Friday, October 20, 2017

One Century Ago: Breaking Ground for an Assembly Plant of Doom

This map from May 1917 shows many of the facilities that would be built at the St. Juliens Naval Ammunition Depot during World War I, including buildings for the largest mine assembly complex to be built up to that time.  (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)
Although the official opening of the new Naval Training Station at Sewells Point on October 12, 1917, made the front page (below the fold) of the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, it gave more prominent billing to a story about a new auto factory that was said to be in the works from Guardian Motors. A wire service story that ran in the middle of the page quoted the former head of Germany's Imperial Navy Office, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, as saying, “We can continue confidently to expect a final triumph over England as long as we continue to sink vessels faster then she constructs them.” At the time, he was technically correct about the ongoing unrestricted submarine campaign that had very nearly brought the British to the negotiating table earlier that year. But on October 24, ground was broken on a special type of assembly plant, the largest of its kind in the world, that would render the German admiral's prognostications to be about as prescient as those of Guardian Motors.

The year before, the Royal Navy had deployed a series of nets and mines close to U-boat bases along the Belgian coast, but their Vickers Elia mine was so unreliable that German submarine officers sometimes used their harvested casings to create punch bowls for their messes. After the American entry into the war against Germany in April 1917, Rear Admiral William S. Sims, who had recently reported to London as the liaison to the British Admiralty, subscribed to their view that “To absolutely blockade the German and Belgian coast against the entrance and departure of submarines has been found quite infeasible.” adding in a message to Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels a couple of months later, “Nets do not stop submarines. Mine barriers can not be wholly effective.”

There were those within the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd), however, who did not agree with this assessment. Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, its chief, was convinced that mines, properly designed, constructed and deployed in sufficient numbers, were key to neutralizing the "hornet's nests;"a term President Woodrow Wilson was fond of using to describe the U-boat bases. Planning began at BuOrd for much larger and more sophisticated mine barrages, both in the North Sea and in the Adriatic, before the ink was dry on the declaration of war against Germany. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fan of the plan, but his boss, Josephus Daniels, was not, at least at first. He called the plan “A stupendous undertaking--perhaps not impossible but to my mind of doubtful practicability. North Sea too rough & will necessitate withdrawing all our ships from other work and then can we destroy the hornet’s nest or keep the hornets in?”

By September, President Woodrow Wilson had had enough with the British Admiralty’s handling of the war and agitated for a more proactive, assertive approach to be led by the U.S. Navy. Meanwhile, Sims, ostensibly in command of all the American naval forces being sent to Europe, was still maintaining the British line, telling Rear Adm. Earle, “It is by reason of the very bitter experience which the English and French have had in this particular respect that they are reluctant to accept a mine which is believed by those having no war experience to be superior to theirs. . . this is a good scheme if it works but a very expensive one if it does not.”
A diagram of the operation of the Mark VI mine. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
By then, however, Earle was well underway with producing a mine far superior to that which had been produced by the British; which would make the idea of a barrage long enough to block an entire sea possible. Unlike the “horned” British and German mines with firing mechanisms that required close proximity to detonate, BuOrd pioneered the Mark VI mine and its “K-pistol” mechanism, which utilized copper wires extending above and below the mines to enhance its sensitivity. This would make it possible for fewer mines to deny a larger area to U-boat traffic.

As indispensable as he was as liaison to the British, Sims would not be the man to finally bring the Admiralty around to the more audacious American approach towards dealing with the submarine threat. President Wilson and Secretary Daniels dispatched Vice Admiral Henry T. Mayo of the Atlantic Fleet to London that month.  Daniels later remembered Wilson's exhortations to Mayo about the “absolute necessity of finding and ending the hornet’s nest, & destroying the poison or removing the cork. [Wilson] impressed upon them the need of an offensive and reiterated his view that we cannot win this war by merely hunting submarines when they have gotten into the great ocean.”

