Daily Archives: 29 December, 2011

Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Submarine warfare

English: Cropped version of public domain File...

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In 2009 I identified a serious risk of the Royal Navy losing a useful mass of numbers when it comes to submarines.

As in 1982, one would imagine that the Submarine service would be expected to shadow the Argentine fleet, and try to take out some of its inventory – in particular the Exocet equipped ships that might cause our surface vessels trouble. They would also be expect to loiter off the Argentine mainland watching for aircraft and shipping, to provide land strike capability, and also to slip ashore special forces.

The Astute Class are regarded as the best submarines in the world, perhaps on a par with the US Navy’s equivalent Virginia Class. According to one website, she is as quiet as a baby dolphin, which probably makes her as good as undetectable in skilled hands. And a submarine that cannot be detected can act with impunity. And knowing that British submarines can roam around the South Atlantic at will is bound to put the fear of god into Argentine naval officers.

The Astutes carry advanced sonar and weapons systems, more weapons than any other British submarine previously – Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. With a range of 1,240 miles, this means that Astute could accurately target sites in North Africa sitting off the South Coast of England. Such a range and sophistication really would cause severe problems to the Argentine forces. The only problem might be replenishment of Tomahawk stocks, both in terms of the US allowing us to purchase more, and then getting them to the South Atlantic. But as I identified in 2009, Tomahawk would provide a more accurate and less risky alternative to the Black Buck Vulcan raids.

In terms of slipping ashore Special Forces, I must confess I had always laboured under the impression that bigger SSN’s were not as ideal for the task of inshore work as the smaller, old diesel electrics where. After all, in 1982 HMS Onyx was sent south reputedly to work close inshore with special forces. Yet it seems that the new Astute Class boats will be able to use a piece of American technology, the Dry Dock Shelter (DDS). The DDS enables special forces teams to enter and exit the submarine much easier. As with much special forces and submarine technology specifications are hazy, but I can imagine the DDS being pretty useful.

The big problem – and this is the same as with Destroyers and Frigates – is that we simply do not have enough Submarines. By the time the Astute class are finished in 2024 – yes 2024, in 12 years time! – the RN will have seven SSN Submarines – critically short. Of course, as with any vessels a number of these will be in refit at any time. As the Astute class boats are commissioned – at a rate of one every two or three years – the Trafalgar Class will decommission, with the Navy maintaining a level of seven SSN’s in service. Of course, there is a strong possibility that the Trafalgars might start falling apart long before then.

The problem with Submarine procurement, is that with the political desire to ‘buy British’, there is only really one option – BAE Systems yard at Barrow. In order to maintain a healthy programme of orders and ensure that a skilled workforce and facilities can be maintained, submarine procurement and constructions works on a ‘drumbeat’ policy – stretching out orders to ensure that there are no quiet periods when workers would have to be laid off. With the MOD looking at renewing the nuclear deterrent SSBN’s by the mid 2020′s, the building programme for the Astutes has been stretched to cover until when work is due to begin on the SSBN replacements. All very well, but according to the National Audit Office this delay will cost more, to the point at which if the boats had been built faster an eighth Astute could have been built. The MOD decided against this, however, no doubt fearful of the running costs of operating another boat.

Obviously, due to their nature it is very difficult to find out too much about submarine deployments, or submarine technological specifications. But if it is true, that an Astute can watch shipping from off the North American coast, then even one Astute in the South Atlantic could provide a wealth of intelligence without actually firing its weapons. And that is actually the beauty of submarines – you don’t know where they are, so you have to assume that they could be anywhere and could strike at any time - a real hinderance on your freedom of operations if you are an Admiral looking to take and defend the Falkland Islands.

In 1982 the Task Force deployed 5 SSN’s of the Churchill, Valiant and Swiftsure Classes, and one diesel electric Oberon class Boat. In 1982 the RN was geared up for submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, and hence had a considerable submarine arm, in terms of numbers and experience. In 1982 the Royal Navy had 11 SSN’s to chose from, and no less than 13 Oberon Class conventional boats. 24 boats, whilst in 2012, we would be able to choose from 7 at the most.

