Big Historical Find

For those of you familiar with the Pacific Theater, Admiral Chester Nimitz’s “Graybook” is available online in all its .pdf glory. For those less familiar, this is basically Admiral Nimitz’s complete war diary from assumption of command until victory of Japan. Go check it out if you get a chance.

Also, had to take a minor detour from the book to finish up an essay contest entry. Will now return to the salt mines, but wanted to share that find for anyone working on a Pacific Theater essay or anything similar.

Warship Wednesday–Decking the Hulls (Carrier Doctrine #2)

As you guys may have noticed, I am completely willing to lean on the works of others.  With that in mind, for today’s discussion, we’ll talk about a topic which as absorbed much ink:  decks.  Specifically, armored vs. unarmored iterations thereof.

So, without further ado, I’ll turn it over to the video host Drachinifel and his very helpful 5 minute video on the design process / doctrine differences between armored and unarmored flight decks.

*waits for people to actually watch the video*

[UPDATE] Or see a much longer video with two British naval historians.

As I mentioned in the last iteration of carrier doctrine, the above design decisions made for a very different air group capacity.  However, that being said, I 100% agree with the Royal Navy’s considerations  given how they expected the war to unfold.  Yes, the trade off is a small air group, but the Royal Navy wasn’t expecting to spearhead an assault on the European continent from the sea versus nibbling at the periphery / conducting convoy protection.  As Drachinifel points out, when you expect to have literally dozens of enemy squadrons in range, there comes a point where your vessel better be able to take a lick.

Illustrious’ experience during World War II is an excellent example of this.  For those unfamiliar with the story, Illustrious made a wonderful nuisance of herself with the Italians, to include making a house call to Taranto.   Indeed, the Illustrious so upset the Axis apple cart in the Med that the Germans decided to have Fliegerkorps X throw her a Stuka party off Malta in January 1941. As you can see from J.A. Hamilton’s painting done for  the Imperial War Museum, the Germans threw a lot of ordnance at Illustrious.  They tossed even more at her after she managed to limp into Malta Harbor.  Despite multiple bomb hits, however, the carrier’s powerplant was not critically damaged.  Thus she managed to sail to the “neutral” United States for repairs.  Now, there is some discussion of just how much damage the beating did to her hull and longevity or whether armored flight deck even did its job.  I find a lot of this to be really nifty sophistry, as the bottom line is she survived.

(Note:  “Neutral” is in quotations above for what I would think are pretty obvious reasons.  When you’re repairing one belligerent’s warships basically free of charge, one is no longer neutral.  Sure it all worked out in the end, but seriously?)

Now compare and contrast this with the fate of the AkagiKaga, Hiryu, and Soryu at Midway.  While, yes, Japanese ordnance handling and damage control were partially to blame, once again the bottom line is that each of the carriers was undone solely by American 500 and 1000-lb. bombs.  Or put another way, the Japanese CAP more than did its job against the American torpedo bombers, only to have as little as one bomb see off a fleet carrier.  Is that a slight simplification regarding the Kido Butai‘s demise?  Oh yes.  But I’d also argue that Princeton (sunk at Leyte Gulf by a single bomb hit), Franklin (mission killed off Japan by two bombs from a single aircraft), Yorktown (briefly knocked dead in the water by a pair of bomb hits at Midway), and Enterprise (nearly a mission kill at Santa Cruz through bomb damage) all illustrate instances an armored flight deck might have saved lives and kept a carrier in the fight from limited strikes.

(Note:  I am specifically not addressing kamikazes.  This was so outside the realm of things designers could expect that dinging people for choices doesn’t make much sense.  Not even the Japanese expected they’d be sending teenagers on one way strikes by 1945.)

The above is a polite way of saying that anyone who gets, shall we say, jingoistic about there only being one “correct” way of carrier design prewar can probably be safely discounted.  Both the USN and RN had good reasons for doing what they did and, in a way, both are lucky that they were able to fight their flattops in the theater that was intended from 1939-1942.  Fliegerkorps X vs. a USN flattop circa early-1942 is the stuff of nightmare fuel.  Somerville vs. Nagumo during the Indian Ocean Raid should similarly be the kind of thing that requires changing one’s bedding.

