Tag Archives: us navy

The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WW1 by Jim Crossley

I mentioned in my last book review that the naval war between 1914 and 1918 witnessed the advent of some new aspects of warfare that had never been seen before. Alongside the submarine and the aeroplane, the naval mine made its debut in this conflict.

I must confess I had never really understood just how extensive mining was during the Great War. Large tranches of the North Sea, including the German and British coasts, were mined by the allies and the Germans. In particular,shipping routes were heavily targeted, such as the British North Sea coast and the areas around ports in the low countries.

The important thing to understand is that was not just the threat that a ship might strike a mine that made presented such a problem, it was the sheer inconvenience that there might be mines anywhere, and the limitations it put upon the enemy. Ships could only move freely in swept channels, which of course required much effort and danger to clear. Its the threat that mines MIGHT be there that really causes the damage – even if you know that there probably arent, you have to assume that there are until you know otherwise. Mines severely restricted and impeded the free maneouvring of naval forces. And compared to the vast cost involved in building a Super Dreadnought, they were also relatively cheap.

Much like the submarine, to begin with British naval circles scoffed at minewarfare, somehow thinking of it as ‘un-British’ – I suppose its similar to the popular clamourings for a Trafalgar-esque, Nelsonian pitched sea battle – all very nostalgic, but Trafalgar was over a hundred years ago. But by 1918 the Royal Navy had, slowly, and somewhat unconventionally, developed significant experience and expertise in both laying and dealing with mines. In anti-minewarfare in particular, much use was made of smaller ships, such as Trawlers. Paddlesteamers were also utilised for their maneouvreability.

I think its quite telling that whereas the Royal Navy has long led the field in mine counter measures warfare – perhaps motivated by her experiences in the Great War, and her geographical status as an island nation dependant on the free movement of shipping. By contrast, the US Navy never really mastered the concept of the mine, right up until the 1980′s when several of her ships were severely damaged by Iranian mines in the Gulf. Incredibly, the largest and most powerful navy on the seas did not possess its own MCMV force. Yet after the armistice, each  of the allied nations was alloted an area of the North Sea to clear of mines. One of them – the US Navy.

This is a very interesting book, and contains a number of salient points not just about mines, but about naval warfare in general. I enjoyed reading it very much. It is extremely well written, and complements the historiography of the Great War at Sea perfectly.

The Hidden Threat is published by Pen and Sword

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USS Truxtun

The USS Truxtun entering Portsmouth earlier this morning. She’s an Arleigh Burke class destroyer of the US Navy here for the weekend after exercise Saxon warrior with the USS George HW Bush carrier group.

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USS Samuel B. Roberts

USS Samuel B Roberts

USS Samuel B Roberts

The Sherman was shortly followed by the Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts. The Roberts is quite a famous ship, having hit a mine during the US Navy‘s involvement in the Iran-Iraq War – a conflict that I wrote about recently during a book review.

It says a lot about the construction of the Perry class that the Roberts not only survived the mine strike, but was then lifted home on a ship transporter, and after 13 months of repairs was back in service in time to take part in the Gulf War in 1990!

Theres obviously a lot to be said for finding that point where affordability and capability co-align. If a Ticonderoga or an Arleigh Burke had hit a mine, a major unit would have been out of action. By the same token, is there any sense in sending a £1bn+ vessel to conduct routine patrols where the mk1 eyeball is the most used piece of technology? It takes me back to the old days of Mike Burleson and New Warshull numbers DO matter!

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USS Forrest Sherman

USS Forrest Sherman

USS Forrest Sherman

USS Forrest Sherman, a US Navy Arleigh Burke class Destroyer, seen coming into Portsmouth Harbour – conveniently during my lunch hour!

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America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain

Isn’t it funny how the same parts of the world seem to feature in military history, again and again. No doubt spurred on by rising tensions between Iran and the US, this fine book by Lee Alan Zatarain has been published in the UK by Casemate.

The book starts with a gripping account of the Exocet strike on the USS Stark, an Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate. She was struck by two Exocets, but despite intense fires and the loss of dozens of crew she somehow survived. It’s a gripping story of an ops room that was not quite on the ball on the one hand, but then some heroic efforts to save the ship on the other. In fact several officers were reprimanded for not defending the ship, but also decorated for then saving it. There are interesting parallels here with HMS Sheffield in the Falklands.

