerful ship won; in this case it was the Hornet, which carried 32 pound carronades; the Peacock had 24 pounders.  Lawrence was promoted from Master Commandant to Captain. He was initially promised command of the 44 gun frigate USS Constitution, then under refit, but this was changed to the 38 gun frigate USS Chesapeake, then at Boston. Lawrence was annoyed at being switched to a smaller ship, but the Chesapeake was ready for sea. Andrew Lambert notes that her crew was ‘a remarkably experienced team of deep-sea mariners.’[2]

Lawrence took command on 20 May, and spent the next 11 days exercising his gun crews. He also replaced some of the weaker officers. He was aware that there was a British frigate off Boston, so the Chesapeake prepared for action on 31 May before sailing the next day.

The British ship was the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Broke. He had carefully studied naval tactics, realising the importance of accurate gunnery and skilful manoeuvre. His gun crews were trained to a high level of efficiency; they could target the masts to immobilise the enemy ship or the decks to kill the crew. He paid for adjustments to the guns with his own money ; the decks were marked to enable every gun to concentrate fire on the same point.

Broke had sent a challenge to Lawrence to a single ship contest. Lawrence had himself challenged HMS Bonne Citoyenne to combat whilst commanding the Hornet, but did not receive Broke’s letter as he had sailed before it arrived.

Shannon had been accompanied by another frigate, HMS Tenedos, but Broke, realising that the Chesapeake would not engage two frigates, had detached her to guard another exit in case Chesapeake tried to slip out under cover of fog.

The two ships were evenly balanced, so the battle would depend on luck and skill.

Shannon had 52 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders, four 9 pounders, one 6 pounder, 16 32 pound carronades and three 12 pound carronades. Her crew was 330, 30 of them raw.

The Chesapeake had 50 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders firing on the broadside and one ahead, two 12 pounders, 18 32 pound carronades and one 12 pound carronade. Her crew was 379.

The US ship had a slight advantage in nominal weight of fire, but was outgunned by a little if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was about 7 per cent less than its nominal value is accepted. Either way, the advantage was not decisive.[3]

The Chesapeake left Boston at 1 pm on 1 June, heading towards Shannon; the visibility was excellent, so both ships could see the other clearly.  In previous frigate actions the Americans had fired at long range, not closing until the enemy was badly damaged. However, the Chesapeake did not have the firepower advantage that the 44 gun US frigates enjoyed. Getting in close had worked for Lawrence when the Hornet had defeated HMS Peacock.

Broke did not want to fight close to Boston, where US gunboats might join in, so moved further away, stopping once Shannon was 15 miles away from Boston and out of sight. The Chesapeake was then 4 miles away and closing. At 5:10 Broke spoke to his crew, encouraging them and ordering his gunners to fire into the enemy hull to kill the American gunners and destroy the guns, rather than trying to dismast her.

At 5:30 it appeared that the Chesapeake might try to cross Shannon’s stern, allowing her to rake the British ship, which would result in devastating damage to her hull. Broke reacted quickly to prevent this happening, but Lawrence was probably intending to fight broadside to broadside; he had loaded his guns with ammunition suitable for destroying the Shannon’s rigging rather firing into her hull.

At 5:40 the American crew gave three cheers, but the British remained silent. Broke believed in fighting as quietly as possible, so that orders could be heard clearly. Lawrence, assuming that he intended to use the tactics that had worked against HMS Peacock, would have aimed to destroy Shannon’s lower rigging. The Chesapeake could then have sat on Shannon’s quarter, firing all her broadside against only a few of the immobilised British ship’s guns. Broke moved to forestall this, and brought his ship broadside to broadside with the American, 40-50 yards apart.

The British opened fire at 5:50; the Americans quickly replied, but many of their gunners were already dead. The Americans scored hits on Shannon, notably on her lower rigging, but were having the worse of the battle. The Chesapeake was sailing faster, with the result that she exposed her stern to the British; her wheel was shot away, and she suffered heavy casualties amongst her officers and petty officers. At one stage it seemed as if the Chesapeake might escape, but she then lost way. A cartridge box exploded on her deck at 5:58.

A boarding action was risky, but Lawrence realised that it was his last option. However, heavy casualties meant that few men answered his call for boarders. He was then mortally wounded, saying ‘Don’t give up the ship’ as he fell.[4]

At 6:00 the ships collided, with one of the British anchors attaching itself to the American port quarter. William Stevens, the British boatswain tied the ships together, losing an arm in the process.

At 6:02 pm Broke led a boarding party onto the Chesapeake; the US Marines tried to resist, but 14 out of 44 had been killed and 20 wounded. Lieutenant George Budd tried to rally the American crew, but was wounded. Broke said that the Americans ‘fought desperately, but in disorder.’[5]

The fighting was apparently over in a couple of minutes. However, three US sailors, perhaps RN deserters who would be executed if taken alive, attacked Broke, inflicting a severe head wound on him. The trio were quickly killed. Broke fell into some quicklime, which had leaked from a barrel hit by a cannon ball. It was used by the Americans as a disinfectant, and this probably saved Broke’s life.

