Published on 12 Dec 2015
Indy sits in the Chair of Wisdom again to answer your questions of WW1. This time we are talking about submarine warfare during the First World War.
December 16, 2015
November 4, 2015
At the RCN News site, a recent press release from the US Navy expresses just a bit more than most civilian readers will get:
U.S. and Canadian naval units began a Task Group Exercise (TGEX) off the coast of Southern California, Oct. 20.
Participating units from the Royal Canadian Navy include Canadian Fleet Pacific, Halifax-class frigates HMCS Calgary (FFH 335) and HMCS Vancouver (FFH 331), and Victoria-class ASW target HMCS Chicoutimi (SSK 879).
October 26, 2015
Lester Haines reports on a recent record auction price for an Enigma machine:
A fully-functioning four-rotor M4 Enigma WW2 cipher machine has sold at auction for $365,000.
The German encryption device, as used by the U-Boat fleet and described as “one of the rarest of all the Enigma machines”, went under the hammer at Bonham’s in New York last night as part of the “Conflicts of the 20th Century” sale.
The M4 was adopted by the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine, in early 1942 following the capture of U-570 in August 1941*. Although the crew of U-570 had destroyed their three-rotor Enigma, the British found aboard written material which compromised the security of the machine.
The traffic to and from the replacement machines was dubbed “Shark” by codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Decryption proved troublesome, due in part to an initial lack of “cribs” (identified or suspected plaintext in an encrypted message) for the new device, but by December 1942, the British were regularly cracking M4 messages.
I recently read David O’Keefe’s One Day in August, which seems to explain the otherwise inexplicable launch of “Operation Jubilee”, the Dieppe raid … in his reading, the raid was actually a cover-up operation while British intelligence operatives tried to snatch one or more of the new Enigma machines (like the one shown above) without tipping off the Germans that that was the actual goal. Joel Ralph reviewed the book when it was released:
One Day in August, by David O’Keefe, takes a completely different approach to the Dieppe landing. With significant new evidence in hand, O’Keefe seeks to reframe the entire raid within the context of the secret naval intelligence war being fought against Nazi Germany.
On February 1, 1942, German U-boats operating in the Atlantic Ocean switched from using a three-rotor Enigma code machine to a new four-rotor machine. Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, which had broken the three-rotor code and was regularly reading German coded messages, was suddenly left entirely in the dark as to the positions and intentions of enemy submarines. By the summer of 1942, the Battle of the Atlantic had reached a state of crisis and was threatening to cut off Britain from the resources needed to carry on with the war.
O’Keefe spends nearly two hundred pages documenting the secret war against Germany and the growth of the Naval Intelligence Division. What ties this to Dieppe and sparked O’Keefe’s research was the development of a unique naval intelligence commando unit tasked with retrieving vital code-breaking material. As O’Keefe’s research reveals, the origins of this unit were at Dieppe, on an almost suicidal mission to gather intelligence they hoped would crack the four-rotor Enigma machine.
O’Keefe has uncovered new documents and first-hand accounts that provide evidence for the existence of such a mission. But he takes it one step further and argues that these secret commandos were not simply along for the ride at Dieppe. Instead, he claims, the entire Dieppe raid was cover for their important task.
It’s easy to dismiss O’Keefe’s argument as too incredible (Zuehlke does so quickly in his brief conclusion [in his book Operation Jubilee, August 19, 1942]). But O’Keefe would argue that just about everything associated with combined operations defied conventional military logic, from Operation Ruthless, a planned but never executed James Bond-style mission, to the successful raid on the French port of St. Nazaire only months before Dieppe.
Clearly this commando operation was an important part of the Dieppe raid. But, while the circumstantial evidence is robust, there is no single clear document that directly lays out the Dieppe raid as cover for a secret “pinch by design” operation to steal German code books and Enigma material.
August 21, 2015
Published on 20 Aug 2015
The Entente was in desperate need of American supplies and so the German submarine campaign in the Atlantic was a real problem. The British started to run false flag operations with so called Q-Ships to hunt down U-Boats which lead to the so called Baralong Incident this week. In the meantime, Russia was standing up against the wall as the fortresses of Kovno and Novogeorgievsk were falling to the Germans leading to a catastrophic loss in men, equipment and supplies.
