Sunday, May 24, 2015

On This Day in History: The Convoy System

Naval History and Heritage Command photograph
Courtesy of Paul Silverstone, 1982
The first transatlantic convoy to reach Great Britain departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, on this day in 1917. The United States had entered World War I the previous month and now faced the challenge of how to get men and material safely to the European theater. Germany’s u-boats had been operating in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean since the early days of the war and made any voyage a risky proposition. They were so effective that by April 1916, the British were rationing food to civilians and had only a six weeks’ supply of wheat left in reserve.

One reason the u-boats were initially so successful was that for the first three years of the war, merchant ships sailed individually with no warships escorting them. Great Britain’s Admiralty felt that grouping ships together in convoys only presented a larger target to prowling submarines, and that the chances for detection were much less if the ships spread out and made their own way across the ocean. Inevitably, the u-boats would find some of them and sink them, but the Admiralty assumed that this method would minimize losses.

Vice Admiral William Sims, former President of the Naval War College and commander of all U.S. naval forces in Europe, disagreed. In his meetings with First Sea Lord Sir John Jellicoe, he pressed the Royal Navy to adopt the convoy system. April 1917 had seen the highest shipping losses of any month so far during the war: 373 ships from Allied and neutral countries weighing 873,754 tons. By May, Jellicoe was ready to authorize convoys as long as the U.S. promised to provide some of the escorts. The first convoy left Gibraltar on May 10 with seventeen ships and two escorts, arriving safely in Great Britain twelve days later. The second left from Hampton Roads on May 24 escorted by HMS Roxburgh and lost only one ship to u-boat attack.

Naval History and Heritage Command photograph
The Americans borrowed some tricks from their British counterparts to further frustrate the efforts of the u-boat captains. One of these was a unique camouflage scheme known as dazzle. In order to make a successful torpedo attack, u-boats had to observe a target for an extended length of time and correctly estimate its size, range, speed, and heading. Unlike other camouflage schemes, dazzle did nothing to prevent a ship from being detected. Instead, the jarring patterns of lines, curves, and stripes broke up the ship’s outline and made it very difficult for an observer to determine at what angle he was viewing the target.

WWI Victory Loan Drive Poster, 1918
Leon Alaric Shafer (1866-1940)
Library of Congress
It remains difficult to say whether or not dazzle actually worked better than other camouflage schemes. Of the convoy system, however, there can be no doubt that it greatly contributed to the Allied war effort by ensuring the safe passage of thousands of merchantmen and troop ships. Karl Doenitz, the man who would go on to lead Germany’s u-boat campaign during the Second World War, said of the introduction of the convoy system:

The oceans at once became bare and empty. For long periods at a time, the U-boats, operating individually, would see nothing at all; and then suddenly up would loom a huge concourse of ships, thirty or fifty or more of them, surrounded by a strong escort of warships of all types. The solitary U-boat, which most probably had sighted the convoy purely by chance, would then attack, thrusting again and again ... for perhaps several days and nights until the physical exhaustion of the command and crew called a halt. The lone U-boat might well sink one or two ships, or even several, but that was a poor percentage of the whole. The convoy would steam on. In most cases, no other German U-boat would catch sight of it and it would reach Britain, bringing a rich cargo of foodstuffs and raw materials safely to port.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Friday, May 22, 2015

Memorial Day

Patriots Memorial is dedicated to the memory of the eleven students and alumni who lost their lives in the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The plaque is mounted on a piece of Indiana limestone that was recovered from the Pentagon’s west fa├žade. It reads:

In Memory of Naval War College Students and Alumni Who Gave Their Lives While Serving the Nation
CAPT Gerald F. DeConto, USN
LCDR Robert R. Elseth, USNR
CAPT Lawrence D. Getzfred, USN
Ms. Angela M. Houtz, DON
LCDR Patrick J. Murphy, USNR
LT Jonas M. Panik, USNR
CAPT Jack D. Punches, USN (Ret.)
CDR Robert A. Schlegel, USN
CDR Dan F. Shanower, USN
MAJ Kip P. Taylor, USA
CAPT John D. Yamnicky, Sr., USN (Ret.)

The Pentagon, Washington D.C.
September 11, 2001

Major Taylor was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

As we head in to Memorial Day Weekend, we take a moment to recognize all the Naval War College graduates who have given their lives in service to their country.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Friday, May 8, 2015

On This Day in History: V-E Day

Newport Navalog, Vol. 45, No. 19, p.1
Naval Historical Collection
Newspaper Collection 9, Box 10

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of Germany’s surrender to the Allies during World War II. Like most places in the United States, the celebration at Newport Naval Training Station was muted. The Newport Navalog described the moment when the news broke as one of “qualified happiness,” tempered by the understanding that the war with Japan was still far from over. The commanding officer of the Training Station, Commodore Clinton E. Braine, encouraged base personnel to attend worship services, but in all other respects, normal work routines continued. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King emphasized that now was not the time to pause and celebrate, but rather to redouble the nation’s efforts to defeat Japan and end the war for good. King had already stated that the Navy would not demobilize following Germany’s surrender, and that personnel stationed in Europe would be transferred to the Pacific after V-E Day (Victory in Europe).