According to Lambert, the dying Captain Lawrence realised that his ship had been taken and exclaimed ‘Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!’[6] The ships had now drifted apart. A small British ensign was raised on the Chesapeake, but was then lowered, before a larger one was raised. This confused one of Shannon’s gun crews, who re-opened fire, killing George Watt, Shannon’s first lieutenant, and killing or wounding five other British sailors.

The British now held the gun deck, but there were only 70 of them, far fewer than the number of Americans below decks. The ships were less than 20 miles off the US coast. Charles Falkiner, Shannon’s fourth lieutenant, told the Americans that there were 300 British on board, and a boat full of Shannon’s marines arrived, making the prize secure.

The ships were of similar size and firepower, with the Chesapeake having the larger crew. Both had brave captains and experienced crews. The main difference was that Lawrence took over his command 12 days before the action whilst Broke had commanded his ship for seven years, bringing it to a high level of efficiency. Lambert argues that:

‘The Americans had nothing to be ashamed of, their gunnery was good, and they fought bravely, but they were beaten by better men, perhaps the best fighting crew that ever went to sea.’[7]

Theodore Roosevelt gives American casualties as 61 killed and 85 wounded and British as 33 killed and 50 wounded.[8] Lambert says that 48 Americans were killed, 99 wounded and 325, including the wounded, captured. Some, probably British deserters, jumped overboard. He gives British casualties as 26 killed and 58 wounded.[9] Shannon hit the Chesapeake 362 times, and was struck 158 times in return.[10]

The two ships, under the command of Provo Wallis, Shannon’s third lieutenant, were repaired before heading for Halifax, Wallis’s home town, arriving on 4 June. Lawrence died just before the ships entered harbour. Delirious, he had exclaimed ‘Don’t give up the ship’ several times during the voyage.[11]

Lawrence and Augustus Ludlow, one of his lieutenants, were buried in Halifax with full military honours, but were soon moved and reburied in first Salem and then New York.[12]

The Chesapeake became HMS Chesapeake, and served in the RN until 1819. Broke was made a Baronet, but did not serve again at sea because of the severity of his wound, which caused him pain for the rest of his life. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on the grounds of seniority in 1830, dying in 1841. Wallis and Falkner were both promoted to Commander.

Wallis, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 12 April 1791, was borne on the books of HMS Oiseau in 1795. The importance of seniority in RN promotion meant influential fathers whose sons intended to join the RN often had them listed on the books of warships years before they went to sea.

Wallis actually went to sea for the first time on HMS Cleopatra in 1805. His last sea going appointment, as C-in-C on the south east coast of South American, ended in 1857. However, he was technically still a serving officer until he died on 13 February 1892, by then Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis. He was on the active list for 96 years, with 52 years of actual service, and was the last surviving British officer to have commanded a warship during the Napoleonic Wars.

[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 2455-90

[2] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 2802.

[3] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 220-21.

[4] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 225.

[5] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 227.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, locations 3352-53.

[7] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3574.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, p. 228.

[9] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, location 3419-20.

[10] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3579.

[11] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3435-36

[12] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3457-58.


Filed under War History

The USS United States Captures HMS Macedonian, 25 October 1812

On 8 October 1812 Commodore John Rodgers’s squadron of the frigates USS President, United States and Congress and the brig USS Argus set sail from Boston. Four days later the United States and the Argus separated from the other ships.

The USS President and Congress returned to Boston on 31 December, having captured nine British merchantmen. They encountered the frigates HMS Nymphe on 10 October and HMS Galatea on 31 October, but were unable to bring either to action. The USS Argus stayed at sea until 3 January 1813, capturing six British merchantmen.

On 25 October 1812 the USS United States, captained by Commodore Stephen Decatur, encountered HMS Macedonian, under the command of Captain John Carden. Their broadsides were:

USS United States: 16 long 24 pounders and 12 42 pound carronades for a total broadside of 888 pounds, reduced to 826 pounds if Theodore Roosevelt’s argument that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its nominal weight is accepted. Roosevelt claims that the United States had a broadside of 11, not 12, 42 pound carronades, reducing her weight of fire to a nominal 846 pounds and an actual 787 pounds).[1]

HMS Macedonian: 14 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounder, one long 9 pounder and eight 32 pound carronades. She also had a single moveable 18 pound carronade, giving a total broadside of 547 pounds, assuming that this gun could bear on the target.

Carden decided not to close the range quickly, although larger guns of the American ship meant that her advantage was greater at longer ranges. Macedonian suffered heavy damage as she cautiously approached her opponent.

Realising that his plan was not working, Carden then tried to close the range more quickly. By the time that the ships were within close range Macedonian had lost much of her rigging and most of her carronades. At 11:15, 90 minutes after the action had begun, she was forced to strike her colours.

