Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Quickness is the essence of war
“Bridge this is the lookout on the top port station. Periscope sighted 278 degrees. I believe it’s a midget sir.”
Clancy, the Number One stares at the speaker for a second then notifies the Captain. “Periscope sighted sir at 278 degrees.”
“Hard a port Number One, come to course 270. We don’t want to miss anything. “Prepare the hedgehogs.”
“Hedgehogs ready Sir”
“Fire when in range remember they are not very fast and can’t dive deep so don’t over shoot please.”
The British Naval Corvette the HMS Portchester Castle came about hard, fighting the laws of physics all the way. The veteran of two U-boat kills she was a rarity in the Royal Navy of 1946. She was still in active service when the war started, having being kept active during the intervening months that most Royal Navy ships were put in storage or sold to central and south American countries to raise cash. If any ship was made to deal with the challenge facing the Islands of Crete and Sicily it was her and her kind. They were made for the Mediterranean it turns out and thrived there. Just big enough to give some creature comfort to the crew yet not too large for the kinds of tasks they were to encounter among the islands of Greece and Crete.
The Soviets investment in the mini submarine had started to pan out in this area. The Seehunds had found their killing grounds and were having quite a time. The Little Ones were threatening to cut off both Sicily and Crete from being used as bases for both naval and air operations. Some of the Seehund captains were becoming aces sinking ships on almost every sortie. This was not only happening in these areas but SAC and the newly moved 15th Air Force were being forced to get their supplies via the Suez canal, a trip more than twice as far as using a route from the US through the Mediterranean to their bases. It was still not much of a problem but it did bring supplies down to dangerously low levels at just the time that LeMay needed them the most and delayed their arrival by a month.
It was a month that cost LeMay a number of opportunities to extract better results in his bombing campaign. A month that grounded 10% of his forces due to lack of supplies. A month that he did not get to bomb the enemy.
Being on a Seehund crew suddenly became a thing to strive for. Short duration voyages with large rewards for success, being glamorized by the Soviet press. The Captains and crewmates were becoming the newest heroes of the Soviet Union. A giant leap up from their status as virtual prisoners just months ago. Now they were having an impact like never before and they were much happier plying the Ionian and Aegean seas compared to the English Channel. Better weather and much better food. But the best part was they had targets. They had prey. They had opportunities to make their families and commanders proud.
No longer were malcontents and criminals forced to man the Seehunds. Now commissar's sons and party official offspring were clamoring to get into the Little Ones. The successful crews were being lionized by the party elite and in Pravda. Stalin himself was pinning medals on their chests and more important their families now got enough to eat ahead of the others who were starving.
What was once seen as a punishment now was seen as a reward.
If you came back with only tales and periscope pictures of single kills the trip was seen as a failure in some quarters. A double kill was becoming common place. Vasili Arkhipov had become a national hero for sinking 6 freighters off of Sicily in only 8 voyages. Sicily had a full American Division on its surface and those 6 freighters and their supplies were sorely needed. In addition he had hit an American cruiser as well and all was caught on film after he had sunk his 4th freighter in three voyages.
A public that was ready for a hero welcomed Arkhipov back to Moscow with open arms and he was given command of a larger ship in the Black Sea. The Soviets needed heroes after the terrible news of the four atomic bombs and what they had done to nearby cities where they had devastated the oil industry. Yes heroes were needed not so much for moral purposes but to take their minds off of the famine that was starting to drain their energy. The supplies looted from the West had done wonders for the last three months but the reality of not seeing home grown food at your neighborhood market was unnerving to many. Concern actually grows when your markets are full of hard to get luxury items and not the food you are used to. It means that your country can’t feed itself; it means death to those who the government wants to kill.
The government propaganda campaign had made the crews of the Little Ones the heroes of the hour. Many a boy, man and even women wanted to climb into these small killers and have a go at the Amerikosi ships. They wanted the enemy soldiers on Crete and Sicily to taste the pangs of hunger they were experiencing. They wanted the chance to strike directly at the enemy for what they had done to Baku, Tbilisi, Rostov and Ploesti. The Soviet government had done a very good job of convincing the people of the USSR that the capitalists would stop at nothing in their effort to destroy their homeland and them.
The proof was there for all to see in the picture of Jill Nelson. Her almost picture perfect body being covered by fallout and then being rolled over to display the hideous wounds she had suffered due to the nuclear explosion in Baku. The picture had even made Look magazine, despite the American government’s strong objections. America’s love affair with the Atomic Bomb was fast fading as more and more pictures of white people being horribly killed made the news cycle, people who looked just like them, people who could be their brothers, sisters, moms and dads.
Any opportunity that the general public had to strike back the warmongering capitalist pigs was coveted by all. There were now over 70 mini subs in the area surrounding Crete and Sicily. So many that two had actually rammed into each other and one was sunk with the other having to surface and then scuttled by its crew who were rescued by an American destroyer.