By 1943, the advances in damage control, radar, FDC, and fighter aircraft kind of made the initial design questions seem quaint.  In the Mediterranean and off Norway, Allied carriers operated well within the Luftwaffe‘s threat envelope without damage.  In the Pacific, the Japanese would find out by several times that TF 38/58 could overwhelm a local fighter force and still maintain a killer CAP bolstered by excellent AA.  When the British Pacific Fleet arrived in force during late 1944, both purchased American aircraft and their own developments allowed them to also provide a credible defense / offense mix.  In short, as often happens in wartime, the unforeseen had made most debate on “proper” carrier design superfluous.

Warship Wednesday–Territories and Mission

If you ever wonder just how crazy things got with the end of the Washington Naval Treaty, look no further than the Alaska-class large cruisers.  Unlike the poster (and it’s a lovely series), I’ve never been of the school of thought that the Alaska-class were considered to be battlecruisers.  First, generally the Navy tended to be pretty clear about their designations during the design process in the 1930s-1940s.  This was due to Congress having a nasty habit of shifting around funds.  Second, the Alaska vessels were NEVER intended to get anywhere near a battleline or, for that matter, really stand in a line of battle.  Finally, there’s that problem with the underwater protection.  While not strictly true, in general the pre-World War II USN believed capital ships needed to reinforced against torpedoes and mines, whereas cruisers were more of a “Meh, sucks to be that crew, but we had to figure out something to keep it within treaty limitations.”

In any case, it would be interesting to see what would have happened had these vessels have ended up in a surface fight.  Thankfully the constraints of construction prevented it from happening in time for the Solomon Islands campaign.  That would have been very, very bad, given the Alaskas were not known for their nimbleness and presented a rather large target.  I can see First Guadalcanal being even bloodier with Alaska present, as there would have been probably a few minutes of her punching the crap out of Hiei or Kirishima followed shortly by “I’ve never seen a vessel take so many Long Lances in my life.”

All this means is that the Alaska-class really serve as a cautionary tale regarding hysteria, intelligence, and mission.  They were far from bad ships.  However, they really represent resources that could have been better spent elsewhere.  Unfortunately, the lag between design, resource allocation, and construction meant they developed an inertia of their own.

On the alternate history front, expect to see the Alaska and Guam make an appearance in both the Usurper’s War-series as well as another project.  😀

Warship Wednesday: Fun With Turrets

Thanks to the U.S.S. Iowa for filming this interior of the 16-inch turrets.  In the case of the Iowa and many other late war ships, each gun could elevate and fire independently.  Bonus:  Here is a World War II-era training video.

As an author, as I watched this I realized just how many things could get knocked out by a partial penetration of the armor.  Bombs hitting near the turret would probably cut power cables, shells could jam the turret ring, etc., etc.

I also noted the redundancy in plotting and fire control, something which was not always prevalent in early war / World War I modernized ships.  Although switching positions is going to lead to a degradation of capability, at least redundancy gives the vessel a chance to keep swinging rather than becoming a mission kill.

Warship Wednesday–Death of a Prince

It is my intent to do a 2019 Year In Review blog post at some point before the end of the month.

Until then, feel free to read some in-depth analysis of the Prince of Wales‘ loss.  Much like reading an autopsy report will tell you quite a bit about how the human body fails, this account makes it easy to understand how the PoW basically became a wreck after a single, unlucky torpedo hit.

Warship Wednesday–Damage Control

*cough cough*  Man, it’s kind of dusty in here.  You’d almost think someone hasn’t been in this place for like weeks.  Oh, wait…

Welcome to another edition of Warship Wednesday.  Today, rather than talking about a particular class of vessel, we’re going to talk about something near and dear to ship to ship fights: damage control.

According to Luttwak and Koehl’s The Dictionary of Modern War, damage control is “[m]easures meant to limit or counteract the effects of battle damage.  Naval damage control measures include firefighting, counterflooding to reduce listing, the shoring up of damaged bulkheads or hull frames, and ad hoc repairs.  The effectiveness of such measures depends on crew training, as well as on design features, such as compartmentalization, duplication of key facilities, the number and location of fire mains, emergency electrical generators, and pumps; such provisions account for a significant portion of warship costs.”