May 20, 2015
The Soviet Union had a remarkably casual approach to disposing of nuclear-powered submarines that were no longer useful in active service:
Russian scientists have made a worst-case scenario map for possible spreading of radionuclides from the wreck of the K-159 nuclear-powered submarine that sank twelve years ago in one of the best fishing areas of the Barents Sea.
Mikhail Kobrinsky with the Nuclear Safety Institute of the Russian Academy of Science says the sunken November-class submarine can’t stay at the seabed. The two reactors contain 800 kilos of spent uranium fuel.At a recent seminar in Murmansk organized jointly by Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom and the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, Kobrinsky presented the scenario map most fishermen in the Barents Sea would get nightmares by seeing.
Some areas could be sealed off for commercial fisheries for up to two years, Mikhail Kobrinsky explained.
Ocean currents would bring the radioactivity eastwards in the Barents Sea towards the inlet to the White Sea in the south and towards the Pechora Sea and Novaya Zemlya in the northeast.
May 11, 2015
In The Telegraph a report on the discovery of a Royal Navy submarine wreck from 1942:
A Royal Navy submarine paid for by a town holding dances and whist drives is believed to have been discovered more than 70 years after it vanished during the Second World War.
The British submarine HMS Urge was paid for by the townspeople of Bridgend, South Wales, but sunk without trace in the Mediterranean in 1942.
It disappeared while making a voyage from the island of Malta to the Egyptian city of Alexandria – and families of the 29 crew and 10 passengers never knew what happened.
For more than 70 years, its resting place has remained a mystery. But a 76-year-old scuba diver claims he has discovered its wreck 160ft (50m) below the waves off the Libyan coast.
May 8, 2015
Published on 7 May 2015
Ignoring the warnings and cruising carelessly slow the RMS Lusitania is hit by a torpedo of the German U-Boat U20. Almost 2000 people die during the sinking of the Lusitania, a sister ship of the famous RMS Titanic. At the same time the German and Austro-Hungarian army start a combined surprise offensive in the Carpathians. The Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive is a huge success for German commander August von Mackensen.
April 1, 2015
Damian Brooks linked to this article in The Walrus, calling it “Easily the best piece on Canadian submarines I’ve ever seen in the mainstream press.”
The threat of fire is ever-present on warships, which is why fire training is conducted every day a Canadian vessel is in port and at least once a week when it’s at sea. But the fire on Chicoutimi, which already had experienced a four-year delay in getting out of port, could hardly have come at a worse time for Canada’s “silent service.” It fuelled a controversy that had begun in 1998 with the purchase of the ship and three other mothballed Upholder-class submarines from the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. From the start, critics questioned the deal, which was supposed to cost $800 million for the subs and the conversion work required to bring them up to the Royal Canadian Navy’s requirements. (Few put it as succinctly as Mike Hancock, the British MP who asked, “Why were the Canadians daft enough to buy them?”) The fire simply added to what Paul Mitchell, a professor of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, calls an already “well-established narrative of waste and dysfunction.”
In 1943, thousands of Canadians bought a book, co-authored by humorist and early supporter of the RCN Stephen Leacock, that gave a reasonably clear account of the U-boat attacks on the St. Lawrence in 1942, which claimed twenty-one ships and 249 lives, including 136 aboard the ferry SS Caribou. Ultimately, Canada emerged from the war with the world’s fourth-largest navy, most of which was quickly scrapped, or “paid off.” In the late 1940s, the threat posed to transatlantic shipping by Soviet submarines led the navy to purchase the aircraft carrier HMS Magnificent, which was replaced in 1957 by HMCS Bonaventure. When the Trudeau government decided to decommission the carrier — Misadventure, as some wags had dubbed it — commentators intelligently discussed the anti-submarine capabilities of the ships that would replace it.
What passes for naval debate today is, by contrast, too often uninformed and sloppy. The Halifax Chronicle Herald reported in September 2011 that Chicoutimi was being “cannibalized” for parts for HMCS Victoria (not acknowledging that this practice, known as a transfer request, is standard RCN operating procedure). And most articles about the submarine program are riddled with errors and boilerplate references to the 2004 fire. Compare that to a 1969 fire, which killed nine men aboard the destroyer HMCS Kootenay and quickly vanished from a more sea-conscious news.