A diagram of the North Sea Mine Barrage shows the general location of the mines and antisubmarine nets crisscrossing the sea. The mines were spread in an area approximately 230 miles long from Norway to Scotland. The first operation in June 1918 laid 5,500 mines. The mines were laid in three areas titled “A” “B” and “C”. “A” was the center, and largest, section, “B” went towards the Orkney Islands, and “C” went towards Norway. Section “A” was purely American, but the Americans also provided mines to sections “B’ and “C”, which were mined by the British. Due to the efficiency and production of the Americans, the US Navy provided more mines to both “B” and “C” than the British. The width of the barrage went from 15 to 35 miles. The depth of the mines ranged from 45 to 260 feet.(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
At a “War Council” convened in London in September, Mayo made little headway with Russian, French, and Italian representatives, but crucially he was able to convince the First Sea Lord, Admiral John Jellicoe, to accept the plan. They ultimately settled upon a nearly 300-mile stretch across the North Sea, between the Orkney Islands north of Scotland and Norway. To him, its most attractive feature was that the barrage would be nowhere near German-controlled waters, where they had so effectively swept British mines the year before. But both men realized that if the plan was to work, an unbelievable number of reliable mines would have to be produced first. In any case, BuOrd had not waited around for the dithering British to make up their minds. The first contract for 10,000 Mark VI mines had been awarded on August 9, 1917, before Mayo even left for London. Even so, planners estimated that it would take a staggering 100,000 mines to block the North Sea.  On October 3, a contract for 90,000 more mines was approved.
Mine casings and other components on flatbed railroad cars await assembly at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in July 1917. (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives)
Norfolk Naval Shipyard already possessed some mine construction capability, but there was no infrastructure in place there that could carry out such an ambitious plan. In any case, there was not enough room, so BuOrd turned to a Naval Ammunition Depot along St. Juliens Creek, about a mile south of the shipyard, which had existed there in one form or another since 1895. “A loading plant of this type and scale had hitherto been unknown not only in this country, but abroad,” wrote Earle of the undertaking. Some buildings could be upgraded, but almost two dozen new buildings would have to be built for mine assembly, the melting of trinitrotoluene (TNT), and filling of the mines, which contained 300 pounds of TNT apiece, plus cold-storage buildings to store the completed mines until they could be shipped. Railroad spur lines would also be required to deliver the mine components to assembly buildings. The shipyard continued to produce the casings for the mines, but BuOrd contracted other components out to different automobile manufacturers, making use of the private sector’s production capability for consumer goods, already the best in the world, for destructive ends.

Meanwhile, the British Admiralty dragged their feet. They did not officially allow the North Sea mining plan to go forward until November, weeks after construction began on the mine plant. Even with the necessary political will and financial support (on the American side, anyway), other obstacles remained. Not only were the ranks of able workmen drained by the ongoing Army draft, the workers who remained labored through one of the worst winters ever recorded in the Hampton Roads area, and construction nearly ground to a halt until February 1918.
This rare image shows the giant conveyor used to load minelaying ships and mine-carrying freighters at the St. Juliens Creek Ammunition Depot south of Norfolk Naval Shipyard. (Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Archives
Miraculously, the mine plant began producing the undersea death dealers in March. With a staff of 16 officers and 525 enlisted men, the assembly plant at St. Juliens turned out to be better than Rear Adm. Earle had even hoped, easily able to meet or even exceed their quota of 1,000 mines per day. During the remainder of the war, the facility assembled and shipped 73,000 mines, plus shipping an additional 17,000 that had been assembled at a smaller facility in Wisconsin. The conveyor system used to load the vessels on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River was the largest of its kind in the world.