Sounds like some complicated stuff, right? Well, that’s because it is and it isn’t depending on what era you want to talk about.  Age of galleys?  Damage control was basically, “Oh f*ck, we just got rammed and…dammit, dammit, that’s it, the rowing slaves are screaming, the ship is sinking, and I’m sitting here in a suit of full metal armor getting pointed and laughed at by the asshats who put a hole in the ship.”  I mean, this is simplifying it somewhat, but both because the source material is kind of thin on the ground and the art of shipbuilding wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, if someone let Mr. Sea in, Mr. Fish and Mr. Crab were getting fed.

Oh and fire?  Yeah… about that.  Basically if you had the misfortune of fighting crazy bastards who were not only comfortable with having incendiaries on their vessels but lighting and launching from a pitching ship, you may have chosen enemies poorly.  Because if those lunatics hit you and got a good blaze going,  especially with something that adhered well to the hull?  Well, suddenly that guaranteed trip to to the bottom didn’t seem like such an inconvenience.  Something about “Drowning sure beats being the long pork at Mr. Arsonist’s Luau on the Sea…”

It was during the Age of Sail that things both got better and worse as far as damage control went.  On the plus side, sturdier ships and actual compartmentalization meant that there was a fighting chance to repair the vessel.  Cannons, relatively extended ranges, and improvements in the ability to maneuver (albeit depending on wind) also meant that there was increased time to effect damage control in many cases.  Best of all, damage control could “make the magic happen” with your basic carpentry kit and the supplies most sailing vessels kept on hand.  Mainsail get carried away because your opponent likes to aim high?  That’s cool, the repair process is the same as if you got Neptune’s pimp hand from a storm.  Since everyone knew Neptune was gonna want his money sooner or later, repairing  / removing masts or filling holes with patches were drills that the crew performed on a regular basis anyway.

On the flip side–gunpowder.  As in, things like this could happen:

orient-makes-a-memory

That’s the French vessel L’Orient going sky high at the Battle of the Nile because of a moderate fire that got out of control.  That’s right–you bring gunpowder to a gunfight, suddenly Mr. Fire becomes even more of a jerk about sinking your ship.  Given the rudimentary pumps of the day, a fire getting out of control wasn’t all that uncommon.  In many cases, the only thing that kept this from happening a lot more often was Mr. Sea won the “How Can We Make a Crew Homeless?”-contest by a few minutes.

Eventually the Age of Sail gave way to the Age of Iron.  That, in turn, became the Age of Steel.  Since I’m not Avalon Hill and trying to sell you wargames, I’m gonna lump the last two together.  (“Just how many ages are there?”  “Shhh, shhh…we’re not going to go to the Age of Missiles”)  Without getting into a treatise on weapons’ advancement during this time, suffice to say things kind of got to be the suck for damage control during this era.  Various nations perfected the means to reliably detonate explosives underwater.  At first, this was only possible via fixed means, i.e. what were initially torpedoes (yes, as in “Damn the torpedoes!”) but now are known as mines.  Then some genius (often attributed to one Mr. Whitehead, but there are others), figured out how to add propulsion–and thus the modern torpedo was born.

“But wait a second–I thought large warships had compartmentalization just to keep a single underwater hit from doing it in?”  Yeaaaaahhh, about that.  In theory, yes.  But funny thing about mines and torpedoes–they seldom seem to hit just one compartment. For example, the British battleship H.M.S. Audacious, barely a year old and with the most advanced compartmentalization of the time, took a mine hit that opened up multiple compartments at once.  This, in turn, led to “progressive flooding,” which is basically water finding all those passageways that have to left open for a warship to be able to function even at General Quarters.  Even with good compartmentalization, a vessel that has three or four major spaces open to the sea will be swiftly in danger of capsizing.  Throw in the secondary effects of a torpedo hit (e.g., fires, power disruption, bulkhead distortion, etc.), and its easy to see where things get hairy.

Modern gunfire also posed a much larger problem as far as damage potential went.  Outside of the “Golden BB” of a shell going into the magazine (think L’Orient, but instantaneous), there was also the problem of shells passing through the ship’s armored belt or deck and hitting major systems.  What do I mean by major systems?  Oh, little things like flooding oil tanks, hitting the electrical generators, or sending the central communications box to Kingdom Come.  These were all things that could and did happen in the midst of chaotic naval fights, and it was often a life or death matter for the crew to do so.  After all, everyone likes a simple gunnery solution, and if the rudder wasn’t working that made things easy peasy for everyone shooting at one’s ship.  (The crew of the K.M.S. Bismarck are all nodding sadly at this.)