For much of the late twentieth century, Canada’s three British-built, diesel-electric Oberon-class submarines served an important role as “clockwork mice” — targets for anti-submarine training exercises by Canadian and other Allied navies. After being equipped with passive sonar and Mark 48 torpedoes in the mid-1980s, these “O-boats” became true weapons platforms capable of performing their NATO missions in the Canadian Atlantic Submarine area. (Not until 2009 did the public learn of the “surreal moment” in late November 1986 during which Lieutenant-Commander Larry Hickey worked out the coordinates that, had he detected an offensive move, would have guided a torpedo from HMCS Onondaga into the hull of a nearby Soviet submarine — and possibly precipitated World War III.)
Last October, at the Naval Association of Canada conference in Ottawa, speaker after speaker lamented the public’s ignorance of these topics and, in many cases, its outright hostility toward submarines. Frigates, with their flared bows and graceful lines, intercept pirates in the Arabian Sea and hurry supplies to disaster areas after earthquakes and tsunamis. They sail to Toronto for the Canadian National Exhibition and make for good photo ops while passing under Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. Part of the image problem, one speaker wryly noted, is that “you can’t host a decent cocktail party on the deck of a submarine.” Nor can the Victoria-class subs assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic in the muscular terms employed by Stephen Harper in his 2007 “Use It or Lose It” speech.
The submarine’s most important characteristic is its stealth. Far from being appreciated as a strategic asset, however, stealth jars with the public’s notion of a peaceable kingdom. Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy went so far as to declare the ships “un-Canadian,” echoing British admiral Sir Arthur Wilson’s 1901 comment that they are “underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English.” According to Commander Michael Craven, gathering intelligence, joining with coalition partners to close off choke points, enabling “covert delivery and recovery of Special Operations Forces,” and performing a constabulary role against illegal fisheries and drug smugglers is exactly consistent with what Axworthy called “soft power.” That is, global influence exerted via “ideas, values, persuasion, skill and technique” and other forms of “non-intrusive intervention.”
February 26, 2015
Harry J. Kazianis looks at the risk for the US Navy as underwater detection systems become cheaper and more effective:
What would happen if U.S. nuclear attack submarines — some of the most sophisticated and expensive American weapons of war — suddenly became obsolete? Imagine a scenario where these important systems became the hunted instead of the hunter, or just as technologically backward as the massive battleships of years past. Think that sounds completely insane? If advances in big data and new detection methods fuse with the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ambitions of nations like China and Russia, naval planners around the world might have to go back to the drawing board.
Submarines: The New Battleship?
The revelation is alluded to in a recent report by the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) called “The Emerging Era in Undersea Warfare.” Smartly named by a certain TNI editor as the “think-tank’s think-tank,” CSBA has crafted in the last decade many of the most detailed and sophisticated reports regarding the most pressing national-security challenges around — sometimes years before anyone else. Ever heard of a little operational concept called AirSea Battle? They were at the forefront of it before it was in the news.
In a piece for TNI, the report’s author, Bryan Clark, lays out the problem in more layman’s terms:
Since the Cold War submarines, particularly quiet American ones, have been considered largely immune to adversary A2/AD capabilities. But the ability of submarines to hide through quieting alone will decrease as each successive decibel of noise reduction becomes more expensive and as new detection methods mature that rely on phenomena other than sounds emanating from a submarine. These techniques include lower frequency active sonar and non-acoustic methods that detect submarine wakes or (at short ranges) bounce laser or light-emitting diode (LED) light off a submarine hull. The physics behind most of these alternative techniques has been known for decades, but was not exploited because computer processors were too slow to run the detailed models needed to see small changes in the environment caused by a quiet submarine. Today, “big data” processing enables advanced navies to run sophisticated oceanographic models in real time to exploit these detection techniques. As they become more prevalent, they could make some coastal areas too hazardous for manned submarines.
Could modern attack subs soon face the same problem as surface combatants around the world, where some areas are simply too dangerous to enter, thanks to pressing A2/AD challenges?