The Tanker War in the Gulf of the late 198o’s was an off-shoot of the bloody Iran-Iraq War, between a despotic Saddam Hussein on the one side and an Islamic Revolutionary Ayatollah Khomenei on the other. Both sides depended on oil to fund their war efforts, but at the same time sought to deny the other side their supply. Both belligerents targeted neutral commercial shipping, particularly oil tankers, using anti-ship missiles, mines and terrorist tactics.

The US Navy was drawn into the Gulf to protect shipping, after a number of neutral owned tankers were re-flagged under the stars and stripes. US Frigates and Destroyers began escorting convoys of tankers through the Straits of Hormuz and up to the oil terminals in the Gulf, as far as Kuwait. In one slightly embarrasing incident, a large tanker hit a mine, but the smaller and lighter warships cowered behind her, seeking protection in her wake.

The Iranians began using small fast craft to terrorize commecial shipping in the Gulf, and also laid hundreds if not thousands of mines in the Gulf. To counter against these classic low intensity tactics, the US transferred a unit of Army Special Forces Helicopters, with advanced equipment that enabled them to operate at night. The US Navy also leased two large barges, and moored them in the Gulf as Mobile Sea Bases. These heavily armoured bastions provided a home to Navy SEALs and their fast attack craft.

Another disaster befell the US Navy when the USS Samuel Roberts found herself stuck in an uncharted Iranian minefield. After striking a mine the crew managed to back their way out of the area while keeping the ship afloat; an extraordinary achievement for the Captain and crew. In fact one US Laboratory modelled the mine strike on the Roberts, and each time the ship sank within minutes. That the Roberts survived was no doubt due to some very able officers and men, and a first-class leadership culture.

The Roberts incident contrasts starkly with the situation that allowed the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruiser USS Vincennes to shoot down an Iran Air Airbus after wrongly identifying it as a Iranian Air Force Phantom. How the most technically advanced ship in the US Navy managed to make such a fateful decision is startling. However videos shot on the Vincennes at the time show sailors in shorts and t-shirt milling around on the bridge, and whooping with delight at the missile strikes. Earlier that day she had been in action against some Iranian surface vessels, and it is believed that her gung-ho Captain had let his offensive spirit kick into over-drive. Whats more, before reaching the Gulf he had re-arranged his command team, a move which made it more difficult for air warfare to be properly managed.

The Vincennes incident in particular is very well investigated and summarised by Zatarain. And this is a book that naval history enthusiasts and indeed naval officers should enjoy, particulary in this world where we face a multitude of low-intensity asymetric wars on the one hand, and a resurgent Iran on the other. It poses interesting questions about naval units were handled in trying circumstances, only a couple of years after the lessons of the Falklands War.

Iran: The Tanker War 1987-1988 by Lee Alan Zatarain is published by Casemate

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Kiel Week – Germany’s Navy Days/Cowes Week/Boat Show

F221 Hessen "open ship" during the K...

FGS Hessen during Kiel Week 2007 (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular readers will be well aware that I was slightly disappointed with Navy Days this year – no major warships, no foreign warships, sadly a bit of a damp squib. Of course, its east to understand why we didnt have any carriers or assault ships there – Invincible in mothballs, Illustrious and Bulwark in Refit, Ark Royal, Ocean and Albion on exercise in the US – but why no visitors from overseas? Its almost unheard of.

When I was browsing on Seawave’s archived list of Port Visits, I stumbled upon a large gather of German and foreign warships in Kiel in Germany every June. With a bit of digging, it transpires that this is Germany’s answer to Navy Days, Cowes Week and the Southampton Boat Show rolled into one. Sounds like quite some event! It started in the early twentieth century, when Kaiser Wilhelm wanted to imitate the traditional British event of Cowes Week, combined with displays of German naval might.

Every year the US Navy in Europe organises a series of exercises in the Baltic, known as BALTOPS (Baltic Operations). A large contingent of US vessels take part, and of course other NATO and non-NATO countries, and after the exercise has finished most of the visitors call into Kiel Week. These are the ships that were at Kiel Week this year:

Germany: FGS U-24 (Submarine), Sachsen (Frigate), Frankfurt Am Main (auxiliary), Bayern (Frigate), Ammersee (Tanker), Fehmarn (Tug), Spiekeroog (Tug), Lutje Horn (tug).
Russia: RFS Kaliningrad (landing ship)
Denmark: HDMS Viben, Glenten, Svanen (patrol vessels), Thyra, Alholm, Ertholm (sail training ships), Budstikken (patrol ship)
Poland: ORP Kaszub (corvette)
US: USS Mount Whitney (HQ Ship), Simpson (Frigate), Stephen W. Groves (Frigate)