British casualties were 41 killed and 63 wounded; six men were killed and five wounded on the American ship. Macedonian’s crew included eight Americans, three of whom were killed. The five survivors joined the USN.

The relative strengths of the two ships meant that the United States ought to have won, but she might have suffered heavier casualties in doing so under a less skilful captain than Decatur.

Alfred Mahan describes Decatur’s performances during the battle as being ‘thoroughly skilful.’[2] Decatur’s duty was to defeat his opponent whilst suffering as little damage as possible to his own ship. Roosevelt is critical of Carden, saying that he ‘was first too timid, and then too rash, and showed bad judgement at all times.’[3]

Carden was court-martialled after his return to Britain, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ship. He was acquitted, but was criticised for his handling of his ship. He was never given another command, although the RN’s system of promotion by seniority above the rank of Captain meant that he eventually became an Admiral on the retired list.

The two ships returned to the USA after Macedonian had been repaired at sea. On 4 December the United States out into New London and Macedonian into Newport. Both subsequently moved to New York. The USS Macedonian was commissioned into the USN after being repaired and remained in US service until 1828.

Mahan notes that it is rather surprising that the two ships were not spotted by the British, who had sent a large number of reinforcements to North America. However, he points out that Admiral Sir John Warren, the British C-in-C, preferred to use his ships to patrol the trade routes rather than stopping US ships from putting to sea.[4]

The RN had three stations in North America and the Caribbean; Halifax, the Leeward Islands and Jamaica. Each had its own commander, meaning that the British naval effort against the USA was unco-ordinated until Warren was appointed to overall command on 3 August 1812. He arrived at Halifax on 26 September.

Mahan notes that the USA had reported 190 prizes and probably taken over 200 before Warren arrived. The British took only 70 prizes in first three months of war. Mahan suggests that this was due to the effect of Rodgers’s first cruise, a lack of British warships on station and the fact that the USA declared war.[5]

One of Warren’s first actions was to propose peace on 30 September. Britain had by then repealed the Orders-in-Council that were one of the causes of the war. On 27 October US Secretary of State James Monroe replied, saying that the USA wanted peace, but that the British must first stop pressing [conscripting] US sailors into the RN. Warren had no powers to negotiate this issue.

The capture of HMS Macedonian by the USS United States followed the taking of HMS Guerrière by the USS Constitution on 19 August 1812 and would be followed by the capture of HMS Java by the Constitution on 29 December 1812.

In each case the US ship was superior to the British one. Roosevelt accepts this but disagrees with British historians who said ‘that this superiority was so great as to preclude any hopes of a successful resistance.’[6]

N. A. M. Rodger notes that the best tactic for the weaker ship was to fire high and from long range, hoping to slow the enemy ship by damaging her enemy’s rigging.[7] This was not the tactic normally adopted by the British, who preferred to close the range and then fire at the enemy’s hull. This normally worked against opponents other than the USN.

Roosevelt argues that British frigates had won actions against European opponents that were as superior to them as were the American frigates to their opponents. He gives a number of examples taken from the French historian Onésime-Joachim Troude’s four-volume Batailles navales de la France .

On 1 March 1799, the 38 gun HMS Sybille captured the larger French  frigate Forte. The French ship’s main guns were 24 pounders; the British ones were 18 pounders. On 10 August 1805 HMS Phoenix took the French frigate Didon. On 8 March 1808 HMS San Florenzo captured the Piedmontaise.

Phoenix and San Florenzo were rated at 36 guns, but Roosevelt says that they had actual broadsides of 13 18 pounders, two nine pounders and six 32 pound carronades, a total of 21 guns with a broadside of 444 Ib.

The Didon and Piedmontaise were rated at 40 guns, but had actual broadsides of 14 18 pounders, two 8 pounders and seven 36 pound carronades, a total of 23 guns with a broadside of 522 pounds. Roosevelt believes that French shot was heavier than its nominal value, giving the two French frigates an actual broadside of around 600 pound. The armaments given for these ships are from Roosevelt; some of the linked websites differ.[8]

Roosevelt argues that the Didon and Piedmontaise’s superiority to HMS Phoenix and San Florenzo was greater than that of the USS Constitution to HMS Guerrière or HMS Java. He also claims that against European opponents during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the British lost only five out of around 200 actions between two ‘ships of approximately equal force (that is, where the difference was less than one half).’[9]

This seems to be a rather wide definition of ‘approximately equal force’, but the point is that British were used to defeating more powerful European opponents at sea. Anglo-American sea actions were normally won by the more powerful ship. The RN had a long tradition of victory, but the USN was a young force.

Thus, victories by the USN over the RN had a much greater impact on morale in both countries than was apparently justified by a dispassionate analysis of the relative strengths of the ships involved.

[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i. pp. 82-88

[2] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, p. 421.

[3] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 139.

[4] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, pp. 422-23.

[5] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 391-92.

[6] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 120.

[7] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 568.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, pp. 120-21.

[9] Ibid., pp. 122-23.


