Tag Archives: history

The Battle of Bunker Hill

The American Revolution kicked off with the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, but the first real battle between the colonials and the British Army took place on this day in 1775 with the Battle of Bunker Hill (which was mostly fought on Breed’s Hill). British forces in Boston were besieged by colonial troops on the hills around the city. To consolidate their hold on the city, and gain control over the entrance to the harbor, the British sought to occupy the hills. The first two British assaults were bloodily repulsed. The third assault carried the hills mostly because the colonials ran out of ammunition. While the colonial forces were defeated and forced to retreat to Cambridge, the heavy losses of the British, about 200 dead and 800 wounded, sent a signal that the colonial forces were every bit the match for the redcoats.

File:The death of general warren at the battle of bunker hill.jpg

The battle also gives rise to one of my favorite (apocryphal) stories.

An American Marine officer found himself on temporary duty in England, and it came to pass that he was invited to the officer’s mess of one of the regiments that had fought at Bunker Hill. The British Army has a long, proud history, and the messes of the regiments are often repositories of many of the artifacts of that. And the British Army loves to take notice of the long history of many of its regiments, with a fierce unit pride that even the oldest US units can’t quite match.

And so, the British officer is proudly displaying these mementos to the American Marine, and comes across a flag captured from the colonials at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Alluding to the long service of the regiment, the Brit says, “And you’ll notice we still have the flag.”

The American calmly replies, “We still have the hill.”

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Fort Ebey

We’ve written before on the coastal defenses of Puget Sound, mostly focusing on the turn of the 20th century Taft/Endicott period forts such as Ft. Casey.  The beginning of World War II saw a massive investment in more modern coastal defenses, along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and such places as the Panama Canal Zones. Bureaucratic inertia being what it is, by the time most of these forts were ready for service, it was abundantly clear, particularly along the West Coast, that no invasion fleet would reach even the central Pacific, let alone Hawaii or the actual continental US.

In 1942, the Coast Artillery Corps decided to upgrade the defenses of Puget Sound with a modern coast artillery battery located a few miles north of the existing Ft. Casey. It was to comprise a battery command post, an SCR-269A fire control radar, and two M1905A2 rapid fire 6” guns mounted on semi-armored barbettes.

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Image via Fortwiki.

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Image via Fortwiki. 6” gun at Ft. Columbia.  Note the older Endicott period emplacements in front of the mount. None are at Ft. Ebey.

A quick look at this image from Google Earth tells us that the fort was well sited to cover any approach to Seattle.

Ft Ebey

Mind you, this doesn’t even take into account the other batteries, including 16” batteries, along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entrance to Puget Sound.

The only problem is, the battery wasn’t completed and ready for service until March 1944. By that time, the fighting in the Pacific was taking place in the Carolines Islands roughly 5000 miles away. All the effort to complete the fortifications were superfluous to actually winning the war. The guns of the battery were removed sometime shortly after the war. The concrete support structure was not demolished, however. Turned over to Washington state in 1965, it opened as a state park in 1981, and has been a popular park ever since, with its quaint trails and gorgeous view of Puget Sound.

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The British Pacific Fleet

Growing up in a Naval Aviation family, it was a given that I would know the major exploits of the Fast Carrier Task Force that formed the heart of the US Navy’s striking power in the Pacific. Operating alternately as TF 38 when under Halsey’s 3rd Fleet and TF 58 when under Spruance’s 5th Fleet, the FCTF roamed the Central and Western Pacific, at sea for weeks at a time, supporting various invasions, striking territory the Japanese had seized, and even raiding the home islands of Japan.  The FCTF was the powerhouse of the Pacific, making that ocean an American pond for 70 years. Every other part of the United States Navy, from the submarine service, to the stupendous fleet train,  to the Seabees to the amphibious shipping and indeed, the entire US Marine Corps, served simply to better enable the Big Blue to rule the mighty Pacific as a wholly American territory.

Of course, the US Navy wasn’t alone in those waters. Britain, with its many colonial outposts, maintained a significant fleet presence in the Pacific. Sadly, the opening months of the war saw them more soundly defeated by Japan than even our own fleet. Eventually, the Royal Navy would retreat to Trincomalee, Ceylon.  The bulk of the Royal Navy’s fighting strength would be devoted to operations in the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea.

However, by early 1944, the situation in those waters was sufficiently in hand that Britain felt it could spare ships and planes for the Pacific. The Chief of Naval Operations, Ernie King, was not exactly an Anglophile, and was not enthusiastic about the Royal Navy returning to the Western Pacific. In this, he was overruled by FDR.