The year before in 2009 there was an even bigger turn-out -

Latvia: LVS Virsaitis (minelayer)
Germany: FGS Gorch Fock (tall ship), Frankfurt An Main (auxiliary), Lachs (landing craft), Wische (auxiliary), Spiekeroog (tug), Mosel (auxiliary), Rhein (auxiliary), Oker (electronics ship), Frankenthal (minehunter), Bad Rappenau (minehunter), Kulmbach (minehunter), Auerbach (minesweeper), Ensdorf (minesweeper), Passau (minehunter), Spessart (tanker), Uberherrn, Laboe (minehunters), Siegburg (minesweeper), Herten (minesweeper), Puma, Nerz, Zobel (attack ships), Hameln (minesweeper), Elbe (auxiliary), Bottsand (oil recovery ship), Eisvogel (tug), Langeness (tug), Lutje Horn (tug), Sylt, Karlsruhe (Frigate)
Russia: RFS Kaliningrad (landing ship)
Denmark: HDMS Budstikken, Sabotoren, (patrol ships) Ertholm, Alholm (sail training ships), Ebsern Snare (Frigate), Thyra, Svanen, (sail training ships) Havkatten, Makrelen, (patrol/MCMV) Glenten (patrol vessel), Peter Tordenskhold (corvette)
Lithuania: LTNS Suduvis (minesweeper)
France: FS Pegase (minesweeper), Sagittaire (minesweeper)
Finland: FNS Hamina, Hanko (fast attack craft)
Poland: ORP Jamno (minesweeper)
Netherlands: HNLMS Zeeleeuw (submarine), Maasluis, Haarlem (minehunters) Mercuur (torpedo recovery ship), Van Kinsbergen (training ship)
Britain: HMS St Albans (Type 23 Frigate)
US: USS Mount Whitney (HQ Ship), USS Forrest Sherman (Destroyer)

It makes for an interesting comparison indeed. This year at Navy Days we had two Destroyers, three Frigates, one hospital ship, one minesweeper and a landing craft. All from the Royal Navy. Of course, if theres a big event on, such as a Fleet Review, then there are more ships in for Navy Days. Plymouth Navy Days always seem to have more ships – probably because the authorities know that there is nothing else to see in Plymouth, whereas in Portsmouth the Historic Dockyard is also a pull. On the other hand, Plymouth frequently hosts foreign warships for Operational Sea Training and the Thursday wars.

Another example of how the Royal Navy could do with being a bit more savvy – if you want to put on a good Navy Days, try organising an exercise just before or after, and theres more chance that people will turn up because there will be something new and interesting to see.

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Port Visits – useful website

HMS Diamond in the Clyde. Radar and gun fitted.

HMS Diamond at the builders yard (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve stumbled on a pretty interesting website, called Port Visits. I can see it being one of those websites that I frequently visit!

Some intrepid person has taken it upon themselves to compile a website of warship movements around the world, from virtually every navy on the seas. Its interesting to see what’s going on around the world – courtesy visits, exercises, reviews, for example. Theres always a lot going on at Plymouth – because its the base for Royal Navy Operational Sea Training (FOST). Foreign warships call in too, such as this Monday coming the German FGS Bayern (Brandenburg class Frigate), FGS Hamburg (Sachsen class Frigate), FGS Berlin (auxiliary) and the Dutch HNLMS De Ruyter (De Zeven Provinicen Class Frigate). I’ve got to admit, I wouldn’t mind getting some pictures…

The US Navy survey ship USNS Henson is calling in to Portsmouth, as well as the British Hospital ship RFA Argus. On Wednesday the third Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Diamond, arrives in Portsmouth for the first time. The Portsmouth based Type 42 Destroyer HMS Manchester is calling in at St Kitts and Bermuda in the Carribean on Disaster relief duties during the Hurricane season (no doubt keeping an eye out for drug runners too).