Filed under War History

The USS Wasp in the War of 1812

This post follows on from this one on the US loss of Detroit and the capture of HMS Guerriere by the USS Constitution.

The sloop USS Wasp, captained by Master Commandant Jacob Jones, set sail from the Delaware River on 13 October 1812. Three days later Wasp lost two men and suffered damage to her rigging in a heavy storm. The next evening she observed half a dozen large ships and pursued them, although two of them appeared to be large warships.

The followng morning, 18 October, she caught the convoy, consisting of six merchantmen escorted by the brig HMS Frolic, which had also been damaged in the storm. Frolic’s captain, Thomas Whinyates, ordered his charges to sail east under all sail, whilst Frolic dropped back. Whinyates raised Spanish colours in the hope that Jones would think that his convoy was a Spanish one that Whinyates had seen a few days before, but Jones was not fooled.

Both ships carried 16 32 pound carronades, giving them a very strong close range armament for their size. Carronades were shorter and lighter than the standard naval long gun. A ship could therefore carry more or larger calibre carronades than long guns, but the range of a carronade was only a third to a half of that of a long gun. They were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland, hence their name

The Wasp had little long-range firepower, since the rest of her armament consisted of only two 12 pounders. Alfred Mahan writes that Jones claimed that Frolic carried six 12 pounders, but that the British naval historian James said that Frolic had only two 6 pounders in addition to her carronades. Theodore Roosevelt gives Frolic two 6 pounders and a moveable 12 pounder carronade in addition to her 16 32 pound carronades. J. J. Colledge’s Ships of the Royal Navy states that she had 18 guns, but does not give the types.[1] It is likely that the two ships had similar firepower.

Both ships had an armament biased towards close range combat, so they quickly closed the range and did not start firing until they were 60 yards apart.

Whinyates claimed that his ship produced ‘superior fire’[2], by which he meant that Frolic fired more quickly than the Wasp. The Americans thought that the British fired three broadsides to their two, but the American fire was more accurate.

The Wasp soon lost most of her rigging, but suffered only five men killed and five wounded. Fifteen of Frolic’s crew were killed and 43 wounded. The British ship was left unable to manoeuvre after her masts fell, and the Wasp, which had some control left, boarded. The British, with half the crew, including all the officers, dead or wounded, surrendered.

They were not to remain prisoners for long. The 74 gun third-rate ship of the line HMS Poictiers appeared. The Wasp and Frolic were both too badly damaged to flee and had no chance against Poictiers, so Jones had to surrender.

Whinyates returned to command of Frolic. Wasp was taken into British service, initially as HMS Loup Cervier and then as HMS Peacock. She was lost with all hands in 1814. Jones and his crew were soon exchanged and he was promoted to command the 38 gun frigate USS Macedonian. She had been captured by the USS United States later in October 1812; a forthcoming post on this blog will describe this action.

[1] J. J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of All Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present (London: Greenhill, 1987), p. 143; A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, pp. 414-15; T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. 128

[2] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, p. 412.

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Defeat on Land, Victory at Sea: The Hull Family and the USA in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the origins of the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain.

In mid August 1812 the USA suffered a defeat on land and gained a victory at sea in its war with Britain. On 16 August the US garrison of Detroit surrendered to the British. Three days later the USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere.

The US commanders in these two actions were closely related. Constitution’s captain Isaac Hull’s father died when he was a child. He was then adopted by his uncle William Hull, the man who surrendered Detroit. William was a veteran of the American War of Independence, but had been a civilian ever since. He was appointed a Brigadier-General and given command of the US Northwestern Army because he was governor of Michigan Territory.

The Americans planned to invade Canada early in the war. Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada and acting administrator in absence of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore, did not want to give up territory. He strengthened the militia and looked for Native American support, which he saw as vital. He immediately attacked Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan and took it on 17 July.

General Hull invaded Canada on 12 July at western end of Lake Erie with a force of only 2,500 men, who were untrained.[1] He advanced on Fort Amherstburg on Lake Erie, which had a garrison of only 300 and lacked civilian support. Hull, whose supplies were threatened by Native Americans, hesitated. Captured papers gave the British had intelligence of his plans and strength.

Four skirmishes between 16 and 26 July decided nothing. Colonel Henry Procter rallied the garrison of Amherstburg and, with the help of the Native American leader Tecumseh, obtained the support of the Wyandot tribe. Hull’s supply line was cut at Brownston on 5 August and at Maguaga 4 days later. He retreated to Detroit. The small US garrison of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) tried to do the same, accompanied by some civilians, but were attacked and massacred by the Potawatomis.

Hull believed that he faced a large force of Native Americans, so surrendered on 16 August to Brock in order to avoid a massacre. Brock actually had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Natives. Jeremy Black quotes Shadrach Byfield of the British 41st Foot as saying that when asked for a 3 day ceasefire ‘our general replied that if they did not yield in three hours, he would blow up every one of them.’[2]

Hull was court-martialled in August 1814 and sentenced to death for neglect of duty and cowardice, but the court’s recommendation of mercy accepted. Brock was knighted just before being killed at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October.