Of course, it was more than mere politics that gave the US Navy pause about a Royal Navy fleet in the Pacific. The RN mostly operated close to its bases in comparatively close waters. Their ships had less endurance, and even less space for food stores. Furthermore, they had little experience in replenishment underway. Worst of all, they had virtually none of the fleet train of ships that the US Navy relied upon to allow the Fast Carrier Task Force to stay at sea for weeks. Any significant RN participation would almost certainly have to receive at least some support from the US Navy.

The RN did amass a sizeable fleet train to support its operations (though they also received quite a bit of help from the USN) and soon amassed a significant fleet of carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers and other combatants.

When operating with the US Navy, the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) was under  the US command structure, and designated either TF 37 or Task Force 57, depending on whether it was with 3rd or 5th Fleet.

The most significant operations of the BPF were in support of the US invasion of Okinawa, where the BPF conducted raids on Japanese airfields to suppress kamikaze attacks. Of course, that invited kamikaze attacks upon themselves. Unlike US carriers that had wooden flight decks, British carriers had steel flight decks. Generally, a kamikaze hit on them resulted in far less damage.

While some British carriers operated British designed planes such as the Seafire and the Barracuda, many operated US built planes, including the Corsair, the Avenger, and the Hellcat.

No audio, but still an interesting look at British carrier operations in 1944.

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Bombardment Rockets

As the US Navy developed doctrine for amphibious operations in World War II, one thing it quickly learned was that there simply was never enough suppressive firepower available.  The most famous pre-landing bombardment ships were the  battleships, of course, with their massive 14” and 16” guns pummeling suspected positions for hours, even days before a landing. Of course, cruisers and destroyers hurled tens of thousands of shells upon beaches as well. And we’ve written about the smaller ships such as the LCS(L)(3) series.

When it comes to suppressive fires, quantity has a quality all its own. But naval guns are heavy, expensive pieces of equipment. And so, early on, the Navy turned to the humble rocket as a way to quickly boost its firepower. The first rockets in widespread use was the 4.5” Beach Barrage Rocket, or BBR.

A simple solid rocket motor on the back end of a 20 pound warhead, the BBR was fired from a simple metal rack. It had a very modest range of about 1100 yards, and wasn’t terribly accurate. But it could be carried in large numbers by even the smallest of ships and craft.

The BBR made its combat debut during the Torch landings in North Africa, and saw extensive use throughout the war. The Navy was generally happy with this simple weapon, but also wanted something with longer range, on the order of 5000 yards, or even 10,000 yards.

Rockets launched from the ground, and using fins for stabilization, are inherently somewhat inaccurate. While the wide dispersion of the BBR was tolerable given its maximum range, a rocket for longer range use would have to be more accurate. And so, the Navy tasked CalTech to develop a spin stabilized rocket. After initial efforts looking at a 3.5” rocket, CalTech soon developed a family of 5” rockets that were spin stabilized by slightly canting the exhaust nozzles of the rocket motor. A variety of warheads were available, such as smoke and illumination, but the two most used were “common” shells with high explosive warheads, one with a range of 5000 yards, and one with a smaller charge, but a range of 10,000 yards.

Among the first ships equipped with the 5” High Velocity Spinner Rocket (HVSR) were PT boats.

The Mk 50 launcher could be installed port and starboard aboard a PT just forward of the charthouse. Stored position had them inboard.

But for firing, they were traversed outboard, so the blast would not impact the relatively fragile wooden decks.

The Mk 50 was fixed in train- that is, the only fired straight ahead. It was, however, fitted for elevation. Varying the elevation of the launcher determined the range of the shot.  Aiming was via a reflector gunsight at the helm. Mind you, a bobbing 80 foot boat wasn’t the most stable platform, but the rockets added considerable firepower to boats that already punched above their weight.

The biggest users of the 5” HVSR were the LMSRs, or Landing Ship, Medium, Rocket. The LSM, widely used in the Pacific in the second half of the war, was adapted to carry hundreds of rockets. Early iterations used 5” aircraft rockets on dozens of four rail launchers.

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Later versions used the 5” HVSR. But the penultimate rocket ship was an LMSR with the Mk 102 automatic rocket launcher.

The Mk 102 was derived from the powered twin mount Bofors 40mm. A handling room directly below the mount fed rockets to the launcher. The 8 or 10 launchers on an LMSR were directed from a central gun director on the pilothouse.

The Navy was quite pleased with these ships, and kept them in reserve after World War II. They would see further service, even into the Vietnam war.