Further afield, theres a big fleet review taking place at Valparaiso in Chile for the 200th anniversary of the Chilean Navy. Britain is represented by HMS Portland, the Plymouth based Type 23 Frigate. She’ll be meeting up with her old Type 23 sister ships, Almirante Condell, Almirante Cochrane and Almirante Lynch. Also attending are ships from Argentina (GC Mantilla, patrol ship), Brazil (Barroso, Corvette), an un-named ship from Iran, Canada (HMCS Protecteur, auxiliary; and HMCS Algonquin, Iroquois class Destroyer) and the US Navy (USS Jarrett, Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigate). The presence of an Iranian warship will be interesting, alongside the US Navy, and also a Royal Navy ship taking part in a review alongside an Argentinian vessel. It also shows how times have changed – whilst the UK and Chile have long been allies, Chile and Argentina have always had a difficult relationship, but at present are enjoying cordial relations.

Further into the future, you can see what port visits are scheduled in the long term – Chinese warships visiting Sydney sometime in September, Japanese ships visiting Jakarta, China and South Korea, USS Mount Whitney calling in at Murmansk, and so on. Its really useful, because port visits in Portsmouth – and a lot of places nowadays, I suspect – only get announced a day or two before they take place.

Another very useful resource, is that you can dig back through the archives back to January 2000, to see whats been going on over time. I’ve found it really interesting seeing what ships arrived in Portsmouth for the International Fleet Review in June 2005. There was also quite a big event at Kiel in Germany that month too, with ships from the Royal Navy, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Russia, France, Egypt, Latvia, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Holland, Canada and the US.

O.K., call me a warship nerd!

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USS Boise




USS Boise

Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

The USS Boise is an unusual visitor to Portsmouth Naval Base at the moment.

A US Navy Los Angeles Class Nuclear Attack Submarine, USS Boise has a displacement of 6,000 tons, and a crew of 129 men. She can fire Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and conventional torpedoes. She was commissioned in 1992, and saw action in the second Gulf War in 2003.She is normally based in Norfolk, Virginia.

The security around US vessels is always tight when they visit foreign ports, and especially so with nuclear submarines. There is a 100 metre exclusion zone around the vessel, maintained by MOD police boats. When the boat I was on passed the Boise the US sailors on the deck tracked us through their binoculars!

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USS Mount Whitney

The USS Mount Whitney is a Blue Ridge Class Command ship of the US Navy. She came into Portsmouth earlier today.

The Mount Whitney previously served as the Headquarters ship of the US Fleet in the Mediterranean. She is currently the Flagship of the US Sixth Fleet and Joint Command Lisbon, a NATO Command. The Mount Whitney has served in various trouble spots around the world, including Haithi in 1994 an Iraq in 2003.

She weighs in at 18,400 tons fully loaded. She has a crew of 170 officers and men and 155 civilians, and also has capacity for 930 men. She is armed with two Phalanx Close in weapons systems for self-defence, as well as two 25mm cannons. She operates one helicopter, currently a SH-60 Knight Hawk.

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USN F-4 Phantom vs VPAF MiG 17/19 – Peter Davies

Phantom vs. MiGs

Phantom vs. MiGs

I am a big fan of Osprey’s Duel series of books. The approach of comparing two contemporary machines, that fought against each other, makes for a very good read. And by also looking at the men involved, Osprey are onto a winner. This book charts the ongoing battle fought between the US Navy’s Phantom fighters and the North Vietnamese MiG fighters in the later part of the Vietnam War.

The US Navy developed its Cold War aviation from its successes in the Pacific in the Second World War. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, relied on significant Chinese and Soviet assistance. In the US Navy, ‘MiG killers’ became something of an elite within an elite. The US Navy’s Phantom’s performance was far superior to that of the US Air Force phantoms during the same period. After 1972 the US Navy’s statistics improved considerably, after more emphasis had been given to training crews in air combat. Originally designed as a stand-off interceptor, innovative Navy pilots showed that the Phantom could be used for dogfighting.

Interestingly, although one Phantom crew ended the Vietnam War having shot down 5 MiG’s, the next highest crews only accounted for two. In a highly intense war, that must have involved many missions, clearly many operations saw little action. It is, however, difficult to compare losses compared to the overall amount of aircraft deployed, as Hanoi has never released details of just how many MiG’s fought in the war.

One very interesting aspect that this book stresses, as early as the introduction, is to what extent do we compromise between technology and skill? This is all the more pertinent given the Cold War context. Particularly when it came to dogfighting, technology was useful but not the be all and end all. Aerial combat is an extremely complicated business, involving the aircraft itself, the weapons, electronics, and finally the crew themselves.

There are some disappointing aspects, however. The book focusses exclusively on Vietnam, to the exclusion of any other factors. Other air forces around the world were flying Phantoms and MiGs at the time – what was their approach? The more you separate history into little sections, the more compartmentalised it becomes. This book is about Vietnam, and rightly so – but a little more wider comparison would be a useful literary garnish.