They were having an effect way beyond their actual prowess. Shipping companies and merchant marines wary of this newest menace and wear of war turned and ran at any report or false sighting. The US and Royal Navy was at wits end trying everything in its arsenal to stem the panic among the merchant marine. These brave men died by the tens of thousands to keep Britain from being strangled by the Kriegsmarine and to supply the armies that landed on D- Day.
This mission was different. They were supplying long range bombers who had just dropped the most destructive weapon mankind had ever devised on what many saw as innocent men, women and children. Enough didn’t think this was a mission worth their lives after surviving multiple sinkings and seeing their fellow sailors boiled to death or watch them drown behind watertight bulkhead doors. This was not the moral crusade that they felt the last war when the enemy was a heartless monster.
Many did not know the evils of Stalinism. During the last war these people were our allies. Old Joe was a benevolent figure who was our staunchest friend in the war to defeat the world’s greatest evil. Most did not know that Stalin was just as evil as Hitler. Many did not know the atrocities the Red Army had committed in Germany. Some did and chalked it up to well-deserved revenge. Many a fist fight had erupted on many a ship over the true reason the Soviets attacked and the US deciding within weeks to try and blow Leningrad off the map killing the very same people who never gave up and held the Nazi monsters at bay for years until rescued by Uncle Joe, starving in their determination to never give up. These people had been lionized and held up as true heroes of World War Two and here the same US Air Force that tried to vaporize them now wanted the sailors to give their lives so they could do the same to the people of Stalingrad, Moscow, Kursk and even Warsaw.
The American press and government had not made the case as yet, that Stalin was as monstrous as Hitler. The outright communists and deluded left leaning, continued to defend the idea of communism not knowing that Stalinism had taken its place. They continued to whisper in the ears of their neighbors about the evils of capitalism and many of the evils were there for all to see, while the obvious evils of Stalinism were hidden from the American and British public by the massive propaganda machine of the Soviet Empire.
At the end of September the United States Strategic Bombing Survey had been released and propaganda masters of the Soviet Union and the various communist parties and sympathizers made a point of continuously pointing out the negative aspects of a strategic bombing campaign and its large failures. This campaign focused in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of children and women to no effect other than to make their men fight and die harder to revenge their deaths and of particular focus was the role of one General Curtis LeMay.
The fact that LeMay had just dropped 4 atomic bombs on or near four large cities filled with innocents, did not go unnoticed or unpublicized, by the communist controlled press in occupied France, Greece, Italy and even in Turkey and Spain not to mention the heavily worker controlled docks in the US and GB.
To say the least the merchant marine was being played like a violin by Dmitri Shepilov, the head of Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Communist Party Central Committee. He had almost as much power over the Soviet people as Stalin himself through his control of the printed and spoken word, which meant his life was in danger. His products permeated the docks and union halls in all of the major ports of the world.
By the end of the World War Two the truth about the true losses the Merchant Marine suffered, came to light. It was aided by information leaked by communist sympathizers nad even the New York Time did a multiple day series of articles on the hidden secrets and startling statistics of the staggering losses that had occurred without recognition.
The fact was that the merchant marines in World WW II suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services. These casualties were kept secret during the War to keep information about their success from the enemy and to attract and keep mariners at sea.
Newspapers carried essentially the same story each week: "Two medium-sized Allied ships sunk in the Atlantic." In reality, the average for 1942 was 33 Allied ships sunk each week.
This had long been known amongst the sailors and their families. The fact that it was kept such a deep secret and was still not known by many outside of the union halls and dockyards was a great source of resentment.
All of these factors combined to magnify the nuisance of the Seehund into the scourge of the Mediterranean in the eyes of the merchant marine services. The fact that the Little Ones were very good at eluding the best that the US and Royal Navies could bring to bear did nothing to increase the urgency the sailors felt for the strategic bombers and flyboys on Crete, Rhodes, and in Turkey. It even extended to the forces on Sicily. Just as the US government played down by 15 to one the losses to the Merchant Marine in 1942, the rumor mill made the Seehund ten times more destructive than it was in reality and ten times more likely to turn a freighter around before it delivered its cargo on just the sight of a strange current or flash of sunlight hitting at the wrong angle.
The HMS Portchester Castle completed its turn and was churning towards the lookouts coordinates. Just after the Captain ordered the firing of the hedgehogs and before the explosions started, the source of all the excitement was spotted floating just below the surface with an occasional wave breaking on top of it. It was a half-filled drop tank tank off one of the jet fighters that the sailors saw often as bits of shining metal, in a clear blue sky, followed by long thin wisps of vapor and often chasing the big bombers.
“Order General Quarter’s number one. Give an extra to Jenkins for having a sharp eye as well. Even though it was not a sub it was a good call.”