By the time hostilities ended on November 11, 1918, 56,611 American mines, most of them assembled at St. Juliens, guarded the depths of the North Sea, with only 6,400 mines left to deploy before the American segment of the barrage was complete. All told, the North Sea Mine Barrage was credited with sinking six U-boats and damaging an equal number. It remains unclear how many submarine commanders avoided the open ocean because of the silent but deadly underwater wall, but anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that, at the very least, they finally developed a deep respect of the Allied mines. The following passage appeared in a history of the barrage that was published in 1919:
In connection with the enemy’s attitude toward anti-submarine measures taken by the Allies, it is interesting to note the statement of a captured German submarine commander who had had considerable experience on that particular type of vessel. He expressed the opinion that of all the anti-submarine measures which had been taken, mines were by far the most dreaded by the German submarine personnel, principally because there was nothing to indicate their presence. Also, because the quality of allied mines had recently been improved in a most unpleasant manner, the former practice of fishing them up and taking them home for conversion into punch bowls for submarine messes had now been entirely abandoned, he said.
Paraphrasing Sun Tzu, breaking an adversary’s will to fight without direct conflict and the perils that go with it is preferable to undertaking a direct assault. As expensive as it was, the construction of a mine barrage would have been less expensive than, for example, attempting a series of amphibious raids against U-boat bases. This massive yet invisible submarine barrier made possible what President Wilson had wanted all along: A way to neutralize the “hornet’s nests.” While Wilson had originally wanted the U-boat bases attacked directly, the more economical way to go, in terms of both blood and treasure, was deploying these mass-produced mines to form a great underwater wall, modifying the behavior of German commanders, eroding their will to fight, and ultimately neutralizing the threat they posed to the Allied war effort.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

One Century Ago: Naval Station Norfolk Officially Opens

As we turn our attention to the birthday of the United States Navy, October 13, 1775, we should also remember one of the most important milestones in the history of the Navy in Hampton Roads, which took place just one day shy of 142 years later.  Not only is it little-remembered today, but even the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot relegated the story of the event to page three.

The front page of the Saturday, October 13, 1917 edition was dominated by the headline “Dope in favor of Giants, Says Grantland Rice,” concerning the prognostications of the syndicated sportswriter about the ongoing world series championship between the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox (which turned out to be wrong), followed by news of the ongoing world war.  On page three was the headline: 

Formal Opening of Naval Base 

1,400 Sailors March from St. Helena To New Training Station

Simple Ceremonies Mark Great Event 

An early postcard for "Naval Operating Base Jamestown," later known as Naval Operating Base Hampton Roads and now known as Naval Station Norfolk, shows recruits marching across what was then called the Lee Parade Field. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The following is an excerpt of the story:
“Early yesterday morning, a column of 1,400 United States sailors passed through Norfolk, moving from St. Helena to the government reservation at Sewall’s [sic] Point.  Headed by a drum and bugle corps and a band, the men turned into the entrance to the base at about 10:30 a.m., and a little later swung out upon the parade ground, where, awaiting them, were drawn up the ship’s company, stationed at the base, and reviewing officers of the navy, standing before the flag pole.  Following the sailors, a squad of air-men, training at the base, advanced upon the grounds.  The regiment drew long white lines against the green of the field and then, in regimental front formation, with flags flying and band playing, marched toward the reviewing officers.  The line halting and coming to the salute, Rear Admiral A.C. Dillingham delivered over the training station to Captain J.H. Dayton, commanding officer of the base and at St. Helena, orders were read, and the band broke into the national anthem, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted, and the training station at the base was in operation.  As stated by Admiral Dillingham to a Virginian-Pilot reporter, 'The base has begun to function, and is now fulfilling the use for which is was planned.’    

“The simplicity with which the great naval base was placed in operation was impressive.  Not a cog slipped as the wheels of the machinery began to move.  In the passing of only a few minutes the gray-green rows of barrack buildings, that had been empty, were teeming with occupants.  Officers went back to their desks in the administrative buildings, more busy from now on than ever before.  And the government wrote upon the map the name of its greatest factory for the turning out of sailors fully equipped for service.”

