May 27, 2011

Beginning The Miracle

As all good Pacific War otaku know, the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Midway is coming up early next month.  Regarded as the most stunning and important victory in the history of Naval warfare, three US aircraft carriers, supported by aircraft flying from Midway Atoll, attacked and sunk four Japanese aircraft carriers, three of them in the space of just a handful of minutes on June 4th, 1942.

While the US was outnumbered by the Japanese in the number of aircraft carriers present at the battle, the Americans had broken the Japanese radio codes and had a detailed knowledge of their plans for the whole skirmish.  Taking advantage of this, the US Navy in effect ambushed the Japanese fleet.  Of course, the victory did not come without cost.  Three squadrons of torpedo planes were effectively wiped out, and one of the American carriers, the USS Yorktown, was sunk.

The Japanese presumed the Yorktown to have been sunk a month earlier, at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Indeed, she had been beaten up, but the first and possibly greatest of the "miracles" of Midway had occurred in the intervening time.

Or had it?
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May 19, 2011

The Pacific Q-Ship

In 1915, things were looking grim for the British Isles.  Unrestricted submarine warfare was slowly strangling the country, cutting off the flow of supplies to the nation.  Stocks of fuel, armaments, supplies and food were all at desperately low levels... the Allies were losing the Battle of the Atlantic.  At that time, defenses against submarines were rudimentary at best.  Sonar was non-existent, depth charges were crude and for the most part ineffective, and the homing torpedo wasn't even thought of yet.  The only realistic chance that a defending ship had to sink a submarine was to catch it on the surface.

While it's hard to imagine a submarine allowing itself to be caught on the surface these days, things were different in 1915.  At the time, submarines were what would be called "submersibles" today: able to descend under the waves for a short time only, while doing most of their movement on the surface.  Because their underwater time was limited, a sub would "go under" only when preparing for an attack run... and not always then.  The torpedoes of the time were cranky, ill-tempered beasts that were often unreliable, and always in short supply.  It was quite common for a submarine to sneak up on a target, surface, then engage with a deck gun.  Of course this would only work against an unarmed freighter or transport; it goes without saying that an actual warship would receive a torpedo fired from underwater.

However, even this limited method of attack was extremely effective against unarmed merchant craft... so effective that England was on the verge of starving.  The obvious defense, convoying, or putting a large number of merchant vessels in one group while defending them with one or more warships, was ruled out by the ship-strapped Royal Navy.  There just weren't enough warships to go around.  Something had to be done, and quickly.  Two innovations arose from this desperate need.

The first was the armed merchantman.  More of a throwback than a true innovation, at its heart the armed merchantman was a descendant of the age of sail, when almost every East Indiaman had a good number of cannon lining its rails to fight off pirates and privateers.  The generic armed merchantman of WWI-vintage would have the firepower of a destroyer or light cruiser, six 6" guns and various numbers of smaller guns as a secondary battery.  Since they were built as merchant vessels, they were however fragile: little in the way of compartmentalization to prevent flooding, little if any armor (other than raw size) to prevent damage, with a slow top speed that prevented running away.  Armed merchantmen were mostly for use against commerce raiders as a self-defense measure: if a warship came upon an armed merchantman, at least there was some way to fight back.  However, with their guns carried on deck, they were just as likely as a battleship to attract a torpedo from a submarine.

The second innovation was the Q-ship.  Take a freighter and turn it into an armed merchantman... then hide the guns inside false panels or deck structures or belowdeck.  When a submarine approached, it'd see a nice big fat undefended target, surface and engage with the deck gun... at which point, the Q-boat would drop the false panels, run out the guns and with the element of surprise blow the submarine out of the water.  To be sure, they could take on a surface vessel as well, but their weapons were more designed to engage fragile submarines: a hole or two would prevent a sub from diving, trapping it on the surface.  Q-ships had no set armament loadout, but multiple 3" guns were common.

Despite the clever idea, Q-ships were generally ineffective against submarines in WWI, accounting for less than 10% of all kills scored.  Instead, they were more of a psychological weapon, preying upon the mind of a U-boat captain.  If any freighter could be heavily armed and just waiting for you to surface, the sub captain might be more reluctant to do so, and either let the freighter go or waste a precious torpedo on it.

During WWII, there was a repeat of the WWI Battle of the Atlantic, and the Q-ship concept was revived.  It was even less successful than in WWI, mainly because advances in submarine technology meant that a sub could spend less time on the surface, torpedoes were much less prone to failure and in greater supply.   The Royal Navy commissioned nine Q-ships in 1939, two of which were sunk on their first mission.  None of them sank a U-boat, and they were quietly retired in 1941.  The US Navy converted five cargo vessels to Q-ships, one of which was sunk and the other four failed to engage a submarine during their two-year run.

And then there was the USS Anacapa.
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May 18, 2011

Name This Mystery Ship V

By popular demand, the "Name This Mystery Ship" contest is back!  Here's the rules: no cheating by using photo-matching programs or things like that.  Otherwise?  Free game.  The winner gets a post on a topic of his or her own choosing (within limits: no pr0n, religion or politics).  If it looks like nobody is going to get it, I may decide to post a hint or two.

Here's the mystery ship:

Good luck to you!

Posted by: Wonderduck at 06:16 PM | Comments (10) | Add Comment
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