Newport Navalog, Vol. 45, No. 19, p.8
Naval Historical Collection
Newspaper Collection 9, Box 10

Looking back on this time from the safe distance of 70 years, it can be hard to fully understand the sense of dread that many sailors felt at the prospect of transferring to the Pacific theater. The war would actually end in just three more months, but of course nobody knew that in May 1945. High level planners assumed that the Allies would have to invade the Japanese mainland in order to force a surrender. The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that American forces would suffer 1.2 million casualties conducting such an operation. The expectation that the most difficult fighting of the war still lay ahead made for very muted celebrations indeed when newspapers announced that Germany had been defeated.

Newport Navalog articles courtesy of the Naval Historical Collection

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

8 Bells Lecture Series - May and June Lectures

The format of the Eight Bells Lecture Series has the author speaking about 40-45 minutes on the topic of his book and the facts leading to its publication. The last 15-20 minutes are given over for audience members to ask questions on the topic.  Those who are able to remain after the allotted hour can stay and discuss the book further and have the book signed. Copies of the books will be on sale in the Naval War College Foundation Store. As always, this event is a brown-bag affair which h is free and open to the public.  Call 401-841-4052 for more information. 

7 May 2015: The Purge of the Thirtieth Division by Maj. Gen. Henry Dozier Russell; edited and presented by Lawrence Kaplan 
In the lead-up to World War II, eighteen National Guard division commanders were called upon to train and lead 300,000 men.  By the end of the war, all but one had been relieved in a systematic policy by senior, regular Army officers to replace Guardsmen with regular officers.  The book offers a unique historical insight into the mobilization and offers a scathing indictment of the senior war planners during the war, including the Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall.

14 May 2015: Eugene Ely, Daredevil Aviator: First Shipboard Landing and Takeoff by William M. Miller 
This is a biography of one of the most influential, early contributor to aviation.  Eugene Ely taught himself to fly and by 1910 was a member of the Curtiss Exhibition Team.  It was that year that his plane was lifted onto USS Birmingham an he made the first takeoff from the deck of a naval vessel.  Two months later, on 18 January 1911, he made the first aircraft landing on the USS Pennsylvania.  A short while later he took off from that same deck, proving the adaptability of airplanes to operations at sea. 

21 May 2015: The Baltimore Sabotage Cell by Dwight Messimer   
The Imperial German Navy lacked the means to cut the British supply line with the United States.  One option was to build more U-boats.  The other option to stop the flow of goods was to attack the sources of the manufactured goods by sabotaging munitions factories, depots, and shipping.   There were over fifty successful acts of sabotage on the East Coast prior to April 1917.  Baltimore was the key city to their plan.

4 June 2015: A Handful of Bullets by Harlan Ullman 
The author traces several contemporary crises back to the legacy of the First World War which began as a result of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.  Offering provocative challenges to modern, conventional wisdom, he argues that the United States needs to strategically address these twenty-first-century realities.

11 June 2015: South Pacific Cauldron by Alan Rems 
Alan Rems takes the reader into the unsung regions of World War II.  Through his in-depth research, he presents the stories of Japanese and allied personnel in struggles no less brutal than the much heralded battlefields of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.  Photographs and maps enhance the telling of these stories.

John Kennedy
Director of Education and Community Outreach

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Honoring All Who Serve—U-853 Propellers at the Naval War College: 70th Anniversary of the Sinking of U-853

            The Naval War College has placed on display the propellers from the World War German submarine U-853, which was sunk in action off Block Island on 5 May 1945.  At that point the war in Europe was nearing its end and all German submarines had been ordered to cease hostilities and ordered to return to their bases, with the formal surrender scheduled for 8 May 1945.  Until that time, however, U.S. naval forces remained on alert for possible U-boat activity as intelligence sources indicated the presence of submarines in the local vicinity that may or may not have received their orders.
            Their vigilance was rewarded on 5 May, two days before the cessation of hostilities in the Atlantic, when a collier, MV Black Point, was torpedoed.  Coast Guard and naval vessels in the area quickly realized what had happened and knew that they had an active, accurate datum based upon the billowing smoke from the sinking Black Point.  What followed was a short and violent prosecution of the submarine.  The end came off the coast of Block Island as verified by the oil and debris which floated to the surface.  Later findings would verify the submarine to be U-853, a Type IXC/40 long-range submarine.