February 18, 2015
Gerard Vanderleun posted a link to this set of photos of the retired French submarine Le Redoutable:
Fascinating and worthwhile for the blend of megadeath and French lifestyles: A tour of the ballistic missile submarine Redoutable (photos) the largest submarine you can tour without security clearance, and one of the only ballistic missile subs fully accessible to the general public. The French nuclear submarine Redoutable spent the ’70s and ’80s at sea and was home to 135 sailors for months at a time. The missile boat-turned-museum resides in the French seaside town of Cherbourg after extensive refurbishment.
February 6, 2015
Published on 5 Feb 2015
After more than 6 months of stalemate, the German Empire is playing two new cards to gain a decisive advantage. On the Eastern Front, the Germans use gas on a huge scale for the first time. While the attack fails, the foundation for gas warfare is laid. At the same time Kaiser Wilhelm II agrees to unrestricted submarine warfare – any ship can be sank at any time.
November 15, 2014
I’d heard that the Soviet navy had dumped some potentially hazardous nuclear wastes in the Arctic, but I didn’t realize just how much they’d dumped:
While Russia’s nuclear bombers have recently set the West abuzz by probing NATO’s air defenses, a far more certain danger currently lurks beneath the frigid Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast — a toxic boneyard for Soviet nuclear ships and reactors whose containment systems are gradually wearing out.
Left to decay at the bottom of the ocean, the world is facing a worst case scenario described as “an Arctic underwater Chernobyl, played out in slow motion,” according to Thomas Nilsen, an editor at the Barents Observer newspaper and a member of a Norwegian watchdog group that monitors the situation.
According to a joint Russian-Norwegian report issued in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships and 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea.
The K-159 went down in 2003 while it was being towed to the town of Polyarny — home of Russia’s primary shipyard used for servicing and decommissioning nuclear powered vessels — for dismantling. Nine sailors died trying to keep it afloat when a storm hit, ripping off makeshift pontoons welded to the side to ensure the porous rusting hull didn’t sink en route. Estimates place around 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel aboard the K-159, according to Bellona.
“Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are currently no concrete plans to raise [radioactive] objects, and potentially raising the submarine is a Russian responsibility,” said Ingar Amundsen, head of the section for international nuclear issues at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), a governmental body tasked with keeping watch over the nuclear threats in the Arctic.
September 28, 2014
Antoine Vanner recounts the tragic story of the sinking of three Royal Navy armoured cruisers (HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue, and HMS Cressy) early in the First World War:
Despite this “wake up call” regarding vulnerability of warships at low speed the Royal Navy initiated a patrol of the northern entrance of the English Channel with five obsolete Cressy class armoured cruisers. This group was known as “Cruiser Force C” and the patrol area they were assigned to was in the shallow waters off the Dutch coast known as the “Broad Fourteens”. The logic of maintaining a patrol in the area was unassailable as a fast German raiding force of destroyers could wreak havoc on British maritime supply lines between the English Coast and Northern France should they enter the Channel. Though destroyers and light cruisers would have been more suited to the task it was believed that destroyers would be unable to maintain the patrol in bad weather and insufficient modern light cruisers were available. The solution was to deploy old armoured cruisers which had at least got the necessary station-keeping capability. This was perhaps their only positive attribute.
The vulnerability of these cruisers was recognised by many senior officers, not only because of their obsolescence but because of their manning. Taken hastily from reserve – which meant they had been unmanned and poorly, if at all, maintained – on outbreak of war they were quickly overhauled and put back in service. Originally capable of 21 knots they now found it hard to make 15. Crews were in short supply, leading the ships to be manned by reservists, many middle-aged, many of them pensioners, who had not previously served or exercised together as units. In addition, nine naval cadets, some as young as 15, were allocated to each ship, being taken directly from the Royal Naval College. The general view of Cruiser Force C’s fighting potential was summed up in the nickname it quickly acquired – the “Live Bait Squadron”.
Britain’s armoured cruisers can be fairly described as the most unsuccessful and unfortunate type of warship ever employed by the Royal Navy. The 34 vessels of this type that were in service at the outbreak of war had entered service between 1902 and 1908 – they were not old ships. Of these 34, a total of 13 were to be lost in the next four years. Intended to form part of the battle fleet, they had been rendered obsolete by the advent of the almost equally-disastrous battle-cruiser concept. The earlier classes – the six ships of the Cressy class being the oldest – had very limited offensive capability, especially in rough weather. They were large – and expensive – ships and they needed large crews.