These ships were, however, wartime expedients, and suffered from some compromises that the Navy sought to overcome. For one thing, their magazines were above the waterline, and thus terribly vulnerable, as the ships were essentially unarmored. Further, the beaching hull meant that their top speed was quite limited. Of course, with a fleet of dozens of newly built LSMRs in reserve, and the war over, there simply wasn’t any money to design a better ship. But the Korean War changed that, making money quite available for a prototype. Laid down in 1952, the ultimate rocket ship wouldn’t be finished in time for that war. But the USS Carronade (IFS-1) would go on to serve in Vietnam for nearly four years. Armed with the slightly improved Mk 105 automatic rocket launcher, she and a handful of recommissioned LSMRs would provide call-fires and pre-planned fire support

Of course, no discussion on naval barrage rocketry would be complete without at least a passing mention  of our national anthem. The Star Spangled Banner’s line about “…the rocket’s red glare…” refers to the Congreve rocket, used by the Royal Navy during its bombardment of Ft. McHenry.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/Firing_Congreve_Rockets_PAH7444.jpg

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Friday Flyby- Part 2 The F4U Diamond Anniversary

On this day in 1940, one of the most successful fighter aircraft of all time first took to the skies. The F4U Corsair would be the first fighter to exceed 400mph in level flight, go on to be produced until 1953 in sixteen different variants, and actually see combat into the 1960s!

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A part of our affinity for the Corsair stems from the fact that our father flew them during the early 1950s while in the Reserves. And greatly enjoyed it, in spite of almost killing himself once.

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22 May 1968, Loss of USS Scorpion SSN-589

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On 27 May 1968, for the second time in just over five years, the United States Navy announced the disappearance of a modern nuclear attack submarine.  The Skipjack-class SSN, USS Scorpion, disappeared on 22 May as she transited near the Azores.

589 sail

The cause of the loss of Scorpion continues to be a subject of fierce debate.  The recorded acoustic signature of the event has been analyzed extensively, and expert opinion is divided regarding what the SOSUS data points to.  Several recent books have addressed the subject, positing that the Soviets had targeted Scorpion and sank her with assistance from ASW helicopters, and intelligence gained from the capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and the John Walker spy ring.  Other theories included a battery fire which caused a Mk 37 torpedo to detonate in the tube in the torpedo room, or an inadvertent launch of a Mk 37 which came back and struck Scorpion.  Other analysis points to a possible explosion of hydrogen gas, built up to unsafe levels during a charge of batteries, that doomed Scorpion.

Much has been made of the abbreviation of her overhaul and the postponement of the SUBSAFE work (initiated in the wake of the loss of Thresher, SSN-593, in April of 1963) by the CNO, and the tagging out of the Emergency Main Ballast Tank system.   However, there seems little that points to any neglected maintenance or repair being responsible for the loss of the boat.

Regardless of the cause of the loss of Scorpion, the submarine carried 99 US Navy sailors to their deaths.  Her loss should stand as a reminder that plying the sea is a dangerous occupation, and that there is a a cost in lives for vigilance and readiness for war, even a Cold War.   It should also serve as a warning, that a Navy without sufficient ships and sailors to meet mission requirements in peace must compromise that readiness and vigilance, which has a far higher price in the unforgiving occupation of war at sea.

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The USS Stark

On this day in 1987, the USS Stark (FFG-31) was operating in the Persian Gulf near the exclusion zone declared because of the ongoing Iran-Iraq War. An Iraqi Mirage F1 launched two Exocet anti-ship missiles at the Stark. Both impacted the port side of Stark. The first failed to explode, but flaming fragments of its unburned propellant ignited fires. The second missile’s warhead exploded.

The Stark was badly crippled. It would take 24 hours to extinguish the blaze. 37 American Sailors died, and a further 21 were injured.  The Stark’s captain, Captain Glenn Brindel, would be relieved of command for failure to defend his ship. He shortly thereafter retired.

The Stark would limp under her own power to Bahrain, where she underwent temporary repairs alongside the destroyer tender USS Acadia (AD-42).

She would then travel to Pascagoula, MS for her definitive repairs.

After repairs, Stark rejoined the fleet until her decommissioning in 1999, and scrapping in 2006.

The Stark was non-mission capable after the attack. But she should have been a loss. The sterling damage control efforts of her crew were very closely studied by the Navy. Many lessons had been learned from the loss of HMS Sheffield in the Falklands, and had been incorporated into US Navy damage control training. And those lessons, as well as new lessons learned the hard way aboard Stark would be further tested in later years, notably aboard USS Princeton, USS Tripoli, and USS Cole.

Update: Here’s the report from the investigation.

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