The British did not exploit their success at Detroit. Fort Wayne was besieged by 500 Native Americans in late August, but it was relieved on 12 September. Captain Zachary Taylor, the future US President, beat off an attack on Fort Harrison by Tecumseh on 4 September.

The British captures of Detroit and Fort Mackinac impressed the Native Americans and maintained geographical links with them. They were important to the defence of Canada’s western flank. However, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, moved Brock and many of his troops from Detroit to defend in Niagara.

Black argues that Prevost wanted a ceasefire now that the repeal of the British Orders-in-Council had removed one of the causes of the war. This damaged relations with the Native Americans, as Tecumseh realised that a negotiated peace would be bad for them.[3]

Three days later Hull’s nephew Isaac restored the pride of both his country and his family when his frigate the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

Captain Hull had been ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron off New York on the first day of war. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wanted Rodgers to act cautiously and defend US merchant shipping, but Rodgers saw a chance to act aggressively before British reinforcements arrived. He set sail before Hamilton’s orders arrived, intending to attack a West India convoy.

Rodgers’s squadron consisted of the 44 gun frigate USS President and the 18 gun sloop USS Hornet. He also commanded Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron of the 44 gun frigate USS United States, the 38 gun frigate USS Congress and the 16 gun brig USS Argus.

On 23 July Rodgers’s five ships met the 36 gun frigate HMS Belvidera, captained by Richard Byron. He did not know war had been declared, but realised that the US ships were hostile. Belvidera escaped after a brief engagement in which Rodgers was wounded when a gun on the USS President exploded.

Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commanding RN forces at Halifax Nova Scotia, was advised by Augustus Foster, British Minister in Washington, and Andrew Allen, British Consul in Boston, to act cautiously, attacking only US warships, foreign trade and privateers. They hoped for negotiations. US supplies were vital to the British army in Spain. Sawyer in any case had too weak a force to enforce a full blockade.

Captain Philip Broke left Halifax on 5 July. He was captain of the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon,  and also had  the elderly 64 gun 3rd rate HMS Africa and the 32 gun frigate HMS Aeolus under his command. He intended to meet HMS Belvidera and Guerriere and then engage and defeat Rodgers’s squadron. On 15 July Shannon captured the 14 gun brig USS Nautilus, which became HMS Emulous.

Broke met the USS Constitution on 17 July. The wind was initially light, and four days of manoeuvring ensued, before Hull’s ship escaped thanks to what Andrew Lambert describes as ‘a brilliant display of seamanship, skill and resolve.’[4]

Broke joined a convoy of 60 merchantmen escorted by HMS Thetis, an old 38 gun frigate, on 29 July. He expected Rodgers to attack it, but he was pursuing another convoy, 1,000 miles to the east. Broke escorted the convoy to safety before returning to the American coast, sending Guerriere back to Halifax to repair her masts, which had been damaged by lightning.

Guerriere had been captured from the French in 1806 and was in a poor state of repair. In this period captured ships were often pressed into service by their captors, usually retaining their names unless the captor already had a ship by the original name or found it offensive.

Hull headed for Boston. In the absence of orders he then sailed for the Gulf of St Lawrence to raid British shipping. He planned a long cruise, knowing that he was about to be replaced by William Bainbridge, and bought charts of the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa and the River Plate.

On 19 August his 44 gun frigate encountered HMS Guerriere, a 38 gun frigate. The number of guns given is an indication of the size of the ship rather than the actual armament carried. The Constitution had 56 guns and the Guerriere 51. The US ship’s main armament comprised 24 pounders, compared with 18 pounders on her British opponent.

Both ships also carried carronades. These were short barrelled guns of great power but short range, so-called because they were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. Some US 44 gun frigates carried 42 pound carronades, but both these ships had 32 pound carronades.

According to Alfred Mahan, the USS Constitution’s broadside was 736 pounds versus 570 pounds for HMS Guerriere.[5] Theodore Roosevelt claimed that US shot was shown to be 5-9 per cent lighter than its nominal value .He took the midpoint of 7 per cent and reduced the Constitution’s broadside to 684 pounds, compared to 556 pounds for Guerriere. He stated that the American ship had a crew of 456 against 272 on the British vessel, excluding 10 Americans who took no part in the fighting[6]. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere.[7] [p. 79]

The official reports of both Hull and Captain James Dacres, commanding Guerriere, are available online. The two ships sighted each other at 2 pm on 19 August. Dacres realised that the other ship was a warship at 3 pm and beat to quarters, the sailing age equivalent of the modern sounding of action stations/general quarters. Hull recognised Guerriere to be what he called ‘a large frigate’ at 3:30.