Otherwise it is a great read. Packed with technical descriptions and specifications, and with a plethora of photographs and drawings, this should put the Phantom-MiG duel on the same level as Spitfire/Hurricane vs. Messerschmitt and Harrier vs. Mirage. The very essence of military aircraft is how they perform against their rivals, and the Duel series is an ideal way to showcase this.

There is a side story to this book too. Rowland White’s Phoenix Squadron, published earlier this year, describes how a British Fleet Air Arm Pilot went to America and saw that the US Navy’s Phantom training consisted of a number of experienced pilots, all telling their pupils different things. ‘This is how I flew in Vietnam!’ seems to have been the message, even if if it was a different message from room to room. According to White the British pilot submitted proposals on how to centralise the US Navy training and introduce more of a coherent policy. The result was the famed Top Gun programme.

To what extent was the Top Gun programme, of Tom Cruise fame, inspired by the less well-known but equally skilled Top Guns of the British Fleet Air Arm?

Published by Osprey Publishing

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The Coral Sea 1942

The Coral Sea 1942

The Coral Sea 1942

One of the most striking effects of the second world war was the supplanting of the Battleship by the Aircraft Carrier as the most important Naval vessel. By 1945 the era of the big gun Dreadnought Battleships was long gone.

Nowhere saw more Aircraft Carrier battles than the Pacific. Former US Navy Commander Mark Stille takes a look at one of the earliest battles in the South Pacific, the 1942 battle of The Coral Sea. The US Navy’s carrier succesfully thwarted a Japanese attempt to invade New Guinea. It was pivotal in that it represented the first reverse for the Japanese since Pearl Harbour, and set the US on the long road of ‘island-hopping’. It was not perhaps as decisive a battle as Midway, fought less than a month later. But the lessons learnt by the Americans and the losses suffered by the Japanese at the Coral Sea had a profound effect on the outcome of Midway.

Mark Stille takes a very detailed look at the opposing plans, from the Japanese intent to invade New Guinea and the tactics that the US Navy deployed to frustrate them. We are given very informative biographies of the senior Naval Commanders in question, and also a glimpse into the respective Naval ethos of each country. As a former Naval Officer, Stille is well placed to write about Naval tactics and strategy. And of course, this book contains Osprey’s trademark maps and illustrations. One thing that really impresses me is the ’3D’ maps, showing the height of waves of aircraft as the attacked.

This is a rather narrow account, however, as it focusses almost exclusively on one specific battle. Although it has clearly been written for the American market, there are very broad contexts to the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Royal Navy had been using its Carriers to great effect in the Mediterranean and in the sinking of the Bismarck. Furthermore, it could be argued that the point at which Aircraft Carriers truly gained the ascendancy was the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse when sent to Singapore without adequate air cover. Yet this episode only receives the briefest of mention. Stille does focus almost exclusively on the US Navy, and what is an interesting and thorough account does miss out on some comparative and contextual depth in this respect.

The Coral Sea 1942 is published by Osprey

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USNS Laramie

USNS Laramie

USNS Laramie

I quite unexpectedly saw the USNS Laramie coming into Portsmouth Harbour today. She is in the UK supporting US warships taking part in a NATO exercise in Scotland recently.

The Laramie is a 31,200 ton tanker of the Henry J Kaiser Class. He role is to support US warships at sea by providing fuel oil and aviation fuel. They can also carry a small amount of dry and frozen food. She has a capacity for 159,000 barrells of fuel oil and aviation oil, 7,400 square feet of cargo space, 8 20 foot refrigerated containers and room for 128 pallets. The high gantires enable her to refuel ships while underway, a process known as Replenishment at Sea, or RAS. With gantries on both sides, she can RAS with two ships at once.

The US Navy’s support vessels – oil tankers, supply ships, hospital ships and container vessels – actually come under the Military Sealift Command, hence the USNS prefix and not USS. This is a designation that is also used by the Royal Navy, whose non-fighting support ships come under the Royal Fleet Auxilliary and have the designation RFA. Both the MSC and RFA’s ships are manned mainly by civilians.

The US Navy have 14 ships in the same class, which makes it possible to support and replenish a large number of warships, at sea, around the globe. In comparison the Royal Fleet Auxilliary, only has four oil tankers. The two ships of the new Wave class have a similar size and capacity, but the two ships of the Rover class are only 11,000 tons.

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