At dawn on September 22nd U-9 surfaced to find the storm over, the sea calm but for a slow swell. Smoke was seen on the horizon and the U-9’s engines were immediately shut down to get rid of their exhaust plume. A quick appraisal led Weddingen to order diving but he continues to observe through his periscope. Three vessels were approaching – the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue – and Weddingen steered on his electric motors towards the central vessel, Aboukir.
Undetected, U-9 came within 600 yards of Aboukir’s port bow before firing a torpedo. As this was still running Weddingen took his craft down to 50 feet, then heard “a dull thud, followed by a shrill-toned crash”. Cheering erupted on U-9.
September 19, 2014
Ali Kefford on the origins of a colourful naval tradition:
Sir Arthur Wilson was infamous within the Royal Navy for being an admiral with a tetchy temper. His nickname – Old ’Ard ’Art – was a bad joke about his uncaring nature.
Yet a verbal broadside he delivered in 1901 was to spawn one of the Submarine Service’s most loved and deeply ingrained traditions – the flying of the Jolly Roger flag to mark the victorious return from a successful patrol.
Wilson, later a hugely unpopular First Sea Lord, is said to have blasted the innovation of submarines, dubbing the covert way they operated as “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”.
He even went so far as to say: “They’ll never be any use in war and I’ll tell you why. I’m going to get the First Lord to announce that we intend to treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime and that we’ll hang all the crews.”
One hundred years ago this week, shortly after the start of the Great War, British submarine HMS E9 despatched two torpedoes at close range at Germany’s SMS Hela in a skirmish off Heligoland.
Its commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, had to dive immediately to avoid return fire, so he did not see the cruiser sink.
But the 13-year-old Silent Service had notched up its very first kill, confirming the deadly effectiveness of sneaking around in the deep then launching a surprise attack on an enemy.
Horton, recalling Admiral Wilson’s words, told his signaller to sew a piratical Jolly Roger flag, which flew proudly from his boat’s periscope as she sailed into Harwich, Essex.
A naval tradition was born, as the skull and crossbones went on to be the Royal Navy Submarine Service’s official emblem.
The tradition continues to today:
— NavyLookout (@NavyLookout) September 19, 2014
September 14, 2014
A few days ago, news reports indicated that the next generation of submarines for the Royal Australian Navy would be bought from Japan, rather than built in Australia. Kym Bergmann says the reports are probably misleading:
There has been a flurry of public commentary following yesterday’s News Limited claims that Australia is about to enter into a commitment to buy its next generation of submarines from Japan. The local submarine community has been concerned about that possibility for some time, and senior members of the Submarine Institute of Australia have been writing to Defence Minister David Johnston — and others — since January of this year warning against such a decision.
Understanding what’s happening is difficult because the speculation appears based on remarks apparently made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe about such a course of action. The concerns have been reinforced among some observers by Abbott’s interest in strengthening Australia–Japan–U.S. defense ties — something in turn being driven by the rise of China. Yesterday Prime Minister Abbott did nothing to dampen the speculation, stating that future submarines were about capability, not about local jobs. As an aside, those sorts of comments also serve the PM’s aggressive political style, jabbing a finger into the eye of the current South Australian Labor Government.
However, the chances of the Federal Government making a unilateral decision to sole source a Japanese solution seem low — and if the Prime Minister were to insist on that particular course of action there could be a serious Cabinet and back bench revolt. Not only would such a decision constitute another broken promise — the word “another” would presumably be contested by the PM on the basis that no promises have been broken to date — but it’d almost certainly lead to the loss of Federal seats in South Australia (Hindmarsh for sure, perhaps Boothby and Sturt), as well as generate enormous resentment within institutions no less than the Royal Australian Navy, the Department of Defence, trade unions and a stack of industry associations, amongst others.
Australia is similar to Canada in this regard: military expenditure is almost always seen as regional development/job creation/political vote-buying first and value-for-money or ensuring that the armed forces have the right kit for the task come a very distant second. This means that the RAN, like the RCN, often ends up with fewer hulls sporting lower capabilities for much more money than if they were able to just buy the best equipment for their needs whether overseas or at home. But that doesn’t get the government votes in “key constituencies”, so let the sailors suffer if it means shoring up support in the next federal election…