So how did crews save themselves and their ships?  Well, as in the Age of Sail, in both World War I and II most vessels had a kit put together with things like “collision mats,” dimensional lumber.  This was buttressed by improvised stopping materials like crew hammocks or mattresses shoved into a hole.  By the end of World War I, ship builders began to add things like multiple pumping stations to aid in getting water out of the vessel, followed by making some of these stations multi-functional in order to help get water into the vessel in order to fight fires.  Although the Battle of Jutland was the only major fleet engagement, there was more than enough data from that incident to provide ship builders with thoughts on what went well (“Jolly good, the magazine flooding worked well on Lion…”) versus what went poorly (“Bloody hell, we really need to figure out better flash doors…”).

At the beginning of World War II, ship design had made another evolutionary lurch forward based on the threat of modern aircraft and submarines.  Unfortunately, as became quickly apparent, damage control was still very hit or miss.  The British lost the carrier Ark Royal to a single submarine torpedo despite being fairly close to their base at Gibraltar, and had several other vessels succumb to levels of damage their sister ships would later survive.  The Italians, while not quite as incompetent as some sources like to portray them, seemed positively fatalistic when it came to what mitigating actions should be performed.  The Japanese Navy’s relative indifference to damage control (with a few exceptions–see IJNS Shokaku‘s longevity) meant that their fleet units were knocked out longer when hit or, in all too many cases, had major damage become mortal due to officer incompetence (see IJNS Taiho).  In short, damage control success / failure for most navies became as much a matter of how seriously the captain and executive officer took things prior to the hit as said strike’s location.

The massive exception to this was the United States Navy.  This is not to say that the USN was inherently better from start to finish.  Indeed, this was inherently not the case.  Given that the USN started the war after its major ally (the RN) had been taking knocks for over two years and sharing the information about said beatdowns, the Navy’s early war performance was shockingly abysmal.  Pearl Harbor (surprise attacks are always bad) and the Asiatic Fleet (overwhelming force) can be eliminated from the narrative. However, from Coral Sea through the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Pacific Fleet lost at least four major combatants (Lexington, Yorktown, Astoria, and Northampton) due to damage control miscues when all four vessels could have been potentially saved.  Other vessels were saved more through good fortune than necessarily excellent damage control work.  In short, the IJN took the USN behind the School of Hard Knocks and proceeded to take their lunch money, their glasses, and their dignity.

The difference between the USN and most of its contemporaries is that the USN learned.  The Department of the Navy collated all of the loss and damage reports and proceeded to distribute them regularly to the fleet.  It forced officers and ratings to attend damage control schools and training until every member of the regular crew had at least been exposed to some degree of what to do when the ship got hit.  It leveraged the United States’ incredible industrial advantage to produce literally thousands of portable pumps, breathing apparatus, hoses, and fire fighting equipment to issue to its ships.  Finally, ship designs were changed while on the ways to improve fire main survivability, add sprinklers, and otherwise make it easier for a vessel to survive when hit by a torpedo or bomb.

Did it work?  Yes.  One need look no further than comparing the damage that put paid to the Yorktown at Midway versus the utter mauling suffered by the U.S.S. Franklin (newsreel footage here as well) and Bunker Hill.  To their horror, the Japanese found themselves facing the nautical equivalent of Jason Vorhees, as ships they were certain they’d sunk just kept coming back…and back…and back again.  Meanwhile, especially after the USN got its torpedoes to work, their vessels were getting sunk or knocked out of the war by one or two major hits due to their failure to propagate lessons.

So how does this all translate into writing?  The obvious is that if you’re writing historical fiction and placing your character aboard a vessel, do a quick Wiki sweep to see what happened.  If you’re doing alternate history, feel free to extrapolate actual ship damage in a notional battle that is analogous to what happened to a sister ship or similar size combatant in that navy.  For science fiction, read through some of the war reports and get a sense of how vessels die, then realize that vacuum and advanced systems add “special sauce” to what you can do to place your characters in peril.  Being an author means one gets to play a deity…and we all know deities aren’t always benevolent.

 

UPDATE:  Please see a video that expands upon the lessons above.