Albert Caldwell Dillingham (1848-1925) had been brought out of retirement to establish a naval training station at Sewells Point north of Norfolk, partially due to an influential article of his that appeared in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1910, alleging deficiencies in the training of Navy recruits, particularly in Hampton Roads.  At the time, a training station existed across the South Branch of the Elizabeth River from Norfolk Naval Shipyard, but Dillingham, who once commanded one of the receiving ships there, called it woefully inadequate. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
On October 12, 1917, Rear Adm. Dillingham succeeded in what the Virginian-Pilot called earlier that summer, “the fulfillment of the nation’s need- the building of perhaps the greatest naval base in the world, a task that would really cause Hercules to negotiate with Aladdin for the loan of his lamp.”

Friday, October 6, 2017

Body Washed Up on Beach Reminiscent of "Operation Mincemeat"

Last week's post touched on how a recent hurricane brought forth reminders of a past war upon nearby shores.  That same storm wasn't done reminding us of the past, however, because the day after two old sea mines washed ashore at different points on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the body of a "neatly dressed man" washed ashore in Nags Head.

The writer of a newspaper story on the incident speculated, "Whales, exotic shells and even bombs wash ashore occasionally on the Outer Banks, but this might have been the first time waves deposited a human body in a bag."

Maybe so, but it is far from the first time that bodies have washed up on the shores of what has long been called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.  Hundreds of wrecks, the vast majority of them merchant vessels, leavened by a sprinkling of ill-fated warships, dot the seafloor off North Carolina.  Many of the thousands who died aboard these vessels over the last half-millennium would presumably have washed ashore.  What set this body apart from a typical victim of the sea, however, was his attire.  He was apparently dressed for a special occasion.  Investigators were to surmise pretty quickly that he was in fact dressed for a funeral; his own, it turns out.   

The unfortunate gentleman who washed ashore last week was far from the first decedent carefully dressed for consignment to the deep.  A number of private companies perform the service.  One even features a proprietary shroud that is, according to their website, "weighted with traditional cannonballs ... created by the same blacksmiths that forge the ceremonial cannonballs for the oldest commissioned warship on the planet the U.S.S. Constitution, 'Old Ironsides'"
On February 14, 2004, a deceased U.S. Navy Commander is committed to the Atlantic Ocean during a burial at sea ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). At the time, Truman was undergoing sea trials after completing a six-month Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jose L. Barrientos Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)
If one desires a newer American warship to play a role in the final disposition of a loved one (as long as they meet certain requirements), the U.S. Navy performs burials at sea on a pretty regular basis, although the deceased has typically been cremated beforehand.  After all, one doesn't want your honored veteran's final journey to make an unscheduled return trip. There's probably some truth to the old sea story about the Marine detachment that had to put a few more holes in the floating casket of the honored service member with the same rifles they had used to render honors, thus preventing it from becoming a navigational hazard.  

There have been interesting variations of the burial at sea, including the Viking funeral the U.S. Coast Guard gave a veteran of Nordic descent in 2014. From the annals of military history, however, we have the story of a corpse that was taken out into the Atlantic on a naval vessel during World War II, not to be buried, but to play a central role in a secret mission. The body was also dressed to impress a particular target audience: 


Operation Torch, the simultaneous landings in North Africa of around 108,000 British and American troops in November 1942, about 34,000 of whom originated in Hampton Roads, had been a success.  By early 1943, the Allies had a springboard from which to launch further amphibious operations into  Nazi-occupied Europe.  The island of Sicily off the Italian coast made the most sensible next target for invasion planners, but that fact wouldn't be lost on the thousands of German troops occupying the island who would be expecting the invasion.

Enter Ian Fleming, a British naval intelligence officer who would one day achieve worldwide fame as the author of the original James Bond novels.  It is widely believed that it was he who conceived of the idea to plant misleading plans on a dead body that would then be found by the Germans. The plan was actually inspired by a detective novel he had read.