A theme is emerging – a Royal Navy with first class assets, but with not nearly enough of them.

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Filed under debate, Falklands War, Navy

ANZAC #13 – Corporal Herbert Townsing

Since reading the article in the Portsmouth News about Australian Great War Soldiers buried in Milton Cemetery, I have always thought that the story was limited to the twelve lads buried in Milton. However, after taking a glance at Tim Backhouse’s excellent memorials in Portsmouth website, I have discovered that there is also one ANZAC buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth. It seems only right to tell his story too.

Corporal Herbert Townsing was born in Avoca, Ampitheatre, Karra Karra, in Victoria. Townsing joined the Australian Forces on 27 August 1915, at Black Boy Hill in Western Australia. He was a 29 year old labourer, married with one child. At the time of his enlistment he was living at 62 Sterling Street, Perth, Western Australia, which would suggest that he had moved from Victoria looking for work. He was very tall at 6 foot 2 inches, and weighed a strapping 196lbs. With chest measurements of 38 and 40 1/2 inches, he had blue eyes – with imperfect eyesight – brown hair, and was a member of the Church of England. He had a scar over the bicep on his left arm.

After joining up he was posted to 26 Depot, and from there joined the 12th reinforcements for the 12th Battalion, Australian Infantry on 16 October 1915. Just before Christmas on 17 December 1915 he embarked on the HMAT Ajana (A31) from Freemantle. Upon arrival in Egypt he reported to the 3rd Training Battalion. On 3 March 1916 he was transferred from the 3rd Training Battalion to the 52nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, who were then at Zeitoun. Less than two weeks later, however, Herbert Townsing was transferred again, this time to the 4th Pioneer Battalion, at Tel-el-Kebir. Perhaps this transfer was due to his background as a Labourer.

Townsing was swiftly promoted in the Pioneers. On 14 April 1916 he was made a Temporary Corporal whilst at Serapeum, and this appointment was made permanent on 27 May 1915 at Merris. Soon after on 4 June 1916 he embarked for Europe, onboard the HMT Scotian at Alexandria. Disembarking at Marseilles on 11 June, he went up to the western Front.

On 9 August 1916 Herbert Townsing was wounded, receiving a shrapnel wound in his back. The next day he was admitted to the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Wimereux, where he was described as having spinal injuries. On 11 August he was embarked on the Hospital Ship St Dennis, and a week later – possibly after passing through other hospitals – Townsing was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth. Unlike the other Australians, however, Townsing was sent to the Fratton Bridge Hospital, rather than Milton or Fawcett Road. This suggests that the 5th Southern General was in fact an umbrella for a number of smaller military hospitals in Portsmouth.

Only a day after being admitted, Herbert Townsing died on 19 August 1916, of his wounds. Surprisingly, he was buried the same day in Kingston Cemetery. His personal effects were sent back to his wife Molly in Australia – 2 notebooks, purse, 2 photos, 2 letters, 2 cigarette holders, 3 badges, 7 coins, knife, watch in tin, small bag. Interestingly, Townsing was referred to as a Sergeant in  the caccompanying letter note. The only other reference in his service record to this rank is the letter to AIF HQ in London informing them of his casualty. My guess is that he was serving as a local acting Sergeant, and that this had not been entered on his records at the time of his death. Sadly, the re

Molly Townsing lived in various places after the war, including at Gordons Hotel, Buabura; and Frazer St, Bunbury in Western Australia. In 1922 her last known address was care of the Post Office at Wyalcatchem, Western Australia. She was awarded a pension from 2 November 19i6, and in writing to AIF Base HQ in 1917 had the following to say:

‘I am very grateful for your kindness in informing me as to where he lies, it is consoling to know that he lies in friendly soil’

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Filed under Pompey ANZAC's, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Auxiliaries and Merchant vessels

English: NRP Bérrio, fleet support tanker of t...