At 4:30 Hull shortened sail, making his ship slower but easier to manoeuver and a steadier gun platform. Dacres claimed that he opened fire at 4:10 with his starboard batteries. He then manoeuvred to bring his port batteries into action; port was then referred to as larboard. He times the USS Constitution’s reply at 4:20. Hull says that the first British broadside came at 5:05. Roosevelt puts the first broadside at 5 pm, citing HMS Guerriere’s log, so it is likely there is an error in Dacres’s report. Times quoted hereafter are from Hull’s report.

Until 6 pm HMS Guerriere manoeuvred so as to bring both her batteries into action, but caused little damage. Hull took great care to ensure that his ship was not raked, which means firing down the length of a ship from its bows or stern. The target is smaller than if the side is fired on, so is harder to hit, but hits will pass through more of the ship, thus causing more damage. A stern rake is more damaging than a bow one, because the bow is curved and stronger, so deflects some of the shots.

At 6:05 Hull commenced a heavy fire with all his guns from pistol shot range. This caused heavy damage, whilst the British reply did little damage. Some British shots reputedly bounced off the Constitution’s wooden sides, giving her the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.

A TV documentary called Master and Commander: The True Story attributed this to the quality and thickness of the wood used in her construction. It came partly from southern live oak. a type of tree found only in the Americas, which is much stronger than the white oak used in British ships. The programme was shown in the UK by Channel 5 on 12 April 2012, but was made by the Discovery Channel.

Within 15 minutes Guerriere’s mizzen mast, the rear of her three masts, fell to starboard. It dragged in the water, slowing her and acting like a rudder to turn her to starboard. Hull then manouevred the Constitution to rake Guerriere. The rigging of the two ships became entangled and both prepared boarding parties. A number of men, including Dacres, were wounded by musket fire, but the sea was too heavy for either side to board the other.

Guerriere’s fore and main masts than fell, leaving her helpless. Hull decided to back off and repair the damage to his ship. Half an hour later he returned to the Guerriere. It was too dark to see if she was still flying her colours, so Hull sent Lieutenant Reed in a boat to see if Guerriere had surrendered. Reed returned with Dacres, who had surrendered as his ship was immobile.

The British prisoners were taken on board the Constitution the next day. The Guerriere was too badly damaged to take to port so at 3 pm, so Hull had her set on fire and destroyed at 3 pm. US casualties were seven killed and seven wounded. British ones were 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Constitution ought to have won, given her greater strength, but a less skilful captain than Hull could have lost more men in doing so.

Hull returned to Boston on 30 August as a hero, his ship full of prisoners and wounded. This was the first good news for the USA in the war. The British were not used to defeat at sea and took the news badly, ignoring the fact that Guerriere had been beaten by a stronger ship. According to Andrew Lambert:

Hull had handled his ship very well, exploiting his advantages to the full. Amid the euphoria, and without the prize to prove otherwise, most chose to celebrate Hull’s victory as a fair and equal contest…Instead of pausing for reflection, an unthinking British press blindly accepted the idea of humiliating defeat; the Times blustered that the Navy’s ‘spell of victory’ had been shattered.’[8]

The Americans needed a victory and defeats for the RN were rare in this period. Focus on the fact than the Constitution versus Guerriere was not a contest of equals obscures the major impact of the US victory on American morale.

Dacres was court-martialled, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ships. He was acquitted and given another command in 1814 and later promoted. Lambert points out that his only way of saving his ship was to run away, in which case he would have been ‘cashiered or shot.’ He adds that the Admiralty, short of sailors, were more worried about the loss of men than the loss of an old and worn out ship.’[9]

Rodgers returned to Boston the day after Hull, having captured only 7 merchantmen. His cruise was curtailed by scurvy. Most US frigates were in Boston by early September. The exceptions were the USS Constellation, which was under repair at Washington DC, and the USS Essex.

The Essex, captained by David Porter, carried out a successful cruise, capturing 10 prizes. Porter valued them at $300,000, a figure that Lambert suspects is too high, while accepting that the cruise was very successful.[10] Porter encountered HMS Shannon and a prize that he misidentified as another warship on 4 September. He evaded them and, unable to get into Boston or New York, made for the Delaware River.

[1] Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[4] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.

[6] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 81.


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The Attack on Pearl Harbor by Alan Zimm

The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths and Deceptions (Haverton, PA/Newbury: Casemate, 2011) by Alan D. Zimm analyses the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 by use of operation research techniques.

Casemate, the publisher, say that the book asks:

Questions never before asked or answered on the Japanese attack from an operational and tactical perspective.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941, has been portrayed by historians as a dazzling success, “brilliantly conceived and meticulously planned”. With most historians concentrating on command errors and the story of participants’ experiences, this book presents a detailed evaluation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on an operational and tactical level.
It examines such questions as: Was the strategy underlying the attack sound? Were there flaws in planning or execution? How did Japanese military culture influence the planning? How risky was the attack? What did the Japanese expect to achieve, balanced against what they did achieve? What might have been the results if the attack had not benefited from the mistakes of the American commanders? The book also addresses the body of folklore about the attack, supporting or challenging many contentious issues such as the skill level of the Japanese aircrew, whether midget submarines torpedoed Oklahoma and Arizona, as has been recently claimed, whether the Japanese ever really considered launching a third wave attack, and what the consequences might have been.
In addition, the analysis has detected for the first time a body of deceptions that a prominent Japanese participant in the attack placed into the historical record, most likely to conceal his blunders and enhance his reputation. The centrepiece of the book is an analysis using modern Operations Research methods and computer simulations, as well as combat models developed between 1922 and 1946 at the U.S. Naval War College. The analysis puts a new light on the strategy and tactics employed by Yamamoto to open the Pacific War, and a dramatically different appraisal of the effectiveness of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Zimm subjects the strategy behind the attack, the tactical plan and the actual attack to detailed analysis. He uses the assumptions made by the US Naval War College in its wargames and the outcome of other actions in the Pacific War to evaluate the likely outcomes of various options for both sides.

According to Zimm, Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, wanted to sink at least one battleship as he believed that this would destroy the American will to fight. The battleships were therefore the main targets of the attack, but the carrier aviators who planned it regarded the aircraft carriers as the main threat, and allocated a significant number of aircraft against them.

The Japanese plan was inflexible. B5N Kate bombers that could carry either bombs or torpedoes were allocated to one or the other early on in the planning, and their crews were then trained for only one role, making future changes to the bomb/torpedo mix impossible.

The absence of the carriers from Pearl Harbor was known the day before, but no changes were made in the plan, resulting in a large number of torpedoes being wasted on the target ship USS Utah, an unarmed former battleship. Some authors have claimed that the Japanese mistook her for a carrier because her gun turrets had been removed, but Zimm quotes Japanese reports to show that she was attacked in the belief that she was an active battleship.

The attack was unco-ordinated. The bombs of the D3A Val dive bombers could not penetrate battleship armour. They should either have attacked the battleships in the first wave along with the torpedo bombers in order to suppress their AA fire or else bombed cruisers, which they could sink. Instead, the Vals of the second wave wasted many of their bombs on battleships that they could not sink.

The Kate level bombers, which destroyed the USS Arizona, and the attacks on airfields exceeded expectations. However, more ships would have been sunk if more Kates had carried torpedoes, and sinking cruisers was a better use of the Vals’ bombs than destroying aircraft. The Japanese aircrew were badly let down by a large number of dud bombs.

Yamamoto was willing to attack even without the benefit of surprise. Zimm convincingly shows that this would have resulted in very heavy Japanese casualties and much lower American ones.

Zimm characterises Yamamoto as a gambler, who was willing to take big risks. He included midget submarines in the attack. They achieved nothing and risked alerting the Americans. Zimm shows why the theory that a midget submarine torpedoed the Arizona is highly unlikely to be true.

The Americans ought to have had a warning system that would have given them 40 minutes’ warning. Ships would then have had their watertight doors and hatches closed and their AA guns manned, whilst the fighters would have been scrambled. Zimm therefore disagrees with those who try to exonerate General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel, the US Army and USN commanders.

The attack was a success. The target was to put at least four battleships out of action for a minimum of six months. Yamamoto wanted to destroy at least one battleship, and the Arizona and Oklahoma were lost permanently, but this did not have the psychological effect that he expected. The Nevada was out of service for over six months, and the California and West Virginia did not return to service until 1944, although this delay was partly because they were heavily modernised as well as being repaired. More US aircraft were destroyed than anticipated.

Zimm’s points are that huge risks were taken to achieve this and that a better plan could have inflicted even heavier casualties.

Zimm refutes three well known claims about the battle, which I had accepted until reading his book. The first is that the Japanese should have launched a third strike against shore facilities, including oil tanks. The Navy Yard  was too big to be seriously damaged by the force available. The oil tanks could have been destroyed, but they would have been repaired, and short-term supply shortages could have been met by a re-allocation of Allied tankers. Zimm points out that the Japanese paid little attention to logistics in their planning, so why would they consider disrupting enemy logistics?

He argues that the assertion that there was a heated discussion on whether or not to launch a third strike onboard the Japanese flagship Akagi is a fabrication of Commander Fuchida Mitsuo, the attack leader. Fuchida comes out poorly from this book. Previous research, including this paper by Jonathan Parshall, has doubted his account of the Battle of Midway and his claim to have present at the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The second claim is that it would have been better for the Japanese to meet the Americans at sea. Two of the four battleships that were sunk in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor were subsequently raised and repaired. They would have been lost if they had suffered the same damage at sea.

Zimm points out that the Japanese would not have scored as many hits on ships that were free to manoeuvre at sea and had their AA guns fully manned. The hits would not have been as devastating on ships that had all their watertight doors and hatches closed.

Comparisons with the sinking of Force Z a couple of days later are invalid. The US ships had better AA systems than the British ones, the US force was larger and the British were attacked by more torpedo bombers than were at Pearl Harbor. At sea, the Japanese could have expected to sink only one US battleship, and then only if they had concentrated their attack on a single ship.