The essence of what became known as "Operation Mincemeat" was a simple idea, but in order for it to work, elaborate measures had to be taken.  Just as intelligence officers commonly assume a false identity in order to conduct their work, an identity was created for an unfortunate Welsh laborer named Glyndwr Michael, who was transformed by British intelligence officers from a dead itinerant laborer into Captain (acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines.
The false identity card of Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, one of the notional documents that established the bona fides of the dead officer for Axis agents, who then passed the deceptive information he carried to Berlin. (Wikimedia Commons)
When "Major Martin" was found floating off the coast of Spain by fishermen on April 30, 1943, ostensibly as an air crash victim, he had ticket stubs, letters from his fiancee, and even unpaid bills in his pockets, but the real intelligence bait came from the secret plans contained in a briefcase chained to his trench coat that purported to show that the British were planning to surprise the Germans in Greece and Sardenia, and not Sicily. 

The decision to deposit the counterfeit major into the sea off Spain via the submarine HMS Seraph was a practical one.  Spain was officially neutral during World War II and thus its waters would not be patrolled quite as vigorously as those of occupied France or other areas under Axis control.  Dictator Francisco Franco owed his victory in the Spanish Civil War in part to Adolf Hitler's Condor Legion and the Luftwaffe, however, so it stands to reason that any important intelligence Spanish authorities found would be passed to the Nazis. 
File photo showing the prepared body of "Major Martin" 
before it was deposited into the Atlantic Ocean in April 1943. 
(National Archives of Great Britain via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course just one body washing literally out of the blue bearing supposedly secret information was not going to fool everyone in the Abwehr, and it didn't.  What Operation Mincemeat succeeded in doing, as successful disinformation operations have always done, is to inject uncertainty into an adversary's decision making process.  This sews confusion and undermines confidence in enemy leadership, wastes their resources, and chips away at their ability to make war.  

In this case, the Germans, who had lost a quarter of their strength on the eastern front by February 1943 at Stalingrad, followed by the evisceration of their Afrika Korps later that spring, could not afford to reinforce the troops they had in the Mediterranean.  They could only shuffle them around.  The spurious information imparted by the notional British major forced the precious few troops the Germans had left to be moved from Sicily to Greece and Sardinia.  Whether Operation Mincemeat alone proved detrimental to the German effort to retain Sicily when Operation Husky began in July 1943 will never be known, yet casualties during the operation were lighter than expected.  

And so it was that hundreds if not thousands of Allied Soldiers and Sailors owed their lives to an officer who wasn't even recruited until after rigor mortis set in.  

Fittingly, his final resting place was not the sea, but the grave where he was placed not long after being found by the Spanish. There he remained under his assumed name, literally, until 1997, when his true identity was finally added. 
(Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hurricane Maria Resurrects Ghosts of Wars Past

Although news reports about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, which recently made its closest approach to Hampton Roads, frequently center upon the destructive winds and tidal flooding that such a storm can bring, this week it has come to light that there were other less-recognizable threats unleashed by the storm as it made its approach to North Carolina's Outer Banks.  On Monday, beachgoers found a barnacle-encrusted sea mine near the town of Avon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and another one was discovered nearly 80 miles north in Corolla, just south of the Virginia state line.

An object (above) presumed to be a sea mine was found near Avon on Cape Hatteras National Seashore on the morning of September 25, 2017, and another one was found near the town of Corolla about 80 miles north on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that same morning. They were subsequently turned over to military explosive ordnance disposal technicians.  Thankfully, the Corolla mine turned out to be a training target.  (National Park Service)

During the last century, mines have posed some of the gravest enemy threats to shipping in our home waters.  During both World Wars I and II, German submarines deployed mines along the Mid-Atlantic.  It was an effective, albeit unpredictable tactic.  The Naval History and Heritage Command is currently helping lead an effort to survey USS San Diego, which ran afoul of a suspected mine off the eastern end of Long Island on July 18, 1918. We are also approaching the 99th anniversary of the second such incident that took place during the First World War, not far off the eastern seaboard. On September 29, 1918, the battleship Minnesota (BB 22) ran into a mine only 20 miles off the coast of Delaware.