            As the United States and Germany are among the nations who recognize that sunken military wrecks with military personnel entombed as war graves, the story might have ended there.  Unfortunately, salvage companies and recreational scuba divers did not subscribe to the same belief and, over time, looted the submarine, taking various items as souvenirs.  Two such items taken were the bronze propellers.  Over time, the propellers ended up at Newport’s Castle Hill Inn where they remained for over fifty years shrouded by local myths.
            In 2005, the German Government took the initiative by donating the propellers to the United States Navy for display on the grounds of the Naval War College. The Newport Harbor Corporation relinquished “all claims of ownership, or any other title or interest, in the two propellers.” The gift was formally accepted by the United States Navy in September 2005 with the intent that the Naval War College would display them as a part of a dignified exhibit recounting the shared naval history of the Germany and the United States.
            The project has come to fruition through the support of the Naval War College Foundation with the assistance of William Obenshain, and the generosity of the Tawani Foundation of Chicago .  The permanent display has been installed just north of the USS Constellation’s anchor, which is the centerpiece of the plaza dedicated to Esau Kempenaar for his long-term service in the cause of international friendship and his association with the foreign officers of the Naval Command College. 
            As Abraham Lincoln noted, “Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause.”  The Naval War College also recognizes that there is a mutual bond between all who sail in harm’s way at sea. 

John Kennedy
Director of Education and Community Outreach

Whipple's Davis Quadrant Comes Home

Abraham Whipple was born in 1733 near Providence, Rhode Island.  He went to sea and, over time, became one of the key ship captains for Moses and John Brown.  During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) he became a privateer and captured over 23 French vessels. 

As the colonist became increasingly rebellious against the imposition of taxes to pay for the defense of the colonies by the British, the British became more adamant in their enforcement of anti-smuggling laws and collecting taxes.  Violence was becoming more commonplace.  In Narragansett Bay, on June 9, 1772, the HMS Gaspee, a ship conducting anti-smuggling operations, grounded while chasing the Hannah.  Seeing the ship aground, Abraham Whipple and John Brown led a group of men in the capture of the Gaspee.  They captured the vessel, looted it, and then set it on fire.
With the coming of the Revolutionary War, Whipple was appointed commodore by the Rhode Island General Assembly and given command of the sloop KatyKaty would be re-named Providence when taken into the Continental Navy.  Whipple was an active captain and aggressively engaged the enemy.  Ultimately, he was captured following the surrender of Charleston, SC, in May 1780 and would have no further part in the war. 

Abraham Whipple is honored to this day in Rhode Island with every town having a Whipple Street, a park, or a road.  Naval Station Newport has one such example.  Additionally, the capture of the HMS Gaspee is celebrated annually in the state of Rhode Island during the Gaspee Days Celebration.
There have been three ships to bear the name USS Whipple in the U.S. Navy.  The first two were destroyers, DD-15 and DD-217, but the most recent was the Knox-class fast frigate, USS Whipple (FF-1062).  When she was commissioned on 22 August 1970, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Abraham Whipple donated a Davis Quadrant, or backstaff, to the ship.  The instrument had been manufactured for Abraham Whipple in 1758 by ­­­­­Benjamin King, a marine instrument maker in Newport, Rhode Island.  The Davis Quadrant stayed with the ship until she was decommissioned in 1992.  The latest Whipple was struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1995 and subsequently given to the Mexican Navy and where she continues to serve under the name ARM Mina (F-214).  

But, what became of the Davis Quadrant and, for that matter, what is a Davis Quadrant?

The basic quadrant was quite simple to use and required only that you sight on one edge the celestial body that you sought, usually the sun or Polaris, the North Star.  Hanging down from the top of the instrument would be a piece of rope with a weighted object on the other end.  Where the line crossed the scale would provide you with the angular height of that body.  Once you had the height you could then determine your latitude while at sea.  That fact along with the latitude of the port that you were seeking would enable you to proceed to your destination.  Using such an instrument with the sun, however, forced the user to look into direct sunlight, causing eye damage over time.  The first documented use of the navigational quadrant was around 1400, although its use is considered to be earlier. 

In approximately 1590, an Englishman named John Davis created an instrument that became known as the backstaff or the Davis Quadrant.  The instrument allowed the user to have his back to the sun, hence the name.  This became the instrument of choice by navigators and, with its acceptance, replaced the cross staff, astrolabe, and quadrant, thereby saving the sight of many navigators.  The Davis Quadrant would be the standard instrument for the next 200 years.

Abraham Whipple’s Davis Quadrant, following its association with the last Whipple, was given to the Navy History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and placed in storage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.  There it sat until recently discovered by the staff of the Naval War College Museum.  Once re-discovered, the instrument was materially conserved by NHHC and shipped to the Naval War College Museum where it is now on display in the updated Whipple exhibit.

John Kennedy
Director of Museum Education and Community Outreach