The final claim is that the Japanese aviators were exceptionally well trained and mostly combat veterans. In fact, two of the carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were newly completed, and many of their aircrews were just out of training. Not many of the men on the other four carriers were combat veterans, as carrier aircrews had played relatively little part in the Sino-Japanese War.

The book includes an appendix in which Zimm imagines how the Japanese could have carried out a better attack. More torpedo bombers, better co-ordination and superior target selection result in higher US losses. There is no attempt to extrapolate this into a Japanese victory in the war. It is not one of the counter-factuals, popular on the internet, where one change in weapons production or tactics results in an Axis victory in the Battle of Britain/Stalingrad/Midway and thus the war.

This is an excellent military analysis. It is not a book for everyone. It is not one for anybody who does not know much about the battle or the causes of the Pacific War. It will not appeal to those who dislike acronyms, tables or lots of numbers. There are a number of extracts from memoirs, but these are intended to emphasis points in the analysis, rather than trying to show what it was like to be there.

For those who have some knowledge of the battle, but want a deeper analysis, it is highly recommended.

I read a Kindle copy. The text and quotations were clear, but I would advise e-book readers to switch to landscape format when studying the many maps and tables, which are too small to be legible in portrait format.

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United States Declares War on Britain – in 1812

On 18 June 1812 US President James Madison signed a declaration of war on Britain. Madison had made a speech to Congress on 1 June, listing a series of American objections to British policy. This was followed by votes for war of 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate.

The Americans had grievances against Britain because of the impact of Britain’s economic warfare against France on American commerce and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress , or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

According to N. A. M. Rodger, the problem was that most countries then defined nationality by birth, but the USA allowed it to be earned by residence. He notes that Albert Gallatin, the US Treasury Secretary, estimated that half of the 18,000 seamen serving on the deep sea US merchant fleet were British subjects. The US government did not issue official documents of citizenship. US Consuls issued unofficial ones, but they had to depend on a man’s word that he was a US citizens, and there was scope for corruption. This gave the British, short of seamen, an excuse to ignore these documents. Rodger says that recent research shows that about 6,500 US citizens were pressed into the RN, with around 3,800 of them being released. Older sources give higher numbers.[1]

France had introduced  the Continental System in November 1806, banning its allies and conquests from trading with Britain. The flaw in this strategy was that Britain controlled the seas, so British goods could be smuggled onto the Continent. Britain responded with Orders in Council in 1807, which imposed a blockade on France. Click here for copies of the documents that established these two systems.

Ironically, the British government under Lord Liverpool abolished the Orders in Council on 23 June 1812. Because of the slow speed of communication, it did not know that the USA had declared war on Britain five days earlier. Liverpool had become Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval a month previously.

Charles Esdaile says that US exports declined by 40% between 1808 and 1812. This reduced the prices of cotton, tobacco and land. The USA had fought the undeclared Quasi-War at sea with France in 1798-1800 over the actions of French privateers. Problems returned under Napoleon’s rule, but British control of the seas meant that the British Orders in Council had far more impact on the USA than the French Continental System.

In 1807, the Americans attempted to retaliate with a trade embargo on Britain. This was replaced in 1809 with a Non-Intercourse Act that effectively allowed trade with Britain and France via third parties. Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor as President, had hoped to force British concessions by economic means. The failure of this policy led to the election of many proponents of war to Congress in 1811.

As well as the US grievances with Britain, many wanted to expand into Canada, Florida, which was controlled by Britain’s ally Spain and the Indian territories to the West. Tecumseh, the American Indian leader, was allied to Britain.

The US Army had fallen to 3,000 men in 1807, but 13 new regiments were authorised in January 1812, along with 12 ships of the line and 24 frigates for the USN. In February, State militias of 50,000 men were authorised; the number was increased to 100,000 in April. However, the US Army still had, according to Esdaile, only 7,000 men at the outbreak of war. [2]

Britain was now at war with France and the USA, but the two wars were separate conflicts. The only impact of each on the other was that British soldiers and ships could be in only one place at a time.

Russell Weigley points out that there were just 7,000 British and Canadian regulars guarding a 900 mile frontier. Reinforcements could not be sent because the Peninsular War with Napoleon was more important to Britain. The USN had only 16 ships, excluding gunboats. US defence against seaborne invasion depended on harbour fortifications and gunboats. The RN had over 600 warships, including 120 ships of the line and 100 frigates, in 1812. Around 100 were in the western Atlantic, but only one ship of the line and seven frigates were in US  .[3]

[1] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 565-66 and note 9 on p. 743.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 480-85.

[3] R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 46-49.


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This is the abstract of my contribution to A Military Transformed? Transformation and Innovation in the British Military from 1792 to 1945, a forthcoming book edited by Ross Mahoney, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero of the University of Birmingham. The chapters are based on papers given at a conference in April 2011. See Ross’s blog, Thoughts in Military History, for more details on the book. He is in the process of adding the abstracts to his blog; they are all tagged ‘transformation.’

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