Photographed in 1911 by O.W. Waterman of Hampton, Virginia, the battleship Minnesota (BB 22) appears somewhere in Hampton Roads, flying the flag of Rear Admiral (Upper Half) Aaron Ward, Commander, Battleship Division 3, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Built at Newport News Shipbuilding and commissioned on March 9, 1907, just in time for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exhibition and the epic circumnavigation of the globe with the Great White Fleet that followed, the veteran of the 1914 Vera Cruz expedition was assigned to Battleship Division 4, mainly to provide practical gunnery and engineering training for the tens of thousands of new recruits the Navy was taking in during World War I.  She was sailing off the Delaware Breakwater when she struck a mine that had been deployed earlier by U-117

Miraculously, only three days after striking a mine off Fenwick Island on the Maryland/ Delaware border on September 29, 1918, USS Minnesota (BB 22) was safely ensconced in a dry dock at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the serious damage that had been inflicted by a to her bow by a German mine could be ascertained.  She would remain there for five months. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
Despite sustaining heavy flooding to her bow, there were no casualties and the battleship was able to make it to Philadelphia under her own power.  She would remain at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard for five months, during which time the war ended.  In January 1919, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels visited the battleship and personally commended 27 crew members for their "courage and efficiency." After leaving Philadelphia, Minnesota would do her part bringing thousands of American soldiers home from Europe. 
Several thousand troops from Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's celebrated "Rainbow Division" (42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army National Guard), crowd the decks of USS Minnesota (BB 22) upon their return to New York from France in 1919. (Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
The Minnesota incident of 99 years ago ended happily, but it stands out as the exception and not the rule in the long, violent history of what was originally called the "torpedo" by its inventors during the American Civil War. Although enemy mines did the worst damage to American vessels during both Twentieth Century wars, not to mention in the Middle East during the latter part of the century, it should not be forgotten that American-made mines were also deployed in large numbers along our coasts, particularly during the Second World War.  Although intended to protect American merchant vessels and warships from the enemy submarine threat, they too caused damage to American shipping when merchant vessels strayed off course or their captains and pilots did not possess the latest information.  

While waiting for a harbor pilot to arrive on the "dark and stormy night" of February 16, 1942, the one-year-old, 554 foot-long tanker SS E.H. Blum of the Atlantic Refining Company, described as "one of the largest and finest tankers in the world" in the War Record of the Fifth Naval District, was ripped in two after drifting into a Navy minefield only 950 yards off the Cape Henry lighthouse.  On June 11, the SS F.W. Abrams of the Standard Oil Company "through a combination of unfortunate circumstances which included bad weather, a misconception of escort duties, and lack of proper navigational information, strayed into the Hatteras Mine Field and was eventually lost."  

Just three days later, on June 15, two American ships and one British vessel ran into a German minefield within sight of Virginia Beach that had been set by U-701, killing 17 on the British vessel, HMT Kingston Ceylonite, and one on SS Robert C. Tuttle.   

The heavily damaged Esso tanker SS Robert C. Tuttle appears in dry dock at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in July 1942.  After preliminary repairs, she was towed to Newport News for completion. (Naval History and Heritage Command photograph)
Despite a concerted effort to sweep the area for German mines, SS Santore encountered another of U-701's mines while assembling to leave Hampton Roads in Convoy KS-511 on June 17, listed to port, and quickly sank, taking three crew members with her.  

Before the month was over, the 7,256-ton Norwegian passenger-cargo vessel MV Tamesis became the second ship sunk by the "friendly Hatteras Mine Field."  The American tug Keshena became its third victim on July 19 while attending to the Panamanian-flagged J.A. Mowinckel, that had itself been damaged by torpedoes and mines.  Three were killed in the tug's engine room.

Whether the mines that emerged from the depths off North Carolina this week present a renewed threat from a past war has yet to be ascertained, but one thing is for certain: the story of mines off the East Coast is far from over.