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In 2009 I looked at the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and the Merchant Navy. But since then, it has occured to me that their roles are so similar and interlinked that it makes much more sense to look at them in unison.

The RFA of 2012 is woefully small. Even when we consider that the Royal Navy has contracted in size, the RFA has shrunk beyond proportion to that contraction. It can only field:

It should be noted that I have excluded the Bay Class LPD’s, which rightfully belong under ‘Amphibious Warfare’. This is absolutely microscopic when compared to the RFA effort that was required in 1982. In 1982 the RFA utilised:

  • 10 Tankers of four different classes
  • 2 Fort Class replenishment ships
  • 1 Helicopter Support ship
  • 2 Ammunition store ships
  • 1 Ness Class store ship

In addition, the Merchant Navy provided a very sizeable contribution to the logistics effort, and ships taken up from trade and chartered consisted of the following:

  • 9 troopships (to lift two brigades)
  • 4 aircraft/helicopter support ships
  • 1 ammunition ship
  • 1 general transport ship
  • 14 Oil Tankers
  • 1 Water Tanker
  • 2 Ocean going tugs
  • 1 mooring vessel
  • 2 repair ships
  • 3 Refrigerated stores ships
  • 1 hospital ship
  • 2 despatch vessels
  • 1 minesweeper support ship

I have been having a bit of trouble getting access to any kind of information of what ships comprise the Merchant Navy in the present day. Bearing in mind the kind of effort it took to maintain a task force in the South Atlantic 30 years ago, a logistical effort would probably be required on a similar kind of level. If such ships could not be requisitioned from British flagged companies, ships would have to be chartered – at considerable cost. It is surely never ideal to be chartering ships to take to war.

With the shrinking of the RFA, gaps exist for tankers and general store ships. The six Point Class roll-on roll-off ships could provide a very useful capability of lifting vehicles, equipment, stores and possibly aircraft if needed. RFA Argus could be utilised as a helicopter support ship, and given the utility of the repair ship RFA Diligence, it would seem that similar repair support would be invaluable, given that Diligence has also acted very usefully as a depot ship for submarines and minesweepers in the past. Any vessels – perhaps container ships – that could be quickly converted to transport and operate helicopters would be most useful. Liners and medium to large ferries would be needed as troopships, and if Argus was used for helicopter support another option would be needed for providing hospital ship(s).

There is a serious lack of Tankers in the RFA. With only two Wave Class Fleet Tankers, two smaller Rover Class Tankers and one Leaf Class support tanker, the ability to replenish ships at sea is very minimal indeed. Even then, often the Wave Class ships have been sent on patrol duties, intercepting drug smugglers and pirates and the like. Whilst large commercial tankers could be requisitioned or chartered, it remains to be seen how many of them could replenish ships at sea.

Presumably the Task Force would have use of Ascenscion Island as a staging post. The airfield at Wideawake has been used as RAF Ascencion Island since the War as part of the air bridge between the UK and the South Atlantic. Although Ascencion does not have a harbour, it does provide the only sheltered anchorage en-route to the Falklands. The construction of an aiport on Saint Helena, due for completion in 2015, would radically improve transport links with the South Atlantic. Hence Saint Helena could also be used as a logistics hub. I would be very surprised if the MOD has not leaned on DfID to ensure that St Helena Airport is not capable of supporting military operations if necessary.

Histories of the Falklands War suggest that the Ministry of Defence maintains a list of merchant ships suitable for use in the time of war. In 1982, it was found that many of these were light, cross-channel ferries totally unsuitable to sailing 8,000 miles to the South Atlantic. One would hope that the MOD has a similar list maintained in readiness for a future Falklands War, as it looks like any Task Force would be impossible without a significant Merchant Navy contribution. From a logistical sense, getting a Task Force to the South Atlantic and keeping it there would be of prime importance.

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Filed under Falklands War, Navy, rfa, Uncategorized